What C.S. Lewis Taught Me
On November 22, 1963 the death of C.S. Lewis was eclipsed by the tragic assassination of John F. Kennedy. However, more than fifty years after his death Lewis remains in the mind of many one of the most successful and influential thinkers of the twentieth century. Indeed, few if any have left such a legacy on the evangelical church, the secular academy, and even children's literature. Today, I remain thankful for C.S. Lewis.
Now, that may sound strange to some. I'm not overly interested in developing the differences only to say that there are a number of extremely important subjects on which Lewis and I would part ways. While I think he was brilliant his brilliance isn't always biblically satisfying. I won't make him something he wasn't, nor would I offer a ready defense for the things I disagree with him on. Nevertheless, his writings have had a profound effect on me and were very formative in shaping the way I think. Here are five things I learned from C.S. Lewis.
C.S. Lewis taught me that Christianity doesn't have to be mindless. I grew up in the broad streams of evangelicalism in the 1990s which, not to be overly critical, probably won't be remembered for a very thoughtful Christianity. It was the kind, you might say, that didn't encourage serious reflection and deep thought. All of that changed when I encountered the mind of Lewis in Mere Christianity. Striking to me was the way in which he compared theology to a map. A map is intended to lead you somewhere. So, he reasoned, "doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of map," but it's a necessary map that puts us in touch with God. While differing convictions have moved me beyond that book, it's there that I first saw a Christianity worth thinking about.
C.S. Lewis taught me that a thoughtful Christianity didn't have to be an uncreative Christianity. While I'm thankful to God for all the capabilities of the human soul -- reason, emotion, desires, etc -- I'm especially grateful for the imagination. I love imagination! Against the Rationalism in our world, Lewis returned a sense of poetry to logic, and against Romanticism he returned logic to poetry. That's not to say he believed Christianity was satisfying to the imagination. In his essay Is Theology Poetry? Lewis admits, for instance, that the Norse myths of Odin fighting against creatures has more heroic appeal (as far as the imagination is concerned) than the omnipotence of God. But he still dreamed of dragons, and his imagination was expressed so well in some of my favorite books like The Great Divorce and Till We Have Faces. These books have captivated me for years.
C.S. Lewis taught me that a "mere Christianity" isn't a substitute for creed or confession. In that book he compared Christianity to a hallway that leads to various rooms. In these rooms, he said, are various Christian traditions. He asserted that too many were comfortable in the hallway of the house, which is only a place to sit and wait. Thus, he encouraged the Christian to get out of the hallway and enter the rooms for it's there where the chairs and fire are. That was a helpful counterpoint to my generation which views tradition(s) and denominations with suspicion. Lewis and I found different rooms -- he Anglican and I Presbyterian -- but he showed me the value of leaving the hallway and enjoying the room.
C.S. Lewis taught me that Christianity can be defended. As with many young people, my faith was more of a proof-text in my life than anything else. When I was first confronted with challenges questioning the validity of Christianity I had absolutely no idea what to do or say. For a season it led me into a serious spiritual crisis. Lewis was the first that I read who demonstrated how Christianity can not only be defended, but demonstrated how to go on the offensive. He willingly challenged some of the foremost thinkers of his day and, at times, stumped them (other times he got whooped). But it was him who first injected me with confidence that Christianity can be intelligently defended, and actually laid an important foundation for my own understanding when he wrote: "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else."
C.S. Lewis taught me the value of suffering. In my reading, there doesn't appear to be any theme that so dominates Lewis's writing as much as the relationship between human life and God -- weaving this theme with a special emphasis on pain and sorrow. One of his most haunting (and mesmerizing) depictions of the wounded nature comes in his retelling of the Greek myth of Psyche and Cupid, Till We Have Faces. The main protagonist, Orual, for the majority of the book lays her complaint about suffering before the silent gods and seeks isolation and independence, only to learn by the end of the book that all the painful things she endured were intended to prepare her to meet the gods. She says, "I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?" It was in brokenness that she was transformed. In _The Problem of Pain _Lewis writes: "Love may cause pain to its object, but only on the supposition that the object needs alternation to become fully lovable." Suffering is the present reality we must come to terms with and Lewis did much to pave the way for me to understand this.
Again, I don't agree with C.S. Lewis entirely even on the things I've learned from him. He had imperfections and inconsistencies (we're probably a lot alike in that way!), but I have a soft spot for him and owe him a debt of gratitude for the indelible mark he has left on my own thinking. That is to say, by his own illustration Lewis helped me hatch: "It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad."