Perelandra Thoughts 1: Natural v. Supernatural

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I suspect that most people don’t realize that C.S. Lewis also wrote science fiction. I am currently re-reading the second installment of his “Space Trilogy,” which is called Perelandra. I’ll need to give you a brief background on the premise of the story.

The first book of the series is called Out of the Silent Planet, which tells the story of a man named Ransom who is kidnapped and taken on a space voyage to the planet Mars. On Mars, Ransom met a number of different alien races, all of which were benevolent and friendly. In fact, it seemed to him that these various alien races weren’t at all familiar with malic, hatred, or evil in any way (except in theory). They wouldn’t seek to do any other creature harm. In addition, they all live a life of deference and subservience to benevolent, immortal creatures called “eldila,” who, although they had physical form, were of an entirely different order than ordinary life. Here’s what the narrator of Perelandra says about them:

Ransom had met other things in Mars besides the Martians. He had met the creatures called eldila, and specially that great eldil who is the ruler of Mars or, in their speech; the Oyarsa of Malacandra. The eldila are very different from any planetary creatures. Their physical organism, if organism it can be called, is quite unlike either the human or the Martian. They do not eat, breed, breathe, or suffer natural death, and to that extent resemble thinking minerals more than they resemble anything we should recognise as an animal. Though they appear on planets and may even seem to our. senses to be sometimes resident in them, the precise spatial location of an eldil at any moment presents great problems. They themselves regard space (or ‘Deep Heaven’) as their true habitat, and the planets are to them not closed worlds but merely moving points—perhaps even interruptions—in what we know as the Solar System and they as the Field of Arbol.

In addition, the Martian races were apparently in frequent contact with life from other planets, and there is a whole network of communications across space, except with Earth, which they call the “Silent Planet.” This is because other worlds, and the eldila, lost regular contact with Earth a long time ago. The narrator continues:

By his own account the sorts which he had met did not usually visit our own planet—or had only begun to do so since his return from Mars. We had eldila of our own, he said, Tellurian eldils, but they were of a different kind and mostly hostile to man. That, in fact, was why our world was cut off from communication with the other planets. He described us as being in a state of siege, as being, in fact, an enemy-occupied territory, held down by eldils who were at war both with us and with the eldils of ‘Deep Heaven’, or ‘space’. Like the bacteria on the microscopic level, so these co-inhabiting pests on the macroscopic permeate our whole life invisibly and are the real explanation of that fatal bent which is the main lesson of history. If all this were true, then, of course, we should welcome the fact that eldila of a better kind had at last broken the frontier (it is, they say, at the Moon’s orbit) and were beginning to visit us.

In other words, C.S. Lewis is describing in his story a kind of “cosmic conflict” between benevolent immortal beings and rebellious immortal beings, and Earth (or “Tellus,” as these beings call it) is the place where the rebellious immortal beings have camped out for millennia. For this reason, the inhabitants of Earth have not only lost contact with (and memory of) the other planets and races, but, under the influence of these malevolent beings, they have behaved in manners entirely unthinkable to the inhabitants of other worlds.

I love the “Space Trilogy,” because C.S. Lewis gives us a glimpse of what life might look like in worlds without sin, worlds populated entirely by intelligent, wise, but innocent beings. These races are acquainted with death, grief, sorrow, heartache, but their experiences are untainted by sin, malice, or moral rebellion. In addition, it’s a bizarre but fascinating tale of a cosmic battle between good and evil—much like religion itself—cloaked in the rhetoric and style of science fiction.

Now that I’ve provided some background on the premise of the story, I can continue on. So, in the beginning of Perelandra, the narrator (a man by the name of “Lewis,” presumably intended to be the author of the book) is walking to visit Ransom, who had summoned him via telegram. He was uneasy. He explains,

[I was] not enjoying the prospect as much as I ought to. It was the eldila that were my trouble. I could just get used to the fact that Ransom had been to Mars … but to have met an eldil, to have spoken with something whose life appeared to be practically unending … Even the journey to Mars was bad enough. A man who has been in another world does not come back unchanged. … But much worse was my growing conviction that, since his return, the eldila were not leaving him alone. Little things in his conversation, little mannerisms, accidental allusions which he made and then drew back with an awkward apology, all suggested that he was keeping strange company; that there were—well, Visitors—at that cottage.

