Episode 21 (The Silver Chair Deep Dive)
March 27, 2019 Speaker: The Rev. Brian K. McGreevy
Anselm and Aslan: C. S. Lewis and the Ontological Argument
Donald T. Williams, Ph.D.
R. A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College
Toccoa, Georgia, U.S.A
“We trust not because ‘a God’ exists, but because this God exists” (“Obstinacy” 25).
“But who is Aslan? Do you know him?”
“Well, he knows me,” said Edmund (VDT 117).
C. S. Lewis wrote his brother Warnie on 24 October 1931 that “God might be defined as
‘a Being who spends his time having his existence proved and disproved’” (Letters 2:7). The
jocular definition reminds us that we could easily get the impression from listening to the
interminable debates on the subject that the first question of theology is whether God exists. But
if theology begins from God’s having revealed Himself to us, which Christians believe is the
only way it can begin, then that can hardly be the case. God, having spoken the world into
existence, and having spoken through it and in it since, would be in a position, were He so
inclined, to one-up Descartes and proclaim, “Dico; ergo sum” (“I speak; therefore, I am”).
Believers could say, “Dixit; ergo est” (“He has spoken; therefore, He is”). The Christian
theologian therefore does not begin by asking whether God exists but by enquiring into what can
be known about the One who has already taken the initiative and revealed Himself as existing.
The “whether” question inevitably comes up anyway though, for Christian philosophers
especially, but for theologians too. It does so because we need to be clear about the grounds of
our faith, for our own sake and for the sake of those who have not yet had the experience of
being addressed by the revelation of God in Christ that we believe is objectively out there in
nature, history, and Scripture. As an apologist, Lewis had to deal with the “whether” question a
lot, and gave in Surprised by Joy a detailed account of the experiences and reasonings that
moved him over time from unbelief to belief. One might get the impression that the existence of
God—as opposed to Lewis’s belief in that existence—depended on those experiences and
reasonings, rather than their depending, like everything else, on His existence. That would be a
Lewis understood that the answers to whether God exists depend on His prior reality,
rather than the other way around. He shows this in his poem “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer,”
where his “cleverness shot forth” on God’s behalf and his proofs of Christ’s divinity are
portrayed as tokens, coins whose “thin-worn image of Thy head” should not be confused with
the Reality they represent (Poems 129). He shows it in the essay “On Obstinacy in Belief,”
where the believer’s relationship with God has an existence logically prior to and independent of
the reasons he consciously holds for believing in it. Those reasons are important and have a
significant role to play, but God does not depend on them. The whether of God’s existence, in
other words, comes after and depends upon the what and the how.
The Ontological Argument
This relationship becomes clear in what may be the most misunderstood of all the
classical arguments for God’s existence, Anselm’s ontological argument. Anselm began by
defining God as that Being greater than which none can be conceived. He then argued that such
a Being would have to exist necessarily, because any being we could conceive as not existing
would be less than the greatest Being that can be conceived.
A superficial understanding of Anselm has led many to reject his argument as invalid.
Just because we can imagine something, however great, does not mean that it exists. Being the
greatest thing I happen to be able to imagine is not evidence of existence. (I can imagine a
mountain taller than Everest, but that does not mean there is one on earth.) And existence is not
an attribute that can be added or subtracted so that a being is “greater” with it than without it.
Thus, the ontological argument has a certain circular feel to it. These objections are sound as far
as they go; but I think (and it appears that Lewis thought) that they miss the point.
I would argue that Anselm’s ontological argument is best used not so much as an
argument about whether God exists as a meditation on how He exists. (Anselm’s disciple and
biographer Eadmer seems to have thought so too; see pages 29-30 of The Life.) God is not just
some random contingent entity like you or me who just happens to exist, or who could exist or
not. He is not just a being; He is the ground of all being. In other words, once you understand
what God is, you must see that He has to exist. I exist (I assure you), but I don’t have to; I could
as easily not exist. If I ceased to do so, outside of a very small handful of friends and readers (I
fondly hope), the universe would not even notice and would be pretty much unaffected. If, on
the other hand, God did not exist, nothing else would exist either.
The point is that as long as you are thinking of God as some random being, a bigger
version of you or me, who just happens to exist, or who might exist or might not, i.e., whose
existence is open to question, you are not yet thinking of God. To truly understand who He is, is
to see that He exists necessarily, unlike you and me. This of course entails that He exists in fact.
