Long before Aslan bounded onto the literary scene, C.S. Lewis was already smuggling theology into his works of popular fiction. The Ransom Trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength, was published between 1938 and 1945 and follows the interplanetary adventures of philologist Elwin Ransom. The stories cast the cosmos and the struggles between good and evil in a mythological light. Individual human actors and their choices bear responsibility for the fall or restoration of entire worlds. Lewis packs these stories with Christian ideas, such as the doctrine of objective value, the spiritual realities behind male and female, the nature of sin and temptation, and the relationship between divine sovereignty and free will. One often misunderstood idea from Christian theology that Lewis illustrates for his readers, particularly through rich psychological portrayals in Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, is the virtue of faith.

Faith is an easily misunderstood doctrine. Many believe that to “have faith” means to be credulous or irrationally hopeful. Faith is seen as filling in for lack of evidence, as the ability to believe even against the evidence. Mark Twain is alleged to have said, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”[1] Some, stung by the darkness and difficulty in the world, even claim to envy this sort of faith, seeing it as a sort of placebo, self-fulfilling prophecy, coping mechanism, or perhaps even as an effectual drug.

But this is not Lewis’s conception of faith at all. Lewis rejects the idea that anyone should believe Christianity against the weight of all the good evidence.[2] According to Lewis, “The virtue of faith comes not from believing against the evidence of reason, but persisting in belief based on reason against the temptations of emotion and imagination.”[3] Further, a second but related sort of faith is working to do what is right to the point where one realizes fully their dependence on Christ. “All this trying leads up to the vital moment at which you turn to God and say, ‘You must do this. I can’t.’”[4] These two concepts are vitally important for Christians and would-be Christians to understand, yet they are not part of the popular lexicon regarding faith. All too frequently “faith” goes undefined from the pulpits. These are the two senses of the word faith that Lewis dramatizes in his Ransom trilogy, even borrowing some of the same analogies from his Christian Behavior talk.

A memorable scene in Out of the Silent Planet illustrates both senses of faith: Ransom’s journey from the hrossa to see Oyarsa at Meldilorn. Ransom meets the hrossa, a kind, rational species, after escaping from the kidnappers who took him to Malacandra (Mars). Ransom learns their language and lives with them for a few months. On several occasions, the hrossa recommend he travel to see Oyarsa, Malacandra’s guiding spiritual ruler, at Meldilorn where he resides. But Ransom, quite comfortable where he is and fearful of all around him, resists their recommendations. Finally, after a moment of tragedy in which his host is murdered by the two other visitors from earth, Ransom follows the orders of both an eldil (an angelic messenger) and the hrossa to go to Meldilorn.

Ransom’s temptation to give up and his determination to follow his duty anyway serves as a powerful illustration of faith. He rejects the “irrational instinct” to give himself up, knowing that it is probably a trick “his nerves were now playing on him.”[5] When he is later feeling discouraged on the road, he is driven on by “the old resolution, taken when he could still think.” [6] The nature of that resolution bears the rational and humble marks of both kinds of faith. Lewis describes Ransom’s situation:

In any case he was determined henceforward to obey the hrossa and eldila. His efforts to rely on his own judgement in Malacandra had so far ended tragically enough. He made a strong resolution, defying in advance all changes of mood that he would faithfully carry out the journey to Meldilorn if it could be done.[7]

This passage illustrates what it looks like for a man to resolve to believe against any change of mood. His resolve is bolstered by a smattering of psychology but even more so by a greater sense of duty. He has committed himself to beliefs that he thinks are reasonable and will stick to them even when they appear untenable, which he reasonably anticipates will come. Still further, Ransom recognizes the moral superiority of his hosts and the eldila whom his hosts follow. He commits himself to following these better guides, recognizing their judgement to be superior to his own and their right to direct him.

The rest of Out of the Silent Planet vindicates Ransom’s faith. Up until this point in the story, Ransom is plagued by irrational fears and prejudices that lead him into making bad decisions. Faith allows him to accomplish a task that may otherwise have been beyond his ability. It results in his reaching the destination he should have gone to from the beginning, had he not struggled, and ultimately enables him to journey home again. His acts of faith release him from fear, and this leads to ultimately better outcomes.

