C. S. Lewis had the literary gift of one-liners. His tongue lodged securely in cheek, he once said something like this: In the absence of any other evidence, almost all essential natural theology could be argued from the human phenomena of coarse jokes and the commotion surrounding death.

Coarse jokes, for example, dwell almost entirely on the processes of excretion and reproduction, two of the most “natural” acts we perform. We share a reliance on these processes with all other creatures. And yet, strangely, in our smirks and jokes we treat those activities as utterly unnatural, even comical. In contrast, try to envision a horse or cow bashful about the need to excrete in public. Or imagine a dog or cat with sexual hangups, reluctant to perform reproductive functions.

Lewis goes on to explain that these anomalies (like the more commonly cited human conscience) hint at a permanent state of disunity characteristic of every human being. An individual person is a spirit, made in the image of God but merged temporarily with a shell of flesh. Coarse jokes blithely express a rumbling sense of discord that each of us feels in this in-between state.

O Thief,
O Thief upon the beam
How does it seem so
Helplessly to hang up there,
The gravity of Sin and sinew
Pulling down?
Have you ever once been clean?
O Thief,
O Thief, what does it mean?
Why do they lift up sour wine,
Heap scorn upon that Nazarene
There in between,
Who even now speaks
Of forgiving?
Is He not a man, like you?
O Thief,
O Thief, how can it be
That you have changed your mind,
That you would follow
Him if Only you weren’t pinned Like Him
Upon that awful tree?
With His stripes have you been healed?
O Thief,
O Thief, now that He’s gone
And you have yet to die Do you think it’s real,
This life you feel, even
While the sinews keep on Pulling down?
Can it be that you’re reborn?
O Thief,
O Thief, what is the symbol?
Veil torn, the Earth to tremble,
Darkness on all sides.
How does it feel, O Thief?
What is it like this day In Paradise?

—Tom Locheed

We should feel dissonance; we are, after all, immortals trapped in mortal surroundings. Long ago a gap fissured open, destroying the former unity between our mortal and immortal parts; theologians trace the fault line back to the Fall.

Not everyone, of course, subscribes to such a natural theology. Materialists, said Tolstoy, mistake that which limits life for life itself. Modern-day biologists, psychologists, and anthropologists operate from a materialistic assumption that denies human duality. Many of them look at our mortal parts and conclude there is nothing more. I simply suggest, following Lewis, that these observers have some explaining to do. I have not yet seen a paper by a sociobiologist speculating on the origin of dirty jokes. What function do they serve in perpetuating the gene pool? Whence come these stirrings of dissonance?

As for death, man acts even less “natural” in its presence. Nature treats death as normal and everyday, not exceptional: an octopus lays a million eggs to produce one surviving offspring. Flies, buzzards, bacteria, and all carnivores build their entire careers around a presumption of death. But we humans treat it with something like shock and revulsion. We simply can’t get used to the reality, universal though it may be.

Even those of us in the Christian West, with our traditional belief in an afterlife, seem obsessed with ritually denying what obviously happens. We dress up our corpses in new suits, embalm them, and bury them in airtight caskets and concrete vaults in order to postpone decay. In our rituals, we act out a stubborn reluctance to yield to this most powerful of human experiences.

We should not flail ourselves for such human oddities. It is natural that we blush at excretion and rear back from death—natural, that is, if you accept a biblical view of humanity. Excretion and death seem odd because they are odd. In all of earth there are no exact parallels of spirit and immortality trapped in matter. The unnaturalness and discomfiture we feel may be our most accurate human sensations, reminding us we are not quite “at home” here.

C. S. Lewis used hyperbole: one would be hard pressed to derive almost all essential theology from coarse jokes and our attitudes toward death. But, one might be harder pressed to deny all natural theology in the face of these and other rumors of transcendence.

In addition to these oddities of human nature, Lewis elsewhere mentions one more: our startled reactions to the concept of time. I close with this quote, taken from the last page of Reflections on the Psalms. It summarizes the transitory, suspended state we live in.

“We are so little reconciled to time that we are even astonished at it. ‘How he’s grown!’ we exclaim, ‘How time flies!’ as though the universal form of our experience were again and again a novelty. It is as strange as if a fish were repeatedly surprised at the wetness of water. And that would be strange indeed; unless of course the fish were destined to become, one day, a land animal.”

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.