Archives For Redemption

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If you don’t know the meaning of “hamartia,” you’re not alone. But it’s a very important word, for more than one reason, so read on.

Hamartia describes a feature many writers of fiction or drama instill in their most memorable characters. It simply means “tragic flaw.” The deep character defect which cannot be overcome by sincere intention or persistent effort.

Merriam-Webster describes it this way.

Aristotle introduced the term in the Poetics to describe the error of judgment which ultimately brings about the tragic hero’s downfall. As you can imagine, the word is most often found in literary criticism.

However, news writers occasionally employ the word when discussing the unexplainable misfortune or missteps of übercelebrities regarded as immortal gods and goddesses before being felled by their own shortcomings.

Despite being a thespian in high school, I never formally studied drama. So I didn’t encounter the word there.

Likewise, I have written consistently since earning a Journalism degree four decades ago. However, since I have a 37:1 nonfiction to fiction ratio, I did not know this Greek word had found its way into the English lexicon.

I was surprised to discover its English meaning in my usually-familiar word of the day email (from The Free Dictionary).

While I was unfamiliar with its English usage, I already knew the word. I originally met hamartia (ἁμαρτία) while studying the New Testament in Greek. Hamartia literally refers to “missing the mark,” and it is the primary biblical Greek word for sin.

The first usage of the word in the sense of being an inner quality, occurs in Aristotle’s Poetics.  Aristotle writing as a pre-Christian philosopher, naturally perceived the literary device in a pagan manner.

The Greek word hamartia translates pretty directly as “error” or “shortcoming” without any necessary overtones of guilt or moral failure. Our modern conception of tragedy and the “tragic flaw” of the hero usually involves the concept of hubris, or overweening pride, that leads to disaster.

Macbeth, for instance, has the arrogance to think he can overstep the laws of God and state, and ultimately pays dearly for this arrogance. Macbeth is a tragic hero with a clear tragic flaw: his downfall results from a moral failing and can be seen as divine retribution proportional to his guilt. But Macbeth also contains heavy Christian overtones that would of course be found nowhere in Greek tragedy.

An understanding of Aristotle’s concept of hamartia—and indeed an understanding of Greek tragedy in general—relies on an understanding of the ethics and cosmology of the ancient Greeks. . . . Greek ethics are based more on the notion of virtue than obligation.

What of the Consequences?

In a 2014 article entitled “C.S. Lewis: The Anti-Platonic Platonist,” Grace Tiffany skillfully explores the Platonic echoes in Lewis’ writings. In discussing his literary examples of human failings, she writes:

There are of course Biblical models justifying Lewis’ “negatively capable” presentations of misguided characters . . . An older philosophical source, if not a Platonic one, also justifies mimetic representations of evil by the argument that these are morally purgative.

Imitations of hamartia, or tragic error, produce “fear and pity” (Aristotle, Poetics 1453b)—compassion for the character elicited by a skilled simulation of his psychology, naturally accompanied by a healthy fear of ourselves making similar mistakes. What ensures the fear is, of course, the dramatization of the horrible end to which hamartia has led . . . (Christianity and Literature 63.3).

In 1953, C.S. Lewis wrote to a correspondent that sin was more than merely making a mistake. In doing so, he alludes to the change in the meaning of the word ἁμαρτία.

No. I don’t think sin is completely accounted for by faulty reasoning nor that it can be completely cured by re-education. That view has, indeed, been put forward: by Socrates and, in the early 19th Century, by Godwin.

But I think it overlooked the (to me) obviously central fact that our will is not necessarily determined by our reason. If it were, then, as you say, what are called ‘sins’ would not be sins at all but only mistakes, and would require not repentances but merely correction.

Returning to the literary or dramatic definition of hamartia as a tragic flaw, it seems to me that this term offers a fitting parallel to the word sin.

Ever since humanity’s fall, we suffer the curse of bearing original sin, a tragic flaw. It is a scar that no medical or psychological treatment can cure and no amount of determination can repair. This tragic flaw will be our doom. Unless, that is, there is One who is capable and desirous of restoring us to our original health and purity. One, perhaps, in whose own image you and I were created . . .

This wonder is something well worth pondering—and perhaps one day, writing about.

New Beauty Each Day

May 29, 2013 — 7 Comments

fawnI woke this morning to a scene from Disney.

Looking out the window, with my coffee perking in the background, God blessed me with fabulous scene. A pregnant doe, lying on the ground to rest her weary legs, was peacefully grazing on our lawn. (Echoes of gentle Faline.)

As if that vision were not spectacular enough, a few yards to her side a small bunny hopped about, nibbling on the same grass. (We seeded our lawn with clover to provide a welcoming meal for just such visitors.) The rabbit was alone, although we watched it frolic with its siblings just the other day. (Might they be the children of carefree Thumper?)

Completing the scene were a bevy robins and sparrows. They hopped around the pair, in a wonderful display of original nature’s harmony, which will one day be restored.

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,

   and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,

and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;

   and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze;

   their young shall lie down together;

   and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

                     Isaiah 11:6-7, ESV

The Creator of Narnia understood the essence of this peace as well as anyone. C.S. Lewis revealed that just as nature was created at peace, so too the new creation would mark a restoration of that purity. As Lewis writes in Miracles, Nature “is to be redeemed. The ‘vanity’ to
which she was subjected was her disease, not her essence. She will be cured, but cured in character: not tamed (Heaven forbid) . . .”