Perelandra presents an even fuller version of a faith conflict, invoking a larger spiritual dimension while remaining a very realistic depiction of human struggle. Lewis, as a character in the story, is the principal actor in the first scene. Lewis is journeying to visit his friend Dr. Ransom, for “business,” which he understands to mean business relating to Dr. Ransom’s interplanetary affairs since returning from Malacandra. In the short walk from the train station to Ransom’s house, Lewis finds himself assailed by all kinds of doubts and fears that are contrary to reason. He fears getting “drawn in” to the conflict he knows Ransom to be a part of.[8] He has forgotten his pack on the train, which has already moved on, and yet wants to start retracing his steps.[9] He starts to question whether Ransom really knows the powers that he is dealing with, whether he might be a dupe. Once again he feels the “impulse to go no farther,” and a voice whispers to him “Go back, go back.”[10] Lewis observes, “The strength of the feeling astonished me.”[11] When he realizes how irrational he has been, he starts to fear for his mental health, and this becomes another excuse to turn back. Then he begins to fear that Ransom may not even be a dupe, but rather in league with the enemy, a fear which again brings him to a standstill. When Lewis finally makes it to the door of Ransom’s house, he is met with a note informing him of Ransom’s temporary absence, with the effect that “immediately the impulse to retreat, which had already assailed me several times, leaped upon me with a sort of demoniac violence.”[12] Throughout this episode of traveling to Ransom’s house, Lewis’s reason is assaulted by irrational emotions and doubts that tempt him to turn aside from the path he knows is right.

On the surface, what keeps Lewis going is his will allying itself with his reason against his emotion and imagination. Lewis writes that what turns him back from going back to retrieve his pack — which can be accomplished just as much through a phone call from the house as a return to the station — is that “reason or conscience awoke and set me once more plodding forwards.”[13] Responding to his concern that Ransom is a dupe, Lewis must tell himself not to be a fool in order to get himself moving again. Whether Ransom is a traitor — an idea he admits is “contrary to reason” — he is saved in part by the fact that “the rational part of my mind, even at that moment, knew perfectly well that even if the whole universe were crazy and hostile, Ransom was sane and wholesome and honest.”[14] Upon finding the note, he is only saved from the impulse to return  because “something better came into my mind — some rag of sanity and some reluctance to let Ransom down.”[15] The whole passage is an incredibly realistic depiction of human psychology that Lewis’s readers could understand and relate to.

What sets this Perelandra scene apart from the Out of the Silent Planet scene, besides its length, is the revelation that the seemingly inner conflict is actually beset by interested spiritual forces. When Ransom finally arrives home, he asks Lewis:

“I say — you’re all right, aren’t you? You got through the barrage without any damage?”

“The barrage? — I don’t understand.”

“I was thinking you would have met some difficulties in getting here.”

“Oh, that! Said I. “You mean it wasn’t just my nerves? There really was something in the way?”

“Yes. They didn’t want you to get here. I was afraid something of the sort might happen but there was no time to do anything about it. I was pretty sure you’d get through somehow.”[16]

Like Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, which had come out a year before, Lewis is advising his readers on the nature of faith in the midst of spiritual conflict. Because the scenes of panic on the trip to the door are so lucid and realistic, Ransom’s interpretation can be easily applied to the conflicts experienced by many of Lewis’s readers. Just as most modern men aren’t really familiar with the Christian conception of “faith,” so most modern men don’t really understand what is meant by spiritual warfare. They may have some vague image of ghosts or séances or foaming at the mouth seizures, and since these seem distant or unrealistic, they write off spiritual forces as irrelevant to their daily lives. But everyone experiences ideas coming into their head without knowing from whence they came. Lewis’s story suggests that it is not unreasonable to believe that such ideas have been influenced by outside spiritual forces. The two introductory chapters clue the readers into the overall theme of faith in the midst of spiritual conflict that is present throughout the book.

Perelandra goes further in depicting the faith challenges of Ransom, a mature and spiritually aware believer, during his conflicts with the satanic force present in the character of the “Un-man.” Ransom has traveled through deep heaven and conversed with angelic beings. He is already well aware of the tension between emotion and reason, as he tells Lewis when he’s asked about whether he is comfortable with the arrangements for his conveyance to Perelandra:

If you mean, Does my reason accept the view that he will (accidents apart) deliver me safe on the surface of Perelandra?—the answer is Yes,” said Ransom. “If you mean, Do my nerves and my imagination respond to this view?—I’m afraid the answer is No. One can believe in anesthetics and yet feel in a panic when they actually put the mask over your face. I think I feel as a man who believes in the future life feels when he is taken out to face a firing party. Perhaps it’s good practice.[17]

By setting up Ransom as a mature believer, Lewis shows that even spiritually mature believers require faith to endure inevitable trials.

