C.S. Lewis, Romantic Rationalist: How His Paths to Christ Shaped His Life and Ministry
Plenary 1 — 2013 National Conference
The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis
This message appears as a chapter in The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis.
For those of you who may wonder why we would devote an entire conference to a mere mortal like C.S. Lewis, let’s begin with an accolade from Peter Kreeft — from a chapter titled, “The Romantic Rationalist: Lewis the Man.”
Once upon a dreary era, when the world of . . . specialization had nearly made obsolete all universal geniuses, romantic poets, Platonic idealists, rhetorical craftsmen, and even orthodox Christians, there appeared a man (almost as if from another world, one of the worlds of his own fiction: was he a man or something more like elf or Angel?) who was all of these things as amateur, as well as probably the world’s foremost authority in his professional province, Medieval and Renaissance English literature.
Before his death in 1963 he found time to produce some first-quality works of literary history, literary criticism, theology, philosophy, autobiography, biblical studies, historical philology, fantasy, science fiction, letters, poems, sermons, formal and informal essays, a historical novel, a spiritual diary, religious allegory, short stories, and children’s novels. Clive Staples Lewis was not a man: he was a world. (C.S. Lewis: A Critical Essay, 4)
Those are the kinds of accolades you read again and again. Which means there probably must have been something extraordinary about the man. Indeed, we believe there was. And in this fiftieth year since his death, it seemed to many of us that a conference like this would be a small expression of our thankfulness to God for him, and our admiration of him, and our desire that his gifts to the world be preserved and spread.
Childhood and Schooling
The various speakers at this conference will draw out facts of Lewis’s life that are relevant to their concern, but let me give you a four-minute summary of his life, so that some of the hard facts are before us. Lewis loved hard facts. The kind you want under your house when the rains come down and the floods come up.
Lewis was born in 1898 in Belfast, Ireland. His mother died when he was nine years old, and his father never remarried. Between the death of his mother in August, 1908, and the fall of 1914, Lewis attended four different boarding schools. Then for two-and-a-half years, he studied with William Kirkpatrick, whom he called the Great Knock. And there his emerging atheism was confirmed, and his reasoning powers were refined in an extraordinary way. Lewis said, “If ever a man came near to being a purely logical entity that man was Kirk” (Surprised by Joy, 135). He described himself later as a seventeen-year-old rationalist.
Becoming the Voice
But just as his rationalism was at its peak, he stumbled onto George Macdonald’s phantasy novel Phantastes. “That night,” he said, “my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized” (Surprised by Joy, 181). Something had broken in — a “new quality,” a “bright shadow,” he called it (Surprised by Joy, 179). The romantic impulse of his childhood was again awake. Only now it seemed real, and holy (though he would not have called it that yet).
At eighteen, he took his place at Oxford University, but before he could begin his studies, he entered the army, and in February, 1918, was wounded in France and returned to England to recover. He resumed his studies in Oxford, in January, 1919, and over the next six years took three First Class Honors in classics, humanities, and English literature. He became a teaching fellow in October, 1925, at the age of 26.
Six years later, in 1931, he professed faith in Jesus Christ and was settled in the conviction that Christianity is true. Within ten years, he had become the “voice of faith” for the nation of England during the Second World War, and his broadcast talks in 1941–1942 “achieved classic status” (C. S. Lewis — A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet, 210).
Lewis in Full Flower
He was now in the full flower of his creative and apologetic productivity. In his prime, he was probably the world’s leading authority on Medieval English Literature, and, according to one of his adversaries, “the best read man of his generation” (Eccentric Genius, 166). But he was vastly more. Books of many kinds were rolling out: The Pilgrim’s Regress, The Allegory of Love, The Screwtape Letters, Perelandra. Then in 1950 began “The Chronicles of Narnia.” All these titles were of different genres and showed the amazing versatility of Lewis as a writer and thinker and imaginative visionary.
He appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in 1947. Then, after thirty years at Oxford, he took a professorship in Medieval and Renaissance English at the University of Cambridge in 1955. The next year, at the age of 57, he married Joy Davidman. And just short of their fourth anniversary, she died of cancer, and three and a half years later — two weeks short of his 65th birthday, on November 22, 1963 — Lewis followed her in death.