The narrator (Lewis) kept thinking to himself, sorting out in his own mind why this prospect made him nervous. Why, after all, should he be afraid? By all accounts, these extraterrestrial creatures were friendly. Why should he be worried? What makes him uneasy? His answer to the question is, I think, quite profound, and quite relevant to Latter-day Saints. He continues:

As to my intense wish never to come into contact with the eldila myself I am not sure whether I can make you understand it. It was something more than a prudent desire to avoid creatures alien in kind, very powerful, and very intelligent. The truth was all that I heard about them served to connect two things which our mind tends to keep separate, and that connecting gave me a sort of shock. We tend to think about non-human in two distinct categories which we label ‘scientific’ and ‘supernatural’ respectively. We think, in one mood, of Mr. Wells’ Martians (very unlike the real Malacandrians, by the bye), or his Selenites. In quite a different mood we let our minds loose on the possibility of angels, ghosts, fairies, and the like. But the very moment we are compelled to recognise a creature in either class as real the distinction begins to get blurred: and when it is a creature like an eldil the distinction vanishes altogether. These things were not animals—to that extent one had to classify them with the second group; but they had some kind of material vehicle whose presence could (in principle) be scientifically verified. To that extent they belonged to the first group. The distinction between natural and supernatural, in fact, broke down; and when it had done so, one realised how great a comfort it had been—how it had eased the burden of intolerable strangeness which this universe imposes on us by dividing it into two halves and encouraging the mind never to think of both in the same context. What price we may have paid for this comfort in the way of false security and accepted confusion of thought is another matter.

That’s fascinating, and, I think, true. We have two different categories in our mind: one category for things like Martians, Klingons, Vulcans, and the like, and a second category for things like spirits, ghosts, angels, fairies, God, etc. Some consider both categories unreal, some one, some the other. But to consider them both real, and then to blend these categories, moves us from the realm of accepted faith traditions (of either the religious kind or the alien conspiracy kind) to a kind of third altogether—one in which God is an extraterrestrial being of a tangible variety.

There is one chapter in the Book of Moses where God tells Abraham about a star named “Kolob,” which is near to where God dwells. There is some dispute about whether this passage literally or allegorically; God seems to be teaching Abraham about Christ, and the role of Christ in His eternal plans. He does so by analogizing Christ with a star (Kolob) which is “nearest” to God.

Whether Kolob actually exists as a real place, we don’t really know. And again, most Latter-day Saints don’t really care. I don’t think it’s ever talked about in church, nor is it ever considered relevant to the daily belief and practice of Latter-day Saints. Most of us get a little annoyed when non-members bring it up, because we generally consider it irrelevant and unimportant. And it genuinely baffles us why it’s a problem.

True enough, Latter-day Saints believe that God is an embodied being. We believe that God has a body of flesh and bones. This implies that if you set Him on scale, you could weigh Him—or that He might actually eat, drink, and perhaps even sleep (we don’t know, but this opens up the possibility). This implies also that He lives somewhere, and that if He doesn’t live on this earth, He likely lives on another one. As my friend Nathaniel says, “Mormons believe that God the Father and His Son both have a physical body. … And if God’s got a body… he’s got to live *somewhere*. And if he’s living somewhere, why not give it a name?” We don’t really know. And most of us don’t really care. It’s unimportant to our core doctrine that God is the spiritual father of all mankind, and that Christ is our redemption from sin and from death.

So the question is, why do people bring it up, and why does it bother them so much? Most of the time, when people ask me about Kolob, they do so because it seems so strange to them. It bugs them. They don’t like the idea of God living somewhere that might—potentially—be map-able on a star chart. Something about the idea irritates them. They might be willing to accept that God has a physical body—Christ did, after all—but to give His dwelling place a name, to entertain the possibility that it’s in the Milky Way somewhere (who knows?), makes people nervous and uncomfortable.

And I think C.S. Lewis, through his fictional character, has put his finger on it. It bugs people because it blends two categories that we try so very hard to keep separate. When that distinction between the natural and the supernatural breaks down, we realize “how great a comfort it had been—how it had eased the burden of intolerable strangeness which this universe imposes on us by dividing it into two halves and encouraging the mind never to think of both in the same context.” We like to keep some speculations in the realm of science fiction, other speculations in the realm of the supernatural, but we don’t like to blend the two at all. And I think that is largely an unconscious cultural artifact—there’s no logical reason for the conceptual division between the two realms.

Anyways, I just wanted to share what I think is a fantastic phenomenological exploration of why the idea of “Kolob” irritates people so much.


  1. “… there’s no logical reason for the conceptual division between the two realms.”

    Actually there are many logical reasons for the conceptual division between the two realms. The reason you conflate them is not that there are not logical reasons for dividing them, but because you don’t believe one of them — the immaterial — exists. If an immaterial realm does exist, then clearly it is conceptually divisible from the material one.

    The reason this is “comforting” is because for most people there is no contact with the immaterial realm. Or at least, no direct contact with immaterial beings. Or at least, no contact which is perceivable.

    But then that’s the whole point: The immaterial realm, if it exists, is unperceivable to us by definition. And THAT, I submit, is why the idea of encountering beings from that realm, via sense perception, is so disturbing.

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