Ward and Lewis on post-mortem repentance and the possibility of universal redemption

…it is a fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel to suppose that, though violence is prohibited in this age, it will be perfectly acceptable in the age to come. The German writer Friedrich Nietzsche called this resentissement, the desire for delayed revenge, the belief that we might have to suffer persecution now, but God will take revenge in the end. The true Christian perception is that the cross of Christ is God’s last word on violence. The divine love will never turn into divine hatred. It will go as far as possible to bring people to divine life, and it will always seek the welfare of every sentient being. And that is the last word.

–Keith Ward, Re-thinking Christianity, pp. 41-42

Interestingly, Ward doesn’t think this rules out the idea of hell, at least in a qualified sense. He says that God cannot force people to embrace the path of love against their will. “[I]t is possible for rational creatures to exclude themselves from love, and therefore from the divine life” (p. 42). As a result, people might find themselves, after death, in a hell of their own making where they experience the consequences of the choices they have made. Nevertheless, he believes that the divine love remains insistent in trying to draw people into repentance, and that such repentance is possible even in hell. “A God of unlimited love would go to any lengths to persuade them to return to the path of eternal life, and to help them on that path” (p. 42).

This sounds similar to the view of hell sketched by C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce–people are in hell because they won’t choose to let go of their sins, their hatreds, the resentments. But they could. Purgatory and hell are not two separate realms (as in Dante); the difference is whether one chooses to leave. Lewis also imaginatively depicts God’s grace trying to draw people back. In his telling this takes the form of redeemed humans–usually people that the damned knew in the earthly life–entreating them to come “higher up and further in.”

Where I’m not sure Ward and Lewis would agree is whether there is, at some point, a moment of decision after which one’s eternal destiny is fixed. Both deny that such a moment occurs before death–in both Lewis and Ward post-mortem repentance is a possibility. But Lewis seems more inclined to think that there is a moment when one decides decisively for or against God. (His book is called The Great Divorce, after all.) Ward, on the other hand, seems more optimistic that the divine love will never give up on the unrepentant and that universal salvation is something to be hoped for.

Thoughts on atonement (with some help from Gerald O’Collins, James B. Torrance, and C.S. Lewis)

I’ve been reading and thinking about the Atonement (i.e., the work of Christ in reconciling us to God) again lately, so I thought I’d jot something down on how I see things. The view I’m now inclined toward is that “Abelardian” and “Anselmian” theories of atonement are complementary rather the mutually exclusive. An Abelardian view emphasizes the revelation of God’s love for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the power of this outpouring of love to move our hearts to repentance. By contrast, the Anselmian view emphasizes Jesus’ role as offering on behalf of us all the perfect human response of love God the Father. This is a response that we, mired in sin and brokenness, are unable to make. By being joined with Christ in faith and baptism, we participate in his act of self-offering. (The Anselmian view needs to be carefully distinguished from the penal substitutionary view.)

In short, the Atonement is bidirectional: there is a movement from the side of God toward humanity, in revealing and pouring out the divine love and forgiveness. And there is a movement from humanity toward God, in the self-offering of Jesus, which makes it possible for us to share, by adoption, in his filial relationship with the Father. The kicker is that both aspects of this divine-human reconciliation are products of God’s grace.

In his review of Gerald O’Collins’ excellent book Jesus our Redeemer, Robert Imbelli summarizes this nicely:

Facile categorizations and contrasts, happily, find no place in O’Collins’s catholic vision. Thus, for example, both Anselm and Abelard receive an appreciative hearing. “Anselm,” O’Collins writes, “laid fresh stress on the humanity and human freedom of Christ, who spontaneously acts as our representative and in no way is to be construed as a penal substitute who passively endured sufferings to appease the anger of a ‘vindictive’ God.” Abelard’s insistence upon love as the key to redemption “shows how salvation is not primarily a ‘process,’ and even less a ‘formula,’ but a person, or rather three persons acting with boundless love.” Both Anselm’s sense of the depth of sin’s dysfunction and Abelard’s sensitivity to the height of redeeming Love provide irreplaceable elements of a comprehensive approach to salvation.

