Address delivered at the C.S. Lewis Centennial Celebration, Seattle, Washington, June 1998
There I was, halfway through writing a bad lecture that I thought was a good one for occasion, when I misplaced it down my computer’s infinitely voracious memory hole, while Raphael, the guardian angel for absent-minded professors and travelers, was distracted by my dog. (Raphael has a Thing for dogs; just ask Tobias.) I deduce the conclusion that it was a bad lecture from the premise that Divine Providence knows exactly what It is doing, and that it is therefore always we and not God who rightly say the Short Act of Contrition: “Oops,” perhaps the wisest single syllable in human speech.
The lecture started out as a conversation in Heaven between two angels, strategizing how Lewis would be brought into being as one of three key warriors for what they called the “providential-apocalyptica-millennial-ecumenical-theological-jihad”–that is, the battle for the modern mind, or what’s left of it. The other two warriors were a lion and a bear, and Lewis was an eagle.
The lion was Pope Leo XIII, the intellectual who warned us against the intellectuals and who introduced us to the dangers of this most spiritually and physically destructive of all centuries. God gave him a vision of the coming 20th century, in which he says Satan, at the beginning of time, allowed to choose any one century in which to do his worst work, and he chose the 20th. This pope with the name and the heart of a lion was so overcome by the terror of the vision that he fell into a swoon like a Victorian lady. When he awoke, he composed a prayer for the Church to use as a shield to survive the supernatural onslaught of the coming slaughterhouse century. The prayer began: “St. Michael Archangel, defend us in battle. “It was prayed after every Catholic Mass until the Sixties: exactly when the Church was struck with that incomparably swift disaster that we have not yet named, but that future historians will, which in a single generation in the American Catholic Church alone has removed half the priests, three quarters of the nuns, and nine tenths of the theological knowledge of the young, turned the faith of our father into the doubts of our dissenters, and transformed the wine of the Gospel into the water of psychobabble, reversing Christ’s first miracle of Cana: an anti-miracle by the Antichrist.
My antipsychobabbling lecture then went on to describe the second weapon,the bear, John Paul II, the greatest man in the worst century in history, a Polish grandmother disguised as a Pope, fighting with Churchillian bulldogginess for her children, calling things by their proper names like the little boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” calling good good, and evil evil, and God God, and man man, woman woman, and the Culture of Death the Culture of Death–and yet keeping a twinkle in his eye, hope in his head, and humanity in his heart.
Lewis too was to be a pope, a pontiff or pointifex, a bridge-builder (or, if Protestants prefer, not the bridge’s pontiff but its pontoon) for five new bridges God was building to unify His tragically split armies–bridges between Protestants and Catholics, between Christian and non-Christian lovers of the Tao, between Oxonian scholars and little old ladies from Pasadena, between reason and romanticism, and between past and present, conservatives and progressives, tradition and imagination, fidelity and creativity.
Yes, I thought the whole idea was clever too; that’s probably why God made me lose it.
However, since I am a stubborn Dutchman, I insist on summarizing this lost lecture for you–and five others too, before giving you the real one. So you get six ten-minute previews for the price of one one-hour movie. (Our attention span maxes out at ten minutes anyway unless we were born before “Sesame Street.”)
WHAT does Lewis look like from an angel’s eye point of view? We can only guess, of course, but we can guess. For there are abundant clues. His writings look like key with 10 convexities that match the 10 concavities that constitute the lock in the gate of the fortress called the modern mind (or mindlessness). Or–to shift the simile but not the substance–he looks like a sword forged for fighting the ten most important battles of our time that can be fought on the battlefield of words. (There are greater battlefields, of course.) To keep him humble, he was assigned the human name (or the inhuman name) name “Clive Staples,” but the angels call him “X Caliber”–a Ten Caliber Sword for slaying ten dragons.
1. The first dragon, the first need of the modern West that the angels arranged Lewis to address, corresponds to what I deem his greatest literary achievement. For the first and most essential need of the modern West is–Christ. And Lewis’s greatest literary achievement was–Aslan. By the creative device of a double distancing, from earth to Narnia and from man to lion, Lewis did a thing I think no one else has ever done, a thing Dorothy Sayers said was impossible: to present Christ as a compelling literary character, to creep “past the watchful dragons” of duty and familiarity and make contemporary readers experience Aslan as Christ’s contemporaries experienced Christ. (“Contemporaries” includes the saints, who became His new contemporaries). Meeting Aslan in Narnia helps us sinners feel what the saints feel when they meet Christ on earth. This does not make us saints, but it does make us understand. And this is of world-historical importance because this understanding is the key to the survival of our society. For since Christ is the source of all life, societies as well as individuals are related to life as they are related to Christ: those that know Him live long and prosper; those that know Him no, either as historical messiah or as eternal Logos, dry up and die.
