No doubt readers are getting a bit tired of this, but the Lewis letters are so bloggable. Maybe because, at least as they appear in the book, they’re almost like blog-entries themselves.
In the fall of 1931 Lewis is on the verge of embracing Christianity. In September he’d had an important conversation with Hugo Dyson and Tolkien about the importance of myth and how Christianity is the “true myth.”
In October he writes to his good friend Arthur Greeves:
What has been holding me back (at any rate for the last year or so) has not been so much a difficulty in believing as a difficulty in knowing what the doctrine meant: you can’t believe a thing while you are ignorant what the thing is. My puzzle was about the whole doctrine of Redemption: in what sense the life and death of Christ “saved” or “opened salvation to” the world. I could see how miraculous salvation might be necessary […]. What I couldn’t see was how the life and death of Someone Else (whoever he was) two thousand years ago could help us here and now — except in so far as his example helped us. And the example business, tho’ true and important, is not Christianity: right in the centre of Christianity, in the Gospels and St Paul, you keep on getting something quite different and very mysterious expressed in those phrases I have so often ridiculed (“propitiation” — “sacrifice” — “the blood of the Lamb”) — expressions wh. I cd only interpret in senses that seemed to me either silly or shocking.
Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself (cf. the quotation opposite the title page of Dymer) I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose “what it meant.”
Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call “real things”. Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a “description” of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The “doctrines” we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that wh. God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. Does this amound to a belief in Christianity? At any rate I am now certain (a) That this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approached the other myths. (b) That it is the most important and full of meaning. I am also nearly certain that it really happened… (pp. 288-9)
Lewis picks up on this distinction between the thing itself and the doctrines about it later in Mere Christianity where, in his chapter on Redemption, he emphasizes that the theories about the Atonement are not the objects of belief, but the event itself:
Theories about Christ’s death are not Christianity: they are explanations about how it works. […] A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works: indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he has accepted it.
We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed. Any theories we build up as to how Christ’s death did all this are, in my view, quite secondary: mere plans or diagrams to be left alone if they do not help us, and, even if they do help us, not to be confused with the thing itself. (pp. 54-56)
What I find intriguing here is Lewis’s insistence that the “true myth” itself can “work on us” without our having an explicit theory about how it works. On the face of it, this makes a lot of sense. Many (perhaps most?) Christians throughout history have no doubt enjoyed Christ’s benefits without having much in the way of an explicit theory of Atonement. Maybe it’s a legacy of intellectualistic Protestantism to put so much emphasis on holding the correct doctrine. More sacramental forms of Christianity have always believed that the benefits of Christ’s work come to us in tangible (edible!) forms, not just through understanding.
Of course, there’s a danger in reducing Christianity to a kind of “magic;” there must, we think, be some cognitive element. An interesting question is raised here about people who are severely mentally handicapped and may have little or no grasp of doctrine. Surely we don’t think that precludes them from being beneficiaries of Christ’s work? But, leaving aside these hard cases, it does seem that an understanding of the “how” might not be completely “separable” from the “what.” There might be understandings of the Atonement, for instance, that are so wrong-headed that they preclude a decent grasp on what Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection do for us. And it’s not clear to me at least that believing that “Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself” doesn’t entail some further beliefs about how this works. “Narrative” and “story” have become important notions in some recent theology, but is first-order narrative sufficient without some second-order doctrinal reflection?