A more poetic Bultmann?

Have evangelicals been justified in claiming C. S. Lewis as one of themselves? Or is an emerging group of literary and theological scholars on the right track in thinking him a kind of poetic Bultmann who is much more the friend of the theologically unorthodox than the orthodox?

Before this group began to write, the experience of discovering Lewis had formed an almost archetypal pattern in the lives of countless evangelical students of the past three decades, so the dissenting view would call for a new and violent step. First in the traditional pattern of appreciating Lewis came a period of gnawing doubt about the whole Christian faith. Could such a doctrinal system be true when its adherents were so defensive about questions and so indifferent about aesthetics? The teaching of the church seemed in impossible conflict with its practice.

Into this dark night of the soul swept whatever happened to be the student’s first Lewis book. That led inexorably to the others. And what he or she found there was not so much answers—though they were wonderful beyond all hope—but more, an irrefutable demonstration that at least one Christian mind actually existed. The apologetics were bracing, the essays mind-expanding; the fiction put flesh on the bones of doctrine, and made them live.

And more impressive still was the wholeness and sanity of that mind, the very unflinching orthodoxy and uncompromising morals that had seemed so barren only months before. Here was a mind that simply refused to tolerate the wedges modern man has driven between Faith and Reason, and between both and Imagination. In Lewis’s works those fair sisters walked hand in hand once more.

From Lewis’s own work the typical student went on another step to devour what Lewis’s acquaintances said about him. It was true of him that “Sownynge in moral virtu was his speche, and gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche.” But it was likewise true that “Cristes loore and his apostles twelve He taughte, but first he folwed it hymselve.” The most difficult unity of all—that of theory and practice—had in some measure been achieved.

The final step in the pattern has been, for many who have taken it, the most baffling. From friends and sympathetic interpreters such as J. R. R. Tolkien and Clyde S. Kilby, the student moves on to evaluations of Lewis’s work by the scholarly world in general. And what emerges there is both puzzling and disturbing. It is not so much opposition to Lewis—that we would have expected—as a categorical denial that the Lewis we had come to know and love could ever have existed. An entirely different portrait begins to take shape, and the great champion of historic Christianity is replaced by a more or less neo-orthodox existentialist who merely sounds like a fundamentalist to the naive.

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Chad Walsh, for example, in his foreword to William Luther White’s Image of Man in C. S. Lewis (1969), delineates an alternative pilgrimage undergone by some readers of Lewis. Walsh’s pilgrimage begins in much the same way as the one outlined above, but it proceeds to the uneasy fear that Lewis is too conservative, too well-liked by “fundamentalists,” a fear that “the very brilliance of his writing was at the service of a backward looking way of facing the primal questions.” Lewis is salvaged for Walsh by the realization that “he practiced a highly sophisticated use of language, metaphor and myth in particular.” Enlightened men can still read Lewis because he is really “a more poetic Bultmann … attacking with radical consistency any attempt to box God up in the language of formal logic or static theology.” So the wedge between Faith and Reason is safely back in place, and we can relax. Lewis is one of us modern men after all.

The wedge must go back between Reason and Imagination, too. This is the implication of W. Fred Graham’s argument in the Christian Century, “Fantasy in a World of Monochrome: Where C. S. Lewis Continues to Help.” He says Lewis’s nonfiction is not helpful, and that the argument for God’s existence in Mere Christianity (for reasons unexplained) “simply does not work.” Yet, though the rational and doctrinal base has been discarded, the imaginative work can still help modern man in his search for meaning.

R. J. Reilly, in his Romantic Religion: A Study of Barfield, Lewis, Williams, and Tolkien (1971) has a different method of liberalizing Lewis, but he achieves similar results. Reilly sees the theosophist Barfield as the intellectual key to understanding the Inklings, and he interprets Lewis’s thought in the light of Barfield’s, despite the fact that their friendship consisted of a running argument they jovially called “the great war.”

