However, Daniel Harrell will continue to post here on occasion and at www.danielharrell.com
Church Fathers Starting with the Letter L: CS Lewis
by Daniel Harrell
This morning concludes this year’s installment of my alphabetical Church Fathers sermon series, this summer starting with the Letter L. You’ll remember that to be a Church Father technically means you lived during the first five centuries of Christianity, but clearly I overstep that boundary. My rationale (and annual running joke) for doing so has been that, for American Protestants at least, our sense of church history only stretches back as far as CS Lewis anyway. How apropos, therefore, that arriving at Letter L we finally arrive at Lewis, on the heels of Pope Leo the Great and Martin Luther. Most contemporary Christians have enjoyed a CS Lewis encounter—he crosses all denominations. Perhaps it was a fascination with the Chronicles of Narnia as a child, an engagement with the apologetics of Mere Christianity or The Problem of Pain during college, maybe the sci-fi fantasy of his Space Trilogy, the cleverness of The Screwtape Letters, or his insights into mythology and renaissance literature expressed in essays, letters or Lewis’ own favorite work, Til We Have Faces. Despite having enjoyed little critical acclaim—especially when compared to his good friend JRR Tolkien—the popularity of Lewis continues unabated.
Lewis is so popular in fact, that some regard his authority as almost on par with Scripture itself. For instance, many believers disturbed over author Rob Bell’s recent musings over heaven and hell were quickly assuaged once they discovered Bell got a lot of his ideas from CS Lewis’ The Great Divorce. My personal favorite is A Grief Observed which Lewis wrote following the heartbreaking death of his wife, American Joy Gresham, to whom he had been married just a few years before cancer took her. The book has helped me through the tragedies of my own life. Asking after the presence of God, as people often do in the aftermath of catastrophic loss, Lewis wrote “I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.” Lewis initially published this book under a pseudonym. Caring friends, unaware of this, gave it to him to guide him through his own grief.
Born in Belfast in 1898, Clive Stapes Lewis was known throughout his life as Jack—a name he insisted he be called at age four in memory of his dog Jacksie. Lewis possessed a rich childhood imagination, which he carried into adulthood, insisting that without it, you can’t fully understand the world. For Lewis, meaning is conveyed most powerfully through story—through the great and not-so-great narratives of history retold over and over again. Our almost four-year-old daughter Violet is currently in a phase where everyday is a recreated, detailed story involving her, our cat Briscoe and her toy bunny. They live atop hedges, scale mountains, fly airplanes and eat magic ice cream that transforms them into the color of the flavor they choose, all of which helps Violet make sense of her world. (Either that or her parents are so boring she has to jazz things up a little.) Lewis wrote, “A child is always thinking about those details in a story which a grown-up regards as indifferent. If when you first told the tale your hero was warned by three little men appearing on the left of the road, and when you tell it again you introduce one little man on the right of the road, the child protests. And the child is right. You think it makes no difference because you are not living in the story at all. If you were, you would know better.”
Lewis won a college scholarship to Oxford, which took him to England in 1916. The culture shock he experienced there was significant. “The strange English accents with which I was surrounded seemed like the voices of demons,” he said. Lewis fought and was wounded in World War I, and in the trenches made a pact with a fellow soldier to care for the other’s family should either be killed. Lewis alone survived and kept his promise. He’d given up on church at an early age—“very angry at God for not existing” he said—but once he returned to Oxford as a professor, he befriended the devoutly Catholic JRR Tolkien. Tolkien eventually coaxed Lewis back to belief, though not as far as to his own Roman Catholicism. Lewis stuck with the Church of England instead, despite his misgivings about the English. In time he became the first Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at the University of Cambridge, from whence he subsequently professed that there was no such thing as an English Renaissance.
