“‘But do you really mean, sir,’ said Peter, ‘that there could be other worlds—all over the place, just round the corner—like that? ‘Nothing is more probable,’ said the Professor.”C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, ch. 5
I have a passion for Other Worlds. I long for them with an eager appetite, and devour them when gusto when I find them, and they turn out to be at all worth the trouble. It is why I love sequels and connected universes: for just as any book worth reading is worth reading twice, so any World worth visiting is worth revisiting over and over again.
I am not so very unusual in the Other-Worldly passion, and I find that comforting. Because, you see, I would have to love them, even if I were the only one; but it is so much better to be in the company of those who love them too, to turn to the person next to me, my eyes shining with excitement and joy, and see their eyes shining too. But the passion has not always been valued, and has in fact been under fairly steady attack over the course of the last couple of centuries. And though the passion cannot be quenched, it can be driven underground. So I want to suggest that this passion cannot be hidden under a bushel, because it is not extracurricular, and it is not a mere hobby. Other Worlds are essential.
I am fond of saying that Narnia is ground zero for my imagination. Well, if that is so, then this passage is the impact crater; or rather, it’s the very missile that exploded into my young awareness, destroying everything that came before and launching me on a life of loving imagination and wonder. I heard it when I was too young to separate what is true of other worlds from what is true of our world, and so I believed it completely.
But in our society, growing up has become a process of facing facts, of becoming more realistic. I think this is changing for our children, at least within certain communities. In the 80s, everything was polarized between the disenchanted existentialist despair of mutually assured annihilation and the lawless, sometimes tasteless frenzy of imaginative escapism. Now, parents can look around and find that they have, to borrow an expression, allies in the imagination, in the battle for their child’s imagination: a battle not so much a battle over what will populate it, but over whether they will feel that they are allowed to use it. It was my conversion to Christianity that ultimately saved me from this dichotomy. When I first read the New Testament, I found Professor Kirke’s world of worlds again, and it was our world that was the Wood that connected all the Other Worlds. It is all the evidence I have ever needed for the inspiration and authority of the Scriptural texts.
This longing for Other Worlds is important because the horizon of Christian hope doesn’t lie in this world, but in Another; it is also important for our life in this world. For I am convinced that so long as we do not see other worlds, we will never see our own world properly. This is basically to say that Professor Kirke was right, not just about the England of the Narnia books, but about the England (and therefore the America) of our own space and time. Nothing about our world is “mere,” or “just,” or “only.” It is not self-contained, or sealed, or lonely.
This world of ours is so vast in the micro and macro directions as to be indistinguishable from infinite to our tiny minds. And that is a only near infinity of spaces and individuals. Within each individual there are infinities. You see, the fact of our finitude does not mean that we are not also infinite, because there are very many different ways to be bounded. We are finite in power but infinite in capacity: for we shall never stop experiencing and learning to all eternity, and so there is no end to what we can know. We are finite in our past (because we began to be at some time) but infinite in our future, which will never end. We are finite in each moment of time and yet belong to an infinity of time. We are finite in fact and infinite in meaning.
And this is true not just of us humans, but of every creature. Though they may not share our infinity of time, they nevertheless participate in the infinity of meaning, and the unboundedness of irreplaceability. We weep when a species goes extinct, for now we will never again see a dodo or a tasmanian tiger. But God sees the line of irreplaceability not between species, but between individuals: for Him, the death of one dodo is the tragedy of the death of all dodos. Every one who has loved a pet knows this truth: when my cat dies, or may or may not get another cat. The one thing I will never do because I could never do it is replace my cat. What was true of that stable on a hill in the last days of Narnia, and what Lucy so queenfully said of that stable in Bethlehem, is true also of every creature: its inside is bigger than its outside.
We have discovered countless multitudes, and yet we cannot fathom any of the individuals that make up that multitude. We know of more than 5000 planets, and suspect that there are 100 billion times 100 billion planets. And yet, of our own planet, we have explored perhaps 78% of the land, and 22% of the oceans. Of the life that inhabits this planet, we have discovered perhaps about 24%.
And as Professor Kirke’s uncle, the magician, reminds us, this is all still our world: we could get to these other planets if we went far enough. Truly Other Worlds cannot be found by the telescope, nor reached by the warp drive; they require a different manner of conception to bring into focus. This suggests that reason alone is not sufficient to explore Creation. Fortunately for us, reason is never alone. It is always attended by and directed by the imagination, which can reduce impossible distances to nothing, and stretch trivial distances to infinity. It is what is required to see our world rightly, because our world so often frustrates and shatters our expectations of it. We need imagination to keep the soil of our hearts receptive to the new, the unexpected, and the marvelous.
And so, not just as a reader, but as a theologian, I must feed myself on a steady diet of Other Worlds. And as a parent and teacher, it is my passion, duty, and privilege to invite others into those worlds with me. So much of shepherding the hearts and minds of children falls under the heading not of the pedagogue (the “child-leader”), but of the mystagogue (the tour guide).
NOTE: Junius is teaching his literary courses on dragons this summer for the whole family: the same course, with overlapping reading lists, taught a three different age levels: 8-12, 13-18, and 18+. The idea is that the whole family can take them together and gather for conversation outside of class about the books they’re reading and the ideas they are bringing up. Here’s the promo video:
Featured image by upklyak.
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