Friday, January 27, 2006

Perelandra (III): Ransom and the Devil

(Prologue to this series here. Part I here. Part II here.)

What distinguishes the Venus scenario from the previous fall is that an outside agent has been sent to help the woman. Just as the devil comes armed with more sophisticated arguments, a Christian from Earth has been sent to counter them. We saw in the last post how the devil was able to make the Lady entertain the unthinkable -- living on the Fixed Land -- first by capitalizing on her own logic, then by suggesting a murky intent behind the giving of the commandment. The first argument is that

1. To reject any new idea for the sake of a familiar idea is not good (=evil).

Ransom has no hope in arguing against this, since it was he himself who helped the Lady understand it! The problem is that it presumes a closed system of paradise. All people, all things, and all ideas coming from within paradise are good, since evil doesn't exist there. The devil and Ransom are outsiders, but what can the Lady, in her innocence, conclude about outsiders? Why would she have any reason to reject the devil or his ideas? Why should she reject the fruit he is offering for the sake of fruit she is used to? It's a Catch-22, and one that Ransom cannot refute. So he zeroes in on the second part of the devil's argument, that

2. God's will is not always what it seems to be. The commandment about the Fixed Land was given to be broken, so as to empower the Lady to think for herself and stand on her own.

To this Ransom replies --

* It's true that the commandment against living on the Fixed Land is different from other commandments, but this isn't because God secretly wants it to be broken. It's because there must be one commandment obeyed for the sake of obedience alone, in order to taste the joy of obeying. Obedience must amount to more than doing what seems good anyway. (101)

The "joy of obedience" has a tradition in Judaism and Christianity, involving the pleasure which comes from serving God in any way that pleases him. Is this what Rick Brannan has in mind when he states, citing Rom 6, that "one is either a slave to sin or a slave to righteousness...we obey because we are His, not because we happen to agree with His commands at a particular point"?

There is, after all, another way of looking at the matter. In Paradise Lost Adam and Eve's fall doesn't center around the question of joy, but simply "the way things work". From Milton's structural point of view, the proper running of the universe requires unconditional obedience of inferiors to superiors, whether they take joy in it or not. Rom 6 can be pressed into this service too.

Lewis favors the personal over the structural. In Perelandra the issue turns on joy, and Ransom hastens to point out that when Eve broke the ban -- just as the Lady is contemplating doing now -- "no joy came of it" (103). Humanity fell, and "all love was troubled and made cold". But the devil has an immediate response, pointing out that it was precisely because of Adam and Eve's disobedience that God came to Earth in human form, which, to Christians like Ransom, is the greatest event ever. Ransom, chaffing at the "unfairness" of the argument, retorts:

* It's true that no matter what people do, God will make good out of it. But the good he initially prepared for Adam and Eve was forever lost, and what they lost has never been seen. And because of their disobedience, there are people to whom good will never come. (104)

This is an intriguing response, and not entirely consistent with the doctrine of felix culpa, or "happy blame", which teaches that Adam and Eve are to be thanked for their sin which brought Christ to the world. Contrast again with Milton: in Paradise Lost Adam is so overjoyed to learn from the archangel Michael what his disobedience will lead to, that he regards the future Christ event as a "greater good" than having remained sinless in Eden. Lewis appears to be at least somewhat uncomfortable with this business. Ransom acknowledges the doctrine with unease, emphasizing -- contra Milton's angel -- that since people have never seen the good originally intended by God, there is really nothing to compare the Christ event to. (Not to mention all the people who end up being denied salvation because of it.) This implicitly calls into question the idea of the Incarnation being the "greater good".

The Lady has been given much to think about. The problem is that she's innocent and has no knowledge of evil -- and thus, paradoxically, no real knowledge of good. In a perfect world she has little context in which to place the devil's argument and Ransom's counter. Is this perhaps why a fall would result in a "greater good", as the devil suggests? So that human beings will truly awaken and start to live life, now able to make conscious decisions about good and evil, and risk all the heartbreaks, horrors, and hard lessons necessary to grow up and appreciate what is good?

In the next post, we will see what happens in the end.


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