I believe questions can be gracious gifts. Last time I gave a convocation talk, I spoke about the
most important question any professor ever asked me. Tonight, I want to speak about the first
question I ever received from a student.
I had just completed my PhD on the history of Christian-Muslim relations and accepted a
position to teach history for the International Affairs Program at Qatar University in the tiny,
but influential Arab country of Qatar.
I had long dreamed of teaching in the Middle East and was excited for the opportunity, but
nothing seemed to go right on the first morning of class. A mild case of food poisoning left me
weak and uncertain as to whether I would be able to stay in the class at all. The classroom’s
overhead projection system had no adapters for my Mac, so my PowerPoint was out. When
the students started filtering into their seats, I wondered how I would keep their attention.
Nerves intensified as I distributed the hand-outs to the class and prepared to introduce myself,
but before I could get a word out, one of the students was already raising her hand. It seemed
a bit premature. What could this student want to ask me before I had even had a chance to say
“good morning?” I wanted to pretend I didn’t see her, but that would have been bad form, so I
called on her. She looked at me with the hint of a wry smile (never a comforting sign in such
situations) and asked, “Doctor, do you believe in jinn?” This was not the question I was
It was also a shrewd question, and not the sort of question you asked in polite academic
culture, even amongst specialists in the Middle East or Islam. The sympathetic looks of a few
students suggested they had hoped to break me in a little more gradually. The intrigued faces
of the rest of the class suggested the majority were delighted as they got out their proverbial
bag of popcorn for the unexpected show. You see, it was a clever question and it slowly
dawned on me that there was a lot at stake in how I answered. The question got right to the
heart of all of the student’s unspoken uncertainties about me as an outsider from America. I
knew the Qur’an affirmed the reality of jinn as a class of non-human intelligences distinct from
either angels or demons. Kind of like faeries in the European tradition. And because of their
mention in the Qur‘an and the prophetic tradition, Muslims would be expected to believe in
their existence.Amira El-Zein, Islam, Arabs, and Intelligent World of the Jinn (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2009). So, in essence, the student was asking whether or not I respected the
authority of Islam’s scriptures and whether or not my education had prejudiced me against
belief in unseen realities. It was a pretty clever question and it forced me to seriously reflect.
Either my answer was passable, or perhaps the students were just very gracious and hospitable,
because the rest of the class went fine. I don’t know if it was a related development, but later
on students began to schedule office hours with me to share about their encounters with
strange apparitions in their large villas that they could not explain. Some of them were terrified
by these encounters and others puzzled and fascinated. I was incredulous at first, but when I
saw the students were absolutely sincere in their testimonies, I listened, learned, and gave
counsel as best I could. What had once been mostly an exercise in textual interpretation had
become real life, real quick. It was humbling.
C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) went through a similarly humbling experience with his studies a few
years after his conversion to Christianity in 1931. For Lewis, this came through a remarkable
book. And the book Lewis read at the time, I just so happened to be reading as students
started coming to my office to share about their remarkable and disturbing experiences.
The book was The Place of the Lion (1931) and the author was Charles Williams (1886-1945),
who some call the “oddest” member of the literary circle of Christian writers who gathered
around Lewis and Tolkien for discussion.I am indebted to Sørina Higgins for the use of the phrase “oddest inkling” to describe Williams. Higgins runs an excellent blog devoted to Charles Williams. The best single-volume biography of … Continue reading For Lewis, the book not only introduced him to Williams, who became a valued friend, but it helped highlight a particular “abuse of the intellect” with a degree of clarity that left Lewis humbled five years into his pilgrimage as a Christian. C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, 26 February 1936, in The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 2: Books, Broadcasts, and the War, 1931-1949, edited by Walter Hooper, (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, … Continue reading Focusing on Lewis’s experience will help to further clarify my exhortation to you tonight.
Lewis called reading The Place of the Lion “one of the major literary events of my life.” C. S. Lewis to Charles Williams, 11 March, 1936 in The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 2: Books, Broadcasts, and the War, 1931-1949, edited by Walter Hooper, (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, … Continue reading He had
learned of the book in 1936 from his friend Nevill Coghill and, after reading it, Lewis recommended it to Tolkien and his brother Warnie. Soon, Lewis noted in a letter to Williams, they were all “buzzing with excited admiration.” Ibid.
