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C. S. Lewis, best known as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, was also one of the most profound thinkers of twentieth century Christianity.  Along with J. R. R. Tolkien, he has inspired millions of people, include all of the authors at Lantern Hollow Press.  On Sundays we would like to take a moment to offer up a little Lewis for your consideration.

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[T]hough the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still that she did not know.  Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of Time.  But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation.

–Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

One pre-requisite of any religion worth my time and effort is that it must be able to blow my mind, to provide me with insights that no mere human invention could.  In order to do that, the object of belief must, by definition, transcend anything that intellect could obviously produce.*  It is that fact about Christianity, and its Narnian equivalent, that Aslan is alluding to here.

The problem for any of the purely secular religions–including all the variations of scientism, atheism, and secular humanism–is that they are limited by the very real shortcomings of the human mind, since we are dependent wholly on ourselves for their formulation.  A purely naturalistic intellect and the evidence it observes can only take us as far as the edge of all possible human knowledge (to assert otherwise is to make the claim in blind faith and to imagine something frankly akin to a supernatural god).  We know that human knowledge, while impressive to creatures like us, is not and never could be infinite.  We are severely limited to the few years allotted our short lives and, were we to somehow extend them, we would still be bound by the realities of our position inside time and space.  Even if I lived forever, I could never know everything, especially things that happened before I came along or that fell outside the purview of time itself.  In the words of Hamlet, “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  Indeed, there are more things out there than philosophy or science ever could dream of, even in theory–and that is saying something.**

The Christian God, quite explicitly, transcends both Time and Space.  Genesis tells of God hovering over the deeps when there are no words to truly describe what He knew.  With Him was Christ, the Word, through whom “all things were made.”  As such, the power and majesty of God and Christ emerge as not only believable but what we should expect to see if Christianity is actually what it claims to be.  This stands in sharp contrast to so many other early religions, where the gods are really little more than exalted, petty men and women, squabbling with themselves and with humans for pieces of a self-created pie.

Of course, it isn’t my purpose here to convince anyone of the essential Truth of particular facts–those are discussions for another time and place where space isn’t so limited.  I am merely attempting to say that on this one point–the sheer size and majesty of the God to which Lewis alludes–makes good sense indeed.

In a few short words, then, Lewis has pointed us to precisely the sort of God I would expect to find as the mastermind behind Time itself.  In comparison, the vaunted might of the human intellect seems suitably small.

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*It must also exist.  While I’ve never been swayed by his famous argument, I would agree with St. Anselm on that much.

**That said, I must stick up for the many, many amazing things that we can know and are still learning through the very good, very useful pursuit of science.  In the end, though, the more we discover, the more we realize how much there is still to learn!  All of human experience, which is much more vast than the tiny slice we’ve collected and call “human knowledge” is but the blink of the cosmic eye.  The effect of all this should be humbling, to those not drunk on the tiny draught of understanding of which we as a species have so far partaken.

Interested in more about writing and reading from a Christian perspective?  Check out While We’re Paused–the official blog of Lantern Hollow Press.

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C. S. Lewis, best known as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, was also one of the most profound thinkers of twentieth century Christianity.  Along with J. R. R. Tolkien, he has inspired millions of people, include all of the authors at Lantern Hollow Press.  On Sundays we would like to take a moment to offer up a little Lewis for your consideration.

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We want not so much a Father but a grandfather in heaven, a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’

–C. S. Lewis The Problem of Pain 

This is indeed symptomatic not only of modern Christianity, but of humanity in general.  From the very beginning of recorded history, we see that as a race we care first and foremost about getting what we want instead of doing what is right and best.  All too often, we project that demand directly back onto our expectations of God.

The examples are too many to examine in so short a space.  Consider only a sampling:

  • In the political realm, there is the battle between secular capitalism and socialism.  On the one hand, I demand the ability to work all things around me for my own good–even other people’s lives.  On the other, I demand that the government forcibly take from someone else to insure that I can have what I want.
  • In deism and atheism we see worldviews that demand people be absolute sovereign of their own destiny and morality.  Not only can I have what I want, but no one–least of all a non-existent or irrelevant God–has grounds to even express disapproval.  I am only held accountable to myself and a standard of natural law that rarely, if ever, enforces itself.
  • Moral relativism takes it even a step farther and declares that there is no standard by which what I want can be measured at all.  Since nothing is “right,” everything is.  It is, perhaps, the ultimate example of the grandfatherly indulgence that humanity has come to expect and demand.

