Wednesday, November 28, 2018

During the Month of St. Clive

I write this as my community of Chico-Paradise is still feeling the devastation of the Camp Fire. This is also the "Month of St. Clive" (i.e., Clive Staples Lewis). So here's something to honor his memory and to celebrate his gift at speaking in times of crisis because he lived through many himself

I've adapted a piece I wrote that appeared in the Wall Street Journal a few years back.

November is a notable month for fans of C.S. Lewis: He was born on this day (29 November) in 1898 and left the world on the 22nd of the same month in 1963. The passing of this major figure in Christian thinking thus became a footnote to the day of President Kennedy’s assassination.

Lewis deserves to be remembered as one of the great lights of English academics for his scholarship on Medieval and Renaissance literature. But he is best known as a spokesman for Christianity. If anything, Lewis’s work is more widely read now than during his lifetime, thanks in part to the Hollywood films based on his landmark fantasy series, “The Chronicles of Narnia.” It appears that a fourth Narnia film is reportedly in the works.

His more theological books—such as The Screwtape Letters, in which devils discuss how to corrupt a well-meaning human—have broad appeal because they defend Christian belief by answering questions that a doubting public might be struggling with. Author Anthony Burgess once wrote that “Lewis is the ideal persuader for the half-convinced, for the good man who would like to be a Christian but finds his intellect getting in the way.”

The crises that Lewis faced were substantial (although to the best of my knowledge, he never faced a literal fire storm)—his mother’s death when he was 9; being sent to a series of boarding schools that he detested shortly thereafter; fighting and being wounded in World War I; living through the Great Depression and World War II; caring for his alcoholic brother; and, finally, the death of his wife, Joy. 

How did he work through those crises? His stepson, Douglas Gresham, comments on Lewis’s response to Joy’s death, 
“He did what he always did under extreme stress. He sat down at his desk, and looking into himself and carefully observing what was happening deep in his mind where we keep our inmost secrets, he picked up his pen and an old exercise book and began to write.” Douglas Gresham about his stepfather, C. S. Lewis
He wrote about the crises he faced with atheism, with the Christian faith and the crises he faced simply because he was human. Lewis tells us that he became an atheist around age 14, but that he sought something more. 
“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” C.S. Lewis
In his early 30s he became “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England,” as he put it. He struggled on his way to prominence as a champion of Christian orthodoxy, and that struggle animates his writing.

As he pondered conversion, Lewis grappled with his love of myth, which he called “at its best, a real unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination.” How could he believe in the Bible in light of all the other myths he treasured?

Here his love of literature helped him. “There is nothing in literature which does not, in some degree, percolate into life,” Lewis determined in his 1936 academic study The Allegory of Love.

He believed that the Bible was a book full of narratives and meaningful stories that “carries” the word of God and that derives its authority from Jesus Christ. He was not a fundamentalist, believing every word from scripture contains truth that's best uncovered through a literalist interpretation. Instead of literalism, Lewis interpreted the Bible as a literary text.

With the Bible as a source, Lewis took on crises that no human being can avoid—suffering, death and what one might call “the crisis of feeling.” The latter is that problem everyone faces when emotions simply don’t lead us to contentment. If life is supposed to feel good, what happens when it doesn’t? Feelings—particularly the emotional rush of life—remain for many the final arbiter of truth.

Yet Lewis found his feelings hard to handle when his wife died. Not only had he lost a
CSL (Hopkins) and Joy (Winger) in the film Shadowlands
cherished spouse, but he saw his own life replayed—Joy had two young sons whom she left behind at almost the same age as Lewis and his brother at their mother’s death. His searing honesty remains the most arresting feature of A Grief Observed, the book he wrote after Joy’s death: 

“Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him.” C.S. Lewis in A Grief Observed
But later in the book he resolved that even God does not respond to every inquiry: 
"When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of 'No answer.' It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.'" C. S. Lewis in A Grief Observed
Accepting that not every question receives an answer brought Lewis the resolution and peace that lie beyond human understanding. He put himself into the One who doesn't always give answers, but who is the Answer.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Camp Fire and Human Religious Impulses

When I first became a Christian, I thought that spiritual life was about doctrines and individual prayer and study of scripture. Then later, when I became a leader of a religious community--i.e., a pastor of a church--I realized the congregation cared more about narrative and ritual and community. 

