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Reviews of The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth

by Douglas Harding (see submenu for complete list)

A review by John Wren-Lewis

Department of Religious Studies, University of Sydney.

The decision by a respected American university press to reissue this remarkable book, decades after its initial United Kingdom edition had apparently vanished into the limbo of English literary eccentricities, is, among other things, evidence that C.S. Lewis was a man of wider and more generous prophetic vision than even many of his admirers realise. for Lewis did much more to encourage its original 1952 publication than is evident from his four-and-one-half page Introduction, as I learned from the author when, at age 81, he paid his first-ever visit to Australia earlier this year in order to promote his latest book. And I think it appropriate to put the story on record in this special issue of The Chesterton Review, because there is much of a Chestertonian flavour about Harding's work, even though he himself claims only casual knowledge of Chesterton's writings, and represents a genre quite different from that of either Chesterton or Lewis.

He is something of a phenomenon, in that he has begun to come into his own as a religious and secular author only in the past few years, on the strength of works written well after he had already outlived the conventional human span of three-score years and ten. Indeed one of these works, The Little Book of Life and Death, published by Routledge/Arkana in 1988, was composed (when he was approaching the age of 79) as a preparation for his own death, which he assumed couldn't be far away. The American thanatologist, Ram Dass, wrote of it: "as a result of this gift, I predict, the literature on dying will never be the same again." But, in the event, Harding did not fade away; if anything, his vigour for life and work has increased. During his visit to Australia and New Zealand, he sailed easily through a schedule of lectures, workshops, and media events which most men half his age would have found punishing - a living advertisement for his mastery of the subject of his new book, the creative handling of stress. And he casually announced a further book, a novel, ready in manuscript, adding that still another was "in the pipeline."

Nevertheless, it was a completely unknown and (by his own account) painfully shy Douglas Harding who in 1951 steeled himself to approach the famous C.S. Lewis, recently elevated to the academic heights of a Cambridge Chair, in order to ask his opinion of a bulky first manuscript on which he had been labouring for some years in the time which he could spare from an architectural practice. What he had worked out was a way of doing something which Lewis had proclaimed as the objective of his own "interplanetary" novels - namely, to restore in modern scientific terms the ancient sense of the universe as a living cosmos, "deep heaven" rather than mere "space-time-matter." Yet Harding wrote with some trepidation, because his vision came from an experience that had more affinity with Zen Buddhism than with Christian orthodoxy, and the kind of living universe that he portrayed in The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth was quite different from anything envisaged in Lewis's writing.

The reply that came back, which I now have in front of me, was better than Harding had hoped for in his wildest dreams. It reveals an element in Lewis's character that has received too little attention from commentators and was, indeed, rarely given much rein by Lewis himself in public utterance, namely, a capacity for delighted enthusiasm at any new work that he felt to be really good, even when its specific ideas differed from his own. "Hang it all, you've made me drunk, roaring drunk as I haven't been on a book (I mean a book of doctrine; imaginative works are another matter) since I first read Bergson during World War I," were Lewis's opening words. He continues:

Who or what are you? How have you lived forty years without my hearing of you before? Understand that my delight is not, alas! as significant as it may seem for I was never a scientist and have long since ceased to be even a minor philosopher. A great deal of your book is beyond me. My opinion is of no value. But my sensation is that you have written a work of the highest genius.

There follow some practical criticisms and advice about possible publishers. Lewis seems almost reluctant to end the letter, crowding the paper with enthusiastic postscripts, the last of which gives a hotel address in Northern Ireland at which he could be reached during the upcoming Easter vacation should Harding so desire. The outcome was a personal introduction to Faber and Faber, who in 1952 published the book with a Preface wherein Lewis expressed his enthusiasm in more formal terms:

This book is, I believe, the first attempt to reverse a movement of thought which has been going on since the beginning of philosophy... It has also given me that bracing and satisfying experience which, in certain books of theory, seems to be partially independent of our final agreement or disagreement... a delight very like that which would be given by Mr. Hesse's glass bead game (in the book of that name) if it could really exist. I owe a new experience of that kind to Mr. Harding.

