Tuesday, February 28, 2006

C.S. Lewis and Catholicism (Iain T. Benson)

Iain T. Benson is Executive Director: Centre for Cultural Renewal [Bowen Island, British Columbia, Canada]. This is derived from a paper delivered to the Oxford University C.S. Lewis Society: Pusey House, Oxford, May 11, 2001.

[originally typeset and uploaded on 28 January 2002, with the author's permission]

C.S. Lewis's words will be in green; words of Lewis scholars will be in purple.


The topic "CS Lewis and Catholicism" might seem to some to be unnecessary. Of course, they would say, "C.S.Lewis was a member of the Church of England, why would we want to discuss him in relation to the Catholic Church?" As a writer who has devoted an entire book to this theme once put it:

[Asking about Lewis' views of Catholicism] is not like asking why Winston Churchill never became a Mormon, or why Picasso dissented from the views of the Plymouth Brethren.

(Christopher Derrick, C.S. Lewis and the Church of Rome, San Francisco: Ignatius, 1981, p. 11)

Before turning to discuss Lewis' views I must first note two admonitions that appear in the Preface to Mere Christianity (London: Bles, 1952) and that apply with particular force to a paper such as this to a society such as this.

[first] Our divisions should never be discussed except in the presence of those who have already come to believe that there is one God and that Jesus Christ is His only Son… [and second] I should be very glad if people would not draw fanciful inferences from my silence on certain disputed matters.

I will return to this question of Lewis' silence on certain matters in a moment but at this point would like to note that as one who has had a passionate devotion to everything Lewisian since I became a Christian in my teens, partly in response to reading his works, and who is conscious that he is delivering this paper before a learned audience in the very town in which Lewis became famous, these admonitory phrases have particular weight.

*** CLICK ON "Tolle, lege!" immediately below to finish this article ***

I shall attempt to honour Mr. Lewis' wishes and not draw fanciful inferences from his silence on certain disputed matters. It is true he was silent about the claims of the Roman Catholic Church and his few references to the Church offer glimpses into his thought but as you will hear what follows we are left to ponder his silences within the context of his overall aim to develop Mere Christianity.

Despite this silence or reticence, I argue that it is important to consider Lewis in relation to Roman Catholicism for several reasons:

1) because Lewis’ most famous Christian apologetic work - Mere Christianity claims to be a description of Christianity that all baptized Christians would accept;

2) because Lewis was one of the foremost apologists of the 20th Century (the other in his category being G.K. Chesterton) and what Lewis said about the nature of the Church or "churches" touches on the understanding that many Christians will have about the nature and meaning of the Church or "churches."

3) Because Lewis believed "division" amongst Christians to be a scandal it is important to try and understand what directions he perceived towards unity.

The “Mere Christianity” Thesis:

Key to understanding Lewis’ views is the set of assumptions built into the approach he sets out in Mere Christianity. In the Preface to the first edition on the question of his silence on certain points, Lewis notes:

For example, such silence need not mean that I myself am sitting on the fence. Sometimes I am. There are questions at issue between Christians to which I do not think we have been told the answer. There are some to which I may never know the answer: if I asked them in a better world, I might (for all I know) be answered as a far greater questioner was answered: "what is that to thee? Follow thou Me". But there are other questions as to which I am definitely on one side of the fence and yet say nothing.

Now this is a very clever set of fences that C.S. Lewis has erected with respect to matters on which he is "silent." It makes it impossible to determine from silence whether he thinks a matter important or irrelevant, agrees with it or disagrees with it or has no particular view of the matter. His silence therefore is enigmatic and he intends it to be so. He clearly wishes us to focus only on those matters he does discuss. So what is not discussed is beyond discussion - at least in terms of Mere Christianity. Again, in the Preface, he states his purpose:

For I was not writing to expound something I could call "my religion" but to expound "mere" Christianity, which is what it is and what it was long before I was born and whether I like it or not [vii].