The problem has only gotten worse since Lewis first wrote about it.  The idea of “grandfatherly Christianity” has spread like wildfire through western churches.  We long ago abandoned the idea of “meeting people in their need” (a good thing) to “giving people what they want” (a much more questionable proposition).  The end result is a castrated faith that, in many ways, bears a pale resemblance to what the world it imitates looked like five to ten years before.

And we wonder why people don’t respect the modern church?

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Interested in more about writing and reading from a Christian perspective?  Check out While We’re Paused–the official blog of Lantern Hollow Press.

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And so, little by little, with fluctations which I cannot now trace, I became an apostate, dropping my faith with no sense of loss but with the greatest relief.

–C. S. Lewis Surprised By Joy

Lewis, as a former atheist himself, understood something about that particular belief system* that many life-long Christians completely fail to grasp:  for many people, atheism feels good.  Converting provides instant and complete relief from the massive weight of what it means to be a believer, not only in Christianity but in any of the major world religions.  All of them make claims on your life.  All of them require that you conform yourself, your beliefs, and your actions to a set of standards that you have no control over.  Atheism instantly releases you from all those obligations and, in fact, does so much more: It makes you the sovereign of your own little universe.  That can potentially provide an unparalleled sense of temporary security.  After all, who better to trust with your future than yourself?

This also helps explain why many atheists are so loudly sure of themselves to the point of epistemological absurdity–emotion often sits at the center of their position while their reason provides cover.  Lewis was one of these types.  He came to hate the forced prayers and unjustified legalism of what he had been taught about the Christian faith, and so when atheism presented itself, his emotions led him to grasp at it in intellectual desperation.

Lewis later rejected atheism–though he had to be dragged “kicking and screaming” back into belief.  For Lewis it was simply a issue of truth:  he still believed that there was an external world that he must conform to rather than vice versa.  Through his association with J. R. R. Tolkien and Owen Barfield, he was gradually led to accept proofs that Christianity was true, and therefore he changed his mind a result.

For me, there is another issue that speaks against atheism:  knowledge of myself.  While it sounds like a fine thing to be the sovereign of my own destiny, the more I understand about myself and how little I truly know, the less comfortable I am exercising the kinds of power atheism in theory would grant me over others.  I become even less pleased when I think about others having that kind of absolute authority over myself.  I would think that the Twentieth Century–and the bloodbath than certain atheists like Stalin and Mao made of it–bears out that concern.

That is one reason I am thankful that God created humanity able to both think and to believe.  Properly understood, the strength of each keeps the excess of the other in check.  In Lewis, we see a good example of both.

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*While atheism likes to style itself as a “lack of belief,” it is in fact its own separate religion. Modern atheism puts faith in what Lewis would later call the “Total System,” by which he meant the whole of the natural universe and the measurable phenomena which it produces. Since humanity is the ultimate expression of the intelligent side of the Total System, atheism usually (but not always) begins to treat the human race and its needs with an attitude that borders on mysticism.  This faith is often as blind as it is exclusive, and is also couched in a pseudo religious awe–remember, according to modern atheist thinkers “Forget Jesus.  Stars died so that you might live.”  In that sense, I see no particular difference between the basic fundamentals of atheistic belief and the “religions” they claim to critique.  Of course, this is too big a topic for a footnote!

Interested in more about writing and reading from a Christian perspective?  Check out While We’re Paused–the official blog of Lantern Hollow Press.

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The original cover of Spirits in Bondage.

Perhaps, when you are unsure of where to start, the best answer is “somewhere” over “nowhere.”  I hope to pick back up with my previous post stream when I can, but I would rather work on something Lewis related than let the blog languish again.

To that end, I picked up a copy of Spirits in Bondage, which is Lewis’s first attempt at fame.  It is, rather obviously, a book of poetry and Lewis hoped that it would be the vehicle that launched him to lyrical glory and fame.  He had written most of the  poems in his spare time while working with William Kirkpatrick (the “Great Knock”, on whom he later based the character of Professor Kirke) and in the army during World War I.  It was initially published under the pseudonym “Clive Hamilton” by William Heinemann in 1919.   This book differs greatly in tone and style from the later works that we know better.

It is important to remember that it was composed while Lewis was an atheist, and it doesn’t take much to figure out Lewis’s views.  In fact, he doesn’t so much as wear his atheism on his sleeve as pick it up and slaps you in the face with it.  He is fascinated with Milton and the characterization of Satan held therein.  Consider the following verses directed at God from “XII De Profundis”:

Yet I will not bow down to thee not love thee,
For looking in my own heart I can prove thee,
And know this frail, bruised being is above thee.

Our love, our hope, our thirsting for the right,
Our mercy and long seeking of the light,
Shall we change these for they relentless might?