Scottish Reformed theologian James B. Torrance (younger brother of the more famous T.F. Torrance) helps clarify this bidirectional aspect of the work of Christ in his book Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace. Torrance emphasizes the “God-humanward and human-Godward relationship (movement), both freely given to us in Jesus Christ”:

Grace does not only mean that in the coming of Jesus Christ, God gives himself in holy love to humanity. It also means the coming of God as man–to present us in himself through the eternal Spirit to the Father. (p. 53)

Torrance notes that to forgive sin implies judgment. This is because if there’s no guilt, then there’s no need for forgiveness. Forgiveness is “logically prior” to repentance. It is the forgiveness itself that clearly reveals the guilt in the one being forgiven. And this is what elicits repentance. Torrance contrasts “legal repentance,” where repentance is understood as a precondition for forgiveness, with “evangelical repentance,” which occurs as a result of being forgiven. When we truly repent, we submit to the verdict of being guilty–we acknowledge that we need forgiveness. Thus repentance is one part of the total act of reconciliation or atonement (at-one-ment).

However, because of our brokenness, we can’t repent as we should, if we understand repentance as a “real change of mind, an act of penitence…(metanoia), conversion, reconciliation” (p. 55). This is why God, in his grace, provides a means of making repentance:

God in Christ has spoken to us his word of forgiveness, his word of love which is at the same time the word of judgment and condemnation, the word of the cross. But implicit in our receiving of the word of grace and forgiveness, the word of the Father’s love, there must be on our part, a humble submission to the verdict of guilty. It was for our sins that Christ died. That lies at the heart of the Reformation understanding of grace–of “evangelical repentance.” But who can make that perfect response of love, that perfect act of penitence, that perfect submission to the verdict of guilty? What we cannot do, God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ stands in for us in our humanity, in our name, on our behalf, to make that perfect submission to the Father. That is the wonder of God’s grace! God not only speaks the word of forgiveness to us. He also provides for us one, in Jesus Christ, who makes the perfect response of vicarious penitence. So God accepts us, not because of our repentance–we have no worthy penitence to offer–but in the person of one who has already said amen for us, in death, to the divine condemnation of our sin–in atonement. (pp. 55-6)

Jesus’ entire life–his ministry, his passion, and his death on the cross–is this perfect response of love. This dovetails with seeing the Incarnation as creating a “new Adam,” or as “recapitulating” human existence without succumbing to the temptations and snares of the Evil One. In Jesus, God gets the human project back on track. As Anselm argued, the true “dishonor” that sin causes is that it threatens to derail God’s plans for his creation. Because God won’t allow that to happen, the Son becomes incarnate in human flesh to restore God’s intentions to bring creation to fulfillment.

As C.S. Lewis put it in Mere Christianity, repentance is the whole process of surrendering our selves, of offering them back to God. This is not some legal requirement; it’s just what constitutes turning back to God. And this is what God in Christ does–blazes the trail back to the Father as it were. “He could surrender His will, and suffer and die, because He was man; and He could do it perfectly because He was God” (“The Perfect Penitent,” Mere Christianity, p. 58). This entire movement, from God to humanity and back, is the manifestation in history of the very triune life of God, into which we are drawn by God’s grace.

An experiment in apologetics

Camassia recently wrote a post following up on a discussion we were having here about religious pluralism, specifically with regard to Marjorie Suchocki’s book Divinity and Diversity (see my original post here). One of the issues that came up in the ensuing discussion was whether affirming religious pluralism means you’re excluded from contending for truth of your own views. Does it just mean affirming everyone in their okayness?

This got me thinking about what apologetics would look like if it were conducted in a context that took full account of religious pluralism. A few months back, Christopher tipped me off to Krister Stendahls’ “rules” for interreligious dialogue:

(1) When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
(2) Don’t compare your best to their worst.
(3) Leave room for “holy envy.” (By this, Stendahl seems to have meant that we should be open to finidng attractive or truthful elements in other religions that aren’t necessarily present in our own.)

These principles pose some seriously critical questions to much of what sails under the flag of Christian apologetics. It seems to me that apologetics has rarely–if ever–been undertaken in the spirit of Stendahl’s rules. It’s almost irresistible for the apologist to give short shrift to other traditions in order to make his case look stronger. But a truly responsible apologetics would have to enter into a deep and sympathetic understanding of other traditions, something along the lines of what Stendahl suggests.

Doing this well would require the cultivation of certain virtues: charity, open-mindedness, empathy, intellectual honesty, and so on. It would require the apologist to actually talk to adherents of other religions, to ask them why they believe what they believe and do what they do. It would require being open to correction on one’s understanding of that tradition. But at this point it appears that something like inter-religious dialogue is actually a part of, or at least a prerequisite for doing honest apologetics.

