Talking about Bicycles

One of the common criticisms of a traditionally Christian sexual ethic is that it forces a lot of gay people into involuntary celibacy, which some find very lonely, painful, frustrating.

I want to start by saying I think this critique is at least partially right. Trying to be faithful to a Christian sexual ethic without the support of either a spouse or a religious community is difficult. When you add misunderstanding by many in the Christian community, the task is only made more difficult.

In this post I want to focus in particular on how to be honest about all that is painful and difficult, while still holding firm to the hope that obedience to Christ is good for us, that by conforming our lives to His will, we will blossom and flourish in some meaningful sense, even if we also face significant struggle.

This is a difficult question, of course, but it is also a question which Christians have wrestled with long before now. Thinking about these issues reminded me of C. S. Lewis’s essay “Talking about Bicycles,” which was first published in Resistance in October, 1946, and later collected in Present Concerns.

Lewis begins the essay with an apparently mundane conversation:

“Talking about bicycles,” said my friend, “I have been through the four ages. I can remember a time in early childhood when a bicycle meant nothing to me: it was just part of the huge meaningless background of grown-up gadgets against which life went on. Then came a time when to have a bicycle, and to have learned to ride it, and to be at last spinning along on one’s own, early in the morning, under trees, in and out of the shadows, was like entering Paradise. That apparently effortless and frictionless gliding—more like swimming than any other motion, but really most like the discovery of a fifth element—that seemed to have solved the secret of life. Now one would begin to be happy. But, of course, I soon reached the third period. Pedaling to and fro from school (it was one of those journeys that feel up-hill both ways) in all weathers, soon revealed the prose of cycling. The bicycle, itself, became to me what his oar is to a galley slave.”

“But what was the fourth age?” I asked.

“I am in it now, or rather I am frequently in it. I have had to go back to cycling lately now that there’s no car. And the jobs I use it for are often dull enough. But again and again the mere fact of riding brings back a delicious whiff of memory. I recover the feelings of the second age. What’s more, I see how true they were—how philosophical, even. For it really is a remarkably pleasant motion. To be sure, it is not a recipe for happiness as I then thought. In that sense the second age was a mirage. But a mirage of something.”

“How do you mean?” said I.

“I mean this. Whether there is, or whether there is not, in this world or in any other, the kind of happiness which one’s first experiences of cycling seemed to promise, still, on any view, it is something to have had the idea of it. The value of the thing promised remains even if that particular promise was false—even if all possible promises of it are false.”

The last sentences begin to turn the conversation from merely a mundane discussion of bicycles toward something much deeper. Lewis suggests that the “four ages” represent something more universal. He labels them Unenchantment, Enchantment, Disenchantment, and Re-enchantment, and argues that they have application to many different aspects of human life, including spiritual life.

He points out that two of the ages (Unenchantment and Disenchantment) take a negative view of the aspect of life under discussion, while two (Enchantment and Re-enchantment) take a positive view. But he makes it clear that it’s important to distinguish between these. If someone is complaining, it makes a good deal of difference whether they are complaining because they have never been Enchanted by the thing, or if they are complaining because they have been Disenchanted.

[Suppose] you read an author in whom love is treated as lust and all war as murder—and so forth. But are you reading a Disenchanted man or only an Unenchanted man? Has the writer been through the Enchantment and come out on to the bleak highlands, or is he simply a subman who is . . . free from the heroic mirage as a coward is free? If Disenchanted, he may have something worthwhile to say, though less than a Re-enchanted man. If Unenchanted, into the fire with his book. He is talking of what he doesn’t understand. But the great danger we have to guard against in this age is the Unenchanted man, mistaking himself for, and mistaken by others for, the Disenchanted man.”

In the same way, if someone is lauding something, it makes a good deal of difference whether they are only Enchanted, or if they have passed through Disenchantment and become Re-enchanted.