He gives as an example of something that is left out, any mention of the Blessed Virgin Mary. A similar unwillingness to address specific religious positions such as the role of Mary in the economy of salvation is visible in his response to correspondents as well. Here is what he says in Mere Christianity:

[To say more about the Blessed Virgin Mary] would take me into highly controversial regions….Oddly enough you cannot even conclude from my silence on disputed points, either that I think them important or that I think them unimportant. For this is itself one of the disputed points. One of the things that Christians are disagreed about is the importance of their disagreements. When two Christians of different denominations start arguing, it is usually not long bfore one asks whether such and such a point "really matters" and the other replies: "Matter? Why it’s absolutely essential."….[About my own beliefs] …"they are written in the Common Prayer Book." [viii]

To avoid the danger of putting forward as "common Christianity" what was a peculiarly C of E or CSL version he sent the original script of Book 2 of Mere Christianity (“What Christians Believe”) to four clergymen, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian and RC. Walter Hooper in C.S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide (London: Harper, 1996 at p. 307; hereinafter Companion), notes that the Catholic was Dom Bede Griffiths, who had been a pupil and friend of Lewis' and who had converted to Catholicism the same year (1931) that Lewis became a Christian (see, Companion, p. 670 ff.). Lewis noted that, "The RC thought I had gone rather too far about the comparative unimportance of theories in explanation of the Atonement, otherwise all five of us agreed."

For Lewis' claim is that there are a core set of beliefs which are acceptable. As GKC once said, "all roads lead to Rome which is one reason why many people never get there." Walter Hooper entitled one of the volumes of C.S. Lewis’ diaries "all My Road Before me". It is not clear whether this is the kind of road Chesterton meant, but it is clear that Lewis never got to Rome, if indeed, Rome had any relevance for him at all.

This paper is an attempt to raise some questions on that theme. GKC also, famously, said that there are three stages to conversion to Catholicism: First, realizing that what many say about the Catholic Church is untrue; Second, defending the Catholic Church against unjust attacks; third, running away from the Church.

Could we use this framework for analyzing Lewis and Catholicism? Could we find in Lewis' oeuvre such categories? I think not. While we can certainly identify a Lewis who says positive things about Catholics and Catholicism, is this the same as "defending the Church against unjust attacks?" Not really. Can we say that Lewis is in any clear way "running away from the Church?" Again, not really.

What we do see in Lewis, as I've set out above, is avoidance by design. He sets out, from the beginning, that he does not wish to focus on what divides or is "controversial" but on what unites Christians. This is, as he says, borrowing from Baxter, "mere Christianity." But note how that first commitment is itself a statement about one major claim that one would have thought central to questions that Lewis avoids: the claim of the Catholic Church to be the Church founded by Christ to guide Christian faith and morals through time under the protection of the Holy Spirit.

Lewis treats Catholicism as one room of the main hall of Mere Christianity when, from a Catholic perspective, the house is Catholic and the rooms the denominations within the Christian fold.

Lewis was reticent about addressing the subject of Catholicism. The reason he gave most frequently for this reticence is that to comment on divisions between Christians would emphasize differences and endanger charity (W.H. Lewis, ed. The Letters of C.S. Lewis, p. 230; hereinafter Letters). Various people wrote to him, asking his views on specific Catholic doctrines. His responses to these letters, a few comments in various of his works, a few published or anecdotal reminiscences and one recently published essay are all we have to go on to try and form a view of Lewis' attitude.

It is clear from his writings that Lewis thought schism amongst Christians was a scandal and a "source of grief and a matter for prayers, being a most serious stumbling block to those coming in..." (Letters to Don Calabria, p. 31). In this, he followed his "master" George Macdonald who, in an introduction to one of his lesser known works, called schism "the great Sabbath breaker" (England’s Antiphon). Lewis looked for the day that all Christians would be one and said "'That they all may be one' is a petition which in my prayers I never omit. While the wished-for unity of doctrine and order is missing, all the more eagerly let us try to keep the bond of charity...." (Letters to Don Calabria, p. 71).

