Thursday, December 14, 2006

Faith and Fantasy, Part 1 (of who-knows-how-many)

Religion and fantasy are closely related. Both have elements of escapism. Fantasy literature is sometimes criticized for being escapist, but this is actually one of its good points. One of the primary purposes of fantasy is to show the reader something so radically different from the ordinary that it shifts his perspective and leads him to look on the real world with fresh, renewed vision. It is for this reason that C. S. Lewis described the feeling of reading good fantasy as a glimpse into heaven. Good fantasy produces in a person an intense longing to break through to an extraordinary understanding of the universe.

Lewis’s view is probably partially inspired by Jungian psychology. Jung apparently understood myths (that is, fantasy) to exist in a collective human subconscious. It should be evident that this notion has more to do with mysticism than science; genetics has adequately demonstrated that human beings are not genetically complex enough to have DNA-encoded collective memories. The certain religious longings that humans have, which express themselves in myths and moral teachings, are part of the human spiritual makeup. We have built into us two essential spiritual things, a longing for a relationship with God and a longing for right behavior: the first, I refer to as the Religious Sense, and the second, Christian Tradition refers to as the Natural Law. Because these are a part of basic human makeup, they are similarly expressed in different cultures. That is why cultures often share basic moral concepts and also why they share folkloric motifs.

It is evident to me that fantasy writing (that is, myth making) is approved by God. I say this because God saw fit to inspire certain myths and direct the Church to canonize them as scripture. Leaving aside the issues of whether or not these events actually happened in historical space-time, such tales as those of Adam and Eve in the Garden, Jonah and the Whale, or the Exodus, are mythical in character. And the fact that Esther, Judith, and Tobit are part of the canon of scripture, though it can be said with some certainty that they depict events that did not actually take place, is a sure indication that God approves the writing of fiction. I believe this derives from the Imago Dei. Human beings are created in the image of God, which means that we share finite versions of some of God’s infinite attributes. God is Creator. The Church recognizes that when we have children, we participate with God as co-creators. Ultimately, all human life comes from God, but God in his grace allows us to participate in this creation through our own willful actions. As will be elaborated more fully in a later essay, probably, I hold that sexuality, imaginative creativity, and religious devotion stem from the same, or at least closely related, impulse. It is often commented, sometimes jokingly and sometimes not, that sexual frustration seems to produce great artists. Dante’s infatuation with Beatrice is the traditional example. Robert Heinlein, in his novel Stranger in a Strange Land, emphasizes this point and challenges the reader to name one great book written by a eunuch. Heinlein’s challenge is unfair; eunuchs are outnumbered and so should hardly be expected to produce as many great works as men with testicles. If the nasty rumors are to be believed, Origen was a eunuch, and he would surely prove a devastating exception to Heinlein’s rule, but even this would merely demonstrate that mutilated men lose neither their sexual impulse, their creative ability, nor the Imago Dei.

The close relationship between sex and art is easily explained. The artist pours his creative energy into a creative outlet other than sex. For the same reason, monks and nuns are celibate so that they may pour their creative energy into prayer and contemplation. The scriptures describe the relationship between God and Israel, and Christ and the Church, as marriage. God created human sexuality and established marriage as visible expressions of the nature of reality and a microcosmic representation of the relationship between God and his people. The husband, the monk, and the artist are all expressing--through equally legitimate outlets--the finite creative impulses that they possess as images of the infinite Creator.

By condoning icons and rejecting a rigid canon regarding their appearance and manufacture, the Church implicitly sanctions and approves the human creative impulse. The Church so reveres the creative impulse that it may even consider its products sacred. Icons are one example, and in the Mass, the priest acknowledges the bread and wine before the consecration as “the work of human hands.” Just as human life, product of the human creative impulse, is inherently sacred because humans bear the Imago Dei, so other human creations, to a lesser degree, may be sacred. This is true of prayers, religious poetry, theology, devotionals, and other works, which are all products of human imagination. As already mentioned, it also applies to fiction-writing, as demonstrated by the fiction in the Bible, imagined and created by men in cooperation with the Spirit who inspired them. Science fiction and fantasy involve the human imagination in a process of creation, re-telling, and re-imagining of myth. For this reason, fantasy/science fiction writing is an inherently religious act. As Frank McConnell astutely points out, the “religious impulse” is “after all just the artistic impulse wearing a different hat.”[1] It might be better to put that the other way around, but either way it gets the point across.