But Anselm did not start with the open question of whether God exists in fact or not and come up
with a clever way of answering, “Yes.” His point was that this is precisely what we cannot do.
To understand who God is, is to see that the question never was open in that way; it is to see that
either we start with Him, or we cannot finish with anything.
The practical application of this reasoning to “whether” apologetics is the realization
that we do not say that God exists because He is the biggest thing we can imagine. He is in fact
greater than anything we can imagine. (After all, Anselm did not define God as the greatest
being we could conceive, but as the greatest that can be conceived.) All our imagined gods—like
Zeus—are bigger versions of us who could exist or not. And I have noticed that these are the
gods that atheists typically argue against. I am often tempted to say to them, “Congratulations!
You have just refuted the existence of Zeus. Thank you for helping us dispose of that lame
possibility. Now, let’s get back to the topic of God.” All our imagined gods—like Zeus, and the
infamous Flying Spaghetti Monster—are bigger versions of us who could exist or not. Yet we
have a concept of a God who is bigger even than that. Where did we get it?
The God of the Bible not the kind of thing we would have made up. When we project
ourselves onto the cosmos imaginatively, we get gods who are personal but finite, like Zeus or
Odin. When we project our abstract reason onto the cosmos, we get gods that are transcendent
but impersonal, like Atman or The Force. Such are the gods—the idols—that we build up from
below. But what if God’s personal Reality were so strong that it could impinge on our
consciousness from above? In a discussion of the ontological argument, Lewis wrote to his
brother Warnie on 24 October 1931, “It is arguable that the ‘idea of God’ in some minds does
contain not a mere abstract definition, but a real imaginative perception of goodness and beauty,
beyond their own resources” (Letters 2:7, emphasis added). They are justified in believing in
God, not because they imagined Him (on their own), but because they could not have. That is
why the very concept of His nature, once clearly seen, carries its own conviction of His reality.
Perhaps the reason the ontological argument seems so problematic is that it is convincing
only to people who have already seen this—people who have been granted at least a faint
apprehension of the Glory of God. Perhaps then its best use is not in trying to convince people
abstractly of this reality before they have seen it, but rather in helping them to see it, to see why
they need to try to grasp for the first time the concept of aseity. (The word means that God exists
a se, that is, “from Himself” or “on His own.” He is not like us. We exist ab alio, “from
another.”) The Ontological Argument might be able to do this more effectively if the emphasis
in its presentation were shifted from the whether of God’s existence to the how. I think C. S.
Lewis shows us one way in which this might be done.
Lewis and the Ontological Argument
Lewis used the ontological argument apologetically only once in his public writings, and it
was in a rather surprising place. This most sophisticated of philosophical arguments shows up in
a presentation to the least sophisticated audience: the children for whom the Narnia books were
written. It is the debate between Puddleglum and the Green Witch in The Silver Chair.
Describing the scene where Puddleglum stomps out the Witch’s mesmerizing fire, Lewis wrote
to Nancy Warner on 26 October 1963 that “I have simply put the ‘Ontological Proof’ in a form
suitable for children” (Letters 3:1472). How is this passage a version of the ontological proof?
To answer that question, we will have to take a careful look at Puddleglum’s speech.
The Witch has been arguing that Overworld and Aslan are only a projection of the children’s
imaginations. They have seen a lamp and imagined the sun; they have seen a cat and imagined
Aslan. The marshwiggle replies:
Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun
and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in
that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones.
Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a
pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just
babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies making up a game can make
play-world that licks your real world hollow. (TSC 190-91)
How is this passage a version of the ontological argument? The Witch’s reductionism
could be taken as a rebuttal aimed in effect at the superficial version of the argument: just
because you have imagined Aslan does not mean that he exists. Where did the idea of Aslan
come from? You just made it up, based on a projection from cats you have seen. Puddleglum’s
reply calls into question the plausibility of this explanation in a way that transfers the ground to
what I have called the deeper (“how”) version of the argument. The idea of Aslan, he argues in
effect, could not have arisen in that way. It is highly unlikely that four children playing a game
could have made up a world with a deeper rootedness in reality than the only real and solid world
they had ever experienced. The final answer to a refutation of the superficial version of the
ontological argument is to remember the experience on which the deeper version is based.
