Top Ten Theologians: #7 – C.S. Lewis SEPTEMBER 5, 2011 by Tim Kimberley

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Top Ten Theologians: #7 – C.S. Lewis

Our count down of Top Ten Theologians continues with #7: C.S. Lewis.  His inclusion on this list will be an obvious choice for some and a surprise for others.  Yes, I completely agree it is risky and potentially short-sighted to have two 20th century people (Lewis and Barth) on the list.  Time has not vetted these men as much as someone like Irenaeus or Anselm.  Generations to come may downgrade the influence from any 20th century theologian.  I am excited, nonetheless, to offer you C.S. Lewis.

Lewis’s World

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault (pronounced foo-ko) may be one of the most influential 20th century thinkers you’ve never heard of. He was interested in studying the development of ideas.  How and why do we know what we know?  He held a chair at Collège de France with the title, “History of Systems of Thought.”  He wrote several books on diverse subjects such as:  psychiatry; medicine; the human sciences; prison systems; as well as the history of human sexuality.

Foucault’s observations and skepticism challenged many long-standing ideas.  His first book wondered why some people are considered crazy?  What if these “crazy” people lived at a different time in a completely different culture? Would they still be considered crazy?

How about, for example, John the Baptist?  His clothes were nasty.  He lived out in the desert eating bugs.  He yelled at people to repent.  They responded by letting John hold them under water.  In first century Israel John was viewed as one of the greatest prophets who ever lived.  Transfer John the Baptist to New York City and he’d be locked up in a mental hospital.  Craziness is relative.

In Foucault’s studies on sex he wondered why people seemed to possess differing ideas of sexual appropriateness.  Why do women in certain developing countries walk around topless?  Every person at that particular time and place believes topless women are normal.  It is unimaginable to consider the same women walking around Victorian England.  The sexual customs of these two cultures are worlds apart.  Sexual morals appear to be relative.

Foucault believes periods of history have possessed specific underlying conditions of truth that constituted what he expresses as discourse (for example art, science, culture, etc.). Foucault argues that these conditions of discourse have changed over time, in major and relatively sudden shifts, from one period’s knowledge to another.1

Different cultures have different ways of discussing and knowing reality.  What is crazy?  What is immoral? What is joy?  Who is God?  What is beautiful?  Foucault shows how people answer these questions for themselves.  There are no objective answers, knowing is relative.

Foucault’s thoughts are very popular.  Even though he died in 1984, he is currently the most cited author in the humanities.2  For books published in 2007, for example, he was cited 2,521 times.  During the same period, in comparison, Friedrich Nietzsche was only cited 501 times.3

Foucault is skeptical of ideas or realities which claim to exist for all people at all times.  Christianity, however, claims a Savior who exists for all people at all times.  C.S. Lewis will become known as the “Apostle to the Skeptics.”

Lewis’s Life

Clive Staples Lewis was born in Belfast, Ireland on November 29, 1898.  At the age of four, after the death of the beloved neighborhood dog “Jacksie,” Lewis announced his new name would be “Jacksie.”  He eventually permitted friends and family to call him the shortened “Jack.”

In 1905, at the age of seven, the family moved into a new home.  Lewis writes:

The New House is almost a major character in my story.  I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics unexplored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles.  Also, of endless books. 4

The “endless books” certainly shaped Lewis; he writes:

My father bought all the books he read and never got rid of any of them.  There were books in the study, books in the drawing room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents’ interest, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most emphatically not. Nothing was forbidden me.  In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves.  I had always the same certainty of finding a book that was new to me as a man who walks into a field has of finding a new blade of grass.5

C.S. Lewis was well-read by the age of eight.6  A complete list of the books he had read by the age of nine would be very long.7  His diary entry of March 5, 1908: “I read Paradise Lost, reflections thereon.”8  The epic, Paradise Lost, contains over 10,000 individual lines of poetic verse!

Lewis gravitated to not only reading but writing at an early age, due to a hereditary condition with his thumbs known asSymphalangism.  He explains the condition:

What drove me to write was the extreme manual clumsiness from which I have always suffered.  I attribute it to a physical defect which my brother and I both inherit from our father; we have only one joint in the thumb.  The upper joint (that furthest from the nail) is visible, but it is a mere sham; we cannot bend it.  But whatever the cause, nature laid on me from birth an utter incapacity to make anything.  With pencil and pen I was handy enough, and I can still tie as good a bow as ever lay on a man’s collar; but with a tool or a bat or a gun, a sleeve link or a corkscrew, I have always been unteachable.  It was this that forced me to write.  I longed to make things, ships, houses, engines.  Many sheets of cardboard and pairs of scissors I spoiled, only to turn from my hopeless failures in tears.  As a last resource, as a pis aller, I was driven to write stories instead.9

Lewis was brought up in a Christian home.  He states, “I was taught the usual things and made to say my prayers and in due time taken to church.  I naturally accepted what I was told but I cannot remember feeling much interest in it.”10

Shortly after the death of his mother, in 1908, Lewis and his brother were sent to boarding school.  The school Matron, Miss C., had been on a spiritual journey for truth and a way of life.  Mysticism, Mythology and the Occult occupied a large part of her thoughts at this time.  Lewis writes:

Nothing was further from her intention than to destroy my faith; she could not tell that the room into which she brought this candle (her ideas) was full of gunpowder.