2. Lewis’s second reason for being, in the heavenly scheme of things, was that he was designed to write Mere Christianity, a two-edged sword more effective than any other book in modern times for slaying the dragons that guard two treasures that are needed for the jihad ahead: understanding Christianity and uniting Christians. The secret of his understanding is that he sees the center, the Christocentrism, the Big Picture, and relates everything else to it. Mere Christianity does in theology what Narnia does in fiction: it shows us Christ. And in doing this, it does the second thing: it provides the primary pontoon for the bridge to unite God’s separated people, who for the last 471 years have been diverting their energies from the World War against the prince of This World by fighting civil wars against each other. Mere Christianity shows that what unites all Christians is much more real than some “lowest common denominator” arrived at by abstracting from differences. It shows the concrete reality of the center, Christians’ common Commanding Officer, and thereby clears the air on the battlefield, correcting the provincial perspective most Christians had in Lewis’s day, and converting them from “civil war Christians” to “world war Christians.” “Civil war Christians” narrow their eyes and mistake their friends for their enemies. “World war Christians” open their eyes more widely and thus see the big and obvious truth that, for instance, a Fundamentalist Southern Baptist has more in common with the Pope than with a Modernist Northern Baptist, and a cafeteria Catholic (or a Kennedy Catholic, as we call them in Massachusetts) can cuddle closer to a cafeteria Calvinist (if there is such a creature) than to Mother Teresa. For which is the greater disagreement?–Whether Christ’s pope is infallible or whether Christ is? Whether the Eucharist is more than bread or whether Christ is more than man? The number of sacraments or the number of Saviors?
3. Next among Lewis’s reasons for being from the angel’s eye viewpoint is something so important that it is the first requirement for salvation, even before repentance, faith, hope, and love–and this something is increasingly denied by our whole culture, especially its mind-molders: objective truth, and thus intellectual honesty. The love and defense of truth rules all Lewis’s books, of course, because it first rules his soul; but most powerfully in The Screwtape Letters and in the little article entitled “Man Or Rabbit?”, which I think is what Lewis himself would pick if he could make everyone in our world read just two pages of all that he had written.
4. That third dragon’s technical name was Epistemological Subjectivism; the fourth dragon, Moral Subjectivism, is its child, or its mirror image. In fact, all ten dragons are connected: it’s really a one-piece dragon, one beast with ten horns, all doing one devilish work, one hell of a job. For instance, when it devours objective truth, it also necessarily devours true goodness, objectively real goodness, and thus real evil, an thus real sin, and thus real repentance, and thus real salvation–in other words, it devours souls. To slay this soul-slaying dragon, Providence provided a dragon-slaying soul: Excaliber Clive, swinging his sword of prophetic alarm and philosophical refutation especially in The Abolition of Man, Part I of Mere Christianity, and “The Poison of Subjectivism.”
5. His fifth achievement, of fifth sword, the angels call “Sloth-Slayer.” We call it Sehnsucht–“Joy.”I think no writer in all of history has written more wonderful words about this deepest of all the longings of the human heart. But I placed this achievement fifth rather than first, though I personally love it best of all, because I think the angels rank it thus. For the first four achievements were all emergency operations, necessary for salvation, while this is only the bloom on the rose, the icing on the cake. Joy is the summit of beauty, and beauty is the child of the marriage of truth and goodness.
Lewis the writer went for many joy writes on this road, but three standout. Surprised by Joy will live forever on the short list of spiritual autobiographies, and “The Weight of Glory” on the very short list of great sermons, but the “Heaven” chapter in The Problem of Pain is so heavenly that I beg you to tell me any other book or chapter ever written that explains the ultimate meaning and end of human life, the life of Heaven, and the joy that is “the serious business of Heaven,” with more theological, moral, and aesthetic depth and attractiveness, or which combines the sophistication of a scholar, the passion of a saint, and the joy of a poet so seamlessly. Tell me what that book is and I will trade you my whole library for it.
6. Lewis’s sixth achievement, selling Hell, is as indispensable as his fifth, selling Heaven; for the height of the mountain is measured by the depth of the valley. Lewis knew the psychology of damnation, and characters like Frost and Wither, in That Hideous Strength, Peggy in the haunting short story “The Forms of Things Unseen,” the dwarfs in The Last Battle, and the ghosts in The Great Divorce show us the real possibility of damnation–our own damnation–thus restoring the salutary fear which scripture calls “the beginning of wisdom” but which modern religion fears more than Hell itself. When the road approaches the cliff edge, warning signs and maps are needed more, and God provides them. For the end of the Jewish world, God provided the Book of Revelation;for the end of the roman world, The City of God; for the end of the medieval world, The Divine Comedy; and for the end of the modern world, The Great Divorce. The books are so similar that St. John, St. Augustine, Dante, and Lewis could be called the four evangelists of the eschaton; and nothing is more necessary for a lost busload of confused ghosts than God’s Road Map for Souls. Voltaire pitied the medieval peasant who “knew more about the geography of Hell than the geography of France.”Voltaire should have envied him instead, and Voltaire knows that now, whichever place he is in. for he is not in France.
7. A seventh achievement of Lewis was The Problem of Pain, the most rational treatment in modern times of the most irrational problem at all times, the primary intellectual objectionto the Faith, the problem of evil. The problem is perennial, of course,but the need is greater today because of the decay of the conviction that faith and reason are allies and that objections to the faith can be met and refuted; and this is more and more becoming a popular excuse for irrationalism, subjectivism and relativism in the churches. Lewis addressed the problem of evil not only rationally (The Problem of Pain) but also psychologically, in Screwtape and The Great Divorce, narratively in the character of Orual in Till We Have Faces, and autobiographically in In Grief Observed.
