A Pilgrim’s Regress: Reason saves John

C.S. Lewis wrote a wonderful book called A Pilgrim’s Regress. In it, he follows John Bunyans allegorical style to show his own conversion experience. He is represented by the man John who wanders around the world in the book searching for his deepest longing. This longing is a reflection of God into the picture of an Island, that is, the longing for heaven. Hell is pictured by a black hole. God is called the Landlord and is constantly drawing John nearer to him through many different characters. Early on, after leaving his house in search of the island, John gradually gives into atheism after repeated attacks on his faith in the island’s reality. Eventually, he is taken hostage by Enlightenment taken to a great giant. He is then imprisoned by the “Spirit of the Age.” This giant represents ruthless materialism where all of reality is reduced to material. There is no spiritual aspect to man, and no God. Anything the giant sets its eyes upon becomes transparent, revealing only material. It is the giant, and his minions, that attempt to convince John that this is all he is and nothing more. Daily the guards enter in brainwashing the prisoners to their system of thought, depriving them of any hope beyond this world. However, there is still fight in him when on one encounter he fights back.

“Jailor- ‘Our relations with the cow are not delicate–as you can easily see if you imagine eating any of her other secretions.’

Now John had been in the pit a shorter time than any of the others: and at these words something seemed to snap in his head and he gave a great sigh and suddenly spoke out in a loud, clear voice:

‘Thank heaven! Now at last I know that you are talking nonsense.’

‘What do you mean?’ said the jailor, wheeling round upon him.

‘You are trying to pretend that unlike things are like. You are trying to make us think that milk is the same sort of thing as sweat or dung.’

‘And pray, what difference is there except by custom?’

‘Are you a liar or only a fool, that you see no difference between that which Nature casts out as refuse and that which she stores up as food?’

‘So Nature is a person, then, with purposes and consciousness,’ said the jailor with a sneer. ‘In fact, a Landlady. No doubt it comforts you to imagine you can believe that sort of thing’; and he turned to leave the prison with his nose in the air.

‘I know nothing about that,’ shouted John after him. ‘I am talking aof what happens. Milk does feed calves and dung does not.’

‘Look her; cried the jailor, coming back, ‘we have had enough of this. It is high treason and I shall bring you before the Master.’ (Pg. 42)

He is brought before the great giant to be charged with treason against the Spirit of the Age, when someone intervenes.

When they came out into the air John blinked a little, but not much, for they were still only in a half-light under the shadow of the giant, who was very angry, with smoke coming from his mouth, so that he looked more like a volcano than an ordinary mountain. And now John gave himself up for lost, but just as the jailor had dragged him up to the giant’s feet, and had cleared his throat, and begun ‘The case against this prisoner–‘there was a commotion and a sound of horse’s hoofs. The jailor looked round, and even the giant took his terrible eyes off John and looked round: and last of all, John himself looked round too. They saw some of the guard coming towards them leading a great black stallion, and in it was seated a figure wound in a cloak of blue which was hooded over the head and came down concealing the face.

‘Another prisoner, Lord; said the leader of the guards.

Then very slowly the giant raised his great, heavy finger and pointed to the mouth of the dungeon.

‘Not yet,’ said the hooded figure. Then suddenly it stretched out its hands with the fetters on them and made a quick movement of the wrists. There was a tinkling sound as the fragments of the broken chain fell on the rock at the horse’s feet: and the guardsmen let go the bridle and fell back, watching. Then the rider threw back the cloak and a flash of steel smote light into John’s eyes and on the giant’s face. John saw that it was a woman in the flower of her age: she was so tall that she seemed to him a Titaness, a sun-bright virgin clad in complete steel, with a sword naked in her hand. The giant bent forward in his chair and looked at her.

‘Who are you?’ he said.

‘My name is Reason,’ said the virgin.

Make out her passport quickly,’ said the giant in a low voice. ‘And let her go through our dominions and be off with all the speed she wishes.’

‘Not yet,’ said Reason. ‘I will ask you three riddles before I go, for a wager.’

‘What is the pledge? said the giant.

‘Your head,’ said Reason.

There was silence for a time among the mountains.

‘Well,’ said the giant at last, ‘what must be, must be. Ask on.’

‘This is my first riddle,’ said Reason. ‘What is the colour of things in dark places, of fish in the depth of the sea, or of the entrails in the body of man?’

‘I cannot say,’ said the giant.

