Synaxis of the Twelve Holy Apostles
EVERY ONCE in a while you come across an idea or principle that does a lot of work, one that is endlessly malleable and applicable to all sorts of different situations. It has a lot of explanatory power. The best of these bore all the way down to the very stuff of life; they explain the very way the world works. And at first they’re so bracing because not only do they tell you how the world works, but they also reorient it for you at the same time. They have the capacity to rearrange the furniture of your mind.
One of the most enduring of these for me is C. S. Lewis’s famous dictum from the chapter “Hope” in Mere Christianity: “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.” It’s so famous, in fact, that it’s verging on becoming a cliché.
But like I said, it does a lot of work. It’s a stand-in for an entire worldview. Once you reorient your way to seeing things this way, you see that the world actually works this way. It explains things. Here’s the quote in context.
Hope is one of the Theological virtues. This means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth “thrown in”: aim at earth and you will get neither.
Part of what makes the idea so compelling is that it’s so counterintuitive—at least to us moderns—which is why it’s so bracing once you start to look at the world that way. Everything starts falling into place in a way it didn’t before. Lewis gives an example, one that I think is germane to the goals of the Eighth Day Institute: “We shall never save civilisation if civilisation is our main object. We must learn to want something else even more.” Lewis’s point is, I think, that this world is necessarily incomplete. The idea can only make sense if it’s true that heaven—the supernatural, the kingdom of God, God himself—is this world’s true completion, its telos, its raison-d’être. It’s heaven that gives this world its true meaning. Without heaven, this world dissolves into meaninglessness and nihilism, as the twentieth century bears out. Aiming to save civilization for the sake of civilization will only short circuit the process, chip away at the foundation, shoot itself in the foot. The supernatural telos of the love of God is missing, and therefore so is the world’s true meaning.
When I got to ruminating on this idea to write this reflection, I realized that Lewis is treading in the footsteps of St. Augustine. In On Christian Doctrine, Augustine develops the idea that we humans enjoy things and we use things. What he means is that the things we use point beyond themselves to the enjoyment of other things. We use tools to build a table so that we might enjoy sitting at it to eat a meal. But in a more ultimate sense, only God is to be properly enjoyed. The things of this world are only to be used for the enjoyment of God. Now we might think of this as a baldly utilitarian understanding of the material world that only confirms the idea that Christians undervalue it, that Christians are so heavenly minded they’re of no earthly good. But that’s not the way Augustine meant it, and it’s not the way the Christian tradition has understood it. “Use” in Augustine’s Latin doesn’t carry the connotations of abuse it does in English. Furthermore, if we grant that God created the world for enjoyment of Him, then to “use” the material world for ends outside of the enjoyment of God is actually what constitutes their “abuse.”
On this view, everything becomes a vessel of the supernatural. Everything God has created—and remember for Augustine (as for all the church fathers), evil is not a creation, but a privation of the good, like a hole in the ground—has been created to enable our enjoyment of God. The material world is both gift and sign. It’s a gift from God that reveals God, and it’s a sign that points beyond itself back to him. But it does more than point: it contains within itself the thing it points to. God is both present in and infinitely beyond His creation. That is to say, the world is sacramental.
Lewis’s dictum draws on this Augustinian capital. To neglect heaven—the supernatural, God himself—is to do violence to the created order as it has been given to us. Aiming at the earth, as Lewis puts it, both rejects the divine gift and attempts to destroy it at the same time. So caution is warranted. The Church Calendar (another thing Eighth Day Institute is highly attuned to!) builds in an ebb and flow of feasting and fasting, which I think speaks to the push and pull of the already/not yet paradox of the world’s sacramentality. We dare not hold on to the things of this world too tightly, but neither can we let go of them altogether. Lewis, in the same chapter in Mere Christianity, says that if the world is truly built this way, “I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find until after death.”
If this is indeed the way the world has been created, then we would expect to see it reflected in the world around us. And I think it is. You can replace the terms “heaven” and “earth” in Lewis’s dictum with almost anything and it rings true: aim for intimacy with your spouse and you’ll get sexual fulfillment thrown in. Aim for sexual fulfillment without intimacy and you’ll get neither. Aim to be financially generous with others and you’ll get contentment in this life thrown in. Aim for contentment in this life alone and you’ll get neither. Still in the same chapter Lewis sums up:
Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.
These little parables are sprinkled throughout our world. And why shouldn’t they be? That’s how the world was made.
Jeff Reimer is a freelance editor and writer based in Newton, Kansas.