Lessons from an Inconsolable Soul
Learning from the Mind and Heart of C.S. Lewis
Desiring God 2010 Conference for Pastors
1. It Seems I Shouldn’t Find Lewis So Helpful
My approach in this talk is personal. I am going to talk about what has meant the most to me in C.S. Lewis — how he has helped me the most. And as I raise this question, as I have many times over the years, the backdrop of the question becomes increasingly urgent: Why has he been so significant for me, even though he is not Reformed in his doctrine, and could barely be called an evangelical by typical American uses of that word?
He doesn’t believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, (“Lewis, as we have seen in the scope of this study, stands in sharp contrast to evangelical fundamentalism. His example proves that one can be a dedicated evangelical, accept the full authority of Scripture, yet disbelieve in inerrancy.” Michael J. Christensen, C.S. Lewis on Scripture (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1979), p. 91. Lewis speaks of the predictions of the Second Coming in one generation as “error” in “The World’s Last Night” in C.S. Lewis: Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces (London: Harper Collins, 2000), p. 45.) and defaults to logical arguments more naturally than to biblical exegesis. He doesn’t treat the Reformation with respect, but thinks it could have been avoided, and calls aspects of it farcical. (“The process whereby ‘Faith and Works’ became a stock gag in the commercial theater is characteristic of that whole tragic farce which we call the history of the Reformation. The theological questions really at issue have no significance except on a certain level, a high-level, of the spiritual life; they could have been fruitfully debated only between mature and saintly disputants in close privacy and at boundless leisure. Under those conditions formulae might possibly have been found which did justice to the Protestant . . . assertions without compromising other elements of the Christian faith. In fact, however, these questions were raised at a moment when they immediately became embittered and entangled with a whole complex of matters theologically irrelevant, and therefore attracted the fatal attention both of government and the mob. When once this has happened, Europe’s chance to come through unscathed was lost.” C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953), p. 37.) He steadfastly refused in public or in letters to explain why he was not a Roman Catholic but remained in the Church of England. (C.S. Lewis, Letters of C.S. Lewis, ed. W. H. Lewis and Walter Hooper (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966), pp. 223, 230.) He makes room for at least some people to be saved through imperfect representations of Christ in other religions. (After visiting Greece with his dying wife, he wrote, “At Daphne it was hard not to pray to Apollo the Healer. But somehow one didn’t feel it would have been very wrong — would only have been addressing Christ sub specie Apollinis.” Letters of C.S. Lewis, ed. W. H. Lewis and Walter Hooper, revised edition (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993), p. 468. In this way of talking about possibly praying to Christ through Apollo, he is doing what he told a mother in a letter about her son who feared he loved Aslan more than Jesus: “But Laurence can’t really love Aslan more than Jesus, even if he feels that’s what he’s doing. For the things he loves Aslan for doing or saying are simply the things Jesus really did and said. So that when Laurence thinks he is loving Aslan, he is really loving Jesus: and perhaps loving him more than he ever did before.” C.S. Lewis, Letters to Children, ed. Lyle W. Dorsett and Marjorie Lamp Mead (New York: Macmillian, 1985), p. 57. Most familiar is the conversion of Emeth (Hebrew for “faithful” or “true”), the sincere seeker in another religion. C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1957), pp. 155–157.) He made a strong logical, but I think unbiblical, case for free will to explain why there is suffering in the world. (C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1962), pp. 26–88. But Lewis’s view is not simple or completely transparent. He could say, “You will certainly carry out God’s purpose, however you act, but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John.” The Problem of Pain, p. 111. And one wonders if by “free will” Lewis sometimes only means “voluntary” rather than “having ultimate self-determination.” For example he writes, “After all, when we are most free, it is only with freedom God has given us; and when our will is most influenced by Grace, it is still our will. And if what our will does is not voluntary, and if ‘voluntary’ does not mean ‘free’, what are we talking about?” Letters of C.S. Lewis, 1966, p. 246. And perhaps most significantly, after saying that a fallen soul “could still turn back to God,” he adds this footnote: “Theologians will note that I am not here intending to make any contribution to the Pelagian-Augustinian controversy. I mean only that such a return to God was not, even now, an impossibility. Where the initiative lies in any instance of such return is a question on which I am saying nothing.” The Problem of Pain, p. 83.) He speaks of the atonement with reverence, but puts little significance on any of the explanations for how it actually saves sinners. (To a Roman Catholic he wrote in 1941, “Yes — I think I gave the impression of going further than I intended in saying that all theories of the atonement were ‘to be rejected if we don’t find them helpful.’ What I meant was ‘need not be used — ’ a very different thing. Is there, on your view, any real difference here: that the Divinity of Our Lord has to be believed whether you find it helpful or a ‘scandal’ (otherwise you are not a Christian at all) but the Anselmic theory of Atonement is not in that position. Would you admit that a man was a Christian (and could be a member of your church) who said ‘I believe that Christ’s death redeemed man from sin, but I can make nothing of the theories as to how!’ You see, what I wanted to do in these talks was simply to give what is common to us all, and I’ve been trying to get a nihil obstat from friends in various communions. . . . It therefore doesn’t much matter how you think of my own theory, because it is advanced only as my own.” Letters of C.S. Lewis, 1966, pp. 197–198.)
