Another Look at Fantasy: Denial by Way of Super-Affirmation, or the Way of Eminence

In theology as articulated by Pseudo-Dionysius, there are four basic approaches to theology which stem from two fundamental building blocks: one building block says that what we say about God can be in some measure true, and the other building block says that what we say about God must be in some measure false, although individual statements may vary in the extent to which they are partly true and the extent which they are partly false.

One of the composite methods is called "denial by way of super-affirmation," or "the way of eminence," and I realized today it sheds some light on how fantasy might be read. C.S. Lewis said that there are three times to read fairy tales: once as a child, once as a young man, and once as an old man. And I have, perhaps, started to reread in a different way The Chronicles of Narnia in a beautiful leatherbound volume given to me by my brother Matt.


I have written fantasy (The Sign of the Grail), and also articles like The Emperor's New Fantasy, and there is perhaps a time to say, "When I became a man, I put childish things behind me," but I am realizing something I hadn't realized before. I read The Chronicles of Narnia and unlike when I read it too much as a young man, it opens my eyes to simple pleasures like my obedience of watering ornamental plants at the front of my repentance, my monastery.

I'd like to briefly quote two of my own fantasy works, A Dream of Light and Within the Steel Orb (respectively):

Little children everywhere like to be held by the arms and swung around; this one is no exception. After you are both very dizzy, she takes you by the hand and begins, leading you along a path, to show you little details of the forest that you had never noticed before. Apart from the little details, there is something else which you begin to slowly see in the forest. The song by which she speaks, the dance by which she moves - and not just her, you do not doubt, but her people - seem to be echoed in the forest... and then you realize that rather they are echoes of the forest. Hearing, seeing, feeling that beauty from another person - you still do not doubt that they come from her, but they also help you to see what was always there but you had not noticed. As you walk along, you are lost in thoughts about the genius of all great artists... and begin to think about visiting an art gallery, not so that you can see what is in the gallery, but so that you can see what is not in the gallery.

"Very well." Oinos opened a door on the other side of the room, and slowly led him out. As they walked, Oinos started up a spiral staircase and sat down to rest after Art reached the top. Then Art looked up at the sky, and down to see what looked like a telescope.

"What is it?"

"A telescope, not too different from those of your world."

Oinos stood up, looked at it, and began some adjustments. Then he called Art over, and said, "Do you see that body?"

"What is it?"

"A small moon."

Oinos said, "I want you to look at it as closely as you can," and then pulled something on the telescope.

"It's moving out of sight."

"That's right; I just deactivated the tracking feature. You should be able to feel handles; you can move the telescope with them."

"Why do I need to move the telescope? Is the moon moving?"

"This planet is rotating: what the telescope sees will change as it rotates with the planet, and on a telescope you can see the rotation."

Art moved the handles and found that it seemed either not to move at all or else move a lot when he put pressure on it.

Art said, "This is a hard telescope to control."

Oinos said, "The telescope is worth controlling."

"Can you turn the tracking back on?"

Oinos merely repeated, "The telescope is worth controlling."

The celestial body had moved out of view. Art made several movements, barely passed over the moon, and then found it. He tried to see what he could, then give a relatively violent shove when the moon reached the edge of his field of view, and see if he could observe the body that way. After several tries, he began to get the object consistently in view... and found that he was seeing the same things about it, not being settled enough between jolts to really focus on what was there.

Art tried to make a smooth, slow movement with his body, and found that a much taller order than it sounded. His movement, which he could have sworn was gentle and smooth, produced what seemed like erratic movement, and it was only with greatest difficulty that he held the moon in view.

"Is this badly lubricated? Or do you have lubrication in this world?"

"We do, on some of our less precise machines. This telescope is massive, but it's not something that moves roughly when it is pushed smoothly; the joints move so smoothly that putting oil or other lubricants that are familiar to you would make them move much more roughly."

"Then why is it moving roughly every time I push it smoothly?"

"Maybe you aren't pushing it as smoothly as you think you are?"

Art pushed back his irritation, and then found the moon again. And found, to his dismay, that when the telescope jerked, he had moved the slightest amount unevenly.

Art pushed observation of the moon to the back of his mind. He wanted to move the telescope smoothly enough that he wouldn't have to keep finding the moon again. After a while, he found that this was less difficult than he thought, and tried for something harder: keeping the moon in the center of what he could see in the telescope.

He found, after a while, that he could keep the moon in the center if he tried, and for periods was able to manage something even harder: keeping the moon from moving, or perhaps just moving slowly. And then, after a time, he found himself concentrating through the telescope on taking in the beauty of the moon.