And I wonder if we can take this a step further. I wonder if the best form of apologetics for a world of religious pluralism is what we could call “imaginative apologetics.” That is, rather than trying to produce rationally coercive arguments, this form of apologetics would elaborate a “thick” description of Christian faith and life, one that would invite imaginative sympathy, i.e., one’s interlocutor would be invited to see the world through “Christian eyes.”

As the name suggests, I’m inspired in this suggestion by C.S. Lewis, who as I noted the other day, has been called an “imaginative theologian.” This is bolstered by my recent reading of Lewis’s Experiment in Criticism, in which he argues that good literature invites the reader to experience the world from a new point of view:

We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. We are not content to be Leibnitzian monads. We demand windows. Literature as Logos is a series of windows, even of doors. (Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, pp. 137-8)

Correlatively, then, good reading for Lewis is being receptive to entering into this new perspective. Analogously then, in the realm of inter-religious dialogue, we should be willing to provide an imaginative description of our own religious worldview and open to entering imaginatively into the worldview of others.

Another thing to be said for this view is that it recognizes that general views of the world (whether religious or not) don’t admit of the kind of rational demonstration we might like, and they all have their own unresolved problems. So we shouldn’t expect to establish their truth in a straightforward way, whether deductively or inductively. It’s more a matter of imaginatively assuming or adopting a particular perspective, and looking at the world through it, to see the world in a new, and possibly more satisfying (intellectually, morally, aesthetically, etc.) way. (Although Lewis might have had a more rationalistic understanding of his own apologetic works, if one looks at the Lewis corpus as a whole, one sees that he was a master of just this kind of imaginative apologetics.)

And it’s at just this point that the line between what I’m calling imaginative apologetics and dialogue starts to get fuzzy. Both involve articulating the deep wellsprings of our own faith and offering it to the other for her consideration. And both require, in turn, a receptiveness to the other’s perspective. We can’t predict in advance whether the outcome will be her adopting our perspective or us adopting hers, or possibly some kind of mutual modification of views. But this seems consistent with the Christian view that conversion is ultimately a mystery and a matter for the Holy Spirit.

C.S. Lewis as imaginative theologian

In the introduction to the Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis, editor Robert MacSwain considers whether a volume on Lewis even belongs in the Cambridge series on religion, rather than, say, literature, which was after all Lewis’s day job and primary area of expertise. Moreover, academic theologians have generally ignored, if not disdained, Lewis and his contributions to theology. MacSwain suggests that what might be needed is an expansion of our concept of theology beyond the familiar academic model:

[I]t may … be the case that Lewis should rightly be considered in this particular series because he has, in fact, expanded the genre of theology to include the imaginative works for which he is so famous. Thus, instead of an amateur, dilettante theologian who cannot possibly be considered in the same league as, for example, Barth, Gutierrez or Moltmann, Lewis might rather be seen (a la Kierkegaard) as a deliberately ‘indirect’ theologian, as one who works by ‘thick description’ or evocative images, operating in multiple voices and genres, through which a single yet surprisingly subtle and complex vision emerges. Yes, of course it is ludicrous to compare Lewis’s Mere Christianity to Barth’s Church Dogmatics–but perhaps it is equally ludicrous to let Barth define the character of all theology. And when Lewis’s entire output is considered as a whole, the comparison might not be so ridiculous after all. Lewis cannot possibly count as a theologian on the Barthian model, but he may nevertheless offer a model of theological expression which needs to be appreciated on its own terms. (pp. 8-9)

The books itself includes essays on all aspects of Lewis’s output (as scholar, thinker, and writer) from top-notch figures in various fields. Theology is represented by Kevin Vanhoozer, Paul Fiddes, and Stanley Hauerwas among others. And the volume as a whole certainly makes a persuasive case for taking Lewis seriously as a thinker (i.e., not someone to be uncritically venerated or dismissed).

The radical Lewis

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that many C. S. Lewis fans–maybe especially his many evangelical admirers–don’t know that Lewis wrote a pamphlet for the British Anti-Vivisection Society. This essay, reprinted later in God in the Dock, anticipates some key arguments since made by philosophical proponents of animal rights.

Lewis posits a dilemma for the defender of animal experimentation: either they hold that humans are metaphysically superior to (non-human) animals (he identifies this with the Christian view), or they believe that there is no inherent metaphysical difference between humans and other animals (he calls this the naturalistic or Darwinian view).

