Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Spiritual Charity of C. S. Lewis

     I have for a long time watched with pleasure and gratitude as many of my Evangelical Christian brothers and sisters have discovered and embraced some of the writings of C. S. Lewis -- mainly because I know how much he has meant as an imaginative Christian mentor to me since I discovered him in my very early twenties.  Misery is not the only thing that loves company -- so does Pleasure, and especially Spiritual Pleasure.

     I observe, though, that much of the evangelical embracing of Lewis has focused on his (excellent) spiritual fantasies -- the Chronicles of Narnia, which are then compared and contrasted with the (excellent) Lord of the Rings fantasies of his friend and fellow-writer J. R. R. Tolkien, and the desire (also excellent) to draw from them some useful spiritual relevance to our own individual (or cultural) lives.

     But other of Lewis's writings -- his serious studies of words, language, philosophy, and theology have been relatively neglected by evangelical readers; and I suspect that I know a part of the reason for that:  in some ways his serious (non-fantasy) writings raise some implicit challenges, or at least questions, to some evangelical assumptions or predilections.  One of those assumptions, or predilections, is that evangelical understandings are "righter" than the theological or spiritual understandings of others, and by a tempting logic, then, the "others" are "wronger;" and therefore, again by predilection or presumption, the viewpoints or experiences of "others" are seen as increasingly "inferior," or  "contemptible," or even "damnable."  And thus we have the continual stream of invective and outrage that continues to characterize too much of the evangelical sphere-of-conversation.

     I raise, as a kind of counterpoise, a bit of commentary by Lewis that is contained in one of his less-well-known books, Letters to an American Lady, which was compiled by professor Clyde Kilby of Wheaton College back in the mid-60s. (Lewis's letter which I quote here is from the early 50s).

     First, I should give a bit of background.  Mrs. ------- , the "American lady," (whom Lewis never met), has struck up a correspondence with him.  She has some family problems and some financial problems, and is about to leave the Episcopal communion in favor of the Roman Catholic communion.  Lewis is, of course Anglican (Episcopalian) himself.

     Here comes his response, in his own words.  See if you can spot the point at which modern evangelicals might register disturbance:

Magdalen College,
Nov. 10th 1952

Dear Mrs. -------

     It is a little difficult to explain how I feel that tho' you have taken a way which is not for me I nevertheless can congratulate you -- I suppose because your faith and joy are so obviously increased.  Naturally, I do not draw from that the same conclusions as you -- but there is no need for us to start a controversial correspondence!  I believe we are very near to one another, but not because I am at all on the Rome-ward frontier of my own communion.  I believe that, in the present divided state of Christendom, those who are at the heart of each division are all closer to one another than those who are at the fringes.  I would even carry this beyond the borders of Christianity:  how much more one has in common with a real Jew or Muslim than with a wretched liberalising, occidentalised specimen of the same categories.  Let us by all means pray for one another:  it is perhaps the only form of "work for re-union" which never does anything but good.  God bless you.

Yours most sincerely
C. S. Lewis*

     See the spiritual charity?  See the possible point of disturbance?

     I wish to make my own point clear:  I am not at all -- not at all -- concerned that Lewis has "gone too  far,"  has "thrown away the game,"  "doesn't get it," or has "outright apostatized."  He most certainly has not.

     I am concerned that far too many of my evangelical brothers and sisters might think that. And that in so doing, they would prove C. S. Lewis's point.


* C. S. Lewis.  Letters to an American Lady. Edited by Clyde S. Kilby  (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: 1967) p. 11.


1 comment:

  1. I have many thoughts on this but the one I want to impress first and foremost is that there are many of what you would consider the hard right evangelicals that are embracing the life and work of C.S. Lewis. Desiring God ministries held a Conference about Lewis where they had prominent Reformed and Arminian scholars discussing the merits of Lewis's work and the need for Christians to engage with him, however flawed he might be, because he will make you think/ draw you closer to Christ. Its a pretty great conference that you can google or look up on youtube.