In saying this, therefore, he did not necessarily subscribe to the view that Mere Christianity made up of a variety of denominational expressions provided a satisfactory account of what the Church (as distinct from specific teachings about aspects of the Christian faith) ought to be. This is clear from his statement about his own approach in Mere Christianity to the effect that "...if I have not directly helped the cause of reunion, I have perhaps made it clear why we ought to be reunited" (Mere Christianity, London: Bles, 1952, Preface viii).

Lewis on Authority and the Church:

With respect to authority, Lewis discussed this in Mere Christianity in the final chapter of "What Christians Believe" (Book II) under the heading "The Practical Conclusion". What he says is important. Lewis states that three things spread the Christ life in us: "baptism, belief and the Holy Communion of the Mass…" He states that:

"I believe that Jesus was (and is) God on his authority." Then Lewis says something very interesting:

Do not be scared by the word authority. Believing things on authority only means believing them because you have been told them by someone you think trustworthy. Ninety-nine percent of the things you believe are believed on authority. None of us has seen the Norman Conquest or the defeat of the Armada. We believe them simply because people who did seem them have left writings that tell us about them: in fact, on authority. A man [50] who jibbed at authority in other things as some people do in religion would have to be content to know nothing all his life. (at 48 – 50)
Note here how Lewis completely sidesteps doctrinal dispute and development where authority determines a matter in the face either of scriptural ambiguity (such as the nature of the eucharist or Christ himself) or historical development (the canonicity of Scripture itself). The examples chosen by Lewis (the Norman Conquest and the defeat of the Armada) are matters which we believe on one kind of authority but many of the really important matters which the Christian tradition is based upon were based on quite another - the authority which Lewis depends upon to believe the Creeds (central to the Book of Common Prayer) and the Scriptures (extra-textual authority to determine what the Canon of Scriptures was and is) but which he does not refer to here. Again, what kind of silence is that?

It seems to be a particularly significant omission if, logically, the entire Christian tradition (and he is appealing to what Christians in all ages have held in common) depends upon the authority of the Church to determine the canonicity of the Scriptures, the content of the Creeds and the natures of both the Holy Communion and Our Lord Himself and then to avoid saying so.

Also in Mere Christianity, in the Chapter on "social morality" we get an interesting insight into Lewis' view of the church. While discussing that Christ did not come to preach any brand new morality and that Christianity has not and does not profess to have a detailed political program for applying "Do as you would be done by" to any particular society at any particular moment, Lewis seems to be critical of the idea of a teaching Church. He says in response to those who say "the Church ought to give us a lead" that "…this is true if they mean it in the right way but false if they mean it in the wrong way" (p. 65). What is the right way? Lewis tells us that "by the Church they ought to mean the whole body of practicing Christians…when most people ask for a lead from the Church they mean that they want the Church to put out a political program. That is silly."

With respect, as with the section on authority mentioned above, this view of the relationship between an authoritative teaching church and culture (which Lewis seems to reject) suffers from the same ahistorical and anti-dogmatic aspect. The Church through time (defined as both lay people and those with specific teaching authority) has in fact taught and must teach on matters of faith and morals. That the Church is the whole body of practicing Christians cannot be faulted as far as "membership" goes (and articulating what "membership" is was one of Lewis' great strengths) but what Lewis avoids is the notion of the Church as teaching authority. Is this because, in focusing on "denominations" Lewis couldn’t address "authority" without being controversial and weakening the argument for inclusivity that is the principle, as we have seen, that animated "mere" Christianity?

