C. S. Lewis: Provocative, Poignant & Profound Words

C S Lewis

“I envy you not having to think any more about Christian apologetics. My correspondents force the subject on me again and again. It is very wearing, and not v. good for oneʼs own faith. A Christian doctrine never seems less real to me than when I have just (even if successfully) been defending it. It is particularly tormenting when those who were converted by my books begin to relapse and raise new difficulties.” C. S. Lewis to Mary Van Deusen, June 18, 1956 [1]

“One of the things Christians are disagreed about is the importance of their disagreements. When two Christians of different denominations start arguing, it is usually not long before one asks whether such-and-such a point ‘really matters’ and the other replies: ‘Matter? Why, itʼs absolutely essential.’” C. S. Lewis, Preface to Mere Christianity

To Mary Willis Shelburne, April 26, 1956: “Of course we have all been taught what to do with suffering — offer it in Christ to God as our little, little share of Christʼs sufferings — but it is so hard to do. I am afraid I can better imagine, than really enter into, this. I suppose that if one loves a person enough one would actually wish to share every part of his life: and I suppose the great saints thus really want to share every part of his life: and I suppose the great saints thus really want to share the divine sufferings and that is how they can actually desire pain. But this is far beyond me. To grin and bear it and (in some feeble, desperate way) to trust is the utmost most of us can manage. One tries to take a lesson not only from the saints but from the beasts: how well a sick dog trusts one if one has to do things that hurt it! And this, I know, in some measure you will be able to do.” [2]

To John Beversluis, July 3, 1963 (the year of C. S. Lewisʼ death): “The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘so thereʼs no God after all,’ but, ‘So this is what God is really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’”[3] Only four months before his death, Lewis wrote in a letter to an American philosopher that there were dangers in judging God by moral standards. However, he maintained that “believing in a God whom we cannot but regard as evil, and then, in mere terrified flattery calling Him ‘good’ and worshipping Him, is still greater danger.”[4]

Lewis was responding specifically to the question of Joshuaʼs slaughter of the Canaanites by divine decree and Peterʼs striking Ananias and Sapphira dead.

Knowing that the evangelical doctrine of the Bibleʼs infallibility required him to approve of “the atrocities (and treacheries) of Joshua,” Lewis made this surprising concession: “The ultimate question is whether the doctrine of the goodness of God or that of the inerrancy of Scriptures is to prevail when they conflict. I think the doctrine of the goodness of God is the more certain of the two indeed, only that doctrine renders this worship of Him obligatory or even permissible.” [5]

“To this some will reply ‘ah, but we are fallen and donʼt recognize good when we see it.’ But God Himself does not say that we are as fallen at all that. He constantly, in Scripture, appeals to our conscience: ‘Why do ye not of yourselves judge what is right?’ — ‘What fault hath my people found in me?’ And so on. Socratesʼ answer to Euthyphro is used in Christian form by Hooker. Things are not good because God commands them; God commands certain things because he sees them to be good. (In other words, the Divine Will is the obedient servant to the Divine Reason.) The opposite view (Ockhamʼs, Paleyʼs) leads to an absurdity. If ‘good’ means ‘what God wills’ then to say ‘God is good’ can mean only ‘God wills what he wills.’ Which is equally true of you or me or Judas or Satan.” [6]

To Dom Bede Griffiths, Dec. 20, 1961: “Even more disturbing as you say, is the ghastly record of Christian persecution. It had begun in Our Lordʼs time - ‘Ye know not what spirit ye are of’ (John of all people!)[7] I think we must fully face the fact that when Christianity does not make a man very much better, it makes him very much worse…Conversion may make of one who was, if no better, no worse than an animal, something like a devil.”[8]

Notes

  1. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume III, p. 762.
  2. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume III, p. 743.
  3. C.S. Lewis, A grief Observed (New York: Seabury Press, 1963), pp 9-10.
  4. Letter quoted in full in John Beversluis, C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), pp. 156 f.
  5. Ibid., p. 157. Emphsis added.
  6. Cited in ibid., p 157.
  7. In the “Gospel of John,” Jesusʼ enemies are depicted more than sixty times as simply, “The Jews.” Jesusʼ concern for Israel as seen in the Gospel of Matthew (10:5-6 & 15:24) is absent from the Jesus who appears in the Gospel of John (5:45-47 & 8:31-47). The Gospel John, having been written after previous Gospels may reflect the growing breakdown of relations between the early Christian church and the Jewish synagog.
  8. The Letters of C. S. Lewis, ed., W. H. Lewis, (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1966), p. 301.

Additional Statements

From The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume III

1960

To Mary Willis Shelburne, March 26, p 1141: “Things are not, or not much, worse with us, but life is very terrible. I sometimes feel I am mad to be taking Joy [Lewisʼs wife, suffering from cancer] to Greece in her present condition, but her heart is set upon it. They give the condemned man what he likes for his last breakfast, I am told.”

