Monday, March 11, 2013

The Diffidence of C. S. Lewis

An excerpt from my next article in the St. Austin Review ... 


C. S. Lewis - I love him so much, I can talk about his flaws.

“There’s no need to read C. S. Lewis,” Dale Ahlquist’s brother-in-law Larry Norman (famed Christian musician) told him.  “Everything in Lewis is also in Chesterton, and Chesterton says it better.”

There is much truth to that. 

Indeed, Lewis has a kind of diffidence about him.  There is a shy withdrawn quality about some of his work.  His fascination with fantasy worlds does not have about it what Tolkien’s did.  Tolkien’s fantasy world was more manly and solid, as it was based on a faith that was Catholic, that was there whether you liked it or not, and that served as a grounding for all of the intricate fiction that Tolkien built up. 

The unlikely source of the revival of G. K. Chesterton
Lewis’ fantasy worlds were based on a Protestant faith.  That may sound like nit-picking, but it makes all the difference in the world.  A Catholic may ignore the reality that underlies his faith; it’s there whether he acknowledges it or not, whether he sins against it or not, whether he creates a fictional elaboration of it or not, whether he “feels” it or not.  A Protestant must, to some extent, keep pumping up the reality behind his faith; he must gin it up and he ends up doubting how solid it is.  Lewis was occasionally scrupulous in prayer, wondering if he had prayed with enough emotion or focus.  Such is typically a Protestant fear, since “faith alone” cuts the believer off from the moorings.  “Faith alone” puts us afloat without the ropes that tie us to the dock.  It makes one suspect, even darkly and subconsciously, as one floats untied, that the shore is no longer there, and that the bark of faith and the anchor of hope are the most important things about the vessel.  The reality of the solid land – of the destination for which the boat was built – becomes in the mind more sandy and shifting than solid, more like a mirage and less like a Rock.

This is not to say that Lewis was a bad Christian – but it is to say that there was something a bit squeamish about him.   Fantasy for him, when he was a child, had about it the unhealthy aspect that it does for those among us we call “nerds”; it was a make-believe world compensating for loneliness, a small child’s unwillingness to play outside or scuffle in the sandbox.  I’m not saying that this element defines everything Lewis wrote, but that element was always present.  We see this played out in his adult “marriage” to Joy Davidman, a word I put in quotes because there was little about it – at least at first – that was the solid, sacramental union of two bodies and souls in Christ, and much more that was make-believe, playing house, pretending.  Yes, “Jack” and Joy loved one another, and their marriage and short life together ended up being blessed, but early on they were both simply working the system – and this willingness to manipulate spiritual things out of fear or diffidence is never wholly absent from the writings of C. S. Lewis, brilliant as those writings are.

On the other end of the spectrum is Hilaire Belloc.  Belloc was the kid in the sandbox “Jack” Lewis wouldn’t want to scuffle with.  

Belloc: "I dare you!  Hit me!"

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And I'm serious in what I say in the caption to Lewis' picture above.  He is a great writer and I love the man.  I love him enough and have read him closely enough to know his flaws - which the Christian community hardly ever acknowledges, and which I'll probably take heat for acknowledging here.  


Benjamin. said...

Well, I certainly note flaws of Lewis. I despise that chapter of Mere Christianity where someone writes about God responding to every prayer at the same time. He goes about this ridiculous idea of God rewinding time, and all of this nonsense to feel more comfortable about it. Suddenly he is taking the infinite God and rhetorically trying to imagine him as a somewhat weak being so that some people can feel more comfortable, as if that is even necessary. We must not try to speak God down so that we can feel like we have conquered theology. We must recognize He cannot be comprehended.

Now as to his marriage, I hope you are not suggesting adultery; I thought you said you were once a magician. Perhaps you didn't study the history of it like I did occasionally in my teenage interest in magic. The author/magician William Lindsay Gresham was a man who was known to be an alcoholic, and was supposed to be with all sorts of women. I think it reasonable to suppose that her divorce allowed for remarriage.

Kevin O'Brien said...

I am not talking about the validity of Lewis' marriage, sacramentally speaking. I am talking about his intention in marrying Joy. First it was a way of circumventing England's immigration law; then it was a way of placating a dying woman. It ended up being a relationship of love, but it was hardly a man and wife with kids and a mortgage and all the other big and little things that make up a marriage. It was contrived. That's what I'm saying; whether or not it was valid, who knows? I'm sure they loved each other, but the marriage was more a contrivance, a kind of fiction, than it was anything else.

Kevin O'Brien said...

Again, I'm not talking about the love or the nature of the relationship; that was quite real and a great blessing, from all appearances. I'm talking about how something even like marriage was, for Lewis, artificial and subject to a kind of manipulation.

