The Episcopal Ghost from Hell

I have been a fan of C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce for a long time. I have appreciated it the way a reader of fiction appreciates, and since I have taught courses using it as a text, I have also appreciated it the way a teacher appreciates it. The course I taught was called “Seven Characters in Search of Damnation,” a play on Luigi Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author.”

The Setting

The basic mechanism that collects these characters in one place is the bus that leaves Hell every morning, taking any Ghosts (that is the term for the people who have chosen to live in Hell) up to Heaven. There, they will meet Spirits (the term forEG 6 people who by accepting God’s invitation, have chosen to live in Heaven) who have come down to the bus stop to meet them and if possible to assist them in any way. With a single exception, every character in the book who comes in the morning chooses to go back “home” in the evening.

The sin—it is the same one for every character—is the determination to put something first that is not God. God is to be used, variously in the case of the different Ghosts, as a tool to get something they value. This valued thing varies from one Ghost to another, which is what makes the book so interesting, but over the years, I have found “the Episcopal Ghost”(EG) to be the most challenging. [1]

The Episcopal Ghost

In this little episode, Lewis [2] comes very close to condemning liberalism as such. I say “very close” because he makes the Episcopal Ghost such a fearful hash that even people who would like to embrace some version of his positions do not want to be seen in public with him. I feel that way myself.

EG 8That is a very good way to write a character. You push him out to the very margins of what anyone would tolerate. Then you define “the alternative” as certain (the Spirit actually knows the truth) and as conservative as you like. The reader is put into the difficult position of inventing an alternative where there is no space for one. The positions taken by EG and the Spirit take up all the theological space there is. You would need a crowbar and an immensely long lever to create any space at all between them. And yet, I do believe that I fall between them. I am not the muddled theological liberal EG is. On the other hand, I am not aggressive and knowledgeable conservative the Spirit is.  Where I live, think really don’t have the clarity he draws on. And Lewis, is, after all a master of the either/or. For instance.

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice.

And yet, the dilemma the Spirit faces with this Episcopal Ghost has intrigued me for many years and I want to look a little more carefully at this episode, which, does, after all offer a daunting question: Can a person really be damned for believing the wrong things?

EG is the classic maddening liberal.

Picture yourself trying to make a point—any point—to someone whose mind works like this. The structure has collapsed entirely. Everything is process. Words cannot be found that clearly mean anything in particular. Tone is everything. Allow yourself to get good and disgusted and then we can come back afterwards and see if anything can be salvaged of his actual views.

EG here shows no understanding of where he is at the moment or at where he was before he got on the bus in Hell. But that isn’t the worst part.

‘Well, it’s obvious by now, isn’t it, that you weren’t quite right. Why, my dear boy, you were coming to believe in a literal Heaven and Hell!’

‘But wasn’t I right?’

‘Oh, in a spiritual sense, to be sure. I still believe in them in that way.

He still believes in “a literal Heaven and Hell” he says, but only “in a spiritual sense.”
The Spirit faces the Ghost with the reality of his choices and their effects. That doesn’t go too well either.

‘I’m not sure that I’ve got the exact point you are trying to make,’ said the Ghost.

‘I am not trying to make any point,’ said the Spirit. ‘I am telling you to repent and believe.’

‘But my dear boy, I believe already. We may not be perfectly agreed, but you have completely misjudged me if you do not realise that my religion is a very real and a very precious thing to me.’

The context here is doctrinal. The notion that the Ghost’s beliefs are “a real and…precious thing” brings no clarity at all to the doctrines he holds to be true. The Spirit knows what is true and what is not and “my religion…is precious to me” is neither true nor false. It has nothing to do with truth or falsity.

So that doesn’t work. The Spirit then tries direct and immediate action.

‘Will you come with me to the mountains? It will hurt at first, until your feet are hardened. Reality is harsh to the feet of shadows. But will you come?’

This is not doctrinal, please notice. “Let’s go to the mountains (the natural goal of every Spirit in heaven) and let’s start now. Here, take my arm.” But the response is eerily familiar.

