I have recently been re-reading C.S. Lewis classic children's books, The Chronicles of Narnia. Although I read them many years ago and appreciated them at the level of entertaining stories, I am now reading them with an eye towards (among other things) what I can learn from them theologically. Good stories can function at many different levels. It would be a mistake to read too much Christianity into them, but Christians would be amiss if we did not also pay attention to the theological subtlety with which Lewis crafted his narratives. Karl Barth developed his notion of "secular parables" in which the truth of the gospel is manifest even in sources that do not explicitly acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus Christ.(1) The gospel is known only in and through Jesus Christ, but once it is known, we can see reflections of it in other places. I have found one of those other places in The Chronicles of Narnia, and not just in the oft cited first book of that series.
In The Horse and His Boy, the 5th book in the series, we meet a peasant boy named Shasta, who makes an amazing journey.(2) (Spoiler Alert!) Although he was raised in a land called Calormen, he is making his way to Narnia to warn the Narnians of an impending invasion. Along the way, he goes through a series of adventures in which he narrowly escapes with his life. It is only with the help of his horse Bree and his new friend Aravis that he manages not only to survive, but also to complete his mission. Near the end of the book, Aslan, the great Lion whose love and goodness sustains all Narnia, reveals to Shasta that it is he who has been guiding him all along:
"I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the horses the new strength of fear for the last mile so that you should reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you."(3)
In this description of the way Aslan has been watching over Shasta, I could not help but come to a clearer understanding of the Christian understanding of the doctrine of providence. John Howard Yoder defined providence as the "conviction that the events of history are under God's control. This manifests itself in ways that are beyond both our discerning and our manipulating. Their pattern may occasionally be perceived by the prophet and later celebrated by the community."(4)
It occurs to me that, theologically speaking, the doctrine of providence exists somewhere on a spectrum in between predestination and random chaos. To hold to the doctrine of providence does not mean we take a hardline Calvinist approach, in which everything that happens happens exactly because God planned it just that way. But providence also reminds us that the story of our life is not just a series of random events, either. There is a God intimately involved in our lives, who although He never takes away our free will, neither does he leave us completely to our own devices. He is guiding us, wooing us, gently leading (sometimes stubbornly pushing) us to cooperate with Him in fulfilling the mission to which he calls us. In other words, the doctrine of providence functions in C.S. Lewis's classic children's tales in much the same way that prevenient grace functions in Wesleyan theology.
In The Horse and His Boy, Shasta did not realize that it was Aslan who was saving his life, time after time, or nudging him towards certain actions, the meaning of which Shasta did not understand at the time. But later, when Shasta's eyes were opened, he could see how the love and power of Aslan had been active in his life. I believe that a doctrine of providence, as defined by Yoder and illustrated by C. S. Lewis, can be a tremendous resource for Wesleyans as we come to terms with our calling and our mission as a church. We need not be too anxious about the future of the church. We can rest assured that God will providentially work out His will in the world and in the church. This does not mean that we have no role to play or that human agency is meaningless, but it does mean that the mission is not something we have initiated, nor does the outcome depend completely on our human efforts. Our role is to cooperate with what God has already begun. It is God who has established the covenant, sustains it through His grace, and will bring it to fruition. We can trust this God.(5)
(1) Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/3/1, (Edinburgh: Clark, 1961), pp. 38-165.
(2) C. S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy, (New York: Harper Collins, 1954.
(3) Lewis, p. 164.
(4) John Howard Yoder, What Would You Do?, (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1983), p. 35.
(5) I am grateful to The C. S. Lewis Society of the Triad (North Carolina) for the discussions of C.S. Lewis' works, in which I have participated, and which have helped me to think through these matters.