TagC. S. Lewis

the “decline of religion”

Here’s something C. S. Lewis wrote in a 1946 essay called “The Decline of Religion”:

The `decline of religion’ so often lamented (or welcomed) is held to be shown by empty chapels [in the Oxbridge colleges]. Now it is quite true that that chapels which were full in 1900 are empty in 1946. But this change was not gradual. It occurred at the precise moment when chapel ceased to be compulsory. It was not in fact a decline; it was a precipice. The sixty men who had come because chapel was a little later than ‘rollers’ (its only alternative) came no more; the five Christians remained. The withdrawal of compulsion did not create a new religious situation, but only revealed the situation which had long existed. And this is typical of the ‘decline in religion’ all over England.

I think it’s pretty obvious that the situation that obtained at Oxford and Cambridge when chapel attendance was made optional is closely analogous to the religious situation in America today. Everywhere in America, and even in the deep South, being a Christian has ceased is rapidly ceasing to be socially rewarding or even acceptable.* More from Lewis:

One way of putting the truth would be that the religion which has declined was not Christianity. It was a vague Theism with a strong and virile ethical code, which, far from standing over against the ‘World’, was absorbed into the whole fabric of English institutions and sentiment and therefore demanded church-going as (at best) a part of loyalty and good manners as (at worst) a proof of respectability. Hence a social pressure, like the withdrawal of the compulsion, did not create a new situation. The new freedom first allowed accurate observations to be made. When no man goes to church except because he seeks Christ the number of actual believers can at last be discovered.

That’s what we are discovering. The question is whether American churches will have the intellectual and spiritual integrity necessary to recognize and accept how completely they have relied on the social appeal of a “vague Theism” and how little they have spoken to those who go to church because they seek Christ. What’s at stake here is merely life or death.


*I changed that on reflection — where I live in central Texas, and in the many parts of the Southeast, being known to have a church community is still an index of trustworthiness in some business and social contexts. 

the healing to come

The fact that the body, and locality and locomotion and time, now feel irrelevant to the highest reaches of the spiritual life is (like the fact that we can think of our bodies as ‘coarse’) a symptom. Spirit and Nature have quarrelled in us; that is our disease. Nothing we can yet do enables us to imagine its complete healing. Some glimpses and faint hints we have: in the Sacraments, in the use made of sensuous imagery by the great poets, in the best instances of sexual love, in our experiences of the earth’s beauty. But the full healing is utterly beyond our present conceptions. Mystics have got as far in contemplation of God as the point at which the senses are banished: the further point, at which they will be put back again, has (to the best of my knowledge) been reached by no one.

– C. S. Lewis, Miracles

transcendent experience

I became interested in ecstatic experiences when I was 24 and had a near-death experience. I fell off a mountain while skiing, dropped 30 feet, and broke my leg and back. As I lay there, I felt immersed in love and light. I’d been suffering from emotional problems for six years, and feared my ego was permanently damaged. In that moment, I knew that I was OK, I was loved, that there was something in me that could not be damaged, call it ‘the soul’, ‘the self’, ‘pure consciousness’ or what-have-you. The experience was hugely healing. But was it just luck, or grace?

Interesting how from its title onward — Religion has no monopoly on transcendent experience — this piece is absolutely desperate to avoid considering the possibility of a living God. People often say that it’s quite unfair that God expects us to believe in him if he doesn’t make himself evident to us. But what if he does and we choose to interpret the experience in some other way?