‘Well, that is a plan,” says the Ghost. “I am perfectly ready to consider it.”

Notice that “considering the plan” does not get either of them any closer to the mountains. Walking would; “considering” will not.

At that point, the Ghost begins to ask for assurances. I will consent to accept Heaven if I can be given some guarantees. He has two in mind. You will not need to be told, at this point, that neither of them is viable.

The first is that he wants to be “useful.” Then he demands “the free play of the mind.” These are not ridiculous, particularly if we contrast them to the alternatives as he experienced them in his life on earth. But they make no sense at all in Heaven, as Lewis describes it. Here is the Spirit’s response.

‘No,’ said the other. ‘I can promise you none of these things. No sphere of usefulness: you are not needed there at all. No scope for your talents: only forgiveness for having perverted them. No atmosphere of inquiry; for I will bring you to the land not of questions but of answers, and you shall see the face of God.’

We are not “needed” in Heaven as if God had some deficiency that only we could remedy. “Inquiry” is not needed when the plain and true factuality of everything is staring you in the face.. Forgiveness is needed and it is abundantly available and the Truth is here, indeed it is unavoidable except by such subterfuges as the Ghost keeps using.

Nothing works. The Ghost needs to be needed, even by God, and he needs to keep his mind spinning by what he calls “free inquiry.” But facing the clear and real Fact of God, the Ghost equivocates.

“You will keep on implying,” he says, “some sort of static, ready-made reality which is, so to speak, “there”, and to which our minds have simply to conform.”

Notice the pejoratives. “Static” is bad because it is not “dynamic,” “Ready-made” is bad because God, not this particular Ghost, has made it. “Conform” is bad both because it implies compulsion and also because it is a demand made by a reality outside the Ghost himself. Everything about Heaven and God is not quite up to snuff, somehow.

And finally, God is not a person in the sense that one can have a relationship with Him. God is:

“The spirit of sweetness and light and tolerance—and, er, service, Dick, service. We mustn’t forget that, you know.”

A man like this Ghost would drive me crazy. He is repulsive to me in nearly every way. The Truth, apparent and irrefutable for once, does not meet his needs and he escapes back to Hell where his talents can be more fully utilized. “Service,” you know.

Believing your way to Hell

I have spent a little of your valuable time on the true ugliness of this Ghost because I EG 7want to separate it from the reason he is in Hell in the first place, which is, according to the Spirit, who has to inform him of the reason, that he is apostate. [3] He was once “a slave of Christ” (Ephesians 6:6, Colossians 3;24, 1 Peter 2:16), but he has “run away,” as the etymology implies.

This is the part of the dialogue between Spirit and Ghost that I wanted most to explore. The setting of Heaven and Hell (and the bus line that connects them) and the obnoxiousness of the Ghost, are just setting the table. What, specifically is the charge that the Spirit brings against the Ghost. Here is the central passage for that question.

‘Go on, my dear boy, go on. That is so like you. No doubt you’ll tell me why, on your view, I was sent there. I’m not angry.’
‘But don’t you know? You went there because you are an apostate.’
‘Are you serious, Dick?’
‘This is worse than I expected. Do you really think people are penalised for their honest opinions? Even assuming, for the sake of argument, that those opinions were mistaken.’
‘Do you really think there are no sins of intellect?’
‘There are indeed, Dick. There is hide-bound prejudice, and intellectual dishonesty, and timidity, and stagnation. But honest opinions fearlessly followed—they are not sins.’
‘I know we used to talk that way. I did it too until the end of my life when I became what you call narrow. It all turns on what are honest opinions.’
‘Mine certainly were. They were not only honest but heroic. I asserted them fearlessly. When the doctrine of the Resurrection ceased to commend itself to the critical faculties which God had given me, I openly rejected it. I preached my famous sermon. I defied the whole chapter. I took every risk.’

The heart of EG’s defense is that these were “honest opinions.” Here is the Spirit’s rebuttal.

