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C. S. Lewis and the Region of Awe

 

I recently heard C. S. Lewis described as the Lords logician. Indeed, Lewis is widely regarded as the most intellectually forceful voice for Christian faith in the modern era. Whether writing as a scholar, lay theologian, or story-teller, he is famous for his commitment to mere Christianity, for presenting the basic tenets of faith shared in all places at all times by Christians of the first century to those of the twenty first. Lewis is generally thought of as a commonsense Christian, one who offers theology that is understandable and morality that is practical.

 

Yet readers of Lewis who admire his books for rational defense of faith may be perplexed by a passage in his memoir, Surprised by Joy, in which he describes his own conversion in overtly mystical terms: "Into the region of awe, in deepest solitude there is a road right out of the self, a commerce with . . . the naked Other, imageless (though our imagination salutes it with a hundred images), unknown, undefined, desired."[i] Equally baffling for those who admire Lewis the logician is his statement in Miracles that "the burning and undimensioned depth of the Divine Life" is "unconditioned and unimaginable, transcending discursive thought.[ii] In these passages, and many others like them, we see that the common image of Lewis as a proponent of rational religion does not do justice to the complexity of the man. Lewiss spiritual intuition was every bit as powerful as his intellect.

 

Lewiss wide reading in Christian mysticism

Generally, Lewis did not highlight his interest in Christian mysticism. He knew that many of his fellow believers misunderstood or mistrusted claims of personal encounters with the Divine, and he studiously tried to avoid topics that separate Christians, focusing instead on beliefs they can celebrate together. But a survey of Lewiss letters, theological meditations, and works of fiction show that the spiritual vitality of his books derives, in no small measure, from his own mystical intuitions and from his broad reading in Christian mysticism.

 

In fact, Lewis referred to mysticism or mystics in forty different books, discussing or quoting Augustine (354-460), the sixth-century treatise Mystical Theology, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), Lady Julian of Norwich (c. 1342- c. 1423), Thomas a Kempis (c. 1380-1471), John of the Cross (1542-1591), Frances de Sales (1567-1622), Jacob Boehme (1575-1624), and William Law (1686-1761). One also finds brief references in Lewiss books and letters to Nicholas of Cusa, Ignatius Loyola, The Cloud of Unknowing, as well as twentieth-century mystics such as Simone Weil and Sundar Singh. And among Lewiss most beloved poets were those with strong mystical overtonesDante, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, William Wordsworth, and George MacDonald.[iii]

 

Mysticism is an elastic term, one whose precise meaning is still debated among scholars. Lewis himself defined mysticism as a direct experience of God, immediate as a taste or color.[iv] Noting that most mystics do not seek visions or physical manifestations, Lewis added that There is no reasoning in it, but many would say it is an experience of the intellectthe reason resting in its enjoyment of its object.[v]

 

By his own definition, Lewis did not consider himself to be a mystic. In Letters to Malcolm, he said that in younger days when he took walking tours, he loved hills, even mountain walks, but he didnt have a head for climbing. In spiritual ascents, he also considered himself one of the people of the foothills, someone who didnt dare attempt the precipices of mysticism. He added that he never felt called to the higher levelthe crags up which mystics vanish out of sight.[vi]

 

Despite this disclaimer, Lewis must certainly have been one of the most mystical-minded of those who never formally embarked on the Mystical Way. We see this in the ravishing moments of Sweet Desire he experienced ever since childhood; in his vivid sense of the natural order as an image of the spiritual order; in his lifelong fascination with mystical texts; and in the mystical themes and images he so often appropriated for his own books. As his good friend Owen Barfield once remarked, Lewis radiated a sense that the spiritual world is home, that we are always coming back to a place we have never yet reached.[vii]

 

Though he did not use the term to describe himself, Lewiss spiritual intuitions were greatly enriched by his reading of Christian mystics and their interpreters. If he didnt think every Christian should embark on the Mystical Way, he clearly believed that every Christian will be able to learn from it. Lewis once distinguished between believing a doctrine and realizing it. Christians may assent to a doctrinal truth without its having much effect on their daily mindset. But once that truth is realized, embraced by head and heart, intellect and imagination, its transformative powers are greatly enhanced. Lewis felt that all Christians a study of the mysticism could prove a valuable resource for realizing the very doctrines they have already affirmed.[viii]

 

Lewis also asserted that the Christian is called, not to individualism but to membership in the mystical body.[ix] He noted that God communicates His presence directly to those engaged in praise and adoration, that for many people the fair beauty of the Lord is revealed chiefly while they worship Him together.[x] Lewis also urged Christians to frequently call to mind their ultimate goal: I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death.[xi]

 

Putting on Christ

Lewis defined the basic Christian walk not in terms of striving after ethical ideals but in terms of mystical transformation. In Mere Christianity he explained succinctly that Every Christian is to become a little Christ. He added that putting on Christ is not one among many jobs a Christian has to do; it is not a sort of special exercise for the top class. It is the whole of Christianity.[xii]

 

What does it mean to put on Christ? At the very least, it means to put off the Adam within. As Lewis put it, All day long, and all the days of our life, we are slipping, sliding, falling awayas if God were, to our present consciousness, a smooth inclined plane on which there is no resting. . . . The gravitation away from God, the journey homeward to habitual self, must, we think, be a product of the Fall.[xiii]

 

Like the first pair, we crave a god-like control over our environment and over others. We prefer knowledge and power, instruments for securing the mastery of Self, over self-emptying love and vulnerability. We constantly reach out for the attribute of divinity that we can never have: sovereignty. We make the same mistake our first parents made: we would be as gods. And thereby we forfeit two attributes of divine perfection which we could have had--abiding love and eternal life.

