Saturday, August 31, 2013

C. S. Lewis and The Crisis of Feelings

I'm finishing up my manuscript on C. S. Lewis in Crisis, and I think this chapter is just about final form. Let me know if you agree.
 Heed not thy feelings: Do thy work. George MacDonald
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 6 June 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 MacDonald’s Phantastes, a book that “baptized” Lewis’s 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 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 I am analyzing: 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. Indeed, to this point, I have looked at C. S. Lewis’s crises with atheism, the reasons that not believing in God became problematic and how he leveraged those insights to create a powerful set of apologetics. 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 his countering atheism. I have also explored how 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 humans, marked by disappointment and depression, suffering and trials, as well as the prospect of death, that we can all see and that 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 Version as a devotional practice.
      Here was a man that 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 disappointment over never achieving recognition as a poet or the death of a friend in battle. 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, KJV). 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 in praying, reading Scripture, and singing hymns, and not also filling the car with gas, having keys copied at the hardware store, buying butter, flour, and orange juice at the grocery store, let alone 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.

Feelings were secondary for Lewis
Given all these daily, quotidian issues, how do we know what to do? Contemporary American culture has a nearly universal slogan: “if it feels right, do it.” Feelings—particularly the emotional rush of life—remain the final arbiter of truth and decision-making for our culture. And sadly that is true for those inside the church as well where I often hear distrust of “head knowledge” and an emphasis on the interior life, which in this case, usually means our emotions. I read this the other day: faith is “much deeper than intellectual agreement with facts” in that it “affects the desires of one’s heart.” With the way most of us define “heart” as a place where we feel emotion, that sounds a lot like feelings are more important than thought.
      Certainly, it is the nature of American revivalism that we tend to want a “burning in the bosom” and the feeling of conversion. Too much of Christian spirituality implores us to introspect and see how “the Lord is working,” and “see whether you feel God’s joy.” There are some historical roots: early Puritans, who were anxious about whether God had elected them or not, worried about signs of salvation, about whether they felt God’s concerns, although this was never what John Calvin wanted with the doctrine of predestination. Later, in our history, revivalism looked to the “warming of the heart” as signs of salvation—which are certainly elements of Christian belief—but often excluded rationality and obedience.  Contemporarily, our obsession with feeling good has us wandering around for giddiness.
      So this fixation on feelings is not new to the Christian faith, and even as this country has become less Christianized, we are still obsessed with feelings. But we should know better. C. S. Lewis certainly did. He was convinced that our feelings often deceive, and true life begins when the rush of feelings lets off. As he wrote in a letter from 1950, “Obedience is the key to all doors: feelings come (or don’t come) and go as God pleases. We can’t produce them at will and mustn’t try.”[1]
As I’ve emphasized above, Lewis was not given over simply to intellectual abstraction either. He believed that what we know must affect our lives. In this way, he mirrors the biblical emphasis on the “heart” not as the arbiter of emotions, but as the center of action. So it’s neither feelings nor abstract cognition that matters. Eugene Peterson, when he paraphrases the Bible in The Messages gets it exactly right in his rendering of Galatians 5:25, “Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives” (italics are mine).[2] Mere ideas and changeable feelings do not themselves lead to action. Or as Lewis put in the mouth of Screwtape,
The great thing is to prevent his doing anything. As long as he does not convert it into action, it does not matter how much he thinks about this new repentance. Let the little brute wallow in it. Let him, if he has any bent that way, write a book about it… Let him do anything but act.[3] 
     All this sounds profoundly wise to me. Although I was struck by the rationality, as well as the imagination and emotion, in Lewis when I first read him as a teenager, these certainly weren’t the only element of his work that sustained me. In fact, as I’ve learned from him over the past thirty years, and as I’ve seen him work in the lives of my congregations, his wisdom has played a major role. Because wisdom speaks to the center of our lives—biblically speaking (not culturally speaking) “the heart”—wisdom leads to proper action. Being an eighteen year old, I needed a little wisdom, whether I felt like I needed it or not. Thirty years later they still speak to me and to those I’ve nurtured, taught, and counseled as their pastor. Lewis’s wisdom helped me grasp the crisis inherent in the tyranny of feelings. This is a crisis no one I’ve met escapes—it is a crisis inherent in the human condition—and Lewis speaks from wisdom, but he also sees the spiritual depth behind this crises.

