A Treaty with Reality
Whether filing our taxes, writing a research paper, or following up with the doctor, we often try to avoid as long as possible what we don’t want to do or to think about. We may chalk this up to mere procrastination, the putting off of a difficult or unpleasant task. But sometimes, could it be that we wish to guard ourselves from anticipated pain or from ideas and experiences we’d rather not explore?
C.S. Lewis confesses that he made “a treaty with reality” to navigate around the trauma he witnessed in World War 1. He writes, “I put the war on one side to a degree which some people will think shameful and some incredible. Others will call it a flight from reality. I maintain that it was rather a treaty with reality, the fixing of a frontier.” Although Lewis authored over three dozen books, only briefly in Surprised By Joy does he recall “the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses, the landscape of sheer earth without a blade of grass.” Instead, “[A]ll this shows rarely and faintly in memory. It is too cut off from the rest of my experience and often seems to have happened to someone else.”
In his biography C.S. Lewis: A Life, colleague Alister McGrath observes, “Lewis spun a cocoon around himself, insulating his thoughts…. The world could be kept at bay—and this was best done by reading, and allowing the words and thoughts of others to shield him from what was going on around him.”
Given his wartime experience as well as the early death of his mother, it is understandable that Lewis (and others who have known similar loss or trauma) would want to distance himself from the events that occurred. And yet, he acknowledges that sadly much of his life was characterized by avoidance: “I had always wanted, above all things, not to be ‘interfered with.’ I had been far more anxious to avoid suffering than to achieve delight. I had always aimed at limited liabilities.”
As the proverbial saying goes, “The truth will set you free.” In fact, those are Jesus’s very words in John 8. He is speaking to those who “believed in him,” who call God their Father. They believe they see reality clearly and understand who God is. Jesus challenges them, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (verses 31-32).
With a curious oversight regarding their painful history with Egypt and Babylon, let alone their current oppression under Rome, they quickly reply, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” Jesus responds, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you” (see verses 33-37).
Jesus says literally, “My word finds no room in you.” Seemingly unaware, those who claim to believe try to shut every door and window to the nature of God that Jesus is disclosing. They want to guard themselves from what they cannot or do not want to see. Jesus seeks to open up their hearts with a question and its answer: “Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word” (verse 43). Moreover, He tells them they are willing to do whatever it takes to get rid of this source of disruption.
The late Greg Bahnsen, who was a brilliant Christian apologist, observed, “We at times hear people declare ‘I cannot believe that’ (e.g., a close relative has been convicted of a heinous crime), but we all realize that the ‘cannot’ here should be interpreted as ‘will not’—because one does not want it to be true, cannot emotionally afford to admit it, thinks it is his duty to resist it, or lacks the intellectual energy to rise to the occasion.”
We often swing between belief and unbelief because deep down, like C.S. Lewis, we don’t want to be “interfered with.” We want freedom and truth on our own terms, because we recognize, as one author remarks, “The truth makes us free but first it makes us miserable.”
Notice that not wanting to believe serves to protect the individual from the painful reality before him or her. Such a position of denial keeps us from looking directly at the truth, whether this relates to our recurring fears, unrequited questions, or even long-awaited hopes. This “involves adopting an avoidance policy whereby one purposefully chooses to stay ignorant of some engagement in the world.” In his seminal work Self-Deception, philosopher Herbert Fingarette argues that such willful ignorance lies at “the deep paradox of self-deception.” The self-deceived person “persuades himself to believe contrary to the evidence in order to evade, somehow, the unpleasant truth to which he has already seen that the evidence points.”
The apostle John has sometimes been reproached for his unsympathetic treatment of “Abraham’s offspring,” but I think a careful reading of his Gospel reveals that he records Jesus presenting a universal portrait of humanity. Indeed, he uses simple language and contrasting categories such as light and darkness, life and death to show that we are all prone to respond to God in a similar manner. As Bahnsen writes, “There is something of a cognitive mess at the core of our lives. We are inconsistent in our choices, incoherent in our convictions, persuaded where we ought not to be, and deluded that we know ourselves transparently.”We often swing between belief and unbelief because deep down, like C.S. Lewis, we don’t want to be “interfered with.” We want freedom and truth on our own terms, because we recognize, as one author remarks, “The truth makes us free but first it makes us miserable.”
Yet one night, Lewis encounters “The reality with which no treaty can be made.” He comes to discover that the joy he has longed for, the fleeting shadows of which he has traced since childhood, is actually a person: God. And, as the title of his early memoir reveals, he is surprised.
Lewis finds, like countless others have, that the gospel challenges him in ways that he needed—and even dared hope: “The words compelle intrare, compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.”
Danielle DuRant is Director of Research and Writing at RZIM.