One such trial, described as “an assault on Ransom’s faith,” is the experience of loneliness and smallness that confronts Ransom out on the high seas of Perelandra (Venus) during his pursuit of the Un-man.[18] In his angst — entirely unconnected to any new rational challenge to his faith — Ransom finds himself struggling against ideas he has previously rejected and personally experienced as false. He finds himself believing in what he has previously called “the great myth of our century with its gases and galaxies, its light years and evolutions, its nightmare perspectives of simple arithmetic in which everything that can possibly hold significance for the mind becomes the mere by-product of essential disorder.”[19] He believes the universe is too big and empty for mankind, or Venus-kind, to matter. Ransom is not completely overcome, for, “Even now, his reason was not quite subdued, though his heart would not listen to his reason. Part of him still knew that the size of a thing is its least important characteristic.”[20] One chapter later, it is revealed that the doubts plaguing Ransom have at least, to some extent, been “poured into his mind by the enemy’s will,” revealing that even spiritually-attuned Christians are susceptible to direct spiritual attack, though they are also equipped to resist them.[21]

Ransom’s response is illustrative of how Christians should respond to spiritual assault: “The knowledge that his thoughts could be thus managed from without did not awake terror but rage…‘Do you think I’m going to stand this?’ He yelled. ‘Get out of my brain. It isn’t yours, I tell you! Get out of it.”[22] When confronted with unreasonable doubts, Ransom brings his will and his passion to the aid of his reason in order to bolster his resistance. He also invokes God, before engaging in direct battle with the Un-man: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, here goes–I mean Amen.”[23]

Lewis wants Christians to know that faith is necessary to face the changing moods of life. He writes in Mere Christianity that “moods will change, whatever view your reason takes. I know that by experience. Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable.” He concludes, “That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods ‘where they get off’, you can never be . . .a sound Christian.”[24] This idea of the need for even strong Christians to have faith in the midst of undulating moods, aptly illustrated by Ransom’s experience on Perelandra, is important because it gives Christians permission to struggle with doubts, and it lets new believers and would-be believers know what to anticipate.

A final passage from Perelandra illustrates the second sense of the word faith that Lewis would have everyone understand, that of recognizing our personal bankruptcy and our total dependence on God. Ransom has been struggling with the Un-man, who is attempting to tempt the Eve figure of Perelandra into disobeying the command of Maleldil. Ransom has been trying to help her resist temptation but is running out of stamina and believes “this can’t go on.” “I’ve done all I can,” he laments, “I’ve talked till I’m sick of it.”[25] He is initially able to find solace in believing that the results of the trial do not depend on him, that it is all in the hands of Maleldil, and that he must simply have “Faith…” when the illusion snaps.[26] It is true that his own efforts are weak and faltering, but this recognition is meant to push him into further reliance on Maleldil and produce a commitment to persist in His power at the task set before him. Admitting spiritual bankruptcy may seem like a recipe for despair or depravity, but in the context of the Christian faith, it is what drives people to dependence on God, and it is through His strength that they are then enabled to persevere in faith.

Faith is a difficult concept to grasp for post-enlightenment men. Lewis’s depictions of faith in the Ransom Trilogy are realistic, helping people to see the virtue in faith, rather than a sort of wish-fulfillment fantasy or confirmation bias. In fact, Lewis turns the tables, showing that Faith is essential to overcoming the various irrational forces that would drive people from their rationally held beliefs, including their religious beliefs. And within Lewis’s depictions he leaves room for Christians and non-Christians to understand how faith may be played out in practice.

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Citation Information

Josiah Peterson, “Illustrating Faith,” An Unexpected Journal 3, no. 2. (Summer 2020), 29-54.

Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com/illustrating-faith/


Endnotes

[1] Mark Twain, “Mark Twain quotations,” TwainQuotes.com/faith

[2] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper One, 2000), 140.

[3] Ibid., 140.

[4] Ibid., 146.

[5] C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (New York: Scrivener, 2003), 85.

[6] Ibid., 88.

[7] C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (New York: Scrivener, 2003), 85.

[8] C.S. Lewis, Perelandra (New York: Scribner, 2003), 10.

[9] Ibid., 11.

[10] Ibid., 12.

[11] Ibid., 12.

[12] Ibid., 15.

[13] Ibid., 11.

[14] Ibid., 13.

[15] Ibid., 15.

[16] Ibid., 20.

[17] Ibid., 24. This memorable analogy of anesthetics is a pretty overt allusion to Lewis’s discussion of persisting faith in the BBC Broadcast Talks on the topic of Faith:

For example, my reason is perfectly convinced that properly trained surgeons do not start until I am unconscious. But that does not alter the fact that when they have me down on the table and clap their horrible mask over my face, a mere childish panic begins inside me. I start thinking I am going to choke, and I am afraid they will start cutting me up before I am properly under. In other words, I lose my faith in anesthetics.

Lewis, Mere Christianity, 139.

[18] Lewis, Perelandra, 139.

[19] Lewis, Perelandra, 140.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 155.

[22] Ibid..

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 140-1.

[25] Lewis, Perelandra, 120.

[26] Ibid.

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