Thus C. S. Lewis at the beginning of his book Miracles: “In all my life I have met only one person who claims to have seen a ghost. And the interesting thing about the story is that that person disbelieved in the immortal soul before she saw the ghost and still disbelieves after seeing it. She says that what she saw must have been an illusion or a trick of the nerves. And obviously she may be right. Seeing is not believing…. If anything extraordinary seems to have happened, we can always say that we have been the victims of an illusion. If we hold a philosophy which excludes the supernatural, this is what we always shall say. What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience. It is therefore useless to appeal to experience before we have settled, as well as we can, the philosophical question.”

the Pevensies and puberty

A comment on “the problem of Susan” and more particularly this post by Adam Roberts:

My thesis: None of the Pevensies goes through puberty in Narnia. Remember, while we are told that they “grow and change,” we don’t learn the specifics of that change — or, more tellingly, the ways in which they don’t change. It is perhaps the environment of a planet alien to the one on which they were born that afflicts them all with a rare acquired variant of Kallmann Syndrome. This is why none of them ever marries: though “all princes in those parts desire [Lucy] to be their Queen,” she refuses them because she knows that her condition makes her infertile, and knows that it is best for each of those princes to marry a woman who can bear him heirs. My thesis also explains why the Pevensies so unhesitatingly leave Narnia rulerless: they know that some plan for the succession has to be devised, but also that no Narnian (unacquainted as that land is with modern Terran medicine) would understand their condition or accept that it cannot be cured or remediated. In these circumstances, the responsibility for self-rule is the best gift they could give to their people. Otherwise their abandonment of Narnia would be inexcusable. It is only when they return to our world that they enter puberty for the first time — and puberty is something, I think you’ll agree, that no number of years ruling a country or fighting frost giants could possibly prepare one for.

“such an obvious thought”

All you then have to do is to keep out of his mind the question “If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?” You may ask whether it is possible to keep such an obvious thought from occurring even to a human mind. It is, Wormwood, it is! Handle him properly and it simply won’t come into his head. He has not been anything like long enough with the Enemy to have any real humility yet. What he says, even on his knees, about his own sinfulness is all parrot talk. At bottom, he still believes he has run up a very favourable credit-balance in the Enemy’s ledger by allowing himself to be converted, and thinks that he is showing great humility and condescension in going to church with these “smug”, commonplace neighbours at all. Keep him in that state of mind as long as you can.

— C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

“the wisdom of repugnance”: a test case

In this post I want to connect my earlier post about what needs to be done to reclaim the term “evangelical” with my frequently-asserted hostility to the Presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.

In a well-known passage from The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis writes,

St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful. In the Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one ‘who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart. All this before he is of an age to reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.’

If one side of this proper training is the delighted recognition of, and attraction to, the good, the other and equally necessary side is the instinctive recoiling from “the disgusting and hateful.” That second kind of response is what Leon Kass appealed to in his famous essay on “The Wisdom of Repugnance.”

I believe that the proper response of the well-former mind and heart to the very idea of Donald Trump as President of the United States is, to put it bluntly, revulsion.

It is possible, of course, to feel that revulsion and then decide that it needs to be mastered. That is what has happened to many Republican politicians who have supported Trump: they let their political ambitions (in the worst case) or political loyalties (in the best) overcome their revulsion. Consider the former governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, who as I write has just withdrawn his support for Trump, saying, “He is unsound, uninformed, unhinged and unfit to be President of the United States.” That formulation is so perfectly accurate that I can’t help thinking that Pawlenty has been saying it in his head for quite some time now but has only today been driven to say it out loud.

I have little respect for politicians who ever, at any point, endorsed Trump, and none whatsoever for those who have not denounced him by this stage of the game, but I understand why they might have careerist reasons for doing what they do. We will set them aside, reflecting that verily, they have their reward — or their punishment, as the case may be.

What concerns me far more deeply is the ordinary, everyday Christian — the person who claims to be an evangelical Christian — who is not revolted by Trump, who lacks the requisite “wisdom of repugnance.” I think, for instance, of the people who have compared Trump to King David, presumably because both are guilty of sexual sin. But those who make this comparison have failed to recognize the difference between one who says “For I know my transgressions, / And my sin is ever before me” and one who says that he doesn’t “bring God into that picture” when he does something wrong and follows up by saying “I am good. I don’t do a lot of things that are bad.” And if you don’t understand that distinction — and equally if you understand it but for political reasons pretend not to — there is very little about the Christian message that you truly grasp.