‘Friend, I am not suggesting at all. You see, I know now. Let us be frank. Our opinions were not honestly come by. We simply found ourselves in contact with a certain current of ideas and plunged into it because it seemed modern and successful. At College, you know, we just started automatically writing the kind of essays that got good marks and saying the kind of things that won applause. When, in our whole lives, did we honestly face, in solitude, the one question on which all turned: whether after all the Supernatural might not in fact occur? When did we put up one moment’s real resistance to the loss of our faith?’

EG responds.

“But it’s not a question of how the opinions are formed. The point is that they were my honest opinions, sincerely expressed.”

This is the Spirit’s devastating response, which he knows to be true because he was there at the time and made the same mistakes.

‘Of course. Having allowed oneself to drift, unresisting, unpraying, accepting every half-conscious solicitation from our desires, we reached a point where we no longer believed the Faith. Just in the same way, a jealous man, drifting and unresisting, reaches a point at which he believes lies about his best friend: a drunkard reaches a point at which (for the moment) he actually believes that another glass will do him no harm. The beliefs are sincere in the sense that they do occur as psychological events in the man’s mind. If that’s what you mean by sincerity they are sincere, and so were ours. But errors which are sincere in that sense are not innocent.’

Let the Trial Begin

EG says first that there are no “errors of the intellect” and if there are, they are sins like prejudice, intellectual dishonesty, timidity, and stagnation. He says then that his new beliefs were honest (When the doctrine of the Resurrection ceased to commend itself to the critical faculties which God had given me, I openly rejected it) and also courageous.

This is EG at his best, I think. Not the weasel-worded obscurantist who shows up later in the dialogue. This is the best he has got.

And it is not nearly good enough for the Spirit. First, the Spirit says that there are, in fact, “errors of the intellect.” He says that right away. And the language Lewis provides is very strong because the Spirit asks EG to deny a negative formulation. “Do you really think there are no—that there is no such thing as— errors of the intellect?”  A less strong response by the Spirit would be no answer at all.

Second, the Spirit describes how “honest opinions” must be maintained. This sounds odd to my ears and I am guessing it will sound odd to yours as well. I’ll take the second one first. Dick (the Spirit) and EG followed the same track at first.

“Having allowed oneself to drift, unresisting, unpraying, accepting every half-conscious solicitation from our desires, we reached a point where we no longer believed the Faith.”

EG 5This way of looking at it is as far as can be imagined from EG’s “When the Resurrection ceases to recommend itself to [my] critical facilities, I openly rejected it.” [4] The validity of the Resurrection is “maintained,” as the Spirit now sees it, by praying, by resisting the drift toward unbelief, by refusing to accept the pull of our desires. “Belief in the Resurrection” as the Spirit now sees it, is based on basic spiritual disciplines. These require active intentional living. Prayer requires that. Resisting the drift away from the faith requires that—in fact even being willing to notice the fact of drifting is harder than you might think if you have never tried to do it. Refusing to give in to the pull of illicit desires [5] requires that.

“Keeping the faith,” is, in this formulation, like keeping a marriage alive and vivid. You don’t keep testing your relationship with your wife to make sure that it continues to “recommend itself to your critical faculties.” You work it. You remind yourself of your common intention. You supply those intentions with resources. You attend to any “drifting” you encounter—although everyone will assure you that such drifting is perfectly natural—and try to counter it.

EG didn’t do any of those things, and neither did Dick, according to his retrospective account, and that is why their faith failed them. (Dick reconsidered his spiritual laziness toward the end of his life—becoming “narrow” according to EG—and reclaimed his faith.) Contrast this with the Spirit’s notion “believing the Faith” requires constant effort of every kind, not just intellectual assent.

And where does such drifting get you? A man gets to the place where he will believe lies about his best friend. A drunkard gets to the place where he “sincerely believes” (at the moment) that another glass will do him no harm. Those beliefs are “sincere” in the very limited sense that one believes them at the time, but they are also culpable because you should have known better than to believe them at the time.

