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Completing the Atonement? A Lewisian Experiment in Theology, Memory and Poetry

I tend to think of memories as the decayed remains of past events—the bits and pieces I have managed to salvage and store away, to treasure in the present. But I have no confidence, due to repeated experience, that these bits and pieces are in pristine condition. I repeatedly find that what I thought was an accurate memory was in fact quite distorted, perhaps an amalgamation of several different memories, some accurate, some not, coalescing to form an event in my mind which never happened in reality.

But this is not the only way to think of memory. In a fascinating passage in C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, Hyoi tells Ransom:

A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered. You are speaking, Hmān, as if the pleasure were one thing and the memory another. It is all one thing. The seroni could say it better than I say it now. Not better than I could say it in a poem. What you call remembering is the last part of the pleasure, as the crah is the last part of a poem. When you and I met, the meeting was over very shortly, it was nothing. Now it is growing something as we remember it, but still we know very little about it. What it will be when I remember it as I lie down to die, what it makes in me all my days till then—that is the real meeting. The other is only the beginning of it. You say you have poets in your world. Do they not teach you this? (Out of the Silent Planet, 76)

Of course an unfallen creature in a planet that knew no sin makes this statement—so we cannot simply import it into our own disastrously fallen culture wholesale. But perhaps we do more than simply dismiss it as wishful thinking.

Memory adds to pleasure. In fact, memory and pleasure are woven together with a third element: an event. These are not three things, though they are distinguishable; rather, they are a single reality. An event is a relational reality—it is what it is not merely in and of itself as an isolated and enduring reality. No, it is more than that—an event is what it is, partly in and through the consequences that flow from it. Hyoi would say that an event is what it is, it becomes full and ripe, when its consequences and implications have played themselves out, and have in turn been woven into the tangible fabric of en-poemed memory.

Might we say something similar of theology? Might we say that though the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection is indeed an event, a historical happening—but as such it is only the shell or core of what an event truly is—a reality which becomes ripe and full only in its consequences, and beyond that, in its being remembered? Or, put somewhat differently, in being developed and played out in its theological richness and implications?

If this is true, studying the doctrine of the atonement is not merely our thinking about a great reality. It is not merely the attempt of the church to cling tenaciously to those fragments remaining from the original experience. Rather, the attempt, the calling, to develop the doctrine of the atonement is the calling to bring to completion Christ’s saving work. Not that the work is in and of itself ineffective and incomplete—but that as a work, it is what it is meant to be only when it is effective in the life of the believer, not only in its power, but in its being remembered, understood, and cast into memory and song, or in this case, into the poetry unique to sanctified theology. The doctrine of the atonement, in other words, is meant to be the flowering and poetic completion and fulfillment proper to the work of Christ. The atonement does not merely remember or distill the event into something we can affirm—it extends, enriches, savors and rejoices in the full reality of that which Christ has in fact done for us in his death and resurrection.

NB: This post originally appeared on Dr. Johnson’s website.

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