By the way, I’m not talking about Hillary Clinton here because there is so little evangelical support for Hillary Clinton. She also offers much for us to be appalled by.

And I’m not even making the argument that an evangelical Christian should never in any circumstances vote for Trump. (Not today, anyway.) I am simply saying this: the fact that so many American Christians feel no revulsion at the thought of electing Donald Trump — this man so palpably “unsound, uninformed, unhinged and unfit” — as the leader of this or for that matter any other nation, but rather express great enthusiasm at the prospect, indicates not just a lack of knowledge but also, and more important, a lack of moral training. The immediate responses are missing or wrong.

There are many criteria we might apply to judge whether a given congregation (or for that matter denomination) is genuinely evangelical, here’s one of them: Is it raising up its people in such a way that they feel repugnance when confronted by truly repugnant ideas — like the idea of Donald Trump as leader of a nation?

What does a healthy response to the current controversy look like? We might turn to the editorial page of the Deseret News for an example. After incisively quoting Proverbs 29 (“when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn”) they state quite straightforwardly their response to Trump’s sexual boasting: “What oozes from this audio is evil.”

My fellow evangelicals: listen and heed. Your very future depends on your ability to do so.

One thing can hardly come under the Hush Hush — I mean the beautiful planetary conjunction last Tuesday. Did you happen to see the moon (first quarter), Jupiter and Venus, all in a line and not more than three fingers apart? I saw them on a clear evening, emerging from the cloister of New Building to go to dinner, and understood what is at the back of all astrology i.e. the difficulty of believing that anything so splendid is without significance.

C. S. Lewis, letter to his brother Warnie, 18 February 1940. Warnie was serving in the Army, and “the Hush Hush” is the forbidding of sensitive topics by Army censors.

I thought of this passage this morning as I was walking my dog. It was still dark, and Orion stood at the top of the sky, and near the horizon the crescent moon lay on its back with the outline of the whole orb just visible. It’s hard at such a moment not to think that the constellations are indeed “the pattern and the mirror of the acts of earth.”

the adventures of Jenner and Phelps

I heard as good a story as I know this week about old Phelps the Provost of Oriel — you probably remember him, with the beard and the black straw hat. Jenner was a fellow of Jesus, a high-minded dissenter and fanatical tee-totaller. He was dining at Oriel and the Provost asked him to take wine with him:

Jenner: Sir, I would rather commit adultery than drink a glass of that.

Provost: (in a low, stern voice) So would we all, Jenner; but not at the table, if you please.

— C. S. Lewis, letter to his brother Warnie, 5 November 1939

the most incisive commentary on today’s disputes about whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God

The process whereby ‘faith and works’ become a stock gag in the commercial theatre 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 — I had almost said the Pauline — 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 had happened, Europe’s chance to come through unscathed was lost. It was as if men were set to conduct a metaphysical argument at a fair, in competition or (worse still) forced collaboration with the cheapjacks and the round-abouts, under the eyes of an armed and vigilant police force who frequently changed sides.

— C. S. Lewis, from Poetry and Prose in the Sixteenth Century. See also: “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?”

On Not Defending the Humanities

I don’t think that the humanities or the liberal arts can be defended, at least not in the sense that most people give to “defended.” Here’s why, starting with three texts on which I will build my explanation.

The English theologian Austin Farrer used to say that some Christian doctrines — he was thinking especially of the hypostatic union — cannot be defended, but can be homiletically expounded.

Similarly, in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? Alasdair MacIntyre writes,

In systematizing and ordering the truths they take themselves to have discovered, the adherents of a tradition may well assign a primary place in the structures of their theorizing to certain truths and treat them as first metaphysical or practical principles. But such principles will have had to vindicate themselves in the historical process of dialectical justification… Such first principles themselves, and indeed the whole body of theory of which they are a part, themselves will be understood to require justification. The kind of rational justification which they receive is at once dialectical and historical. They are justified insofar as in the history of this tradition they have, by surviving the process of dialectical questioning, vindicated themselves as superior to their historical predecessors.

