Sunday, July 22, 2012

C. S. Lewis on the Crisis of Other Myths

[This is a draft from my current writing on C. S. Lewis. Let me know what you think.]            

Two realities lie at the center of Christian faith: Jesus Christ and the Bible. These are also two of the most problematic teachings for contemporary readers of Lewis and for Lewis himself. The second, believing that the Bible in some way is the Word of God, flies in the face of progress. What writing can still give insight today? Moreover, in a culture of video and Internet, why trust a book of all things? I will take that up that topic in the another post.

            The first, Jesus as “mere Christianity” presents him—that is, unique among other religious figures—offends our pluralistic sensibilities. Contrast this claim with the core Christian virtue of love—a virtue that few would argue against. “I’m not a Christian, but I agree with many of its teaching. Isn’t the core of Christianity Jesus’s call to love?” But quote John 14:6 that “No one comes to the Father except through me” and you will receive heaps of scorn. “How can you be so judgmental?” The common phrase “I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious” can mean, among other things, “I accept a lot of what Jesus says, but not his unique place as the Son of God.”

            Lest this seems something unique to the twenty-first century, I quickly realized there is nothing about pluralism as context for Christian faith. It came along with the emergence of the message of Christ. The New Testaments is written in a stunning array of religious pluralism. I think of the altar to the Unknown God in the Areopagus that Paul addressed in Acts 17 and the worship of the great Artemis in Ephesus in Acts 19, or the adoration of Aphrodite in Corinth that stands behind his letters to the Corinthians. And that’s just a start. New Testament Christians had a variety of religious options.

            C. S Lewis did not enjoy the thought of becoming a Christian, or even a theist. He knew he would be scorned by the Oxford intellectuals that surrounded him. Actually, at the time that this conversion to theism in 1929 and then to Christian faith in 1931, he didn’t realize the extent: his Christian faith would prevent him from receiving a professorship at Oxford. (It was Cambridge that finally offered him a chair in 1954.) He certainly knew that orthodox Christian belief was not (as we would say) “politically correct.” Moreover, he carried his own doubts. As he phrased it in his 1955 autobiography, Surprised by Joy, accepting the existence of God made him “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”[1] As a lover of myths and their panoply of gods and goddesses, affirming the uniqueness of Christ seemed silly. How then did he resolve this crisis of Christian faith? And how do we believe in the uniqueness of Christ when there are so many religions? Put another way—the way Lewis so often encountered this crisis—since the myths of dying and rising gods share common characteristics with the story of Jesus, aren’t they are all the same and therefore there’s nothing unique about Jesus?[2]
Lewis’s story: walk with Tolkien and Dyson
            I can imagine the thirty-two year old Lewis walking that memorable Saturday night in September 1931 with his Oxford colleagues, Hugo Dyson and J. R. R. Tolkien. They were pondering the truth of myths and engaging in dialectic—we would say “arguing”—with one another. In a letter to his boyhood friend Arthur Greeves, he admitted that his struggle was between pagan “myths”—which, as a lover of classical literature, he cherished—and the uniqueness of the story of Jesus:
Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed was this: again, that if I met the idea sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself… I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels.[3]
But on this early morning walk in Oxford, which lasted until 3am, these two fellow academics demonstrated something new. This was a turning point, or what I’ve termed a key “plot point” for Lewis:
Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working in us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one much be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where others are men’s myths: i.e., the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call “real things.”[4]
 This is a rather extraordinary conclusion for Lewis. Notice that he was able to simultaneously sustain a deep appreciation for Pagan mythology—even describing them as a place where God is “expressing Himself”—while upholding the ultimate nature of the story of Christ. In Jesus, we see a “true myth,” but it is different in one significant way: it “really happened.” Admittedly, no crisis is resolved in an instant: there are always precedents. Lewis had been set up for this conclusion by a stunning conversation with an atheist colleague at Oxford who grumbled “Rum thing” about Jesus’s rising and dying in light of the other myths such as Fraser analyzed in his famous book The Golden Bough, “Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once.”[5]

            Lewis’s conclusion about Jesus implies there are truly valuable elements in other religions and “myths.” It also implies the uniqueness and supremacy of Christ. Because these two emphases combine in Lewis, I will have to take them together. But first I would like to weave in my own experience with the crisis of uniqueness of Jesus Christ.