Re-reading the book now, nearly forty years on, Lewis's prescience strikes me as quite astonishing. Back then, Harding's fundamental starting-point was so radically alien from Western ways of thinking, religious and secular alike, that I'm sure many potential readers were as unable as I was to get seriously beyond his very first page - where, in a disarmingly innocent tone without any technical philosophic jargon, he blithely bypasses the split between consciousness and physical existence which has bedevilled the West since the Greeks. The passage even, without saying so, parodies Descartes' famous reflections when he was shut up in his stove:

"What am I? That is the question. Let me try to answer it as honestly and simply as I can, forgetting the ready-made answers.

Commons sense tells me that I am a man very similar to other men (adding that I am five-feet-ten, fortyish, grey-headed, around eleven stone, and so on), and that I know just what it is here and now to be me, writing on this sheet of paper. So far, surely, nothing can have gone wrong. But has my common sense really described what it is like to be me? Others cannot help me here: only I am in a position to say what I am. At once I make a startling discovery: common sense could not have been more wrong... I have no head! Here are my hands, arms, parts of my trunk and shoulders - and, mounted (so to say) on these shoulders, not a head, but these words and this paper and this desk, the wall of the room, the window, the grey sky beyond... My head has gone, and in its place a world. And all my life long I had imagined myself to be built according to the ordinary human and animal plan!"

Today the notion of "lateral thinking" has become commonplace, and almost any educated Western reader has at least heard of the Zen notion that enlightenment is not a matter of reaching some exotic higher state of consciousness through strenuous effort, but of using special outrageous statements (koans) to jerk the mind free from ingrained habits of thought so as to access an already present direct awareness of our living unity with the cosmos, which is ordinarily blocked out by the mind's constant re-interpretation of experience into customary categories. And thanks to a string of scholars from Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts in the 1950's, through Jacob Needleman and Thomas Merton in the 1960's and 70's, to Morris Berman and Matthew Fox in the 1980's, there is also now wide public familiarity with the fact that such "marketplace mysticism" is a vital but neglected part of our own Western heritage, which our current ecological crisis is driving us to reclaim. Harding's book anticipated all of this, and spelt out in elegant detail, as no writer I know of has done since, how the goal which Berman calls "re-enchantment of the world" can be achieved in the actual lives of ordinary people without any heavy disciplines (or psychedelic drugs) and without going back in any way on the genuine advances achieved by Western science and culture.

But in 1952 very few indeed of us, not even of those who, on Christian grounds, were intellectually sympathetic to the idea of a sacramental universe, were sufficiently lateral-minded to see anything more than ingenious word-spinning in Harding's "no-headed" account of how everything, from electrons to galaxies, is actually experienced as a single hierarchy of consciousness, without being in any way robbed of its materiality. His book went out of print without ever getting the attention that Lewis knew (and that I now know) it deserved. So he went back to the drawing-board, and in 1961 put out a much smaller book, concentrating on reaching the (by then) growing counter-culture who might accept his basic idea of "headlessness" as a latter-day Zen koan. He actually called it On Having No Head: Zen and the Re-Discovery of the Obvious, and it was a sign of the changing times that in some circles it became a minor classic. He was acclaimed not only by such leading scholars as Professor Huston Smith of Minnesota, doyen of contemporary religious philosophers, but also in the pop music charts by the British group, The Incredible String Band, whose Douglas Harding Song celebrates him as "the sage without a head." Then in 1988 he went on, in The Little Book of Life and Death, to link his ideas with the newly-emerging research on "Near-Death Experiences," in which vast numbers of people from all walks of life have experienced precisely this kind of "mystical" consciousness-shift when snatched back from the very brink after heart attacks, drowning, serious accidents, and other such experiences) by modern medical skills. It was at this point that I personally rediscovered him.

I had firmly resisted the rising tide of interest in mysticism which is sometimes called the New Age, remaining determinedly committed to a basically H.G. Wellsian humanism which had saved me in childhood from being choked by the fear-ridden superstition that my parents called Christianity. My efforts to re-interpret Christianity in these emphatically non-mystical terms helped to create the so-called New Theology of the 1960's, for which Lewis was a bete noir. I didn't even know about Harding's change of fortune, since from 1975 I lived as a wandering scholar in remote parts of the Third World where such news did not penetrate. But in 1983, I was resuscitated after being given up for dead from poisoning in Thailand, and I came back with a totally changed perception both of myself and of the world, a perception which I described in an earlier issue of this Review (Vol. XII, No. I, 1986) because it led me to rediscover Chesterton.