Laugh then and slay.  Shatter all things of worth,
Heap torment still on torment for thy mirth-
Thou art not Lord while there are Men on earth.

I’ll have more to say on these later, but I want to finish the book first.  (So far, I’m about halfway through.)  In general, I am very underwhelmed, which is a strange thing to hear me say about Lewis.  My disinterest isn’t due to his atheism at all as it is his tone and composure.  Frankly, his flailing against God seems hollow–very like the petty tantrum of a spoiled child.  Perhaps others will find him more profound and I am simply a barbarian who cannot appreciate good poetry, but to me he has the same tone as any insecure religious believer who thinks that he or she can me more sure of his or her own faith by shouting at others over theirs.

Historically, the book was not a success and it did not secure Lewis a place as one of England or Ireland’s foremost poets.  I begin to see why….

P.S. Spirits in Bondage is the first of Lewis’s works to enter the public domain.  You can pick it up for free in various places, including the Kindle store.  Here is the link to the book from Project Gutenberg.

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Happy All Hallows’ Eve everyone!  Tonight is a good example of why I set this project up as a public blog:  otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting down to think on a little Lewis at all tonight!  A long day at work and then Trick or Treating with the family means I want to be curled up in bed, but since I haven’t posted since Thursday, I don’t want to let another night slip by.

I’ll try to keep this one short, since I still have more to do this evening.  In Surprised by Joy, right after explaining his attraction to the grand argument from Undesign, Jack notes that there is an obvious contradiction between the “Occultist fancies” he had absorbed from his beloved matron and the high, austere, and tragic atheism he had begun to adopt as a matter of philosophy.  They would seem to be mutually exclusive propositions, of course.  Like many of us, Lewis didn’t take the time to think it all out with perfect clarity and he “swayed” between them based entirely on his mood at a given moment.   The one common point between them was that they both pulled him away from his Christian faith, a bit at a time.  (65-66)

This tendency to ignore, indulge, or even to embrace paradox was a well established human trait long before Carl Barth systematized it into a theology or the postmodernists idolized it with their self-refuting descent into rhetorical nonsense.  I’ve seen it displayed as recently as this afternoon, when I was looking at the news.  In a story about the decision by Shorter University (a Christian school) to have its faculty sign a conduct agreement where they renounced sex outside of marriage and homosexuality, a random student contributed this gem of logic to the discussion:

“Who is one person to judge what somebody else does?” said one student, who spoke anonymously to the station. “It’s none of their business.”

And presumably the student made this statement with a straight face.  He/she is actually handing down a very obvious judgement against someone else (the school), condemning them for possibly judging someone else!  I have trouble understanding how some people’s heads don’t explode from the contradictions they have floating around inside their heads.  Perhaps it’s their abnormally thick skulls keep everything contained.

Of course, the point to observe here is that this is, indeed, entirely human.  Snark aside, I’m afraid I’ve been guilty of just such an intellectual sin far more often that I would like to admit.  To see it in C. S. Lewis, it is a clear and present reminder that, for all his considerable brain and potent imagination, he was as “real” as you or I.

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The final significant point of explanation C. S. Lewis offers in Surprised by Joy concerning his path away from faith and into unbelief is related to the pessimism I discussed in my post on Tuesday.  Jack’s father, Albert, had been in the habit, as perhaps many working men are, of repeatedly lamenting the hardness of the world and the difficulty of making ends meet.  It had reinforced Jack’s own pessimistic outlook and encouraged him to think of life as “an unremitting struggle in which the best I could hope for was to avoid the workhouse by extreme exertion” (64).  Even while at Cherbourg, Jack had already boiled all of life down to unavoidable drudgery.  As he said he described it to a friend, all they had to look forward to was “Term, holidays, term, holidays, till we leave school, and then work, work, work till we all die” (65).

Albert Lewis, Father of C. S. Lewis

Lewis later saw the same strand of laughable unreality in all this that he also saw in his general pessimism.  His father was quite comfortably and securely well off, especially by “our present tax-ridden standards” (64).  Really, he had no more business complaining about the difficulty of the universe than Jack did about the existence of Eton collars.

Of course, it’s easy to lose focus on the objective reality of what’s really going on around us when we’re submerged in the day-to-day grind of even generally enjoyable work.  That is especially true if that work begins to take on unreasonable proportions.  It devours your time, drains you, and leaves you feeling as if you have the weight of a very unfair world on your shoulders, particularly when it may seem that you have no recourse for relief.  I know I catch myself snapping unexpectedly at my family due to the stress I have had to deal with at work over the past year.  Even when I’m not being snippy, I find that I want to talk about the problems I face ad nauseum, because there is something in me that wants everyone to understand my plight and to sympathize.  Of course, I’m not so benighted as to think that there aren’t people out there who have it far worse than I, but it doesn’t always lessen my own particular burden to know that someone else’s is heavier.

