Tuesday, March 30, 2021

The Weight of Glory

The most frequent quote from "The Weight of Glory" is also one of the most frequently misquoted and mis-described. 

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which,if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

The qualifiers that point to these these extremes of "gods and goddesses" and "horror and corruption" as our eventual destinies rather than our current realities seems to be what trips people up.  Sometimes they just leave them out in requoting, as if Lewis is saying that the people we meet are gods and goddesses now, and that we should be worshiping them.  This goes wrong both in the understanding of the fundamentalists that insist that Lewis is saying something deeply heretical about the divinity of humans and the New Agers who insist he is saying something wonderful about the divinity of humans. When I was in the CS Lewis group on Facebook years ago, there were any number of spacey types who had loved something about Narnia but knew little else who nonetheless made bold pronouncements about what Lewis thought. This quote was a biggie, and I was involved several times in discussions trying to get the quote right and the idea right.  I became familiar with William O'Flaherty at that time and learned that he had a book completed and awaiting publication The Misquotable CS Lewis. We had some pleasant exchanges and it was fun to hear his actual voice on a "Pints With Jack" podcast recently.

I do wonder if the general inability to get this concept quite right is not related to a deeper evasion on our part, not just the standard carelessness and applying our priors to every new bit of information.  We resist the underlying concept. We don't like to think that the irritating, boring, and even destructive people we are dealing with might someday be a god or goddess.  We don't want that good result for them.  We say that we do, that we hope for the best for everyone, but the Plain Man at the beginning of The Great Divorce is recognisable in every heart. We know people we think should never be exalted, never allowed to forget the evil they have done. We are okay with grudgingly allowing them a corner in heaven where they can stay, so long as they promise to mostly stay out of sight and not ask for much. But to enjoy the company and admiration of people who we feel we have done more for in this life? Unacceptable.

We don't like it in the other direction either, that people we have some fondness for might not ever show the least repentance, and gradually become more corrupt, more selfish, eventually becoming a horror from a nightmare we could not bear to observe. We would still have memory of what good had been installed in them at the beginning, and the charm or courage or even kindness that was worth preserving. It may even be a person who had done more than merely a good turn for us, but had rescued us when we were rejected or abandoned, who we feel we owe a good deal to and would like to rescue. We do not like to contemplate that this might have a bad end.  We believe God should not allow this.

1 comment:

Grim said...

Aristotle would have answered the opening question “Magnanimity.” That might embrace both of Lewis’ options, actually.