Several evenings spent over the (Anglican) editors Livingstone and Cross’s long edition of the Oxford History of the Christian Church would show any objective reader that the major disputes from the earliest days of the Church were solved not be "the whole body of practicing Christians" (as members) but by those with specific authority to make doctrinal determinations. The argument as framed by Lewis doesn't deal with how the Church validly deals with questions that have relevance for political programs but overlap with religion and raise a significant problem for the project of "mere" Christianity.

It is now clear from what we see in many cultures that conversion to Christ must not be simply theological. That is to say that the line which Lewis drew when he said "I leave matters of religious controversy for theologians" is a serious problem because much more than "mere" theological results follow from such a sharp bifurcation between religion and culture. Consider the areas of civil society that overlap with religion: public education, health care, and certain questions of politics itself require guidance from religion over time and Lewis himself often wrote about religion and culture on a host of areas. Yet here, he wishes to minimize the teaching authority of the Church itself.

The passage from which the comment that "I leave religious controversy to theologians" is drawn comes from the Preface to the French edition of La Problem de la Souffrance (1950), a Preface which Walter Hooper sets out in Companion, pp. 296 – 297. Because of its importance to the theme of my paper I wish to quote it at length:

I was asked to write a few words of introduction to this book for French readers, who might at first find something ambiguous in my position. Who, one might ask, is this Anglican layman, translated and introduced by Catholics, who, on the frontispiece of The Screwtape Letters, brings together a quotation from Sir Thomas More and one from Martin Luther? Is he unaware of the differences between Christians, or does he consider them unimportant? By no means. As a Christian, I am very much aware that our divisions grieve the Holy Spirit and hold back the work of Christ; as a logician I realize that when two churches affirm opposing positions, these cannot be reconciled.

But because I was an unbeliever for a long time, I perceived something which perhaps those brought up in the Church do not see. Even when I feared and detested Christianity, I was struck by its essential unity, which, in spite of its divisions, it has never lost. I trembled on recognizing the same unmistakable aroma coming from the writings of Dante and Bunyan, Thomas Aquinas and William Law.

Since my conversion, it has seemed my particular task to tell the outside world what all Christians believe. Controversy I leave to others: that is the business of theologians. I think that you and I, the laity, simple soldiers of the Faith, will best serve the cause of reconciliation not so much by contributing to such debates, but by our prayers, and by sharing all that can already be shared of Christian life.

If the unity of charity and intention between us were strong enough, perhaps our doctrinal differences would be resolved sooner; without that spiritual unity, a doctrinal agreement between our religious leaders would be sterile.

In the meantime, it will be apparent that the man who is most faithful in living the Christian life in his own church is spiritually the closest to the faithful believers in other confessions: because the geography of the spiritual world is very different from that of the physical world. In the latter, countries touch each other at their borders, in the former, at their center. It is the lukewarm and indifferent in each country who are furthest from all other countries.
(pp. 296 – 297 emphasis added).

Lewis was aware that there were differences between denominational Christianity and Catholicism and was aware of tendencies in each regard. He believed that when Catholicism became decadent it was in the direction of superstition and when Protestantism became decadent it tended towards becoming "a vague mist of ethical platitudes" (Allegory of Love, p.323).

Catholic writers (such as Christopher Derrick and John Randolph Willis S.J.) have criticized Lewis's failure to deal with the claims of Catholicism. Derrick, for example, a pupil and later a close friend of Lewis, has noted that Lewis implicitly treated Catholicism as a denomination and that such a categorization (notably in Mere Christianity) is not ecumenical at all in so far as its starting assumption is that Catholic claims about the uniqueness of the Catholic Church are simply wrong (Derrick, C.S. Lewis and the Church of Rome, San Francisco: Ignatius, 1981, pp. 174 ff.).

It is fair to note that by ignoring the claim to uniqueness that the Catholic Church holds, and by treating it as something it does not claim to be (a denomination - one option amongst many), Lewis is inconsistent with his own statements in Mere Christianity about how truth claims ought to be dealt with. Lewis, after all, dismissed any attempts to say that Jesus Christ was simply a great moral teacher but not what he claimed to be because of the nature of the claims (Mere Christianity, p. 42). But Lewis does not apply this logic to the Catholic Church's claims.

