Was C.S. Lewis an Egalitarian?

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“I do not believe God created an egalitarian world.” (“Membership,” in The Weight of Glory and other Essays, 36)

Having made it my aim to read everything I can get my hands on from C.S. Lewis, I would venture to say this sentence from his 1945 essay “Membership” goes a long way toward summarizing his position on a good many topics. In a word, Lewis believed in hierarchy:

I do not believe God created an egalitarian world. I believe the authority of parent over child, husband over wife, learned over simple, to have been as much a part of the original plan as the authority of man over beast. I believe that if we had not fallen, patriarchal monarchy would be the sole lawful form of government. (“Membership,” 36)

We could distill Lewis’s worldview from this passage into three essential components: First, rightful authority is good and to be embraced. Second, inequality is not always and inherently bad. And third, both authority and hierarchy are rooted in God’s original, creational design.

Lewis the ‘Complementarian’

While Lewis would not have referred to himself as a complementarian — the term wasn’t coined until after his death — most would recognize his views on men and women as complementarian, especially when it comes to marriage and church office.

For example, many are familiar with his book Mere Christianity, which is an apologetic for baseline, historic, orthodox Christianity. But some have been surprised to find multiple arguments for male headship in marriage in his apologetic for a mere Christianity:

[Christian society] is always insisting on obedience — obedience (and outward marks of respect) from all of us to properly appointed magistrates, from children to parents, and (I am afraid this is going to be very unpopular) from wives to husbands. (Mere Christianity, 84)

Note a few things. For one, Lewis assumes wives obeying their husbands is simply a given for a properly ordered Christian society, alongside the obedience of citizens to magistrates and children to parents. He assumes such, of course, because this is what the Bible teaches in places like Ephesians 5:22–24 and 1 Peter 3:1, 5–6. Complementarian reasoning did not originate with American baby boomers, as some charge.

But what is perhaps more striking is that, even back in the 1940s, Lewis considered this teaching “very unpopular.” And yet he presented it anyway in his argument defending the truth and goodness of Christianity, demonstrating his confidence that what the Bible teaches is worth not only preserving, but promoting, regardless of which way the societal winds are blowing.

“For Lewis, the past must be upheld insofar as it is consistent with God’s revelation.”

Lewis’s essay “Priestesses in the Church” insists on the necessity of the male-only priesthood for maintaining the integrity of the church. He was writing against those in his time who were advocating for women’s ordination to the Anglican priesthood. For Lewis, “To take such a revolutionary step at the present moment [would be] to cut ourselves off from the Christian past” (“Priestesses in the Church,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, 235). The “Christian past” Lewis refers to was certainly rooted in tradition, but it was a tradition grounded in a reality far deeper than mere history. For Lewis, the past must be upheld insofar as it is consistent with God’s revelation, which he believed maintained a distinction between the sexes when it came to church office.

Lewis the Egalitarian?

Now, this isn’t to say that everyone is agreed on this assessment of Lewis’s views. To the contrary, there is a small but growing cottage industry dedicated to proving Lewis may have been more progressive in his views on women than many have previously understood.

According to this set, Lewis perhaps did not really mean what he said in “Membership” or Mere Christianity or “Priestesses in the Church.” Or if he really meant it when he wrote, he changed his mind toward the end of his life, after he had been enlightened by other relationships and experiences, such as his own late marriage. These arguments often proceed from an amalgamation of snippets from private correspondence, psychological assessments of his relationships with various women, and other bits from his later writings. The best argument in this genre is given by Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen in A Sword Between the Sexes? C.S. Lewis and the Gender Debate.

I remain wholly unpersuaded by this revisionist reading of Lewis. Instead, I want to demonstrate how Lewis’s views on the sexes are more conservative and fundamental than what could be undone by a passing comment in one of his private letters or in a eulogy for his late wife. As we will see, Lewis’s views on the sexes were not even really primarily about manhood and womanhood at all, but about the way God made and ordered the world.

Masculinity and Femininity

Lewis’s views on men and women are most clear and accessible in his non-fiction work. But as is so often the case with literature, Lewis can be very persuasive in his fiction. This is why my main argument takes us to an unexpected place: to Perelandra, the name Lewis gives the planet Venus in our solar system.

The setting is the middle of book 2 in Lewis’s space trilogy. In this scene, the main character, Ransom, sees two angelic beings named Malacandra and Perelandra, who rule Mars and Venus, respectively. What strikes Ransom most about these two beings, though, is the evident difference between them, even though they exhibit no obvious sex characteristics:

But whence came this curious difference between them? He found that he could point to no single feature wherein the difference resided, yet it was impossible to ignore. One could try — Ransom has tried a hundred times — to put it into words. He has said that Malacandra was like rhythm and Perelandra like melody. He has said that Malacandra affected him like a quantitative, Perelandra like an accentual, metre. (Perelandra, 171)

At this point, the reader realizes Lewis has set this scene to make a deeper, philosophical point about masculinity and femininity:

[W]hat Ransom saw at that moment was the real meaning of gender. Everyone must sometimes have wondered why in nearly all tongues certain inanimate objects are masculine and others feminine. What is masculine about a mountain or feminine about certain trees? Ransom has cured me of believing that this is a purely morphological phenomenon, depending on the form of the word. Still less is gender an imaginative extension of sex. Our ancestors did not make mountains masculine because they projected male characteristics into them. The real process is the reverse. Gender is a reality, and a more fundamental reality than sex. (Perelandra, 171–72)

Here, in the middle of Lewis’s space trilogy, we begin to see the true depth of his understanding of complementarity. Complementarity, and by extension sex, is not merely accidental, or even incidental in creation. It is wired into the world. The polarity is the point, and it is reflected in all of creation: Mars and Venus, sun and moon, day and night, land and sea. Male and female he created them.