8. Lewis’ eighth dragon was Naturalism, his most pervasive foe and the most fertile, for it has hatched quadrupled dragonettes of methodological reductionism, metaphysical pantheism, political collectivism, and theological Modernism. This last little lizard is Natualism’s top spy, for it breathes water instead of fire, so it seeps into the churches and waters down the strong meat of the Faith into a watery gruel. It was Lewis’s gruelling fourfold task to faithfully renounce, prophetically announce, preachingly denounce, and philosophically refute this foe, especially in Miracles, whose argument for supernatualism in chapter 3 may someday be ranked with Aquinas’s Five Ways or Anselm’s Ontological Argumentas one of the great philosophical arguments in history. Lewis originally gave the chapter the accurate title of “The Self -Contradiction of the Naturalist,” but after Anscombe he softened the title to “The Cardinal Difficulty of the Naturalist” after hardening up the argument.I think he was immodestly modest. Chapter 11, “Christianity and Religion”(i.e. Supernaturalism versus Pantheism) is a most salutary shock to my students, most of whom are Hindus who think they are Christians. The chapter on the Incarnation, entitled “the Grand Miracle,” belong on the same shelf with Anselm’s and Aquinas’s classic treatises on that subject. And the chapter entitled “Miracles of the New Creation” clarifies the Resurrection as nothing else has since First Corinthians 15. Together with the essay “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” (British title “Fern Seed and Elephants”) it is the definitive refutation of the faith-eating dragon of Bultmannian “demythologizing.” Lewis’s arguments demythologized Demythologizing, and his stories remythologized reality. He gave us what Tom Howard calls “myth, the flight to reality.”For “myth” means essentially “sacred story”–which is precisely what reality is, if we listen to its Creator and not its destroyer.
9. Lewis’s ninth achievement corresponds to another crucial need. For our society is probably more confused about love than anything else; and this is crucial, since love is the very essence and life of God, the ultimate reality, and the primary good and duty of the Christian. The Four Loves brings unequalled clarity and sanity to this confusion. And the last thing he ever wrote, “We Have No Right to Happiness,” is David hurling the smooth stones of moral logic and common sense at the most overgrown Goliath of our time, the Sexual Revolution.
10. Dragon number nine, pansexualism, is really the Siamese twin of dragon number ten, Antisexism, which is the masculinization of women and the feminization of men. Lewis’s traditional world view of a cosmic masculine and feminine, especially in The Four Loves and That Hideous Strength, grounds the human masculine and feminine, and much of today’s crisis is what Karl Stern called “the Flight from Woman.” Lewis helps us to sort out true from false feminisms through his heroines: Lucy, in Narnia, Jane, in That Hideous Strength, and above all Orual in Till We Have Faces. And his article “Priestesses in the Church?”, though written almost half a century ago, cuts to the heart of the issue that for many “liberal” Christians is the most non-negotiable and divisive single issue of all. I am shocked by that fact, and by my students’ shock at this article, which even after eating all the rest of Lewis with relish they regurgitate with disgust as hopelessly “sexist,” though it defends and preserves the femininity of the human soul as much as the masculinity of God.
THERE were the ten dragons, flattened and bleeding from Excaliber Jack’s attacks. What a story! But it was not written, for its absent-minded reporter lost it to the larcenous labyrinths of cyberspace. Then a second paper, believe it or not, was also half written and wholly lost in the same infinite and inaccessible abysses. (I call my computer “Steinbrenner” because it keeps outwitting me in ways exactly as numerous, as maddening, as unpredictable, and as successful as the ways his New York Yankees have destroyed my beloved Boston Red Sox for the last 80 years.)
The second paper would have told the story of the effects Lewis’s work has had on some real individuals–such as my college roommate, who was losing his faith until he read Lewis’s Mere Christianity and Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not A Christian. (The second book convinced him to be a Christian as effectively as the first.)
And the elderly lady in my adult education class on the Chronicles of Narnia who answered my question about what had attracted each of the students to the Narnia books and to a course on them by saying that they had saved her sanity and her daughter’s soul. When she was “sweet sixteen” her daughter had said to her, “Mother, I hate you and this whole family. I especially hate your God. I never want to see you again,” left for California (where else), and became a drug addict and a prostitute. Her mother said, “I knew she would come back to us and to God because I had read her the Chronicles of Narnia when she was ten, and she had loved them. And she did.”
I was going to tell you of Lewis’s role in the “before and after” story of Chuck Colson, Nixon’s hit man, whose famous desk sign tells you all you need to know about his “before”–“When you’ve got them by their balls, their hearts and minds will follow.” Federal judges convicted him of Watergate crimes, but the judge of the universe convicted him of a crime that’s only on God’s books: pride. And God’s prosecuting attorney was C.S. Lewis. When Colson came to Mere Christianity’s chapter on pride, he saw the truth, and himself, and made the right choice between the two, as Lewis had. He is now a great warrior for God’s little guys instead of a little bastard for Nixon’s big guys: he helps publicans in prison instead of pharisees in politics.
