Note: This essay was originally published on Conciliar Post.
The first time I met a lion in the flesh was on a playground in suburban Nashville. I must have been only five or six years old when the enormous golden cougar peered out from its perch on the edge of the little park, its lithe, muscular body stretching out behind its curious face. Next to it was another feline comrade, an exotic, ebony-black wildcat, lying gracefully alongside the more familiar mountain lion. As would be revealed later, the pair were escapees of a local enthusiast’s private zoo. The sight of such creatures provoked a panicked frenzy amongst the parents and babysitters present, who snatched up all the surrounding children and made frantic dashes for the awaiting safety of cars in the adjacent parking lot. Naturally, my mother joined in, catching my siblings and me up into this fervent exodus, but not before I had taken in a good, long look at the alien creatures.
Too young and innocent to be appropriately fearful, I was instead transfixed. I was, for the first time in my nascent life, aware of a power beyond my own, a sort transcending anything I had encountered up to that point. In these magnificent beasts I beheld beauty and power unbridled by any force I could explain, free to roam in the untamed world beyond the borders of my youthful suburban existence. The occurrence crystallized a corner of my imagination that still shimmers with the bright light of delighted wonder whenever I revisit it.
This is precisely the sort of occurrence which, when it comes to the true Aslan, is so hard-won. Everything around us is built to protect us from an encounter with anything potent or dynamic, anything transcendent, and instead provides us with a panoply of information that amounts to little meaning. We live in a culture of skeptics and stoics. We are lacking the middle ground: the souls—those who know by mind and heart; by reason and experience. Those who have encountered lions.
C.S. Lewis, at the end of his essay, “Men Without Chests,” remarks that “The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment—these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man; for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.”1 Speaking to his generation, he sees men who have had their chests, the vitality of their beliefs and the potency of their convictions, removed, so that what remains is a conflation of reason and instinct.
Our world is even a few steps further down the path from Lewis’s society. Our own modernity has produced a generation that has access to an immense wealth of information, but lacks the ability to understand or contextualize it. Ours is a culture which, lacking the quickening of good behavior through moral truth bathed in beauty, has positivized the behavior itself as good, and drawn forth its concept of beauty accordingly. Truth becomes a mere side note, a means to the end of confirming those subjective biases. What remains is a disordered society, cast forth in an unquenchable desire for that which it no longer comprehends or believes to be efficacious, namely, the living breathing lion himself: Christ.
In Mere Christianity, Lewis phrases this need for something more than intellectual assent to faith in a different way: “For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.”2 Lewis’s “men without chests” see truth claims as they would observe stuffed beasts in a diorama of a natural science museum; inanimate and harmless, a mere anecdote. They have forgotten that such beasts exist, hunting prey in the open wild; noble, savage, and unsafe. What such men need is not simply to be told that such animals exist, but rather to encounter them in the flesh, to be visited by fear, awe, and wonder in the presence of something so unsafe and mysterious. They need not simply be told lions are real; they must encounter Aslan himself.
How do we as Christians draw those around us, those who have not met the lion—often those even within our own walls—out of the museum and into the wild? Gerard Manley Hopkins shows the way:
“I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”3
Many may not yet be prepared for true baptism; let us then, in Lewis’s phraseology, “baptize their imaginations” first; let us use our creativity and artistry to shock them awake, captivating them with the extravagance of beauty. Let us so cultivate the soil of such a person’s soul with the sublime, that when the seed of truth is laid deep in the ground, its roots find a rich and nurturing earth in which to grow.
How can we accomplish such a thing? We ourselves must walk into the dark unknown, leaving the protective walls of the known and the tangible, seeking Aslan in the wild. Yes, the fruits of that encounter may open us up to things beyond our control; and yet the deep well from which those things emerge, the wild and untamed Spirit within us, is, after all, a God who is not safe, but is very good. It is only in that encounter that we will be able to climb up onto the back of Aslan himself, pressing forward without reserve into whatever lies ahead, flying into the storm while we clutch the lion’s mane.
Every encounter, from the most menial of tasks to the grandest of accomplishments, bears unimaginable potential for the creative enfleshing of Christ. Every stroke of a sponge across a dirty plate has as much capacity to participate in the cosmic dance of the divine as does a stroke on a canvas. Let our culture be met with Christians who gather for delicious feasts and enjoy food and drink heartily; who persevere in a difficult marriage; who delight in the transcendence of nature; who grieve well; who celebrate with joy. Let us paint, sing, practice law, fix pipes, preach, bag groceries, and study philosophy as if we have been captured by something great and beautiful and true.
Perhaps as we walk that path in the world around us, through Jesus’ incarnation in us, those around us most in need of his presence will catch a glimpse of the lion in our eyes—eyes which see anew the glory of God’s wild, wonderful world.