And in The Abolition of Man C. S. Lewis writes,

Those who understand the spirit of the Tao and who have been led by that spirit can modify it in directions which that spirit itself demands. Only they can know what those directions are. The outsider knows nothing about the matter. His attempts at alteration, as we have seen, contradict themselves. So far from being able to harmonize discrepancies in its letter by penetration to its spirit, he merely snatches at some one precept, on which the accidents of time and place happen to have riveted his attention, and then rides it to death — for no reason that he can give. From within the Tao itself comes the only authority to modify the Tao. This is what Confucius meant when he said ‘With those who follow a different Way it is useless to take counsel’. This is why Aristotle said that only those who have been well brought up can usefully study ethics: to the corrupted man, the man who stands outside the Tao, the very starting point of this science is invisible. He may be hostile, but he cannot be critical: he does not know what is being discussed…. Outside the Tao there is no ground for criticizing either the Tao or anything else.

I think that these passages, read rightly, suggest a few things. First, that it’s probably impossible to defend the artes liberales, or the studia humanitatis, to people who are firmly outside their Tao — who simply do not acknowledge the value of the foundational commitments that have shaped the tradition. The person who relentlessly demands to know what kind of job a liberal-arts education will get him “may be hostile, but he cannot be critical.” And this is not a temporary or trivial impediment that can be maneuvered around; it’s an immoveable object.

But apologetics is not the only mode of suasion. In some cases the more appropriate rhetoric relies on narration and exposition: perhaps something as simple as telling the story of what we do. There are many places around the country where older models of the humanities are flourishing, even as those who have rejected this Tao are floundering — those older models having, as it were, vindicated themselves as superior to their historical successors, or would-be successors. But what happens in these institutions, in these classrooms, is simply invisible to people who question the value of the humanities. Rendering the invisible visible might be one of the best services those of us following those models could perform in “defense” of our practices.

I’m teaching a class called Philosophy Versus Literature and right now we’re working through Lucretius. Yesterday we talked about philosophy as therapy — drawing on Martha Nussbaum, among others — and the odd but, in the end, strong logic that leads Lucretius (following Epicurus) to believe that physics is first philosophy, that understanding the constitution of the world is the necessary first step towards being liberated from fear and unnecessary pain. Next time I’m going to tell the students about Stephen Greenblatt’s (very bad) book The Swerve, and ask them why a book about the early modern recovery of Lucretius became a bestseller and award-winner in 21st-century America. These conversations concern matters ancient and permanent and are also about as relevant as relevant can be, if that happens to be one of your criteria for educational value. Moreover, De Rerum Natura is a book that runs pretty strongly against the grain of all that my students believe and hope — but that does not deter them nor me from treating it with the utmost attentiveness.

I can’t defend the value of this kind of exercise in some kind of abstract, characterless intellectual space; nor am I inclined to. It makes sense within the Tao; and if you want to see what kind of sense it makes you have to think and act within the Tao. You have to take it on as a living option, not a dessicated proposition. To those who doubt the value of what I do, I probably have little more to say than: Taste and see. (But I’ll use more words to say it.)

When grave persons express their fear that England is relapsing into Paganism, I am tempted to reply, `Would that she were.’ For I do not think it at all likely that we shall ever see Parliament opened by the slaughtering of a garlanded white bull in the House of Lords or Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering for the Dryads. If such a state of affairs came about, then the Christian apologist would have something to work on. For a Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity. He is essentially the pre-Christian, or sub-Christian, religious man. The post-Christian man of our day differs from him as much as a divorcee differs from a virgin. The Christian and the Pagan have much more in common with one another than either has with the writers of the New Statesman; and those writers would of course agree with me.

