Mistakes in the Shadowlands

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[This is the final part in a series on CS Lewis, Plato, and the American Protestant Church. See Parts One and Two here] It’s a mistake to think CS Lewis' words and metaphors concerning the Platonic forms and images in Narnia are useful for us as Christians today, at least not without some major qualifications. Using Plato – especially Lewis’ Christianized form of Plato – as a means toward understanding God can lead us into problematic thinking fairly quickly.

Here’s how:

In assuming that our world is somehow an imperfect copy of an ideal, we make an assumption that what we have now matters only insofar as it comes close to that ideal. So, as Mary Kassian said on Wednesday, sex and marriage are merely poorly reflected copies of that ideal; therefore we must practice sex and marriage so that it conforms better to that ideal. They have basically no good within themselves except insofar as they conform to the ideal. She uses the Shadowlands concept to make this point:

God created manhood, womanhood, marriage and sex because He wanted us to have symbols, images and language powerful enough to convey the idea of who He is and what a relationship with Him is all about. These symbols point to profound truths about the Godhead and to Christ’s relationship with the church. Without them, we would have a tough time understanding concepts such as desire, love, commitment, fidelity, infidelity, loyalty, jealousy, unity, intimacy, marriage, oneness, covenant and family. We would have a tough time understanding the Gospel.

The Lord gave us these images so that we would have human thoughts, feelings, experiences and language adequate and powerful enough to understand and express deep spiritual truths. The visible symbols display and testify about what is unseen. They’re temporary symbols that point to eternal spiritual realities. C.S. Lewis called it living in the “shadowlands.” We bring God glory when the shadows we cast here on earth match up with their heavenly counterparts. Sex in the shadowlands is supposed to tell the story of God.

Kassian’s concept of Shadowlands takes the idea of forms and ideals a step too far. Platonic forms are descriptive philosophy, not prescriptive. Plato doesn’t say that we must forever be reaching for that ideal and try to make, say, chairs more perfectly fit the ideal chair that exists in our unconscious mind. No, his philosophy was “this is how it is. We know that a chair is for sitting because we have some idea of what a perfect chair is.” Nothing about how we must make chairs that better fit that ideal. This is because, as I mentioned on Thursday, it is epistemology, not eschatology.

And we, as human beings, are created creatures in order to live our lives, not set up in order to be symbols for something else. Christ already did the symbolic stuff about self-sacrificing love when he died on the cross. We're meant to look to that, not try to make our lives into a perfect symbol for others.  In other words: God didn't create human being to function as symbols of good, but rather create symbols so that humans could better understand created life.

Where Lewis and Kassian both go wrong is that they turn the ideal into something which should be strived for, at the expense of the right now. They reach into the “not yet” kingdom at the expense of the “already.”

But that’s mapping Christian theology onto Plato, and that’s an error – if we’re going to use Plato as a way to explain parts of Christianity, we need to be sparing in our use, or we risk confusing Plato with Scripture, which is the mistake both Kassian and Lewis make (though Lewis at least acknowledges that it’s Plato while Kassian assumes that because Lewis said it, it must be Scriptural [a bad move with anyone, but especially bad with Lewis]).

Because Plato’s world of forms is a function of epistemology, and not prescriptive, it is a double mistake to do what Kassian did and map Platonic forms onto actions. This is Kassian’s largest error. Lewis, at least, stops at objects and persons. Kassian takes it steps further and moves into actions and ways of “living righteously,” which is incredibly dangerous because it assumes that a 21st century understanding of how a certain action can at all resemble an “ideal” supposedly represented in Scripture.

At the risk of diving into a slippery slope fallacy (I’m not), I think there’s a definitional problem here when you take the idea of Shadowlands and apply it to actions. Is there…say, an “ideal” way to poop? Okay, okay, I see the argument there that pooping is a solitary action, and so there’s probably not an ideal there.

So let’s say we draw the line at relational actions. Corporate worship? Is there such a thing as an “ideal” church service? And ideal sermon or liturgy?

Okay, okay, maybe large communal stuff is too varied for there to be a Platonic ideal of that act.

So let’s narrow it back to Kassian’s level – romantic relationships.

Is there an ideal way to enact romantic relationships, particularly the act of sex? Kassian says yes, and she bases her argument on Lewis’ Platonic forms.

But the instant we start saying that there is a Platonic ideal of an action, we run into problems. The ideal is atemporal; sex is an act that is distinctly temporal. The ideal, if we’re mapping this onto Scripture, as a heaven or post-new world hypothesis, says there’s no marriage (Matthew 22)…so how can we imitate the ideal, climatic act of marriage if the ideal doesn’t have marriage to begin with?

It takes a willful ignorance of the Scriptural teachings about the new heaven and new earth to assume that romantic actions are reflections of that ideal world. It twists an analogy around to satisfy a complementarian theology, rather than examining what we know about marriage in the Kingdom of God. It also does human beings a disservice by turning them into symbols, lessons for others, rather than created children of God. It dehumanizes.

It probably seems like overkill that I spent this much and this long on what Kassian probably views as a passing analogy, but her reference and basis for her argument are incredibly common in the evangelical conversation today, and I think we should be equipped with the tools to know when we’re dealing with Plato and when we’re dealing with actual Kingdom work.

Remember, according to Paul, this world matters because it is the one we will have in the future – renewed, yes, but not totally washed away. He also says we will have improved physical bodies in the eschatological kingdom – another reason why wishing for the Platonic ideal can create confusion. And remember, in the eschatological vision of Christ and his Kingdom, the Kingdom is already here among us, not a far-off ideal we have to do our best to imitate.

What does this mean for sex and marriage? It means we stop micromanaging our relationships as though there’s some ideal out there that we’re missing. Jesus gave us a picture of what the ideal looks like: it means loving your neighbor, and loving God. It doesn’t mean trying to make your sex life look like some concept of an ideal that’s more Plato than Gospel.