C. S. Lewis is popular but wrong; we are not little Christs.
C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) was one of the most popular Christian writers of the twentieth century, and our century as well. Though he would have disliked being called a theologian, that is exactly what he was, even as he had no formal theological training. In fact, this is exactly what makes his works on Christianity so popular. Mere Christianity, begun as a series of radio lectures during World War Two, is almost conversational in tone. It is still taught in adult Christian education groups (Urban). By the way, the fact that Lewis had no formal theological training does not imply that he lacked intellectual standing, having taught medieval history at both Oxford and Cambridge. He also wrote the fictional Chronicles of Narnia. Unless noted, all pages numbers refer to Mere Christianity.
Most critics of Lewis as theologian are Christian evangelicals, and others, who believe he was too loose with doctrine, such as saying that other religions might contain a portion of truth about God. My take is somewhat the opposite. He is too literal about what it means to follow Christ. For Lewis it means to become “little Christs,” which to me makes no sense at all. Nevertheless, there is a charm and simplicity to his religious writing which has no equal, though perhaps G. K. Chesterton comes close.
God, mad, or bad: Lewis’ trilemma
Lewis has what he thinks is a fairly simple, almost logical proof, that Jesus was God incarnate. Jesus was not a lunatic, and he was certainly not a fiend, so the only possibility left over is that he was God in human form.
Some things are best not left to logic, and this is one. Jesus’ standing is not a logical question, but a historical and religious one. As Bart Ehrman points out in How Jesus Became God, the synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) never claim that Jesus is God. Only John does, Jesus famously saying “Before Abraham was, I am.” (8:58) All the gospels came from three to four generations after Christ’s crucifixion, the letters of Paul only a little earlier. Furthermore, there were lots of people running around at this time claiming to be the son of God. Apollonius of Tyana has a history that runs almost parallel to Jesus, his followers also claiming his divinity after his death at Roman hands.
It is historically naive to claim that Jesus was God, mad, or bad. The idea of a divine human being was widespread, and Jesus Christ its most effective spokesman, due to the content of the message, as well as the missionary efforts of Paul. Whether the Holy Spirit had a role in Christianity’s success depends on your religious beliefs, as does Christ’s divinity itself. It does not depend on logic chopping.
What has to be believed to be a Christian
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 the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed. (p 55)
I would put it differently, which I suppose makes me a lay theologian as well, though a heretical one. At some point a little over 2000 years ago, God entered into world history in human form so that he could suffer as humans do (perhaps the better to know human suffering, for God does not suffer), and so that we could know him in the way humans do: not as an abstraction, or an idea, but in the form of a human being. Thinking about God in this way is quite the opposite of the teaching of Emmanuel Levinas, for whom God is non-being. Pointing this out does not make Levinas wrong.
My account is heretical because I do not emphasize Jesus as sacrifice who died so that we might be saved from the wages of sin. Nor do I believe that Jesus disabled death, whatever that means exactly. About doctrines such as the virgin birth I don’t really care. God did something much grander, transforming the historical expectation of our Savior as a mighty prince who would come in glory to vindicate the lowly. Instead, God became a suffering human in order to demonstrate how we should love each other, especially the “least of these my brothers,” in this world (Matthew 25:40). While I do not believe that Jesus disabled death, Christ put human life under the perspective of eternity. Lewis expresses this view nicely when he says that “there are no ordinary people. . . . It is immortals whom we joke with, marry, snub and exploit.” (Weight of Glory, p 46) It is good to think about people this way, whether it is literally true or not, for it makes our transactions more serious.
I’m reminded of a very different author, Friedrich Nietzsche and his doctrine of the eternal return (Gay Science, para. 341). Imagine that everything thing you do you will do again and again in lifetime after lifetime. Imagine that your worst moments will repeat themselves endlessly. The point of the eternal return is not to take it literally, but to recognize the weight and significance of everything that you do, as if it would be endlessly repeated. Take life seriously, for it lasts forever.
Nietzsche was a great critic of Christianity, but it seems to me that in different and perhaps even opposite ways each asks us to live our lives under the aspect of eternity.
Pride, says Lewis, is the worst sin, the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began (pp 123-124). Surprisingly, Lewis doesn’t emphasize the denial that makes this sin possible, the denial of our own creatureliness. Pride is best expressed by Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost.