A Life of Pointing
Lewis is more popular as an author today than at any time during his life. “The Chronicles of Narnia” alone have gone on to sell over 100 million copies in 40 languages. One of the reasons for this appeal, I am going to argue, is that Lewis is a romantic rationalist to an exceptionally high and healthy degree, and there is a romantic and rationalistic deep, and often distorted, desire in every human.
My thesis is that his romanticism and his rationalism were the paths on which he came to Christ, and they are the paths on which he lived his life and did his work. They shaped him into a teacher and writer with extraordinary gifts for logic and likening. And with these gifts, he spent his life pointing people beyond through the world to the meaning of the world, Jesus Christ.
So we will look first at his romanticism, and then at his rationality, and how both paths led him to Christ, and made him one of the 20th century’s greatest likeners and evangelists.
In August, 1932, Lewis sat down and wrote his first novel in fourteen days, less than a year after professing faith in Christ (Note: He wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves on October 1, 1931, “I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ — in Christianity.” The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol. 1, Family Letters 1905–1931, 974). The Pilgrim’s Regress is a 200-page allegory of his own pilgrimage to faith in Christ. The subtitle goes like this: “An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason, and Romanticism.” So he is defending being a Romantic, a Rationalist, and a Christian.
Romanticism Means Joy
But ten years later, when the third edition of the book appeared, he added a ten-page preface to apologize for obscurity and to explain what he means by being a romantic. He said, “The cause for obscurity was the (unintentionally) ‘private’ meaning I then gave to the word ‘Romanticism’” (The Pilgrim’s Regress, 1958), 5]. The word, as he used it, he said, described “the experience which is central in this book.”
What I meant by “Romanticism” . . . and what I would still be taken to mean on the title page of this book — was . . . a particular recurrent experience which dominated my childhood and adolescence in which I hastily called “Romantic” because inanimate nature and marvelous literature were among the things that evoked it. (The Pilgrim’s Regress, 7)
When we examine his description of the experience he refers to, it turns out to be identical with what ten years later in his autobiography he calls Joy (Note: In Surprised by Joy, 17–18, Lewis said that this Joy is the experience “of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. . . . I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that any one who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that, and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But then it is the kind we want. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.”)
The experience [of romanticism] is one of intense longing. It is distinguished from other longings by two things. In the first place, though the sense of want is acute and even painful, yet the mere wanting is felt to be somehow a delight. . . . This hunger is better than any other fullness; this poverty better than all other wealth. . . . (The Pilgrim’s Regress, 7)
There is a peculiar mystery about the object of this Desire. Inexperienced people (and inattention leaves some inexperienced all their lives) suppose, when they feel it, that they know what they are desiring. [Some past event, some perilous ocean, some erotic suggestion, some beautiful meadow, some distant planet, some great achievement, some quest or great knowledge, etc.] . . .
But every one of these impressions is wrong. The sole merit I claim for this book is that it is written by one who has proved them all to be wrong. There is no room for vanity in the claim: I know them to be wrong not by intelligence but by experience. . . . For I have myself been deluded by every one of these false answers in turn, and have contemplated each of them earnestly enough to discover the cheat. . . . (The Pilgrim’s Regress, 8)
If a man diligently followed this desire, pursuing the false objects until their falsity appeared and then resolutely abandoning them, he must come out at last into the clear knowledge that the human soul was made to enjoy some object that is never fully given — nay, cannot even be imagined as given — in our present mode of subjective and spatio-temporal existence. . . . (The Pilgrim’s Regress, 10)
The Dialectic of Desire
Lewis called this experience a kind of lived ontological proof of God — or at least proof of something beyond the created world. “The dialectic of Desire,” he said, “faithfully followed, would . . . force you not to propound, but to live through, a sort of ontological proof” (The Pilgrim’s Regress, 10).
Later, when he wrote Mere Christianity, he would state it most famously: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world” (106).
The Piercing Longing
So the essence of his romanticism is Lewis’s experience of the world that repeatedly awakened in him a sense that there is always more than this created world — something other, something beyond the natural world. At first, he thought the stabbing desire or the longing was what he really wanted. But after his conversion, he wrote, “I now know that the experience, considered as a state of my own mind, had never had the kind of importance I once gave it. It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer” (Surprised by Joy, 238).
And this other and outer — this more — was wonderful even before he knew that what he was longing for was God. And now that he was a Christian, the piercing longing did not go away just because he knew who it was: “I believe,” he said, “. . . that the old stab, the old bittersweet, has come to me as often and as sharply since my conversion as at any time of my life” (Surprised by Joy, 238).
