In his Letters to Malcolm, C.S. Lewis reminds his fictitious friend about an argument the two of them once had in Edinburgh—an encounter, Lewis remembers, where “we nearly came to blows.” Their heated argument was about the relation between our ordinary experiences of pleasure and the kind of glory we will experience in heaven. And although the two of them have cooled off quite a bit since then, says Lewis, their basic disagreement has not been resolved: Lewis wants to insist that the mundane delight that we take in things like dancing and playing games anticipates the kind of joy that awaits us in the afterlife, while Malcolm thinks that it is preposterous to compare such frivolous things to the glory that we will experience in the heavenly realms.
What Malcolm fails to understand, Lewis claims, is that even the most frivolous sorts of pleasures can function as “shafts of the glory” that awaits us in the end time. Given the preoccupations of our present lives, we have a difficult time focusing directly on celestial matters. If we are to get any hint of what awaits us in heaven, our only real opportunity is to catch a glimpse of the eternal “in activities which, for us here and now, are frivolous.”
Lewis’ thoughts are similar to those that Fr. Andrew Greeley sets forth in a book-length celebration of what he labels “the Catholic imagination.” People possessed of this Catholic way of experiencing the world, Greeley insists, “find our world haunted by a sense that the objects, events, and persons of daily life are revelations of grace.” Indeed, Catholic theology of the sacraments is “both a result and a reinforcement of a much broader . . . view of reality”—a view in which the created world around us serves as a kind of metaphor for heavenly things. The things that make up our very ordinary existence, Greeley tells us, “hint at the nature of God,” and they even serve to “make God in some fashion present to us.”
Lewis and Greeley make their cases in different ways. Lewis talks about how ordinary experiences, particularly pleasures, are anticipations of the future glory, while Greeley points to the ways in which ordinary things contain hints of the nature of God. But they share the same larger view of reality—one that sees the visible world, including the full range of our ordinary human experiences in that world, as pointing beyond itself to what is for us presently the realm of the invisible.
As it happens, I like this way of viewing things. Indeed, I find it quite compelling. This may not seem like a dramatic confession, so I have to add that I make this confession as a convinced Calvinist. And the fact is that both Lewis and Greeley go out of their way to single out Calvinism as especially hostile to their case. Greeley clearly thinks that the Protestant Reformation, and particularly the Calvinist strand, did much to discourage people from enjoying life’s simple pleasures. Protestantism’s fear of “superstition and idolatry,” he says, nurtures a view of the world “in which God is only marginally present,” while the Catholic imagination embraces the “nearness of God to his creation.”
Nor does Calvinism come off much better in C.S. Lewis’ reflections on the ordinary pleasures. He reports to Malcolm that he had recently been reading Puritan writers, and he was reminded of how disagreeable he finds them. He goes on to offer examples of Calvinists who talk about the consistently evil contents of their inner lives—one of them even says that in the deep places of his soul he sees nothing but “the Filth of a Dungeon.”
Not that Lewis was suggesting that everything is simply rosy in our inner lives. He admits that when he looks into his own inner regions he sometimes sees some pretty bad stuff. The problem he has with the Puritan writers he has been reading is not that they discover sin in their private fantasies but that they turn what ought to be a periodic acknowledgment that our lives of pleasure are touched by sin into a way of life built on an ongoing disgust at the quite ordinary things that give us satisfaction.
I know that we Calvinists have gone out of our way to emphasize the desperate nature of our sinful condition. As sinners, we human beings have failed badly, even in pursuing the ordinary pleasures. We are rebels, fallen creatures, and this means that every aspect of created reality is touched by sin. And because we are so convinced of the all-pervasive character of human sinfulness, we have made it one of our special Calvinist callings to keep reminding other Christians that there is no dimension of our created life that does not afford a real—and often deceptively subtle—opportunity for rebellion against the will of God. In particular, then, while we have no problem admitting that the erotic aspect of our lives was a part of the creation that God originally called good, we also want to point to the real danger that under sinful conditions the erotic can also become a staging area for a violation of the Creator’s purposes. Our sexuality is one of the many aspects of fallen nature that needs to be redeemed.
Thus, I can offer no carte blanche endorsement of our natural yearnings and pleasures. For Christians, the term natural can refer to our created nature. In this sense it is perfectly legitimate to say that we human beings are “by nature good.” But we can also use natural to refer to our fallen condition, and in that sense it is also important to say that we are “by nature sinful.”
