Following that Bright Blur
IN A 1982 INTERVIEW in Discipleship Journal, Elisabeth Elliot was asked, “How could a person deepen his theology and become a clearer thinker?” She answered, “Study the Bible. And study C.S. Lewis. People are always saying C.S. Lewis was not a theologian—and Lewis himself would say that—but he was. He covered the whole field of theology in popular, understandable language. The fact that he could put it in simple language is proof to me that he understood it better than many theologians.”
This prescription is helpful. Lewis may not have considered himself a theologian, but his writing on theological subjects has stretched the minds, broadened the hearts, and challenged the thinking of many.
What was the core of C.S. Lewis’s theology? A hint is found in the caption that appeared below his picture on the cover of the September 8, 1947, Time magazine. It simply read, “His heresy: Christianity.” Both in written word and BBC broadcasts, Lewis sought to present historic Christian faith to the common man. Perhaps because his work is imaginative as well as analytical, some have criticized him for softness on issues that modern conservatives consider pivotal, for example, biblical authority. But the cornerstones of his theology are clearly orthodox: he called it “mere Christianity” not to diminish the truth-claims, but to suggest that the truth of God incarnate was so shockingly simple that people of all cultures and pedigrees might be stunned and joyful at its clarity and grace.
C.S. Lewis was a committed supernaturalist. In his essay “On Ethics” he commented: “I am myself a Christian, and even a dogmatic Christian untinged with modernist reservations and committed to supernaturalism in its full rigor.” Remove the supernatural and the first principles of Christian orthodoxy are gone. Because God is high and holy, every doctrine of Christian faith has a sense of awe and wonder, and the miracles that demonstrate those doctrines are simply the retelling in capital letters of “the same message which nature writes in her crabbed cursive hand,” he wrote. Lewis was fully committed to a Christianity with the supernatural elements intact.
Study of Literature
Lewis’s lifetime study of medieval and renaissance literature helped him understand the importance of written texts as a source of authority. He likened the doctrinal texts of Christian orthodoxy to a series of maps drawn by men of knowledge and legitimized over time. Ministering to RAF pilots during the war, Lewis urged away from the elementary “thrills you and I are likely to get on our own” and toward the grand themes of authority, essential maps “if you want to get further.”
Literary sources also helped him with the insights that truth is one and that good thinking should unify all generations. Authority was weakened by modern emphasis on individual autonomy. Authority rests in the cumulative wisdom of the ages, a demanding jury for all new ideas. Clearly Lewis knew the importance of history; and his theology was bound to the church’s historic statements.
Lewis’s theology was further influenced by his commitment to logic and reason. Truth was not made for man; man was made for truth, and his chief purpose in life was to glorify Him forever. Lewis wrote, “In coming to understand anything we are rejecting the facts as they are for us in favor of the facts as they are. The primary impulse of each is to maintain and aggrandise himself. The secondary impulse is to go out of the self, to correct its provincialism and heal its loneliness.”
If pursuit of truth is like climbing a ladder, Lewis both mastered the steps and turned a floodlight on the ladder itself, illuminating the way so that others not wishing to remain in the lonely darkness of subjectivism might follow.
As dark subjectivism was a pitfall, illumined subjectivism—he often called it romanticism—could awaken the desire for truth. Lewis would often refer to this desire as joy. Just as hunger says, “I want food” and thirst says, “I want water,” so informed joy pleads within a man saying, “I want God.” Theology for C.S. Lewis was more than rational activity; it was the very burning of the soul not merely to define and explain God but to know Him, to enjoy Him, and yet to remain constantly in awe of Him. He comments, “This hunger is better than any other fullness; this poverty better than all other wealth.” Lewis not only sought to explain Christianity to others, he also sought to practice it himself. At the heart of this practice was his own personal devotion to God.
A comprehensive presentation of C.S. Lewis’s theology would take a book—perhaps several volumes. Here we can briefly explore two cornerstones of Lewis’s theological thought: the transcendence of God, and the immanence of God.
The idea of God’s transcendence is simply this, God is great. He is omnipresent, infinite and eternal. Though He made the universe, God himself cannot be fully contained in the universe. Where creation leaves off, God goes on and on and on to infinity. In this sense, God is incomprehensible.
Because God is transcendent, mere men, said Lewis, cannot define Him. The infinite cannot be reduced to finite definition. In Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, Lewis refers to God as the “bright blur,” admitting it is not a very good description. “In fact,” he writes, “you cannot have a good description of anything so vague. If the description became good it would become false.” As Walter Elwell has stated, “All theological formulations are, at best, approximate.”
The best theology, then, is theology which makes the best approximations. It is necessary, therefore, to choose language equal to the task, and Lewis urges that the best language for this task is poetic. The language of literature is less limiting, is not concerned merely with quantity (as is scientific language) but with quality. Lewis wrote, “To be incommunicable by scientific language is, so far as I can judge, the normal state of experience."
The temptation of the theologian is to adopt language that will be suitable to the scientific mind. However, this kind of language only makes faith less credible. Such language may be suitable to the scientific mind, but it certainly cannot describe God. Lewis insisted that propositional statements about God are necessary. The idea of God, to be understood, must take form in our minds and thought, but if we are to understand the meaning of the propositions, we must go to the language of the poet. Much of the Scriptures are written in poetic form.
The second cornerstone of Lewis’s orthodoxy is his commitment to the immanence of God. The infinite, eternal, omnipresent God can and does make His presence known. God can be talked about because God has made Himself known to rational creatures capable of reasonable communication. When Lewis was a theist and no more, he thought it was impossible to actually know God personally and intimately. He understood the concept of transcendence, but had not yet balanced it in his thinking with the idea of God’s immanence. He commented that he did not think, at that time, that a person could know God any more than Hamlet could know Shakespeare. Later Lewis came to realize that Hamlet could have known Shakespeare, but it would depend not on Hamlet but on Shakespeare. As the author, he could write himself into the play and make his presence known. Through this analogy, Lewis describes what actually took place in the incarnation. God has made His presence known. Because God has communicated Himself to man, man can know and talk about the immanent God. Lewis wrote, “Christianity is not merely what a man does with his solitude. It is not even what God does with His solitude. It tells of God descending into the coarse publicity of history and there enacting what can—and must—be talked about.”
What a discovery! The mysterious God “brighter and less blurry.” Lewis wrote, “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito.”
C.S. Lewis has left a rich theological legacy. He has become the theologian for every man, every man who hopes to take bearings on the “bright blur.” CH
By Jerry Root
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #7 in 1985]The Rev. Jerry Root is college pastor of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, and teaches philosophy at College of Dupage.
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