I was going to tell you how Lewis was responsible for the most memorable moment of the most memorable conference I ever attended. Dozens of high-octane Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant Evangelicals came together at Rose Hill in Aiken, South Carolina a few years ago for a full week of frank yet remarkably irenic discussion of our differences, and in the concluding session Fr. Fessio got up and proposed that we issue a joint statement of theological agreement among all the historic, orthodox branches of Christendom saying that what united us was scripture, the Apostles’ Creed, the first six ecumenical councils, and the collected works of C.S.Lewis. The proposal was universally cheered.
I would have concluded with some personal remarks, and given Lewis credit for 99% of whatever wisdom and 49% of whatever sanity I have in my head and my books, where he keeps cropping up like kudzu. Even more pervasive and profound, I think, is his underground, unconscious influences, which are delicacies buried like truffles. But before I could make a pig of myself snuffling out these Lewisian truffles, this second talk suffered the fate of the first, moving to the metaphysical category of “alternative possible worlds” when my clumsy leg kicked my computer plug out of the wall and my clumsy finger, hypnotized by the demonic powers invisibly emanating from the screen, hit a key disguised as “enter” that was really “exit.” (I believe computer keys should be required to display a warning label; I suggest the one from the gates of Dante’s Hell, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”) My alternative explanation is that Lewis’s ghost has chosen me as a soulmate to play tricks on because he too had unusually clumsy thumbs and an unusual sense of humor.)
BUT hope rose as a third idea came knocking on the door of my mind (though it found something less than Benedictine hospitality from the doorkeeper): Lewis has been central to the needs of our time, as my first paper showed, and to the thought and life of many people, as my second paper showed; but what was central to him? The center controls everything–in chess, in warfare, in painting, in the human body. What is the heart of his corpus of writings? Which of his books is at his center? I envisaged a “Battle of the Books” in which each of Lewis’s books came alive and argued for its own centrality.
The Abolition of Man spoke first, and most urgently. “I was his most important book, the book most of his readers would make everyone in the world read, at gunpoint, if they could, to save civilization. For I faced and refuted the fundamental error at the root of the world’s crisis, the denial of the Tao, the Natural Moral Law, for the first time in history. (Remember that great sentence at the bottom of my page 87!) I am the foundation, I am the essential survival kit. I am first because I am First Aid for a dying world.”
The Pilgrim’s Regress then replied, “But I did that too, and in a more sprightly and popularly accessible way. Moreover, I was his first book, and about his first love, in fact his first three loves,which my subtitle called reason, religion, and romanticism; the true, the good, and the beautiful. I was the first stroke in his lifelong, jihad against the false, the evil, and the ugly.”
Dymer then retorted, “No, I was his first book, and poetry was his first love, and his first ambition. Granted, my quality was relatively childish, but ‘the child is the father of the man,’ as one of his favorite poets has said.”
Collected Poems then retorted, “Then I am his center, for I am that man, his ‘mature’ poetry. The chicken is the final cause of the egg, not vice versa, in Lewis’s teleological universe.”
The Discarded Image interjected, “But I am that universe! I am his world-view, his cosmology, mythically true, though not physically; and a person’s world-view determines all the details and judgments in that world. So I am his center.”
A slow, fat voice answered, “If so, then I am its foundation, its data, its scholarly evidence, its fossil record, its paper trail. I was also his professional cover for his spiritual spy mission.” The voice belonged to Lewis’s longest book, with the longest title, The Oxford History of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama, O.H.E.L for short.
The Allegory of Love answered O.H.E.L, “It’s no accident he nicknamed you ‘OHEL’–you were his biggest pain. It’s me he loved, not only because I first made him famous, and because I was his real professional cover, but because I was his favorite method and his favorite matter, for he was by nature drawn to allegory, and by supernature love, his religion’s highest value.”
“But I defined that value,” argued The Four Loves. “I’ve probably helped more people than any of you, for I’m the best book about the best thing in life, and the clearest book about the most confused thing.”
“No,” Mere Christianity contradicted, “I’ve helped more people than any other: helped them not just into the understanding of love but into the Kingdom of Love itself, the Kingdom of Heaven. I am his center because I defined Lewis’s central convictions–Christianity–more clearly and completely than any of you–more than any other book ever written, maybe.”
All the books were silent and thoughtful when they heard this formidable claim. “What made you so great?” asked OHEL, humbly. “My humility,” it answered, unanswerably. Then an unlikely respondent lifted up its voice: Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer. “I know I wasn’t as famous or finely finished as some of you,” it said, “But I was not only Lewis’s last book, but also his only book about prayer, the very lifeline of the life he defined in Mere Christianity. If that book is his center, I’m the center of the center. I’m the closet you get in print to his heart, his lived relationship with God.”
Then Letters to an American Lady argued, “But that relationship with God is manifested and tested in the relationship with man. And when Lewis is canonized, I will be the main evidence. I am the patience and wisdom of Christ tested by an American Mrs. Moore.”
Then another humble book was emboldened to speak, Reflections on the Psalms. “But I was the source and model of his prayer and his sanctity. If Christianity was his center, and prayer was the center of his center, then I was the center of the center of his center. David was his spiritual master more than any man.”
“But,” objected George MacDonald: An Anthology, “He said that I was. When he did his Dante and wrote The Great Divorce, he made me his Vergil.”
“But I was his Beatrice,” said a crow like voice. It was Deborah Winger, playing Joy Davidman in the movie “Shadowlands.” But she was drowned out by all the books in unison chanting “No movies here, only books!” This is how I knew I was in England, not America.