For example, John Calvin insisted that nature’s order is a fragile affair, and the tendency toward disorder is so great that only the active ordering of God can provide stability. But Calvin also celebrated the faithfulness of a God who continually delights in the created works that he holds together by his sovereign power, so that our joy is in fact a participation in the divine joy. Creation may be shattered and broken under present sinful conditions, but God still loves it. This is why Jesus came into creation, on a redemptive mission aimed at restoring that which God loves.
Josef Pieper—in one of the delightful talks he gave to a group that would gather in the studio of a sculptor—reported that the pre-Socratic Athenian thinker Anaxagoras, while engaging in a catechetical exercise, asked the question, “Why are you here on earth?” He gave the stark reply: “To behold.” Pieper applied Anaxagoras’ comment to the artistic task, but it also applies more broadly. We honor the Creator’s purposes when we engage in beholding, in that special kind of “seeing” that, as Pieper puts it, is directed to more than “the tangible surface of reality.” This kind of seeing, Pieper further observes, must be “guided by love” for—and here Pieper quotes an ancient saying—ubi amor, ibi oculus (roughly, “where there is love, there is seeing”).
Our beholding must look below what Pieper calls “the tangible surface of reality.” In a study of postmodernity, the philosopher Albert Borgmann (like Pieper, a Catholic) comments on the way so much contemporary thinking limits itself to the surfaces of reality. It is important for us to rediscover “the eloquence of things” in their particularity, he says, so as to find “the depth of the world.”
God cares about the depths—and the breadth and the heights—of the reality that he has created: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and all who dwell therein.” As we try to understand various aspects of that world, we need to cultivate an awareness that what we focus on is indeed a part of the fullness of a created reality that we are also called to love—and in loving to see, to behold—so that we can make connections and cultivate a proper sense of awe and mystery in the presence of the depths of created being.
To be sure, the yearnings of the sinful human heart are often fundamentally misdirected. When, because of our sinful rebellion, we cut ourselves off from a vital relationship with our Creator, we seek to satisfy our hopes and calm our fears by putting our ultimate trust in something creaturely—in something less than the true God. But precisely because we are created for fellowship with the Living God, the idols we choose to serve never really satisfy our deepest yearnings.
And that is what is so helpful about the way C.S. Lewis makes his case to Malcolm. He insists that our longing for things eternal has real connections to other kinds of longings. Even our most mundane quests for fulfillment, he argues, are in some important sense anticipations of the more lasting kind of joy for which we have been created.
The source of our fulfillment is not simply Joy or the Eternal, in some abstract sense. We are created for a personal relationship with the Living God. Furthermore, that God, the Creator who has fashioned us in his own image and likeness, comes looking for us. And in the deep places, all human beings are aware of that search, even if they cannot identify the One who is seeking them.
No one makes this point more eloquently than Abraham Joshua Heschel did in God in Search of Man. He describes the Genesis scene where Adam and Eve, having eaten of the forbidden fruit, hid themselves from the presence of God. But the Lord comes looking for them, and he cries out, “Where art thou?” That call, Heschel says, is one “that goes out again and again. It is a still small echo of a still small voice.” It may not be “uttered in words” or “conveyed in categories of the mind,” but all human beings, as children of God, regularly hear it in the deep places of their being: “Where art thou?”
This is an important reality—one that Calvin means when he speaks of the sensus divinitatis, the sense of the presence of God. We can be confident that even those who live in open and declared rebellion against the Living God regularly hear that still small voice. It may be when suddenly they awake in the middle of the night with the nagging sense that something is stirring in their deep places. Or it may be in a time of particular worry or fear. They hear the voice calling their name, even though it may not be uttered in audible words.
That divine call promises fulfillment for each person’s quest for joy. But it does not encourage us to take our human longings, even those that seem quite free from the effects of our fallenness, at face value. You will sometimes hear the line (often misattributed to G.K. Chesterton) that the man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God. Obviously the statement should not be taken as meaning that the man hopes that God will be the one who greets him at the door. The message is rather that people who are looking for ultimate fulfillment in the quest for pleasure or wealth or power or any other element or aspect of creation will not find it in these things.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism puts the point simply: Our chief end as human beings is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.
Richard J. Mouw is president of Fuller Theological Seminary.