— C. S. Lewis, “Is Theism Important?”

Almost the whole of Christian theology could perhaps be deduced from the two facts (a) That men make coarse jokes, and (b) That they feel the dead to be uncanny.

— C. S. Lewis, Miracles

I believe a man is happier, and happy in a richer way, if he has ‘the freeborn mind’. But I doubt whether he can have this without economic independence, which the new society is abolishing. For economic independence allows an education not controlled by Government; and in adult life it is the man who needs, and asks, nothing of Government who can criticise its acts and snap his fingers at its ideology. Read Montaigne; that’s the voice of a man with his legs under his own table, eating the mutton and turnips raised on his own land. Who will talk like that when the State is everyone’s schoolmaster and employer? Admittedly, when man was untamed, such liberty belonged only to the few. I know. Hence the horrible suspicion that our only choice is between societies with few freemen and societies with none.

— C. S. Lewis, “Is Progress Possible?”

Thus the ‘decline of religion’ becomes a very ambiguous phenomenon. One way of putting the truth would be that the religion which has declined was not Christianity. It was a vague Theism with a strong and virile ethical code, which, far from standing over against the ‘World’, was absorbed into the whole fabric of English institutions and sentiment and therefore demanded church-going as (at best) a part of loyalty and good manners or (at worst) a proof of respectability. Hence a social pressure, like the withdrawal of the compulsion, did not create a new situation. The new freedom first allowed accurate observations to be made. When no man goes to church except because he seeks Christ the number of actual believers can at last be discovered. It should be added that this new freedom was partly caused by the very conditions which it revealed. If the various anti-clerical and anti-theistic forces at work in the nineteenth century had had to attack a solid phalanx of radical Christians the story might have been different. But mere ‘religion’ — ‘morality tinged with emotion’, ‘what a man does with his solitude’, ‘the religion of all good men’ — has little power of resistance. It is not good at saying No.

The decline of ‘religion’, thus understood, seems to me in some ways a blessing. At the very worst it makes the issue clear. To the modern undergraduate Christianity is, at least, one of the intellectual options. It is, so to speak, on the agenda: it can be discussed, and a conversion may follow. I can remember times when this was much more difficult. ‘Religion’ (as distinct from Christianity) was too vague to be discussed (‘too sacred to be lightly mentioned’) and so mixed up with sentiment and good form as to be one of the embarrassing subjects. If it had to be spoken of, it was spoken of in a hushed, medical voice. Something of the shame of the Cross is, and ought to be, irremovable. But the merely social and sentimental embarrassment is gone. The fog of ‘religion’ has lifted.

— C. S. Lewis, “The Decline of Religion” (in God in the Dock)

But it is also important to recognize how much the themes of the Narnia books are interwoven with what he was thinking and writing in other contexts around the same time, and with material he had already published in the 1940s — as well as the fact that the first seeds of the actual Narnia narrative seem to have been sown as early as 1939. For example: his 1946 book, The Great Divorce, foreshadows many of the ideas in the Narnia stories — most particularly a theme that Lewis insists on more and more as his work develops, the impossibility of forcing any person to accept love and the monumental and excruciating difficulty of receiving love when you are wedded to a certain picture of yourself. It is this theme that emerges most clearly in his last (and greatest) imaginative work, the 1956 novel, Till We Have Faces. The issues we shall be looking at in the following pages are very much the issues that Lewis is trying to work out in a variety of imaginative idioms from the early 1940s onwards — the problems of self-deception above all, the lure of self-dramatizing, the pain and challenge of encounter with divine truthfulness. What Narnia seeks to do, very ambitiously, is to translate these into terms that children can understand. And as to why Lewis decided to address such an audience, there is probably no very decisive answer except that he had a high view of children’s literature, a passion for myth and fantasy and a plain desire to communicate as widely as possible.