‘Well,’ said Reason. ‘Now hear my second riddle. There was a certain man who was going to his own house and his enemy went with him. And his house was beyond a river too swift to swim and too deep to wade. And he could go no faster than his enemy. While he was on his journey his wife sent to him and said, “You know that there is only one bridge across the river: tell me, shall I destroy it that the enemy may not cross; or shall I leave it standing that you may cross?” What should this man do?’

‘It is too hard for me,’ said the giant.

‘Well,’ said Reason. ‘Try now to answer my third riddle. By what rule do you tell a copy from an original?’

The giant muttered and mumbled and could not answer, and Reason set spurs in her stallion and it leaped up on to the giant’s mossy knees and galloped up his foreleg, till she plunged her sword into his heart. Then there was a noise and a crumbling like a landslide and the huge carcass settled down: and the Spirit of the Age became what he had seemed to be at first, a sprawling hummock of rock. (Pg. 43)

Reason had saved John from his captivity. John then travels far with Reason and she begins to interpret the dreams for him. She interprets the third dream first and shows that man often mistakes the copy for the original. If man has a longing for something other than this world, the materialist says that this ‘transcendent’ longing is nothing more than a copy of our longings for earthly things. However, Reason answers this:

‘But you must see that if two things are alike, then it is a further question whether the first is copied from the second, or the second from the first, or both from a third?’

What would the third be?’

‘Some have thought that all these loves were copies of our love for the Landlord.’

‘But surely they have considered that and rejected it. Their sciences have disproved it.’

‘They could not have, for their sciences are not concerned at all with the general relations of this country to anything that may lie East of it or West of it. They indeed will tell you that their researches have proved that if two things are similar, the fair one is always the copy of the foul one. But their only reason to say so is that they have already decided that the fairest things of all–that is the Landlord, and, if you like, the mountains and the Island–are a mere copy of this country. They pretend that their researches lead to that doctrine: but in fact they assume that doctrine first and interpret their researches by it.’

‘But they have reasons for assuming it.’

‘They have none, for they have ceased to listen to the only people who can tell them anything about it.’

‘Who are they?’

‘They are younger sisters of mine, and their names are Philosophy and Theology.’ (pg. 49)

Science is not concerned with the way this world may relate to anything that transcends the material. The scientist, in speculating there is no God, is not coming to this conclusion based on material evidence, but must first assume it in order for his theories about the material world to make any sense. Later, they begin to talk about what John saw in the dungeon when the Giant was staring through him. She then poses the same question she asked the Giant, to John.

‘What is the colour of things in the dark?’

‘I suppose, no colour at all.’

‘And what of their shape? Have you any notion of it save as what could be seen or touched, or what you could collect from many seeings and touchings/’

‘I don’t know that I have.’

‘Then do you not see how the giant has deceived you?’

‘Not quite clearly.’

‘He showed you by a trick what our inwards would look like if they were visible. That is, he showed you something that is not, but something that would be if the world were made all other than it is. But in the real world our inwards are invisible. They are not coloured shapes at all, they are feelings. The warmth in your limbs at this moment, the sweetness of your breath as you draw it in, the comfort in your belly because we breakfasted well, and your hunger for the next meal–these are the reality: all the sponges and tubes that you saw in the dungeon are the lie.’

‘But if I cut a man open I should see them in him.’

‘A man cut open is, so far, not a man: and if you did not sew him up speedily you would be seeing not organs, but death. I am not denying that death is ugly: but the giant made you believe that life is ugly.’

‘I cannot forget the man with the cancer.’

‘What you saw was unreality. The ugly lump was the giant’s trick: the reality was pain, which has no colour or shape.’

‘Is that much better?’

‘That depends on the man.’

‘I think I begin to see.’

‘Is it surprising that things should look strange if you see them as they are not? If you take an organ out of a man’s body–or a longing out of the dark part of a man’s mind–and give to the one the shape and colour, and to the other the self-consciousness, which they never have in reality, would you expect them to be other than monstrous?’

‘Is there, then, no truth at all in what I saw under the giant’s eyes?’

‘Such pictures are useful to physicians.’

‘Then I really am clean,’ said John. ‘I am not–like those.’

Reason smiled. ‘There too,’ she said, ‘there is truth mixed up with the giant’s conjuring tricks. It will do you no harm to remember from time to time the ugly sights inside. You come of a race that cannot afford to be proud.’ (Pg. 51)

When all things are reduced to material, what does that say for our own consciousness? If a soul is that which transcends the material, and there is nothing more than material, then there is no soul. All of our feelings, emotions, and thoughts are somehow illusions of the material. When the giant looked through them and he saw his insides, this was the trick of the Spirit of the Age on his mind. Making him think that he was wrong to trust his experience of a soul. Yet, if you try to make something that is immaterial, material, you make it something that it is not, and that is always ugly says Reason. The last riddle interpreted is the most dead on challenge to those who reject God.