In other words, Lewis is not a writer to which we should turn for growth in a careful biblical understanding of Christian doctrine. There is almost no passage of Scripture on which I would turn to Lewis for exegetical illumination. A few, but not many. He doesn’t deal with many. If we follow him in the kinds of mistakes that he made (the ones listed above), it will hurt the church and dishonor Christ. His value is not in his biblical exegesis. Lewis is not the kind of writer who provides substance for a pastor’s sermons. If a pastor treats Lewis as a resource for doctrinal substance, he will find his messages growing thin, interesting perhaps, but not with much rich biblical content.
The Ironic Effect of Reading Lewis
So you see the kind of backdrop there is for this message. How and why has C.S. Lewis been so helpful to me when I think he is so wrong on some very important matters? Why don’t I put Lewis in the same category as the so-called “emergent” writers? At one level, the mistakes seem similar. But when I pose the question that way, it starts to become pretty clear to me why Lewis keeps being useful, while I think the emergent voices will fade away fairly quickly.
In fact, I think posing the question this way not only explains why he has been so helpful to me, but also goes right to the heart of what the life and work of C.S. Lewis were about. There was something at the core of his work — of his mind — that had the ironic effect on me of awakening lively affections and firm convictions that he himself would not have held.
Something About Lewis
There was something about the way he read Scripture that made my own embrace of inerrancy tighter, not looser. There was something about the way he spoke of grace and God’s power that made me value the particularities of the Reformation more, not less. There was something about the way he portrayed the wonders of the incarnation that made me more suspicious of his own inclusivism, not less. There was something about the way he spoke of doctrine as the necessary roadmap that leads to Reality, (“For Lewis the doctrines were always absolutely necessary as maps toward one’s true destination — they should never be the goal of the Christian life.” Alan Jacobs, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis (New York: HarperOne, 2006), p. 293.) and the way he esteemed truth and reason and precision of thought, that made me cherish more, not less, the historic articulations of the biblical explanations of how the work of Christ saves sinners — the so-called theories of the atonement.
It may be that others have been drawn away by Lewis from these kinds of convictions and experiences. I doubt very seriously that more people on the whole have been weakened in true biblical commitments than have been strengthened by reading Lewis. I am sure it happens. I am sure that for many, for example, who have taken the road to Roman Catholicism away from evangelicalism, Lewis has played a part in that pilgrimage. He devoted his whole Christian life to defending and adorning what he called “mere Christianity” — “the Christian religion as understood ubique et ab omnibus [everywhere by everyone].” (“To a layman, it seems obvious that what unites the Evangelical and the Anglo-Catholic against the ‘Liberal’ or ‘Modernist’ is something very clear and momentous, namely, the fact that both are thoroughgoing supernaturalists, who believe in the Creation, the Fall, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Second Coming, and the Four Last Things [death, judgment, heaven, hell]. This unites them not only with one another, but with the Christian religion as understood ubique et ab omnibus [everywhere by everyone]. “The point of view from which this agreement seems less important than their divisions, or than the gulf which separates both from any non-miraculous version of Christianity, is to me unintelligible. Perhaps the trouble is that as supernaturalists, whether ‘Low’ or ‘High’ Church, thus taken together, they lack a name. May I suggest ‘Deep Church’; or, if that fails in humility, Baxter’s ‘mere Christians’?” C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), p. 336.) “I have believed myself to be restating ancient and orthodox doctrines. . . . I have tried to assume nothing that is not professed by all baptized and communicating Christians.” (C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, p. 10.) This means that he rarely tried to distance himself from Roman Catholicism or any other part of Christendom. He rarely spoke about any debates within Christianity itself. (“I think we must admit that the discussion of these disputed points has no tendency at all to bring outsiders into the Christian fold. . . . Our divisions should never be discussed except in the presence of those who have already come to believe that there is one God and that Jesus Christ is his only son.” Alan Jacobs, The Narnian, p. 215.)
A Pastoral Price to Pay
There is a price to pay when you set yourself this kind of agenda. You will almost certainly omit things essential to the gospel. Not that you yourself do not believe those things, but since virtually all important doctrines have been disputed from within the church (not just from outside), the effort to omit what’s disputed runs the risk of omitting what’s essential. We all should be warned about this, because the disputes in the New Testament letters themselves are virtually all disputes within the church, not with those outside. In the marketplace and the synagogue, Paul argued for the gospel with unbelievers. But in his letters, he defends and defines the heart of the gospel not by disputing with those outside the church, but with those inside the church. He did not consider these disputes — for example in Galatians — as peripheral skirmishes but rather as part of what “mere Christianity” actually is. This dispute is what the Reformation was about.