“Our differences aren’t just roles, or masks that can be put on or put off. They are part and parcel with reality.”

In this way, Lewis’s concept of complementarity is related to what he elsewhere calls the Tao. Our world is infused with objective meaning, including complementarity. And all of it demands a certain value response. Whether or not we act accordingly, there are ways of living and moving and having our being in the world that are fitting, and there are many ways that are not. When we downplay or ignore the Tao, or in this case the differences between male and female, we hinder ourselves and limit our true potential as created beings. Our differences aren’t just roles, or masks that can be put on or put off. They are part and parcel with reality.

Complementarity in Marriage

This idea of complementarity is one of the overarching messages in Lewis’s space trilogy. The themes and structures of these books deserve their own essay — indeed, entire volumes have been written with just such an aim. But generally speaking, the first two books, Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, unfold astride the male-female binary. The first book takes place on the planet Malacandra, or Mars, which is known for its hard lines, sharp landscape, and warlike inhabitants. The second book is set on Perelandra, or Venus, which in almost every way is opposite Malacandra: fertile, soft, and lush. That Hideous Strength takes place on Earth. Notably, the first word of the first chapter hints at the trilogy’s meta-theme: Matrimony.

A closer look at the third book reveals complementary arcs in the marriage of the two main characters, Mark and Jane. As the book progresses, each bends away from stunted versions of masculinity and femininity toward a full embrace of complementarity. Mark, who is previously an unassertive workaholic, learns to shun passivity toward his wife and to live out self-sacrificial leadership. Jane, a feminist and careerist, learns to joyfully submit to her husband and embrace her natural femininity. Along the way, Lewis makes sure the reader does not mistake him for promoting degenerate stereotypes, as hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity are lampooned in the story’s villains.

The turning point for Jane’s character is especially instructive. It comes in a conversation with the main character, Ransom, who is now known as the Director. The quote begins with Jane speaking of her own marriage to Mark.

“I thought love meant equality,” she said, “and free companionship.”

“Ah, equality!” said the Director. “We must talk of that some other time. Yes, we must all be guarded by equal rights from one another’s greed, because we are fallen. Just as we wear clothes for the same reason. But the naked body should be there underneath the clothes, ripening for the day when we shall need them no longer. Equality is not the deepest thing, you know.” (That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups, 145)

What is deeper than equality? He has already given an answer in the trilogy’s very structure: complementarity.

Deeper Than Equality

In the same conversation, the Director gives Jane marital advice. She admits to him that she doesn’t share his view of marriage, and his response is striking: “[I]t is not a question of how you or I look on marriage but how my Masters look on it” (That Hideous Strength, 144). Jane is still hampered by her feminism, fixated with tunnel vision on equality. This fixation makes the Director’s advice all the more jarring. Obedience, he recommends to her. Obedience and humility.

The reader can almost hear the last gasp of feminism leave Jane, while something deeper and primal begins to stir in her. Lewis, in his own creative way, has simply exegeted in narrative form the Bible’s own teaching and rationale on marriage and complementarity, which itself is rooted in God’s original design for male and female in Genesis 1 and 2.

Even if Lewis did change his views later in life — I remain unconvinced that he did — his own words in the mouth of the Director would stand witness against him: It is not a question of how you or I look on it, but how the Master does. And the Master has told us in Scripture how he views the husband and wife in marriage. He is the one who made them male and female, after all.

Revelation over Revolution

At heart, Lewis was a conservative and a traditionalist, an old soul and a “dinosaur,” as he once referred to himself. But he wasn’t a reactionary. He didn’t define his position over against the “progress” of his day, although functionally that’s where he often found himself. Instead, he saw himself as holding onto the good, true, and beautiful, because that is what God revealed.

To take a step away from what has been revealed by God in Scripture and nature would have unintended consequences, especially when it comes to marriage and how we live as male and female. He telegraphed where the sexual progressives of his day were headed in “Priestesses in the Church”:

The innovators are really implying that sex is something superficial, irrelevant to the spiritual life. To say that men and women are equally eligible for a certain profession is to say that for the purpose of that profession their sex is irrelevant. We are, within that context, treating both as neuters. (“Priestesses in the Church,” 236)

Neuters. Androgyny. Non-binary. This is where Lewis knew we would land if we pursued the path of interchangeability. As we look around today, we can’t help but admit he was right. But this doesn’t mean we can’t still return. We should heed Lewis’s words:

We cannot shuffle or tamper so much. With the Church, we are farther in: for there we are dealing with male and female not merely as facts of nature but as the live and awful shadows of realities utterly beyond our control and largely beyond our direct knowledge. Or rather, we are not dealing with them but (as we shall soon learn if we meddle) they are dealing with us. (“Priestesses in the Church,” 239)

Further up and further in. As we press into God and his revelation, we find the meaning of masculinity and femininity, as well as the meaning of marriage.

Like Lewis, I don’t believe God created an egalitarian world. But I do believe the world God created is good. And we would do well to receive and celebrate it as such, including the differences between men and women, and stop shuffling and tampering so much.