It was breathtaking, and Art later could never remember a time he had looked on something with quite that fascination.

There is no glory in fantasy that is not really to be had in the real world. The exotic description of a telescope was my attempt to put down in speculative fiction the stillness and discipline of aiming a gun. And indeed all wonders in fantasy are a refraction of things in this world, perhaps laced with a poison of escape such as in Within the Steel Orb.

G.K. Chesterton, in a chapter of Heretics called "The Ethics of Elf-land," writes, "This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door.... This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water."

The Chronicles of Narnia say that Narnians are free because England prides itself in freedom, and slavery abounds in The Horse and his Boy and the colonization of Narnia in The Last Battle when C.S. Lewis knew about Islam but did not know the global upsurge Islam would have after his death. The wonder of intelligent, talking animals is a refraction of a world in which there is something equal to C.S. Lewis's fairy-tale magic in wonder: life. It is a world in which the most primitive single-celled beings are wondrous, even if our human race has not developed technologies to see them only in a geological eyeblink within an eyeblink. It is a world in which plants are alive, and in which a blade of grass is much a miracle of nature as the mighty oak. It is a world in which the humble mouse is much a miracle of nature as the elephant, and even the humblest animals, like insects, have a particular narrowly-tailored intelligence, and in which the royal race of mankind has a particular flexible intelligence, in which the math major studying calculus can derive the most efficient path for a dog running at one speed and swimming at another to fetch an object thrown from a beach into water some distance down, and with the same accuracy and the same answer as a dog running at one speed and swimming at another to fetch an object thrown from a beach into water some distance down, and in which this is only one of innumerable things that the human studying calculus can learn to solve. It is a world in which human mental flexibility can be used to learn the skills of the nature connection movement, and in which human mental flexibility lets people find a natural medium in artificial environments without precedent in geological timetables and really without precedent in the history of civilization, but a world where social experiments of "new world, new morality" failed but where "the Pilgrims," refugees fleeing religious persecution, coming to the New World, survived partly by their observation of Christian morals such as they knew.

And it is a world in which each of us are made in the image of God, with one life in which to make a momentous decision between becoming the immortal glory that we were made for, and God finally saying, "Thy will be done," and allowing us to choose to be everlasting horrors in a Hell that you can only ever get to on your own steam.

And it is a world where there are wonders and horrors we take for granted if we read medieval fantasy and wish for encounters with monsters. We live in a singularity, such as I can barely portray with words, and in which I write works such as Revelation and our Singularity, or if I may quote Papers and Paychecks and give one more installments:

These people live at a great cusp, for to mankind as it had hitherto existed a great Orcish battering ram is battering the world's doors:

And what do we have for dragons? We live in a world where there is something worse than dragons in any fantasy, and not just tales of cross-cultural friendship like The Dragon and the George. We live in a world with the onslaughts of devils, but we also live in a world where Satan is only a hammer in the hand of God: as C.S. Lewis said, "Satan is without doubt nothing else than a hammer in the hand of a benevolent and severe God. For all, either willingly or unwillingly, do the will of God: Judas and Satan as tools or instruments, John and Peter as sons." We live in a world where, in a leitmotif of a previous parish priest, "Everything that happens is either a blessing from God or a temptation which has been allowed for our strengthening."

I have wanted to be a King of Narnia, and I have wanted kingly status here on earth. I repent of that desire, but to be an Orthodox Christian is to be a prophet, priest, and king, anointed with oil stemming back from its first consecration by the apostles, and I am struggling feebly as I can on the path to being a monk, who is even more strongly a prophet, priest, and king, and identified with all Adam, all mankind. (To repent of coveting kingly status is to become more kingly.)

I have said a few times, guarded by carefully clarified context, that I as a layman am a priest such as Alexander Schmemann laid out in For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, in which the sacramental priesthood exists precisely as a crystallization of the priestly character of the whole faithful (Schmemann, for carefully considered reasons, objects to the English term "layman" as elsewhere in "The best book on computer science for the layman is Alice in Wonderland, but that's just because the best book on anything for the layman is Alice in Wonderland," where "layman" elsewhere in English means "outsider" and "uninitiate" where "layman" in Orthodoxy means "insider" and "initiate"), and the priesthood shared between sacramental priests and laity is more significant than what the sacramental priesthood has that the laity's spiritual priesthood does not. I only claim to be a priest in carefully guarded contexts where my claim is to be of the spiritual priesthood only, but I mean a great deal by it. Only the sacramental priesthood may impart the Holy Gifts of Holy Communion, but the privilege of dispensing the Holy Gifts is dwarfed by the privilege of receiving the Holy Gifts, in which sacramental and spiritual priesthood receive equally.

