Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Need for Religious Training for the Young

5/6/2008--I just looked at C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed. This is Lewis’ moving account of his reactions upon the death of his wife, Joy Davidman. They had married secretly in 1956, in a civil ceremony, and then in a church ceremony at her hospital bed, a year later. There was a remission in her cancer, for a time, but she died in 1960. The short book was originally published a year after that under the pseudonym, N. W. Clerk.

My wife Patt tells me that the book is an amazing chronicle of the immediate stages of grief. Thankfully, I cannot say. It is, however, a vivid theological questioning.

For someone like Lewis, the attentiveness to his own grief was only a part of the story. He writes very early, “Meanwhile, where is God?”

Lewis does not come up with anything simple, one way or another. In fact, some of his images are shattering. Perhaps, in God’s view, Lewis and his wife were just done with this stage—“well done, next job”. He does not assume that the dead are beyond caring and grieving themselves. He has no patience for those who say death doesn’t matter or that we will all be reunited, as if eternity were the same as this life, which is the loss he is mourning.

Some time later, Lewis has an impression of his wife’s presence. He writes that this is not “evidence” of anything. Not a body or a soul—“Just the impression of her mind momentarily facing my own.” An extreme and cheerful intimacy.

The experience was so unexpected in its quality, that Lewis felt he could not have come up with it on his own. Still, not evidence.

But that is the connection of this book to the issue of religious training. The courage and depth of the book, as well as its discipline, and its surprises, all come from Lewis’ having a deep place to stand. We need a perspective from which to approach the important experiences of life, to understand what they are, and what they show and teach us.

Religion is one of those things that gives such a deep place. There are not many. After religious teachings are outgrown, if they ever are, its categories and vocabulary are still available. Lewis’ experience with grief and with his sense of the presence of his wife, can be engaged and communicated only because Lewis has words and concepts to at least begin to think about what has happened to him.

Lewis doesn’t repeat any religious orthodoxies. I am not talking about comfort. I am more talking about mathematics as necessary for the scientist. If physics required a new mathematics, that new math could only be supplied by one familiar with the old.

Just so it is with religion. We should assume that the ancients experienced something like what we experience. Their accounts will therefore help us understand our lives. That is why even secularists should train their children in Our Religions.

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