Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Inklings Influence On More Than Mere Christianity

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings
By Philip and Carol Zaleski

Someone recently asked me why Philip and Carol Zaleski’s book, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings would have any relevance to a theological conversation among clergy. Good question. We might want to consider that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien probably have about as much influence on the people who sit in the pews of churches today than probably any two other writers in Christian history. In 2006, Christianity Today named Lewis’s book, Mere Christianity, the third most important book among Evangelicals since 1945. Carol Zaleski says that Lewis is “arguably the best selling Christian writer since John Bunyan.” As for Tolkien, the British bookseller Waterstone’s declared Lord of the Rings book of the century in 1997. Sales for Lord of the Rings are estimated between 150 – 200 million copies. The film trilogy that was based on Tolkien’s book was collectively the highest grossing films of all times. Why add Charles Williams and Owen Barfield to the theological conversation? The Zaleskis write that, “They make the perfect rose of faith: Tolkien the Catholic, Lewis the “mere” Christian, Williams the Anglican (and magus), Barfield the esotericist. Frankly, given the theological mix of clergy and laity these days, this quaternity might reflect the theology of the Episcopal Church better than any combination of writers in the modern era.

C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams were complex men, romantics, philosophers, theologians, fiction writers, and friends. These men were the heart of a male only group known as the Inklings. They gathered for most of twenty years, from the Great Depression through the 1950s, in an Oxford pub to drink, to smoke, to read their latest work, and to endure frank, sharp critique. The Inklings could exemplify the best and the worst of men only gatherings; unrestrained masculinity can lead to authentic conversations, however, without confrontation from the feminine shadow they can also lead to relationships that lack the integration of mind, body, soul, and spirit.

Carol and Philip Zaleski, authors and professors of religious studies, have tackled the complicated task of writing a biography of four unique personalities. The Zaleskis, rightfully, are unwilling to excuse the Inklings for their exclusion of women writers from their group. They are, however, not willing to go as far as to name the Inklings, what other critics have labeled as, “simply a club of Lewis’s friends.” The Zaleskis are fair in the assessment of the contribution of the four Inklings they chose to focus their time on throughout this lengthy work. Yet, to me, their book feels biased by their analysis of these men’s religious pursuits. They give the cradle born and faithful Catholic Tolkien, a pass. In their eyes, he seems to do little wrong. Lewis, on the other hand, an agnostic until his moment of “conversion” to Christianity, is subtly critiqued for not taking the step from Anglicanism to Catholicism. Williams, an Anglican, is questioned for his involvement in the secret Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, a group founded by A.E. Waite. The Fellowship has significant influence on Williams’ novels and his Theology of Romance. The Zaleskis would suffer none of Williams’ ideas of secret societies, the kabbalah, alchemy, Freemasonry, or the Tarot. Barfield faired even worse. He came under the influence of Rudolf Steiner and the Anthroposophical Society, which was “dedicated to expounding ‘Spiritual Sciences.’” A method of occult insight that offered, Steiner claimed, “reliable, verifiable, clairvoyant exploration of the spiritual realm.” Later they even passively dismissed Barfield’s eventual conversion to Christianity through the Anglican Church.

The Zalenski’s provide a detailed, well-researched, and interesting book. They offered unique insights about the Inklings’ relationships with each other. As well, the Zaleskis delve into the personal lives of each author, especially their relationships with women. Tolkien may have based the women in his books on the idolization of his mother, who died when he was a child. Lewis had, at the least, odd relationships with some of the women in their lives. Williams, who poetry and theology swing like a pendulum between the Song of Solomon and Dark Eros, can be troubling for those not willing to carefully analyze his work at a Jungian level. The Zaleskis advertise that their book delivers new information about Williams. Such is probably an overstatement on their part given the work of Gavin Ashesen’s Charles Williams: Alchemy and Integration and Grevel Lindop’s Charles Williams: The Third Inklings. Considering Barfield, other biographers find little of substance to question Barfield’s relationship with his wife. The Zaleski’s, however, write, “The two (Barfield and his wife) maintained a peaceful veneer by avoiding all discussion of religion or metaphysics and especially Anthroposophy, but this scarcely constitutes a prescription for marital bliss. Frustrated in his art, unhappy in his career, uninspired in his marriage, Barfield longed desperately for…well, he hardly knew what.”

This leads to my critique of the Zaleski’s book. It feels as if they wrote their book as a Sunday school morality lesson for Carol Zaleski’s young women students at Smith College. She praises Tolkien’s Catholic morality. (She never discloses that she was a mid-life convert to Catholicism.) Then proclaims that after Lewis converted to Christianity he “brimmed with happiness; everything falling into place. Since becoming a Christian, his teaching, reading, writing, and scholarship had all acquired zest and purpose.” Of course, Lewis used his newly found Christianity to cut off any religious discussion with Barfield and Bede Griffiths, for which the Zaleskis appear to exonerate Lewis. Of course Zaleski’s students, by reading this book, would now be fully warned about men like Williams (occultist and sadist). And bored with men like Barfield (esoteric).

