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.
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.