Benjamin. said...

What do you mean? He became the step-father to both Douglas and David. He lived with her for 3 years. What was wrong with the second "marriage"?

Kevin O'Brien said...

Benjamin, I've already answered your question. So let me elaborate, from Wikipedia ...

'In 1956, Davidman's visitor's visa was not renewed by the Home Office, requiring that Davidman and her sons would have to return to America. Lewis agreed to enter into a civil marriage contract with her so that she could continue to live in the UK, telling a friend that "the marriage was a pure matter of friendship and expediency." The civil marriage took place in St Giles', Oxford in April 1956.[29] The couple continued to live apart after the civil marriage.' ...

After her sickness] 'The relationship between Davidman and C. S. Lewis had developed to the point that they sought a Christian marriage. Since she was divorced, this was not straightforward in the Church of England at the time, but a friend and Anglican priest, Reverend Peter Bide,[32] performed the ceremony at Davidman's hospital bed on 21 March 1957.[33]'

So, Benjamin, here we have Lewis entering into a sham civil marriage, unconsummated (apparently), set up simply to circumvent the law; and later seeking a sacramental marriage that likewise circumvented Church teaching on divorce and remarriage.

Now, I'm not passing judgment on Lewis and Davidman's relationship. It appears they really did love each other. Nor can I judge whether her first marriage was valid, and whether her marriage to Lewis was indeed a "re-marriage". Nor am I judging Lewis' admirable role as husband of a dying woman and father to her boys.

I am simply saying that make-believe and pretense played a larger role in his life, and even in his faith, than his admirers are wont to admit.

Benjamin. said...

So you think it was wrong of them to marry under civil law if they did not marry actually?

Kevin O'Brien said...

I think it was wrong of them to play around with the sacrament of marriage.

Benjamin. said...

But you admit that she may not have been in a valid marriage to begin with, so how was she circumventing Church teaching?

Kevin O'Brien said...

Benjamin, this really isn't difficult. Lewis' attitude toward marriage was cavlier at best. He entered into a sham marriage that was apparently never consummated in order to circumvent England's immigration laws - it was sham not because it was civil, but because it was a lie. Then he got a renegade priest to marry him sacramentally, not caring whether Joy had been married prior or not.

If you can't follow this, I'm sure the other readers can.

In any event, none of this reflects upon his value as a writer except in so far as it confirms an element in his writing and thinking that I would call artificial or unreal or a tad too make-believe.

Benjamin. said...

If you think he lied to the law to try to keep Gresham from trouble with immigration laws, then it is his morality on deception and legal authority you question, not his views on marriage. It was obviously clear to the two of them that it wasn't a marriage.

Whether the priest got permission from the Church of England should hardly be of interest to anybody other than the Church of England. Surely you are not suggesting that it is the "True Church" or that it has any influence in the sacrament of marriage.

In Mere Christianity he makes his views on marriage quite clearly serious, (though Tolkien disagreed with him on how this related to government laws on divorce.)
I can hardly imagine Lewis hadn't explained the situation to the priest himself. The priest probably didn't want to go through the bother of getting the Church of England, (which, once again, means little to nothing.) It is not clear that he took marriage lightly, except that it has been repeated again and again.

Kevin O'Brien said...

He took marriage lightly, Benjamin, and that is clear to anyone who will simply see it.

In theory perhaps he was serious about marriage, in practice he wasn't.

The validity of the sacrament of marriage does not have to do with the status of the witness, whether that witness be an Anglican or anyone else. The validity of the sacrament is determined by the two participants, and when those participants take the sacrament lightly - either as a subterfuge or as a private thing they can enter into without the input of their church, then it's a travesty.

Benjamin. said...

So you think the Church of England is a little fragment of the Catholic Church? Once again, by what understanding is the opinion of the Church of England important? Little doubt in a few years time it will be headed by a man who cheated on his wife. It seems quite clear that Lewis didn't believe in an institutional Church, for lack of a better term.

Why do you keep repeating yourself? It is not clear at all that he took marriage lightly. This is almost plain gossip. What's next, should a protestant blog go on with those silly rumors about Chesterton's marriage? It is not clear at all.

You keep speaking as if a whole assembly has voted on the matter, or as if the Roman Catholic Church has officially decided that C.S. Lewis didn't take marriage seriously. I remain unconvinced of such an accusation.

Unless their was doubt in his mind that Joy's first marriage was invalid, you have yet to prove that he was taking it lightly.

Maggie D said...