In other words, we have to get past the Witch’s reductionistic, empiricist epistemology
(explanation of knowing) to an ontology (explanation of being) capable of giving us something
to know in the first place. How can Aslan be based on the existence of cats when cats cannot
even account for their own existence? Is Aslan derived from cats, or are cats derived from
Aslan? Something has to be capable of giving reality to everything else, and in Narnia that is not
cats. It is Aslan or nothing. And because Narnia is something, nothing as the source of its
reality is not really a viable alternative.
This is a version of the ontological argument “suitable for children.” Therefore, Eustace
and Jill will not be basing their faith in Aslan on the rather dense unpacking of the logic of
Puddleglum’s argument that I have just attempted, but on an intuition of its rightness that comes
from something even more basic: the fact that Aslan exists so strongly that His revelatory Reality
is able to impinge on their consciousness with self-attesting power.
Aslan is of course a picture of Yahweh, whose name means basically, “I just am.” The
children have known Him, and because they have truly known Him they know that to do so is to
realize the inadequacy of even saying that they have known Him. “Well, he knows me” (VDT
117) is a more accurate representation of the situation: it speaks of Aslan’s ontological priority to
everything, which is felt and shown in (and known by) the epistemological priority expressed in
Edmund’s reply. If you are thinking of Aslan as just a bigger cat, however much bigger you
please, you are not yet thinking of Aslan. If you are thinking of Aslan as a cat of any kind whose
existence is open to question, you are not yet thinking of Aslan.
The children, who have actually met Aslan, know this instinctively, and Puddleglum’s
speech reminds them of what they know. Their minds “contain not a mere abstract definition,
but a real imaginative perception of goodness and beauty, beyond their own resources.” They
know Aslan not as a hypothesis or fancy they made up, but as something greater than that,
something they could not have made up, something so great that it could not exist just in their
minds. They know Him as the God Anselm knew, as the One who exists necessarily.
Thus the ontological argument, even if it be ambiguous as a deductive proof, can serve to
bring to a level of insightful articulation the inklings of God’s uncreated glory intuited from the
majesty-in-contingency of Nature or granted in personal revelation.
Anselm. “Proslogium.” Basic Writings. Translated by S. N. D. Deane. LaSalle, IL: Open Court,
1903, pp. 1-34.
Eadmer. The Life of Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury. Edited, with introduction, notes, and
translation, by R. W. Southern. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962.
Lewis, C. S. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, 3 vols. Edited by Walter Hooper. San
Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004.
———. “On Obstinacy in Belief.” The Sewanee Review (Autumn 1955). Reprint in The World’s
Last Night and other Essays. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1960, pp. 13-30.
———. Poems. Edited by Walter Hooper. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1964.
———. The Silver Chair. [Written in 1953.] New York: HarperCollins, 1979.
———. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of my Early Life. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World,
———. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. [Written in 1952.] New York: HarperCollins, 1980.
Donald T. Williams, Ph.D., is R. A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls
College in the hills of NE Georgia. An ordained minister with many years of pastoral
experience, he has spent several summers training local pastors in East Africa, Bulgaria, and
India for Church Planting International. His most recent books include Mere Humanity:
Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien on the Human Condition (Broadman, 2006); Stars Through the
Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), Reflections
from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lantern Hollow, 2012); Inklings of
Reality: Essays Toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd edition, revised and expanded
(Lantern Hollow, 2012); and, with Jim Prothero, Gaining a Face: The Romanticism of C. S.
Lewis (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholar’s Press, 2013). Material on literature, theology, the
inklings, and apologetics can be found at Williams’s blog, www.lanternhollowpress.com.