For example, Lewis, who served in the trenches in World War I and lost some of his closest friends in battle, distinguishes between the patriotism of Re-enchanted war poetry like Homer or The Battle of Maldon with the merely Enchanted poetry of poets who “obviously  have no idea what a battle is like,” like Chesterton’s Battle of Lepanto or Macaulay’s The Lays of Ancient Rome.

Most of our juniors were brought up Unenchanted about war. The Unenchanted man sees (quite correctly) the waste and cruelty and sees nothing else. The Enchanted man is in the Rupert Brook or Philip Sidney state of mind—he’s thinking of glory and battle-poetry and forlorn hopes and last stands and chivalry. Then comes the Disenchanted Age—say Siegfried Sassoon. But there is also a fourth stage, though very few people in modern England dare to talk about it. You know quite well what I mean. One is not in the least deceived: we remember the trenches too well. We know how much of the reality the romantic view left out. But we also know that heroism is a real thing, that all the plues and flags and trumpets of the tradition were not there for nothing. They were an attempt to honour what is truly honourable: what was first perceived to be honourable precisely because everyone knew how horrible war is.

I remember in my late teens and early twenties, when I was first embracing chastity, I sometimes had difficulty distinguishing those who were Disenchanted with chastity from those who were Re-enchanted. the Re-enchanted men and women I met recognized and pointed out the illusions of Enchantment, and agreed with many of the complaints of the Disenchanted.

It was easy to look on the Re-enchanted not as those who had passed beyond Disenchantment, but rather as those who were making the first fatal compromises with Disenchantment. They were beginning to lose what I would, at that age, have called “hope”—that is, they no longer believed in the illusions in which I still invested my hope. They were also honest enough to acknowledge the legitimacy of many of the complaints made by the Disenchanted.

Because I saw the world through Enchanted lenses, I did not readily distinguish between those who were headed down into the valley of Disenchantment, and those who were climbing out on the other side. From the perspective of Enchantment, the salient feature of both Disenchantment and Re-enchantment was the loss of Enchantment.

Now, I usually play the game from the other side. I meet young Enchanted Christians who reproach me for what they call my lack of hope, or lack of faith in God’s power to transform. Undoubtedly, there is some truth in that. I certainly struggle to trust God, to remain faithful, to believe that His plans for my life are good.

But I have also been doing this publicly for 15 years now. I’ve known a lot of Christians who deal with homosexuality, and I know that many of the “hopes” embraced by young Enchanted Christians are unrealistic. And, I have watched many of these Christians, who once criticized my “lack of faith” or “failure of hope,” slide into Disenchantment themselves as their orientation does not change or as loneliness becomes too difficult for them to bear.

There is an interesting transition in how they now understand me. Working from the perspective of Enchantment, they once thought I had compromised too much with Disenchantment. Today, working from the perspective of Disenchantment, many of them see me as naively clinging to the Enchantment which they “saw through” long ago and abandoned.

And so just as Enchantment often misses the difference between Disenchantment and Re-Enchantment, so Disenchantment can all too easily miss the difference between Enchantment and Re-Enchantment.

I think there are three important lessons here.

First, we should not fear the loss of Enchantment. What we mean by “faith” and “hope” when we are Enchanted is often rather superficial. It does not engage with the difficult sayings of the New Testament, where the heroes who lived by faith in Hebrews 11 suffer without seeing their reward, and where Paul says that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-4). Moving past the milk of this stage to the solid food of a more mature understanding of faith and hope is a good thing, even if it is, as the New Testament already clearly anticipated, a painful process, best captured by the image, “take up your cross.”

Second, for those who have passed out of Enchantment into Disenchantment, it seems to me important to recognize the possibility of Re-enchantment, and thus take time to distinguish between those who criticize Disenchantment from a merely Enchanted perspective, and those who have passed through Disenchantment and rediscovered what was true in Enchantment through Re-enchantment.