I don't really see the play-acting--I agree that the civil marriage was bad, but that doesn't make the later marriage a kind of play-acting, especially since it was clear that CSL considered the civil marriage to be no marriage at all (which does make it more wrong). I guess I just don't get it. I think he probably did care that she was married before, but I think he already knew that her husband had been previously married, thus invalidating the marriage. He certainly did take marriage much more lightly than he should, though--if you've read Tolkien's collected letters, Tolkien chides him on this point.

The fear of praying without emotion or focus may be much stronger in Protestantism, but it certainly exists in Catholicism, and Lewis recognizes (in "The 4 Loves", I think, but maybe it was Mere Christianity) that "loving feelings" are not necessary to love God.

Besides, the two questions of praying without emotion and praying without focus are not the same. Emotionless prayer is not something anyone can help; lacking focus in prayer, while often involuntary, is also sometimes one's own fault. I'm sure I'm not the only one who is distracted during Mass by my own thoughts when I *know* I could stop if I really wanted to.

I do think Lewis has serious problems--a closed mind to Catholicism being the greatest, but I just don't have the sense that he's "pretending" in all his books (and I've read practically all of them, including his works on English lit and post-conversion letters). But I'm only 17, so maybe I'm just inexperienced in detecting such things.

Maggie D said...

I should clarify on praying without emotion in Catholicism. I see how it would naturally be stronger in Protestantism because there are no guards against it as there are in Catholicism, but I've certainly experienced that anxiety, and I know others must have as well because so many saints and spiritual writers warn against worrying about your emotions during prayer.

My point is that I don't think one should cite this as a sign of CSL's Protestantism.

Kevin O'Brien said...

Benjamin, I have been very patient with you for months or years in our private correspondence. I have here made quite patiently and carefully a case for my very limited critcism of C. S. Lewis. You need not accept my arguments, and I am not bothered that you disagree with me.

It does bother me that you should accuse me of gossip on this, or that you claim it is equivalent to a Protestant blogger making false accusations against G. K. Chesterton. It is also very strange that you should conflate my personal opinion on this matter with the question of the authority of the Catholic Church.

Work out your anger with the Body of Christ somewhere else, Benjamin. For instance, if you really want to know what the Church says about marriage, the Catechism is available online and accessable from any computer in the world. It is filled with refrences to Scripture and the Church Fathers. You once did your part in researching the necessity for baptism, and your mind was open then to the fact that there is ample Scrpitural warrant for it. But lately your mind is closing and your tone is getting more and more snippy.

I don't personally care what your relationship is to the Catholic Church. That's up to you; if you're curious, I'll help you by telling you what I understand, but not if you're approaching these questions in bad faith, and not if you feel the need to insult me when you begin to get scared.

Kevin O'Brien said...

Maggie, it's good to know you're a serious reader and a serious Catholic. Check out my blog post on "Wuthering Heights" as a Christian novel.

Since you are sensitive to literature, let me try one more time to make the point that Benejamin refuses to see and that I suspect many readers have also missed.

I am saying there's a tone to Lewis' writings that compromises the great good that's in them. That tone is a kind of squeamishness. It's not so prevalent as to undo the sense of what he's saying, which he generally says quite well. He's the best writer I've ever encountered when it comes to using metaphors and analogies for illustration, for example, and his philosophical acumen is almost as great as Chesterton's.

However what we see in the marriage issue is not so much that Lewis thought civil marriage meaningless, or that he married Joy without regard to her previous marriage (which was almost certainly not sacramental, since her husband was not Christian, and neither was she at the time). The point is not Lewis' stand regarding Christ's teaching on marriage, but of his glib willingness to manipulate the sacrament for the sake of fiction, the fiction of his life with Joy. As I say, they eventually became a true married couple, but he was more than happy to delay that and live in a kind of make-believe marriage, only entering into a real one when Joy was near death.

I think this bit of biography throws light on a too precious tendency that I pick up in him, especially in comparison with GKC and Belloc.

That's all I'm saying. The biography is clear; the point on tone is not, as it's harder to make and won't be appreciated by people who can't pick up on the tone I'm describing. Or who, as in Benjamin's case, use it as an excuse to distance themselves from the Catholic Church.

Maggie D said...

Thanks for responding so promptly and kindly! Your explanation is very helpful, and I think I now understand now what you mean concerning CSL's marriage, and I agree with you. As for the squeamishness, I'd have to re-read his works; to be honest, it's been a while since I've read most of them.

Thanks also for your comment on my blog and your link to your post on Wuthering Heights, I appreciate it!

Benjamin. said...

I've not been speaking against the Roman Catholic Church's views on marriage, which I have researched. I've been speaking against the idea that you think C.S. Lewis took marriage lightly simply because he took civil marriage lightly.

Benjamin. said...