How C. S. Lewis Put the Ontological Argument for God in Narnia
MARCH 25, 2017 | Gavin Ortlund THE GOSPEL COALITION
One of my favorite passages in all of literature is Puddleglum’s response to the Lady of the Green Kirtle in The Silver Chair. The Lady (an evil sorceress) has several characters trapped underground, and with the help of a little magic is trying to convince them that Narnia and Aslan and the rest of the “Overland” do not actually exist. The characters are on the verge of giving in when Puddleglum stomps on the magic fire in these words:
“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one more thing to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”
Some regard this passage as a sort of inversion of Plato’s famous allegory of the cave, but until recently I’d never thought about it as an application of the ontological argument, or a Platonic worldview more generally. Then recently I came across this statement by Lewis himself in an October 1963 letter to Nancy Warner. Warner had mentioned that her son referenced the presence of an “ontological argument” in The Silver Chair, and Lewis replied:
I suppose your philosopher son . . . means the chapter in which Puddleglum puts out the fire with his foot. He must thank Anselm and Descartes for it, not me. I have simply put the “Ontological Proof” in a form suitable for children. And even that is not so remarkable a feat as you might think. You can get into children’s heads a good deal which is quite beyond the Bishop of Woolwich.
Who else but C. S. Lewis could draw together existentialism and the ontological argument in a children’s book? To arrive upon such an ingenuous innovation in such an accessible medium is a testimony to his brilliance.
Appealing to the Heart
To my mind, this passage of Puddleglum is a forceful statement against deconstructionist views of the world. If nihilism is true and all the really stable, beautiful doctrines of Christianity—say, God, heaven, objective good—are false, then the ideas in my brain are more weighty than the reality that brought my brain into existence. That’s very difficult to swallow.
The rising feeling of the modern West is that the “noumenal” is done for and we have only to do with the “phenomenal”—nothing transcendent remains, all thought is socially and biologically conditioned, all of metaphysics is just “babies making up a game.” Sometimes in dark moments I struggle against this worldview, gripped by its dreadfulness. In those moments, this paragraph from Puddleglum helps me. It suggests not only the falsity of doubt, but its thinness—for even if true, it is unworthy of our allegiance.
I increasingly wonder whether, in our current cultural moment, the beauty of Christianity should be a more recurrent feature of our apologetic. In an age of disillusionment, people frequently find more truth in the arts than in logic—it is the tug on the heart, more than the appeal to the mind, that often triumphs. Perhaps to be effective in upholding Christ we must help people feel the sheer wonder of the gospel—the sense of enchantment and nostalgia a child feels in reading about Narnia, for instance. It’s harder to reject something once you wish it were true.
Gavin Ortlund (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) is a husband, father, pastor, and writer. He serves as senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Ojai in Ojai, California. Gavin blogs regularly at Soliloquium.
Finding Faith in Fairy Tales: Answers for Modern Skeptics from C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair
In 2003, Oxford fellow Michael Ward discovered a secret imaginative scheme which C.S. Lewis had embedded into The Chronicles of Narnia. Comparing Lewis’s poem “The Planets” to his discussion of Medieval literature in The Discarded Image, Ward realized that Lewis had used the imagery of the seven heavens to shape the mood and atmosphere – or what Ward terms the ‘donegality’ – of each Narnian tale. For example, the kingly, festive character of Jupiter transforms the atmosphere of Narnia when Aslan returns to restore his kingdom. As Michael Ward convincingly argues in his book, Planet Narnia, each Chronicle is an intricately crafted tale whose every iconographic detail bears some meaning worth investigating. Therefore, when the narrator of The Silver Chair remarks that Prince Rilian looks altogether “a little bit like Hamlet,” this image merits our careful consideration. Through this direct comparison between Rilian and Hamlet, Shakespeare’s “most acutely modern” character, Lewis signals a strong connection between his Lunar Chronicle and the issues of modernity. For Lewis, Hamlet is “the archetypal lunatic” who stands “with his mind on the frontier of two worlds.” Paralyzed at the border between old Medieval theism and new modern rationalism, Hamlet is “unable quite to reject or quite to admit the supernatural.” In The Silver Chair, Lewis models the conflict of his plot after Hamlet’s struggles with uncertainty, alienation, and skepticism in order to propose a credible answer to these defining issues of the modern era. Through a fairy tale resonant with the central problems of agnostic modernity, Lewis effectively smuggles traditional arguments for Christian faith past the “watchful dragons” of modern unbelief.
Lewis structures both the plot and the geography of The Silver Chair according to the Ptolemaic boundary between heaven and earth in order to reflect the divide between the world of traditional theism and the world of modern agnosticism. Michael Ward contends that “the difference between Aslan’s country and Narnia is clearly modeled on the Lunary divide.”