Lewis began to doubt many aspects of Christianity.  Prayer became a ludicrous burden of false duties.  He felt it strange for all religions to be considered wrong except for his Christianity.  He called the truthfulness of Christianity, in light of seemingly incorrect paganism, a fortunate exception.  He writes:

In addition to this, and equally working against my faith, there was in me a deeply ingrained pessimism; a pessimism, by that time, much more of intellect than of temper.  I was now by no means unhappy; but I had very definitely formed the opinion that the universe was, in the main, a rather regrettable institution.11

Lewis considered himself an atheist by the time he was fifteen.  He resonated with Lucretius’s atheistic argument:

Had God designed the world, it would not be;
A world so frail and faulty as we see.
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Lewis explains, “And so, little by little, with fluctuations which I cannot now trace, I became an apostate, dropping my faith with no sense of loss but with the greatest relief.”13  Lewis viewed his Atheism in a very interesting way:

I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Antitheists, in a whirl of contradictions.  I maintained that God did not exist.  I was also very angry with God for not existing.  I was equally angry with Him for creating a world.14

In 1917, at the age of 18, Lewis left his studies to volunteer in the British Army.  During World War I he was commissioned an officer in the Third Battalion.  He arrived on the front lines and experienced trench warfare for the first time on his nineteenth birthday.  On April 15th, Lewis was wounded and two of his friends were killed by friendly fire.  He was discharged in December 1918, and soon returned to his studies.

Lewis began his academic career as an undergraduate student at Oxford; he excelled in every area he studied.  He won a triple first, the highest honors in three areas of study.15  By 1925, at the age of 27, Lewis began teaching at Magdalen College, a part of the University of Oxford.  He taught at Oxford for most of his adult life and then spent the last several years as Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at the University of Cambridge.

While teaching at Oxford, Lewis continued writing prolifically.  In 1929, an informal group of literary friends from Oxford began meeting together on Tuesday mornings.   The group named themselves the “Inklings.”  Members of the group included: J.R.R. Tolkien; Nevill Coghill; Lord David Cecil; Charles Williams; Owen Barfield; and Lewis’s brother Warren.  Concerning Tolkien, Lewis writes:

When I began teaching for the English Faculty, I made two other friends, both Christians (these queer people seemed now to pop up on every side) who were later to give me much help in getting over the last stile.  They were H.V.V. Dyson… and J.R.R. Tolkien.  Friendship with the latter marked the breakdown of two old prejudices.  At my first coming into the world I had been (implicitly) warned never to trust a Papist (Roman Catholic), and at my first coming into the English Faculty (explicitly) never to trust a philologist (study of language in written historical sources).  Tolkien was both.16

Lewis slowly re-embraced Christianity, influenced by arguments with Tolkien.  He was also largely influenced by reading George MacDonald and G.K. Chesterton’sThe Everlasting Man.  Lewis explains leaving Atheism:

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 at last come upon me. In 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.  I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms.17

Tolkien, upon Lewis’s conversion, tried to get him to join the Roman Catholic Church.  Lewis would be a committed Anglican for the rest of his life.  He made a purposeful effort through his writings, however, to avoid promoting any one denomination.

Between 1929 and 1963 (34 years) Lewis wrote approximately 58 literary works.  He wrote works in his academic field of Medieval and Renaissance English, as well as many books in the theological field of apologetics (defending the faith).  He wrote in several genres including: non-fiction; fiction; science-fiction; and children’s books.

Later in life Lewis corresponded with an American lady named Joy Gresham.  She was a Communist and an Atheist who converted to Christianity mainly through the writings of Lewis.  Lewis’s brother writes, “For Jack the attraction was at first undoubtedly intellectual.  Joy was the only woman whom he had met…who had a brain which matched his own in suppleness, in width of interest, and in analytical grasp, and above all in humor and a sense of fun.”18  Lewis agreed to enter into a civil marriage with Joy so she could live in the UK.  Joy was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer and their relationship developed to the point that they sought a Christian marriage.  They were married at the side of her hospital bed in 1957, Lewis was 59 years old.

Joy’s cancer thankfully went into remission and the two newlyweds were able to experience a couple years of “normal” married life.  The cancer relapsed and she died in 1960.  Lewis wrote the book A Grief Observed describing his experience of coping with the death of his wife.  The book was so raw and personal he originally released it under the pseudonym N.W. Clerk to keep readers from knowing it was written by him.  Ironically, many friends recommended the book to Lewis as a method for dealing with his own grief.19  He allowed the book to reflect the name of the true author upon his death.

The last three years of his life Lewis struggled with health problems related to his kidneys.  He eventually died in 1963, one week from his 65th birthday.  Lewis is buried next to his brother at Holy Trinity Church in Oxford.