And my signature contribution to the conversation has been how we can live true, ancient, timeless human grandeur in our turbulent and technological times. I have written the books on my bookshelf as such, and I invite you to patronize my work, especially as my regular income has been revoked and I am trying to get it back.

Familiarity can breed disenchantment. Things that bear a fantasy-like romance to us are things that are wonderful and uncommon or unavailable: swords, for instance, or dragons that can be seen with an eye. But a veil of familiarity prevents us from seeing that doors and shoes are also wondrous: we have doors as much as existed in Bible times where Christ said, "I am the Door," and though the technology and methods of constructions of doors today may have been unimaginable a couple of centuries or millennia ago, doors are with us and they are wondrous. I again recall Chesterton in another chapter of Heretics:

A great many people talk as if this claim of ours, that all things are poetical, were a mere literary ingenuity, a play on words. Precisely the contrary is true. It is the idea that some things are not poetical which is literary, which is a mere product of words. The word "signal-box" ["traffic light" in the U.S. today] is unpoetical. But the thing signal-box is not unpoetical; it is a place where men, in an agony of vigilance, light blood-red and sea-green fires to keep other men from death. That is the plain, genuine description of what it is; the prose only comes in with what it is called. The word "pillar-box" [a blue "public mailbox" in the U.S. today] is unpoetical. But the thing pillar-box is not unpoetical; it is the place to which friends and lovers commit their messages, conscious that when they have done so they are sacred, and not to be touched, not only by others, but even (religious touch!) by themselves. That red turret is one of the last of the temples. Posting a letter and getting married are among the few things left that are entirely romantic; for to be entirely romantic a thing must be irrevocable. We think a pillar-box prosaic, because there is no rhyme to it. We think a pillar-box unpoetical, because we have never seen it in a poem. But the bold fact is entirely on the side of poetry. A signal-box is only called a signal-box; it is a house of life and death. A pillar-box is only called a pillar-box; it is a sanctuary of human words. If you think the name of "Smith" prosaic, it is not because you are practical and sensible; it is because you are too much affected with literary refinements. The name shouts poetry at you. If you think of it otherwise, it is because you are steeped and sodden with verbal reminiscences, because you remember everything in Punch or Comic Cuts about Mr. Smith being drunk or Mr. Smith being henpecked. All these things were given to you poetical. It is only by a long and elaborate process of literary effort that you have made them prosaic.

All of these things bring me back to what I opened with, namely denial by way of super-affirmation, also called the way of eminence. I believe it applies to some of the best fantasy. Lewis commented that the children in his stories were fortunate in that their made-up fantasy world of Narnia was real; but I, who wrote, A Pilgrimage from Narnia, consider myself fortunate that the real world is real, and no less real because Narnia is not real. It is the beauty of the real world that C.S. Lewis refracted and fused into the creation of Narnia, a free Narnia that reflects a free England, which bifurcated into a free England and a free United States after, among other things, English colonists believed that the freedom due to Englishmen was not being respected. Nationalism may have changed "colour" into "color" and standard U.S. English sounds different from England's Received Pronunciation or local dialects: but I have wanted to write at times about the U.S.A. as the new Europe, where Europe and to be a European were defined not by race but by Christianity, and a U.S.A. that is further behind in the process of apostasy from Europe; and it may be a felony now in Michigan to "misgender" someone but the U.S. at least has not been as far down the path of religious persecution as England and Canada, the latter being somewhat "a nation of Americans who think they're Brits" (as my Canadian godfather said). And C.S. Lewis, an Irishman commonly associated with England, seems to have more of a freely quoting following in the U.S. than a U.K. where, as a theology student at Cambridge, an English fellow student commented that the quote from G.K. Chesterton was the icing on the cake.