So, why do you think he married Joy?
Do you have sufficient reason to believe that he married Joy simply because he felt sorry for her?

Benjamin. said...

You don't have to keep arguing with me, but I'm standing my ground that his second marriage was genuine and serious unless you have a clear reason to show that it wasn't, other than the assumption that, "Oh, she was dying, so that must have been the only reason."
I'm not being "snippy", I'm disagreeing with you because you posted about something which is to the best of my knowledge, A.) Not taught by Scripture
B.)Not taught as Roman Catholic Doctrine,
C.)Does not have sufficient evidence to suggest that it is true.

It is silly to say that he is a protestant so you can give him any protestant stereotype you like regardless of reasoning.

I am grateful for any help you have given me, though I cannot say I am yet convinced. That still remains a separate issue. Whether or not I was a Roman Catholic, I think I would still be bothered by the way you throw out an accusation at Lewis and get defensive if anybody disagrees.

Benjamin. said...

I'm sorry if I come off as rude, I do not mean to. I'm very combative nowadays. I get persistent in debates and I don't expect you to always respond. It is more reflexive than anything.
However, I do get particularly defensive when you go after particular people.

Kevin O'Brien said...

OK, Benjamin, I accept your apology for being snippy, but let's get a few things straight.

I am not "going after" Lewis. How many times do I have to say that he is one of the three writers I most admire, that I admire both his writing and his character, and that my criticism of him is minor? There, I've said it again, if that helps.

And why do you think I am bringing doctrine into this debate? Time and again I have said that I am not passing judgment on the validity of the marriage, nor am I discussing the viability of civil marriages.

And who's being defensive here? You're the one who keeps refusing to get my points, which are these:

1. The civil marriage was a lie, not because it was civil but because it was a way to circumvent England's laws. It was a lie because after the ceremony, they continued to live not as man and wife but as friends. You say that this is not evidence of his disregard for marriage, but of his willingness to lie - but in this case he's LYING ABOUT MARRIAGE. I would not lie and say my daughter is not my daughter, because I love my daughter - not because I'm above the nasty little expedient of telling a lie but because I wouldn't lie about that, about her. Lewis chose to live a lie, a lie about marriage, a sacament of the Church (institutional Church or otherwise), a sacrament that Jesus Christ said some very important things about, and that His apostle Paul also said some very imporant things about. The Lewis-Davidman sham-civil-marriage was not just a passing fiction; it was living a lie, a lie about a sacrament of the Church. Did Lewis excuse this because it was a civil marriage or because it helped Joy and the children? I don't know what his rationale was, but the fact remains that his behavior was that of a man willing to take elements of the faith as "make believe" rather than as real and binding; that the faith could be personal and idosyncratic in its interpretation and not real the way a rock or a shore is real.

2. The authority of the Church of England is not something I have to deal with, but it was indeed something Lewis had to deal with. He apparently felt no compunction for disregarding the precepts of the church to which he belonged. You and I might agree that the Church of England is not in and of itself authoritative; but I would say that it is indeed a "splinter" of the Catholic Church, as are all Protestant churches. The Church is One; Christ is One; baptism is One; God is One, etc. What the Church of England used to teach on the sacrament of marriage, it got from Jesus Christ and 2,000 years of Catholic tradition.

So stop calling me defensive when you're the one who's refusing to hear the points I'm actually making.

And stop calling the Catholic Church the "Roman Catholic Church". Catholic means universal throughout time and space. It is no more "Roman Catholic" than Christ was the "Bethlehem Messiah". If the Catholic Church is not Catholic, then call it the Whore of Babylon. If it is Catholic, then it's more than just Roman.

Now I've laid this out as plainly as possible. Do not come back and aruge with points I'm not making; do not assert that I am slandering a man who helped bring me to Christ; and do not imply that I am arguing without reason or repeating the same things over and over again. Follow my logic and acknowledge the evidence, even if you disagree.

Anonymous said...

I agree whole heartedly about Tolkien's work. There is a 'solidness' and vivid quality to his work that truly does make him stand out. I would dispute that CS Lewis made fictional worlds out of CS Lewis both I and my brother were tutored at home for quite some time. Both of us would resent someone calling that happy time 'lonely'. Mind you, this is my personal opinion, so this is less to argue (and, of course, not to get personal- it is evident you write well from this essay, so this isn't rebuke)but more to report my personal experience that was akin to that of the early Lewis. Tolkien was educated by his mother in a similar fashion and often used his memories of that time to inform his writing of places like 'The Shire'. Anyhoo, I'll get off my soap box...Nice site.

Anonymous said...

Ah, how to delete my above comment...

Because, you know what, never mind! I shouldn't be so picky...

God bless.