The Central Story of His Life
Alan Jacobs says, “Nothing was closer to the core of his being than this experience” (The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis, 42). Clyde Kilby says, “In one way or other it hovers over nearly every one of his books” (The Christian World of C.S. Lewis, 187). And Lewis himself says, “In a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else” (Surprised by Joy, 17).
And when you read his repeated descriptions of this experience of romanticism or Joy in Surprised by Joy and The Pilgrim’s Regress and The Problem of Pain and The Weight of Glory, you realize Lewis doesn’t see this as a quirk of his personality, but as a trait of humanness. All of us are romantics in this sense. Devin Brown says, Lewis’s “use of the inclusive you in these passages . . . makes it clear that Lewis believes this is a longing we have all felt. . . . You might say this is the central story of everyone’s life” ( A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C. S. Lewis, 5).
Our Hidden Desire for Heaven
For example, in The Problem of Pain, Lewis makes the case that even people who think they have never desired heaven don’t see things clearly.
There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven, but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else . . . tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if . . . there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself — you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say, “here at last is the thing I was made for.” (The Problem of Pain, 145–146)
So Lewis saw in his own experience of romanticism a universally human experience. We are all romantics. All of us experience from time to time — some more than others, and some more intensely than others — a longing this world cannot satisfy, a deep sense that there must be more.
We turn now to Lewis’s rationalism. And, as with the term romanticism, I mean something different from some of its common philosophical uses. All I mean is his profound devotion to being rational — to the principle that there is true rationality and that it is rooted in absolute Reason.
Remember that the subtitle of The Pilgrim’s Regress is An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason, and Romanticism. We’ve seen what he meant by romanticism. Now what was his defense of reason?
Logic Leading Beyond Nature
The simplest way to get at the heart of Lewis’s rationality is to say he believed in the law of non-contradiction, and he believed that where this law was abandoned, not only was truth imperiled, but romanticism and Joy were imperiled as well. The law of non-contradiction is simply that contradictory statements cannot both be true at the same time and in the same way.
Lewis saw logic as a real expression of ultimate reality. The laws of logic are not human conventions created differently from culture to culture. They are rooted in the way God is. And these laws of logic make true knowledge of reality possible. “I conclude,” he writes, “then that logic is a real insight into the way in which real things have to exist. In other words, the laws of thought are also the laws of things: of things in the remotest space and the remotest time” [“De Futilitate” in Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces (London: HarperCollins, 2000), 674].
Two Paths to One Place
This commitment to the basic laws of logic, or rationality, led Lewis on the philosophical path to the same Christ that he had found on the path of romanticism or Joy. He put it like this: “This lived dialectic [of my romanticism], and the merely argued dialectic of my philosophical progress, seem to have converged on one goal,” namely, the reality of theism, and Christianity, and Christ as the Savior of the world (The Pilgrim’s Regress, 10).
On the romantic path, Lewis was led again and again to look beyond nature for ultimate reality — finally to God in Christ — because his desires could not be explained as a product of this world. Now how did that same thing happen by the use of his reason?
He looked at the philosophical, scientific cosmology emerging in the modern world and found it self-contradictory.
If I swallow the scientific cosmology as a whole [that excludes a rational, personal God], then not only can I not fit in Christianity, but I cannot even fit in science. If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees. And this is to me the final test. (“Is Theology Poetry?” in Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces, 21)
In other words, modern people construct a worldview that treats their thoughts as equivalent to wind in the trees. And then they call these thoughts true or valid. Lewis said that’s a contradiction. Atheistic man uses his mind to create a worldview that nullifies the use of his mind.
“The Abolition of Man”
This is what Lewis meant by the title of his book The Abolition of Man. If there is no God as the foundation of logic (like the law of non-contradiction), and no God as the foundation of value judgments (like justice and beauty), then man is abolished. His thoughts are no more than the rustling of leaves, and his value judgments are no more than ripples on a pond.