Finally, one of the things that I think is helpful about the way that Lewis generalizes the ages, so that this process can apply to something as mundane as bicycles or as serious as war, is that most people will have passed through to Re-enchantment with respect to at least some aspect of their life. Once we have recognized the pattern, we have a framework for thinking about our attitudes in various departments of life. If we have passed through to the fourth age in at least one area of our life, but remain Enchanted or Disenchanted in other areas, we may have a better framework for either having perspective on the loss of Enchantment, if we find ourselves going through that, or on the possibility of moving beyond Disenchantment, if we find ourselves there.

ron50Ron Belgau is completing a PhD in Philosophy, and teaches medical ethics, philosophy of the human person, ethics, and philosophy of religion. He can be followed on Twitter: @RonBelgau.

5 thoughts on “Talking about Bicycles

  1. Some powerful things to think about today, especially as this relates to understanding the true position of both your opponents in your allies.

    However, I do question the fatalism that seems to be present in this viewpoint. Do we have no choice but to slide from enchantment into disenchantment? Because, despite what you claim in your first lesson, I do fear the loss of my enchantment, that is if the only option is to abandon it for disenchantment. I can’t stand the thought of living in the constant cynicism of thinking that my personal experience proves the ideal is untrustworthy. Call me a foolish idealist, but I rather always stay naive and enchanted than cynical and disenchanted. And as you made note, C.S. Lewis asserts “the value of the thing promised remains even if that particular promise was false—even if all possible promises of it are false.”

    But I recognize that I can’t remain a naive idealist, for those are the ones who become the most bitter disenchanted ones. But is there not some way to cross the chasm of disenchantment without placing a single foot into it? Is there not some bridge that us young idealists can cross, built by older, wiser men and women who themselves have crossed that chasm, who know the pitfalls and dangers, the very reality of the struggle of life, who may say to us, “Watch out, I stumbled at the very step you are making right now,” or “I know that life is difficult right now, but I also know that you can make it.” Isn’t this what spiritual friendship is all about, to help our friends overcome temptations and continue toward the ideal, fully recognizing the pitfalls and the dangers? I, for one, am overwhelmingly thankful that I live in a time and place where I have the examples of forerunners who are making the journey to celibacy and chastity and are telling their stories for the first time in at least recent history. So thank you for your example.

  2. Hi, Ryan, thanks for the comment.

    First of all, notice that C. S. Lewis is talking about our attitude toward a thing. The man who is disenchanted with bicycles may still ride them to work. The man disenchanted with war is not therefore excused from the trenches.

    So disenchantment speaks to the emotions we feel, but not necessarily to our will. Sometimes, when we are disenchanted with something, we give it up, but not always.

    In my own case, I never abandoned chastity as a way of life, even as I went through difficult times when my original hopes were disappointed and the prospect of lifelong celibacy seemed hopelessly bleak.

    There’s a quote from the Screwtape Letters which may be helpful here:

    You must have often wondered why the Enemy [Christ] does not make more use of His power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree He chooses and at any moment. But you now see that the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids Him to use. Merely to override a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo. For His ignoble idea is to eat the cake and have it; the creatures are to be one with Him, but yet themselves; merely to cancel them, or assimilate them, will not serve. He is prepared to do a little overriding at the beginning. He will set them off with communications of His presence which, though faint, seem great to them, with emotional sweetness, and easy conquest over temptation. But He never allows this state of affairs to last long. Sooner or later He withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all those supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs—to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish. It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best. We can drag our patients along by continual tempting, because we design them only for the table, and the more their will is interfered with the better. He cannot ‘tempt’ to virtue as we do to vice. He wants them to learn to walk and much therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles. Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

    I don’t know if there is a way of crossing the chasm from enchantment to re-enchantment without even putting a single foot into disenchantment. But I think it is possible to remain loyal to the vision, even as one struggles with disenchantment.

    Even when disenchantment is darkest, it is still possible to choose to obey. Most of us, of course, struggle a great deal more with obedience when we are disenchanted. However, I do think it’s easier to move from enchantment to re-enchantment if we face disenchantment with obedience. After all, the farther we run away, the longer the road home will be.

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