Friday, April 04, 2008


Most references to temptation, even among Christians, are to one-off events. I doubt these are our great spiritual dangers. It is the less-visible temptations that stretch over years which unravel us. CS Lewis writes directly about the great, consuming temptations in both his fiction and non-fiction. Not only The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, and “The Inner Ring,” but the Narnia and Perelandra series are largely taken up with the questions of temptation. There are temptations to do evil in a good cause, temptations of cowardice, temptations of apostasy and compromise. The brilliance of Narnia is not in its fantastic elements, but in the seriousness of moral questions presented even to children. Young people are not treated as moral simpletons, capable only of steal cookie/not steal cookie obedience, but as full moral agents in hard places.

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings seems to be entirely about temptations, once one thinks to look for them. Boromir is tempted by glory; Saruman by knowledge and power, Denethor by knowledge and despair; the temptation to be left alone in false peace settles in various forms on hobbits, Tom Bombadil, ents, and elves; the beauty of making tempts both elves and dwarves. The danger of competing goods, and of virtues unchecked drive the story forward: Gandalf is tempted by pity, Sam by humility, Frodo by gentleness. While these temptations may come to a sharp, revealing point in the story they are all constant temptations to the characters. Everyone is beset by peculiar weaknesses and virtues that intertwine. Gollum and Galadriel, Beregond and Butterbur are all assailed by moral choices of real consequence. Courage is not a virtue so much as the measure of all other virtues. There’s a book for someone to write about temptation as described by the Inklings. One can meditate on the peculiar temptations of a single group or character at a time.

This all came up because of a description of a scholar a friend sent. The man in question grew up as a fundamentalist Christian, attended a Christian college and prestigious theological school, and had made a name for himself in New Testament studies. He had pioneered a method of considering early texts and interpreting ambiguities which changed the field. Over time he lost his faith, and puts his energy into undermining it now. I was reminded of Gandalf’s comment about Saruman, and it not being wise to study the arts of the enemy too deeply, and of Frodo’s inability to resume normal life in the Shire because of the wounding and trauma he had experienced. But most of all, I thought of Denethor and his Palantir, discovering things important and real that lesser men could not see. His great knowledge led him ultimately to great despair, not because what he had seen was untrue, but because it was selected truth, with Sauron doing the selecting. I feel much sorrow for the scholar.

Fundamentalism can be a brittle faith, shattering rather than absorbing blows. I think real faith always has a few dents in it – not just religious faith, but belief in a theory, trust in a person, or confidence in predictability. Reality is rather messy, unjust, and unpredictable. Even Jesus was surprised that someone had touched him for healing, that the disciples could not keep watch, and that the Father had abandoned him.


Anonymous said...

I liken Faith (belief) and Science (knowledge) to an instance of star-gazing, where the more intently one stares at it to affirm it's there, the more it dwindles from your eye's view - while if one stares just a bit to its right or left instead, it continues to shine brightly. So that it seems better to rely somewhat on trust that the star is still there, than it is to dare stare right into it as though to capture its essence - which may likely lead to some frustration that such expectations fall too short of one's capacity in spatial-temporal constraints of our Earthly existence. I feel bad for your friend's folly too, but any zealotry is bound for such eventually - given its faulty foundation. Your ending points to the most perturbing/challenging anecdotes I know about the truth of Jesus as Savior - and leads me to wonder if there's been any vast misinterpretations of what actually happened in these momentous events and the meaning of the language expressed during these accounts - having huge implications upon the veracity of Christ to those who probe furiously enough. Cheers.

Anonymous said...

RE the academic who lost his faith, is that the same guy that was on NPR's Fresh Air sometime in February, talking about his loss of faith over the issue of human suffering? He asked how can God be good if he allows the famine in Ethiopia. All I could think is that we could end the famine in Ethiopia, but people like him would be the first to wail about U.S. Imperialism and violation of international law.

Anonymous said...

"Why doesn't God just ..." vs. "Thy will be done" - the ongoing debate about Who He is, why we're here, etc. Such a great temptation to rein-in the Lord and make him our pet who can sit, roll-over and beg for treats. If one takes the anti-Free Will view to its illogical end, then why doesn't He straighten out *every* mess that exists and ultimately just make us all puppets on strings - with no choices between right and wrong, no individuality, no passions, no true stories to create and tell, and no lessons learned. It would be nothing but a self-deluding God alone with his own pitiful game and no audience - a pathetic and impossible god if you ask me, and the opposite of the perfect, omniscient and all-loving and freeing God revealed to us already.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

nash - I doubt it was the same guy, but I don't know.

It is interesting that the societies that suffer least seem to have the greatest obstacle over the issue of suffering.