If one takes the first view, Lewis argues, it by no means follows that humans are entitled to treat animals any way they wish. “We may find it difficult to formulate a human right of tormenting beasts in terms which would not equally imply an angelic right of tormenting men” (“Vivisection,” God in the Dock, reprinted in The Collected Works of C. S. Lewis, p. 452). Or, we might add, an extraterrestrial right of tormenting men. Further, “we may feel that though objective superiority is rightly claimed for man, yet that very superiority ought partly to consist in not behaving like a vivisector” (p. 452). This turns the superiority argument on its head; Andrew Linzey has also made much of this line of thinking (see his Animal Theology and Why Animal Suffering Matters, among other works).

Of course, as Lewis notes, most of those who experiment on animals are not Christians with a belief in the metaphysical superiority of humanity, but Darwinian naturalists who see humans as just one species of animal among many (albeit one with certain unique characteristics). “We sacrifice other species to our own not because our own has any objective metaphysical privilege over others, but simply because it is ours” (pp. 452-3). But Lewis is quick to point out that if there is no great metaphysical gulf separating human from non-human animals, what reason is there to draw the line at the species barrier? If all that justifies our preference for our own species is sentiment, than wouldn’t sentiment also justify a preference for our own nation, class, or race? “Once the old Christan idea of a total difference in kind between man and beast has been abandoned, then no argument for experiments on animals can be found which is not also an argument for experiments on inferior men” (p. 453).

This argument similar to the one known as the “argument from marginal cases”–i.e., many non-human animals have the same cognitive abilities as so-called marginal humans (e.g., the severely mentally handicapped), so why are we justified in, say, experimenting on animals but not in experimenting on “marginal case” humans?

Of course, it’s open to the naturalist to admit the force of the argument and accept that we aren’t justified in experimenting on “marginal” humans or non-human animals. (James Rachels takes such an approach in his book Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism.) But this just concedes Lewis’s main point: once you do away with the “metaphysical” distinction between humans and animals, there is no rational ground for treating humans and non-human animals differently simply because they belong to different species.

Annals of Lewisania

Saw the movie “An Education” yesterday. A small subplot turns on one of the characters pretending to know C.S. Lewis and forging an autograph on a copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Debate ensues about whether he goes by “Clive” or “C.S.” I know that he went by “Jack” with friends and family, and the letters I’ve seen are usually signed “C.S. Lewis,” “C.S.L.,” or “Jack.” Did he ever go by “Clive”?

C.S. Lews on democracy and authority

I believe in political equality. But there are two opposite reasons for being a democrat. You may think all men so good that they deserve a share in the government of the commonwealth, and so wise that the commonwealth needs their advice. That is, in my opinion, the false, romantic doctrine of democracy. On the other hand, you may believe fallen men to be so wicked that not one of them can be trusted with any irresponsible power over his fellows.

That I believe to be the true ground of democracy. I do not believe that God created an egalitarian world. I believe the authority of parent over child, husband over wife, learned over simple to have been as much a part of the original plan as the authority of man over beast. I believe that if we had not fallen, Filmer would be right, and partiarchal monarchy would be the sole lawful government. But since we have learned sin, we have found, as Lord Acton says, that “all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The only remedy has been to take away the powers and substitute a legal fiction of equality. The authority of father and husband has been rightly abolished on the legal plane, not because this authority is in itself bad (on the contrary, it is, I hold, divine in origin), but because fathers and husbands are bad. Theocracy has been rightly abolished not because it is bad that learned priests should govern ignorant laymen, but because priests are wicked men like the rest of us. Even the authority of man over beast has had to be interfered with because it is constantly abused. (C.S. Lewis, “Membership,” from The Weight of Glory, pp. 168-7)

I agree with Lewis that democracy (by which I think he would have agreed that he meant limited, constitutional democracy) is grounded in the sinfulness of human beings. Because we are not only frail, ignorant, and limited, but because we are sinful, our power over each other has to be circumscribed. However, I disagree that the kinds of authority he mentions are part of God’s original plan for things, at least as we would likely be tempted to understand it. If anything, I’m inclined to say that men’s “authority” over women is the consequence of sin, not God’s intention. Even a “benign,” paternalistic rule, while perhaps preferable to outright tyranny, falls short of the ideal as a description of a relationship between equals.

