Wednesday, August 30, 2006

C. S. Lewis on Transposition

On Pentecost 1944 C. S. Lewis delivered a message he titled "Transposition." He provides an apologetic against claims that the heavenlies are merely a human conception, since they are described by purely natural things. "If we have really been visited by a revelation from beyond Nature, is it not very strange that an Apocalypse can furnish heaven with nothing more than seelctions from terrestrial experience (crowns, thrones, and music), that devotion can find no language but that of human lovers, and that the rite whereby Christians enact a mystical union should turn out to be only the old, familiar act of eating and drinking?" (The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses [San Francisco: Harper, 1980], 94).

In his defense of the use of natural imagery in the Scriptures, he first details how our varied emotions (the "higher medium") may be "transposed" into physical sensations of, say, tears or trembling (the "lower medium"). The tears are not the joy or grief itself; to be absolutely identified by weeping itself is to say grief and joy are one and the same. At the same time, however, these emotions are never experienced or tangible to us apart from the sensations into which they're "transposed." In like fashion, pictures aren't merely symbolic of the material world as transposed onto paper or paint. They are not simply signs or symbols that only correlate only by convention, as spoken and written words do.

Pictures are part of the visible world themselves and represent it only be being part of it. Their visibility has the same source. The suns and lamps in pictures seem to shine only because real suns or lamps shine on them; that is, they seem to shine a great deal because they really shine a little in reflecting their archetypes. . . . It is a sign, but also something more than a sign, and only a sign because it is also more than a sign, because in it the thing signified [in this example, light] is really in a certain mode present. If I had to name the relation I should call it not symbolical but sacramental. (p. 102)

I know this is getting long, but bear with me. His coup-de-grace is pure genius, lifting us into wonder at the possibilities of stark, joy-bringing realities of heaven--realities which for now are only known to us by crowns, thrones, music, and the like.

Let us construct a fable. Let us picture a woman thrown into a dungeon. There she bears and rears a son. He grows up seeing nothing but the dungeon walls, the straw on the floor, and a little patch of the sky seen through the grating, which is too high up to show anything except sky. This unfortunate woman was an artist, and when they imprisoned her she managed to bring with her a drawing pad and a box of pencils. As she never loses the hope of deliverance, she is constantly teaching her son about that outer world which he has never seen. She does it largely by drawing him pictures. With her pencil she attempts to show him what fields, rivers, mountains, cities, and waves on a beach are like. He is a dutiful boy and he does his best to believe her when she tells him that that outer world is far more interesting and glorious than anything in the dungeon. At times he succeeds. On the whole he gets on tolerably well until, one day, he says something that gives his mother pause. For a minute or two they are at cross-purposes. Finally it dawns on her that he has, all these years, lived under a misconception. "But," she gasps, "you didn't think that the real world was full of lines drawn in lead pencil?" "What?" says the boy. "No pencil marks there?" And instantly his whole notion of the outer world becomes a blank. For the lines, by which alone he was imagining it, have now been denied of it. He has no idea of that which will exclude and dispense with the lines, that of which the lines were merely a transposition--the waving treetops, the light dancing on the weir, the coloured three-dimensional realities which are not enclosed in lines but define their own shapes at every moment with a delicacy and multiplicity which no drawing could ever achieve. The child will get the idea that the real world is somehow less visible than his mother's pictures. In reality it lacks lines because it is incomparably more visible.

So with us. "We know not what we shall be" [1 John 3:2]; but we may be sure we shall be more, not less, than we were on earth. Our natural experiences (sensory, emotional, imaginative) are only like the drawing, like pencilled lines on flat paper. If they vanish in the risen life, they will vanish only as pencil lines vanish from the real landscape, not as candle flame that is put out but as a candle flame which becomes invisible because someone has pulled up the blind, thrown open the shutters, and let in the blaze of the risen sun.

You can put it whichever way you please. You can say that by Transposition our humanity, senses and all, can be made the vehicle of beatitude. Or you can say that the heavenly bounties by Transposition are embodied during this life in our temporal experience. But the second way is the better. It is the present life which is the diminution, the symbol, the etiolated, the (as it were) "vegetarian" substitute. If flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom [1 Corinthians 15:50], that is not because they are too solid, too gross, too distinct, too "illustrious with being." They are too flimsy, too transitory, too phantasmal. (pp. 109-11)


Anonymous said...

i like this, i am currently reading Weight of Glory and am having some serious trouble understanding what C.S. Lewis is talking about.

Andrew said...

Thanks. How did you stumble upon a four-year-old post, though? (And my blog in general?)

Brian & Elizabeth Richards said...

I'm in awe... so little we can see and yet it reveals what will be someday. Thanks for posting this. I'm preaching tomorrow and a friend texted me CS Lewis and "transposition" - google brought me here :-) peace to you!

Anonymous said...

In 2009 I experienced a Christophany; a visitation by Christ in real time. After 40 years of ministry I have been born again, again. I have read Lewis all my life and have just read Transpositions for the first time and am stunned that he describes all that happened to me in that heaven-moment with Christ, face down on my office floor as dead. Thanks for posting. Hooper relates that Lewis was so overcome while preaching this message that he had to leave the podium and the choir had to sing a hymn until he could compose himself. I'm stunned all over again. Thanks

Anonymous said...

It's a great essay/sermon! Thing I'm confused by, however, is the use of the word 'meaning' at the end..."a meaning, a transvaluation". Does he mean 'meaning' as in 'signification'of our joy...or as in the sort of thing displayed in his fable of a boy brought up in a dungeon with only drawings to explain the outside World aka a greater depth of sensory awareness? Thanks! Great article!