By Michael Dauphinais
Today, Nov. 22, 2013, the United States observes the 50th anniversary of the tragic assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Lesser known to many is that today is also the 50th anniversary of the death of C. S. Lewis. Both men have had great appeal to Catholics in the United States. As the first Catholic to be elected President of the United States, JFK came to symbolize the notion that Catholicism could be adapted to the intellectual and moral customs of the modern world. C. S. Lewis’ writings, in contrast, present the claims of Christianity in a way that sharply contrasts with the dominant modes of modern thought and life. Although C. S. Lewis remained a Protestant Christian throughout his life, his articulate and persuasive presentation of the Christian faith has nourished the faith of many Catholics and has played a role in many conversions to the Catholic Church.
Clive Staples (C. S.) Lewis’ writings successfully captured the imagination and reason of Protestants and Catholics alike. His version of “mere Christianity” eschews divisive issues sufficiently in order to be appreciated by Protestant Christians. Yet, there is a strong anglo-Catholic trajectory to his sacramental approach to faith and life that brings him close to Catholic doctrine on a number of points. Thus, in A Grief Observed, he expresses the possibility of the purifying suffering of the dead, and later, in Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, he affirms that he prays for the dead and states simply, “I believe in Purgatory”.
Lewis indicated that his conversion to Christianity was indebted to many sources. He spoke of how George MacDonald had “baptized his imagination” and how G. K. Chesterton had “baptized his reason”. He even wrote about how these two streams coalesced in a late night conversation with J. R. R. Tolkien and others about how Christ was “the true myth”. The truth was something to which reason could assent firmly, but it was not something attainable by reason itself. The human experience, Lewis argued, was shaped by deeper longings, passions, and dreams. In his early autobiographical work, Surprised by Joy, he utilizes the German word “Sehnsucht”, a romantic longing, a kind of nostalgia not just for the past but also for the future; thus, a dominant feature of human life is this Sehnsucht, or what he tries to capture by the English word “joy”, though in Lewis’s usage it is inevitably accompanied by an aspect of grief and sadness. The singularity of Lewis’s attractiveness as a Christian apologist lies in his combination of imagination and reason, of romanticism and logic, of Christianity as unavoidably historical, thus mythological, and yet unavoidably true.
I suggest that the combination of imagination and reason marks Lewis’ writings and his perennial interest among Catholics. His non-fiction apologetic essays move from commonplace observations about human life and society to higher-order arguments about the existence of God and a moral order. As such, they rarely come across as abstract exercises, but as arguments of flesh and bone. The very argument over a seat on a bus becomes an example of the irreducibly moral dimension of man. His fiction works create myths such as Narnia, the space trilogy, and the world of Glome in Till We Have Faces. Yet, the characters must frequently rely on their reason in order to navigate successfully their given challenges. This combination of imagination and reason coheres with the Catholic view of the world. Catholics elevate simultaneously truths known by faith and by reason; the truths of creation and redemption are knowable and yet exceed our full comprehension. Catholics place profound piety and devotion alongside of catechetical answers. Catholics love the doctrinal poetry of Dante and the preciseness of St. Thomas Aquinas, the clarity of moral teaching and the mystery of the sacramental life. Lewis’ writings attract those who expect to find a unity between careful logical arguments and powerful stories, between truth and myth, between faith and reason.
When Blessed John Henry Newman was created a cardinal by Pope Leo XIII, he famously wrote that his entire life should be seen as a fight against “the spirit of liberalism” in Christianity. I think it is safe to say the writings of C. S. Lewis waged a continual fight against liberalism, especially relating to doctrine. This unabashed affirmation of the Bible, the Creeds, miracles, and such have made Lewis attractive to many evangelical Protestants and serious Catholics that see the liberalism and modernism of the past 150 years as the chief obstacle to knowing and loving Jesus Christ in this life and the next.
Michael Dauphinais, Ph.D., serves as Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty and Associate Professor of Theology at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, Florida. He holds degrees from Duke University and the University of Notre Dame.