Lewis had a lot to say about almost everything, his prolificacy was the fruit of his bounteous imagination and his many fascinations: from anthropomorphic animals to the stars in the sky. Lewis was a keen amateur astronomer who kept a telescope on the balcony of his bedroom. According to Michael Ward, a Cambridge University Chaplain and author of Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis, Lewis’ favorite object in the night sky was the planet Jupiter. According to medieval cosmology, Jupiter was the ‘best planet,’ Fortuna Major. Lewis used to tell his university lecture audiences, “Those born under Jupiter are apt to be loud-voiced and red-faced.” He would then pause before adding, “It is obvious under which planet I was born.”
Lewis lectured on medieval cosmology because he thought that familiarity with the pre-Copernican cosmos was essential to a proper understanding of medieval and renaissance literature: he repeatedly encouraged his students and readers to take a stroll under the sky at night. Looking up at the heavens for moderns, he argued, is a very different experience from what it was in the Middle Ages. These days we sense that we are looking out into a trackless emptiness, a pitch-black and dead-cold space—which is what we call it: space. In the Middle Ages, we would have felt as if we were looking into a vast, lighted concavity, a dome of wondrous luminosity and even love.
“We are inveterate poets,” Lewis wrote. “When a quantity is very great we cease to regard it as a mere quantity. Our imaginations awake. Instead of mere quantity, we now have a quality—the Sublime… Men of sensibility look up to on the night sky with awe: brutal and stupid men do not. When the silence of the eternal spaces terrified Pascal, it was Pascal’s own greatness that enabled them to do so; to be frightened by the bigness of the nebulae is, almost literally, to be frightened by our own shadow. For light years and geological periods are mere arithmetic until the shadow of man, the poet, the maker of myths, falls upon them. As a Christian, I do not say we are wrong to tremble at the shadow, for I believe it to be the shadow of an image of God. But if the vastness of Nature ever threatens to overthrow our spirits, we must remember that it is only Nature spiritualized by human imagination which does so.”
Our text for this morning is the familiar Christmas story about the star of Bethlehem. We read the passage every Christmas, but rarely go out in the winter night to look for traces of that star. Granted, the cold might have something to do with that, but not so for C.S. Lewis. To a friend he once confided how beautiful it was “on two or three successive nights about the Holy Time, to see Venus and Jupiter blazing at one another, once with the Moon right between them: Majesty and Love linked by Virginity—what could be more appropriate?”
Michael Ward goes on to note how Lewis’ delight in this old picture of the heavens (as opposed to space) was not confined to his professional life as a literary historian; he had a much more personal investment in it too. In The Turn of the Tide, a meditation upon the cosmic significance of Christ's Nativity, Lewis wrote how the entire universe waits in breathless expectancy about the coming event in Bethlehem—from the lowly cattle all the way up to Saturn in the outermost planetary sphere. When Christ is finally born:
Saturn laughed and lost his latter age’s frost,
His beard, Niagara-like, unfroze;
Monsters in the Sun rejoiced; the Inconstant One,
The unwedded Moon, forgot her woes.
A shiver of re-birth and deliverance on the Earth
went gliding. Her bonds were released…
So death lay in arrest. But at Bethlehem the bless'd
Nothing greater could be heard
Than a dry wind in the thorn, the cry of the One new-born,
And cattle in stall as they stirred.
Since the Copernican revolution, with earth no longer the center of things, the heavenly bodies had been steadily evacuated of spiritual significance until they were regarded as no more than large aggregations of rock or gas. Narnia readers may recall an exchange in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader during which Eustace is rebuked by Ramandu for claiming that “In our world a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.” Ramandu replies, “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.” Lewis wrote his Space Trilogy largely to rehabilitate (imaginatively, not scientifically, that is) this traditional view. For what purpose? For the purpose of meaning. Lewis considered the cosmos to be more than merely material. For him the pre-Copernican model was, in a sense, more Christian than the Newtonian or Einsteinian versions which succeeded it because it provided a spiritual reading of materiality.