And that led me to think about something: if we as human beings are marked by religion or spirituality, if we are homo religioso as the scholars would say, then it’s no surprise during the November 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise-Chico and our neighboring cities, our religious drives were present everywhere.

Let me put this another way: the bestselling author and scholar Stephen Prothero lists the four Cs that define religion: creed, cultus (or worship), code, and community. In this post I will focus on community. Because the Camp Fire has brought out our human drive to be with others—whether it’s at B Street or Secret Trail Brewery for a beer, more traditional religious settings like churches and synagogues, or even the Walmart impromptu shanty town, I simply have the sense that people want to be together. And that's the basis of religion. It's what draws us together as churches.

As a scholar of religion and science, I can’t help but think about what has created this drive for community in our evolutionary history. Fighting against other animals and the elements—like horrific firestorms—means that we do better when we band together. This is one of the surprises of evolution in the past two to three decades: the realization that we do better—and literally survive—when we band together. And that’s the evolutionary source for collaboration. We feel “warm, and safe, and dry” as I’ve heard in so many songs and poems. We also stay alive. And staying alive is the core of our religious instinct. Even more, religion and spirituality (I’m willing to use them interchangeably here) is about becoming fully alive or flourishing as human beings. 

Something that marks contemporary religious life, especially among 18-30 year olds, is a countervailing trend: what Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow has noted as individual religious “bricolage” or tinkering (and as I’ve written elsewhere.) In fact, the “I’m spiritual, not religious” slogan often means, among other things, that I create what I do for my soul. But this drive toward community needs commonality. A natural human response to trauma is to look for those who are like me because I need literal safety. And there’s where I sense the need for something closer to traditional religious life and the community it provides. 

This emerging adult tinkering is a beautiful and indelible contribution to American religious life. And, at times like this tragedy, of course we need to respect our individual experience. But we also need our shared humanity. It’s not the just the glory of our uniqueness, but also our community humanity, that we need to celebrate. 

(P.S. Some version of this will appear in the coming months in Chico State's Comparative Religion and Humanities newsletter.)

An offer

If you'd like to hear more from me weekly about how to flourish in faith and life in our contemporary technological and scientific age, send your email to And if your request it, I’ll send you my book on spiritual discernment, A Time for Yes: Enjoying What’s Best in Life, Work, and Love.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Lamott and Lewis In the Time of Tragedy

I write this as my community of Chico-Paradise continues to be hit by the devastation of the Camp Fire. (Incidentally, this is also the "Month of St. Clive," i.e., Clive Staples Lewis, and November 22, is the day he died.)

From a few different fronts, I've been asked to offer my insights on the Camp Fire. Right now, to be honest, I'm struggling with what to write. I'm not sure I have the words that meet this moment. All I seem to have is impressions. And so I turn to two others.

In trying to grasp that key virtue of hope in this time, I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s 
Almost Everything: Notes on Hopeand I loved this from her because it’s my experience right now in Chico, 
“The forty-three people who died in the catastrophic fires in Santa Rosa, California, in 2017 lost everything. The survivors lost almost as much: their homes, gardens, friends, property, pets. But they had one another. They had life. And they had us—shabby, busy us. The fire was a sword that cut away all the comfort and treasure in life, the illusion of the solidity of objects, which turns out not to be so solid after all. We saw devastation, of course, but we also witnessed holiness in the burned world and what was left standing—a fireplace, a heavily laden persimmon tree, pallets of bottled water from out of state, the sky. We saw humanity. Don’t get me wrong—it sucked. I believe I would grieve and wail forever if this happened to me. But I would be mistaken. I would come through, via friends, community, love, grace, relief efforts. We are flattened, we come through.” Anne Lamott
Giving thanks
I’ve learned that the tragedy is profound and devastating, but human compassion (as a gift God gives us to give to others) is powerful.