This important point: that the Catholic Church’s claims to be the Church founded expressly by Jesus not a denomination among many, was avoided by Lewis. He approached the Catholic Church from just the position he rejected as "patronizing nonsense" with respect to a similar approach to Jesus were we to say he was merely a great moral teacher but not what he claimed to be. The question of whether Lewis' goal of avoiding controversy is justified must be answered in relation to other questions than whether Lewis was consistent in his approach to truth claims.

At the end of the day we cannot know whether Lewis ever did address these claims. On the evidence available it would seem not. Lewis seems on all the evidence to have simply avoided the question. An interesting footnote here is that Lewis frequently recommended to correspondents that the "best Christian apologetic" he knew was G.K. Chesterton’s extraordinary book The Everlasting Man (1925).

In the "Prefatory Note" to the first edition of that book, Chesterton noted that:

It is impossible, I hope, for any Catholic to write any book on any subject, above all this subject, without showing that he is a Catholic; but this study is not specially concerned with the differences between a Catholic and a Protestant.

Throughout the book Chesterton distinguishes between "churches" and "the Church" when he speaks of Protestant or Catholic communities, everywhere suggesting that it is "the Church" which maintains the correct course.

For Chesterton, there was a definite Catholic Church with specific and unique claims just as there was a specific Jesus Christ with specific and unique claims. In the works written after he became a Catholic, Chesterton never ceased to develop the distinctiveness, exclusivity and importance of the claims of the Catholic Church.

In their 1974 biography C.S. Lewis, Walter Hooper and Roger Lancelyn Green state that by 1932, "Lewis had read most of Chesterton’s theological books…" If he continuted to read Chesterton's theological writings, it is surprising that he seems not to have annotated his own copy of Chesterton's book on the Catholic Church, The Thing. There is no evidence that Lewis ever read the book; he certainly did not refer to it in any published writings or letters. Perhaps this was tactical reticence?

J.R.R. Tolkien, his close friend and himself a Catholic, is reputed to have said that Lewis did not become a Catholic due to "Ulsterior motives". Christopher Derrick has also said that Lewis’ Northern Irish roots played a large part in his unwillingness to engage Catholic truth claims. Those interested in this aspect of Lewis should, in addition to Derrick’s book, consult John Randolph Willis's study of Lewis’ theology (Willis, Pleasures Forevermore: The Theology of C.S. Lewis, Chicago: Loyola, 1983 at p.84).

In his letter of March 13, 1956 (Letters) Lewis writes: "The Doctrines about the Blessed Virgin which you mention are R.C. doctrines, aren’t they? And as I’m not an R.C. I don’t think I need bother about them." But in light of Christian history and Lewis' love of good argument it seems rather strange that he veered away in such a manner.

There are glimpses within Lewis' oeuvre of a genuine attraction to specifically Catholic theological conceptions. While he personally came to believe in purgatory, went to confession and was clearly steeped in a love of liturgy, his comments in a letter to Arthur Greeves in relation to reading Dante's Paradiso, add an interesting perspective on Lewis' thoughts of Catholicism:

[The Paradiso] has really opened a new world to me. I don't know whether it is really very different from the Inferno…or whether I was specially receptive, but it certainly seemed to me that I had never seen at all what Dante was like before….I should describe it as feeling more important than any poetry I have ever read. Whether it has the things you specially like is another question. It is seldom homely: perhaps not holy in our sense – it is too Catholic for that: and of course its blend of complexity and beauty is very like Catholic theology – wheel within wheel, but wheels of glory, and the One radiated through the Many.

(Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis: Collected Letters Vol. 1, Family Letters 1905 - 1931, London: Harper Collins, 2000, p. 857; emphasis in original).

