03.27.2016 Preaching Text: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:19)
Every Christmas and Easter preachers find themselves in a bit of a quandary: how to communicate the mystical, transcendent meaning of Christianity to a Western world that is enthralled with “the facts” as defined by science and reason.
Reading today’s account of the empty tomb in John’s gospel simply flummoxes the modern hearer. It’s so preposterous as to be comical. Why do otherwise reasonable, normal people sit and listen to this sort of drivel Sunday after Sunday?
The answer, of course, is not found in rational explication. One way to get to the heart of the matter is to observe children (or remember ourselves as children).
In a delightful essay entitled The Dream-Child’s Progress by the American Eastern Orthodox Christian, David Bentley Hart, we are offered a childlike glimpse into the seemingly indecipherable world of the supernatural.
As for last year’s 150th anniversary of the publication of Lewis Carroll’s landmark classic, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Hart rues its largely unnoticed passing.
“What a barbarous lot we are,” he says, “to be so callously indifferent not only to exquisite artistry but to that new epoch of the spirit inaugurated by the advent of Mr. Toad.”
For Hart, Alice is “unparalleled in terms of human imagination, sensibility, and moral tact.” He even goes so far as to suggest that Carroll’s works as a whole are second only to Shakespeare’s in terms of their influence on the English language!
In making his case, Hart says that what we see in Carroll’s work is a “uniquely English style of genius” – that “special capacity for elaborate whimsy, precise nonsense, absurdity burnished to an exquisitely delicate sheen.” Therein is “purity, tireless wit, and ingenious invention.”
Carroll opened up a “new respectability, [an] aesthetic experience,” one that manifests “tolerance for the absurd as a realm unto itself – of the dreamlike and pervasive, as an artistic domain with no need to justify itself in light of the ordinary.”
The “ordinary” here is contrasted with Carroll’s dreamlike “domain,” a counterweight to modernity’s drab, this-worldly, spirit-crushing “realism” and “seriousness.” Carroll’s works are, as Hart puts it, “blessedly free from the imaginatively crippling prejudice” found in such “seriousness.”
Prior to Carroll’s works, children’s books assumed children to be “rather stupid and humorless,” so much so that their “imaginations must continually be corrected by equal measures of insipid cossetting and dire admonition.”
Hart describes much of Victorian children’s literature as “tediously hortatory, aridly moralizing, stickily saccharine, and sanctimoniously condescending” (i.e. “serious”).
As such, Carroll offers the first books written for children, thus avoiding the prevailing idea that children were somehow “instinctive illiterates” rather than “omnivorously assimilative and rapidly adaptable creatures.”
Carroll’s genius was in recognizing that children have extraordinary native intelligence. Moreover, their capacity for delight in the ridiculous is a plus not a minus. “Adults may understand some of Carroll’s jokes better,” Hart admits, “but children are better able to grasp the beauty of their silliness.”
In fact, Carroll’s treatment of the adult world, from the perspective of a child, is seen as both absurd and arbitrary. Almost all the adult characters in Alice are “unpleasant, rude, pretentious, or irascible.” For Hart this shows just how “ill-mannered” adults often are toward children.
Throughout the book “Alice is rebuked for stupidity, thoughtlessness, ignorance, or poor behavior when it is everyone else who is making no sense and exhibiting no manners.”
“All the adult characters who presume to instruct and correct [Alice],” Hart points out, “entirely lack the wisdom and knowledge for themselves.” This, Hart concludes, is “an uncomfortably accurate portrait of most of us most of the time.”
Not insignificantly Carroll was a devout and pious Christian who understood God as infinite love, whose “larger hope” was for “the ultimate reconciliation of all souls to God.”
And it was this same faith that granted him “a habitual way of seeing this life, or, rather, of seeing through it.” Later in life Carroll wrote, revealing the method to his madness, “This life is a shadow of the life that waits beyond it, a kind of dream dreamed before the light of dawn.”
Thus, for Carroll, Alice is “the dream-child’ moving through the land/Of wonders wild and new.”
Hart summarizes Carroll’s thinking: “Most of the absurdity of that other world – Wonderland, the looking-glass world, the Alice’s dreamscape – should be merely the absurdity of this world, inverted and instilled into entrancing dream-images and elaborate jokes.”
“Seen from the vantage point of eternity,” he continues, “our world will also prove to have been in many ways a rather ridiculous and irrational and only half substantial reality, through which the pilgrim soul wanders only till she wakes again into a land of far greater value.”
Two millennia before, the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
In all our “serious,” earnest, this-worldly scientific rationalism such a statement makes absolutely no sense. Nor does the strange, esoteric quality of John’s account of the Cross and the empty tomb (and the eternality to which it points). To the contemporary West such is foolishness. Yet to a child, or the Christian pilgrim on the way, it is life.
Of the mystical truths to which Carroll’s works offer but glimpses, Hart defines each as but a reminder “that each of us is the dream-child dreaming, and dreamed by another, and waiting one day to awaken and finally know who dreamed it all.” Amen.