Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Uplifting Reading

As clichéd as it sounds, I want to say today that I enjoy reading C. S. Lewis as much as I do because he lifts me up. The more I think about it, the more fitting I find the phrase “lifts me up”: his writing lifts me up in so many different ways. I have to begin with my college days, when I spent a lot of time with many Christians who not only were of no more than moderate intelligence, a situation they couldn’t help, but believed intelligence worked against Christian faith. They were suspicious of me with my books and my “long” words, so naturally I doubted myself and worried about my state of grace. But then there were times when I would open up a Lewis book and read just one page and say to myself, “They’re wrong and I’m right: you can be smart and be a Christian.” It isn’t too much to say that I sometimes felt as if this dead author were my only friend. (Of course, I know now of scores of intelligent Christian writers from throughout history, but the Zondervan bookstore didn’t have Aquinas and Pascal on their shelves, so I didn’t know about them.)

Then Lewis is uplifting in that he teaches me. I’ve learned about medieval literature from him, and about Renaissance allegory. He’s taught me vocabulary and theological arguments and the ways of British public schools in the first part of the last century. He taught me about Ariosto in a remark that started this whole reading project. But even before the content comes off the page, he lifts my mind by expecting me to be an intelligent reader. Even in his Narnia books he writes with the assumption that the children who read them (as well as the adults!) have the capability to think and in fact will think about what they read. He speaks to me as if poetry matters, and so naturally it does matter. He writes as if every aspect of life and culture should be scrutinized, every pleasure acknowledged, every peccadillo confessed, and so of course I start to pay more attention to the details of life.

The final essays and addresses from The Weight of Glory demonstrate this uplifting tendency as well as anything he wrote. In “Is Theology Poetry?” Lewis attempts to answer a question posed to him without really knowing what the question means; his solution is to answer every meaning he can think of. His response to what he considers the most likely intended meaning, “Do you believe in God merely because the story is attractive?” is somewhat surprising: that can’t possibly be true, he argues, because so many pagan theologies and mythologies are so much more aesthetically pleasing. Once again he has me thinking in new ways, in this instance thinking about Christianity as aesthetic object. (I can’t agree with his conclusion at this time of year: the infant incarnate God lying among farm animals with a star shining above Him and kings bowing to Him is the most beautiful picture from any theology I know.)

The same address gives a short account of his conversion from scientific naturalism to Christianity, complete with shortened forms of his “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic” argument (he doesn’t consider the Liar option in this version) and his “The Problem with Naturalism” argument. This latter argument, which he explores more fully in Miracles, says basically that if every phenomenon has a natural, deterministic cause, then the reasoning process that leads to that conclusion cannot be based on nonmaterial laws of logic and therefore has no support. The roof declares that walls don’t exist. Lewis compares the mental disconnect to the absurdity of dreams, and says that becoming a Christian was like waking up. He ends the essay with these penetrating words:
I am certain that in passing from the scientific point of view to the theological, I have passed from dream to waking. Christian theology can fit in science, art, morality, and the sub-Christian religions. The scientific point of view cannot fit in any of these things, not even science itself. I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.
In “The Inner Circle,” Lewis gives some old-fashioned moral advice to college students: Don’t bother trying to enter the Inner Circle when you are employed. If you will do your work honestly, you will find yourself admired by the only circle that matters in your profession. In “On Forgiveness,” he points out that forgiving does not mean making excuses. In “A Slip of the Tongue” Lewis warns his readers not to dabble with the spiritual life when God wants us, not a certain number of minutes of our time devoted to spiritual things."Failures will be forgiven; it is acquiescence that is fatal." What could be more uplifting? Combined, these messages say that even the humblest of us can lead divine lives: every moment of the day, every casual remark, every mundane task, every honest day’s work can be sacred if enacted in service to God. In “Membership,” he describes the goal of this divine life on earth. Christianity, he says, is neither a matter for individuals nor for collectives. We are called to be members of a living Church, each with a unique task. It’s not that God finds out what I’m good at and then finds a place for me in the organism: the position existed for eternity, and God created me to fill that position and perform its function. As a result, he says, we shall each find our true personality by finding our place in the Church. I’d call that beautiful theology.

1 comment:

  1. "and so of course I start to pay more attention to the details."

    I agree completely. I fall in love with every word because he's so great at this evaluation of everything. It's part of why I love to read his books over again so much...there's just too much there to absorb it all the first time.