His reputation was mixed, for some he was thought to be outdated, populist, and theologically naïve, while others saw him as articulate, imaginative and both philosophically and theologically astute. November of 2013 will mark fifty years since the death of the famed and influential writer C.S. Lewis. Westminster Abbey in London will mark this anniversary with a memorial to be placed in “Poets Corner”. This is not to suggest that Lewis was a great poet but rather that his literary achievements are exceptional.
With this anniversary on the horizon I have taken some time to dip again into the writings of this engaging and gifted author and to read a little about what others have said. What I find particularly interesting are his accounts concerning how we get at the truth about things.
From the early years of World War II through the 1950s Lewis was viewed as the foremost Christian apologist. Fundamental to his apologetic was a strong sense of the human condition. His considerable exposure to literature since early childhood provided sharpened intuition and exceptional wisdom about people.
It was clear to Lewis that we are not the heroic self-sufficient individuals many would like to believe – but rather are all bumbling mortals entangled by desire, uncertain how best to order our lives. For Lewis this kind of self-understanding was an important component in the process of discovering what is true.
When Lewis engaged in apologetics it was not an effort to demonstrate some set of creedal beliefs, these are secondary. He was less interested in the details than in the overall vision. The analytic capacity of reason was only one tool in the box.
In addition to reason Lewis attended to the reality of human longing and the gift of imagination. His efforts to argue in favour of Christian faith were not bound to rational argument. Lewis had far too fertile an imagination to feel fully at home in the flatland of rationality. He was intent on extending the borders of reason to include human desire and imagination.
In his autobiography Surprised by Joy, Lewis succinctly articulates the dilemma he experienced in his own effort to understand the world.
“The two hemispheres of my mind were in sharpest contrast: on the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow ‘rationalism’.”
Reason as he speaks of it here, has the characteristic of insistence – allowing one only to accept what passes in reason’s court while the poetic invites you into a less rigid more expansive world.
The subject of human longing (Sehnsucht) or desire played a key role for Lewis. He famously wrote:
“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.”
There is a considerable literature on the subject of human longing much of it unrelated to religious sensibilities. But there is also Augustine’s observation about the restless heart – unsettled until if finds its rest in God. One significant expression of longing is what Lewis calls Joy. There is no easy definition of Joy but the experience serves as a pointer to the possibility that there is something more. Not so much a person as a place. Joy is to be distinguished from happiness or pleasure as these are within our power while Joy is not. Lest we think that Joy is a superficial matter we are told that it might almost equally be called a kind of unhappiness or grief.
Further, Lewis writes:
“Joy is distinct not only from pleasure in general but from even aesthetic pleasure. It must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing.”
Lewis did not feel fully at home in the house of reason as he could not ignore the draw of human longings and what they signaled about the limits of the natural world nor could he neglect the powerful presence and work of imagination. Apologetics is all too often about propositions and not often enough about meaning, value and identity.
These more existential elements are better addressed through imagination. Only a small portion of the rich tapestry of human experience can be discerned through the employment of reason. There is so much more to be discovered. Lewis was captivated by the compelling narrative of Christianity and its capacity to make the diversity of human experience meaningful. The Christian narrative is best grasped through the imagination which discerns the coherence and depth of the story. As Lewis notes,
“I believe the sun has risen not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.”
In a similar way Christian faith is the light by which we shape our experience of the world into meaningful perspective. Dipping again into the work of C S. Lewis has brought fresh understanding of his holistic approach to knowledge and faith. But I have also discovered that the land he occupies is a land familiar to Imago.
Imago’s founder Wilber Sutherland served on the Board of the C. S. Lewis Foundation and was well conversant with the thought of Lewis. My hunch is that the initiative that is called Imago has some debt to C. S. Lewis.
Art is one important location to influence our desires and engage our imaginations – Christian faith is another. The coming together of these two is at the heart of the vision of Imago.