Thrill, then work, then happiness
Lewis reminds us that most important activities in life begin with duty and end with joy.
      He offers that all good things—like love—start with emotion, but become better when work hard, become less enthralled, and move past mere feelings to where real enjoyment can be found. This is the path of obedience. For example, Lewis wrote to Edith Gates in 1944, “we have no power to make ourselves love God. The only way is absolute obedience to Him, total surrender. He will give us ‘feeling’ He pleases. But both when He does and when He does not, we shall gradually learn that feeling is not the important thing.”[4] In other words, feelings do not constitute our love for God; they are the result of obeying God. It is our will—or the center of action, which the Bible calls “the heart” (not to be confused with our emotions)—that is central to God. God wants to move us to action and that is why the heart matters to God.
      So feelings come and go. But when Lewis looked at the central form of Gift-love or charity, he described this as “an affair of the will.”[5] God “will give us feelings of love as He pleases. We cannot create them for ourselves, and we must not demand them as a right.”[6] In this regard, Lewis followed his great mentor, George MacDonald. When I did research Wheaton College’s Wade Collection, where Lewis’s own books are kept and are wonderfully available to researchers, I poured over Lewis’s own copy of George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons, I noted the places that Lewis underlined or set particular quotes in a type of index he created at the back of the book. In his sermon, “Suffered Unto Death,” MacDonald comments “A man does not live by his feelings any more than by bread, but by the Truth, that is, the Word, the Will, the uttered Being of God.”[7] Similarly, Lewis, built his near disdain for feelings on the conviction of God’s constancy. However we may feel, God’s love for us is certainly not subject to the vicissitudes of feelings: “Though our feelings come and go, God’s love for us does not.”[8] Lewis was marked by the insights of his mentor, including this in his anthology of MacDonald as well.[9]
      Faith—as the rest of Christian behavior—is about the will, guided by reason. When Lewis addresses faith in Mere Christianity, he notes that faith and reason may be overcome by emotion and imagination, just as when the anesthesiologist puts a mask on our face, a “childish panic” may begin even if reason tells me that I have nothing to fear and that anesthetics are useful. [10] And so, to be healed, we must submit to another. Incidentally, by noting Lewis’s comments on faith, I realize that I have slipped into categories that span “crises specific to Christians” and “crises for all human beings.” So, I admit again, these categories aren’t closed. The crisis of feeling is something we can’t escape. Yet what astounds me about Lewis is that he can write on Christian belief in a way that employs common human wisdom.
      Similarly with love: In his section on Christian marriage, he warns his listeners (and later his readers) that we cannot stay with the thrill of “being in love” with anything. Indeed, “People get from books the idea that if you have married the right person you may expect to go on ‘being in love’ for ever.”[11] As a result, they will change spouses when they no longer feel love, thinking they have made a mistake. But thrills come and go: “The sort of thrill a boy has at the first idea of flying will not go on when he has joined the R.A.F. and is really learning to fly.” And this is true throughout life, but we must remember it when we seek to love someone.
What is more (and I can hardly find words to tell you how important I think this), it is just the people who are ready to submit to the loss of the thrill and settle down to the sober interest, who are then most likely to meet new thrills in some quite different direction. The man who has learned to fly and become a good pilot will suddenly discover music; the man who has settled down to live in the beauty spot will discover gardening. 
How I wish our attention-deficit culture would head this insight. Here we meet that fundamental conviction that there is a progression: first thrill, then loss of thrill to be accompanied by hard work, then something really good, true happiness. I would also note—along the lines of experiences that all human beings share—Lewis uses flying and gardening, not playing the church organ and studying the Bible—to exemplify his point. I’m fairly certain he didn’t even have to make this decision. Life naturally was all under God’s watchful eye and grace. This is “one little part of what Christ meant by saying that a thing will not really live unless it first dies.” Let go of the thrill,
Let the thrill go — let it die away — go on through that period of death into the quieter interest and happiness that follow — and you will find you are living in a world of new thrills all the time…. It is much better fun to learn to swim than to go on endlessly (and hopelessly) trying to get back the feeling you had when you first went paddling as a small boy.[12]
This second paragraph perhaps evokes his minster-grandfather’s voice. Lewis takes it home—he makes a conclusion for the practical difference this insight makes to his readers’ (or even here, his congregation’s) lives. Most pertinent here: Lewis warns us that feelings come and go, but “the quieter interest and happiness that follow” come later. And we ought not to miss them… despite, I’m afraid, how many do today, if they live by the tyranny of feelings.