In the end, though, the Zaleskis offer this positive conclusion to their 512 page work on the life of the Inklings; “Tolkien, Lewis, Barfield, and Williams, and their associates, by returning to the fundamentals of story and exploring its relationship to faith, virtue, self-transcendence, and hope have renewed a current that runs through the heart of Western literature.”

The Fellowship was very much worth the time invested. And I do think their book could be the seed for an extremely important discussion about the current state of theology in the Episcopal Church, especially considering the influx of those from other traditions, Roman Catholics (Tolkien), Evangelicals (Lewis), mystics (Williams), and philosophical intellectuals (Barfield).

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Water: The Spherical Cycle of Birth and Death

We’re celebrating the Feast of Jesus’ Baptism. The liturgical color for baptism is white. My sister made the stole I’m wearing as a gift for my ordination. Dinah is the oldest known person in Arizona with Prader-Willi Syndrome. She’s mentally and physically handicapped. At the time I was ordained, Dinah was a part of the Art Works project in Tucson. The director of the program was a Roman Catholic nun. She helped Dinah make this very special stole.

The stole also reminds me of the day my sister was baptized. We grew up in a Southern Baptist home. In the Southern Baptist church someone is baptized only after they have accepted Jesus as their personal savior. By the time a child is somewhere around six to eight years old they’ve reached the “age of reason.” What that means as a Southern Baptist is that you’re old enough to know that you’re a sinner. And if you die without Jesus as your personal savior you will go to hell. In the Baptist church baptism is your first act of being a follower of Jesus.

Southern Baptist’s, however, would not expect someone like Dinah to fully understand the concepts Jesus, God, sin, heaven, and hell. In a sense, she would never reach the age of reason or accountability. The idea of Dinah being baptized never came up in our church.

However, it would be a mistake to think Dinah doesn’t understand something simply because she can’t talk very well. Fifteen years ago, when Dinah was forty-five, she started telling my mom she wanted to baptized. My mom asked me what I thought and said if Dinah wants to be baptized, why not? I asked Dinah why she wanted to be baptized. She said, “Jesus my heart.” On Easter Sunday, 2001, I baptized Dinah.

The best way to describe Dinah’s connection to God is that she’s a mystic. A mystic’s experience with the divine is usually beyond description. What the mystic sees, smells, hears, tastes, and feels leaves the intellect scrambling for words that don’t exist. The mystic is left with only symbols and metaphors to describe their experience. Like Dinah saying she feels Jesus in her heart. She’s using a mystical metaphor to explain her experience.

You might be wandering about what the Episcopal Church believes about baptism. Baptism is a visible symbol of what God is doing in our interior life. God’s work in our life is eternal. God always has been, is, and will be working in our life. God knows us in the womb, in our life, in our death, and for all of eternity. God’s knowing of us is not bound by human time—God is pure timelessness, which we are a part of. For Episcopalians, what happens at baptism is a mystery, beyond human words, beyond the intellect. We baptize babies as the mystical symbol of God’s work in the child’s life—in God’s timelessness. We baptize adults not because they understand what’s happening; indeed we baptize because they admit they don’t understand and never will. They’re willing to live into the eternal mystery.
The eternal symbol of the mystery is water. The symbol of water is our connection to the timelessness of God’s creation. By the symbol of water we are mystically connected to the very beginnings of Mother Earth. In the beginning the earth was covered with the chaos of water. Out of that primordial water humanity was born. And out of the water of the womb, we are born. We are sustained in life by water. And in death we will return to God’s eternal sea. The symbol of water is the spherical cycle of birth and death. Water is our mystical connection to eternal timelessness, where the past is the present and now is the future.

The symbol of water is such an important part of our life as Episcopalians. We call upon the Spirit to bless the water at baptism as the mystical symbol of our timeless experience with the Divine in our birth. At every celebration of the Holy Eucharist, we pour water into the wine as a mystical symbol of the timeless experience of the Divine in our life. Every time we walk into the church we dip our fingers in blessed water and cross ourselves as a symbol that we one with the Divine. And at our death, we will be sprinkled with water as a mystical symbol that we have gone into God’s sea of timelessness.

Our tradition for the celebration of today’s feast is to bless the people with the water of baptism—a symbol of Jesus’ baptism and our baptism. I’m using a palm branch, a symbol of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection—a symbol our life, death, and resurrection.

Meditate on these symbols that speak beyond words. Live into these symbols that speak beyond words. Be these symbols that speak beyond words. I know it’s weird. But these symbols will keep changing everything in your life—what you eat, what you buy, how you treat people, how you vote. More importantly, what you think about your experiences of God will change how you follow Jesus.