In the Autumn of 1988 I found myself as an Anglican priest in the enjoyable post of chaplain to Kings College Choir School in Cambridge. I taught religion in the school and helped to monitor the choristers who sang in the most superb choir in the world. One of my tasks was to walk with the boys from the school across the “backs” and over the river Cam to their daily choir rehearsal in the famous chapel at Kings before Evensong.
One afternoon I was sitting in my room reading an essay by C.S. Lewis called “A Rejoinder to Dr Pittenger”. Norman Pittenger was an Anglican theologian famous for being a proponent of “process theology”. Process theology is an outgrowth of the “process philosophy” of Alfred North Whitehead. It’s central concept is that God is more “becoming than being”—that God is relational and evolves as the world and history changes. A couple of Whitehead’s aphorisms sum it up: “It is as true to say that God transcends the World, as that the World transcends God.” or “It is as true to say that God creates the World, as that the World creates God.”
Pittenger had picked a fight with Lewis in 1958 in the pages of The Christian Century and Lewis responded with his usual wit and erudition. As I was reading the essay in one of the collections of Lewis’ essays edited by Walter Hooper the time came for me to take the boys to their rehearsal, and after dropping them at the choir room door I wandered around the famous chapel killing time and soaking up the atmosphere.
By and by a bulky old man leaning on a cane came up and engaged me in conversation. He heard my American accent and said he was American too. His friendliness made me feel strangely uncomfortable. I was in my late twenties and I sensed that the old man’s interest in me had a sexual undercurrent. He asked me what brought me to England. I smiled and said, “Oh you know, the work of T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis.”
He nodded, “I knew them both.” Then his face clouded and he said, “Eliot was a genius, but that Lewis should never have strayed from his own discipline of literature.” He asked my name and then shook my hand and said, “I’m Norman Pittenger.” I smiled with a polite response and made my escape.
After Evensong I walked the boys back to school, had dinner and picked up the book to continue reading Lewis’ essay. Only then did I make the connection. “A Rejoinder to Dr Pittenger.” I read. “Dr. Norman Pittenger. That’s the same guy!’ I gasped. C.S. Lewis had been dead for twenty five years by that time, and I had forgotten that people who knew him were still living. I had no idea that Pittenger had retired to Kings College, Cambridge in 1966 and was still there as an old man in 1988.
As I continued to read Lewis’ essay the poignancy of providence hit home. Old Norman Pittenger was a pitiful figure in old age. I learned later that my un ease at his friendliness was well justified. Along with process theology Pittenger was openly homosexual and one of the first defenders of homosexuality in the Anglican church.
Lewis, on the other hand, had died in 1963 and Walter Hooper recounts that in his final months Lewis was sad because he was poor and had little to leave for the care of his stepsons and his brother Warnie. Lewis was convinced his books would go out of print and Warnie and the boys would have nothing to live on. When Lewis died Pittenger was at the height of his fame. Lewis’ rejoinder to Pittenger was not only to skewer his opponent intellectually, but his posthumous popularity increased almost in direct proportion to the decline of Pittenger’s fortunes. Thus Pittinger lived long enough to see Lewis’ reputation continue to soar, the sales of his books reaching a younger and younger worldwide audience. He saw plays and feature films made of Lewis’ romance with Joy Davidman, and stage plays and television adaptations of Lewis’ Narnia books.
I never got to know Norman Pittenger more than that chance co-incidental meeting. What interested me more was that while Pittenger had lived long enough to see the ascendancy of Lewis he also survived to see the process theology which made him famous decline in appeal until it was not much more than a theological footnote. Pittenger finally died in 1997 at the age of 92. He kept writing books well into his old age, but his friends would tease, “What is the book called this time Norman?” I hope his final days were not as sad and lonely as they seemed to be. His personal life and reputation are not, in the end, for me to judge.
What has struck me since that meeting was another strange co-inherence. Lewis used to like quoting Dean Inge, “He who marries the spirit of the age will soon find himself a widower.” Process theology was an ephemeral, faddish theology not only drafted in an age of relativism, but taking relativism and subjectivity as it’s core assumption. It’s disappearance and irrelevance was built into its own philosophy. “God changes as the world changes?” Then that must mean that theological concepts are equally mutable. Norman Pittenger’s theology was built on the idea that truth was here today and gone tomorrow so it is no wonder that the theology constructed from that principle was here today and gone tomorrow.
Lewis’ ultimate rejoinder to Dr. Pittenger was to build not only a theology, but a corpus of work and indeed a saintly life on the eternal truths of historic Christianity rather than the ephemeral ideas of a relativistic philosophy. A true conservative, C.S. Lewis mined the past to construct a stable present from which an abundant future could flourish. He searched for the “solid joys and lasting treasures” and eschewed all that was provisional. As such Lewis’ name and work continues to prosper. He and his writings will stand forever while that which was momentary has no monument.
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