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Sunday, December 05, 2004

The ecclesiology of limbo

S. M. Hutchens (of Touchstone magazine) recently reviewed Joseph Pearce's _C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church_ for _Books and Culture_. In fact, Hutchens devotes little time to Pearce's book itself. His essay is primarily an explanation of why Lewis remained Protestant, drawing largely on Lewis's 1933 _The Pilgrim's Regress_. An attempt to explain Lewis's theology on the basis of his earliest Christian writing is rather dubious from the start. But more to the point, Hutchens's lengthy central quotation from _Regress_ is taken completely out of context, and in fact constitutes an ironic commentary on his entire argument. In the passage Hutchens quotes, the venerable "Mr. Wisdom" is informing the pilgrim "John" that the world of absolutes exists forever beyond our grasp--on the other side of the "Grand Canyon." We will never be able to attain it, and this is precisely why it is ultimately desirable. "Abandon hope," advises Mr. Wisdom; "do not abandon desire. . . . Let us conclude then that what you desire is no state of yourself at all, but something, for that very reason, Other and Outer. And knowing this you will find tolerable the truth that you cannot attain it. That the thing should be, is so great a good that when you remember "it is" you will forget to be sorry that you can never have it. Nay, anything that you could have would be so much less than this that its fruition would be immeasurably below the mere hunger for this. Wanting is better than having. The glory of any world wherein you can live is in the end appearance: but then, as one of my sons has said, that leaves the world more glorious yet." Hutchens understands this passage to be an expression of an unrealized eschatology that refuses to identify (among other things) the true Church with any earthly reality. People with Lewis's eschatology, Hutchens argues, don't make good converts because they refuse to give ultimate loyalty to any tangible expression of the Church in this world.

The problem with this interpretation is that Mr. Wisdom is not a Christian, and the end of the novel finds him not in heaven (the "Island") but in limbo, trapped for all eternity in the hopeless desire to which he has so eloquently condemned himself. Mr. Wisdom represents not Lewis's beliefs as a Christian but the Neo-Platonism in which Lewis found his last and most sophisticated refuge from the Hound of Heaven. Lewis presents Mr. Wisdom's philosophy as attractive and noble but ultimately unsatisfying--his "children" pretend to be satisfied with the spare nourishment he provides while nocturnally gorging themselves with goodies drawn from other sources.

It could be argued of course that Hutchens's point remains intact even though his quotation is wrong. Mr. Wisdom denies that the Island is attainable at all--Hutchens and Lewis (if Hutchens is right) simply deny that it is attainable in this life. In Lewis's allegorical universe, the Island is indeed attainable only through death, and this is an uncontroversial truth. Mr. Wisdom denies the attainability not only of the Island but of the land on the other side of the Canyon, which John _does_ reach in this life through baptism, although he is then sent back across the Canyon to reach the Island in the West by going east (since the world is round and the Island is one with the mountains in whose foothills he had grown up). But that is not the passage Hutchens is quoting. Mr. Wisdom's words, while ultimately false, could conceivably be true in the narrow sense in which Hutchens is applying them. Perhaps Lewis's Christian Platonism--his stress on the gap between the heavenly reality and the earthly "Shadowlands"--does lie at the root of his rejection of Catholicism. I find that thesis fairly plausible.

What interests me in Hutchens's article, however, is the ironic implication of his use of Mr. Wisdom as an exemplar of Protestant ecclesiology. By Hutchens's own account, Protestants such as himself (leaving Lewis out of it for the moment) embrace an ecclesiological counterpart of the unbelieving neo-Platonism which Lewis abandoned for theism and which in Lewis's account leads (when applied to religious matters more generally) to damnation. Hutchens would have us (as regards the Church) keep alive our desire but extinguish our hope, contenting ourselves with a tentative and conditional loyalty to fallible Christian communities, while keeping one eye cocked for signs that the vision of the Island beckons us elsewhere. Hutchens was, until recently, an Episcopalian. I am still a member of the Episcopal Church, only because I have not yet decided in what direction to jump. We both agree that Anglicanism cannot command our ultimate allegiance. Can any earthly church do so?

There is no easy answer to that question. But Hutchens's provocative article has struck deep into my conscience, in a way that Hutchens certainly did not intend. I am in no position to judge anyone, but I know and confess that I have lived for some years now in limbo. I have known since before I became an Episcopalian (in the spring of 1998) that my desire for truth and communion would never be satisfied in Anglicanism. I have persuaded myself that it would not be satisfied anywhere on earth. I have spoken (like Hutchens but far less eloquently) of the unity of the Church as an eschatological reality. I have scorned those who thought they found it in the all too earthly confines of the Roman Communion. And yet I have yearned unceasingly for precisely what they said they had found, for precisely what I claimed was unattainable on earth. To remain a Protestant means, for me, continually pruning the buds of hope while keeping alive the desire that feeds them. And this attitude has poisoned my entire Christian life. By stifling hope I have stifled faith and love as well. I live in a state of continual frustration, always desiring what I have forbidden myself to grasp. And yet I cannot turn away from that desire. As a Christian, I am compelled to desire the unity for which our Lord prayed. Yet the simplest step I could take toward that unity--entering into communion with the Bishop of Rome--is one from which I have turned away. (I do not believe that communion with Rome exhausts the meaning of our Lord's prayer, by any means. But without it such unity can never be other than an empty dream or a Gnostic sham.)

Whatever role Lewis's Platonism played in his ecclesiology, I cannot believe that it was determinative. I think he had more tangible reasons for disagreeing with Rome than either Hutchens or Pearce are willing to grant him. Quite simply, he was not convinced that the See of Rome had any special authority. He was not convinced that it had preserved the Faith, or that it could be trusted to do so in the future. Apparently Hutchens is not either. Both of them are far more learned and mature in the Faith than I. It is not for me to judge them. But in the absence of solid and specific reasons _not_ to trust Rome, a general commitment to the ecclesiology of limbo is not only insufficient but pernicious.