Therefore, Lewis set himself a lifelong task that no pastor should follow — namely, to adorn and defend only those truths that he thought all Christians always and everywhere have believed. (“I myself was first led into reading the Christian Classics, almost accidentally, as a result of my English studies. Some, such as Hooker, Herbert, Traherne, Taylor and Bunyan, I read because they are themselves great English writers; others such as Boethius, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Dante because they were “influences” . . . They are, you will note, a mixed bag, representative of many Churches, climates, and ages. And that brings me to yet another reason for reading them. The divisions of Christendom are undeniable and are by some of these writers most fiercely expressed. But if any man is tempted to think — as one might be tempted who read only contemporaries — that “Christianity” is a word of so many meanings that it means nothing at all, he can learn beyond all doubt, by stepping out of his own century, that this is not so. Measured against the ages “mere Christianity” turns out to be no insipid interdenominational transparency, but something positive, self consistent, and inexhaustible. . . . It was, of course, buried; and yet — after all — so unmistakably the same; recognizable, not to be evaded, the odour which is death to us until we allow it to become life. . . . “We are all rightly distressed, and ashamed also, at the divisions of Christendom. But those who have always lived within the Christian fold may be too easily dispirited by them. They are bad, but such people do not know what it looks like from without. Seen from there, one is left intact, despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity. I know, for I saw it; and well our enemies know it. That unity any of us can find by going out of his own age. . . . You have now got on to the great level viaduct which crosses the ages and which looks so high from the valleys, so low from the mountains, so narrow compared to the swamps, and so broad compared to the sheep tracks.” C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, 203–204.) Lewis was not a pastor. He was a professor of English Literature from 1924 to 1963, first at Oxford and then at Cambridge. He did not have to open the Scriptures week after week for a group of people over the course of 30 or 40 years. He didn’t have to explain to his flock the fullness of God’s written revelation. He was a scholar, a writer of science fiction, children’s books, poetry, essays, and apologetics. In these spheres, he chose his focus. He called it “mere Christianity.” Within that limited focus (which he would say is infinitely large), he fell short of saying many important things regarding the gospel of Christ. But if I focus not on what he failed to say, but on what he said and did, I find that even for me — for one who considers some doctrines to be crucial that he neglected — even for me, the blessings of his work have been incalculable.
2. Why Lewis Is So Helpful to Me
Which brings us back now to why that is. What was it about the work of C.S. Lewis that has helped me so much? The answer lies in the way that the experience of Joy and the defense of Truth come together in Lewis’s life and writings. The way Lewis deals with these two things — Joy and Truth — is so radically different from Liberal theology and emergent postmodern slipperiness that he is simply in another world — a world where I am totally at home, and where I find both my heart and my mind awakened and made more alive and perceptive and responsive and earnest and hopeful and amazed and passionate for the glory of God every time I turn to C.S. Lewis. It’s this combination of experiencing the stab of God-shaped joy and defending objective, absolute Truth, because of the absolute Reality of God, that sets Lewis apart as unparalleled in the modern world. To my knowledge, there is simply no one else who puts these two things together the way Lewis does.
And ever since I stumbled upon him and his Reformed counterpart, Jonathan Edwards, in my early twenties, I have never been the same. I don’t see myself as an imitator of Lewis and Edwards in this. The kind of Joy that Lewis is talking about cannot be imitated. It’s a gift. You don’t make it happen. And both these men are intellectual giants in the land. I don’t have their intellectual ability. In their ability to see and think and feel, they are off the charts. Their capacities to see and feel the freshness and wonder of things was childlike, and their capacities to describe it and understand it and defend it was massively manly.
His “Child’s Sense of Glory and of Nightmare”
Ruth Pitter was a poet and close friend of Lewis, and described it so well. She said, “His whole life was oriented and motivated by an almost uniquely-persisting child’s sense of glory and of nightmare. The adult events were received into a medium still as pliable as wax, wide open to the glory, and equally vulnerable, with a man’s strength to feel it all, and a great scholar’s and writer’s skills to express and to interpret” (Alan Jacobs, The Narnian, p. xxii.) So I can’t imitate Lewis, but I can listen. And I have been listening for decades, and what I have heard and seen echoes almost everywhere in my life and work. His influence is simply huge.
So let me try to unpack what I mean by Lewis’s experience of Joy and his defense of Truth and how they connect with such force for the glory of God.
3. C.S. Lewis’s Experience of Joy
Lewis wrote an autobiography about the first thirty years of his life, Surprised by Joy — up through his conversion to Christianity. He wrote it 20 years later. So its assessments are mature and thoughtful. In it he describes three instances as a child when a certain experience was awakened in him that later he came to call Joy. But he makes clear that this is not what we ordinarily mean by joy or happiness or pleasure. We must be patient here and let him describe it for us, before we jump to the conclusion that we know what he is talking about.
The experience of this Joy is the most important theme of his life. He says so. It gives unity to everything else. He said of this experience, “In a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else” (C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1955), p. 17. Alan Jacobs agrees that this theme is pervasive in Lewis: “There lies in our hearts a longing that is also a delight, a longing that nothing in this world can satisfy and a delight that nothing in this world can match. . . . The thought expressed in those sentences is everywhere woven and into the fabric of Lewis’s work; it is the whole of what Narnia represents.” Alan Jacobs, The Narnian, p. 313.) Very seldom does a writer tell us what he believes is the central theme of his life. Lewis does tell us. Everything in his life gains its deepest meaning from its connection with this.