And so I deny fantasy by way of super-affirmation. I assert that whatever there is to be held of wonder, God Himself's Creation is more wondrous and more fantastic than the creations of C.S. Lewis. I assert that the eternal choice we make in this short, but tremendously important life, gives way to greater wonders, or at least barer wonders, after death. When I became a man, I put childish things behind me. Perhaps C.S. Lewis fans are right to remember C.S. Lewis's comment, "When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up," and perhaps Lewis's words, "Youth and age touch only the surface of our lives." But the entire life of mortal man on earth, from conception to death, is a wonder, and the kind of wonder reflected by Dungeons and Dragons having fantasy races of elves and dwarves as well as humans is a glory really present in real human races and their cultures however marred by sin, or temperaments and personality types where any one race is itself highly diverse, or the progression from conception to death in which one individual undergoes repeated transformation. And although I stand by standing with Lewis in A Canticle to Holy, Blessed Solipsism, the God whose attention to each person is total and as much as if that person were the only creation God ever made, the fact is that God has created a wonderful, complex Creation with its beginnings before the creation of the physical world and its end only to be realized in the New Jerusalem, and the entire story of all of that is wondrous beyond measure.

To pick one example, one verse that I chafed at and still chafe at is the words, "In humility consider others better than yourself." But I insist that it is a pearl and a treasure-box that opens up bigger on the inside than you could possibly fathom from looking at it from outside. To again quote Repentance, Heaven's Best-Kept Secret,

Discovering the treasure of humility

The first illustration I have is not strictly speaking an example of repentance, at least not that I have seen, but might as well be.

One of the hardest statements in the Bible that I am aware of is, "In humility consider others better than yourself" (Phil 2:3). It's a slap in the face to most of us, including me. But humility is only about abasing yourself up to a point. The further you go into humility, the less it is about dethroning "me, me, me," and the more it can see the beauty of others.

If it seems a sharp blow to in humility consider others better than yourself, let me ask you this: would you rather be with nobodies who are despicable, or in the company of giants? Pride closes the eyes to any beauty outside of yourself, and falsely makes them appear to have nothing worthy of attention. Humility opens the eyes to something of eternal significance in each person we meet.

There is one CEO at a place I worked who might as well have taken up the gauntlet of considering others better than himself. (I don't know about his spiritual practices as a whole; that's between him and his shul.) But on this point he has taken up the gauntlet, not of St. Paul necessarily, but of humility.

This CEO showed delight and some awe in each person I saw him meet. It didn't matter if you were near the top of the org chart, or at the abolute bottom; the CEO was delighted to see you. End of discussion. And he wanted to hear how you were doing, and not in a Machiavellian sense.

Now let me ask a question: who benefitted most from his respect at work (and, I can scarcely doubt, his respect outside of work)? Is it the ambitious leader, the low-level permanent employee, the timid intern? Certainly all these people benefitted, and though it was not so flambuoyantly expressed, there is a thread of deep respect running through the whole organization, and some things work smoother than any other place I've been. There are a lot of people who benefit from the CEO's humility. But I insist that the person who benefits most from the CEO's aptitude for respect is the CEO himself. Others may enjoy kind treatment and perhaps be inclined to more modestly follow his example. But he is in that respect at least functioning the way a person functions optimally, or to speak less abstractly, his state puts him in the presence of people he deeply respects and delights in again and again and again. To be proud is to be turned in on yourself, and he has something better: a spiritual orientation that lets him see the genuine beauty in others. (And, to be clear, the phenomenon also plays out more quietly among the rest of the organization.) Humility opens the eyes to the beauty of others. It also has other benefits; humility is less tempted to meet bad news with wishful thinking; the CEO is, I imagine, as sincerely wrong as often as the rest of us are sincerely wrong, but my suspicion is that he is less wrong, and less often wrong, than if he were to freely opt-in to being wrong by freely indulging in wishful thinking. This is another incidental advantage to humility, and perhaps there are others. But I insist that the person who benefits most from the CEO's humility is the CEO himself. And the reward for him looking on others with delight and awe is that he is put in a condition where he meets others filled with delight and awe. If that sounds like a tautology, it is. The reward for his seeing others through the eyes of humility is that he sees others through the eyes of humility: the biggest reward for humility is, quite simply, humility: virtue is its own reward.

Now humility may express itself in self-abasement, and another powerful gauntlet is thrown down when The Ladder of Divine Ascent or the Philokalia speak of "thirsting for the cup of dishonor as if it were honor." I will not treat that at length, beyond saying that it is a mighty door and opens to blessed humility.

What I do wish to point out is that pride turns you in on yourself, blinding you to beauty outside of you and making you fill a bag of sand with holes in satisfying your narcissism, or trying to. Humility opens you up to all the beauty around you, and if you repent of pride and despair of being able to gaze on yourself in fascination, you may be surprised by the joy of gazing on others in joy and fascination, or something better than the transient and fleeting fascination offered by narcissism.