The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao [the absoluteness of first principles — and ultimately against God] is a rebellion of the branches against the tree: if the rebels could succeed they would find that they had destroyed themselves. (The Abolition of Man, 56)
Lewis compares the atheistic worldview to dreaming and Christian theology to being awake. When you are awake, you can explain wakefulness and dreaming. But from inside a dream, you can’t explain wakefulness. Similarly,
Christian theology can fit in science, art, morality, and the sub-Christian religions. The scientific point of view cannot fit in any of these things, not even science itself. I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else. (“Is Theology Poetry?”, 21)
From Reason to Christianity
Here’s how he described the way these thoughts brought him on the path of reason to see Christianity as true:
On these grounds and others like them one is driven to think that whatever else may be true, the popular scientific cosmology at any rate is certainly not. . . . Something like philosophical idealism or Theism must, at the very worst, be less untrue than that. And idealism turned out, when you took it seriously, to be disguised Theism. And once you accepted Theism you could not ignore the claims of Christ. And when you examine them it appeared to be that you could adopt no middle position. Either he was a lunatic or God. And he was not a lunatic. (“Is Theology Poetry?”, 20)
So we have seen that both Lewis’s Romanticism and his Rationalism brought him to Christ. His lifelong, recurrent experience of the inbreaking of a longing he could not explain by this world led beyond the world to God and finally to Christ. And his lifelong experience of reason and logic led him to see that truth and beauty and justice and science would have no validity at all if there were no transcendent God in whom they were all rooted.
A Key to the Power of Language
Therefore, Lewis came to Christ as his Lord and God along the path of romanticism, or inconsolable longing, on the one hand, and the path of rationalism, or logic, on the other hand. Both of these experiences demanded of him that he own the reality of something beyond this material world, something Other, something More than this world. Both paths finally converged on Jesus Christ as the Creator, and Redeemer, and supreme fulfillment of all our longings, and the ground of all our reasoning.
Both romanticism and rationalism — longing and logic — led him out of this world to find the meaning and validity of this world. This world could not satisfy his deepest desires. And this world could not give validity to his plainest logic. Desires found full and lasting satisfaction, and the truth-claims of reason found legitimacy, in God, not in this world.
This double experience of romanticism and rationalism, leading finally to God, gave to Lewis a key to the power of language to reveal the deeper meaning of the world, namely, the key of likening. What I mean by the key of likening is this: Likening some aspect of reality to what it is not can reveal more of what it is. So now we turn to Lewis the likener.
A Master Likener
God created what is not God. And thus he made not-God the means of revealing and knowing God. And Lewis found the key to what the world really is by being led out of the world to something that the world is not, something other than the world, namely, God. He found from romanticism and rationalism that this world is most honest and most true when it is pointing beyond itself, and thus seeing itself as like that and not that.
He reasoned like this: If the key to the deepest meaning of this world lies outside in what this world is not, then the world will probably be illumined most deeply not simply by describing the world as what it is, but by likening the world to what it is not.
Unremitting Rational Clarity
Part of what makes Lewis so illuminating on almost everything he touches is his unremitting rational clarity and his pervasive use of likening. Metaphor, analogy, illustration, simile, poetry, story, myth — all of these are ways of likening aspects of reality to what it is not, for the sake of showing more deeply what it is.
At one level, it seems paradoxical to liken something to what it is not in order to show more deeply what it is. But that’s what life had taught Lewis. And he devoted his whole life to exemplifying and defending this truth. He wrote to T.S. Eliot in 1931 to explain an essay he had sent him and said, “The whole [of it], when completed . . . will re-affirm the romantic doctrine of imagination as a truth-bearing faculty, though not quite as the romantics understood it” (The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950–1963, Vol. III, 1,523. Emphasis added).
The Paradoxical Effect of Likening
Lewis had experienced this all his life — the power of verbal images, verbal likenings, to illumine reality. But when he became a Christian, this deep-seated way of seeing the world was harnessed for the sake of illumining truth in everything he wrote. In 1954, Lewis sent a list of his books to the Milton Society of America and explained what ties them together like this:
The imaginative man in me is older, more continuously operative, and in that sense more basic than either the religious writer or the critic. It was he who made me first attempt (with little success) to be a poet. . . . It was he who after my conversion led me to embody my religious belief in symbolical or mythopeic [sic] forms, ranging from Screwtape to a kind of theologised sciencefiction. And it was of course he who has brought me, in the last few years, to write the series of Narnian stories for children. (Collected Letters, Vol. III, 516–517)
He tells us in more than one place why he embraced imaginative literature as such a large part of his calling. All these forms of likening have the paradoxical effect of revealing aspects of the real which we often otherwise miss.