That Lewis ignored the specifically Catholic contributions to cultural engagement is surprising and significant. To take but one small example, it is worth noting that there is simply no Protestant equivalent to the 19th-century papal encyclical Rerum Novarum of 1891 ("On the Conditions of the Working Classes") - a fact noted by many converts to Catholicism.

For Lewis to consider such distinctives irrelevant to a larger theological purpose ("avoiding controversy" and encouraging a move to unity that lacked specific doctrinal formulation) in light of current religious issues in Western countries could be viewed in two very different ways: a sort of prudent reticence or a folly of disengagement.

The ever-proliferating denominational divisions which Lewis considered scandalous do not appear to have been stopped or even slowed down by his widely read work. Is this not something that Lewis would have considered important at some point if the fact of division was actually a scandal?

The differences of viewpoint between religious groups are often ignored in the same way but with, now, greater consequences given developments in "liberal theology", medical technology, the rise of individualism and the slow but steady exclusion of religion from the new anti-religious "secularism" that uses our confusion about the term "secular" to drive religion more and more into the purely private sphere.

Whatever the reason for Lewis' approach, it is clear that he viewed Catholics as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and in this respect he is in agreement with Catholic teaching about Protestants who are brothers and sisters in Christ by virtue of their baptism irrespective of what denomination they belong to.

It was a surprise to many of our friends that when my wife and I were received into the Catholic Church in 1989 we were not re-baptized, since a baptism done in accordance with the Scriptures is valid. This is a significant fact in our discussions for Christian unity. It is interesting how many Protestant groups routinely baptize Catholics who join their groups or who tolerate rebaptism of themselves. Clearly very different understandings of baptism are in operation.

In addition to this, Lewis' many friendships with Catholics (such as Tolkien, Bede Griffiths and Christopher Derrick), his frequent reference to Catholic writers (not the least of whom was G.K. Chesterton), and the fact that the Socratic Society frequently involved Catholics as speakers (for example, the philosopher G.E.M. Anscombe, and Fr. Martin D'Arcy), all shows his unquestioned commitment to practical ecumenism.

Given developments in his own Anglican church in recent years and his strongly expressed views in opposition to the ordination of women (now an accepted aspect of Anglicanism), it is not clear where Lewis would have stood in relation to Catholicism had he lived longer.

What is clear is that Lewis' own life and works were dedicated to a form of ecumenism which sought to build bridges between all Christians, and from that coalition to the surrounding culture. He would, no doubt, have endorsed recent developments in the direction of strategic alliances between Protestants and Catholics in regard to many cultural issues. We are left to wonder what Lewis would make of the "papal claims" today given his statement to another pupil, Dom Bede Griffiths (who was a Catholic convert and became a priest) that "[n]othing would give such strong support to the papal claims as the spectacle of a Pope actually functioning as the head of Christendom" (Letters, 165).

In a recently published article (not, therefore, covered in the books referred to above) on the subject of "Christian Reunion," Lewis recognized that the central difficulty in the way of reunion amongst Christians is "…disagreement about the seat and nature of doctrinal authority."

In this essay, "Christian Reunion" (Christian Reunion and Other Essays, ed. Walter Hooper, London: Collins, 1990 p.17 at p.19) Lewis stated that:

The real reason why I cannot be in communion with you [Roman Catholics] is not my disagreement with this or that Roman doctrine, but that to accept your Church means, not to accept a given body of doctrine, but to accept in advance any doctrine your Church hereafter produces. It is like being asked to agree not only to what a man has said but also to what he is going to say.

While Lewis saw disunity as "a tragic and sinful division" (ibid. p.17) his focus and gifts lay in leading people to general truths about the faith. Insofar as he saw division as "sinful" however, Lewis did not endorse the view shared by so many, that the current divisions are normal or acceptable, nor that the Church should be seen as merely an "invisible" reality.

