FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 12/03/2013
Faith +Ideas= an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College
By David Aiken
November 22 marks the fiftieth anniversary of C. S. Lewis’s death. For many readers of this renowned literary figure and Christian thinker, the occasion will be celebrated with gratitude for his enduring achievements.
For others, particularly younger readers, Lewis will be remembered, if at all, as the author of those charming children’s stories, The Chronicles of Narnia. Prospective readers may find that the cultural distance between them and a classically-educated Ulsterman in Edwardian England simply looms too large for a just appreciation of his achievement. Why bother with a writer whose works are laced with allusions of ancient Greek and Roman literature, Medieval philosophy and theology, and a host of modern poets and novelists unfamiliar to 21st Century Americans? Why bother with a writer whose cultural biases have become increasingly, and glaringly, evident over five decades?
Though I have no doubt Narnia will continue to enchant readers, it isn’t clear that Lewis’s thornier philosophical works (Miracles; The Abolition of Man), much less his highly specialized literary scholarship (The Allegory of Love; The Discarded Image), will win new, or devoted, readers in our increasingly impatient age. Still, I believe several aspects of Lewis’s achievement are likely to endure through the “changes and chances” of our human condition.
Obviously, we should read Lewis simply because he was a terrific writer. Though hardly a literary genius (like Dante or Dostoevsky), Lewis was a gifted essayist and storyteller. His writing, for all its intellectual vigor, engages the senses while informing the mind. His capacious imagination gives sinew and substance not only to fictional narrative, but to his scholarly work. Whether writing essays for a popular or specialist audience, Lewis was a consummate stylist. His prose is accessibly human in what might otherwise seem bloodless theological abstractions.
This brings me to a more important reason to rescue Lewis from the status of potentially dated figure. Not only did he use his literary talents with a singular virtuosity, he rehabilitated the imagination as a vehicle for embodying transcendent truth, setting him apart as a Christian thinker.
Consider, for instance, how St. Augustine, the pre-eminent Church Father, set the agenda for devaluing the imagination by offering a scathing critique of pagan literature. He denounced Greek and Latin myths as inherently immoral and unworthy of serious study, and rejected the truth-worthiness of the literary imagination because he believed it misrepresented reality. Following Plato, Augustine argued that images derived from our senses weren’t enough to portray realities that exist beyond time, space and matter.
Lewis rightly rejected this platonic line of reasoning. He proposed instead that if there is a God who created the material world, endowed us with organs of sense, and made it possible for us to re-envision our world in poetry or fictional narrative, then there’s no reason to suppose that our imagination is, well, bad.
Literary history, thankfully, confirms this: Dante, Milton, Gerard Manley Hopkins and others showed how the literary imagination can point to a transcendent reality. Lewis went further, however, by proposing even those “immoral” pagan poets (Ovid, Virgil), so despised by Augustine, are worth studying for the insights they offer into human and divine reality.
By recovering the imagination as an avenue for reflecting the glory of God, Lewis renewed our longing for eternal life and reinvigorated the virtue of hope. And given our modern penchant for reductionism and skepticism, Lewis’s call for such theologically exercised imagination constitutes perhaps the most important reason for keeping his legacy alive.
Lewis affirmed, after all, that humans are endowed with a natural desire for fulfillment that surpasses the highest earthly happiness. If this deeper yearning of the human spirit is indeed innate and universal, then, Lewis argues, it’s unreasonable to deny that the conditions for its fulfillment exist.
In other words, this “otherworldly hope” represents the fullness of every positive reality we know: love, peace, contentment, creative activity, friendship, aesthetic beauty, etc. Intimations of this life are found in fleeting moments of joy, or in longings evoked by natural or artistic beauty.
Perhaps it’s more appropriate to view Lewis’s heavenly life as a kind of eternal play—a great dance, to cite his metaphor—rather than, as the Requiem Mass (and all manner of funeral services) would have it, as “eternal rest.” Just as dancing requires bodies, so also heaven’s play must not be viewed as a ghostly minuet of discarnate minds. What we long for in our heart of hearts is not simply a deeper union with our Maker, but the full restoration of our being.
So, our inherent desire for eternal life demands not just the perfection of our intellects, but also the fulfillment of our sensuous and imaginative natures. And for this reason, Lewis’s great achievement as a writer was not merely constructing arguments for Christian truth; he also provided literary images that help us imagine what may be in store for us if we remain faithful to our calling as divine image-bearers.
That, in and of itself, is still worth the read.
David Aiken is professor of philosophy at Gordon College in Wenham, MA. He and his family live in Beverly, MA.