Imagination and Reality
In 1940, he wrote in a letter, “Mythologies . . . are products of imagination in the sense that their content is imaginative. The more imaginative ones are ‘nearer the mark’ in the sense that they communicate more Reality to us” (Collected Letters, Vol. II, 445. Emphases added). In other words, by likening reality to what it is not, we learn more of what it is.
In his essay “On Stories,” Lewis comments on the ancient myth of Oedipus and says, “It may not be ‘like real life’ in the superficial sense: but it sets before us an image of what reality may well be like at some more central region” (“On Stories,” in Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces, 501).
Lewis calls Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings a “great romance” (Collected Letters, Vol. III, 371), and comments in a letter in 1958, “A great romance is like a flower whose smell reminds you of something you can’t quite place. . . . I’ve never met Orcs or Ents or Elves — but the feel of it, the sense of a huge past, of lowering danger, of heroic tasks achieved by the most apparently unheroic people, of distance, vastness, strangeness, homeliness (all blended together) is so exactly what living feels like to me” (Collected Letters, Vol. III, 971–972).
In the preface to The Pilgrim’s Regress, he comments, “All good allegory exists not to hide but to reveal; to make the inner world more palpable by giving it an (imagined) concrete embodiment” (The Pilgrim’s Regress, 13). And in his poem “Impenitence,” he defends imaginary talking animals by saying they are,
Masks for Man, cartoons, parodies by Nature
Formed to reveal us.
In other words, heroic myth, and penetrating allegory, and great romance, and talking animals are “masks . . . formed to reveal.” Again the paradox of likening — depicting some aspect of reality as what it is not in order to reveal more deeply what it is.
Likening in Apologetics
But lest I give the wrong impression that Lewis was a likener only in his poetry and fiction, I need to stress that he was a likener everywhere — in everything he wrote. Myths and allegory and romances and fairy tales are extended metaphors. But thinking and writing metaphorically and imaginatively and analogically were present everywhere in Lewis’s life and work.
Lewis was a poet and craftsman and image-maker in everything he wrote. Alistair McGrath observed that what captivated the reader of Lewis’s sermons and essays and apologetic works, not just his novels, was
his ability to write prose tinged with a poetic vision, it’s carefully crafted phrases lingering in the memory because they have captivated the imagination. The qualities we associate with good poetry — such as an appreciation of the sound of words, rich and suggestive analogies and images, vivid description, and lyrical sense — are found in Lewis’s prose. (Eccentric Genius, 108)
I think this is exactly right, and it makes him not only refreshing and illuminating to read on almost any topic, but also a great model for how to think and write and talk about everything.
Walter Hooper puts it like this:
A sampling of all Lewis’s works will reveal the same man in his poetry as in his clear and sparkling prose. His wonderful imagination is the guiding thread. It is continuously at work. . . . And this is why, I think, his admirers find it so pleasant to be instructed by him in subjects they have hitherto cared so little for. Everything he touched had his kind of magic about it. (Poems, vi)
It is indeed pleasant to be instructed by a master likener. Images and analogies and creative illustrations and metaphors and surprising turns of phrase are pleasant. “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25:11). Solomon even uses an image to celebrate the pleasure of images. But my point here has not been the pleasure of likening, but its power of illumination. Its power to reveal truth.
The Key to Deepest Meaning
Lewis’s romanticism and his rationalism — his inconsolable longing and his validity-demanding logic — pointed outside the world to what it is not for the key to understanding what the world is. And he found that, if the key to the deepest meaning of this world lies outside this world — in its Maker and Redeemer, Jesus Christ — then the world itself will probably be illumined most deeply not simply by describing the world merely as what it is, but by likening the world to what it’s not.
Lewis’s unrelenting commitment to likening — to the use of images and analogies and metaphor and surprising juxtapositions, even in his most logical demonstrations of truth — was owing not mainly to the greater pleasure it can give, but to the deeper truth it can reveal. Lewis loved the truth. He loved objective reality. He believed that the truth of this world and the truth of God could be known. He believed that the use of reason was essential in knowing and defending truth. But he also believed that there are depths of truth and dimensions of reality that likening will reveal more deeply than reason.
Seeing Wonder in This World
Unless we see that this world is not ultimate reality, but is only like it, we will not see and savor this world for the wonder that it is. Lewis is at his metaphorical best as he explains this with his image-laden prose in this paragraph from Miracles.