Children and animals are different cases for obvious reasons. Though even here there are qualifications. The “rule” of parent over child is generally agreed to be for the sake of the child’s good. The same, I would argue, is the case for animals. What I think a genuinely Christian notion of “lordship” requires is a subversion of any “vulgar Aristotelian” notion that the “lower” exists for the sake of the “higher” (I don’t think Aristotle himself would have given unqualified endorsement to it, but it’s a sentiment that has sometimes creeped into Christian theology under the authority of Aristotle). Andrew Linzey comes closer to the mark when he describes human beings as the “servant species,” with a lordship patterned after the one who came to serve, not to be served. I think this calls into question the idea that animals can simply be used for our good (however “humanely” we do so). If anything, an unfallen world would be more like an anarchy than a monarchy, at least as far as relations among creatures go. It would be characterized by mutual love and service without the need for coercive restraint.

In defense of C.S. Lewis

Via Catholic blogger Mark Shea I came across this article arguing that J.R.R. Tolkien’s lukewarm response to C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series is rooted in something deeper than aesthetic preference. The author, Eric Seddon, contends that Tolkien’s intense dislike of Lewis’ Letters to Malcolm (which Tolkien called “a distressing and in parts horrifying work”) indicates deeper theological differences between the two men, which may account for Tolkien’s lack of enthusiasm for Narnia.

I’m far from being of the “C.S. Lewis is infallible” school of thought, but I think Seddon levels some inaccurate and unfair criticisms against Lewis in the course of comparing Lewis’ and Tolkien’s theological views. The heart of Seddon’s argument is that Malcolm is, in several places, a thinly disguised anti-Catholic polemic and that this same theological vision lies at the heart of the Narnia books, which explains Tolkien’s evaluation of them.

Seddon scores some points, I think, when he says that Malcolm‘s form as one side of a fictional correspondence allows Lewis to bring up his differences with Catholicism while appearing to be doing so only under pressure from his correspondent. Seddon correctly notes that this form can disguise the fact that it’s Lewis who decides which topics are brought up for discussion (since there is no Malcolm). So, for instance, when “Malcolm” criticizes Lewis’ views on devotion to saints Lewis is able to offer a criticism of the “Roman” view in the course of defending his own views on the matter.

In this carefully balanced literary structure, which is a monologue cast as one side of a dialogue, we find Lewis’s most overtly Anglican work. It is filled with theological barbs–most of them aimed at Roman Catholicism. As such it provides us with the very clearest contrast between his and Tolkien’s beliefs. Reading the book from the Roman Catholic perspective of Tolkien, it is not difficult to glean what aspects of it might have distressed and even horrified him. When investigated, they shed light on Tolkien’s permanent rejection of Narnia[.]

This is all fair enough, it seems to me. However, Seddon goes further in attributing to Lewis positions which, if one examines his entire corpus, are not faithful representations of his thoughts. I’ll identify just three of these, though there are more.

“Subjectivism” vs. “Objectivism”

Seddon admits that Lewis allows for the permissibility of devotion to the saints. Indeed Lewis writes that there “is clearly a theological defence for it; if you can ask for the prayers of the living, why should you not ask for the prayers of the dead?” (Malcolm, p. 15). He admits that this can lead to excesses and misunderstandings, but doesn’t reject it wholesale. He does say that he doesn’t intend to adopt the practice himself, but “who am I to judge the practices of others?” (ibid.)

This strikes me as in keeping with the Anglican tradition on these matters. Seddon, however, takes this to be indicative of “Lewis’s subjectivism in spiritual matters, conflicting with Tolkien’s objectivism”:

Thus Lewis, in a perfectly typical, Anglican manner, states that devotions to the saints are optional, depending upon the opinion of the individual–the final arbiter on the matter being a Protestant, relativistic conception of the Self. Tolkien would not have shared this belief, instead understanding such devotions to be an absolute good–the final arbiter on theological matters being not the Self alone, but the greater Christian community of the ages working in conjunction with personal consent–a typically Catholic understanding. The implications of this difference between them was perhaps more radical than either of them realized at the time of their closest friendship.