Above the Lunar boundary, up on the astronomically high cliffs of Aslan’s country, the world is full of peace and presence. The air is sweet and clear as aether, and here Jill hears Aslan’s instructions clearly. Below the moon’s Ptolemaic boundary, alienated from the abode of Aslan, the air grows thick and the world becomes full of uncertainty and confusion. The children’s adventure follows a pattern of descent from the clarity and communion of Aslan’s country down into the translunary world of uncertainty and isolation where they must wander in search of the lost Prince Rilian. As the children travel, Aslan seems increasingly remote and Jill finds it progressively difficult to remember the signs. The resolution of the plot depends upon the children’s ability to cling to transcendent truth despite their descent into deeper and deeper levels of confusion and alienation.
Like Hamlet who “believes while the thing is present [and] doubts when it is away,” Jill seems sure of her task when standing before Aslan, yet increasingly confused while traveling through Narnia. Passing from the clear heavens above down to the sub-lunar world below, Jill is immediately distracted from her task the moment she lands in Narnia. Her sense of clarity begins to wane as nothing in Narnia is quite what she expects it to be. Due to old age, Eustace is unable to recognize his friend, King Caspian, and the children “muff” the first step of their task. Jill and Eustace are unsure whether to trust the aged and deaf Trumpkin or whether to question the counsel’s loyalty to the king. As the children travel and grow increasingly weary, cold, and hungry, their uncertainty only intensifies. The Giants of Ettinsmoor look like piles of rocks; the children’s enemy seems most beautiful, helpful, and friendly; the ruins they seek appear to be merely a land full of trenches; and the mortal danger of Harfang seems a welcome city of refuge. “Confusion leads to confusion” until Jill, Eustace, and Puddleglum fall into the Underland where they even begin to wonder whether the “sun and blue skies and wind and birds had not been only a dream.”
This deeply rooted uncertainty also creates fear and alienation. Unsure of the truth and who to trust, the characters of Narnia become estranged from one another. Rilian is separated from the kingdom as he attempts to discover his mother’s murderer and avenge her death. Having lost Queen, Son, and army as warrior after warrior disappeared in search of the missing Prince, King Caspian himself finally sails away to find Aslan. Trumpkin’s fear of breaking the rules makes him unfit support and counsel for the children’s errand and so they sneak away from the court. The fragmentation of Narnia is further revealed in the owls’ habit of meeting separately to take their own council on kingdom matters. In order to find the lost Prince, Eustace, Jill, and Puddleglum must wander far away from help as they travel north and ultimately down to Underland. There, all creatures who sink down from the sunlit lands – even the gloomy, pale earthmen – are utterly alienated from their true home and from joyful relationship with each other.
The uncertainty and alienation Jill and Eustace experience on their adventure will feel familiar to the contemporary reader. In its attempt to ground all knowledge upon human reason alone, the modern rejection of divine revelation has plunged Western culture into a state of chronic uncertainty. Without an objective authority and unifying narrative, modern society is increasingly characterized by confusion and fragmentation, and knowledge has become relative as objective certainty is lost in the endless subjectivity of the human knower. Separated from divine revelation, human understanding is imprisoned beneath the dome of Lunar confusion, and we are plagued by doubts and anxieties. Moderns are no longer sure if God has revealed himself to humanity or if he even exists at all. In the failing and heirless King Caspian we recognize an image of our own dying culture. The crown prince is the future of a kingdom and the loss of Prince Rilian is the loss of Narnia’s future. As religious faith dies out and the Western world is no longer a culture characterized by theistic faith, we wonder upon what authority can the stability of our world again be established?
In order to resist deception in a world full of uncertainty and alienation, one naturally adopts a posture of skepticism. In a culture where things are not always as they seem, where the future feels uncertain and relationships have become strained, false claims and beliefs arise easily. In Narnia, the owls are skeptical of Trumpkin’s judgement, and Eustace is skeptical of the owls’ loyalty. Puddleglum is skeptical of many things, especially the advice of the Green Lady and the good will of the Gentle Giants. Had Jill and Eustace heeded Puddleglum’s skeptical advice, they would have found their way more quickly to the Underland and avoided the danger of nearly being served as the Giant’s dinner.