Lewis’s Thoughts

The thoughts of C.S. Lewis place him at #7 on our list of Top Ten Theologians.  Men like Michel Foucault were getting people to doubt the knowability of things.  How do we really know what we know?  Europe is transitioning at the time from being the center of Western Orthodox Christianity to being a post-Christian society.  Lewis considers himself to be a layman, not a trained theologian.  His expertise is in Medieval and Renaissance English.  To the seeming embarrassment of many colleagues, Lewis continually returns to writing about his Christian faith.  He was once one of the world’s most skeptical skeptics.  He is now a fully convinced believer in Jesus.  One of the central themes of his life and faith is the concept of Joy.

Surprised by Joy

Lewis thinks about joy in a unique way.  He explains:

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.20

Think of Lewis’s concept of joy similar to an echo.  When you are a child you hear an echo that fills you with more joy than you ever imagined possible on earth.  You live your entire life listening to hear the echo again.  If you have ever heard the echo you will know there is nothing sweeter in the world than hearing the echo.  Your pursuit of joy is almost a life of grief because you live most of your life not hearing the echo.  You yearn for its return to your ears, if only for a moment.  Many people, however, will turn to the pleasures offered in this world as a replacement for the echo because the echo is not in our power but seeking pleasure is possible at our whim.  Lewis found he heard the echo most when reading Christian writers such as George MacDonald and G.K. Chesterton.

In the Weight of Glory (1949) Lewis writes:

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.   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.

Lewis understands the echo in a whole new way.  He was wrong to yearn for the echo.  When he heard the echo it would be gone as soon as he recognized its arrival.  His famous Surprised by Joy moment is the realization that the echo has a source.  The echo is no longer the center of Lewis’s life; the echo comes from the voice of a person: Jesus Christ.  He is the source of the joy.

Lewis, with strong intellectual moorings, asks a society heading toward post-Christianity and relative post-Modernism if they possess this joy?  Lewis spends his life wordsmithing his way from book to book directing people to Joy found only in Christ.

Objective Reality of God

Lewis does not leave people to simply seek their own conception of Joy.  He does not plead with people to listen for whatever echo works best for them.  He explains:

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.21

If you lose an objective God existing outside of your subjective thoughts, you lose Joy and can only hope for momentary pleasures.  You can only hope for what you can control.  We experience the most Joy, however, when we experience the most of God.  Lewis writes, “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.”22

Lewis makes a crucial link between Joy and Truth.  Foucault is saying Absolute Truth is actually relative.  So you see what is at stake.  The entire modern world – and even more so the postmodern world – were moving away from the conviction of an objective God.  Liberal theology and emergent writers flowed with the world of subjectivism and relativism.  Lewis stood against it with all his might.23

Lewis’s Influence

C.S. Lewis was a serious skeptic, a serious Christian and an intellectual powerhouse able to speak clearly to ordinary people.  His BBC radio broadcasts during World War II provided a theological depth to people trembling under the Nazi bombing of London.  These broadcasts became his classic work Mere Christianity.

The great influence of Lewis lies in his apologetic abilities.  He sought to show how a Christian can be fully involved in their faith emotionally as well as intellectually.  He did not try to prove the faith, in typical evidentialist ways, but he instead removed barriers to belief and helped those who were weak in faith to see that they could reasonably embrace Christ and remain intellectually honest. One British historian called Lewis the single most effective person proclaiming the gospel in England in the 20th century.24  Lewis stands tall for anyone questioning a full intellectual embrace of the Gospel.  Those who have spent time sitting at the feet of Lewis will walk away with a heart and mind more devoted to the Savior.

Lewis’s Foibles

John Piper succinctly communicates some of Lewis’s theological foibles:

He doesn’t believe in the inerrancy of Scripture25, 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 farcical26.  He steadfastly refused in public or in letters to explain why he was not a Roman Catholic but remained in the Church of England27.  He makes room for at least some people to be saved through imperfect representations of Christ in other religions28.  He made a strong logical, but I think unbiblical, case for free will to explain why there is suffering in the world29.  He speaks of the atonement with reverence, but puts little significance on any of the explanations for how it actually saves sinners30.

Piper, however, who disagrees with Lewis on so many theological points, still considers C.S. Lewis to be one of the two men outside of the Bible who have had the greatest influence on his life.  The other man is Jonathan Edwards.31  Piper writes:

So, in spite of all 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.32

In response to people criticizing certain aspects of his theology, Lewis explains:

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 atranslator—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?”33

Lewis’s Effect on Us

As we seek to reach the great mass of storekeepers, lawyers, realtors, morticians, policemen and artisans who surround us in our own city we are fools if we do not spend time sitting at the feet of C.S. Lewis.  He combines a feeling artist with an intellectual.  He is able to lecture at Oxford and Cambridge while writing stories for children.  He is fully aware of the newest ideas, yet does not neglect the wisdom of the ages.  He once said, “Every third book you read should be outside your century.”34  Lewis encourages us to be anchored in the past, to stand intellectually tall in the present for the objective truth of God, while raising our hands joyfully in worship to the Savior.

What do you think of C.S. Lewis?  Please comment below on our fourth Top Ten Theologian.  Up next, a beast of burden (that’s a hint)…

 

 

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