I've been having trouble finishing books lately. There are lots of books I want to read. So I keep starting them. And as a result, I've been having trouble finishing even one. I was in the middle of seven books a few weeks ago, but I've successfully finished three. I'm going to talk about two of them in this post: Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer and The Four Loves by CS Lewis.
You've probably heard the general story told in Into the Wild. It is a non-fiction account of the life of Christopher McCandless. He died at the age of 24 after entering the Alaskan wilderness without any supplies. His goal was to live off of the land by hunting, gathering and camping. McCandless came from a wealthy family and graduated from college before giving away his life savings. He then traveled the country, hitchhiking and doing his best to find food and shelter.
The author of the book, Jon Krakauer, begins the book by telling his readers that he relates to McCandless' story. When he first began researching McCandless' life, he wrote a magazine article entitled "Death of an Innocent". The book portrays McCandless' pursuit and wanderings as a noble endeavor.
As I read the book, I couldn't help but feel an emptiness and sadness about his life. He abandoned his family, giving them no idea of his whereabouts. He wouldn't let himself get too close to any of the people he met along his journeys. Anytime he started to form connections with people, it was time for him to leave. He hurt many people. His death and life affected those who knew him and those who didn't. But he lived for himself. He did what suited him. He selfishly pursued every whim without considering the feelings of those who loved him.
While reading Into the Wild, I also was finishing up The Four Loves by CS Lewis. The book describes four types of love: Affection, Friendship, Eros and Charity. In each chapter, Lewis attempts to define and describe the love and then point out some of its shortcomings, ending with a discussion of how the love relates to a Christian's love to God and God's love for people.
Part of the first chapter, Likings and Loves for the Sub-Human, struck me as interesting, particularly in light of having just finished Into the Wild. Lewis is talking about the affection and love of nature.
"Nature does not teach. A true philosophy may sometimes validate an experience of nature; an experience of nature cannot validate a philosophy. Nature will not verify any theological or metaphysical proposition; she will help to show what it means...We must make a detour--leave the hills and woods and go back to our studies, to church, to our Bibles, to our knees. Otherwise the love of nature is beginning to turn into a nature religion. And then, even if it does not lead us to the Dark Gods, it will lead us to a great deal of nonsense. Nature cannot satisfy the desires she arouses nor answer theological questions nor sanctify us."
The last sentence of the quote above made me stop. What desires does nature arouse? The beautify is magnificent. The way all things work together so that plants can grow and animals can survive is perplexing and complicated. The smells and sounds and sights can be deeply moving. But these things are moving and extraordinary to me because I see them as God's wonderful creation. And even more because I anticipate the day when they will be made perfect; because I know that these things that amaze me today are merely shadows of what they will be.
Nature can't sanctify us. Recycling, being environmentally friendly, supporting local produce, eating organically--these things aren't bad, but if we pursue them, they do not make us holier. (Despite what many Seattle residents might tell you.)
Christopher McCandless was pursuing something that couldn't sanctify or save or teach or inform. Yet his life was just a visible example of following these desires too far; of making them the ultimate in his life. I think all of us live this way to some degree or another, whether we realize it or not.
Nature and a life of freedom without responsibilities may not be what we look to. It might be a successful career, money, family, art, or any number of other things. These things aren't bad things, but we pursue them and give our time and energy and lives to them as if they will save us. We orient our lives around them. Yet they can't save us any more than they saved McCandless in the end. The author of the book relates to McCandless story because the idols they pursued were the same. Yet, as Lewis writes, "nature dies on those who try to live for a love of nature." Substitute "nature" with any of the idols that we pursue and the sentence holds true.
We will pursue these 'loves' of other things to a disastrous end until we understand what Lewis describes in the end of his book.
"We were made for God. Only by being in some respect like Him, only by being a manifestation of His beauty, loving kindness, wisdom or goodness, has any earthly Beloved excited our love. It is not that we loved them too much, but that we did not quite understand what we were loving. It is not that we shall be asked to turn from them, so dearly familiar, to a Stranger. When we see the face of God we shall know that we have always known it. He has been a party to, has made, sustained and moved moment by moment within, all our earthly experiences of innocent love. All that was true love in them was, even on earth, far more His than ours, and ours only because of His. In Heaven there will be no anguish and no duty of turning away from our earthly Beloveds. First, because we shall have turned already; from the portraits to the Original, from the rivulets to the Fountain, from the creatures He made lovable to Love Himself. But secondly, because we shall find them all in Him. By loving Him more than them we shall love them more than we now do."