C. S. Lewis: Beloved Tormentor

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Do men gather grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit …. Therefore, by their fruits you will know them. (Matthew 6:16-17, 20)

I never knew a Protestant or, with one exception, a Jew until I went to college.

East Boston, an ethnic, inner-city, working-class community, was as Catholic in the 1950s and early 60s as southern Italy, where most East Bostonians or their parents or (in my case) grandparents had come from. I only learned about the existence of non-Catholics from a discussion in the Baltimore Catechism of the conditions under which they could be saved.

While in college I joined Opus Dei, the contemporary equivalent of the sixteenth-century Society of Jesus, with all the latter’s pristine Counter-Reformation rigor. Like most other members of the order, I acquired a papal certificate in Thomistic philosophy and began theological studies. But rashly, I also elected to major in modern European intellectual history, which meant continual exposure to heresy. Today many Catholic students – and clergy – seem able to bend to the modern gale without straining the tendons of conscience. But I could not. Living as I was the consilia evangelii, vetting each course reading assignment against the Index of Forbidden Books, always mindful of the conclusion of Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors, which condemned the proposition that “the Roman Pontiff can and should harmonize himself with progress, with liberalism, and with modern civilization,” the choice for me was orthodoxy or apostasy, sacrificium intellectus or sacrificium fidei.

I sacrificed faith. For all the usual reasons, and one that may be idiosyncratic. I decided that I had never encountered, in life or in print, a Catholic at once intelligent, honest, and fully modern. Let me explain: I ruled out Maritain and Gilson; they were primarily technical philosophers and anyway lived in the mental atmosphere of earlier centuries. “Existential” Catholics, mainly French novelists and poets plus Graham Greene, didn’t count either: they were uninterested in arguments and ceded them all to unbelievers. Evelyn Waugh was a comic genius but intellectually trivial and politically mean.

Cardinal Newman and G. K. Chesterton came closest. But I couldn’t entirely trust Newman after reading his controversy with Kingsley. Vastly cleverer, Newman won the debate on points; but Kingsley’s original claim – that “truth, for its own sake, has never been a virtue with the Romish clergy” – if unproven, was not quite refuted either. Polemically, no one could lay a glove on Chesterton, but only because he never stood still. In my exasperation, I exulted over T. S. Eliot’s unjust judgment: “He has a mind that swarms with ideas. I see no evidence that it thinks.”

“By their fruits you will know them”; but I didn’t know a single Catholic thinker who had wrestled with the angel of modernity and retained his or her orthodoxy for reasons I could respect. I felt I had virtually a scriptural warrant for irreligion. I still do, on the whole; though now my doubt is troubled, there is a thorn in the side of my unbelief. I’ve discovered, to my discomfort, a modern Christian I admire: C. S. Lewis.*

Lewis is probably best known for his children’s series, The Narnia Chronicles, which I haven’t read. But I may be the only atheist who has read every word of his voluminous Christian apologetics. “The key to my books,” he wrote, “is Donne’s maxim, ‘The heresies that men leave are hated most.’ The things I assert most vigorously are those that I resisted long and accepted late.” The heresies Lewis left were those I embraced; and since the orthodoxies that men leave are also hated most, my relation could only be, or begin as, fascinated antipathy.

What particularly got under my skin was his conception of evil. Lewis was a connoisseur of evil. Not in Sadean detail, but in depth: his idea, reiterated and refined from book to book, was that insistence on autonomy is our original sin; to call one’s soul one’s own was his definition of damnation. In our will is our unpeace. Lewis argued relentlessly, and more plausibly than I could bear, that philosophical nihilism – the natural terminus of the modern rejection of metaphysics – is not an innocent or even a stable position, that it must lead to anomie and the war of all against all – to Hell. Recall Kant: “What is Enlightenment? It is humankind’s emergence from its own, self-imposed minority.” When I encountered Kant’s affirmation, I thought it the most inspiring thing I had ever read; I was proud to be modern. Lewis puts that pride in question. We all eventually learn about the dark side of enlightenment, but it’s hard to forgive the one who first points it out to us.

Lewis’s phenomenology of evil attained its apotheosis in Wither, archfiend of That Hideous Strength, the conclusion of his theological science-fiction trilogy. Wither was a philosopher-bureaucrat, whose mode of operation – almost a mode of being – was to blur distinctions. Now, a short definition of modern intellectual history might be: the progressive undermining of all firm distinctions, metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical. In recent years, no one has carried on this dissolution more subtly or rigorously than Richard Rorty, perhaps the most respected living Anglo-American philosopher. I revere Rorty, but thanks to Lewis, I have never been able to leave off mentally comparing him to Wither. And when I heard Rorty lecture for the first time, the physical resemblance I saw – or fancied – between him and Wither made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. That’s how it feels when mentor and tormentor meet inside one’s head.

What I dislike most about Christianity is the doctrine of Hell; and what I like most about Lewis is that, for all his orthodoxy, he disliked it, too. Enough to compose what is surely the most humane portrait of Hell ever penned by a believer: The Great Divorce. Lewis did not deny, but could not quite accept, that finite turpitude merits infinite pain. So he imagined a continual commerce between saints and shades, the blessed and the damned, in which the former, like celestial psychotherapists, tempt the latter into surrendering their unreal, imprisoning will. The comparison (mine) with psychotherapy is not frivolous: in effect, if not in intention, Lewis suggests that Hell is neurosis. Which is true and tragic, though not orthodox.

To each shade in Lewis’s fable comes a saint, linked to his or her earthly life in some way, to guide him or her toward Reality. A mentor. “Der Herr Gott ist raffiniert,” Einstein conjectured. I hope so. Wily enough, at any rate, to put Lewis on my case after I’m damned. I can’t think who else might persuade me to give up modernity for eternity.

* Although Lewis was Anglican rather than Catholic, his writings are undoubtedly far more orthodox, from the point of view of the Roman Curia, than those of, say, Hans Kung or Teilhard de Chardin.


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George Scialabba