            My coming to faith in light of other religions
            To speak personally for a moment, as I read through journals from my late ‘teen years, one of the first things that struck me—besides the unbelievable emotional swings of a late adolescent—was my struggle with the uniqueness of Jesus. In a section from January 1981 named “My Belief in Religion: What Stops Me,” I have a very sparse but poignant entry: “So many religions.” And then a bit later this: “I’m having a lot of problems believing in Jesus Christ. It’s so narrowly defined.”

            These concerns are not in any way diminished today for people seeking to understand Jesus. In fact, as a pastor to college and university students, I know that these concerns are tantamount for people considering Christian faith and for those who are believers in Christ to keep believing.

            And in 1981, I needed to know about where Jesus fit. During that decisive, life-altering winter quarter of my freshman year, I took Religious Studies 90A, an introduction to the basic menu of “world religions”: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam with some animism and Chinese religion thrown in. One thing struck me: I discovered that there was a pervasive reverence for Jesus among world faiths. Buddhism describes him as an “enlightened” figure. Hinduism easily fits him into their rather expansive worship of numerous deities. Islam considers him one of the prophets. Judaism? That provided a fascinating exception: it bestowed the seeds of his teachings and yet simultaneously denied that Jesus fulfilled Jewish messianic hopes. Of course, Christianity—the largest and most globally universal faith—centers on him, even worships him.

            Here, on the subject of the uniqueness of Jesus, C.S. Lewis came as a mentor, or perhaps, in Lewis’s words, a “Teacher.” (In one of his later books, The Great Divorce, Lewis’s great Teacher, the pastor and fantasy writer, George MacDonald, accompanies him in the afterlife, revealing that he has been there throughout Lewis’s earthly life. Lewis, it seems, is my George MacDonald.) Lewis helped me understand the value of other religions and myths, but also see that Jesus Christ is unique and worthy of our worship.

            Nonetheless, there is one contemporary difference on the subject of Jesus’s uniqueness: Lewis does not spend much time on the uniqueness of the Christian Church per se, which remains a key issue today for those outside the church. Or perhaps better formulated, Lewis sees a fairly direct line of continuity between believing in Jesus and the community of believers in Jesus as the church. As he famously wrote—or actually, intoned over the airwaves of the British Broadcasting Corporation—he promoted “mere Christianity,” not any particular denomination. So if I were to become a Christian, it would be based on belief in Jesus as the Son of God, not belief in the church.
            “Fulfillment” model
            Lewis’s view of the uniqueness of Christ was not that all other faiths were entirely false, but were brought to completion with the revelation of Christ. I call it a fulfillment model— “Christ, in transcending and abrogating, also fulfills, both Paganism and Judaism.”[6] Lewis, more generally, believes the Christian story fulfills the hopes and directions of other religions, but in stating this conviction, Lewis implies that the other religions, or myths, contain truth. He phrased the issue this way as he approached his own conversion to Christianity at age thirty-two:
The question was no longer to find the one simply true religion among a thousand religions simply false. It was rather, “Where has religion reached its true maturity? Where, if anywhere, have the hints of all Paganism been fulfilled?”[7] 
This approach struck me then as reasonable and still does. For the purposes here, Lewis led me to resolve the problem of the uniqueness of Jesus in a secular and pluralistic world.

            Lewis’s “trilemma”—which he presents most famously in Mere Christianity—poses the question of whether Jesus is liar, lunatic, or lord: We do not have the luxury of calling him a “great moral teacher,” and the first two options are nonsensical. Therefore Jesus is who the Gospels present him to be: the Son of God, the Lord. Here’s how Lewis phrased it:
A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg - or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.[8] 
            This conclusion may sound exclusivist, narrow, parochial and frankly impossible in a world where so many call on other names of other gods or who have never heard the name Jesus. In that light, a few pages later, he offers this clarification: “we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.”[9]

            In this fulfillment paradigm for Jesus, where Lewis brings together the uniqueness of Jesus Christ with an appreciation for other myths, he sounds a great deal like the twentieth century Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, in this case as interpreted by Princeton Seminary’s George Hunsinger: Barth, like Lewis, presented “exclusivism without triumphalism or, alternatively, inclusivism without compromise.” In other words, they both believe in one theological scheme represents the Truth—I would offer instead, one Person—but other schemes (and for Lewis myths) are not entirely mistaken.[10] Similarly, there can be salvation for those who don’t necessary name Jesus.