The Great Divorce then answered George MacDonald’s argument: “You were his Vergil, but I was his Dante, and The Divine Comedy is greater than The Aneid, so I am greater than you. I am also Lewis’s most successful, succinct, and succulent synthesis of instruction and delight, truth and beauty, the two essential ends of all literature according to Lewis’s sane, sunny sensible sources. (Sorry; I savagely salvage superfluous S’s from satiated Scrabble sets. We illiterates liberally litter our literature with alliteration.) The Great Divorce continued: “Which of his millions of sentences better summarizes his center than this one?–‘Thereare only two kinds of people, in the end: those who say to God “Thy will be done” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”‘?”
“But Lewis put that sentence in my mouth,” retorted MacDonald. But Till We Have Faces overspoke him. “I am his center because I am not only his master piece, his most mature, successful, and unified work of art, but everything in Lewis is in me, every major theme perfectly blended in a single sacred story.”
Surprised by Joy interrupted: “Everything except Lewis himself. The worker is central to his work, and I am the worker. I am his autobiography. I am Lewis.”
“No you’re not!” retorted The Personal Heresy. I exist precisely to refute that error.”
An Experiment in Criticism chimed in: “And I am its literary alternative. I am your positive side, your true literary personalism.”
Spenser’s Images of Life and A Preface to Paradise Lost had been sitting demurely (this was my second clue that we were in England, not America) but now both opened their mouths to speak; but their words were drowned out by four great knocks on the door. A Grief Observed entered, trailing clouds of Beethoven and Ingmar Bergman, and said: “It is death that gives life a center and a point, and I am Lewis’s confrontationwith death, so I am central. I am deeper and wiser than Surprised by Joy as the sage is wiser than the child. I am also Lewis’s only book of self-doubt, where his center is tested, his faith is proven, shaken and shown unshakable.”
The Problem of Pain retorted, “You are crucial, but you are only a crucial postscript to me. I am his deepest reflections on life’s deepest problem I am his center because I am his answer to the primary objection to the faith that was the center of his life and thought. I also conclude with the two best chapters ever written on Heaven and Hell, the two ultimate end.”
Miracles then objected, “No, I am even more profound than you; I am his most advanced theology. Furthermore, I am proactive while you are reactive; I am positive while you are negative, a response to an objection. As for the two best chapters about the two best subjects, who has better chapters than I about the two greatest events of all time and the distinctive essence of Christianity, the Incarnation and the Resurrection?”
“You are so profound that hardly anyone reads you,” said The Chronicles of Narnia, sweetly, “while millions read us, and will continue to do so forever, until the world ends, and long afterwards. For we contain his most unique and most Christian achievement: Aslan. We are the deeper magic from before the dawn of time.”
“But we are you grown up,” argued the Ransom trilogy in trio.”And we contain his two most mystical visions, the “Great Dance”in Perelandra and “The Descent of the Gods” in That Hideous Strength (as well as Lewis’s most mystical character, by the way, Mr. Bultitude).” And Perelandra added, in solo, “Why not let the author decide among us? He said I was his favorite book.”
“Why limit the debate to complete books?” put in a quintet of essays. “The Weight of Glory” argued that it was Lewis’s most stunningly powerful words from the deepest part of his heart to the deepest part of ours; and “First and Second things” argued that it was by definition first; and “Man Or Rabbit?” argued that it was about the Very First Thing, honesty, and truth; and “Meditation in a Toolshed” argued that it was the epistemology that underlay all Lewis’s thoughts and books; and “We Have No Right to Happiness” argued that it was Lewis’s last words about our last end (happiness) and about our society’s most-traveled wrong road to it.
Screwtape himself then appeared, peering from behind The Screwtape Letters, leering, and said: “This whole debate proves that you’ve all succumbed to my temptations to pride and envy and egotism. I trump you all. I’m the hidden motive of all of you, of everything human”–and he turned into a tapeworm.
Everyone was terrified–not by Screwtape but by the fact that “Priestesses in the Church?” opened her mouth to speak next. The ensuing debate might have produced the Chicken Little Effect; but fortunately, Perelandra ended the argument not by arguing but by dancing the Great Dance. And when they saw it, all the books agreed that each of them was at the center, just as each of the elements and each of the worlds and each of the center in this Dance. “And let no mouth open to gainsay their claim. For where Maleldil is, there is the center. He is everywhere, even in the nothingness beyond thought.”
My dream then changed from sound to sight, and all of Lewis’s books appeared to me as a net of diamonds, each of which was at the center because it reflected all the others. But the light came from no one diamond, nor from all together, but from Beyond–from “the nothingness beyond thought” that mystics and sages of all the world’s religions knew in knowing the Logos, but could not name until the Word incarnate spoke that word and revealed its utterly unsuspected and unsusceptible name: “Father.”
This paper was not lost, but I decide not to write it, for I thought it laced originality to point everything toward a culmination that consisted in simply reading Lewis’s greatest passage, the Great Dance. I foolishly forgot Lewis’s wise warnings against the itch to be original. I saw Mars and Venus, Tor and Tinidril, dancing my paper, but I did not follow them and write it. For I was not the little fool who rushes in where angels fear to tread; I was the greater fool, who feared to tread where angels had rushed in.