There is, therefore, an unresolved tension in Lewis' thought on this point: that of an invisible Church (which he rejected, since he believed that the Church was "torn and divided" and should be "reunited") and his reference to "my own Church" (referring to Anglicanism, as in his essay on "Membership" in Transposition and Other Essays, p. 41). This "tension" brings us to the nub of the question.

If there are 'churches' rather than the Church, then how is unity other than invisible? And if unity is invisible, then how is the Church divided (if it is invisible, after all, one could not "see" division)? Whatever one's views, most people would however agree with what Lewis said in one of his Latin letters to an Italian priest, "...All who profess themselves Christians are bound to offer prayers for the reunion of the Church now, alas, torn and divided" (Letters of C.S. Lewis to Don Calabria, p. 99).

Lewis cautioned that whatever we do we ought not to start quarrelling with other people "because they use a different formula from yours" (Mere Christianity, p. 144). We must ask, however, whether avoidance of the claims of the Catholic Church in light of the challenges facing Christianity in the contemporary age is something that a contemporary apologist ought to do. Cooperation on projects to revivify or restore or shore-up or rebuild the many sad aspects of contemporary culture must, it seems to me, be based upon a genuine recognition of the facts and these facts, viewed historically and dogmatically take us, as Lewis himself recognized, beyond the scope of "mere Christianity."

This point has been recognized and expressed powerfully by the late Lesslie Newbigin in his book Foolishness to the Greeks (Eerdmans, 1976) where, at p. 145 ff. that fine Protestant author noted that the divisions within Protestantism make denominations themselves unable to speak about unity to the post-modern cultural fragmentation surrounding denominational churches. Like C.S. Lewis, however, Newbigin fails to note that there is one Church that does claim to speak with authority and for unity - that is, the Roman Catholic Church. This kind of lacunae in a book of this sort is rather surprising.

I conclude with two passages from opposite ends of Mere Christianity. The first relates to the danger that readers of Mere Christianity will consider the contents as necessary and sufficient. Lewis writes:

I hope no reader will suppose that "mere" Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions – as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in . . . When you do get into your room you will find that the long wait has done you some kind of good which you would not have had otherwise. But you must regard it as waiting, not as camping. You must keep on praying for light: and of course, even in the hall you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house. And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and paneling. In plain language, the question should never be: "Do I like that kind of service?" but "Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this? Is my reluctance to knock at this door due to my pride, or my mere taste, or my personal dislike of this particular doorkeeper?"

When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house. (pp. xi-xii).

Given some of the quotations I read from other parts of Lewis' work earlier, it is hard not to see an irony in Lewis' admonition to "above all pursue truth" in terms of doctrines when we see him all too often avoiding just this kind of analysis. While we ought to accept his emphasis on charity in pursuit of truth, a little more clarity on the nature of the Church is in order.

Finally, I conclude with a short quotation from the end of Mere Christianity.

Never forget that we are all still "the early Christians." The present wicked and wasteful divisions between us are, let us hope, a disease of infancy: we are still teething. (p. 173)

Whatever the usefulness of Mere Christianity as an introduction to some of the basic conceptions of the Christian faith, its "mereness" is, as Lewis himself noted, no substitute for fuller descriptions. It is, after all, meaningful conceptions of authority, unity, tradition and doctrinal development that need to be contained in more complete understandings. For there to be an effective antidote to the "diseases" and "wasteful divisions" that C.S. Lewis recognized, one must, in fact, go beyond Mere Christianity itself. If Mere Christianity becomes an end in itself (a danger Lewis hinted at but failed to follow through to its logical conclusions) it starts to act as an impediment to rather than a means towards Christian unity.

[12. iv. 1997 (rev’d 9.- 11, v.2001, January 2002) portions of the above were published in The C.S. Lewis Readers’ Encyclopedia, Jeffrey D. Schultz and John G. West Jr. eds. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998) at pp. 356 – 358]

No comments: