Science, Faith, and the Silver Chair

Of all children’s authors who have integrated their Christian beliefs into their writing, C.S. Lewis is perhaps the most famous and well-respected, both within and outside the faith community. His celebrated Narnia series is uncompromising in presenting its author’s beliefs and values, yet also stands on its own merits as an compelling compendium of magical adventures.

Not every book in the series has aged equally well, and there are places where Lewis and I part ways, theologically speaking, yet one of the Narnian Chronicles continues to serve as a touchstone for me in my faith journey. It is not the much loved first book, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” nor the controversial last book, “The Final Battle,” but rather an often overlooked middle book called “The Silver Chair.”

In this Chronicle, Jill and Eustace (two children several degrees of separation from the Pevensie family that forms the main focus for the series) are sent into the hinterlands of Lewis’ fantasy world on a quest for a missing prince. They are given a set of instructions by the series’ representation of Christ, Aslan the lion. As is typical for the series, however, they ignore these instructions and end up dangerously off-course.

The key moment in the book comes when the children have become completely lost. Desperate for some divine sign, they are shocked to look out their window and see, shining in the moonlight, huge letters spelling out “UNDER ME.” They quite naturally take this as a direct and unmistakable message from Aslan to look for the prince in some kind of underground chamber beneath the letters.

Later in the book, their sense of surety turns to doubt when they are informed that the words they saw are actually the last remnants of a much longer inscription placed there by a king of the giants many centuries earlier. As easy as it was to take those words as a divine and supernatural message, the children are told, the inscription actually has a completely rational and natural (for the setting) explanation. Furthermore, the age of the inscription –written hundreds of years before the prince ever went missing –renders nonsensical the notion that the words might have any current relevance whatsoever.

The children are left to agonize over whether or not they should believe the rational explanation or their own intuitions. As it turns out, however, both explanations are correct. The words are both an impersonal, and largely meaningless remnant of a centuries-old inscription, and a private, personal, timely and accurate message from Aslan to the children about their quest.

I think about this passage whenever anyone demands I make a exclusionary choice between science and faith, between rational explanations for events and supernatural ones. In the case of “The Silver Chair,” the author, C.S.Lewis, has created two alternate explanations for the same event. One explanation is direct and causal, the other has deeper meaning. One answers the question of how the letters were placed, the other answers the question of why. If a children’s book author can create nested layers of meaning like this within the fabric of a world he himself created, why do we find it so hard to believe that the author of our own existence might not do the same?

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