To Mary Willis Shelburne, April 19, p 1147: “We did get to Greece, and it was a wonderful success. Joy performed prodigies, climbing to the top of the Acropolis and getting as far as the Lion gate of Mycenae. She has (no wonder) come back v. exhausted and full of aches. But I wd. not have had her denied it… She was absolutely enraptured by what she saw.”

“I canʼt begin to describe Greece. Attica is hauntingly beautiful and Rhodes is an earthly paradise — all orange and lemon orchards and wild flowers and vines and olives, and the mountains of Asia on the horizon. And lovely, cheap wines. Iʼve eaten squid and octopus!”

To Chad Walsh, May 23, p 1154: “I had some ado to prevent Joy (and myself) from relapsing into Paganism in Attica! At Daphni it was hard not to pray to Apollo the Healer. But somehow one didnʼt feel it wd. have been very wrong — wd. have only been addressing Christ sub specie Apollinis.”

To the Rev. Peter Bide, July 14, p 1169: “Joy died at 10 oʼclock last night in the Radcliffe… Iʼd like to meet. Perhaps I cd. come up to town some day when you are in town and take you to lunch at the Athenaeum. For I am — oh God that I were not — very free now. One doesnʼt realise in early life that the price of freedom is loneliness. To be happy one must be tied. God bless all three of us.”

A note on p 1182 refers to Lewisʼs writing about his grieving process in letters after Joyʼs death in July, and also his undertaking almost immediately to write A Grief Observed, his journal of the grieving process. Writes editor Hooper: “he followed the advice he had given Arthur Greeves many years ago: ‘Start writing: ink is the great cure for all human ills.’”

To Mary Willis Shelburne, September 24, p 1188, “As to how I take sorrow, the answer is ‘In nearly all the possible ways.’ Because, as you probably know, it isnʼt a state but a process. It keeps on changing — like a winding road with quite a new landscape at each bend. Two curious discoveries I have made. The moments at which you call most desperately and clamorously to God for help are precisely those when you seem to get none. And the moments at which I feel nearest to Joy are precisely those when I mourn her least. Very queer. In both cases a clamorous need seems to shut one off from the thing needed. No one ever told me this. It is almost like ‘Donʼt knock and it shall be opened to you.’ I must think it over.”

To Robin Anstey, November 2, p 1206: “S.F. [science fiction] — however bad most of it is — is now the chief vehicle for ‘thoughts that wander up and down eternity.’ How trivial, by comparison, are most of the issues presented by our ‘serious’ novelists!”

To Meredith Lee, December 6, p 1213: “Why did I become a writer? Chiefly, I think, because my clumsiness of fingers prevented me from making things in any other way. See my Surprised by Joy, chapter 1.”

Same, p 1214: “I have, as usual, dozens of ‘plans’ for books, but I donʼt know which, if any, of these will come off. Very often a book of mine gets written when Iʼm tidying a drawer and come across notes for a plan rejected by me years ago, and now suddenly realise I can do it after all. This, you see, makes predictions rather difficult!”

Same: “I enjoy writing fiction more than writing anything else. Wouldnʼt anyone?”

1961

To Mary Van Deusen, February 13, p 1238, refers to French existentialist novelist Sartre “as an artist in French prose [who] has a sort of wintry grandeur which partly explains his immense influence.”

1962

To Mary Van Deusen, June 10, p 1349: “My friend Charles Williams had a high opinion of Kierkegaard and on that ground I am ready to believe there must be a lot in him. But I could not find it myself. Perhaps I did not give him a long enough trial. I may yet give him another. I have in my time had to change my opinion about a good many authors!“

To Edward A. Allen, December 10, p 1389: “I discovered only the other day that Christmas presents had begun in the time of St. Augustine, and he called them ‘diabolical’ because they originated not in Christmas but in the Pagan Saturnalia. Diabolical is a bit strong: perhaps ‘a darn nuisance’ wd. be more accurate.” Or…bah humbug?

To Mary Willis Shelburne, October 26, p 1376: “I am sorry to hear of the little dogʼs death. The animal creation is a strange mystery. We can make some attempt to understand human suffering: but the sufferings of animals from the beginning of the world till now (inflicted not only by us but by one another) — what is one to think? And again, how strange that God brings us into such intimate relations with creatures of whose real purpose and destiny we remain forever ignorant. We know to some degree what angels and men are for. But what is a flea for, or a wild dog? What you say about the VII Day Adventists interests me extremely. If they have so much charity there must be something very right about them.”

1963

To Joan Lancaster, July 11, p 1440: “Zoroastrianism is one of the finest of the Pagan religions. Do you depend entirely on Nietzsche for your idea of it? I expect you wd. find it well worth time to look at the old sources.”

To Mary Van Deusen, November 16, p 1480: “There are times when I wonder if the invention of the internal combustion engine was not an even greater disaster than that of the hydrogen bomb!”

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