Secondly, in addition to hope, I also know that giving thanks is key. And really, that's where Lamott's reflections lead me. As I've said in other places, science has taught us that  gratitude is good for us. Which shouldn't surprise Christians who are reminded, "Give thanks in all circumstances" (1 Thessalonians 5:18). That's how God made us.

Ok, back to St. Clive. Something C.S. Lewis wrote has also recently come to mind. He reminded us about praise—and we could extend this to thanksgiving:
“Praise is inner health made audible.” C. S. Lewis

Even in times of tragedy, let’s be audible with our praise and thanks, as well as our hope. It's good for us and for those who need our care.

A question, an offer

I'm working on my list of subscribers who'd like to hear more from me about how to flourish in faith and life in our contemporary technological and scientific age. If you send your email to, I’ll send you my book on spiritual discernment, A Time for Yes: Enjoying What’s Best in Life, Work, and Love.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Camp Fire, Suffering, and St. Clive

The Camp Fire
These are this morning's statistics about the Camp Fire, centered in the next door town of Paradise (or what is left): 35% contained with 138,000 acres burned and 56 deaths. It is the most destructive and deadliest fire in California history. The smoky air, which is “hazardous” for health, presents a continual, oppressive atmosphere to those who live here and mirrors the weight of suffering of this area.

As a result of the fire, my class last night on C. S. Lewis at Chico’s Bidwell Presbyterian Church was cancelled. And the topic was Lewis on suffering—how did his writings speak to times like these? And maybe that’s a good place to go today. Because I often look to the Wisdom of St. Clive at times of stress… 

Why is that CSL can speak in times like this? We often think of Lewis as the Christian Answer Man, his Oxford-trained brain spinning out responses to life’s most difficult questions. So it’s worth saying that Lewis, even if he never (to my knowledge) experienced a raging fire, nonetheless faced significant crises and suffering—his mother’s death when he was nine; being shipped off soon after to a series of boarding schools that he detested; being wounded in World War I; living through the Great Depression and World War II; caring for an alcoholic and beloved brother; and, finally, the death of his wife, Joy. This man knew pain.

Here are the three points from Lewis on suffering.

Suffering calls us to be the response to others' pain
This is where we in Chico live right now. In Lewis's introduction to the heady Problem of Pain, which seeks to solve intellectual questions about suffering, he admitted that many things are more powerful than intellectual solutions: 
“When pain is to be born, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all.” C. S. Lewis
On a related note, this blog is frequently about science and faith. And I’m also going to have to admit that, at times like this, we want all the science and technology available  for those people fighting the fires. And yet right now, science by itself seems quite cold. We also want stories and companionship and rituals. That’s what our lives of faith and Christian community bring. 
Blankets for those who had lost their homes
Speaking of Bidwell Pres Monday I was with volunteer for the church’s pop up store downstairs where they were distributing clothing, blankets, etc. for people devastated by the fire. Worth noting is that not all volunteers, by any means, were BPC members. I was struck by how these tragedies are terribly powerful, but human compassion is greater still. We want to give and care. (This is something I learned during 9-11 when I was in New York City. In fact, this whole experience is very similar for me.) 

Human community is so important—a gift of God. I noted that Monday when I had a birthday beer with a friend at the Handlebar in Chico, and well, speaking of beer, a similar moment last night with some dear friends who lost their house in Paradise. Both times I felt like people around us were gathered there just wanted to be in a place where other human beings were alive and celebrating life. It's such a basic human need and, in many ways, the essence of religion (if I may use the category) and religious community. 
Bidwell Presbyterian's Pop Up Store

Suffering can lead us to hope
I remember when that a good friend Jim was in his final days. He knew that I loved Lewis (as he did) and that St. Clive had some amazing writing on heaven. So he asked me in the final weeks of his life: 
“Greg, can you give me some good stuff on heaven?”

Here’s one piece of Lewis that was good then and remains so in light of his impending death and this current devastation.
“The Christian doctrine of suffering explains, I believe, a very curious fact about the world we live in. The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment He has scattered broadcast.... The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God.... Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.” C. S. Lewis
It doesn’t get much better than that.