The Law of Undulation
One reason we cannot live by feelings is that they constantly change. “Knowledge can last, principles can last, habits can last; but feelings come and go.”[13] That is the nature of human life. Lewis believed that we live between various vicissitudes, which he dubbed “The Law of Undulation.” This I take to be one of Lewis’s signature insights. He put this into The Screwtape Letters, where the senior devil, Screwtape, is counseling his junior apprentice against making too much of dry periods in human beings for the purpose of temptation. Humans are half spirit and half animal, thus “amphibians.”
As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time. This means that while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for as to be in time means to change. Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation—the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks. If you had watched your patient carefully you would have seen this undulation in every department of his life—his interest in his work, his affection for his friends, his physical appetites, all go up and down. As long as he lives on earth periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness will alternate with periods of numbness and poverty. The dryness and dullness through which your patient is now going are not, as you fondly suppose, your workmanship; they are merely a natural phenomenon which will do us no good unless you make a good use of it.[14]
In this approach, Lewis is reminding us not to take our emotions—and more generally, our vicissitudes, our “undulations”—too seriously. In the low emotional times, Christians may be tempted to over-rate our low points as signs of spiritual weakness. But he believed that even anxieties are not sins. “They are afflictions, not sins. Like all afflictions, they are, if we can so take them, our share in the Passion of Christ.”[15] This is so because afflictions—or low points on the turbulent, “undulations” of life—are simply the nature of being human, not particular to Christian believers.
      The reality of our undulations means that, at other times, we simply need to take our afflictions less seriously. Listen to Lewis in what he wrote on 16 December 1947 to his good friend Owen Barfield, “Things have never been worse at The Kilns” and then offers this postscript: “Of course the real trouble is within. All things would be bearable if I were delivered from this internal storm (buffera infernal) of self-pity, rage, envy, terror, horror, and general bilge!”[16] Notice how this whole quote only makes sense with the light touch of “general bilge.” He doesn’t take all the other emotions—even grave ones like “rage” and “horror” too seriously. They are boundaried by “bilge,” just scummy water at the bottom of a ship. Sometimes our nasty moods constitute nothing more significant. As Screwtape also counseled about over-using a particular temptation (which is naturally good advice whether we recognize the spiritual nature of these experiences or whether they are simply annoying): “But don’t try this too long, for fear you awake his sense of humor and proportion, in which case he will merely laugh at you and go to bed.”[17] In fact, this is sound wisdom whether we admit there is a “Screwtape” behind all these undulations, or whether it’s simply the quality of life as we experience it.
      The opposite side of ledger holds up for Lewis as well: We should not overrate the good times. He has a superb phrase he picked up from the seventeenth century scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal on the Error of Stoicism: “thinking we can do always what we do sometimes.”[18] In other words, when we feel strong and robust, it is enticing (at least it is for me) to think this is normal. Furthermore, we might be tempted to applaud our moments of energy and contentedness as if they were somehow signs of our spiritual state. But that conclusion is equally foolish. Once again, taking in common human experience and thrills as just that—and not some reward for “walking victoriously with the Lord”—would silence some fairly silly statements I’ve heard… whether from others, or myself.