If the reader will suspend his disbelief and exercise his imagination upon it even for a few minutes, I think he will become aware of the vast re-adjustment involved in a perceptive reading of the old poets. He will find his whole attitude to the universe inverted. In modern, that is, in evolutionary, thought Man stands at the top of a stair whose foot is lost in obscurity; in this, he stands at the bottom of a stair whose top is invisible with light.

You must go out on a starry night and walk about for half an hour trying to see the sky in terms of the old cosmology. Remember that you now have an absolute Up and Down. The Earth is really the centre, really the lowest place; movement to it from whatever direction is downward movement. As a modern, you located the stars at a great distance. For distance you must now substitute that very special, and far less abstract, sort of distance which we call height; height, which speaks immediately to our muscles and nerves. The Medieval Model is vertiginous.

Historically as well as cosmically, medieval man stood at the foot of a stairway; looking up, he felt delight. The backward, like the upward, glance exhilarated him with a majestic spectacle, and humility was rewarded with the pleasures of admiration…. There were friends, ancestors, patrons in every age. One had one’s place, however modest, in a great succession; one need be neither proud nor lonely.

And … as that vast (though finite) space is not dark, so neither is it silent. If our ears were opened we should perceive, as Henryson puts it, ‘every planet in his proper sphere / In moving mankand harmony and sound.’ The ‘silence’ which frightened Pascal was, according to the Model, wholly illusory; and the sky looks black only because we are seeing it through the dark glass of our own shadow. You must conceive yourself looking up at a world lighted, warmed, and resonant with music.

I was thinking of these key passages from C. S. Lewis’s The DIscarded Image last night as I was conversing with my friend Matt Milliner. This is a condensed summary of Lewis’s whole imagination.

It often happens that two schoolboys can solve difficulties in their work for one another better than the master can. When you took the problem to a master, as we all remember, he was very likely to explain what you understood already, to add a great deal of information which you didn’t want, and say nothing at all about the thing that was puzzling you. I have watched this from both sides of the net; for when, as a teacher myself, I have tried to answer questions brought me by pupils, I have sometimes, after a minute, seen that expression settle down on their faces that assured me that they were suffering exactly the same frustration which I had suffered from my teachers. The fellow-pupil can help more than the master because he knows less. The difficulty we want him to explain is one he has recently met. The expert met it so long ago he has forgotten. He sees the whole subject, by now, in a different light that he cannot conceive what is really troubling the pupil; he sees a dozen other difficulties which ought to be troubling him but aren’t.

— C. S. Lewis, “Introductory” to Reflections on the Psalms

A reader of Williams’s biography is likely to come to the conclusion that he was rather creepy. His “romantic theology” – which understands erotic love not so much as a path or ladder to the love of God but as a form of the love of God – encouraged him to flirtations, at the very least, with young women (Williams was married and had a son). He seems to have had the same sado-masochistic tendencies as the young Jack Lewis, though without ever escaping them. His fascination with the occult exceeded what most Christians think of as appropriate bounds. Yet few who knew him saw him in this light. Lewis adored him, finding him chivalrous, generous, even selfless, as well as a major thinker and a brilliant (though often too obscure) writer. “I begin to suspect that we are living in the ‘age of Williams,’” he once wrote in a letter to his friend, “and our friendship with you will be our only passport to fame.” T. S. Eliot wrote, “I think he was a man of unusual genius, and I regard his work as important.” The poet W. H. Auden, who worked with Williams on a collection of poetry he edited for Oxford University Press, had perhaps a stronger response still, though he never knew Williams as well as the others. Many years after first meeting Williams, he would recall that interview in surprising terms, and mark it as one of the events that led him to embrace the Christian faith:

For the first time in my life, [I] felt myself in the presence of personal sanctity… . I had met many good people before who made me feel ashamed of my own shortcomings, but in the presence of this man – we never discussed anything but literary business – I did not feel ashamed. I felt transformed into a person who was incapable of doing or thinking anything base or unloving. (I later discovered that he had had a similar effect on many other people.)

