A couple of excellent articles on C.S. Lewis’s life and work have appeared over the past few days–all part of the build-up to the release of the upcoming movie of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, of course, but still good articles nonetheless. In particular, the New Yorker piece, brought to my attention by Ronan Head, provides opportunity to think again about Lewis’s very magical, very romantic sense of the divine, and our own.
Many Mormons have been quick to join the explosion of interest in C.S. Lewis’s work that has swept American Christianity over the last 20 or so years, and with good reason: through Lewis, Mormons can find common ground with evangelical Christians, who have (no more selectively than us Mormons) taken Lewis’s many writings to heart and surprisingly turned a committed, highly intellectual Anglican into a passionate, all-purpose Christian saint (or Saint). I doubt that Lewis is displeased with this result: he really meant it when he said that his goal was to defend “mere Christianity,” to get people into the foyer of faith, from which point they can decide on their own which room–that is, which church–to join. I would never downplay the value of Lewis’s Christian fantasies and apologetics; I first encountered his (in my opinion) best book, The Great Divorce, while on my mission, and it played and still plays a huge role in my own faith. But there remains the sticky issue of how he understood the very nature of Christian faith in the first place.
Lewis, along with J.R.R. Tolkien, have climbed ever higher in the popular Christian pantheon over the last few decades because their sense of how literature, particularly the literature of fantasy and myth, intersects with Christianity has resonated with the experience of millions of Christians who have watched the mainline outposts of the Christian faith erode over the past two generations. The Anglicanism of C.S. Lewis’s day and afterwards eroded from within, the same way American Protestant denominations took a nose-dive in membership following WWII, the same way millions of Roman Catholics, in the wake of Vatican II, came to the conclusion that the church of their parents and grandparents didn’t offer anything that they couldn’t find in a good self-help book. For the seekers who remained, the problem was obvious: Christianity had gone mainstream, had become too rational, had neglected to tend to its roots in the spiritual Mystery that is Christ. Lewis and Tolkien, by contrast, cherished the marvellous and strange and sublime; Tolkien called his work an act of “subcreation,” and meant it to be understood as a story which issued from and reflected something deeper than the modern world, something which echoed an actual Creation that the modern, rational world can neither access nor understand. So, allegorically or otherwise, the Christian hopes of these writers finds an enduring representation in their imaginations, and consequently the sort of religious longings felt by many Christians who had soured on both the mainstream and the counter-culture during the 70s and 80s found solace in Narnia and Middle-Earth, neither of which were troubled by respectability–on the contrary, both were “romantic” and “naive.” They were untroubled by the absurdity of the “subcreative” enterprise; rather, they insisted that the sort of secret longing which responds to myth is exactly what true faith is. This is how Lewis put it in his sermon “The Weight of Glory”:
In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. . . . I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you–the secret which hurts you so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something tht has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it.
In the New Yorker piece linked above, Adam Gopnik suggests that Lewis’s writings, particularly the Narnia books, was ultimately a prisoner of his own interpretation of this spiritual tension or sehnsucht; rather than just letting his muse flow with the rhythms of his own longings for beauty and joy, he kept trying to explain how that quest must, of course, result in Christian faith. Gopnik thinks Lewis’s conversion to Christianity–the result of the famous all-night walk with Tolkien and their mutual Hugo Dyson, during which Tolkien helped Lewis feel the imperative of the story of Christ as a “true myth”–is extremely odd and basically untenable: “It is perfectly possible,” he observes, “to have a rich romantic and imaginative view of existence–to believe that the world is not exhausted by our physical descriptions of it, that the stories we make up about the world are an important part of the life of that world–without becoming an Anglican.” I think Gopnik gets much about both Lewis and Tolkien wrong, but he insists upon a point which probably resonates with most Mormons more than perhaps they know: that the longing reflected in fantasy stories–the world of fairie and myth so important to Lewis–is fundamentally about escape, whereas faith is about discipline and an acceptance of some particular view of “reality.” To embrace God because God is wonderful and strange and unknowable and Beyond-The-Sea is certainly not how most Mormons interpret their own faith–again and again, the language of our curricula and sacrament meeting talks tend to emphasize witnesses and confirmations and testimonies. We like to tell ourselves–whether in general conference or in missionary discussions or just in private conversation–that apostate Christianity thinks the work of Christ is a humbling and searching “Mystery,” whereas we, believers in revelation, understand that true religion is about knowledge and intelligence and the advancement towards godhood. If there are things we don’t know, well, we are told to “put them on the shelf” and come back to them later–meaning, in other words, that the unknown and paradoxical are in a Mormonism a problem, something to be addressed, not the heart of faith itself.
I’m not sure that any of this is true–I am, that is, by no means convinced that the Mormon experience of the divine is all about knowing the “real nature” of God and gaining a “sure testimony” of His doctrine through a knowledge of the “historicity” of the Book of Mormon, at least not insofar as those terms have been polluted by philosophical concepts that lead us to interpret them in light of epistemological categories that leave myth and language and subjective experience out of it. However, methodological debates aside, the Christian apotheosis of Lewis, Tolkien, et al, begs the question: what do Mormons make of myth? Are we romantic? Is our everyday faith characterized by that longing piety felt by a mournful Jacob, an exultant Nephi and Lehi, a Joseph Smith who weirdly saw Zion in, of all places, Missouri? Or do we instead take our personal spiritual experiences to be evidences which impel us towards faith by logic, nothing more or less? And if our religion is, for most of us, most of the time, the latter, is that for reasons particular to Mormonism, or simply a function of the fact that Mormonism today basically comports with our thoroughly modern, Americanized world? American religiousity has always included, from the Puritans on down, a kind of radicalized Protestantism: a sense that, ultimately, belief comes propositionally, and in no other way. It’s not for nothing that Lewis, upon his conversion, turned to High Church Anglicanism, the only Protestant form in England that really still had roots in the medieval world. If America is the archetypical modern nation, and Mormonism the archetypical American faith, then perhaps it isn’t surprising that we tend to think about religion practically, syllogistically, in terms of works and fruits and proofs. (Utah has the lowest rate of heart attacks of any state in America–ah ha, see, Mormonism works!) What is surprising is that we embrace Lewis’s mythic Christianity so uncomplicatedly. But then, so do many evangelicals Protestants, who often tend to be even more literal and proof-oriented than us Mormons. So, if perhaps the appreciation many American Mormons have for Lewis and Tolkien reflects a buried but enduring romantic reading of the meaning of faith, we can at least take comfort from the fact that we are in good company in our denial.