But what if I can't find anything in a person to respect?

If you can't find anything in a person to respect, I submit that you are missing something about being human. To quote Tales of a Magic Monastery:

The Crystal Globe

I told the guestmaster I'd like to become a monk.

"What kind of monk?" he asked. "A real monk?"

"Yes," I said, "a real monk."

He poured a cup of wine, and said, "Here, take this."

No sooner had I drunk it than I became aware of a small crystal globe forming about me. It expanded until it included him.

Suddenly, this monk, who had seemed so commonplace, took on an astonishing beauty. I was struck dumb. I thought, "Maybe he doesn't know how beautiful he is. Maybe I should tell him." But I really was dumb. The wine had burned out my tongue!

After a time, he made a motion for me to leave, and I gladly got up, thinking that the memory of such beauty would be well worth the loss of my tongue. Imagine my surprise when, when each person would unwittingly pass into my globe, I would see his beauty too.

Is this what it means to be a real monk? To see the beauty in others and be silent?

Plants and animals command respect, and not just in the sense articulated by green advocates. Empty space itself is itself interesting. How? It is empty space that is much of the study of quantum physics and superstring theory. A great many physicists have earned PhD's, and continue to research, based on the physical properties of empty space. And, more importantly, the whole of God is wholly present in any and every empty space. In that sense, empty space in Orthodox Christianity is more pregant, more dignified, than what an atheist would consider to be everything that exists. So empty space is worth respecting. But more than that, inanimate things, rocks and such, exist on the level of empty space but fill the space: "Blessed be the Rock" lets an inanimate thing represent God. It exists; it is something rather than nothing, and for that reason it is worth respecting. Plants exist on one more layer than mere existence; they have the motion, the fire, of life inside them. And animals exist on these layers but exist more fully; they are aware of their surroundings and act. And you and I, and every person you have trouble respecting, exist on all of these layers and more: we are made in the image of God, the royal and divine image, with the potential of the angelic image and of theosis, and are all of us making an eternal choice between Heaven and Hell. Those who choose Hell represent a tragedy; but even then there is the dignity of making an eternal choice; Hitler and Stalin represent the dignity of eternal agency and making a choice between Heaven and Hell, and sadly using that choice to become an abomination that will ever abide in Hell. But they still tragically represent the grandeur of those who exist on several layers and use their free and eternal choice to eternally choose Hell. Some saint has said, "Be kind to each person you meet. Each person you meet is going through a great struggle," and all mankind, including those one struggles to respect, exist on several profound levels and are making an eternal choice of who they will permanently become. And respect is appropriate to all of us who bear the image of God, and have all of the grandeur of God-pregnant empty space, physical things, plants, animals, and a rational and spiritual and royal human existence, even if there is nothing else we can see in them to respect. Being appropriate to treat with respect is not something that begins when we find something good or interesting about a person: it begins long before that.

And that work, in the passage quoted, only really discloses one pearl that is of great price, only one treasure-box that is bigger on the inside than the outside. Two others I have learned about, one further back and one more recent, are stopping worry (and recognizing that trying to solve a life's problems on a day's resources is a ticket to despair, and a ticket to despair that we can refuse), and recognition that some of the first pastoral advice I received from multiple Orthodox figures, to cross myself and say some basic prayer, applies to temptation to remembering wrong things that have happened to me. That is a ticket to ongoing misery: holding a grudge is like drinking poison and hoping it will harm the other person, and by not taking this step I had put myself in a position where I saw no real way to let go of grudges. Now my memories are starting to heal. Those are a couple of the ways out of misery that I have found to be real, and either one is larger than anything found only in Narnia. Narnia has a single diamond cordial out of which only a drop will cure almost any physical wound; Christ offers in these latter two something out of which only a drop will cure devastating spiritual wounds, and I would far rather have the DLF's physical wounded back than the Hell-bearing wounds I have found cure of in the teachings and practices of the Orthodox Church.

I've stepped away in writing this, gone to a consultation to have a last-ditch effort made to save an infected tooth, and had a little to eat, and the note on which I think I want to close this is that I am grateful, and honestly more grateful to having been able to write this than for the check that came in while I was writing it (which will afford me a little breathing room, at least). I have happy memories of obtaining permission from friend's spouses to hit them with a rolled-up newspaper when they misbehave, and I am grateful for one memory when I did catch a friend claiming to be a MacGyver fan but not having any duct tape in his house. I have everything to be thankful for, and that is the note on which I want to close.