Yet in all this praise there remains – and all the praisers are well aware of this – an element of the inexplicable. How could a conversation about “literary business” generate such an aura of “personal sanctity”? Likewise, Eliot, after having affirmed the value of Williams’s work, goes on to say, “it has an importance of a kind not easy to explain.” And Lewis has to agree with a colleague – probably Tolkien – who says that Williams was “one in whom, after years of friendship, there remained something elusive and incalculable.” Williams simply made an exceptionally powerful impression on almost all who knew him, and his work similarly affects people, though in more variable ways: for some, like me, his books, especially his novels, are disturbing. (Tolkien, though he liked Williams personally very much, found his writing “wholly alien, and sometimes very distasteful, occasionally ridiculous.”) I find that I do not trust Williams; though almost all who knew him trusted him implicitly.

A passage on the eminently weird Charles Williams from my biography of C. S. Lewis. Prompted by this brief reflection on Williams by Caleb Crain.

‘Is he – quite safe?’ asks Susan in Chapter 7 of The Lion. ‘Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe,’ says Mr Beaver; ‘But he’s good.’ Aslan’s unsafeness is referred to repeatedly: ‘Is it not said in all the old stories that He is not a Tame Lion?’ (Last Battle Ch. 2). But what is perhaps most remarkable in the entire sequence – and in itself a compelling reason for never reading the books without including The Last Battle – is the way Lewis allows this very axiom almost to undermine faith and truth. To take a parallel from as different an author as you could imagine, Dostoevsky can write in his personal journals of how he has learned to sing his hosanna in the crucible of doubt – but he also, in The Brothers Karamazov uses precisely this phrase in the mouth of a diabolical visitant as a mocking summary of religious evasiveness and dishonesty. Similarly, when the malign Shift begins his campaign to take over Narnia, the fact that he orders things that are absolutely contrary to what might be expected of Aslan is initially met with confusion rather than rejection – because ‘he’s not a tame lion’. Is he bound by his own rules? There have been no signs in the stars to announce the coming again of Aslan; but ‘he is not the slave of the stars but their Maker’ (Last Battle Ch. 2). Appealing to the unpredictable wildness of Aslan has become an unanswerable tool of control….

Aslan makes no promise; nothing can make him safe, and there is no approaching him without an overwhelming sense of risk. But there is no other stream. A less fearful and guilty person than Jill might – like the talking horse Hwin in The Horse (Ch. 14) – conclude that ‘I’d rather be eaten by you than fed by anyone else.’ But one thing Aslan cannot do is pretend he is not what and who he is. Under his scrutiny the likelihood is that we shall all feel as unsafe as it is possible to be. In this crucial sense – and as it were in response to the doubts expressed in The Last Battle – Aslan cannot break his laws. He is not bound by anything except what and who he is, but that is a real and unbreakable bond. He cannot be other than truth. And confronted with truth in this shape, there may be no promises, no rewards and no security, but there is nowhere else to go. Trust in Aslan may even open up the horrific possibilities of corruption and nightmare that The Last Battle describes, but there is no way for Aslan to come into this world without such risks. There are no other options for truthfulness to enter our consciousness or, more importantly, for sacrificial love to break our chains.

— Rowan Williams, The Lion’s World

That being said, I can only confess to being repeatedly humbled and reconverted by Lewis in a way that is true of few other modern Christian writers. Re-reading works I have not looked at for some time, I realize where a good many of my favorite themes and insights came from, and am constantly struck by the richness of imagination and penetration that can be contained even in a relatively brief letter. Here is someone you do not quickly come to the end of — as a complex personality and as a writer and thinker.

