When C.S. Lewis converted to Christianity in 1931, he admitted that he did so in large part because Christianity answered the pagan longings he had experienced in his love of mythology and of all things northern.
Northern Irishman C.S. Lewis holds such an important place in the hearts, minds, and souls of American Protestants that it’s almost absurd. Few in the Christian world at large—but especially those among and within Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism—question Lewis’ views with anything remotely approaching the descriptive critical, and while some American churches have immortalized him in stained glass, others teach his works as though a twentieth-century sequel to the Bible. One prominent American evangelical even claims a sort of visitation by Lewis after Lewis’ passing from this Mortal Coil in late November 1963. Others, such as Chuck Colson of Watergate infamy, claim Professor Lewis as well, and one of the most popular books among young Christians, A Severe Mercy, details a wealthy and selfish young man who finds Lewis and remakes his world toward the Christian.
One thing that Catholics and Protestants can agree upon regarding Lewis is that he is—with the possible exception of G.K. Chesterton—the greatest Christian apologist of the twentieth century. This much, at least, seems indisputable. Limited by his Catholicism, Pope John Paul II would come in as number three, overall.
Personally, I did not come across the writings of Lewis until I was in college, long after I had been reading the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Indeed, though I had been reading Tolkien since I’d turned age ten, way back in 1977, I had no idea that he and Lewis were so close until taking a course on “Philosophy, Science Fiction, and Fantasy” at the University of Notre Dame in the fall of 1988. There, in Professor Sayer’s class, we learned not only of the friendship of the two men but of their mutual desire to reform the world through the art of storytelling. It was a glorious class, the kind that changed my entire outlook on life, setting my own purpose and desires for a writing career. To say that the friendship of Tolkien and Lewis influenced my own understanding of life would be a gross understatement. That two such men—armed with imagination and Christian virtue—could encourage one another sent a million-volt jolt of grace into me, allowing me to see possibilities hitherto unknown, at least to me.
In my thirty years of reading Lewis, though, I have been both inspired and frustrated. More than once, I have complained—sometimes just internally (a grumble, mostly) and sometimes out loud—that Lewis’s greatest and most interesting insights are little more than warmed-over, rediscovered Catholic theology. More often than not, however, Lewis arrives at Catholic thought, gives his own ideas a particular name, and finds them acceptable to a Protestant audience. There is, obviously, a great good in this, but it can be frustrating for the cradle Catholic who wonders, charitably or not, “What’s the big deal? We’ve known this for centuries.” Additionally, one might also question Lewis’s rigorously logical—what Owen Barfield calls “atomic”—approach to almost every single theological question. In his attack, Lewis famously (or infamously, depending on one’s point of view) employs a dualism that borders on Manicheanism.
Take, for example, Lewis’ argument regarding what is natural in his wildly popular theological work, Miracles. But, what is “nature,” he asks, somewhat rhetorically. Obviously, nature is a pervasive and non-specific word, and it can be applied in many different ways. Even in the roots of Western civilization, the definition of nature can be frustratingly unclear. For the Greeks it meant “to grow,” while for the Romans it meant “to be born.” In Aristotle’s On Politics, the Greek genius offers the word in, at least, five completely different senses.
The Naturalists, as Lewis defines them and their movement, believe that Nature herself is a materialist system, closed and inalterable. As such, there can really be no free will, as man simply plays his role within the system. Any thought or choice outside of the system is, almost by definition, unnatural. Not surprisingly then, how we think about Nature and Supernature also reflects what we think about society. The Naturalist, thus, is a democrat, while the Supernaturalist is a Monarchist. The Naturalists, by their approach to the world, shut out all that is non-material, having no room within their system for chance or choice. “What Naturalism cannot accept is the idea of a God who stands outside Nature and made it.”
Again, Lewis tellingly asks in Miracles, what is nature and what is normal?
My favorite paragraph from these opening readings is the third-to-last from chapter two. “All this is, at present purely speculative,” Lewis writes in his muscular prose style. “It by no means follows from Supernaturalism that Miracles of any sort do in fact occur. God (the primary thing) may never, in fact, interfere with the natural system. He has created more natural systems than one, He may never cause them to impinge on one another.”
When a Christian reads this, he must think: “Some much-needed and much-desired humility! Amen.” Then, with disappointment, the same Christian reads the final sentence of that second chapter: “Our first choice, therefore, must be between Naturalism and Supernaturalism.” Ugh. Double ugh, scream I, as Lewis is veering very close to Manicheanism.
And, yet, such Pagan lingerings should not really surprise the modern reader. When Lewis converted to Christianity in late 1931, he admitted that he did so in large part because Christianity answered the pagan longings he had experienced in his love of mythology and of all things northern. Christianity, he claimed, then and later, did not overturn the past; it baptized it. Christianity did not kill the magic, it sanctified it, making it holy and good. In ways Lewis could not understand but knew to be true, dryads remained, but they could no longer wield their power in the way they had before the coming of Christ. Further, Lewis wrote openly about the Pagan powers as real and tangible, such as when Venus, the goddess (or angelic power) of love, descends upon the wedding cottage of Jane and Mark Studduck in the finale of That Hideous Strength. And, if this is not enough proof, one need only read (or reread) what many regard to be his greatest work, Till We Have Faces, a novel so openly pagan at times as to shock.
Yet, within many Evangelical and Protestant Christian circles, Tolkien remains suspect as a pagan because of his stories of wizards, magic, necromancers, orcs, and elves.
To be sure, these are double standards. What Lewis and Tolkien each understand—and with piety and intelligence—is that the world God created still holds profound mysteries that are at once sacramental and perilous, open to the deepest longings and imaginings of the soul.
The next time you hear a bustle under the hedgerow, pause, wonder, and move on.
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The featured image is “Dionysius the Areopagite Converting the Pagan Philosophers” (1570s) by Antoine Caron (1521–1599) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.