We know no time when we were not as now,
Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised
By our own quick’ning power. (Milton 5.853-61)
Satan would pull himself from the earth with his own right hand if he could, even his birth an act of self-creation.
The belief in self-creation is so dangerous because it can accept no limits. If I create myself, there can be no place for God. Or rather, I become God by default. As Václav Havel put it,
Given its fatal incorrigibility, humanity probably will have to go through many more Rwandas and Chernobyls before it understands how unbelievably shortsighted a human being can be who has forgotten that he is not God.
How does one rid oneself of this pride, what I would call the arrogance of humanism? The first step is to love or admire anyone or anything outside oneself (p 127). With the proviso that we must love this person or thing for itself, in its otherness, not just in terms of what it says about or can do for me.
Every Christian a little Christ
The part of Lewis that I don’t understand (and perhaps my understanding of Christian doctrine is insufficient) is his claim that
Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else. (p 177)
No, the Christian ideal is to follow Christ’s example, in so far as humans can, and to follow his teachings about how to live good human lives. The Imitation of Christ is a Christian devotional book from the fifteenth century. Other than the Bible, it is the most widely read devotional work among Christians. It is almost always understood as instruction in following Christ, not imitating him.
Writing about evolution, Lewis says
century by century God has guided nature up to the point of producing creatures which can (if they will) be taken right out of nature, turned into “gods.” (p 222)
The most puzzling part of this sentence doesn’t have to do with Lewis’ view of evolution, which is compatible with the scientific view. The puzzle is the quotation marks around “gods.” What could this mean? With the introduction of Christ into history, salvation becomes possible, but that doesn’t make us gods, not even potential ones. Lewis has taken the imitation of Christ too literally. Paul’s reference to Christians as saints (ἅγιος,) in six of his letters makes sense, for it referred to members of a church he was addressing, and the Greek is readily translated as holy ones. But gods?
What about the Eucharist, it might be asked? Is that not the oral incorporation of Christ, and so becoming part of him, and him of us? To some it is; to many others, including Jesus, it is an act of remembrance. Both 1 Corinthians 23-25, and Luke 22:19, refer to Christ’s introduction of the ritual as something to be done “in memory of me.” The Greek term is anamnesis, or remembrance, sometimes translated in this context as “affectionate memory.” If Christ did not understand transubstantiation literally, why should we?
Lewis admits that becoming a little Christ is a bit of “fakery,” along the lines of the expression fake it until you make it (pp 187-188). I don’t believe we should try to fake being Christ-like. We should work to be good human beings who love God, and one another. Jesus is too other, too radically different from humans, to be someone to imitate. Are we to separate the wheat from the tares, the sheep from the goats? Are we to explain ourselves in parables? The disciples healed others in the name of Christ, but none except a stray evangelist would claim to do so today.
We need not be distant from Christ, but we do not become closer by pretending to be Christ. To be a good human being, a follower of Christ, is hard enough. Understanding ourselves as followers also serves to remind us of our creatureliness, not tempting us with the promise of more. First Corinthians 2:16 refers to having the “mind of Christ” (vouv), but the context is one of opening the mind so as to understand Christ’s teachings. It is not an invitation to become a little Christ.
Christians should imitate the mind of Christ in order to come closer to God. But what if someone doesn’t? Lewis’ answer is grim.
Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in. p 227
Not even Thomas Aquinas thought things were so bad. The point of natural law is that one need not believe in God in order to follow it. It is enough to be a decent human being (ST I-II, 94, 2). Aquinas would agree with Lewis that it is not enough to look inside yourself. One becomes a decent human being by living in a community whose members care for each other. I believe that this community is enriched and strengthened when it is a religious community, but life in its absence need not be Hell.
More on natural law in a forthcoming post.
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica. Coyote Canyon Press, 2010. [original circa 1270]
Bart Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. Harper, 2014.
Václav Havel, Forgetting we are not God. In First Things (1995), no. 51, 47-50.
C. S Lewis, The Weight of Glory. Harper Collins, 2001.
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity. HarperOne, 2012.
John Milton, Paradise Lost. Penguin Classics, 2003. [original 1674]
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1974.
Steven Urban, Mere Christianity Study Guide. Brown Chair Books, 2014.