Story, Value, and Becoming More Real
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Daring to Dare

June 17, 2024

Junius Johnson

The human imagination gazes upon infinite possibilities. In this gaze, it may, if directed upwards, be filled with the vision of God, and so be receptive. Or it may look upon the world and recognize in it the created potential for making, and so actively mold the world. In The Cultivating Imagination, we will explore this nexus. On the one hand, these reflections aim to facilitate our openness to the sweet influence of divine grace raining down upon us. On the other, they are directed at the ways we work the land (of our world, societies, families, and hearts) to create desire paths that allow grace to more effectively water the land. In these two ways, the imagination fulfills the twin duties of love to God and neighbor.

“Draw near. Nearer still, my son. Do not dare not to dare.”

C.S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy

Thus does Aslan speak to Bree, a talking horse born in Narnia but raised in exile. Bree remembers that Aslan is his lord, and offers him deep reverence, but is deathly afraid of lions. He denies that Aslan could really be a lion: He thinks it must be some sort of metaphor. Yet as he is in the midst of explaining this (in a very condescending way), he is tickled by the whiskers of the very real lion who is also his lord, and he flees from him in panic.

Bree is experiencing the gap that can exist between what we think we want and what we actually want; between the hypothetical price we’re willing to pay for what we believe, and the soul-wrenching hesitation before the hard reality of the actual price. It’s the moment when, having told God we will give everything we have for Him, He replies: “No: you will give much more.”

The demands of faith are surprising, and this is itself surprising. We know it will demand a steep price; we know that there will be suffering and blood (at least metaphorical, and very possibly literal); we know that it will test our hearts and uncover our deepest, truest allegiances. And yet, when the demand actually comes, it doesn’t look the way we thought it would.

We were prepared for ridicule, suffering, even martyrdom; we were not prepared for this assault by a thousand irrelevancies, a slow, unremarkable, steady diet of inconsequential choices that turn out, in the end, not to have been inconsequential at all.

No, they were rehearsals, and we discover when the curtain goes up that we have been practicing to fail the whole time. Or the test does come in a big and flashy form, just as we had hoped (if we may speak of hoping for something we ultimately dread); but it comes in a form so different than we expected that all of our preparation doesn’t apply to it. Bree was ready for Aslan to be anything: anything other than a lion.

Aslan’s words cut to the heart of our struggle: daring. In The Silver Chair, Jill finds herself blocked from satisfying her thirst by the presence of the lion. Unlike Bree, she has not heard of Aslan (she has heard the name but already forgotten it) and has no notion that this unsafe creature might also be good. She thinks she’s dying of thirst: He invites her to drink. She, quite reasonably, tries to get some assurances that it will be safe: “Will you promise not to—do anything to me, if I do come?” “No.” “Do you eat girls?” “I have.” And then she comes to the point: given the situation and that He can make no guarantees of her safety, she says: “I daren’t come and drink.” Aslan replies with the simple and inexorable truth: “Then you will die of thirst.”[1]

Aslan will not promise not to do anything to Jill because he knows very well that he intends to do something to her. He will force her to confess, for the good of her own soul, and he will give her a quest that will make her a friend of Narnia. Indeed, though she is never a queen in Narnia, she wears a royal crown in Aslan’s country at the end of all things.

That is what is on the line: eternal glory, or death by thirst, the sound of saving water maddeningly burbling in your ears.

This is why Bree, and we as well, must not dare not to dare. Aslan’s command underscores the truth that not daring, not expressing courage, is not really on the table. To not dare is a kind of anemic daring, a lazy courage that chooses the immediately easier path, and in so doing, takes a more daring risk in the long run. Those who dare not to dare are daring to test the displeasure of Aslan, the fundamental justice of the universe. They dare to trust in their own strength, which is the longest of long odds.

But to really see this requires an inversion. Because it is not at all intuitive that my not daring is itself a kind of daring. That’s certainly not what it feels like. Cowardice and courage are two different things, are they not? Aslan doesn’t seem to think so. Everyone dares something; it’s only that we have convinced ourselves that certain things are safe, when really they are among the most dangerous risks we can take.

This is where we need to turn to the imagination. For no other human faculty can take the world we know and turn it upside down. When you’ve spent your whole life looking at something from the inside out, reason alone will not allow you to envision it from the outside in.

The problem with weak courage, the courage that chooses the present comfort over the future terror, is that it thrives on a failure of vision. It finds its room to exist in the fact that closer things are seen better, and feel more real. This makes the present choice between safety or danger seem like the relevant choice. But the lion cuts across all of that: if you keep choosing safety, you will die of thirst. If you do not face the danger, you will always be a foolish old horse. This is, in fact, the reason he is a lion: to make it absolutely clear to you that you cannot get to where you need to be without staking everything, without taking your life into your own hands, and then handing it over to someone else.

Without courage it is not possible to come to God.

So we need a twofold use of the imagination. The first brings into focus the danger that seems remote and implausible, the one we still think we can bluff our way past, or hustle our way out of, or just be lucky enough to avoid. These are all lies: you cannot come to the water without facing the lion and looking into his eyes. It is only because we allow that danger to remain abstract and distant that we can fool ourselves into thinking that we take the safer course in daring not to dare.

The second use of the imagination is no less important: we must cause the reward that awaits, the thing for which we dare to be daring, to become quite clear in our minds. When we love something, even with our tainted, sinful love, we are willing to sacrifice much for it. The imagination has to bring the loveliest of all objects to our view so that we can remember that it is worth losing everything else for. That reward is Aslan himself, is communion with the one whose beauty is so great that it is worth being devoured just to say you were killed by Beauty.

And so we have to recast our understanding of courage. We need to reevaluate our estimation of danger and our assessment of risk. For as long as we dare not to dare, we run a greater risk than whatever phantom fears we attach to approaching the Beauty above all beauties. The price is high, higher than we know, and it will hurt in ways we cannot properly conceive. But the stakes, the prize at the end of it all: the chance to really mean, to matter in the most important ways, to at last fill the longing to love worthily and be loved infinitely: oh, do not dare not to dare.

[1]  The Silver Chair, ch. 2

The featured image is courtesy of Justin Lee Parker and is used with his kind permission for Cultivating.


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