by Christopher Assenza
In the chapter on Hope, Lewis makes fun of those who reject the Christian idea of Heaven because they don’t want to spend eternity playing harps. “The answer to such people,” he says, “is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them” (p. 121). What is Lewis’s conception of Heaven? What is his view on the right relation between this world and the next? Why does he feel we should we “aim at Heaven” rather than at earth? (p. 119).
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis writes that if we have a desire – a longing for something – satisfaction for that desire must exist: “[a] baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food.” That hunger is a desire and food its answer does not imply that a baby who hungers will always be fed, but it does mean that there is an actual way to satisfy the longing; and, for Lewis, this rule applies to all desires, whether simple (e.g., thirst) or complex (e.g., love). Although a reasonable position, it leaves a difficult question: if we accept the premise that all our desires can indeed be satisfied, what of the desires we have for which no satisfaction is to be found on Earth?
This is why Lewis can so easily dismiss the facetious objector who argues that Heaven is not appealing because it is nothing more than eternal harp playing. Of course that would be boring for all but a few of us. Heaven is serious business and our desire for it is both genuine and appropriate. It manifests time and again in our lives through both the least extraordinary and loftiest of our experiences. Consider, if you will, the following example that you may find familiar.
Not long ago, I reread The Magician’s Nephew. Although I have read it many times before, I was surprised by how deeply I was moved near the end, when Aslan said two simple words to Digory: “Well done.” As the ground shook with the sound of Aslan’s voice, I felt how you might feel when listening to Barber’s Adagio for Strings, seeing the Grand Canyon, or falling in love – it is something like a miserable happiness that you want to repeat over and over again but never quite can in exactly the same way. Lewis called this experience “Joy,” and what he meant by that was the sense of desire we have, or the pangs of longing we feel, for transcendence – indeed, for Heaven itself.
But what about this scene resonates within us to create such longing? Lewis explains that it is in our nature to desire God’s praise: “to please God...to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness…to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son – it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our hearts can hardly sustain. But so it is.” In Aslan’s “Well done,” we get a glimpse of the timeless satisfaction it would bring to receive “the divine accolade,” but as the moment passes, we also experience loss – a loss for something we were made to enjoy for all eternity, and so we immediately desire to know it again.
Of course, one might be tempted to read The Magician’s Nephew over and over to manufacture these feelings, but Lewis warns that it would not work. This is true whether your earthly pleasure comes from a book, sex, art, or anything else: when a man makes an idol of a thing or a pleasure that is otherwise a “copy, or echo, or mirage” of a heavenly fact, he mistakes the thing itself for what it suggests. Invariably, the pleasure, so corrupted, becomes a vice, and nothing but disappointment remains. Alternately, one might decide that this longing was all “moonshine”; imagined as some kind of wish fulfillment that any rational person should resist. But, as Lewis observes, denying our desires is little better than mistaking them for something they are not.
So what are we to do? “The Christian Way,” according to Lewis, holds the answer. We should “make it the main object of life to press on to that other country [Heaven] and to help others do the same.” Lewis reminds us that we are all “immortals,” and that any of us has the potential to be “gods and goddesses,” vessels of glory or of horror. To thus “[a]im at Heaven” is not to neglect earthly concerns, but to elevate our focus beyond them, and in so doing, bring a little of what we discover there back into them. That is the weight of glory; the burden of knowing that our actions can either aid or hinder the right disposition of our neighbor’s soul. Fortunately, when a man has his sights set on Heaven, he can do nothing else except love his neighbor as himself.