Here’s the closest thing that Lewis gives to a definition of this Joy: It is the experience “of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction” (C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, pp. 17–18.) This is why he chose the word Joy rather than “desire” or “longing” or “Sehnsucht” when writing his autobiography — because those words failed to convey the desirability of the longing itself.
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. (C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, p. 18.)
Or again he says, “Joy is distinct not only from pleasure in general but even from aesthetic pleasure. It must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing” (C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, p. 72.) So on the one hand, Joy has this dimension of “inconsolable longing,” aching, yearning for something you don’t have. But on the other hand, the longing and aching and yearning is itself pleasurable. It is in itself not just a wanting to have but a having.
True, it was desire, not possession. But then what I had felt on the walk had also been desire, and only possession in so far as that kind of desire is itself desirable, is the fullest possession we can know on earth; or rather, because the very nature of Joy makes nonsense of our common distinction between having and wanting. There, to have is to want and to want is to have. Thus, the very moment when I longed to be stabbed again, was itself again such a stabbing. (C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, p. 166)
Alan Jacobs is right to say, “Nothing was closer to the core of his being than this experience” (Alan Jacobs, The Narnian, p. 42). And perhaps what sealed its significance for Lewis is that it brought him to Christ. He was an atheist in his twenties, but relentlessly God was pursuing him through the experience of “inconsolable longing.” And he was finding that the writers who awakened it most often were Christian writers.
Made for Another World
One decisive influence was J. R. R. Tolkein, author of The Lord of the Rings. He argued like this, as Lewis did for the rest of his life: When this Joy — this stab of inconsolable longing — is awakened by certain powerful “myths” or “stories,” it is evidence that behind these myths there is a true Myth, a true Story that really exists, and that the reason the Joy is desirable and inconsolable is that it’s not the real thing. The True Myth, the Real Joy is the original shout, so to speak, and the stories and myths of human making are only echoes.
Tolkein pressed the analogous truth for Christianity. And Lewis did the same years later: “A man’s physical hunger does not prove that that man will get any bread: he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating, and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist” (Alan Jacobs, The Narnian, p. 46). In other words, “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” (Clyde S. Kilby, A Mind Awake: An Anthology of C.S. Lewis, (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc, 1968), p. 22).
God overcame Lewis’s atheism in the spring term of 1929. He was thirty years old.
You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him Whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. . . . Who can duly adore that love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? (C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, pp. 228–229.)
That was not the end of the struggle. It was two years later on October 1, 1931, that he wrote to his friend Arthur, “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, ed. Walter Hooper (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004), p. 974). The Great Story really is true. God really sent his Son. He really died for our sins. We really can have forgiveness and eternal life in the presence of the One to whom all the Joy was pointing.
Lewis looked back on all his experiences of Joy differently now. Now he knew why the desire was inconsolable, and yet pleasant. It was a desire for God. It was evidence that he was made for God.
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things — the beauty, the memory of our own past — are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of the tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited. (C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1949). pp. 4–5.)
All his life, he said, “an unattainable ecstasy has hovered just beyond the grasp of [my] consciousness” (C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, p. 148). “The sweetest thing of all my life has been the longing . . . to find the place where all the beauty came from” (Clyde S. Kilby, A Mind Awake, p. 25, quoted from Till We Have Faces.) But when Lewis was born again to see the glory of God in Christ, he never said again that he didn’t know where the beauty came from. Now he knew where all the joy was pointing. On the last page of his autobiography, he explained the difference in his experience of Joy now and before.
I believe . . . 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 whatever. But 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. While that other was in doubt, the pointer naturally loomed large in my thoughts. When we are lost in the woods the site of the signpost is a great matter. He who first sees it cries, ‘Look!’ The whole party gathers around and stares. But when we have found the road and are passing signposts every few miles, we shall not stop and stare. They will encourage us and we shall be grateful to the authority that set them up. But we shall not stop and stare, or not much; not on this road, though their pillars are of silver and their lettering of gold. ‘We would be at Jerusalem.’ (C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, p. 238.)
So Lewis stopped turning Joy into an idol when he found, by grace, that it was “a pointer to something other and outer,” namely to God. Clyde Kilby gave the highest estimation of this theme in Lewis:
[For Lewis Joy is] a desire which no natural happiness can ever satisfy, the lifelong pointer toward heaven . . . which gave us such delight and yet are the meager signs of the true rapture He has in heaven for redeemed souls. . . . The culmination of Sehnsucht [Longing, Joy] in the rhapsodic joy of heaven is, for me at least, the strongest single element in Lewis. In one way or other it hovers over nearly every one of his books and suggests to me that Lewis’s apocalyptic vision is perhaps more real than that of anyone since St. John on Patmos. (Clyde S. Kilby, The Christian World of C. S. Lewis (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1964), p. 187.)