Thus, Lewis’s frequent assertion that human logic was a participation in a cosmic logos is taken to imply agreement with Barfield’s notion of the evolution of consciousness. Therefore, Reilly reads the story of Orual in Till We Have Faces as if it set forth Lewis’s view of the history of the religious consciousness of the human race, rather than as a picture of the ultimate choices facing each person. The result is to deemphasize Lewis’s characteristic stress on individual salvation and the weighty choices on which it depends, a theme that appears throughout his work but is treated with special poignance in the Narnia books. (“ ‘My sister Susan,’ answered Peter shortly and gravely, ‘is no longer a friend of Narnia.’ ”)

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Reilly thus presents a C. S. Lewis who is much less clearly an ally of evangelical Christianity than the Lewis we thought we knew. He admits that Lewis appears at first glance to be a conservative, and even that he saw himself as a conservative defender of historic Christianity. But Reilly nonetheless thinks the real Lewis is the one he sees through the theosophical lens of Barfield. This Lewis reinterpreted the original Christian myth because, again, like Bultmann, he saw it as “no longer sufficient to carry the tenor of religious truth.”

A 1976 book-length study of Lewis that has attracted much attention is Paul Holmer’s C. S. Lewis: The Shape of His Faith and Thought. Holmer’s book is baffling, partially because of his clumsy and turgid prose, and partially because he seems to keep missing the point of the Lewis we thought we knew. For Holmer, Lewis’s significance lies in his refusal to view every person or every piece of literature as one instance of some general theory about life or reality. Rather, Lewis came to each experience and formed an ad hoc explanation based on a “competence” he had attained from personally tasting many such experiences. Holmer admits that “in the heat of controversy” Lewis does “say extraordinarily strong things about the objectivity of law” in moral and spiritual things; but he supports his notion of Lewis’s antipathy to general statements from the passage in Mere Christianity where Lewis says that the fact of the Atonement, rather than a particular theory of how it works, is what the Christian convert is asked to accept.

Holmer is right in his analysis of Lewis’s “range of competencies,” which allowed him to relate humanely to a wide range of literature and to life; no one would disagree with it. But the Lewis who was opposed to general theories per se, and not simply to a large number of them that happened to be wrong, is new to us. With its disparagement of general and universal statements, Holmer’s portrait injects a great deal of fuzziness and equivocation into those frequent attacks on all forms of relativism that had so endeared Lewis to the evangelical camp.

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The general tendency of all this criticism is to loosen in various ways the connection between Lewis the rational defender of a stubbornly conservative orthodoxy and Lewis the poet and myth-maker. This appears most clearly in a recent article by Lewis’s old friend Owen Barfield, “Some Reflections on The Great Divorce of C. S. Lewis.” Barfield insists that there were, in fact, two Lewises: the “bonny fighter of the Socratic Club,” and the mythopoetic Lewis; and that there was “something like a great divorce between the two.” Once this divorce is granted, Lewis becomes much easier for modern man to tolerate. He can by this means protect himself from the offense of the gospel in Lewis, for there is nothing to stop him either from dismissing Lewis’s moving stories as mere Bultmannian demythologization or from praising his statements for their “competence” rather than for their truth.

We as evangelicals, on the other hand, need to examine this new portrait of Lewis carefully. We have long hailed Lewis as a strong ally in the battle against liberalism, and we must now question whether we have done so legitimately. One of the arguments reiterated by critics of the school we have been sampling is that we have done so naively, if not unfairly. We wrong Lewis, they would insist, by viewing him as an evangelical, fundamentalist, and so on, because Lewis’s thought cuts across the normal categories of liberal and conservative.

It is a great temptation simply to dismiss the “liberal Lewis” as the product of liberal and semiorthodox wishful thinking—and there might be some justification for such a move. The liberalizing critics certainly feel the embarrassment of having to admit that a man as intelligent and cultured as Lewis was could also be as orthodox as he said he was. They must therefore find some method to explain away that orthodoxy. So they call upon all manner of rationalizations: Lewis used language in a sophisticated way; he didn’t really mean all the horrible things he said!