I’m frankly a bit baffled by this passage because I find it very difficult to understand how someone who was familiar with Lewis’ work as a whole could possibly regard him as someone who believed that the “final arbiter on theological matters” is “the Self alone.” This is a straw-man version of Protestantism that one sometimes hears from Catholic apologists and, however much it might characterize some dessicated versions of liberal Protestantism, it’s hardly true of Protestantism more generally, or Lewis in particular. As he says in Mere Christianity:

[T]he one really adequate instrument for learning about God, is the whole Christian community, waiting for Him together. Christian brotherhood is, so to speak, the technical equipment for this science–the laboratory outfit. That is why all these people who turn up every few years with some patent simplified religion of their own as a substitute for the Christian tradition are really wasting time. Like a man who has no instrument but an old pair of field glasses setting out to put all the real astronomers right. (Mere Christianity, p. 144)

The dichotomy between subjective, relativistic Protestantism and objective, tradition-bound Catholicism simply doesn’t hold water. I’m no expert on Catholic theology, but I’m not even sure that devotion to the saints is regarded as mandatory for Catholics. There is inevitably an element of personal preference in the selection of a devotional practice, with various devotions being perhaps suited to different temperaments, but this in no way implies a generalized subjectivism about theological truth.

Transubstantiation and the Eucharist

Another Catholic “hot-button” that Seddon accuses Lewis of pushing is the doctrine of transubstantiation. He quotes Lewis as saying that

I find “substance” (in Aristotle’s sense), when stripped of its own accidents and endowed with the accidents of some other substance, an object I cannot think. My efforts to do so produces mere nursery-thinking […]. (Malcolm 102)

“For Tolkien,” Seddon writes, “the condescension would have been palpable.” Seddon sees Lewis here as leveling an accusation of childishness at the Catholic doctrine, something Tolkien would’ve regarded as a slap in the face. But I think the passage as a whole gives a very different picture of what Lewis is up to.

What Lewis is discussing here is his inability to accept a “theory” of the Eucharist, whether it’s the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation or the “memorialist” views associated with some Protestant churches:

Some people seem able to discuss different theories of this act as if they understood them all and needed only evidence as to which was best. This light has been withheld from me. I do not know and can’t imagine what the disciples understood Our Lord to mean when, His body still unbroken and His blood unshed, He handed them the bread and wine, saying they were His body and blood. I can find within the forms of my human understanding no connection between eating a man–and it is as Man that the Lord has flesh–and entering into any kind of spiritual oneness or community or koinonia with him. And I find “substance” (in Aristotle’s sense), when stripped of its own accidents and endowed with the accidents of some other substance, an object I cannot think. My effort to do so produces mere nursery-thinking–a picture of something like very rarefied plasticine. On the other hand, I get on no better with those who tell me that the elements are mere bread and mere wine, used symbolically to remind me of the death of Christ. They are, on the natural level, such a very odd symbol of that. But it would be profane to suppose that they are as arbitrary as they seem to me. I well believe there is in reality an appropriateness, even a necessity, in their selection. But it remains, for me, hidden. Again, if they are, if the whole act is, simply memorial, it would seem to follow that its value must be purely psychological, and dependent on the recipient’s sensibility at the moment of reception. And I cannot see why this particular reminder–a hundred other things may, psychologically, remind me of Christ’s death, equally, or perhaps more–should be so uniquely important as all Christendom (and my own heart) unhesitatingly declare. (Malcolm, 102)

Seddon reads this as little more than anti-Catholic polemic, but on a more charitable reading it seems clear that Lewis is grappling with the same issue that the magisterial Protestants grappled with: finding a middle way between transubstantiation and sheerly subjective or memorialist views of the Eucharist. Luther and Calvin both had “high” views of the Eucharist, even though they rejected the Catholic doctrine as it was formulated in their time. Lewis himself writes that the Eucharist (along with baptism) is the very means by which the new life of Christ is transmitted to us (see, e.g. the discussion in Mere Christianity) and that the Blessed Sacrament is the most holy object ever presented to our senses in this life (in the Weight of Glory). Nowhere that I’m aware of does he deny the Real Presence and he is probably best characterized as a High Church Anglican in his view of the sacraments.

“Gnosticism”

Finally, I want to address the accusation that Lewis is a kind of “crypto-gnostic,” a criticism not unique to Seddon. Seddon thinks that Lewis’ views on matter and on the nature of the resurrection body are “impossible to reconcile to Catholic theology and doctrine […] while hinting at (or hedging closer to) the Gnostic and Manichaean notion of matter as evil.” In order to adjudicate this claim it’s necessary to get clear on exactly what Lewis is claiming and where this might collide with Catholic doctrine (or orthodox Christian belief more generally).

