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Iconological Reading

The good S.D. Smith quoted C.S. Lewis at his blog a while back:

…only Supernaturalists really see Nature. You must go a little away from her, and then turn round, and look back. Then at last the true landscape will become visible. You must have tasted, however briefly, the pure water from beyond the world before you can be distinctly conscious of the hot, salty tang of Nature’s current.

Here we have the key to what Lewis (and the other Inklings, and all the Romantics, dating back to S.T. Coleridge) believed about literature. All created things are icons, in some form or another, of spiritual reality. This is what I mean when I talk about “logos epistemology.” It’s the belief that the creative logos, the Word, is within and behind all creation, and all creation points to that Christ/logos. What we can know is all built on the foundation of the logos, to which physical reality points.

At Hutchmoot, Walt Wangerin used the term “nominalistic” in his talk to refer to the mindset of our culture. I almost jumped out of my seat*. The reason ancient interpreters of Scripture sought allegorical and spiritual readings was not that they wanted to make Scripture mean lots of different things, but that they believed (rightly) that human beings know on four levels: surface, moral, allegorical, and anagogical (or mythical/spiritual). Our culture believes that the only level of these four levels we can know for sure is surface: that which the five senses perceives and which can be proved to be true in a laboratory. You know exactly how this looks in our culture: science is “fact,” but you better hold your religious beliefs privately and not expect anyone else to believe them with you.

But this nominalistic thinking – that the physical reality only has surface meaning and nothing beyond it – is severely limiting and dehumanizing, because we are so much more than bare physical fact. This is why embedded in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia septology is planetary symbolism; we experience the deeper levels of reality while interacting with these symbols, even if we don’t understand them. This is why his Ransom trilogy is built on the scaffolding of literary alchemy. We pass through the stages of black (grief/loss), white (purification) and red (eternal life) with Ransom, whether we understand alchemy or not.

This is the exact opposite of gnosticism. It’s not “secret knowledge,” which is more important than the physical symbols, but the belief that the physical symbols do indeed picture reality. In gnosticism, the physical imprisons reality. In logos epistemology, the physical is part of reality and points to the Creator.

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