‘It has two meanings,’ said she, ‘ and in the first the bridge signifies Reasoning. The Spirit of the Age wishes to allow argument and not to allow argument.’

‘How is that?’

‘You heard what they said. If anyone argues with them they say that he is rationalizing his own desires, and therefore need not be answered. But if anyone listens to them they will then argue themselves to show that their own doctrines are true.’

‘I see. And what is the cure for this?’

‘You must ask them whether any reasoning is valid or not. If they say no, then their own doctrines, being reached by reasoning, fall to the ground. If they say yes, then they will have to examine your arguments and refute them on their merits: for if some reasoning is valid, for all they know, your bit of reasoning may be one of the valid bits.’ (Pg. 52)

This is the common refrain of today. Statements like “there is no truth” or “we can’t know the truth” all fall to the ground by their own requirements. If there is no truth, then their own statements cannot be true. But if truth is there to be found (which they have to admit if what their saying is right) then the arguments for Christianity must be accepted as options. Options that are to be evaluated and denied by their own merit rationally. The bridge is a wonderful metaphor for argumentation.

‘I see, said John. ‘ But what was the second interpretation?’

‘In the second,’ said Reason, ‘the bridge signifies the giant’s own favourite doctrine of the wish-fulfilment dream. For this also he wishes to use and not to use.’

‘I don’t see how he wishes not to use it.’

‘Does he not keep on telling people that the Landlord is a wish-fulfilment dream?’

‘Yes; surely that is true–the only true thing he did say.’

‘Now think. Is it really true that the giant and Sigismund, and the people in Eschropolis, and Mr. Halfways, are going about filled with a longing that there should be a Landlord, and cards of rules, and a mountain land beyon the brook, with a possibility of a black hole?’

Then John stood still on the road to think. And first he gave a shake of his shoulders, and then he put his hands to his sides, and then he began to laugh till he was almost shaken to pieces. And when he had nearly finished, the vastness and impudence and simplicity of the fraud which had been practiced came over him all again, and he laughed harder. And just when he had nearly recovered and was beginning to get his breath again, suddenly he had a picture in his mind of Victoriana (Edith Sitwell, a controversial english poet)  and Glugly (representing intentionally vulgar art) and Gus Halfways (representing the modern quest for technology) and how they would look if a rumour reached them that there was a Landlord and he was coming to Eschropolis (Greek for “city of filth and obscenity). This was too much for him, and he laughed so hard that the broken chains of the Spirit of the Age fell off his wrists altogether. But all the while Reason sat and watched him.

‘You had better hear the rest of the argument,’ she said at last. ‘It may not be such a laughing matter as you suppose.’

‘Oh, yes–the argument,’ said John, wiping his eyes.

‘You see now the direction in which the giant does not want the wish-fulfillment theory used?’

‘I’m not sure that I do,’ said John.

‘Don’t you see what follows if you adopt his own rules?’

‘No,’ said John, very loudly: for a terrible apprehension was stealing over him.

‘But you must see,’ said Reason, ‘that for him and all his subjects disbelief in the Landlord is a wish-fulfillment dream.’

‘I shall not adopt his rules.’

‘You would be foolish not to have profited at all by your stay in his country,’ said Reason. ‘There is some force in the wish-fulfillment doctrine.’

‘Some, perhaps, but very little.’

‘I only wanted to make it clear that whatever force it had was in favour of the Landlord’s existence, not against it–specially in your case.’

‘Why specially in mine?’ said John sulkily.

‘Because the Landlord is the thing you have been most afraid of all your life. I do not say that any theory should be accepted because it is disagreeable, but if any should, then belief in the Landlord should be accepted first.’ (Pg. 52-53)

Too often, people lob the argument, “you just want this to be true so you make it true.” The reason you are a Christian is because your afraid of dying and want there to be life after death, therefore that is what you see. It is then a wish-fulfillment dream. However, just as the bridge can be used for the Atheist, it can also be used against the Atheist himself. Maybe, they don’t believe in a God, because they don’t want there to be a God. Indeed, that is the essence of Romans 1:21-23.

“For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.”

They suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18). There are many other levels within this narrative that I am sure I have not reached. C.S. Lewis takes a lot of time to truly work through, but I did appreciate this section.

Lewis, C.S. The Collected Works of C.S. Lewis. New York: Inspirational. 1996. Print


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