HOWEVER, a fourth paper started to grow in my crowded mental womb, as I pondered Lewis’s place in what the angels had called God’s “ecumenical jihad.” The twentieth century appeared as a great battlefield–not made of earth but made of spirit, for as Chesterton said about revolutions, there is always a battle in the heavens before there is a battle on the earth. I saw in a vision the forces of the Good Kings lined up against the Bad at Armageddon. (The point was about alignments, not times; the Battle of Armageddon has already begun–it began in Bethlehem–but it may take many millennia to finish. Or–equally possible–this might be “the world’s last night.”)
In my vision the The Good Kings were arguing about Lewis, each claiming him as their weapon.
Anglicanism spoke first. “There is no argument, for fact trumps theory, and the simple fact is, Lewis was mine. That was no accident, for I am the via media, the bridge between all the divisions of the good army, all the churches. I am the bridge builder, the pontifex, the pope. That’s why I don’t need a pope.”
“The gates of hell you don’t,” retorted Rocky Rome. “He was going my way all his life, for all roads lead to Rome, all the branches of the Christian tree lead to the trunk if you take the time to trace them.”
“Did God goof, then, in letting him die before he could finish his journey to you?” argued Anglicanism.
Rome replied, “God withheld from him the grace to cross the Tiber just so that he could stay on the farther riverbank to smooth the path for thousands of others. He was my unwitting spy. His most famous argument proves my authority exactly as it proves my Lord’s; for my claim too is so outrageous that if I am not divine I must be demonic.”
“No, spiritually he was mine,” said a wise man from the East, a very old and Orthodox voice. “For he fought all the modern heresies of “chronological snobbery, materialistic rationalism, and naturalism to which I am the oldest, most mystical, and most supernatural counterweight.”
“But I am the fire in all your dead fireplaces,” protested Protestantism, in chorus of voices flowering and fissioning like a firecracker. I heard Evangelical, Fundamentalist and Pentecostal voices singing (very loudly), but I also heard the thud of dead wood dropping, and saw large letters engraved expensively on the falling logs. One log read “WCC.” I will not tell you what the others were, but I warn you that nothing with an acronym can enter Heaven.
At this point the ecumenical debate was interrupted by Lewis himself suddenly appearing in an easy chair with his ruddy smile and a lit pipe. (This was my third clue that I was in Merrie England, not Puritan America.) Everyone looked up at the ceiling to see whether there was a hole he had come through, and they saw J.B. Phillips frowning from Heaven at my plagiarism. “What are you all up to?” asked Lewis, cheerily, and all the churches were too embarrassed to tell him they had been throwing dice for his seamless garment, so they put their question to him this way: Which church do you think Christ would enter if He cam back today? Lewis answered immediately: “A synogogue, of course–if He’s the same Christ yesterday, today, and forever.” And when someone asked him why he thought Christ wouldn’t choose a Christian church instead, Lewis retorted, “Because He doesn’t worship Himself. He only worships His Father!”
Lewis then disappeared. But this did not settle the war of words, for Islam resumed it, saying: “He is spiritually mine because he fought my jihad, against my secularist, materialist enemies, and he fought in my spirit: the spirit of the “straight path”–clear, uncompromising, faithful, and obedient. What is more Islamic than that conversational remark of his, ‘I was not born to be free; I was born to adore and to obey’? That’s Islam, and that was so remarkable to you that you put it on a poster, but it was natural to him. It was his center. He is at the center of our ranks, and we are at the center of the battle. This is the Islamic moment. We are the world’s fastest growing religion, and if you knew your own scriptures you would know why: because God blesses those who adore and obey, not those who demand to be free.”
Then a Hindu voice spoke, sweetly, “But in the highest, most mystical sense he was ours–or rather, he and we and you are one. This moment in world history is the mystical moment. Were not Lewis’s greatest passages his most mystical ones?”
“And his most silent ones,” put in a Buddhist voice. “His greatest passages culminate in silence. That was his center. His words were great only because they framed that holy silence, they came from it in his soul and evoked it in his readers’ souls. He was a great spiritual warrior because he used Buddhist weapons: he defeated slogans and sloppiness by wisdom and mindfulness, he defeated greed and lust by compassion and suffering. He was one of ours. Beneath our theological differences there was a real spiritual oneness.”
“That was the spirit of Tao,” put in a Taoist voice. “He was one of mind because he was one of mine, as was his Master, who said, “I AM the Tao,” the Way. It’s no accident that he chose that name for the universal moral law in The Abolition of Man. I am his center, I am the spirit of Christ. What book ever written is as close to the Sermon on the Mount as my Tao Te Ching?”
“No,” put in a Confucian voice, “He was one of mine in spirit. For I masterminded the world’s most successful social order. Social decay was his world’s problem, as it was mine; and his solutions are precisely mine: morality, family, fidelity, stability, hierarchy, modesty, ceremony, harmony, and–first of all for him as for me–honesty, “the Rectification of Names.”