Seddon cites a passage near the end of Malcolm where Lewis speculates a bit about the nature of the resurrection body:

About the resurrection of the body. I agree with you that the old picture of the soul re-assuming the corpse–perhaps blown to bits or long since usefully dissipated through nature–is absurd. Nor is is what St. Paul’s words imply. And I admit that if you ask me what I substitute for this, I have only speculations to offer.

The principle behind these speculations is this. We are not, in this doctrine, concerned with matter as such at all; with waves and atoms and all that. What the soul cries out for is the resurrection of the senses. Even in this life matter would be nothing to us if it were not the source of sensations.

Now we already have some feeble and intermittent power of raising dead sensations from their graves. I mean, of course, memory.

You see the way my thought is moving. But don’t run away with the idea that when I speak of the resurrection of the body I mean merely that the blessed dead will have excellent memories of their sensuous experience on earth. I mean it the other way round: that memory as we now know it is a dim foretaste, a mirage even, of a power which the soul, or rather Christ in the soul (He went to “prepare a place” for us), will exercise hereafter. It need no longer be intermittent. Above all, it need no longer be private to the soul in which it occurs. I can now communicate to you the fields of my boyhood–they are building-estates today–only imperfectly, by words. Perhaps the day is coming when I can take you for a walk through them.

At present we tend to think of the soul as somehow “inside” the body. But the glorified body of the resurrection as I conceive it–the sensuous life raised from its death–will be inside the soul. As God is not in space but space is in God. (Malcolm, pp. 121-122)

According to Seddon, Lewis’ view conflicts with orthodox Catholic theology (and Seddon tends to use “orthodox” and “Catholic” nearly interchangeably) at two points. Catholic theology teaches, he says, that the resurrected dead will rise with the very same bodies they had on earth, and Catholic theology affirms the inherent goodness of matter, whereas, for Lewis, matter’s goodness is “ultimately contingent upon its potential for being transformed into something non-material.”

Thus Lewis’s theology is something of a semi-Gnosticism; perhaps containing some hidden reservations about the goodness of the body, or even the material universe. Tolkien would undoubtedly have recognized this as incompatible with his own understanding and that of the Catholic Church: “[Man] is obliged to regard his body as good and to hold it in honor since God created it and will raise it up on the last day” (Catechism 93). (Note that Catholic theology stresses the goodness of the body in relation to God’s having created it–not as contingent upon what the body will become after death.)

Again, I have to protest that this is hardly a fair characterization of Lewis’ views taken as a whole. “God likes matter,” Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, “He invented it.” Lewis, as is well known, had a keen appreciation for the earthy pleasures of the material world and held the material creation in high esteem. Indeed, theism, Lewis thought, was the guardian of a proper reverence for nature:

[O]nly Supernaturalists really see Nature. You must go a little away from her, and then turn round, and look back. Then at last the true landscape will become visible. You must have tasted, however briefly, the pure water from beyond the world before you can be distinctly conscious of the hot, salty tang of Nature’s current. To treat her as God, or as Everything, is to lose the whole pith and pleasure of her. Come out, look back, and then you will see…this astonishing cataract of bears, babies, and bananas: this immoderate deluge of atoms, orchids, oranges, cancers, canaries, fleas, gases, tornadoes and toads. How could you ever have thought this was the ultimate reality? How could you ever have thought that it was merely a stage-set for the moral drama of men and women? She is herself. Offer her neither worship nor contempt. Meet her and know her. If we are immortal, and if she is doomed (as the scientists tell us) to run down and die, we shall miss this half-shy and half-flamboyant creature, this ogress, this hoyden, this incorrigible fairy, this dumb witch. But the theologians tell us that she, like ourselves, is to be redeemed. The “vanity” to which she was subjected was her disease, not her essence. She will be cured, but cured in character: not tamed (Heaven forbid) nor sterilised. We shall still be able to recognise our old enemy, friend, play-fellow and foster-mother, so perfected as to be not less, but more, herself. And that will be a merry meeting. (Miracles, pp. 66-67)

This strikes me as a perfectly orthodox position: nature is good, but fallen. And nature will, along with us, be redeemed in ways beyond our imagining.

Which brings us to the question about the resurrection of the body. Lewis rejects the position, which Seddon attributes to Catholicism, that we will rise after death with the very same body that we had on earth. The problem with this view is that it’s difficult to specify what “same” is supposed to mean exactly. It can’t, for the reasons Lewis mentions, mean that the resurrection body will be composed of the same physical particles as the earthly body. For starters, none of us, we’re told, posses any of the same physical particles that we had as children: our bodies are more like flowing streams than blocks of marble. Furthermore, the particles that currently constitute my body have previously been parts, no doubt, of countless other physical objects.