Now let me return briefly to my earlier comment that religion is escapist. Religion and fantasy both connect the participant with something constant and eternal. Fantasy does this by unlocking and expressing myth in written form. Religion does this by making myths immediate and relevant and explaining, by means of dogma, exactly where and when those myths break in on the natural universe to become visible, historical, or sacramental realities. For example, it is the dogma of the Church that the dying and rising god of myth was in history a blue-collar Jew of first-century Palestine. This dogma is one of the cores of Christianity. Without it, you don’t have Christianity anymore. There are other myths that are part of the Christian tradition but about which no dogma is defined. For example, there is no dogma that Adam and Eve ever existed in history, and so orthodox Christians can have several opinions on the subject and yet remain orthodox. Yet, though the Church does not insist that the myth of Adam and Eve has an identifiable point of entry into the real universe, she does insist that the myth is important and relevant because it adequately explains the human condition as one of separation from God brought on by disobedience. All of us consistently and without exception go astray after Adam’s example, and by that demonstrate the reality of what the Church calls original sin. That is, each of us is sinful, and no human being ever achieved a sin-free existence through his willpower. Because of the nature of human existence, it was necessary for the mythic figure of the dying-rising god to become an historic reality. From this description of the Christian gospel, we see why the dying-rising god myth, contrary to the teaching of some misnamed “liberal” theologians, must occur in real history, while the myth of the Fall of Man need not. The Fall of Man, whether or not it can be pinpointed as a specific event, is a visible, real (and therefore historic) reality, however it came about. The redemption of man, therefore, must occur not in mythic space-time but in real space-time. If we agree that the death and resurrection of Christ represents man’s redemption, then it we must agree that both the death and the resurrection of Christ are actual historic events, or else man has had only a mythical, metaphorical redemption and not an actual redemption. Since the Fall of Man is an historic reality whether or not it is an historic event, an historic redemption is necessary. This is why St. Paul wrote bluntly that if Christ has not risen, we are still in our sins (1 Corinthians 15.17).

Myth draws a person out of the natural world in order to return him to it with a new vision. Religion has the same function. The hermit who goes into seclusion and then returns to teach is a good example. Christians have long recognized the value of retreats even for those of us who are not hermits, in which we leave the world temporarily in order to return to it renewed. Something similar happens to all of us every Sunday when we attend Mass. We are caught up into the eternal and constant heavenly liturgy where Christ is still offering his body and blood at the Last Supper. The liturgy of the Church is an intrusion of timeless, ultimate reality into the natural world. After participating in this heavenly liturgy, the Christian returns to that world, able to go about his vocation with renewed vision. That is to say, the liturgy is inherently escapist.

For this reason, timelessness is an inherent and necessary part of Church attitude and Church worship. Though it is untrue to say that the Church does not change, and it is equally untrue to say that the Church cannot grow stuffy, it is nonetheless foolhardy to argue that the Church ought to be more “relevant.” Relevance, as defined by its proponents, typically means faddishness. Many people have the idea that youth will be attracted to Christianity if the music is contemporary or if the liturgy is simple. Speaking as a youth, I think I can say with some authority that no youth (I daresay, no person) comes to a religion for the purpose of relevance, fun, or entertainment, at least not if he intends to stay and be serious about it. He comes, rather, to escape such things as relevance, fun, and entertainment. He comes to find something solid, something permanent. I love the Catholic Church because she has such wonderful, outdated moral strictures that I simply cannot find anywhere else. That the Catholic Church has maintained such grossly unpopular teachings as the immorality of contraception in the face of all the worldly pressures, is indicative of her solidity, her dedication, and her truth. The Catholic Church has decided to follow something more permanent, more important, and ironically, more relevant, than mere relevance. I think it likely that honestly seeking youths are more put off by a religion that strums guitars than a religion that chants quietly and burns incense. They can hear strumming guitars anywhere, but they can only hear chants and smell incense in a place that suggests eternity. In order to attract youth, the proponents of relevance have instituted practices that alienate everybody.

Youths do not read fantasy novels in order to experience the everyday, and they do not go to church to experience the everyday, either. They read fantasy and go to church because they want to escape to something more wonderful, mysterious, and remarkable than the everyday. When they have such extraordinary experiences, they will go back to the everyday and realize that there is no everyday, that everything is extraordinary, that the entire universe bears the imprint of God.

But this revelation of the extraordinariness of the ordinary cannot come, or at least cannot come easily, if a person does not first escape. The liturgy of the Church should facilitate the fulfillment of the escapist impulse, which is identical to the religious impulse, which is identical to the creative impulse. But more on that later.

[1] This comment appears in McConnell’s introduction to Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman: The Kindly Ones (DC Comics, New York, 1996: n. pag.).
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