4. C.S. Lewis’s Defense of Absolute Truth
Now we make a turn to see how this experience of Joy relates to Lewis’s defense of objective, absolute Truth. What we see is that when Lewis saw the historical Christ and the eternal, objective, absolutely real God as the object of his inconsolable longing (his Joy), he knew that if Truth goes, if objective Reality goes, if the possibility of knowing goes, then Joy becomes the mirage he feared all his life it might be. Christianity was the end of his quest precisely because it was true. Christ was real. God was real. Truth was real. Here’s the way he described the connection.
There was no doubt that Joy was a desire . . . but a desire is turned not to itself but to its object. . . . The form of the desired is in the desire. It is the object which makes the desire harsh or sweet, course or choice, ‘high’ or ‘low.’ It is the object that makes the desire itself desirable or hateful. I perceived (and this was a wonder of wonders) that just as I had been wrong in supposing that I really desired the Garden of the Hesperides, so also I have been equally wrong in supposing that I desired Joy itself. Joy itself, considered simply as an event in my own mind, turned out to be of no value at all. All the value lay in that of which Joy was the desiring. And that object, quite clearly, was no state of my own mind or body at all. (C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, p. 220.)
Here see the crucial link between Truth and Joy. “Joy itself, considered simply as an event in my own mind, turned out to be of no value at all. All the value lay in that of which Joy was the desiring.” So you see what is at stake. The entire modern world — and even more so the postmodern world — was moving away from this conviction. Liberal theology and emergent writers have flowed with the world of subjectivism and relativism. Lewis stood against it with all his might.
Alan Jacobs calls Lewis’s little book The Abolition of Man the “most profound of Lewis’s cultural critiques.” (Alan Jacobs, The Narnian, p. 174.) It would not be an exaggeration to say that in this book Lewis is furious at the purveyors of modern subjectivism in textbooks for young people. He gives this example from one such textbook in his own words. The authors refer to the story of Coleridge agreeing with a friend that the beauty of a certain waterfall is sublime. The authors comment,
When the man said That is sublime, he appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall. . . . Actually . . . he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings. What he was saying was really I have feelings associated in my mind with the word “Sublime,” or shortly, I have sublime feelings. . . . This confusion is continually present in language as we use it. We appear to be saying something very important about something: and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings. (C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1947), p. 14.)
Lewis says that the schoolboy who reads this textbook will “believe two propositions: firstly, that all sentences containing a predicate of value are statements about the emotional state of the speaker, and secondly, that all such statements are unimportant” (Ibid., p. 15).
This, Lewis argues in the end, is “the abolition of man” in more ways than one. Not only will everything true and beautiful and great be trivialized into mere personal preference and subjectivity, but in the end, there will be no resistance to tyrants who simply declare themselves to be in the right. Against this suicidal view of truth and reality, Lewis defends absolute Truth and absolute Value.
This theme which I have called for convenience the Tao . . . is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgments. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. . . . If my duty to my parents is a superstition, then so is my duty to posterity. If justice is a superstition, then so is my duty to my country or my race. If the pursuit of scientific knowledge is a real value, then so is conjugal fidelity. The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao is a rebellion of the branches against the tree: if the rebels could succeed they would find that they had destroyed themselves. (Ibid., p. 56. Lewis sees logic as a real reflection of the nature of Ultimate Reality that makes real knowledge of Reality possible: “I conclude 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.” Quoted from C. S. Lewis, “De Futilitate” in Clyde S. Kilby, A Mind Awake, p. 41.)
Hence “the abolition of man.” In the end, it means the destruction of civilization (Ibid., p. 39). But long before that, it means the destruction of Joy, because, as Lewis had learned when he became a Christian, an attack on the objective reality of God is an attack on Joy. “Joy itself, considered simply as an event in my own mind, turned out to be of no value at all. All the value lay in that of which Joy was the desiring.” All the value lay in God. Without God, the event in my mind called Joy is utterly trivial.
Therefore, for Lewis, the fight for Truth, the fight to find and use an epistemology that affirms and finds objective Reality outside of us — ultimately God himself — is the fight for Joy.
Is There a Conflict?
Which raises the question: Is there a conflict in Lewis between the fight for Joy and the fight for Truth — for God? What is ultimate for Lewis? God’s Glory or our Joy? And if this sounds like a familiar question to some of you, because I have been asking it for forty years, well guess where I found my answer? I know the very place in Jonathan Edwards where I read the answer, and he has been the greatest help to see it in the Bible and how it relates to other doctrines. But Lewis (with the guidance of my seminary professor Dan Fuller) was the first one who gave me the key that unlocked the door to the room where our Joy and God’s Glory came together.
“Fully to Enjoy Is to Glorify”
Edwards said, “God is glorified not only by His glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in” (Jonathan Edwards, “Miscellanies” in the Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 13, ed. Thomas Schafer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), p. 495, miscellany #448.) So the glory of God is displayed when we rejoice in it. Lewis says exactly the same thing even more clearly. In his book on the Psalms, he says, “The Scotch catechism says that man’s chief end is ‘to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.’ But we shall then know that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy him” (C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1958), p. 97. Emphasis added.).