Rowan Williams on C S Lewis. I resonate with this very strongly. Lewis was fairly important to me when I was a young Christian, but not nearly as important as several other figures, and for many years I largely ignored him. Only when I was asked to write a biography of Lewis did I confront the uncomfortable fact that I was keeping Lewis at arm’s length not because of any of his own failings, but because I was tired of dealing with vast hordes of evangelicals for whom whatever CSL said about anything was the last word on that topic. It wasn’t Jack that I was tired of, but Jackolatry. When I had to read everything that he wrote in preparation for writing the biography — no small task, let me tell you — I was forced to see that his was a far more copious and supple mind than I had ever realized. Like Archbishop Rowan, I occasionally had the uncomfortable experience of finding in Lewis the source of some idea that I had believed to be my own, and further had believed to be very up-to-date, responsive to the moment — not the sort of thing that would ever have occurred to an old dinosaur like CSL. Those were telling moments.

Oh, Minos, or Rhadamanthus, or Persephone, or by whatever name you are called, I am to blame for most of this, and I should bear the punishment. I taught her, as men teach a parrot, to say, ‘Lies of poets,’ and ‘Ungit’s a false image.’ I made her think that ended the question. I never said, Too true an image of the demon within. And then the other face of Ungit (she has a thousand) … something live anyway. And the real gods more alive. Neither they nor Ungit mere thoughts or words. I never told her why the old Priest got something from the dark House that I never got from my trim sentences. She never asked me (I was content she shouldn’t ask) why the people got something from the shapeless stone which no one ever got from that painted doll of Arnom’s. Of course, I didn’t know; but I never told her I didn’t know. I don’t know now. Only that the way to the true gods is more like the house of Ungit … oh, it’s unlike too, more unlike than we yet dream, but that’s the easy knowledge, the first lesson; only a fool would stay there, posturing and repeating it. The Priest knew at least that there must be sacrifices. They will have sacrifice—will have man. Yes, and the very heart, center, ground, roots of a man; dark and strong and costly as blood. Send me away, Minos, even to Tartarus, if Tartarus can cure glibness. I made her think that a prattle of maxims would do, all thin and clear as water. For of course water’s good; and it didn’t cost much, not where I grew up. So I fed her on words.

This is the Fox speaking, the beloved Greek tutor of Orual, the protagonist of C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces. These are among his last words in the novel.

I post them here in answer to a question I have been getting rather often lately. Some of my long-time readers have been wondering whether I have lost interest in writing (perhaps even in thinking) about theology. I have not; nor have I substantially changed any of my core beliefs. But I have come to suspect my own theological glibness. Indeed, I am generally prone to glibness, but if I’m glib about information technology or the merits of the anti-Stratfordian case, that doesn’t matter very much. Theological glibness is a more serious matter. I am not taking a sabbatical from thinking theologically, but I am taking one from writing about what I’m thinking. I am pursuing other interests — or rather, I am pursuing the same old interests with the explicit theological inquiries kept to myself, at least for a while to come. I am neither good enough nor smart enough nor wise enough to pontificate about many things I have pontificated about in the past. I need to back off and learn to be silent — if not about everything, or even many things, then about the most important things.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook — even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united — united with each other and against earlier and later ages — by a great mass of common assumptions… .

None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us.

— C. S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books”

Trevor-Roper on CSL

Do you know C.S. Lewis? In case you don’t, let me offer a brief character-sketch. Envisage (if you can) a man who combines the face and figure of a hog-reever or earth-stopper with the mind and thought of a Desert Father of the fifth century, preoccupied with meditations of inelegant theological obscenity; a powerful mind warped by erudite philistinism, blackened by systematic bigotry, and directed by a positive detestation of such profane frivolities as art, literature, and, of course, poetry; a purple-faced bachelor and misogynist, living alone in rooms of inconceivable hideousness, secretly consuming vast quantities of his favorite dish, beefsteak-and-kidney pudding; periodically trembling at the mere apprehension of a feminine footfall; and all the while distilling his morbid and illiberal thoughts into volumes of best-selling prurient religiosity and such reactionary nihilism as is indicated by the gleeful title, The Abolition of Man.

— High Trevor-Roper, letter of 18 January 1951

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