A number of years ago a musician named George Benson wrote a beautiful song entitled, “The Greatest Love of All,” and these lyrics captured my attention. A few selected lines from the lyrics read as follows:
[…] Because the greatest love of all is happening to me
I found the greatest love of all inside of me
The greatest love of all is easy to achieve
Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.
At first these lyrics appear beautiful, especially with the lilting instrumentations; however, the lyrics run counter to Lewis’s ideas about love and knowledge as well as John Calvin’s theories of love and knowledge as defined in the Institutes of the Christian Religion. This paper will articulate the numerous ways in which Calvin’s definitions of love and knowledge and the Imago Dei found in Calvin are reflected in Lewis’s fiction by focusing on Perelandra, That Hideous Strength, The Magician’s Nephew, and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.
As we consider the perception of self and the search for meaning found in popular thought which George Benson articulates in his song, “The Greatest Love of All” the question presents itself: Is learning to love yourself truly the greatest love of all? While I am not denigrating having a positive self-image at all, I am concerned with the issue of from whom or where we get our self-image to love, how we know ourselves, and how we know God.
In John Calvin’s work The Institutes of the Christian Religion Book One, Chapter 1, Calvin begins with these words,” Without knowledge of self, there is no knowledge of God” (35). As one reads further in this first section by Calvin, one finds that Calvin argues, “knowledge of ourselves not only arouses us to seek God, but also, as it were, leads us by the hand to find him” (37). The second portion of this section begins with the phrase, “Without knowledge of God, there is no knowledge of self” (37). All of these statements have great social, psychological, political, and spiritual implications because they are assertions Lewis works with throughout the four works mentioned earlier. The characters that are of particular interest in these four books are Ransom and Weston, Mark and Jane, Digory and Polly, the four Pevinses and some of the members of N.I.C.E. with a special focus on Dr. Withers and Frost-all of these characters bear great consideration due either to their knowledge of God and self, or their failure to know God and self which results in the distortion of their Imago Dei or (humanity as image bearers of God).
In Perelandra, the character that most readers relate to is Ransom, the philologist- professor who gets flown, courtesy of the Oyarsa, to Perelandra or Venus. Ironically, Ransom travels in a coffin between planets and he lands in the warm drinkable waters of Perelandra. The way that Lewis describes Perelandra is Edenic and pre-Fall since the Lady he meets knows no sin because this world has not encountered evil or even temptation. Many things in Perelandra are not as our world or our myths have shown us, but once Weston arrives via his spaceship, the potential for evil also arrives. After a short discussion, Weston announces that he is the Universe, and that he, Weston, is both God and the Devil, and he calls the Force into himself completely, but as he is giving his soul, to the Other Side in a Faustian fashion, he begs Ransom, “For Christ’s sake, don’t let them” (83). In this quotation, Weston begs for relief from his infernal choice to serve demonic forces. The reader sees that Weston has lost authentic knowledge of God and self, and he is altered for the rest of the story. Although Weston is highly educated as a full professor and a scientist, he still trades his relationship with God as a creature made by God for the supposed glories of science and human knowledge, and thus, like Faust and all other humans who trade their relationship with God for anything else, Weston loses some element of his identity as a creature made in God’s image. In chapter 10 of Perelandra, Weston speaks to Ransom from within his changed Imago Dei when he proclaims:
You must be very careful, Ransom. I’m down in the bottom of a big black
hole. No, I’m not though. I’m on Perelandra. I can’t think very well
now, but that doesn’t matter, he [the evil force] does all my thinking for me.
It’ll get quite easy presently. That boy keeps on shutting the windows.
That’s all right, they’ve taken off my head and put someone else’s on me. (111)