C.S. Lewis: “All Reality is Iconoclastic”

On November 22nd, the anniversary of C.S. Lewis’ death, I am revisiting the book he wrote after the death of his wife titled, A Grief Observed.

The section that interests me most this evening is about loving God and persons rather than merely our ideas or images of them. Here is the relevant excerpt:

It doesn’t matter that all the photographs of H. are bad. It doesn’t matter—not much—if my memory of her is imperfect. Images, whether on paper or in the mind, are not important for themselves. Merely links. Take a parallel from an infinitely higher sphere. […]*

I need Christ, not something that resembles Him. I want H., not something that is like her. […]

My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins. And most are ‘offended’ by the iconoclasm; and blessed are those who are not. But the same thing happens in our private prayers.

All reality is iconoclastic. The earthly beloved, even in this life, incessantly triumphs over your mere idea of her. And you want her to; you want her with all her resistances, all her faults, all her unexpectedness. That is, in her foursquare and independent reality. And this, not any image or memory, is what we are to love still, after she is dead.

*Ellipses for better theology

This very much reminds me of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s reflection on idealism about which he said, “Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had spread sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams.”

These insights are worth bearing in mind particularly because we have all had so many of our relationships ‘idealized’ insofar as they have been mediated by technology and we often connect on our own terms and schedules. Then the time comes, often, when we are reunited and, after some initial euphoria, we disappoint one another. The realities of life together side-by-side sometimes shatter our high hopes and pent-up expectations for those encounters.

But death reminds us that we wanted the reality all along. We wanted presence not pretence. All along we wanted the messiness of communion rather than the tidiness of separation.

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