To “look at” or “along”
But there is at least more reason—and one central to Lewis’s own discoveries that led to happiness—we can’t even truly grasp our own feelings. In the end, we need not take our feelings overly seriously because they undulate, but also because we don’t even know what our feelings truly are. Human introspection is, at some level, worthless. We are terrible at understanding ourselves.
      In his little essay from 1945, “Meditations in the Toolshed,”[19] Lewis offered that we look along our feelings, or we cannot look at them. In this profound, subtle, and compact piece, Lewis reflects on seeing a beam of light through a crack in the toolshed. He found he could look at the beam and the dust particles floating in it, or along it to the outside, to the trees and the sun, million miles away. Both were useful, but he could not do both at the same time. “Looking at” and “looking along” follows Samuel Alexander’s distinction between contemplation and enjoyment, which he celebrates as a distinctive new insight in Surprised by Joy. To “enjoy” is simply to experience without further reflection. To “contemplate” is to reflect on our experience. The problem is that, once we contemplate in this sense, we have destroyed the experience of simply enjoying. “It seemed to me self-evident that one essential property of love, hate, fear, hope, or desire was attention to their object…. The enjoyment and the contemplation of our inner activities are incompatible.”[20] Lewis’s point is that neither is better than the other—although his contemporaries in the academic world privileged contemplation—but that we cannot do both simultaneously. As it relates to feeling, Lewis concluded that we cannot introspect and expect to grasp what we “truly are.” Once we look inside, we lose the feelings we want to find.
      Why do I bring that up here? Because Lewis firmly believed that we cannot trust our own feelings—as soon as we introspect, we change the feelings we are looking for. Furthermore, trying to endlessly discover the status of our feelings is a fool’s errand; we only discover contentment when we look outside ourselves and obey what God wants. When we engage our will, we can do the will of God.

I close this chapter with a prediction: I think many readers would find this an odd-ball. I honestly doubt many would consider these insights on the crisis of feelings as a signature achievement for Lewis. I even suspect that some might have considered this chapter an oddball. But I take them to be incredibly important for us, who live in a world over-run by the decision-making of feelings.
      I mentioned these insights to an older friend and more recent reader of Lewis. He was despondent in light of diminishing capacities. But he also found moments of elation. He wanted to know how this fit with his faith. I described how Lewis brought wisdom to these changes, these “undulations.” I thought also of this short vignette from The Chronicles of Narnia, in which Lewis’s brilliant mind weaves psychological depth with poignant clarity. In the installment, The Silver Chair, one of his favorite characters, Jill, has just experienced tragedy. She’s burdened by despair and starts to cry. She remains paralyzed. The narrator then offers this insight, “Crying is all right in its way while it lasts. But you have to stop sooner or later and then you still have to decide what to do.”[21] Only when Jill figures out what to do can the story proceed. I’ve found that helpful advice when I’m tempted by self-pity. I’ve found Lewis a valuable mentor when I’m faced with the crisis of everyday feelings

[1] Letter to Mary Van Deusen, 7 December 1950.
[2] Scripture taken from The Message. Copyright © by Eugene H. Peterson, 1993, 1994, 1995. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
[3] Screwtape Letters (SL), 67.
[4] Letter to Edith Gates, May 23, 1944.
[5] Mere Christianity (MC), 117.
[6] MC, 117-18.
[7] MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons (Longmans, Green, and Co., 1893), 141-2.
[8] MC, 118.
[9] George MacDonald: An Anthology, Edited with a preface by C. S. Lewis (Simon & Schuster, 1947), 13.
[10] MC, 122.
[11] MC, 100.
[12] MC, 100-1.
[13] MC, 99.
[14] SL, letter 8.
[15] Letters to Malcolm, 41.
[16] December 1947 letter.
[17] SL, 69-70.
[18] Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (New York: Harcourt, 1964), 11.
[19] “Meditation in the Toolshed,” God in the Dock, 212-15.
[20] Surprised by Joy, 218.
[21] The Silver Chair, 15.


Rachel HagEstad said...

I found this post while googling the source of a quote by CS Lewis that I had jotted down once without noting which book it came from. It happens to be Surprised By Joy which was one of my favorites during a period of grief. I really like this post bc it contains so many other good quotes and their sources. I'm posting a link on my Facebook blog page for my own future reference. I'd like to read through this again. Lots of good food for thought.

My Reflections said...

Thanks! Glad you found this post and liked it. Lewis is a great companion in times of crisis. A true gift of his...