For the present time, however, we must be content to appreciate brief glimpses of that promise . . . just as I am now, as I write. (Yes, the doe is still resting mere feet from my window.)

Precious moments like this are something to be savored. A sweet foretaste of the feast to come.

_____

The full context of Lewis’ words from Miracles follows. In this passage he warns us not to worship what is created, but only its Creator.

You must have tasted, however briefly, the pure water from beyond the world before you can be distinctly conscious of the hot, salty tang of Nature’s current. To treat her as God, or as Everything, is to lose the whole pith and pleasure of her. Come out, look back, and then you will see . . . this astonishing cataract of bears, babies, and bananas: this immoderate deluge of atoms, orchids, oranges, cancers, canaries, fleas, gases, tornadoes and toads.

How could you ever have thought that this was the ultimate reality? How could you ever have thought that it was merely a stage-set for the moral drama of men and women? She is herself. Offer her neither worship nor contempt. Meet her and know her. If we are immortal, and if she is doomed (as the scientists tell us) to run down and die, we shall miss this half-shy and half-flamboyant creature, this ogress, this hoyden, this incorrigible fairy, this dumb witch.

But the theologians tell us that she, like ourselves, is to be redeemed. The “vanity” to which she was subjected was her disease, not her essence. She will be cured, but cured in character: not tamed (Heaven forbid) nor sterilised. We shall still be able to recognise our old enemy, friend, play-fellow and foster-mother, so perfected as to be not less, but more, herself. And that will be a merry meeting.

The Dearest of Deer

May 25, 2012 — 10 Comments

Thank you, Lord, for allowing us to live in a home surrounded by a forest!

When I was driving home this afternoon I was stunned by the majestic flight of a dozen bald eagles as they danced in the sky above our small community of Seabeck, Washington. I pulled to the side of the road and enjoyed their ballet for some time before deciding that I would blog about eagles when I returned home.

Then I saw something even more precious. Just outside the window of my study a doe and her two (very) young fawns walked past. I grabbed my camera and snapped no fewer than fifty photos as they grazed on the nearby lawn. (I decided as they wandered on down another trail that the post on the eagles would wait.)

The fawns were so tiny I don’t think they could have been fourteen inches tall. (Sorry, we older Americans are still metric-impaired.) They stood as though they were still getting the feel of their tiny legs. It was a glorious scene.

C.S. Lewis graced the land of Narnia with a stunning array of creatures. Some are not found in this world, apart from myths. Unicorns and centaurs would be of that ilk.

I happen to find the others even more fascinating. The horses, dogs and bears that are familiar to us, but different. Different because they have been gifted with speech, and with it, the ability to know and follow their Maker.

As he wrote in his description of Narnia’s creation in The Magician’s Nephew:

And now, for the first time, the Lion [Aslan] was quite silent. He was going to and fro among the animals. And every now and then he would go up to two of them (always two at a time) and touch their noses with his. He would touch two beavers among all the beavers, two leopards among all the leopards, one stag and one deer among all the deer, and leave the rest. . . . The creatures whom he had touched came and stood in a wide circle around him. . . .

The Lion, whose eyes never blinked, stared at the animals as hard as if he was going to burn them up with his mere stare. And gradually a change came over them. The smaller ones—the rabbits, moles, and such-like—grew a good deal larger. The very big ones—you noticed it most with the elephants—grew a little smaller. Many animals sat up on their hind legs. Most put their heads on one side as if they were trying very hard to understand. The Lion opened his mouth, but no sound came from it; he was breathing out, a long, warm breath; it seemed to sway all the beasts as the wind sways a line of trees.

Far overhead from beyond the veil of blue sky which hid them the stars sang again; a pure, cold, difficult music. Then there came a swift flash like fire (but it burnt nobody) either from the sky or from the Lion itself, and every drop of blood tingled in the children’s bodies, and the deepest, wildest voice they had ever heard was saying: “Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.”

The scene I was privileged to observe today reminded me of the innocence of nature, prior to humanity’s disobedience. It also reminded me of the Messianic promises that restored “nature” will enable lions to lie in harmony beside sheep.

In his book Miracles, Lewis discusses this from the perspective of redemption, as contrasted with simply understanding it as a consequence of a “new” creation.

The doctrine of a universal redemption spreading outwards from the redemption of Man, mythological as it will seem to modern minds, is in reality far more philosophical than any theory which holds that God, having once entered Nature, should leave her, and leave her substantially unchanged, or that the glorification of one creature [humanity] could be realised without the glorification of the whole system.

God never undoes anything but evil, never does good to undo it again. The union between God and Nature in the Person of Christ admits no divorce. He will not go out of Nature again and she must be glorified in all ways which this miraculous union demands. When spring comes it “leaves no corner of the land untouched;” even a pebble dropped in a pond sends circles to the margin.

I said a prayer this evening that the Lord would bless that lovely doe and her precious offspring with long, healthy, safe, peaceful, and even, happy lives.