That is the prosecution’s case as it bears on “sincerity” and “courage.”
But these failures are not personal peccadilloes. They are part of the familiar structure by which neighborhood conservatives “go off to college” and become secularists. Dick and EG grew up in the faith, then they went away to college where they heard other things: things that seemed “modern and successful.” [6] And they wrote the kinds of papers that their godless professors and their godless fellow students approved of wholeheartedly.

"My mother broke up with Jesus in college; he wouldn't return her calls."Lewis is not holding back here and I think his case is better for that. Outside “the home” is “the world” where the forces of evil hold sway. And at college, there is the social whirl, which is a really good way to keep yourself from being alone and thinking seriously if you know where the choices you are making are leading you. Nothing in your academic training encourages you to wonder whether “the Supernatural” might not be True—with a capital T—especially since everyone laughs at the idea and would laugh at you, too, if you began to consider it.

These two explanations (accusations) by the Spirit fit together ominously well: the personal and the programmatic. The personal practices that would defend your intellect against the attacks of secularism are abandoned. The friends you cultivate are not the kind that will help to remind you of your highest loyalty and are, in fact, the kind that would ridicule you for that loyalty.

You accept your own desires as worthy of fulfillment, even as you are only half aware of them, and you accept the rewards offered by the formal programs as “daring” and “modern” rather than as true. [7]

But what about the Resurrection?

I chose this character to examine because, like him, I have concerns about the Resurrection. I don’t confuse, as Lewis does, “my faith” and “the doctrine of the Resurrection.” I am aware that after Jesus’ death, something happened that dramatically catalyzed his disciples and sent them out proclaiming his continuing presence. I don’t know what that “something” was and the written accounts provided by the writers of our gospels don’t show much interest in exploring  just what that “something” was. Whatever questions we are asking, they really didn’t care about them.

I guard “the faith I was given” as well as I know how. I understand that relying on it requires active investment in the practices and the associations that support my faith. These are the things the Spirit accused EG of neglecting.

But, frankly, Heaven and Hell have never meant very much to me. If there is any life after this one, it will be in God’s care, just as this one is. And “things,” by which I mean the intersection of what I believe and how I feel and what I do may not be related to an afterlife in any way that ever occurred to me. I may wind up, as Lewis described his own conversion “as the most… reluctant convert in all England,” Or, in my case, England’s former colonies.

[1] All the other Ghosts want to use God in some instrumental way, like Michael’s Mother who will worship God as much as anyone would like provided that when she is done, she will get to see her son, Michael. Or they refuse to accept God’s forgiveness because they demand to receive only what they deserve, like the man I call “the Rights-monger.”
[2] Lewis is also a character in this fantasy. He is the schlub to just doesn’t get it and who in that way gives his guide, George McDonald, a chance to explain further.

[3] Here, as so often, the derivation of a word casts its current meaning into sharp relief. The Greeks is apostatēs and it referred to “a runaway slave.”
[4] You may have noticed that I left out a few words in my formulation. EG refers to “the doctrine of the Resurrection,” rather that the event itself, distancing himself from it. He also describes his critical faculties as “the critical faculties which God had given me,” implying that he had made a proper use of those faculties.
5] I am willing to use the word “illicit,” even though the Spirit does not use it because it has the effect of weakening your fidelity to your own faith. That’s enough for me to call such desires “illicit” even though I don’t know what they were.
[6] There is an odd transition here where you give up the faith your learned at your mother’s knee (uncritically because you were only a child) and substitute for those beliefs notions that you learned at the knee of your Ph. D. advisor (also uncritically, because you are only an apprentice in your new trade). In terms of credulity, there is very little to choose between these two socializations.
[7] In The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape, the senior devil, advises his apprentice, “don’t waste your time trying to persuade them that the messages you are giving them are ‘true.’ Let they think them to be “bold” or courageous” and that will work as well or better. Lewis takes the same view here.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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