 

How is God to redeem His creatures who have taken a wrong turn, reaching out for the one attribute of Deity we can never fully attain? He cannot simply exchange our badness for goodness, our selfness for godness. This would violate our free will and negate our essential being as images of His nature. He can only point us back to the right path, give us revelations from without (Spirit-guided teachings and stories) and within (the witness and work of the Spirit directly on human consciousness).

 

If the Spirit is to carry on this reclamation project, He must have as a template the profoundest, most terrible test of the Good that ever was, the greatest ever temptation to abandon self-emptying love and reach out for the power and control we all desire. Jesus was God in the flesh. But He emptied himself of divine power and knowledgeso much so that he didnt know the time and date of his return. And it appears he wasnt absolutely sure if He had to go through the crucifixion. In Gethsemane, He asked several times, in his terrible anxiety and sadness, if there were any other way the cosmic drama of redemption could be accomplished. There was not, and he obediently drank of that cup.

 

If humans were to be guided back to their true Source, there needed to be the ultimate test: the human who would cling to love in the worst possible extremity, who would not reach out for self-preservation or power or control. Jesus passed the early tests when Satan offered him respite from physical hunger, earthly rule and glory, a chance to prove that angels would come to his aid. But these were low hurdles compared to the Passion. When Peter asked him if it could be avoided, Jesus recognized that as a ploy of Satan. At Gethsemane, he asked the same question again, but ultimately, He submitted his will if there could be no other way.

 

And so He underwent physical torture, humiliation, a slow painful death. He endured betrayal or abandonment by his friends, mockery by the soldiers and crowds. Ultimately, in some way we cannot understand, He endured the despair of feeling abandoned by the Father, of taking upon himself all the sufferings, all the mistakes, all the sins and blasphemies of all humans at all times. And He bore the weight, did not flinch from the task. He did not call down angels to his rescue; He did not call out imprecations upon his torturers or his faithless followers. Love passed the test; Goodness was not broken, even when embodied in frail flesh at its worst extremity.

 

Somehow this act of the obedient Son, emptied of power in suffering flesh, was mystically taken out of time back up into the timeless, into the nature of the Godhead, somewhere beyond the stars. Lewis described the Incarnation as not just the great redemptive moment in human history, but as a cosmic event. He portrayed God coming down to earth in order to draw earthly things up into heaven: "Sleep, sweat, footsore weariness, frustration, pain, doubt, and death, are, from before all worlds, known by God from within. The pure light walks the earth; the darkness, received into the heart of Deity, is there swallowed up. Where, except in uncreated light, can darkness be drowned?"[xiv]

 

Perhaps the atonement was also a work of vicarious empowerment. As the Spirit guides human spirits, the indwelling Infinite knows exactly what is being asked of every human heart. The Spirit, who is the same being as the Son, knows, with sighs that cannot be spoken, the profoundest possible test any human has ever faced. He can show all humans that their worst sufferings are known, their worst temptations can be overcome.

 

All human journeys are either back to God or away from Him, falling further and further into Selfpride and unloving and self-exile. We are all called upon, as Lewis puts it, to tread Adams dance backward.[xv] We must unlearn the mistake of the first Adam and, by Gods grace, imitate the second, innocent Adam. We must cease to reach for the godlike knowledge and power which were never ours, could never be ours, and reach instead for the godlike attributes we are more than welcome toeternal being and eternal loving. As Lewis puts it, The whole purpose for which we exist is to be taken into the life of God.[xvi]

 

We start by expanding the circle of what we value and cherishfrom ourselves to our family to our tribe to all humanity to all creation. We can see this progressive revelation, the widening circle of value, as the Old Testament unfolds. And the whole journey is summarized by Jesus in his command to keep the whole law by loving God and loving our neighbors.

 

Of course, both these commands can seem daunting to souls still aching from our Eden exile. It may be more a discipline at first than habit of mind. But as the Spirits inflowing energy becomes more available to seasoned travelers, His grace and love to us flow out to others as grace and love from us to them. Its not two different things: its just the mirror, polished to perfection at great cost, reflecting a Light that will outlast the stars.

 

 

 

 

 

 




 



[i] Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955), 221.

 

[ii] Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York: Macmillan, 1947), 160-161.

 

[iii] See chapter 3 in David C. Downing, Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C. S. Lewis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005).

 

[iv] The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy 1950-196. Ed. by Walter Hooper. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007), 109.

 

[v] Ibid 109.

 

[vi] Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), 63.

 

[vii] They Stand Together: The Letters of C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves (1914-1963). Ed. by Walter Hooper (New York: Macmillan, 1979), 316

 

[viii] The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 2: Books, Broadcasts, and the War, 1931-1949. Ed. by Walter Hooper. (London: HarperCollins 2004), 495.

 

[ix] Membership in Fern-Seed and Elephants and Other Essays on Christianity. Ed by Walter Hooper. (New York: Collins/Fountain, 1977), 15.

[x]Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982), 93.

[xi] Mere Christianity ( New York: Macmillan, 1969), 120.

 

[xii] Ibid 153.

 

[xiii] The Problem of Pain. (London: Collins, 1972), 63.

 

[xiv] Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer 70-71.

 

[xv] The Problem of Pain 89.

 

[xvi] Mere Christianity 141.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

David C. Downing is the R. W. Schlosser Professor of English at Elizabethtown College in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Downing has written numerous articles and four books on C. S. Lewis. His two latest books on Lewis are Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C. S. Lewis (InterVarsity, 2005) and Into the Wardrobe: C. S. Lewis and the Narnia Chronicles (Jossey-Bass, 2005).

 

 

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