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The Christian Sensualist


In his much neglected allegory, Pilgrim’s Regress, C.S. Lewis narrates the adolescence of a young man named “John” who, after having caught a glimpse of some distant “islands”, discovered the sweetest and most profound awakening of human desire imaginable.  As Lewis describes it, John felt a “sweetness and a pang so piercing that instantly… all the furniture of his mind was taken away.”  John longs to see the islands again, but they rarely appear to him through the sea mist, and as he grows older the sweet magic of the place becomes painfully inaccessible to him. 

Lewis’s ‘distant islands’ evoke our first religious impulse; a sharp realization that we desire a ‘better country’; a world not subject to sin, sickly guilt, and the general malaise of becoming always what we were never meant to be.  Sadly, in the case of John, and so many like him, this sharp longing for God does not translate into the immediate satisfaction we humans demand: we do not, upon receiving Christ, find ourselves in Heaven or, even, for that matter, smilingly ensconced within some utopia.  Our disappointment cannot be underestimated.  We grow bitter with age as our hopes get deferred, and as our faith shudders in the realization that the Heaven we once ached to enter has become a mere cliché.

Of course, we feel that we must solace ourselves, given that we still long for some kind of heaven, and in very much the same manner as C.S. Lewis’s allegorical hero, we begin to search for whatever sweetness we can have ‘right now’.  One afternoon, as John strained to recapture that sweet longing, he heard a woman’s voice.  As he turned about, he saw, “there in the grass beside him a laughing brown girl of about his own age, and she had no clothes on.”  The girl then said to John, “it was me you wanted… I am better than your silly island”.  Without any delay, “John rose and caught her, all in haste, and committed fornication with her in the wood”.

Lewis’s narrative is, of course, allegorical, and it seems quite likely that the incident with the ‘naked girl’ tokens a substitution of the sensual for the spiritual.  On one hand, the girl represents the immediate pleasure that the worship of the sensual brings.  Yet, this bliss soon dissolves into a jaded epiphany of deep loss as both the original ‘sweetness’ and even the desire, itself, become trapped in a habitus of futile gestures that no longer work.  In my literature classes, I describe this effect as the ‘pleasure trap’: what is sweet in place of God proves sweet no longer, but it has stayed sweet just long enough for it to become habit forming.  The habit no longer brings the sweetness, but the habit will not let me go, and if it did what would I replace it with if not just another addiction?

Solomon, by his own admission, pursued ‘pleasure’ to its necessary and bitter end.  In Ecclesiastes Chapter 2, we discover the King’s hedonistic experiment—as Solomon puts it, “I said in mine heart, Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth, therefore enjoy pleasure…”.  By the end of the experiment, Solomon can only say, “I hated life”.  In Proverbs the usual gnomic style diverts briefly into narrative when, in Chapter 9. 13-18, a ‘foolish woman’ calls out to ‘passengers’ from the ‘door of her house’ in the ‘high places of the city’.  This well-born woman makes a siren’s plea: “stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant”.  But, then, as the proverb-maker soberly warns, “but he [the would-be client] knoweth not that the dead are there; and that her guests are in the depths of hell.”

Recently, a number of sources report that around 50% of evangelical Christian men regularly view pornographic websites.  In the U.S. as a whole, some 70% of men between 18-35 view pornographic material once per month.  ‘ChristiaNet’ reports that in its survey, 50% of Christian men and 20% of Christian women view pornography.  The possibility of instant sensual pleasure has never been more available than in our time.  The number of ‘dead’ even now descending into the ‘hell’ that Solomon describes probably well exceeds numbers surveyed.   As Lewis writes, “John” still returned to the window hoping to view the distant Islands; but, now, “he had little hopes of it.  He visited it more as a man visits a grave.” 

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