Suffering can form us.
In my book on C.S. Lewis and crisis, I wrote this, and thankfully, even after a few years, it still strikes me as accurate, 
“Lewis will not dwell on the abstract why question: Why does a good and powerful God allow for evil; instead he looks at how God uses suffering for a purpose—to make us better. This, given that God is omnipotent, seems to suggest that God causes suffering. Lewis instead emphasizes that the cost of freedom is that the world has suffering. God does not create it, but will use it for our good.”
Maybe in these times we can become better people as we reach out in compassion. I’ve found that the tragedy is profound and scary, but human compassion is even more powerful.

A profound prayer
There’s a prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi (not C. S. Lewis) that I heard at the end of the sermon Sunday and that I’ve been meditating on daily. It so beautifully summarizes the kind of people God wants us to be become.
Lord make me an instrument of your peace

Where there is hatred let me sow love

Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy
O divine master grant that I may
not so much seek to be consoled as to console
to be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it's in dying that we are born to eternal life

A question, an offer
I'm working on my list of subscribers who'd like to hear more from me about how to flourish in faith and life in our contemporary technological and scientific age. If you send your email to, I’ll send you my book on spiritual discernment, A Time for Yes: Enjoying What’s Best in Life, Work, and Love.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

On Head/Heart, Feelings/Thoughts, and the Dichotomies that Divide

Which is more important for human flourishing? Reason or emotion? (And since this was the election week, we can also ask which is more important for voting? Right now a good deal of political discourse concerns our emotions, especially our fears? Where are the ideas that guide our country?) C.S. Lewis was certainly concerned about how to relate those two key sides to human life. 

Learning from Lewis and several others, I'm worried about the dichotomies that unnecessarily divide.

It’ll take me a few steps to arrive at Lewis’s thought.
First of all, let me mention a theme I'm following through Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility in my humanities class. In this book the two sisters, Elinor and Marianne, represent common sense (or “sense”) and passions (or “sensibility”) respectively, and the question Austen raises is which one works better for human life. She was writing in the early 19thcentury when the glories of the scientific revolution and the rationality and objectivity of the Enlightenment had become challenged by Romanticism’s emphasis on emphasized the individual, the subjective, the irrational, the imaginative, the personal, the spontaneous, the emotional, the visionary, and the transcendental. 

This led me to ponder an age old question: Is it more human to think or to feel? And how different are they really?

Secondly, I came across an article on moral reason by Lauren Cassini Davis, “Do Emotions and Morality Mix?” in which she interviews the Harvard psychologist and philosopher, Joshua Green. Davis summarizes the core of this post so well:
“Emotions, like our love for our friends and family, are a crucial part of what give life meaning, and ought to play a guiding role in morality. Some say absolutely not: Cold, impartial, rational thinking is the only proper way to make a decision. Emotion versus reason—it’s one of the oldest and most epic standoffs we know.”

Of course, I’m not saying that every question between emotions and reason concerns morality, but making decisions forms a key part of human life and where reason and emotion fit is certainly a conversation that runs through C. S. Lewis’s reflections on Christian spirituality. 

Finally, if I’m allowed to quote myself (with some editing)—in this case, from C. S. Lewis and the Crisis of a Christian—I’d put this in:

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 introspection and seeing how the Lord is working and “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 the response John Calvin wanted to the doctrine of predestination. Later in our history, revivalism, particularly following John Wesley but not restricted him, looked to the “warming of the heart” as a sign of salvation—which is certainly an element of Christian belief—but that emphasis often excluded rationality and obedience. Contemporarily, our obsession with feeling good has us wandering around in search of giddiness.

All in all, this fixation on emotions isn't nothing new for American Christianity. 
My helper with this post, Boots the cat
Surprisingly, 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 that true life often 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.” C.S Lewis
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 paraphrased the Bible in The Message, gets it exactly right in rendering 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). 
Mere ideas and changeable feelings do not themselves lead to action. We can brood over feelings or mull over ideas forever.Neither state transforms our soul. Or as Lewis put in the mouth of Screwtape, his nephew Wormwood 
“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.”
Lewis sided with rationality, but even more, he knew that it was action that formed our lives. I would add that, without emotion, it’s hard for us to act as human beings.