It is a mystical perception, but it is in no way misty, or even in any ordinary sense mysterious. In the early days, I often put my hand up to my head (and occasionally still do, for I have never gotten totally used to it), feeling for all the world as if the doctors had somehow removed the back of my skull so that I now actually perceive myself as obviously and self-evidently "not I, but Infinite Consciousness in me" - one might say, as Infinite Consciousness "John Wren-Lewising," creating my senses moment by moment "from behind" in order to experience, in a kind of local focus, the marvellous, if often bewildering, universe that is also, in every point, the manifestation of that same One Consciousness. Of course, with that very physical open-headed feeling, it wasn't long before it occurred to me to wonder if this could have been what that weird fellow Harding meant all those years ago by "having no head." And when The Little Book of Life and Death unexpectedly turned up for review, I was intrigued by the thought that I might have come to this awareness thirty years earlier, and without risk of death, had I persevered with taking Harding seriously. (Why risk having a near-death experience, he asks in his innocently humorous style, when at any time you can have a present-death experience simply by discovering that you've already been decapitated without knowing it?)

Nevertheless, I think that the hazardous route I actually took to rediscover Harding may incidentally have given me a clue as to why Lewis was able to respond so readily to Harding's work back in 1951, a clue which I believe has important new light to throw on much of Lewis's life and work. When Harding told me during his Australian visit about the 1979 republication of The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth by the University of Florida Press, and went on to tell me of Lewis's letter, a faint but insistent bell began ringing in my memory. After some searching, I came upon a passage in Lewis's autobiographical memoir, Surprised by Joy, which had gone quite unremarked on my first reading of it in the 1950's; and, as far as I know, has received no attention from any of his biographers or interpreters.

Writing about the explosion which rescued him from the horrors of the World-War-One trenches, Lewis almost casually relates a very low-key account of a near-death experience, over half a century before this had become a common phenomenon by virtue of medical advances, or had been given its technical name (by American psychiatrist Dr. Raymond Moody in his 1975 bestseller, Life after Life.) What is more, Lewis's account, unlike most that make headlines today, was not of any other worldly vision, but of precisely that same consciousness-shift which has enabled me to understand Harding's "headlessness." Lewis puts it in academic language which is very easily passed over by anyone who doesn't know firsthand what he is talking about:

"I found (or thought I found) that I was not breathing and concluded that this was death. I felt no fear and certainly no courage. it did not seem to be an occasion for either. The proposition "Here is a man dying" stood before my mind as dry, as factual, as unemotional as something in a text-book. It was not even interesting. The fruit of this experience was that when, some years later, I met Kant's distinction between the Noumenal and he Phenomenal self, it was more to me than an abstraction. I had tasted it; I had proved that there was a fully conscious "I" whose connections with the "me" of introspection were loose and transitory."

And just to complete the picture for me, Lewis goes on to describe how he shortly afterwards read Bergson, in a convalescent camp on Salisbury Plain, and found his emotions opening to an entirely new relish for the sheer energy of life, "the resource, the triumphs, even the insolence, of things that grow." He writes:

"I became capable of appreciating artists who would, I believe, have meant nothing to me before; all the resonant, dogmatic, flaming, unanswerable people like Beethoven, Titian (in his mythological pictures), Goethe, Dunbar, Pindar, Christopher Wren, and the more exultant psalms."

So that was why Lewis's letter linked his "roaring drunk" response to Harding with his first reading of Bergson! I had much the same realisation of a new sense of nature's energy when I re-read Moby Dick shortly after my own near-death-experience, and found myself for the first time understanding with the whales as well as Ahab.

I suspect a whole new vein could be opened up in the understanding of Lewis and his work by recognising the interplay in his life - often, I would say, amounting almost to conflict - between the openness that came from his direct "taste" of noumenal reality, and the puritan moralism that so heavily dominated his eventual Christian conversion. But that's another story. here my conclusion must be to return to Harding, whose 1990 book, Head Off Stress (Routledge/Arkana), seems set to bring him to still wider notice, dealing as it does with the archetypal problem of modern society, which affects sections of the public who would never read books about Zen of death. This, combined with the growing ecological awareness, as our century approaches its close, surely makes the time ripe for a really wide rediscovery of his first book, The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth, a book which is a fuller statement of his total sacramental vision than anything that he has written since. This book has hardly dated at all.