We also have a tendency to overstate points to our children–I know I do.  We are so concerned that a stranger might kidnap Little Susie that we instill a pathological fear of all strangers in them when they are young.  (Not that it’s a bad thing…)  I suspect that at least some of Albert’s colorful descriptions of “real” life probably had their origins in a similar, kindly-meant motive.

Whatever the case, it is a reminder to me to take more care about what I say in front of children.  From Albert’s perspective, it was probably just a small thing–some complaining about work and a few strong words about the value of work–but it contributed to the complete loss of his son’s faith.  It prepared the ground for Jack’s pessimism, and his pessimism laid him open for what Jack himself calls atheism’s strongest siren song:  The “Argument from Undesign.”  He thought Lucretius put it well.

Nequaquam nobis divinitus esse paratm
Naturam rerum; tanta stat praedita culpa
Had God designed the world, it would not be
A world so frail and faulty as we see. (65)

And so, Jack Lewis, feeling that he had never truly met God in all of his forcibly manufactured prayers and certain that no good God could exist in such a universe, melted into a warm, contradictory haze of atheism, “dropping [his] faith with no sense of loss but with the greatest relief” (66).

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The Inklings (the writers group that meets at our house, patterned after the original) are incoming tomorrow night for the sixth annual “Dessert for Dinner” episode.  Presuming I survive the sugar and caffeine fueled antics, I’ll try to blog a little tomorrow too.  After that, I’ll see everyone again on Monday.


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Tonight’s examination of the next factor in C. S. Lewis’ original falling away from the faith will be relatively short, for the simple reason that there really isn’t much to say about it–legitimately, at least.  So, I’ll have to clam up after the explanation part of the discussion.  It has to do with Jack’s pessimistic outlook and how he came about acquiring it.  It is covered on pages 63-64 of Surprised by Joy.

Lewis notes that already at the ripe age of thirteen or fourteen, he had become convinced that the world was predisposed to making things difficult for its inhabitants, and that his pessimism was “much more of intellect than of temper.”  In short, he had difficulty believing that there was any significant power in the universe that wished anyone any good.  He had trouble communicating the idea, as it appeared to him ridiculous as he looked back on it, but at the time it was quite weighty glory.  For all his apologizing, I think his approximation quite good:

Perhaps I had better call it a settled expectation that everything would do what you did not want it to do.  Whatever you wanted to remain straight, would bend; whatever you tried to bend would fly back to the straight; all knots which you wished to be firm would come untied; all knots you wanted to untie would remain firm.

And that line of thinking, of course, would make Christianity seem more absurd by the day.  What hope had a negative universe of producing a positive savior or of sustaining a loving God?

The point of his life that he had reached with the writing of Surprised by Joy had given him some perspective, and there is a notable tone of embarrassment to his explanation.  After all, he is explaining why a boy, well-fed, well-provided for by his father, living at a good school that gave him many advantages, could look around at the universe and complain that it was being “unfair.”  Certainly the Eton collars they all had to wear were something to complain about (he did so, after all, by implication in the opening to The Magician’s Nephew), but there was nothing particularly significant in that.  All Jack could do in Surprised by Joy was apologize and insist that the feelings were, in some manner, very real and very effective in changing his outlook on his faith.

In this section Jack describes two factors that he thinks led him toward such a pessimistic view of life.  First, and perhaps most obviously, there was the loss of his mother at such an early age.  She had loved and provided for him, and her loss shattered his world, removing the supports he had expected to last forever.  Even before than that, though, he references his problems with his thumbs that made him clumsy as both a child and an adult.  It added another layer of difficulty to everything he tried, and, it may be that contributed to an expectation that everything must be out to get him.

All of that, of course, sounds perfectly reasonable.  And there, for now, at least, I think I must leave that point.  The historian in me constrains further wanton speculation for the simple reason that this is an entirely internal matter, entirely inside Jack’s own head.  It isn’t even a larger question of abstract truth–he isn’t arguing that he had proof for his pessimism, only that he felt it.  Therefore, the only evidence we can rely on is Lewis’s own explanations.  Anything more is simply uncalled for.  We should make no claims to know a man better than he knows himself, especially when so much time has passed.

As I progress, I can come back to this as new data becomes available–I can weigh Jack’s own words against one another; I can weigh his words against his actions; I cannot allow myself to weigh Jack against my own biases or against what I would have wanted him to be.

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” –Sherlock Holmes, “A Scandal in Bohemia.”

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