And with that, I’m almost done for this post. And so I’ll simply add this: when I reflect on what Lewis has taught me about the spiritual life and what I’ve learned from Scripture. I have discovered: 
To be fully alive means to be ruled by neither emotion nor rationality, but for all of us to be transformed by the Holy Spirit.
And that—to my mind—is life as it’s meant to be lived. I’m thankful that St. Clive taught me so much along the way.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

C. S. Lewis and Karl Barth: Perfect Together… In Another World

Karl Barth was 12 years older than C. S. Lewis. (And lived 5 years longer.) They never met. And St. Clive was fairly sure he didn’t like Barth’s ideas anyway--although he probably only heard about Barth from a few students at Oxford. In any event, as far as I can tell, they never read each others' work.

But what’s odd is that, writing about the same time, they both deeply influenced the Christian church in the twentieth century (and beyond). 

Most importantly, they agreed on a common theme: 
There is another world far better than the one we inhabit—accessible through the imagination (for Barth through the biblical narrative and theological voices, for Lewis through the Bible and Christian humanists). And that world should inform and transform our lives in this world.
Karl Barth on these worlds
My Wednesday night C. S. Lewis class took a hiatus for Halloween, and so I’m able to step  back and reflect on a paper I’ve delivering for the Karl Barth Society of North America at the American Academy of Religion meeting next month. In it I look at Barth’s view of the world in his epic Romans commentary and what that specific term reveals about his theology. (Answer: a lot.) In Romans, commenting on the phrase “Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 1:4), Barth writes
“In this name [Jesus Christ] two worlds meet and go apart, two planes intersect, the one known and the other unknown.” Karl Barth (my bold)
And in that unknown other name and other world, we find true life and salvation. But where do we know about this other unknown world? It is through the Scripture, the Word of God—where we meet (as he declared in a talk of the same name) “the strange, new world within the Bible,” where God in Christ is present.

Imagination, our portal to this other world
And as I mentioned last week in this blog, Lewis's imagination was critical for understanding Jesus. (I use the term “critical” advisedly and somewhat ironically—this isn’t critical rationality, but what is critical imagination.) Grasping Jesus’s redemption meant that he took in Jesus is the “true myth.” And that is an act of imagination. 

And so I wonder, How we nurture our lives imaginatively? Are we able to bring together these two, seemingly opposite, aspects of human life?

For Barth, it would be immerse ourselves in the biblical narrative, not just one or two “favorite verses,” but the sweep of God’s story in Scripture. In some ways, Barth’s 13 volume Church Dogmatics is his spiritual reading of Scripture and how we grow and become formed by God's Word and world. 

For Lewis, steeped in the humanities, there is the Bible, but there is certainly more. And that’s why—if I had to chose—I prefer him as a spiritual source. Lewis certainly grasped the depth of Scripture. He also took in this reality from humanist and thus imaginative sources like John Donne, William Shakespeare, George Herbert, George MacDonald (who, for what it’s worth) has never really spoken to me) and even The Aeneid by Virgil. He also, in fact, imaginatively created the world of Narnia, and of space travel.

Christian life necessarily involves imagination. In writing this post, I came across a fascinating 2016 blog post on how Barth and Lewis had substantial agreement on the nature of “myth” in Christianity. The term myth didn't mean untrue tails, but to meaningful narratives. Myth is at the intersection of their thought. My interest lies in a slightly different direction. It is in the fact that, however rational, these two leading twentieth century Christian thinkers (and thinkers they were) both knew that Christian life and faith depended on more than rational thought alone. God indeed is accessible in these myths, these narratives, through the imagination.
“For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.” C.S. Lewis 
Can God speak through myths? Do we need our imagination to be fully alive in faith? To both questions both Lewis and Barth said Yes. And to be sure, they answered the How and Where in slightly different ways. And that's why both are still valuable for us today.