Yet, while skepticism can prevent one from being deceived by false claims, it can never provide the foundation for right belief. If adopted as a permanent posture, skepticism will prevent one from ever discovering any positive truth. Puddleglum’s skepticism of the Black Knight does nothing to determine whether or not he should be freed from his silver chair. Lewis presents systematic skepticism as a kind of dark magic into which many fall and few return. The Green Lady tempts her victims to doubt everything that is not immediately present to their senses, to doubt past experiences, the meaning of words, and even the distinction between dreams and memories. Used without faith, skepticism only reduces knowledge and diminishes the meaning of the world.
Positive knowledge must ultimately begin with some article of faith, for even the axioms of reason cannot themselves be rationally proven; they must be accepted as beginning points upon which the laws of inference may work. Thus, a solution to the modern epistemological crisis will not come from reason itself, but from a deeper source. If radical doubt precipitated the modern cultural crisis, then the solution will be a return to faith. This is the answer which, at the beginning of the modern era, Hamlet resolved upon when he realized that “there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” Hamlet resolved to trust that there is a God who is guiding the story of this world, and that the readiness to follow his word is all. Writing at the end of the modern era, Lewis affirms this answer: reason alone will not answer the fundamental human questions, only faith seeking understanding can truly know – faith in the revealed word of Aslan, faith in the signs, faith in the revelation of God as proclaimed through all creation, through sun and stars and deep, deep sky.
Through the expectation of a resolution to his narrative conflict, Lewis prepares his skeptical readers to receive faith as an answer to the modern crisis. As both Shakespeare and Hamlet looked to the art of theater in order to recover truth in the midst of chaotic and confused worlds, Lewis likewise turned to narrative art in order to hold “as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature; to show … the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” Because the Lunar donegality of The Silver Chair feels so much like our own, a believable resolution to the difficulties within the plot will suggest the possibility of credible solutions to our own alienation and uncertainty. As we enjoy a fantastical story, we are willing to suspend our disbelief in impossibilities and provisionally entertain events and ideas within the context of the story which we would not be willing to consider within a realistic situation. Yet, if we are drawn to accept answers for the uncertainty faced by Jill and Eustace, we are imaginatively opened to the possibility that there might be answers to the uncertainties we face as well.
Moreover, by winning the sympathies of his reader through a setting and plot resonant with the struggles of the modern world, Lewis emotionally prepares his readers to sympathize with the rational arguments presented within the text. Most readers will not immediately recognize the resonances between The Silver Chair and the problems of modernity. Thus, long before a reader begins to rationally consider the philosophical implications of his story, Lewis’s readers will have already found themselves enjoying his fairy tale. As a modern skeptic himself, Lewis understood that a direct argument can create “an obligation to feel” something for which one may not be emotionally prepared. Yet through the re-contextualization of a fairy story, an author can make transcendent truths “for the first time appear in their real potency.” By the time the reader has journeyed with Jill and Eustace and Puddleglum into Underland, their affections are aligned with the protagonists and the reader wants to be presented with an answer to their confusion and alienation. We want the children and Puddleglum to remember the signs, to trust Aslan’s instructions, and to resist the witch’s deceptions. Lewis thus emotionally prepares his reader to imaginatively affirm the importance of faith. Consequently, by the time Lewis works his rational arguments for the existence of God into the plot, the reader is emotionally aligned on the side of faith.
After winning his readers trust and affection, Lewis offers his rational argument for theistic faith in a climactic dilemma that mirrors the modern epistemological crisis. By the climax of the story, the children have wandered far from Aslan’s country and fallen deep into the caverns of Underland. This dark realm, utterly cut off from the sunlit heavens above, functions as a symbol of reductionist materialism and the absolute denial of any supernatural reality. Here in the Dark Castle, the children and Puddleglum face a dilemma: did the Green Lady rescue the Black Knight from an evil enchantment or did she capture him and place him under enchantment? Is she working hard to free him from this dreadful enchantment or to enslave him permanently? Both stories seem possibly true; how can they know which to believe? These contrasting narratives are analogous to the conflicting Christian and atheistic explanations of reality. Do we long for immortality because our souls were made for eternity, or is belief in heaven merely a fancy created by wish fulfillment? Is reality limited to only the things we can see and feel and measure or is there a reality beyond the material? If two opposing explanations of reality can apparently both explain all the available data, how do we to discern which is true?
