Defending the Faith: Three deaths, five decades ago

Published: Thursday, Nov. 21 2013 5:00 a.m. MST

John F. Kennedy visits Utah, Nov. 11, 1957. (Deseret News archives) John F. Kennedy visits Utah, Nov. 11, 1957. (Deseret News archives)

Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and, as such, has already received considerable attention.

His death was a traumatic experience for the nation, and those of us who are old enough to remember it will never forget where we were when we heard the news.

I vividly recall being told on the playground during school recess that the president had been shot. I remember Walter Cronkite’s announcement of Kennedy's death and my teacher sobbing.

I recall solemn days of nonstop television coverage: Lyndon B. Johnson taking the oath of office aboard Air Force One beside the grief-stricken Jacqueline Kennedy, the president’s body returning from Dallas, and his somber funeral service transfixed us all.

C.S. Lewis (msn.com) C.S. Lewis (msn.com)

Lost in the tumult, shock and sorrow of that day, however, were the deaths of two other important men — Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis — who passed away within hours of President Kennedy.

Huxley is best remembered today as the author of the famous dystopian novel “Brave New World” and for his advocacy of Vedantic mystical experience, and, in such books as “The Doors of Perception,” the use of psychedelic drugs. (He died just before his views came to dominate the youth culture of my native 1960s California. The famous rock group “The Doors” took its name from his book.)

And Lewis, of course, is the deservedly popular Christian novelist and apologist who was, in my judgment, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. (J.R.R. Tolkien, another of them, was among the few mourners at his funeral in Oxford.)

I’ve sometimes imagined Kennedy, Huxley and Lewis meeting, somehow, in one of the antechambers of the next world, and wondered, if they did, what their meeting would have been like. And I’m clearly not alone.

In his 1982 book “Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley,” the prolific Catholic philosopher and apologist Peter Kreeft describes a hypothetical conversation between the three.

Kreeft pictures Kennedy, his Catholicism notwithstanding, as something of a modern humanist with little interest in revealed dogma. Huxley is portrayed as an advocate of Eastern pantheism and of what is often called “the perennial philosophy” — a core doctrine that he and others (notably, the comparative religionist Huston Smith, an acquaintance of mine who also knew Huxley well) see as the common ground of the great world religions.

For Huxley, Jesus was one of humankind’s greatest sages, but not the unique Son of God. It is Lewis, his representative of mainstream Christian theism, with whom Kreeft plainly identifies.

In Kreeft’s fictional account, the trio meet in a kind of fog, not sure where they are and uncertain where they’re going. They discuss such perennial questions as whether human life has any meaning? What it possible to know about life beyond death before one has actually died and reached the final destination? And whether Jesus was divine?

I make no secret of the fact that, of the three, it is Lewis who has had, by far, the greatest impact on me. Widely known today for his Chronicles of Narnia, he was far more (even in those novels) than a children’s writer. Just this passage alone, from his essay “The Weight of Glory,” is worthy of the deepest reflection:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations —These are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit —immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

Kennedy, Huxley and Lewis: gone 50 years ago, Friday.

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs http://www.mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.

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