Sunday, January 28, 2018

C. S. Lewis & the Crisis of Feelings

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you'll begin to see frequent posts from the new book, Mere Science and Christian Faith, in the coming weeks. On the way there, I'm musing about another book on Christian spirituality called "Fully Alive." It some ways, it builds off a chapter I wrote in C.S. Lewis and the Crisis of a Christian, which I'm excerpting and adapting below.

During the early 1960s, the Christian Century published a series of answers by prominent
authors to the question, “What books did most to shape your vocational attitude and your philosophy of life?” The June 6, 1962, issue featured C. S. Lewis. Here are the ten books in his list:
  1. Phantastes by George MacDonald  
  2. The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton
  3. The Aeneid by Virgil
  4. The Temple by George Herbert
  5. The Prelude by William Wordsworth
  6. The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto
  7. The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius
  8. Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell 
  9. Descent into Hell by Charles Williams
  10. Theism and Humanism by Arthur James Balfour
What strikes me is the mixture. Some have a specific engagement with secular philosophy—here I particularly highlight Boethius’s sixth-century Consolation and his profound critical reception of Greek philosophy. Others are especially Christian, like Chesterton’s Everlasting Man, which offers a Christian vision of all human history and which affected Lewis profoundly; similarly affecting was MacDonald’s Phantastes, a book that Lewis said "baptized" his teenage imagination. He read both before he became a Christian—one provided a rational vision, a supposition of how to make sense of history from Christian faith; the other featured an imaginative approach to Christian truth. But others are not in any way Christian, like The Aeneid, written decades before Christ and which Lewis loved so much he began a translation of this classic. This too moved and shaped him.

Since Lewis was foremost a literary man, this list also reveals a great deal about three sides of Lewis and mirrors the three sets of crises he faced: first of all, those related to moving away from atheism; second, those that had a theological focus; and finally, those that expressed common human themes. 

Outside of his fantasy work in The Chronicles of Narnia (where some of this apologetic work is slipped in through imagination), Lewis is perhaps best known for countering atheism. He turned his considerable intellectual and imaginative powers to the crises of Christian faith in the twentieth century and the issues presented by believing in Jesus Christ as the unique Son of God—even as this insight overlaps with his arguments against atheism—and then to the Bible as God’s word. But there remains one additional side to him.

Lewis always maintained a healthy and sustained understanding of life as it is lived by all human beings: marked by disappointment and depression, suffering and trials, as well as the prospect of death, which we can all see and which none of us will escape. I suspect his setting in life—his teaching at two secular universities, Oxford and Cambridge—kept him mindful of those that never walked inside Magdalen College’s chapel or read the pages of the King James Bible as a devotional practice.

Here was a man who relished a good walk, a pint of beer with his friends, and reading exceptional books. Here was a man who also described personal crises not limited to believers in Christ, like sorrow over the death of a friend in battle and disappointment over never achieving recognition as a poet. Indeed, the Bible itself recognizes the destiny of all humankind and its sorrows: “Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). For this reason, I continue to turn to Lewis because, frankly, I’m not always drawn to people that display their spirituality too boldly in their writing or who seem to think that all of life consists of praying, reading Scripture, and singing hymns. Writers who resonate with me acknowledge the mundane things of life, like filling the car with gas; having keys copied at the hardware store; and buying butter, flour, and orange juice at the grocery store. They also acknowledge the hard things in life, like watching your children grow up, realizing your time on earth is also passing, seeing parents age and die, or grasping that dreams you once held will never come to pass.

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