As the children and Puddleglum endeavor to rescue the Prince and escape Underland, Lewis offers a cumulative argument for Christian faith by describing at least two ways in which the children and Puddleglum resist the enchantment of the Green Lady. First, Lewis portrays the necessity of accepting divine revelation. Genuine knowledge can only be gained by receiving the revealed word that has been granted. If God does indeed exist and has indeed spoken to particular people, then faith in this divine revelation is completely warranted. Within the context of Lewis’s narrative, Aslan indeed exists and he has spoken to Jill; therefore, most readers will consider it is perfectly reasonable for the children and Puddleglum to trust and obey the signs given to Jill. The children and the marshwiggle cannot rationally deduce which prince is telling them the truth; they can only obey the special revelation given to them by Aslan.
Secondly, Lewis carefully connects the witness of special revelation to the witness of general revelation. As Rilian comes to his senses, he describes a “little pool” in which he could “see all the trees growing upside down in the water,” their green tops stretching up into the “deep, very deep” blue sky. Unlike the realm of Underland, with its thick roof of rock closing off its inhabitants from the witness of sun and sky, the pool reveals the true nature of reality. As the pool reflects the sky above it, so the created world images forth the invisible realities of transcendent being. Rilian becomes sane as he begins to remember the true meaning of the world. He then implores the three Overlanders, “by all fears and loves, by all the bright skies of Overland, by the great Lion, by Aslan himself, I charge you!” Rilian entreats the children and Puddleglum by the moral revelation of Natural Law, by natural revelation of the created world, and by the special revelation of Aslan’s word to believe his witness and free him. If the children are to know the truth, they must follow these signs: the signs granted both in the special revelation of the divine word as well as in the general revelation of the Logos “who from eternity doth teach / Himself in all, and all things in himself.” As the priest and poet Malcolm Guite explains, “the outward ‘objects’ of nature are continuously given and made by the divine mind and imagination, they are the ‘eternal language’ language’ of the divine poet.” Where prophetic word and the language of creation meet, we find the foundation for faith and the remedy for paralyzing uncertainty.
Echoing the arguments of modern skeptics, the Green Lady endeavors to undermine divine revelation by inverting the relationship between the seen and unseen and attacking the meaning of creation itself. She cannot fully rule Narnia so long as the very earth and sky proclaim the praise of Aslan. If, through her enchanting fire and bewitching tune, the Green Witch can transform the “eternal language of nature” into mere projections of fancy, she will have not only undermined general revelation but special revelation as well. Neither sun nor sky nor prophet will speak of anything truly. By exploiting the imperfections of analogical knowledge, the witch denies the possibility of any such knowledge at all. She asks the Narnians to explain, if “the sun is like the lamp, only greater and brighter,” then from what ceiling does the sun hang? How could it hang from nothing in the empty sky? These ideas about Aslan and the sun must be only “pretty make-believe.” In Planet Narnia, Ward explains that “like Feuerbach or Freud or Marx, the witch argues that the supposed supernatural realities – what she calls ‘fancies’ are merely extrapolations of particular Underworld images (sun from lamp, lion from cat) and that the higher world of Narnia does not really exist.” Rather than acknowledging that meaning has been infused into the created world from the outside in, the witch denies the signed nature of creation and transforms spiritual things into ‘mere’ imagined projections of material things. The witch and all modern materialists turn Plato’s cave inside out, converting the shadows below into the true reality and the solid beings above into mere psychological phenomena.
Lewis cleverly places his answer to this modern inversion of reality into the mouth of his healthy, true-hearted skeptic, Puddleglum. In Lewis’s futuristic fantasy, That Hideous Strength, Ransom insists that his resident skeptic, MacPhee holds “a very important office … [for] you couldn’t have a better man at your side in a losing battle.” An honest skeptic will be willing to doubt even his own doubt as well as everything else in the world, and by being skeptical of one’s own skepticism, the mind is opened to the necessity of knowledge from some other source. When doubt cannibalizes itself, only faith will be left to take its place as the foundation of knowledge. At the end of all doubts, Puddleglum stamps out the fire of skeptical reductionism, rejecting systematic doubt as a means for discerning truth.