Emeth, from The Last Battle, then appeared, with flecks of golden stable straw in his hair, to put in a good word for pagan moralists’ claim to Lewis on the basis of the primacy of the Natural Law. He was saying:”For the world has forgotten not just how to be Christian, but how to be human, to be honorable, to be honest. Lewis would rather be an honest pagan than a dishonest Christian, rather a good Calormene than a bad Narnian, rather Emeth than Shift.”
I feared the debate would be endless, and I would never know the truth. But then I saw for myself whose claim to Lewis was correct, for I saw his face appear in a halo of light hovering over each one of us. As in “The Battle of the Books,” the word of the Great Dance had the last word. Each claim to Lewis is true. He belongs to all who love him and use him. In the last analysis even we, we tourists, we intellectual peeping toms, we lurkers, we scholars, we dilletantes–even we are the ones who “possess” Lewis in our hearts, and we are at the center of the great battle with him. For the Battle is only one theme in the Dance, and at the center of the Dance is the Christ who has forever joined humanity to divinity so concretely that each cell in His Body is at the center, each human being. That is Lewis’s most memorable word to us, that is “The Weight of Glory.”
But I cannot tell you how this vision of Lewis’s place in the “ecumenical jihad” would have worked itself into a paper, for though I didn’t lose the text this time, I lost the inspiration. I got writer’s block–it happens to blockhead writers. So I began again.
This time I planned to compare Lewis’s achievement to St. Augustine’s for I found ten surprising ways in which Lewis is the Augustine for our time.
First, and most obviously, like Augustine he stands at the edge of the abyss, the end of a dying civilization and perhaps the beginning of a new Dark Age. Like Augustine, Lewis is a bridge builder, a pontiff. Because he built bridges both to the past and to the future, he was both profoundly conservative and profoundly progressive; or rather, he was progressive precisely by being conservative. For he gave the future the only thing that can save it: the past, or rather what Russell Kirk called “The Permanent Things” which sustained the past and are rejected in the present and must sustain any sustainable future. Lewis, like Augustine, was a Robinson Crusoe, saving as many valuables as he could from the old civilization’s shipwreck–but in hope, not in despair, and for the sake of the future, not of the past.
Second, Lewis did the same thing in response to the worldshaking crisis as Augustine did, one of the most world-shaking deeds a man can do: he wrote great books. Augustine’s most influential book was probably The City of God, the world’s first philosophy of history. Lewis never wrote a whole philosophy of history, as Augustine did, because it was there already, in the Christian tradition and in Lewis’s mind; but in The Abolition of Man he remembered and applied its prophetic social wisdom. The central Augustinian theme of the antithesis between the two “cities” is the central dramatic theme of all Lewis’s narrative works: The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, Narnia, the Ransom trilogy, and Till We Have Faces; for with him as with Augustine, the spiritual warfare within each individual soul that is the central drama of each life is the very same war as the one that is the central drama of universal history: the war between the two “cities.” Both Augustine and Lewis picked up and Christianized Plato’s great discovery in the Republic of the parallel between societies and souls.
Third, Lewis’s theology is also Augustinian in centering on the dialectic of law and grace, bios and zoe, Adam and Christ, old man and new, sin and salvation. These are the twin centers of Mere Christianity the book because they are the twin centers of mere Christianity the reality, as they were for Augustine, and Paul, and Aquinas, and Luther, and Pascal, and Kierekegaard and all great Christian theologians who see that Christian theology is not just “systematic” but dramatic; that “the dogma is the drama,” as Dorothy Sayers put it.
Fourth, Lewis’s life and his autobiographizing of the part of it, was strikingly similar to Augustine’s. Surprised by Joy is the closest thing to a modern Confessions. Both books, and both lives, were moved along by a plethora of passions, by treading and trying many false roads,and a two-part conversion, first philosophical, then religious. Both books, both lives, and both souls were unsparingly, searingly honest.
Fifth, at deep center of both men there was the restless heart, the longing for joy, for the love that rotates hearts as it rotates the sun and all the stars. No other writers who ever lived can rival these two in moving us by their moving accounts of having been moved by Sehnsucht. It is what the world has always remembered Augustine for the most, and it will be what the world remembers Lewis for the most, because even the world is in love with the love of God, though it does not know it.
Sixth, both men had an unparalleled personal combination of head and heart, light and fire, Apollonian reason and Dionysian passion. Both combined a tremendously tough mind and a tremendously tender heart. There have been more burning hearts, but never in such brilliant and bookish minds; and there have been more brilliant minds, but never in such passionate, romantic hearts. Traditional iconography always portrays Augustine with an open book in one hand and a burning heart in the other. St. Clive cannot be canonized, because Augustine already has his perfect icon.
Lewis’s seventh similarity to Augustine is their writing style. What Christian ever made Latin dance as Augustine did? What Christian ever taught English to sing as Lewis did? Their words are like diamonds, full of light yet full of heaviness; full of grace and truth. The secret of their success is simply that their words reflect their souls, and their souls reflect their Lord.
Eighth, these two men also combined the true, the good, and the beautiful in combining scholarship, sanctity, and style in a triple synthesis that I think is unparalleled. Aquinas had a more brilliant mind and a holier will–but his style was a mathematician’s. St. Francis had a sweeter style and a holier life but a lesser mind. Plato had a greater mind and style but a lesser sanctity. I can think of only on mere man in history who may have equaled both Augustine and Lewis in all three: Socrates.