So we have these two great themes in Lewis’s life: (1) the experience of Joy as an inconsolable longing in this world always pointing to the Reality beyond this world and (2) the defense of the objective nature of that Reality, that is, God, with all the ethical and epistemological implications of that defense. We see Lewis defending the objective Reality behind the experience of Joy because without it this experience is utterly trivialized as a mere animal state of the brain. Man as man is abolished. But now we have seen that in fighting for the dignity and majesty and eternity of the experience of Joy, Lewis is in fact fighting for the glory of God. Because, as he says, fully to enjoy God is to glorify God.
And so the means by which God brought Lewis to himself — the inconsolable longing for (the Joy in) what he knew not — turns out to be the ultimate goal of the Christian life as well — to make God the object of that longing — that Joy — and to glorify God by enjoying him forever.
5. Why the Flawed Lewis Is Influential for Me
So, in spite of all of Lewis’s flaws, the most fundamental reason why he has been so influential in my life, and so awakening to my own soul, is that he remained anchored as a Christian in the unfathomable rock-solid objectivity of God and his Truth and his gospel as infinitely Beautiful and infinitely Desirable and, therefore, as the unshakeable ground of unutterable and exalted Joy.
6. Eight More Ways Lewis Helps Me
But when I say that this is the “most fundamental reason” why Lewis has been so influential in my life, I run the risk of minimizing a whole array of other reasons that flow from this central spring. My tribute would not be complete without mentioning some of them.
1. Liberation from False Dichotomies
Lewis’s pursuit of Joy by means of rational defenses of objective truth has had a liberating effect on me. He freed me from false dichotomies. He demonstrated for me and convinced me that rigorous, precise, penetrating logic is not inimical to deep, soul-stirring feeling and vivid, lively imagination. He was a “romantic rationalist.” He combined what almost everybody today assumes are mutually exclusive: rationalism and poetry, cool logic and warm feeling, disciplined prose and free imagination. In shattering these old stereotypes for me, he freed me to think hard and write poetry, to argue for the resurrection and compose hymns to Christ, to smash an argument and hug a friend, to demand a definition and use a metaphor. It is a wonderful thing when a great man shows a struggler how to be himself.
2. Liberation from Chronological Snobbery
Lewis’s unwavering commitment to what is True and Real and Valuable, as opposed to what is trendy or fashionable or current, has been another kind of liberation for me, namely, from “chronological snobbery.” He loved the wisdom of the ages, not the whimsy of the passing present. He called himself a Neanderthaler and a dinosaur (Alan Jacobs, The Narnian, p. 281). He didn’t read newspapers. He never wore a watch. He never learned to type. He did not own or drive a car. He cared nothing about cutting a good appearance and wore the same old clothes until they were threadbare. (“His students were usually struck first by his appearance: he wore old tweed jackets until they fell apart, kept well into his 50s overcoats that he had inherited from [his father], and, with his ruddy complexion and hearty manner, reminded many students of a grocer or butcher. But the voice soon captivated them.” Contrary to a Time article that said he was short and thickset, he was just shy of 5’ 11’’ and weighed 13 stone, about 182 pounds in 1917. Ibid., p. 164.) He was incredibly free from the addicting powers of the present moment.
The effect of this on me has been to make me wary of what he called “chronological snobbery” (C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, p. 207.) That is, he has shown me that “newness” is no virtue, and “oldness” is no fault. He considered the present time to be provincial with its own blind spots. He said once: every third book you read should be from outside your own (provincial) century (C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock, pp. 201–202.). Truth and beauty and goodness are not determined by when they exist. Nothing is inferior for being old, and nothing is valuable for being modern. This has freed me from the tyranny of novelty and opened for me the wisdom of the centuries.
3. The Wakening of Wonder at What Is Really There
Lewis’s keen, penetrating sense of his own heart’s aching for Joy, combined with his utter amazement at the sheer, objective realness of things other than himself, has over and over awakened me from the slumbers of self-absorption to see and savor the world and through the world, the Maker of the world. And this sense of wonder at what is — really is — has carried over into doctrine, and the gospel in particular.
Lewis gave me, and continues to give me, an intense sense of the astonishing “realness” of things. He had the ability to see and feel what most of us see and do not see. He had what Alan Jacobs called “omnivorous attentiveness” (Alan Jacobs, The Narnian, p. xxi.) I love that phrase. What this has done for me is hard to communicate. To wake up in the morning and to be aware of the firmness of the mattress, the warmth of the sun’s rays, the sound of the clock ticking, the coldness of the wooden floor, the wetness of the water in the sink, the sheer being of things (quiddity as he called it). And not just to be aware but to wonder. To be amazed that the water is wet. It did not have to be wet. If there were no such thing as water, and one day someone showed it to you, you would simply be astonished.
He helped me become alive to life. To look at the sunrise and say with an amazed smile, “God did it again!” He helped me to see what is there in the world — things which if we didn’t have them, we would pay a million dollars to have, but having them, ignore. He convicts me of my callous inability to enjoy God’s daily gifts. He helps me to awaken my dazed soul so that the realities of life and of God and heaven and hell are seen and felt. I could go on about the good effect of this on preaching and the power of communication. But it has been precious mainly just for living.