Doubting the witch’s lies to the very end, Puddleglum intertwines both Anselm’s ontological argument and Pascal’s “wager” in order to make a last stand defense of theistic faith. How can we know if transcendent realities are merely projections of material realities or if material realities are manifestations of transcendent realities? Puddleglum draws from our innate sense of value in order to answer this dilemma. He argues that the transcendent ideas of sun and moon and sky and Aslan, of God and heaven and grace and immortality, are far better than the material realities of lamp and cat and earth and work. The world offered by reductionist materialism is “a pretty poor one” while the world offered by Christianity “licks your real world hollow.”Puddleglum implies that that which is better is also more real. The transcendentals of being are in proportion to the reality of being; thus, the higher a being, the greater the goodness, truth, and beauty which that being possesses. Just as the lamp is a weaker, secondary replacement for the sun, so the “made-up things” of fancy are diminishments of real things, not improvements. The higher and greater realities could not be imagined if they did not exist; we cannot invent values; they must exist as a transcendent given. We could not imagine taste if we had not first been given taste, and we could not imagine love and forgiveness and honor if these realities had not first broken into our world from above.
Puddleglum further argues that even if values themselves – if the transcendent standards which make something ‘better’ cannot be rationally proven to exist, it is still far better to believe that they do. Puddleglum resolves to stand “on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan” for the risk of being wrong will be a “small loss if the world’s as dull of a place as you say.” Because the higher realities will make for a better, greater life, Puddleglum makes a “wager on transcendence” and determines to live as if the greater things were real whether or not he can prove it. With Pascal, Puddleglum contends that “If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.” If this wager on transcendence proves wrong, it will not matter, for life will have been better while it lasted and in the end no different than a life without faith.
Defeated by Puddleglum’s doubting of doubt, argument from ontology, and existential wager on transcendence, the witch reveals her true self and the true spirit behind universal skepticism: the will to power. The Lady of the Green Kirtle is the same ancient serpent who tempted Adam and Eve to doubt God’s goodness so that he might usurp God’s authority over creation. The realm of Underland, closed off from the “sunlit lands,” represents the witch’s rebellion against Aslan, against God, and against any transcendent authority. The Green Lady is the “Moonwitch” who has turned her face away from the Sun to seek a power that is “uncreaturely, self-sustaining, not derived or dependent.” Lewis portrays the modern struggle with faith as ultimately a struggle with pride and the “temptation to believe that there is nothing higher” than ourselves.
Once the witch’s deception and power are broken, Underland collapses, and all of Narnia, both above and below, is again filled with life and meaning. Under the dominion of the witch’s rebellious reductionism, the pale, expressionless “Maggotmen” present a flattened, deformed image of God, yet once her enchantment is broken, they are filled with joy and vigor and personality. The divine Logos speaks not only through the sun and moon and stars in the sky but also in the rocks and caverns and depths of the earth. In a kind of Dantean reversal, down no longer functions as a metaphor for estrangement from God; as the “weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable” realm of the Moonwitch crumbles, both up and down become paths toward the presence of Aslan. The Narnians’ alienation has ended and every creature is freed to begin their return journey Home, either up toward the heavenly lights or down toward the jewel-toned brilliance of Bism.
Within the narrative of The Silver Chair, faith is shown to be a reasonable and compelling solution to the problem of rational uncertainty. While the witch’s reductionist argument is logically valid – for if her premises are true and Underland really is the only world that exists, then it is logical to conclude that the sun and Aslan and Narnia are indeed mere fancies – her conclusions are clearly untrue. A sympathetic reader who has enjoyed Lewis’s fairy tale will recognize that, within the context of the plot, Narnia certainly does exist. Lewis has thus enabled his reader to imaginatively experience a situation in which a logically valid argument is not necessarily true and exposed the circularity of materialist arguments which almost always depend upon the a priori assumption that the material world – the Underland– is the only world that actually exists. Any reader who imaginatively accepts the plot of The Silver Chair analogically accepts its critique of materialistic worldview and is thereby emotionally and imaginatively prepared to consider the possibility of a transcendent reality which is not merely caused by the wish-fulfilling projection of materially bound phenomenon, but rather the source of being that fills the created world with meaning, goodness, and beauty.
Annie Crawford lives in Austin, Texas with her husband and three teenage daughters. She currently homeschools, teaches humanities courses, and serves on the Faith & Culture team at Christ Church Anglican while working to complete a Masters of Apologetics at Houston Baptist University.