So, it’s far from clear what it would mean to say that we rise with the same body. What some contemporary theologians have suggested instead is that we will have new bodies which are fitted to the new environment that we will inhabit in the resurrection life, while enjoying a suitable continuity with our earthly bodies. And, as Lewis suggests, these bodies will act as vehicles for perfect expression of the soul and communication between the redeemed in heaven.

There is some (in my view) needless opposition between the idea that are destination is “heaven” and the idea that God will create “a new heaven and earth.” Whichever image you favor, everyone agrees that the resurrection world will be one which is different from the present world in dramatic ways. Death, pain, suffering, sin, predation, and decay will not be present, which suggests a world which is transformed in ways we can scarcely imagine.

Seddon criticizes Lewis for holding that the value of matter is “entirely dependant upon its ultimately becoming something else,” but this is misplaced. To say that the physical world (including our bodies) will be transformed in the course of being redeemed is not to deny that they lack present value. In fact, it’s simply the traditional Christian position that the present world is destined to be transformed in the process of being released from its bondage to sin and death. Lewis’ (admittedly speculative) account of what the resurrection life might consist in may be off-base, but it’s neither “gnostic” nor heretical as far as I can tell.

“Gnosticism” has become a kind of catch-all epithet to hurl at any theology that is the least bit “otherworldly.” But Christianity is otherworldly in many ways: it contains a holy impatience with the world as it is and longs for a radically transformed state of things. Lewis was certainly a sort of Christian Platonist, but, depending on how you define “Platonism,” it is an integral part of historic Christianity.

All of this is not to dispute that there may be something to Seddon’s historical argument that Tolkien’s dislike of the Narnia series is attributable to some theological differences. But Seddon tries to hard to create a dichotomy between a “subjectivist,” “anti-materialist,” “heterodox,” “semi-gnostic” Protestant Lewis and an “objectivist,” “sacramental,” “orthodox” Catholic Tolkien. This dichotomy is unsustainable in my view. Whatever theological differences the two men may have had, Lewis’ thought is essentially that of a traditional orthodox Anglican Protestant Christian.

Was Narnia missing its sexy?

British newcomer Barnes brings sexy back to ‘Narnia’

(via Christianity Today)

I have to say, C. S. Lewis and sexy are not two things that usually go together in my mind.

That said, I recently caught the trailer for Prince Caspian and thought it looked pretty good. But I’m darned if I can remember what actually happens in the book.

Catch-all blog update post

Sorry about the dearth of posting: a confluence of extreme busyness, travel, and computer issues has put a cramp in my blogging style. Although one perk is that I’ve been forced to detach from the various teapot-sized tempests roilling the blogosphere, which is always a benefit of time away from the computer.

We’re in Indiana visiting the in-laws for Christmas and enjoying some much needed R&R. In my free time I’ve been reading C. S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. This is a marvelous little book in which Lewis delineates the worldview that underlies the literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Sometimes I think Lewis has (unjustly) gotten a reputation as something of a shallow thinker due to the popular nature of his apologetic works, but in this book his incredible erudition is on full display, though tempered with his lucid and homey prose.

I’ve also been catching up on my magazine reading – that is, actual printed matter. I recommend this interesting article from Mother Jones on Ron Paul’s online following, as well as the current issue’s cover story (which doesn’t seem to be online yet), detailing the environmental consequences of China’s amazing economic growth. Also, Jason Byassee has a provocative article on pornography and “Christian eroticism” in this month’s First Things that is well worth checking out.

Other highlights of the trip so far: hanging out with my brother-in-law and his wife, a trip to Half Price Books (yea!), and taking in a civic theatre production of Joseph and the Amazing Technocolor Dreamcoat.

Here’s a few of the notable links I’ve come across in the last couple of days: Wayne Pacelle on Animals and Christmas, two posts on Scripture from Elizaphanian, Marvin writes about stopping global warming, Christopher on recapturing the joy of the Christmas message and Christian living and in defense of the Virgin Birth.

I’m looking forward to the Christ Mass tonight at a local Anglo-Catholic Episcopal parish – the same one we attended last year. For a variety of reasons I’ve had a hard time getting into the spirit this Christmas, but I think this will be just what the doctor ordered.

I hope everyone reading has a verry Merry Christmas!