4. The Perils of Introspection
Lewis’s experience in the pursuit of Joy and the mistakes he made have had a huge effect on the way I think about the assurance of salvation in relationship to introspection and self-examination. What he discovered is that the effort to know the experience of Joy by looking at Joy is self-defeating. He wrote, “I saw that all my waitings and watchings for Joy, all my vain hopes to find some mental content on which I could, so to speak, lay my finger and say, ‘This is it,’ had been a futile attempt to contemplate the enjoyed” (C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, p. 219.) It can’t be done, because the moment we step outside ourselves to contemplate our enjoying, we are no longer enjoying, but contemplating. The implication of this for knowing that we are believing God by trying to look at our believing is enormous.
This is our dilemma . . . as thinkers we are cut off from what we think about; as tasting, touching, willing, loving, hating, we do not clearly understand. The more lucidly we think, the more we are cut off: the more deeply we enter into reality, the less we can think. You cannot study Pleasure in the moment of the nuptial embrace, nor repentance while repenting, nor analyze the nature of humor while roaring with laughter. But when else can you really know these things? (C. S. Lewis: Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces, ed. Lesley Walmsley (London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2000), p. 140.)
You cannot hope and also think about hoping at the same moment; for in hope we look to hope’s object and we interrupt this by (so to speak) turning around to look at the hope itself. . . . Introspection is in one respect misleading. In introspection we try to look inside ourselves and see what is going on. But nearly everything that was going on a moment before is stopped by the very act of our turning to look at it. Unfortunately this does not mean that introspection finds nothing. On the contrary, it finds precisely what is left behind by the suspension of all our normal activities; and what is left behind is mainly mental images and physical sensations. The great error is to mistake this mere sediment or track or byproduct for the activities themselves. (Lewis, Surprised by Joy, pp. 218–219.)
What this has meant for me is, first, that I see now that the pursuit of Joy must always be indirect — focusing not on the experience but the object to be enjoyed. And, second, I see that faith in Jesus, in its most authentic experience is suspended when it is being analyzed to see if it is real. Which means this analysis always ends in discouragement. When we are trusting Christ most authentically, we are not thinking about trusting, but about Christ. When we step out of the moment to examine it, we cease what we were doing, and therefore cannot see it. My counsel for strugglers therefore is relentlessly: Look to Jesus. Look to Jesus in his word. And pray for eyes to see.
5. The Incompleteness of Duty Without Delight
Lewis’s analysis of Joy impelled me deeper into the biblical reality of what it means to walk by the Spirit — or to live “worthy of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27). Until we are gripped with the joyful impulses of gospel grace from the inside, we will always be thinking in terms of doing external duties as pressures from outside. This is called morality. But here is what I discovered with Lewis’s help:
A perfect man would never act from a sense of duty; he’d always want the right thing more than the wrong one. Duty is only a substitute for love (of God and of other people) like a crutch which is a substitute for a leg. Most of us need the crutch at times; but of course it is idiotic to use the crutch when our own legs (our own loves, tastes, habits, etc.) can do the journey on their own. (Letters of C. S. Lewis (1966), p. 277.)
The implications of this for my own pursuit of holiness and my teaching on sanctification have been pervasive. Lewis brings this insight to bear on the Puritans and William Tyndale in particular in a way this is profoundly illuminating:
In reality Tyndale is trying to express an obstinate fact which meets us long before we venture into the realm of theology; the fact that morality or duty (what he calls ‘the Law’) never yet made a man happy in himself or dear to others. It is shocking, but it is undeniable. We do not wish either to be, or to live among, people who are clean or honest or kind as a matter of duty: we want to be, and associate with, people who like being clean and honest and kind. The mere suspicion that what seemed an act of spontaneous friendliness or generosity was really done as a duty subtly poisons it. In philosophical language, the ethical category is self-destructive; morality is healthy only when it is trying to abolish itself. In theological language, no man can be saved by works. The whole purpose of the “Gospel,” for Tyndale, is to deliver us from morality. Thus, paradoxically, the “Puritan” of modern imagination — the cold, gloomy heart, doing as duty what happier and richer souls do without thinking of it — is precisely the enemy which historical Protestantism arose and smote. (C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, p. 187.)
This is what I want to keep smiting with Christian Hedonism: The gospel is designed to make forgiven sinners love righteousness, not do it against all their inclinations.
6. The Painful Value of Self-Knowledge
In spite of all the dangers of introspection and self-analysis, Lewis pursued this kind of purity of heart and holiness of motive, and it led him to depths of self-understanding that have exposed my heart again and again. I feel myself laid open when I read Lewis. I feel like I am in the presence of someone who has x-ray vision, and that all my subtle selfish desires and evasions and self-justifications are exposed. Here’s just one example of his own self-awareness of sin.