Their ninth similarity is that their range is also almost unparalleled, not so much in quantity–(though that too is impressive; few other major writers have written more) but in variety, in multiplication of genres and subjects.
Finally, both combined fidelity with originality, conservatism with creativity. Rarely do such eccentrics find the center, rarely do passionate poets become moralists; rarely are great lovers humble. Their personalities were so strong, so original, so unforgettable, and so unmistakable, and these personalities so stamped the pages they left on earth, like fossils, that I know no Christian writers you can be more sure you will recognize in Heaven (except perhaps Doctor Johnson). Nevertheless, both were utterly submissive to the Mind of Christ and the tradition of His Church. Both were scholars suffused with sources with photographic memories, nevertheless yet both were humble conformists–to objective truth. No, this is not a “nevertheless,” a paradox; it is an inevitability, a necessity. For both discovered the secret of original,”wrote Lewis, laconically. He came only to tell His Father’s truth and do His Fathers’s will, not His own; and that is why no human personality and life is even remotely like His. (Or rather, that is why all are remotely like His: that is the only thing that makes them human at all.)
But I could not expand these ten paragraphs into a paper without descending into details that sounded suspiciously like scholarship. I found no more Big Ideas, so rather than pushing my mind’s fast-forward button into many little ideas by adding theological and philosophical technicalities, I pushed “stop,” then “reverse:” I tried to learn from my mistakes. I asked why all of these papers had suffered spontaneous abortions. What was common to all five of these clever ideas? The answer was obvious: two things: they were clever and they were ideas. Now you can’t do without ideas, but you can do without cleverness. So I concluded that the providential angels that were gently blowing on the mainsail of my mind were trying to get me to stop seeking cleverness and simply seek truth, to stop tracking and sail straight with the wind.
So here is my non-clever paper, my simple, straight answer to the question of Lewis’s achievement.
Why was Lewis great? Because he was very smart, and very good, and very creative. He discovered a lot of truth and a lot of goodness and a lot of beauty for himself, and shared a lot of it with us. Amen
P.S. He was small as well as treat, like the rest of us. He had his limits in all three areas; mind, will , and imagination.
First, his mind. Obviously the man was incredibly intelligent. Once he left his childhood tutor (“The Great Knock,” Kirkpatrick) Lewis probably never lost an argument in his life to any man. But he lost one to a woman, Elizabeth Anscombe, and he must have lost thousands to another: Joy Davidman. God created woman to make man humble. They are our angles, flying to conclusions instantly as we creep to them like cockroaches.
Second, his morals. He led three lives, three roads: a low road, a middle road, and a high road. First, he was not a very good man, then he was precisely that: a very good man. Finally, perhaps he was stretched into something more.
First came the low road of a troubled youth, whom Surprised by Joy publicly described as “a cad, a fop, and a prig” and the supposedly-private letters to Arthur Greeves revealed as a sado-masochist–a pervert, we used to say, before the Revolution. (Perhaps Providence let Lewis’s privacy be compromised here to sell him to Americans. Perversion in our royal family raises their approval rating.)
Next came the middle road of a comfortable bachelorhood. One of his students described him as “the most thoroughly converted man I ever met.” There is no false note to this second theme in Lewis’s song; and he even avoided the petty vices endemic to the academic–vices which most of us know too well for me to stoop to writing their names in the sand. Yet something was missing. During this wonderfully productive part of his life Lewis seemed too comfortable to be a saint. (I did not say “too happy;”I am a Catholic, not a Kantian.)
But then God called him to a third and higher road and surprised him with Joy, his life’s greatest joy: Joy herself; and his life’s greatest suffering–hers–and, above all, its greatest love. These three forces when combined are the greatest power in the universe, the power released by splitting the atom of the Trinity in the cup Christ drank on Calvary, and gave us to drink with Him at altars both in and out of churches.
But even if Lewis’s achievement is full in our first two categories, even if he lacked no mental or moral virtue, even if he were declared a Doctor of the Church and canonized as a saint, his life’s greatest poverty came in the third area, creativity. Most of us here are more creative than C.S. Lewis, for though he created sixty books, he created no children. He settled for a secondary role, a servant’s role, like a priest: he gave up making children to make books to serve those who did.
But that is part of the past, and the past is past, the past is dead. But Jack is not dead. “Christians never say good-bye.” They say “God be with you till we meet again.” The fourth theme of Jack’s song is being sung even now, and we are notes in it. Jack is present, notpast. He is alive–unless our whole faith is foolish lies. And he is not only in Heaven with Christ, he is also here, with Christ, one of the “great cloud of witnesses,” “the Communion of Saints.” For Christ is not a ghost: He does not leave His Body behind. And Lewis is part of His Body. And still working, with the one who said, “My Father is still working, and so am I.” Lewis can do much more for us now, from the Land of Light, than he ever did from the valley of the shadow of death. His prayers are more powerful than his books. Let us not make the mistake Job’s three friends made about God: let us not talk about him as if he were absent; let us talk to him, since he is present, because he is with God, and God is present. “Saint Clive Excaliber, Second Arthur Pendragon, whose pen was mightier than the first Arthur’s sword: Wield your prayer-sword that is even mightier than your pen. For we need your help again. You see that our dragons have multiplied. So pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”