Historically, religious faith, particularly Christianity, was the loom onto which the discoveries of science were woven. It was within a Christian theological framework that scientific disclosure found its transcendent meaning. Ironically, Copernicus and Newton were devout believers and saw their work not as replacements for faith, but as extensions of it. Even Einstein gave credence to some sort of divine will at work. The idea was that the best of science and the best of theology concerted to give human beings deeper insight into the character of the universe and, subsequently, into the divine character himself. Scientific discovery was received with gratitude to the Almighty for the wonder of his creation. Scientists, alongside the psalmist, would proclaim, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”
This former balance between faith and science (or reason) was struck in the Middle Ages by Thomas Aquinas, who building on Augustine, established a delicate equilibrium between theology (reasoning down from faith) and philosophy, or science (reasoning up from sensory data). Aquinas, unlike the Reformers who followed, taught that human senses and rational faculties, created by God, were competent for understanding reality, albeit from a limited viewpoint. The limits were filled in by theology. Aquinas asserted that God acted through “secondary causes,” creating the world according to his laws and then giving nature room to unfold within.
However, if God operated mostly behind the scenes as the prime cause, then it wasn’t long before thinkers started wondering whether he was there at all. In time, reliance upon divine revelation gave way to human reason in its Enlightenment form, and soon after the supernatural was rendered superfluous. Nature, reduced down to its material properties, became disenchanted. Ward writes that “The world was emptied, first of her indwelling spirits, then of her occult sympathies and antipathies, finally of her colors, smells, and tastes. Man with his new scientific powers became rich like Midas but all that he touched had gone dead and cold.” This process, slowly working, siphoned away the old imaginations, much to Lewis’ dismay.
To him, modern scientists were too naturalistic in their worldview, and thus liable to the error of removing their own minds and predilections from the big picture for the sake of a presumed objectivity. They failed to realize that imagination is required in order for the world be fully known. They needed was not only larger and better telescopes, but minds increasingly aware of their own creativity. Failure of imagination de-spiritualizes the universe, Lewis believed; a fallacy of first order because the rational mind is itself spiritual and dependent upon that animating energy that saturates the entire universe—an energy which, in turn, depends upon God himself. Lewis described a universe perceived within a solely naturalistic framework to be “all fact and no meaning.”
In recent years my own interest in the interplay between science and faith has allowed me the privilege to rub shoulders with some prominent scientists for whom faith has filled out their own comprehension of reality. Francis Collins, the imminent geneticist and now Director of the NIH, attributes CS Lewis with converting his own atheism into belief, convincing Collins that the microscopic world of organic life is not random and meaningless, but infused with significance and divine beauty. At the other end of the spectrum, astrophysicist Jennifer Wiseman, Chief of the ExoPlanets and Stellar Astrophysics Laboratory at NASA (and on tap to be our next Guelich Lecturer in 2013), argues for cosmological discovery as an instrument of worship. In the spirit of Lewis, she asserts that understanding the stars grants us a profoundly expanded view of Jesus Christ as Lord; that he is Lord of all space and time—over billions of galaxies and billions of years.
For CS Lewis, mere data could not be the determinant of the real world because the real world was a matter of data and imagination, a matter of matter and meaning—and analogically, matter and spirit. The spirit is the logos, the word who is Christ, in whom Scripture teaches “all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
However, Lewis’ goal was not to lead an observer from the cosmos to Christ. His goal was first to get them from the cosmos back into their own heads. He wrote, “The discrepancy between a movement of atoms in an astronomer’s cortex and his understanding that there must be a still unobserved planet beyond Uranus, is already so immense that the Incarnation of God Himself is, in one sense, scarcely more startling.” For Lewis, the link between mind and matter forged by human reasoning reflects the link forged between God and Man in Jesus; a link brought to light under the Star of Bethlehem, a star which was a huge ball of flaming gas—but so much more besides.
Lewis died at age 64, having refused to give the devil enough time to do as his senior demon Screwtape (likely English) instructed his apprentice Wormwood in The Screwtape Letters. Advocating for long life, Screwtape said: “seventy years is not a day too much for the difficult task of unraveling human souls from Heaven and building up firm attachment to earth.” Lewis died firmly unattached to earth—and so he remains. “It is safe to tell the pure in heart that they shall see God,” he said, “because only the pure in heart want to.”