Meditations with C. S. Lewis: Restoring the Courtroom
God in the Dock
At least as late as 1958, C. S. Lewis didn’t really understand the big picture of the biblical lawcourt. So in chapter one of his Reflections on the Psalms, we read that the covenant people of God may appear in the heavenly court as righteous plaintiffs, or as unrighteous defendants. That the covenant people are unrighteous plaintiffs, without standing to sue, but in desperate need of judgment against oppressing nations, does not appear in his works.
That doesn’t dispense with Lewis on judgments, though; far from it. For although a man’s standing before God, and his asking the heavenly court for redress of earthly wrongs, are manifestly related issues, they are also distinct issues. Jesus’s two parables on prayer, which appear at the top of St Luke 18, for example, take them up distinctly (in reverse order). In the second parable, the Pharisee and the Publican present petitions to God, and only the Publican is justified. That isn’t the end of the story for either the Publican or Pharisee, but it is a sufficiently crucial part of the story that Jesus ends his parable there, placing this one issue — the individual’s standing before God — in the spotlight. And in various works – notably in The Great Divorce and, supremely, in Till We Have Faces – Lewis explores the the individual’s standing before God as deeply as anyone ever has.
Lewis correctly states the characteristic violence the modern world does to the heavenly court: taking God off the bench and putting Him in the dock. This rearranging of the heavenly court isn’t just modern; it goes all the way back to the Garden. But it is more characteristic of our era than many. As Lewis writes in his essay God in the Dock:
The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock.
In Till We Have Faces Lewis initially arranges the courtroom after the fashion of the modern man. Not directly, though; for while Lewis’s heroine Orual is perfectly comfortable placing the gods (especially the god who lives on the grey mountain) in the dock by bringing a complaint against them, she is reticent to take the bench herself. She appears not as judge, but rather as party plaintiff. Orual’s reticence is noteworthy, given the number of cases she would have judged as Queen of Glome. But since she is psychologically incapable of presuming to judge the gods herself, she writes her complaint (part one of the book) with the expectation that some fool — like the reader — will rush in where royalty fears to tread.
Thus, by the way Lewis sets up the courtroom, he encourages his readers to sit precisely where they would be inclined to sit: on the bench, with the gods in the dock. By a series of judgments, Lewis, by the end of the book, removes the reader from the bench and straightens out the heavenly courtroom.