The Englishness of English is audible only to those who know some other language as well. In the same way and for the same reason, only Supernaturalists really see Nature. You must go a little way from her, and then turn round, and look back. Then at last the true landscape will become visible. You must have tasted, however briefly, the pure water from beyond the world before you can be distinctly conscious of the hot, salty tang of Nature’s current. To treat her as God, or as Everything, is to lose the whole pith and pleasure of her [Note: pith and pleasure].
Come out, look back, and then you will see . . . this astonishing cataract of bears, babies, and bananas: this immoderate deluge of atoms, orchids, oranges, cancers, canaries, fleas, gases, tornadoes, and toads. How could you have ever thought this was ultimate reality? How could you ever have thought that it was merely a stage-set for the moral drama of men and women? She is herself. Offer her neither worship nor contempt. Meet her and know her. . . .
The theologians tell us that she, like ourselves, is to be redeemed. The “vanity” to which she was subjected was her disease, not her essence. She will be cured, but cured in character: not tamed (Heaven forbid) nor sterilized. We shall still be able to recognize our old enemy, friend, play-fellow and foster-mother, so perfected as to be not less, but more, herself. And that will be a merry meeting. (Miracles: A Preliminary Study, 67–68]
“Only supernaturalists really see nature.” The only people who can know the terrifying wonder (the “pith and pleasure”) of the world are those who know that the world is not the most wonderful and terrifying reality. The world is a likening. The path of romanticism taught Lewis that the world is a likening — the final satisfaction of our longing is not in this world. The path of rationality taught Lewis that the world is a likening. The final validation of our thinking is not in this world. And since this world is a likening — not the goal of our longing or the ground of our logic — therefore it is revealed for what it most profoundly is by likening.
What was Lewis doing in all his works — in all his likening, and in all his likening-soaked reasoning? He was pointing. He was unveiling. He was depicting the glory of God in the face of Jesus. He was leading people to Christ. The two paths he knew best were the paths of romanticism and rationalism — longing and logic. So these are the paths on which he guided people to Christ.
One of the things that makes him admirable to me, in spite of all our doctrinal differences (and they are significant and troubling) is his crystal clear, unashamed belief that people are lost without Christ and that every Christian should try to win them, including world-class scholars of medieval and renaissance literature. And so unlike many tentative, hidden, vague, approval-craving intellectual Christians, Lewis says outright, “The salvation of a single soul is more important than the production or preservation of all the epics and tragedies in the world” (“Christianity and Literature,” in Christian Reflections, 10). And again: “The glory of God, and, as our only means to glorifying Him, the salvation of human souls, is the real business of life” (Christian Reflections, 14).
Helping Us See Glory
This is what he was doing in all his likening and all his reasoning. And when Norman Pittenger criticized him in 1958 for being simplistic in his portrayal of Christian faith, Lewis responded in a way that shows us what he was doing in all his work:
When I began, Christianity came before the great mass of my unbelieving fellow-countrymen either in the highly emotional form offered by revivalists or in the unintelligible language of highly cultured clergymen. Most men were reached by neither. My task was therefore simply that of a translator — one turning Christian doctrine, or what he believed to be such, into the vernacular, into language that unscholarly people would attend to and could understand. . . .
Dr Pittenger would be a more helpful critic if he advised a cure as well as asserting many diseases. How does he himself do such work? What methods, and with what success, does he employ when he is trying to convert the great mass of storekeepers, lawyers, realtors, morticians, policemen and artisans who surround him in his own city? (“Rejoinder to Dr Pittenger” in God in the Dock, 183)
Lewis came to Christ on the converging paths of romanticism and rationalism. And as a Christian, because of what he learned on these paths, he became a master thinker and master likener. This is who he was and this is what he knew. And so this is how he did his evangelism. He bent every romantic effort and every rational effort to help people see what he had seen — the glory of Jesus Christ, the goal of all his longings, and the solid ground of all his thoughts.
C.S. Lewis: romantic, rationalist, likener, evangelist. A work of God’s grace, and a gift to us. One of our reasons for being here is to say thank you to God.
More Messages from Desiring God 2013 National Conference
In Bright Shadow: C.S. Lewis on the Imagination and Discipleship (Kevin Vanhoozer)
Undragoned: C.S. Lewis on the Gift of Salvation (Douglas Wilson)