Wright on Lewis and some quibbles

Readers might be interested in this critical appreciation of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity by none other than N.T. Wright (who’s own Simply Christian has been called a Mere Christianity for the twenty-first century).

Wright has much praise for Lewis of course, as well as some criticism. Some of the criticism hits the target, some of it not so much. I think Wright is, uh, right to point out that Lewis didn’t really engage with Jesus’ Jewishness and his proclamation of the Kingdom. I think that, to the extent that Lewis wrote about Jesus’ teaching and ministry, he generally portrayed Jesus as enunciating something like universal truths (Lewis, to be fair, was hardly alone in this).

However, I’m less impressed by Wright’s criticism of Lewis’s views on heaven. Lewis no doubt had a strong Platonic streak (which I don’t necessarily consider a bad thing), but I think Wright underplays the way in which, for Lewis, the heavenly realm is more like the material world brought to fruition than a kind of “spiritual” or purely intellectual escape from the physical that some people have imagined. Granted that Wright is just writing about Mere Christianity here, but I think to get a fuller picture of Lewis’s views on the afterlife one would need to attend at least to The Great Divorce, “The Weight of Glory,” and maybe even The Last Battle.

Part of the problem, too, is that Wright treats the “biblical” view of the world to come as clearer and more univocal than I, at any rate, find it to be. There have been a multiplicity of ways that Christians have tried to describe or make sense of “heaven,” “the new heavens and new earth,” and other expressions for the ultimate consummation of all things. And this is no doubt partly becuase the “biblical” view on such matters is not obvious, not to mention that we’re dealing with realities that are so far removed from ordinary experience that we quickly run up against the limitations of our language and concepts.

As Lewis himself was well aware, the Bible doesn’t give us a literal picture of the resurrection life, but gives us images that point to essential features of it:

The promises of Scripture may very roughly be reduced to five heads. It is promised, firstly, that we shall be with Christ; secondly, that we shall be like Him; thirdly, with an enormous wealth of imagery, that we shall have “glory”; fourthly, that we shall, in some sense, be fed or feasted or entertained; and, finally that we shall have some sort of official position in the universe—ruling cities, judging angels, being pillars of God’stemple. (The Weight of Glory, p. 34)

Lewis goes on to explore what these images might indicate, but he’s not dogmatic about describing in any great detail what this will look like. And for good reason – the images we’re given in Scripture – the banquet, the New Jerusalem, the wedding feast, etc. – are hardly conducive to detailed maps of the afterlife. The point being that dismissing Lewis as simply baptizing Plato doesn’t really do justice to his reflection on the matter.

Any Christian view of the afterlife, it seems to me, has to deal with the tension between change and continuity. We look for the resurrection of the body, but it’s also the resurrection of the body. That is, the New Testament posits both continuity with the present life and radical change (“what we will be has not yet been revealed,” “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body”). Lewis may not successfully navigate this tension, but I think he was aware of it and tried to do justice to both poles.

The other point at which I think Wright is a bit unfair to Lewis is in discussing the Atonement:

Lewis is right to stress that Christians are not committed to one single way of understanding the meaning of the Cross, and that as long as one somehow looks at the death of Jesus and understands it in terms of God’s love and forgiveness, that is sufficient to start with.

But his idea—that (a) God requires humans to be penitent, that (b) we can’t because of our pride, but that (c) Jesus does it in and for us—though ingenious, places in my view too high a value on repentance (vital though it of course is), implies again that soteriology is about God doing something in us rather than extra nos (though I think Lewis believed that as well, but he doesn’t expound it here), and minimizes all the other rich biblical language about the Cross, not least the Christus Victor theme.

Wright is correct that Lewis puts this account of the Atonement forward strictly as a way of thinking about the mystery that he has personally found helpful, and he even encourages the readers to “drop it” if they don’t. Lewis was very careful for the most part not to get into the finer points of dogmatic theology. We see this in his discussion of the Eucharist too. The important bit is the thing itself, not our theories about it. As Lewis says in his discussion of the Eucharist, the command is “take, eat,” not “take, understand.”

That being said, I don’t think, even at the level of theological reflection, Lewis can fairly be accused of neglecting the notion that on the Cross God does something extra nos. It’s often been observed, for instance, that The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe works with a notion of Atonement that seems to combine elements of the traditional “ransom” theory as well as the satisfaction theory. Whatever one thinks of those theories, they are strongly “objective” in emphasizing a work that Jesus (Aslan) accomplished for us without our cooperation. Again, Wright is only directly discussing Mere Christianity, but it seems fair to point out that Lewis seems to have had a more multifaceted understanding of the Atonement than Wright implies.

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4 thoughts on “Wright on Lewis and some quibbles

  1. Joshie (Poo) says:

    “Wright is correct that Lewis puts this account of the Atonement forward strictly as a way of thinking about the mystery that he has personally found helpful, and he even encourages the readers to “drop it” if they don’t. Lewis was very careful for the most part not to get into the finer points of dogmatic theology.”

    Alas, Wright (Like Borg, Crossan and many others) often seems unable to realize when he’s out of his depth. Witness his comments on politics and attempts at theology. Lewis, to his credit, was, at least on that point.

  2. Wright occupies a unique position because he’s a top-notch biblical scholar and a popular writer and apologist (Which is part of his job as a bishop, right? To teach the faith.) So his clout as a scholar naturally gives a certain heft to his theology that a layman like Lewis, who was largely trained in classics and literature, lacks. But, as you point out, a biblical scholar doesn’t necessarily a theologian make (and vice versa naturally).

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