While this analysis of the liberal critique contains an element of truth, it remains a fundamentally inadequate answer, precisely because conservatives are not above a kind of wishful thinking of their own. It is easy for us also to gloss over Lewis’s deficiencies, and to view him as a more consistent champion of evangelical orthodoxy than perhaps he really is. And if the “real” Lewis does turn out to be more on our side than on that of our opponents who would also like to claim him, it still may be true that we need to read him more critically than some of us have done.

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There is, for example, no point in our trying to pretend that Lewis believed in the inerrancy of Scripture. We rejoice that his outlook combined unabashed supernaturalism, an antipathy to all forms of relativism, and a healthy skepticism concerning the methods and results of modern higher criticism. But a problem arises: we are not used to finding this combination in people who do not accept the evangelical view of inspiration with all its implications, so it is easy to assume that Lewis’s usually consistent mind would have naturally moved from these attitudes to the dominical and apostolic teaching concerning the nature of Scripture and come out at the right place. It didn’t.

Lewis summarizes his view of Scripture in the chapter on “Scripture” in Reflections on the Psalms. The Bible is human literature—all kinds of it—that has been taken up into the service of the Word of God. There has been a “Divine pressure” upon it, its writers have been “guided by God.” This makes these books different from other literature, and gives them their authority; but God, as far as Lewis can tell, did not see fit to protect the writers from all error. “Naivety, error, contradiction, even (as in the cursing Psalms) wickedness are not removed.” The result is a Bible that is not the Word of God in the sense that any passage, taken in isolation, will necessarily give “impeccable science or history” (though Lewis thought the historical passages in the Bible were pretty accurate). It is rather “the overall message” of the Bible that gives us the Word of God. Lewis apparently never noticed the discrepancy between this rather fuzzy view of biblical authority and the attitude toward Scripture of his Lord, who ascribed the authority of his heavenly Father not only to the “overall message” but also to the jots and tittles of the Word of God.

This raises a difficult question. Why do American evangelicals tend to overlook in Lewis the deficiencies they resist among themselves?

One reason is that Lewis was a European, and we are generally more tolerant of doctrinal imperfections in Europeans. A high view of Scripture is so rare among them that anyone who thinks the Bible is trustworthy at all is hailed as a prodigious instance of potential reformation.

Further, two people may hold positions which, in isolation, look identical; but these positions may have an entirely different significance when viewed in the context of the orientation and tendency of two different minds. We may surely attach some significance to the difference between a man who, starting as an atheist, has come almost all the way to full orthodoxy, and one who has just begun the process of backing away from it. Though the positions held may be the same, the first case is cause for rejoicing and the second is ground for concern.

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But most important, we forgive Lewis’s doctrinal imperfections because his heart was so obviously in the right place. Though his own view of Scripture fell short of inerrancy, he consistently lived and wrote as if the New Testament, at least, was for all practical purposes inerrant. He wrote to Dom Bede Griffiths (Letters, p. 242) that “Pascal does contradict several passages in Scripture and must be wrong.” The ease with which he makes the equation is instructive. We never feel that his failure to affirm inerrancy was motivated by the desire to squirm out of having to believe some hard teaching of Scripture that was out of tune with a modern world of which he was desperately trying to be a part. By contrast, some of the “evangelicals” who have come out against inerrancy in recent years seem to have gone out of their way to convince us that this does in fact describe their real motives for defecting.

But the issue raised by the liberal critics we sampled earlier—whether Lewis was “essentially” a conservative or a modernist—cannot be settled simply by pressing or excusing his failure to affirm the inerrancy of Scripture. Lewis’s loyalty to true Christianity and his value to the conservative cause lie in his statement and defense of positions even more basic than inerrancy. It was Lewis’s belief in the exclusivity of truth and his brilliant defense of it, that finally make nonsense of all attempts to reinterpret him as a modern man at heart. It is this that aligns him with conservative evangelicalism against all the watered-down forms of so-called Christianity that have tried, in various ways, to accommodate the gospel to modern relativism.

