The World Without Story
When journalist Alex Renton's six year-old daughter Lulu asked her parents to send the letter she penned to God, Renton had to stop to consider all the possibilities. Renton is an atheist. And while he does not see himself keeping company with the "angry atheists of our time," he was less than pleased by this invasion of Lulu's moral imagination by primary school teachers who see God and mathematics with equal certainty. One of the easiest responses would have been simply to have the talk on religion a little earlier than they imagined, to sit Lulu down and tell her that the letter could not be sent because God does not exist. "We would have said that [God] was invented by human beings, because they were rather puzzled by life and death and some other problems in between," writes Renton. But to give Lulu that answer seemed to him almost self-indulgent, more about his own scruples than Lulu's wellbeing. The decision, he felt, was a complicated one: shield your child from delusion or protect their innocence as they learn about the world at their own pace.
In short, what was at stake for Lulu was an issue of imagination. While God, to Renton, is on imaginary par with the tooth fairy or Father Christmas, a delusion full of wishful thinking, he also knows it to be at times a beautiful delusion. And while he found himself proud of Lulu's budding rationalist sensibilities even amidst her supernatural curiosity—her letter simply read, "To God, How did you get created? From Lulu, XO"—he was less than pleased with the teachers he believed were fueling this part of her imagination. Yet he was simultaneously torn by the dismissal of everything that imagination entailed:
"The Bible, taken highly selectively, is of course a pretty good introduction to the humanist moral system in which I'd like to see my children play a part. I have a copy of A. C. Grayling's new 'secular bible': a wonderful enterprise, but it lacks the songs and the stories."(1)
Convinced that Christianity posits an imaginary world, Renton laments nonetheless a world entirely without the imagination with which Christianity nurtures. The songs and stories and the beauty of a world filled with God is one in which a child—and even her rationally minded parents—can naturally delight. A world without that imagination is one to mourn on a very real level.
Renton's dilemma is one in which C.S. Lewis the atheist would have deeply resonated, though it was not until sometime after his conversion to Christianity that he was able to put his struggle between the rational and the imaginative into words. As his biographers have well documented, imagination and the imaginary boldly colored Lewis's childhood—from his own chivalric adventures in Animal-Land, which allowed the young Lewis to combine his two chief pleasures—"dressed animals" and "knights in armor"—to his growing affections for fairy tales and dwarves, music and poetry, Nature and Norse Mythology. For the young Clive Lewis, who announced at the age of four that he would hitherto be going by the name "Jacksie," imagination quickly took a dominant role, his first delight in myth and story eventually turning into a scholar's interest in them.
Yet unlike Alex Renton who notes admiration for the songs and stories of faith, Lewis was quite underwhelmed with the Christian imagination. "[T]he externals of Christianity made no appeal to my sense of beauty... Christianity was mainly associated for me with ugly architecture, ugly music, and bad poetry."(2) He read and admired the mind of Chesterton, the verse of Milton, and the imagination of MacDonald, but only in spite of their Christianity.
On the other hand, Lewis's imaginative life was not something that could be readily claimed by his rationalism, materialism, or his atheism either. Quite the contrary, in fact, Lewis sensed throughout his adolescence that this imaginative part of his mind had been necessarily cut off from the analytical. He had "on the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow 'rationalism.'" It made for a rather gloomy outlook on reality, as Lewis notes, for "nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless."(3) This need to further himself from the imaginary would continue to rear its head as he delved further into the fierce rationalism of his teacher Mr. Kirkpatrick and upon efforts to assume a new intellectual presence at Oxford. Describing his first two years, Lewis notes his resolve to give up any such flirtations with the imaginary, which simultaneously gave way to "more unhappiness and anxiety."
Yet what Lewis would come to discover in time was not that he had "seen through" these stories—Avalon and Hesperides and Elfland—but that by them he had learned to see. Like G.K. Chesterton, whose fierce intellect Lewis had once admired despite his Christianity, Lewis came to see that he, too, "had always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story there is a story-teller."(4)
Notably, Alex Renton's initial discomfort toward the meddling with his daughter's imagination gave way to another idea. Instead of sitting Lulu down and trying to explain that God was not taking letters because God was not real, he decided the burden of proof rested elsewhere. He decided that since Lulu's letter was of the making of Christians, they should bear the burden of providing her with an answer. He asked his Christian friends first, who weren't very helpful, followed by several professionals to whom he sent a jpeg of Lulu's letter to God. Two of the denominational leaders did not reply. One sent a letter that seemed to him theologically sound, but not very conducive to a six year-old's imagination. The last reply came from Lambeth Palace in the form of an email from then Archbishop Rowan Williams himself. Penned to Lulu, Williams agreed her question was a difficult one, but suggested that God might reply a bit like this:
"Dear Lulu—Nobody invented me—but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised. They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was really beautiful or really mysterious and wondered where it came from. They discovered me when they were very very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn't expected.
Then they invented ideas about me—some of them sensible and some of them not so sensible. From time to time I sent them some hints—specially in the life of Jesus to help them get closer to what I'm really like.
But there was nothing and nobody around before me to invent me. Rather like someone who writes a story in a book, I started making up the story of the world and eventually invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions!"
And then he said that God would send her lots of love and sign off. "I know he doesn't usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf. Lots of love from me too."(5)
Renton and Lulu were both sincerely touched, the thoughtful reply meaning much more than he ever expected. And Lulu especially liked the part about "God's Story," confessed Renton. A world without that Story—and the songs and stories that accompany it—is indeed something to mourn.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Alex Renton, "A letter to God—and a reply from Lambeth," The Times, April 21, 2011.
(2) Lewis, C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (Orlando: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1955), 172.
(3) Ibid., 170.
(4) G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Chicago: Ortho Publishing, 2013), 55.
(5) "A letter to God—and a reply from Lambeth."