My afternoon “meditations” — which I at least attempt quite regularly now — I have found out ludicrous and terrible things about my own character. Sitting by, watching the rising thoughts to break their necks as they pop up, one learns to know the sort of thoughts that do come. And, will you believe it, one out of every three is the thought of self-admiration: when everything else fails, having had its neck broken, up comes the thought “What an admirable fellow I am to have broken their necks!” I catch myself posturing before the mirror, so to speak, all day long. I pretend I am carefully thinking out what to say to the next pupil (for his good, of course) and then suddenly realize I am really thinking how frightfully clever I am going to be and how he will admire me. . . . And then when you force yourself to stop it, you admire yourself for doing that. It is like fighting the hydra. . . . There seems to be no end to it. Depth under depth of self-love and self-admiration. (C. S. Lewis: Collected Letters, Vol. 1, Family Letters 1905–1931, ed. Walter Hooper (London: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000), p. 878.)
On the other hand, his powers of analyzing human nature would not be duped by psychoanalysts who would try to turn the experience of Joy into a mere psychological phenomenon. For example, in response to a Freudian assessment of Joy, Lewis wrote,
One knows what a psychoanalyst would say — it is sublimated lust, a kind of defeated masturbation which fancy gives one to compensate for external chastity. And after all, why should that be the right way of looking at it? If he can say that It is sublimated sex, why is it not open to me to say that sex is underdeveloped “It”? — as Plato would have said. (Ibid., p. 877.)
Lewis’s powers of analysis of his own heart — and mine — flow from his relentless pursuit of authentic and lasting Joy, that will suffer no substitutes, and therefore sees real sin and false accusation where many of us would miss them both.
7. Story Is Great — But Not Everything
Lewis has been helpful in celebrating the power of “story” (which is very fashionable today) and yet not overstating the exclusive claims of story over against exposition and argument and doctrine. Alan Jacobs said, “Philosophy had gotten Lewis to Mount Pisgah, from which (like Moses) he could look out across the Promised Land. But it would be literature — story — that would take him into that land so that he could taste its milk and honey” (Alan Jacobs, The Narnian, p. 120). That’s true. But Lewis never ceased to use the rational tools of his first trade. “Logic is a real insight into the way in which real things have to exist. . . . The laws of thought are also the laws of things” (See note 32. “De Futilitate,” p. 41.)
Therefore, alongside three science fiction novels, many published poems, and seven world-class imaginary tales for children, there were the razor-sharp logical defenses of Christian faith, The Problem of Pain, Miracles, The Abolition of Man, Christian Reflections, and dozens of essays. (The fullest collection of essays is C. S. Lewis, Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces.) At least one of Lewis’s friends, Owen Barfield, accused Lewis, in a friendly way, of having an “expository demon.” Some of his friends would have preferred that he do less explaining the truth and spend more time pointing to the truth with stories.
But I am deeply thankful that Lewis would not be pressed into this lopsided and unbiblical view of “story.” Story is precious and powerful. And the Bible has plenty of it. But explanation and exposition and doctrine are as crucial to life as story is. And the life and work of C.S. Lewis is a magnificent testimony of the power of both, especially when both of them deepen and enrich the other. I thank God for his example — both for his extraordinary imagination and his “expository demon.”
8. The Glory of Simply Being Human
Finally, Lewis’s conception of our final and eternal Joy in the presence of God, and what an unspeakable wonder that will be, enables him to stand in God-exalting awe of what it means to be human. He has helped me rise above my petty complaints and see people — at least from time to time — as the staggering wonders that they are in the image of God.
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and 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 other of these destinations. . . . There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization — 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. (The Weight of Glory, p. 15.)
The effect this has had on me is to make me serious about life. As Lewis said in one of his letters, “Joy is the serious business of heaven” (C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1964), p. 299). Serious is not the same as morose. As Lewis says,
We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously — no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. (The Weight of Glory, p. 15.)
The Real Business of Life
So life is serious, even when we play. And the pursuit of Joy is a serious matter. All of it is serious and happy because God is Real. Neither he nor our Joy in him is a mere event in the mind. There is God. There is objective Truth. There is the gospel. And there is Joy.
And that God-glorifying Joy is the great end of life. In it, God’s glory and human Joy meet without conflict, if — the awesome if — we have seen Christ in the gospel and believed.
Perhaps it won’t be surprising then to hear Lewis say, as his last word to us, “The salvation of a single soul is more important than the production or preservation of all the epics and tragedies in the world” (C. S. Lewis, “Christianity and Literature,” in: Christian Reflections, p. 10.) “The glory of God, and, as our only means to glorifying Him, the salvation of human souls, is the real business of life” (C. S. Lewis, “Christianity and Culture” in: Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1967), p. 14). This doesn’t cancel out all the other business. Lewis’s life testifies to that. But it does focus on our longings and prayers and aims in all we do. (In 1958, Lewis was chastised by the liberal theologian Norman Pittenger for oversimplification in explaining the Trinity. In response Lewis gives us a rare glimpse into his evangelistic heart. “Most of my books are evangelistic, addressed to tous exo [those outside] . . . 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?” C. S. Lewis, “Rejoinder to Dr. Pittenger,” in God in the Dock, pp. 181, 183.)