Lewis was very stubborn and very straightforward about the unbridgeable chasm that is fixed between truth and falsehood. He was always ready to appreciate truth wherever he found it, and to value even pagan sacrifices as a true, though corrupt vision of man’s need for atonement. But he harbored no illusions about the real and horrible possibility of being fatally wrong.

In his most popular book of nonfiction, Mere Christianity, he insists on the one affirmation that the liberal and semiorthodox of our day are least willing to make: that being a Christian means “thinking that where Christianity differs from other religions, Christianity is right and they are wrong.” Period. He writes to Dom Bede Griffiths, “your Hindus certainly sound delightful. But what do they deny? That has always been my trouble with Indians—to find any proposition they wd. pronounce false. But truth must surely involve exclusions?”

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A passage that must really stick in the craw of modern theologians is Lewis’s analysis of liberalism in The Great Divorce, which points out that if truth is exclusive, “sincerity” cannot have the ultimate deciding value that moderns attribute to it. A liberal theologian is shocked to discover that he has been sent to hell on grounds of apostasy. He tries to defend himself to the spirit of his redeemed friend this way: “When the doctrine of the Resurrection ceased to commend itself to the critical faculties which God has given me, I openly rejected it. I preached my famous sermon. I defied the whole chapter. I took every risk. The point is that they were my honest opinions, sincerely expressed.”

His friend’s reply is instructive, and deserves to be quoted extensively: “Let us be frank. Our opinions were not honestly come by. We simply found ourselves in contact with a certain current of ideas and plunged into it because it seemed modern and successful.… When, in our whole lives, did we honestly face, in solitude, the one question on which all turned: whether after all the Supernatural might not, in fact, occur? When did we put up one moment’s real resistance to the loss of our faith?… You know that you and I were playing with loaded dice. We didn’t want the other to be true. We were afraid of crude salvationism, afraid of a breach with the spirit of the age, afraid (above all) of real spiritual fears and hopes.… We reached a point where we no longer believed the Faith. Just in the same way, a jealous man, drifting and unresisting, reaches a point at which he believes lies about his best friend: a drunkard reaches a point at which (for the moment) he actually believes that another glass will do him no harm.… But errors which are sincere in that sense are not innocent.”

No one has ever written a more damning or a more accurate critique of religious liberalism in all its forms; and the foundation on which this critique is erected is Lewis’s insistence that in religious matters as in all others, if truth exists apostasy must be possible, and that if truth is real, apostasy must have consequences.

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Thus to call Lewis a “more poetic Bultmann” because he expressed Christian truth in original and creative ways, using sophisticated language and myth, is the height of absurdity. If truth is exclusive, if you are an absolutist and not a relativist, and if Christianity is true, then that truth is to be continually reexpressed and reapplied, but it is never to be tampered with: it “is what it is and what it was long before I was born and whether I like it or not” (Mere Christianity). It is objective, transcendent, and unchanging, and we—unlike Bultmann—are to accommodate ourselves to it, and not vice versa. Whether we like it or not.

These are not merely isolated passages. The theme they express underlies and informs everything Lewis wrote. It is this very opposition to relativism, this very insistence that truth is truth, that makes possible the high seriousness with which Lewis approaches the issues of salvation and damnation. It is this absolute refusal to compromise or accommodate the truth that finally aligns C. S. Lewis with fundamental, evangelical, orthodox Christianity against the modern world, and that enables him to write lines like these from his sermon, “The Weight of Glory”: “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.”

Who was the real C. S. Lewis? We may say with confidence that he was the Lewis whom conservatives have long known and loved and whom liberals find embarrassing and wish to explain away. He is also, perhaps, the Lewis to whose doctrinal deficiencies we have sometimes blinded ourselves. But above all, he is the Lewis who has helped countless numbers of us on the way to a destination where all joy will be fulfilled.

G. Douglas Young is founder and president of the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. He has lived there since 1963.

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