invoking gods

C.S. Lewis in a letter to his brother, 1940:

I am afraid the truth is in this, as in nearly everything else I think about at present, that the world, as it is now becoming and has partly become, is simply too much for people of the old square-rigged type like you and me. I don’t understand its economics, or its politics, or any dam’ thing about it.

Even its theology–for that is a most distressing discovery I have been making these last two terms as I have been getting to know more and more of the Christian element in Oxford. Did you fondly believe–as I did–that where you got among Christians, there, at least, you would escape (as behind a wall from a keen wind) from the horrible ferocity and grimness of modern thought? Not a bit of it. I blundered into it all, imagining that I was the upholder of the old, stern doctrines against modern quasi-Christian slush: only to find that my ‘sternness’ was their ‘slush’. They’ve all been reading a dreadful man called Karl Barth, who seems the right opposite number to Karl Marx. ‘Under judgment’ is their great expression. They all talk like Covenanters or Old Testament prophets. They don’t think human reason or human conscience of any value at all: they maintain, as stoutly as Calvin, that there’s no reason why God’s dealings should appear just (let alone, merciful) to us: and they maintain the doctrine that all our righteousness is filthy rags with a fierceness and sincerity which is like a blow in the face.

Sometimes the results are refreshing: as when Canon Raven (whom you and Dyson and I sat under at Ely) is sharply told in a review in Theology that ‘it is high time persons of this sort learned that the enjoyment of a chair of theology at Cambridge does not carry with it a right to criticise the Word of God’–that’s the kind of rap on the knuckles which has not been delivered for a hundred years!

But the total effect is withering. Of two things I am now persuaded. (1) That a real red-hot Christian revival, with iron dogma, stern discipline, and ruthless asceticism, is very much more possible than I had supposed. (2) That if it comes, people like us will not find it nearly so agreeable as we had expected. ‘Why have they desired the Day of the Lord? It is darkness not light.’ I have no doubt the young gentlemen are substantially right: this is the goods. We ought to have expected that if the real thing came it would make one sit up (you remember Chesterton ‘Never invoke gods unless you really want them to appear. It annoys them very much.’)

I keep coming back to this excerpt, because as I continue a navigation of theology (a navigation each generation must attempt anew, only—until the great conflagration—each time with an extra generation of thought!) and do so in a tightly circumscribed dingy with a top speed of 2 knots, it ties together disparate strands as it explodes other assumptions.

That navigation is at the level of a map. On that map, C.S. Lewis is a trustworthy and orthodox voice of 20th century Anglican sanity, a man of atmospheric riches, trustworthy because he breathed medieval air. Karl Barth is the 20th century “theological genius of the order of Augustine and Calvin, who shall rise above the antagonism of divine sovereignty and human freedom, and shall lead us to a system built upon the rock of the historic Christ”; controversial and (to my ignorance) enigmatic, lauded and derided by orthodox folk and their parties, it often seems in equal measure, bane and hero of theology departments everywhere.

Just like those facts about Anne Frank and MLK or Cleopatra and the Moon, Lewis giving his frank appraisal of Barth rearranges and calls into question large swathes of my subconscious map, and I want to put the ways in which it does that on the record.

I am aware of the contingency of so small a window (a single excerpt form a single letter in a single year written on a certain day), but it pleases me more than anything else. Both men have more than 20 years more ahead of them, Barth is about to publish the third vol. of the Church Dogmatics, but the Mere Christianity talks are only a few years away.

  • Lewis and friends (“people like us”, “we had expected”) wanted a “real red-hot Christian revival”.
  • What Lewis and Co. considered a “real.. Christian revival” consisted of: “iron dogma, stern discipline, and ruthless asceticism.
  • Yet this (positive?) visitation is at the same time (and perhaps for the exact same reasons) disagreeable and portended by beliefs and actions which Lewis finds the total effect of “withering”.
  • So if a true revival was to have broken out people like Jack and Warnie—”people of the old square-rigged type”, “the upholder[s] of the old, stern doctrines”, those seeking “escape.. from the horrible ferocity and grimness of modern thought”, those who think “human reason or human conscience of any value”—will not find it particularly agreeable.

  • Lewis has “no doubt the young gentlemen are substantially right: this is the goods“! Like, wow!
    • The fierce ‘Under Judgement’ Calvin-esque covenanter-esque element are “substantially right”. Their dismissal of human reason or human conscience, of the necessity of God’s dealings appearing “just let alone merciful”, their fierce maintenance of “the doctrine that all our righteousness is filthy rags” is the goods?
  • What is the nature of that ‘substantially’ in ‘substantially right’, and on what is Lewis basing it? It’s seems it might be some or all of the below:
    • His sense of the Spirits presence in the “refreshing” results of their claims?
    • The alignment of their fruits with the criteria he believes as constituting “a real red-hot Christian revival”?
    • That ‘the real thing”, the coming of “the Day of the Lord”, will “make one sit up”?

But lastly (and perhaps most importantly)

  • All this and the manner of its articulation shows that Lewis has a space (perhaps a whole landscape, there is no telling from my vantage how vast and rich the space might be) for such things. Visitations of the One True God which are neither agreeable, life-giving or light-giving; “The Day of the Lord? It is darkness and not light.” This is a hard saying.

What does this mean for Lewis’ theology? I guess in its simplest most naive form, if the Barthians are “substantially right”, if Barth is “the goods”, then why doesn’t Lewis adopt their theology? How can there be a personal disconnect between sincere doctrinal belief and the doctrinal-powered revival which constitutes “the Day of the Lord”—God appearing? And if that gap is in some senes legitimate what does the gap mean for an understanding of theological belief?

Where does this leave us, covenanter-sympathisers or Calvin-despisers, square-rigged and round-rigged 21st century types, Barthians and Marxists, Charismatics and Catholics?

This acknowledgement and ceding to a personally uncomfortable prophetic reality is some kind of meta abstraction up to a yet-more-Christian plane of judgement and faith. The capacity for which we can only (surprisingly) assume is native to that medieval air Lewis breathed. Is such a capacity then more the mark of a true follower of Christ than any slush or any sternness, upheld or rebuked, by members of God’s house? Is it native to the “young gentlemen” and their future (or perhaps contemporary) heirs? Does it need to be?


^This is the only comment under the original post from which I discovered the excerpt. I find this kind of internet commentary singularly useless; as inscrutable as the themes in the excerpt. The only insight it casts (for those who aren’t, one assumes, part of some inner circle) is on this type of commentary. A quick search revealing the (now deceased) author to have been a Professor of Theology at Hillsdale College and lecturer at Oxford only adds to the effect.

So some folks were/are reluctant to call Lewis a theologian. Some folks were/are reluctant to call Aristotle a philosopher too. But the ambiguity is terminal because the ambiguity in the excerpt might be. Lewis seems to bat for both sides in the letter, he both derides Barth and hails him. So are Lewis’ theologian-credentials questionable because of an inadequate or defective understanding of Barth? Or because of his paradoxical endorsement of same?


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