I can particularly commend it to Chestertonians, for Harding, even more than Lewis, has Chesterton's gift for presenting high philosophical arguments in everyday terms with a marvellous dance of words. For example, he encapsulates into a single paragraph the extraordinary paradox of human identity in the light of what modern biology reveals, a paradox which made medical scientist Lewis Thomas's book, Lives of a Cell, a bestseller in the 1970's:

"But the science-based observer is not content to keep a ... respectful distance: he goes into matters. And he finds this smooth exterior to be a tissue-thin screen for a fabulous menagerie of living things, fed at intervals through a hole near the top of their cage - beings which, though blind and brainless, have a wonderful way of helping one another, and of responding with exquisite accuracy to their keeper-trainer's unspoken demands... But.... even at their most unruly such specialists do not rank as true individuals, but as fragments. Not so the cells of which they are composed. These - and there are billions of them - are distinct, self-contained animals, of many different types and ways of life. Most are sedentary, but some make their way freely about the body; and each, whatever its way of picking up a living, is born separately and dies separately, feeds for itself upon its environment, and excretes into it. And certainly there is, in the community of cells, no lack of what, at other levels, are called ruthlessness and struggle for existence."

But Harding goes beyond Thomas, to make us aware of ourselves as also a community of molecules, atoms and mysterious sub-atomic entities, all engaged in an unimaginable dance that I still manage blithely to call myself, you, or him or her. And then, by a switch of perspective which no other architect I know has ever envisaged, he makes us realise that the mystery called "I" is also conscious as a home, a district, a land. He thereby opens up a the prospect of a rebirth of patriotism, local and national, which would have delighted Chesterton's heart. Harding writes:

"Our maps are earth's death-masks. Her life slips through the geographer's finest longitude-latitude net.... Yet these curiously rugged and weather-beaten features live. Italy cannot wiggle her toe or bend her spine, but she is not therefore moribund. The genius of my native land really is the land's; for England's indispensable function in Humanity is not the function of this or that man who happens to live there, but of the terrain that comes to a head in him. No wonder there is at last some talk of geopsychology, of continental influences. The truth is that till I take on not only the unique mind, but also the body, the geography, of Asia and America as well as Europe, I can never become fully human."

Beyond even that, "I" am also the consciousness of the stars: the Victorians whose spines were chilled at the thought of an unending but totally impersonal cosmos, "glittering magnificently unperturbed," had simply forgotten themselves looking at it and thinking about it. Here Harding sums up the argument of Teilhard de Chardin in a few sentences, and the language is so Chestertonian that if I didn't know otherwise, I'd have betted that Harding had soaked himself in Chesterton:

"I do know something of the other stars, namely that I live in them observing this star: even those which lack planets are not, then, without any life at all... A studied universe is different absolutely from an unstudied. The most important astronomical fact is astronomy."

And the Whole? "The Whole lacks nothing... Every setting-board is a Calvary, every collector's pin a crucifier's nail. Every dust-grain, every electron and proton, every point-instant, is Bethlehem; every nest the manger-cradle. The path of the One who comes down passes through our zoological gardens and our physical laboratories no less than our churches. Yet the completeness of His descent into matter is the guarantee that He is immeasurably beyond and above it." To which, lest it begin to sound portentous, Harding adds a truly Chestertonian coda that echoes Dante's riso dell'universo:

"Without beauty the truth becomes solemn, ponderous, dreary; and goodness becomes joyless and over-earnest. Lightness of touch, spontaneity, gaiety, even abandon, are needed if the saint and the sage are to avoid taking on an ugly appearance, not to say an evil one. And indeed the universe does not look like the product of a logician, or a works-manager, and still less like the work of a priest; but much more like that of an artist who is well aware of the value of nonsense, of play, and of the superbly bountiful imagination. In Hell we are all admirably practical and down-to-earth; we do not find life fun, but take it and ourselves very seriously. But I suspect that all Heaven is light-hearted and merry, and that the skies are one broad smile, and that the blessed galaxies are even now shaking their fiery manes with laughter, while Satan is profoundly shocked at their lack of gravity and earnest common sense."

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