William’s book follows the carnivalesque mayhem that erupts around a small English village
when an occult adept succeeds in materializing the Platonic forms or archetypes. These
archetypes, which appear on earth in the shape of fearsome beasts, stalk the countryside
absorbing the creative principles they represent back into themselves. As powers divorced
from intelligence by means of occult ritual, they begin to undue creation. They require an
Adam-like figure to subdue them once again under a governing intelligence and restore them to
their rightful place in the hierarchy of being.
While the book follows the response of a large cast of characters to this eruption of the unseen
realm into our own, Lewis was moved to repentance by the journey of one character in
particular, the scholar Damaris Tighe. In a letter to Williams, Lewis confessed “I know Damaris
very well: in fact I was in course of becoming Damaris (but you have pulled me up).” Ibid.
Damaris is a specialist in the late antique and early medieval world who studies the history of
ideas. She thinks the forms of Plato evolved into the angelic hierarchy of Pseudo-Dionysus as
the world transitioned from a philosophical age to a superstitious one. But the forms or the
hierarchy exist only in the realm of cultural history for Damaris, not in reality. By virtue of her
specialization, she should be the best prepared to understand what is happening in the world of
the novel since the angelic hierarchy and the Platonic forms are, in fact, one and the same
there. In actuality, she is the least prepared.
While she prides herself on her sympathy with a mental world less sophisticated than her own, she is prideful, self-absorbed, and prefers abstract ideas over people. Most of all, she desires freedom from interruptions to her reading and writing. “Peace to her,” Williams explains, “was not a state to be achieved but a supposed necessary condition of her daily work.” Charles Williams, The Place of the Lion (New York: Pellegrini and Cudahy, 1951), 107. For me, William’s comments here recall what Augustine wrote about pride and peace in The City of God: “pride…wishes to impose its own dominion…in place of God’s rule…it hates the just peace of God and it loves it’s own unjust peace.” Augustine, The City of God Against the Pagans (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 936.
While Damaris is a skilled analyst, she deploys her analytical skills to manage, use, and ultimately possess information for her own ends. She occupies the center of her own world and does no more than play with the “dead pictures of ideas” as children play with cards. Williams, Place of the Lion, 107, 79. She can chart, index, and graph ideas with the best of thinkers, but can’t imagine how such ideas might reflect realities she cannot own or tame.
Damaris’s shortcomings emerge in comic fashion during a presentation she makes to the
esoteric study group whose leader has unleashed the Platonic forms into the world. The group,
unaware that their leader has succeeded in his effort, but aware that he is indisposed, invites
Damaris to speak to them in his place. During her talk, one of the archetypes actually
materializes as a snake in the midst of the meeting and provokes screams and shouts from
members of the audience. Damaris, oblivious to the fact that her subject has just erupted to
life before her eyes, can only express annoyance at the awful manners of her non-scholarly
audience as she attempts to prattle on despite the disruption.
Damaris must finally face the consequences of her approach to her studies when an archetype in the shape of a giant pterodactyl disrupts her quiet meditations and almost carries her away. While caught up in self-satisfied reverie pondering the construction of a detailed graph plotting the historical evolution of ideas about the supernatural, a loud noise calls her to a window where she sees neighboring houses falling in on themselves. This destruction hardly registers and she remains complacent as she ponders the completion of her PhD until a loud noise and the smell of corruption invade her senses. When she looks around, she notices a “terrific beak” protruding through the window with “two horrible red eyes” staring back at her. “Unconscious of her work for the first time in years,” Damaris attempts to flee. Ibid., 145. As she plots her escape, she finds that she wants the company of other persons “for the first time in her life” to break the overwhelming sense of loneliness and despair. Ibid., 145-146. While the house around her dissolves back into the unseen, she tries desperately to escape the pterodactyl. But just when it has her in its grasp, a friend delivers her.
Later, as Damaris debriefs the experience with this same friend, she learns that she has seen a
long-dead beast emitting the odor of corruption and death because that is what her studies had
become to her. Damaris had done more than merely use her mind, she had used it for her own
selfish ends and, as a result, the knowledge of life had turned to the knowledge of death.
Fortunately, this is not the end of Damaris’s life of study. Her friend reminds her, “somewhere
in you there was something that loved truth, and if ever you studied anything you’d better
study that now. For perhaps you won’t get another chance.” Ibid., 153. As she repents, Williams notes
“the whole gospel–morals and mythology at once” enter into her. Ibid., 154. And her friend reassures
her that “it’s a perfectly sound idea to make a beautiful thing of what you know,” so long as it is
accompanied by genuine love for the people around you. Ibid., 225.