            This argument appears in a rather lapidary form in Mere Christianity. How can he expect to resolve Christ’s uniqueness in one paragraph? Thankfully, he doesn’t, but elaborates his thinking in an essay that appeared later in the collection assembled as God in the Dock, entitled, “What Are We to Make of Jesus Christ?”[11] Lewis presents several key points: First of all, that Jesus forgives sins, not simply offenses against him, but all sins. Jesus says, “before Abraham was, I am” and a host of other statements that would characterize him as a megalomaniac. Nonetheless, his moral teachings are sane and humble. Lewis asks, Would his first followers have exaggerated his claims? As Jews, they were the least likely because they believed in the One God. If the claims were exaggerated, they would have to come in the form of legend. But there realism, like Christ scribbling in the sand in John 8:6-8, does not correspond to the form of literature known as legend. It can only be compared to twentieth century novels: “the art of inventing little irrelevant details to make an imaginary scence more convincing is a purely modern art.”[12] Above all, there is the Resurrection, which is not simply the hope of survival, but something the New Testament writers present as something entirely new and earth-shattering.

            Lewis continues to return to this fulfillment paradigm in a variety of ways, one of which appears in the first and last installments of his famous The Chronicles of Narnia series, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

            In Lion, where Lucy and Edmund have both discovered Narnia through the wardrobe door, but Edmund (who’s trying to hide the fact that he has met the White Witch, Jadis), denies the experience and asserts that Lucy is lying. The next morning, Peter and Susan approach the Professor. They are convinced that he will immediately contact their parents when Lucy tells her story. He invites the children into his study and listens to their story from beginning to end, without interrupting. When they are finished, the Professor, to their surprise, asks them why they are so certain that Lucy's story isn't true. He asks them to consider their own past experiences with Lucy and Edmund. Who, he asks, is more truthful? He then admonishes them to use logic, lamenting, "Why don't they teach logic at these schools?" Logically—and here’s the key—the Professor concludes that Lucy is either telling lies, going mad, or telling the truth. Since Lucy is not a liar, and is not going mad, she must therefore be telling the truth. The witnesses to Jesus’s unique status as the Son of God are credible witnesses to what they tell us, even if it seems absurd.[13]

            Similarly the character of Emeth in The Last Battle embodies salvation “outside of the church.”  (This has been a famous theological question through the ages: “Is there salvation outside the walls of the church”? in other words, for those who haven’t heard.) Emeth (whose name means “truth” in Hebrew) has been a Calormene prince who has never served Aslan, but instead the god of his country, Tash. When he dies, he’s surprised to find that Aslan greets him in the life to come: “all the service thou has done to Tash, I account as service to me…. For all find what they truly seek.”[14]
             In sum, we’ve seen that Lewis believed that many myths pointed to God’s truth, but that in Christ, “myth became fact” and that we had to deal with his claims and whether therefore he’s “liar, lunatic, or Lord.” It’s important then to see where the trilemma fits in Lewis. He isn’t arguing with this a triumphalistic, narrowly defined argument of Christ’s supremacy. Instead it’s imbedded within his sense that God is already speaking through other religions and myths, but has spoken uniquely and definitively in Jesus.

[1] Surprised by Joy, 228-29.
[2] See “Second Meanings” in Reflections on the Psalms, especially 106.
[3] 18 October 1931 Letter to Arthur Greeves.
[4] 18 October 1931 letter to Arthur Greeves.
[5] Surprised by Joy, 223-24.
[6] Reflections on the Psalms, 129.
[7] Surprised by Joy, 235.
[8] Mere Christianity (New York: MacMillan, 1960), 56. It interests me that G. K. Chesteron used the “fried egg” image in Orthodoxy, and I have wondered if Lewis is making an allusion here.
[9] Mere Christianity, 65.
[10] How to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (New York: Oxford University, 1991), 278-9.
[11] “What Are We to Make of Jesus Christ?” God in the Dock, edited by Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 156-60.
[12] “What Are We to Make of Jesus Christ?” 159.
[13] The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
[14] The Last Battle, 164-5.

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