In light of these insights, Damaris restarts her pursuits with the conviction that she needs to
search for “the opposite of the pterodactyl,” but she has yet to fully understand what this
means. Ibid., 233. As she resolves to pursue life and truth in her studies, Williams tells us “the older
energies renewed almost to fierceness in her determination to discover that other thing. She
would be savage with herself, royal in daring, a lioness in hunger and in the hunt. Of that thing
itself, she knew little but that it was blessed, innocent and joyous.” Ibid. At novel’s end, Damaris
experiences a delightful forgetfulness of self and her soul catches fire with a passion to learn.
Upon finishing the novel, Lewis wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves that reading The Place of the Lion had prepared him for Lent by teaching him “more than I ever knew yet about humility.” C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, 180. To Williams himself, Lewis wrote “that pterodactyl…I know all about him: and wanting not Peace, but…‘peace for my work’. Not only is your diagnosis good: but the very way in which you force one to look at the matter is itself the beginning of a cure.” C. S. Lewis to Charles Williams, 183.
Now what makes Damaris so helpful to Lewis and to us, is that she presents certain abuses of
the intellect with such sharp clarity that her journey can help us begin to discern these
tendencies in ourselves even if we have not gone to such extremes. Damaris attempted to
reduce what she studied to something she could contain, control, and use for her own profit.
Her subjects were nothing more to her than a function of her will. And this seemed to work for
her until the ideas got out of hand.
Ultimately, Damaris came to realize, in vivid ways, that the things one studies have a truth
independent of one’s reasoned thoughts about them and whatever one might write in a book
or notebook. The human mind can think about things outside itself because God has created a
correspondence between our minds and the world outside, but the human will, no matter how
prideful or determined, cannot tame those things outside us.
What might it mean to pursue God’s peace rather than our own peace in our studies? The problem does not seem to be one merely of limited imagination or restricted philosophy. I think it is primarily one of pride. One of Damaris’s friends teases her at one point in the novel suggesting that her “real subject” is not the Platonic tradition, but “Damaristic Tradition at the Court of Damaris.” Williams, Place of the Lion, 19. Like Cain whose sacrifice was not pleasing to God, Damaris has given something of herself in her work. She has given time and effort. But, also like Cain, Damaris has really only succeeded in giving herself to herself. Augustine, City of God, 644. This is why her studies took on the form of death when they confronted her. If what each of us have come to pursue in our learning came and visited us tonight, what form would it take?
In The City of God, Augustine defines peace very generally as “the tranquility of order” with order being “the disposition of equal and unequal things in such a way as to give to each its proper place.” Ibid., 938. At the conclusion of the novel, Williams gives us a vision of study that places the student in the right relation to their subject, reflecting a tranquility of order. Here is how William describes Damaris’s new perspective: “She still wanted to get on with her work–if she could, if she could approach it with this new sense that her subjects were less important than her subjects’ subject, that her arrangements were very tentative presentations of the experiences of great minds and souls.” Williams, Place of the Lion, 191. Let us go and do likewise.
|↑1||Amira El-Zein, Islam, Arabs, and Intelligent World of the Jinn (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2009).|
|↑2||I am indebted to Sørina Higgins for the use of the phrase “oddest inkling” to describe Williams. Higgins runs an excellent blog devoted to Charles Williams. The best single-volume biography of Williams is Grevel Lindop, Charles Williams: The Third Inkling (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).|
|↑3||C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, 26 February 1936, in The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 2: Books, Broadcasts, and the War, 1931-1949, edited by Walter Hooper, (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004), 180.|
|↑4||C. S. Lewis to Charles Williams, 11 March, 1936 in The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 2: Books, Broadcasts, and the War, 1931-1949, edited by Walter Hooper, (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004), 183.|
|↑5, ↑6, ↑16||Ibid.|
|↑7||Charles Williams, The Place of the Lion (New York: Pellegrini and Cudahy, 1951), 107.|
|↑8||Augustine, The City of God Against the Pagans (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 936.|
|↑9||Williams, Place of the Lion, 107, 79.|
|↑17||C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, 180.|
|↑18||C. S. Lewis to Charles Williams, 183.|
|↑19||Williams, Place of the Lion, 19.|
|↑20||Augustine, City of God, 644.|
|↑22||Williams, Place of the Lion, 191.|