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For if that which was done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Thoughts on C.S. Lewis, and Christian Reunion

By unanimous popular request I am going to write a post on C.S. Lewis to honour the Golden Jubilee of his passing from this world to the next. Unanimous popular request means that one person mentioned that I should do so in passing, and no-one else has suggested that I write anything at all. I wanted to mention two things: (1) the evolution of Lewis's reputation as a writer and (2) was he just about to turn Roman when he died?

I haven't read any of the panegyric or polemic on Lewis on this anniversary of his passing, although, skimming through news and blog sites many a title with his name in it has caught my eye. The reason is partly that I have read more or less every word the Ulsterman wrote, and probably several times as well, and have read through most of the major commentaries; I even read through A.N. Wilson's ghastly biography. (Nota bene: if you really cannot stand someone's guts, your biography of them is unlikely to avoid a strong odour of bias. Why did he bother?) I am therefore unlikely to be surprised or informed, as most obituary and review material on such occasions is likely to be recycled. It is interesting, though, how Lewis's legacy continues to evolve. We are still relatively close to his death, and he seems to be growing in stature in some ways, and shrinking in others. His literary criticism, for example, is now acclaimed as his most original and enduring work; his didactic theology and philosophy laid aside; and his fiction does not seem to command quite the same favourable consensus that it did. People are beginning, on the one hand, "for Pete's sake!", to talk of the boarding school Pevensies as dated; whilst on the other hand there are hints that people are discovering the final book That Hideous Strength in his Science Fiction trilogy and finding it to be a vivid and stark prophetic warning.

I think that That Hideous Strength is very powerfully prophetic, yes, and has some great scenes and philosophical ideas behind it. Such as the notion of angels as planetary deities, for example; the ideas of language and the Babel scene near its end; its spiritual insight into the potential evils of contraception; and its stark warning about the convergence of three things - power, a medical view of moral evil and an irresistible program of social engineering. The very final love scene, or should I say the anticipation of the love scene which takes place after the close of the book, so to speak, is very beautiful indeed. Very few writers get across the earthy, ancient, semi-divine and deeply complicated experience of conjugal love in the way that Lewis achieves at the close of the book. But is it a unified and complete work of art? As much as I wish it did, it really doesn't pull it off, and in parts it is in my opinion the worst fictional stuff that Lewis wrote.

A very interesting question presents itself about the Chronicles of Narnia for lovers of those seven books: what is their pecking order? I admit that perhaps there is something in the idea that the boarding school Pevensies don't help, apart from the wonderful Lucy, because my clear favourite as a boy was the only book to be set completely in the other world, The Horse and His Boy. I struggle to pick out an order of preference, but this is what comes to my mind most spontaneously:

(1) The Horse and His Boy: my childhood favourite still wins out. The best bit: Shasta's meeting with the golden Lion in the mist.
(2) The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: an awfully close second. It is piled thick with beauty and excitement, and I can't decide whether to pick the sweet sea of lilies at the World's End or the escape from the Island of Darkness as my most loved part.
(3) The Silver Chair: and here there is utterly no doubt of the best bit, the Last Sign, the smell of singed Marshwiggle and the breaking of the spell of the Underworld enchantress.
(4) The Magician's Nephew is almost joint third, and I love especially the part where Digory refuses to escape back home with the Apple of Youth - or come to think of it, is my favourite bit the accursed city of Charn, the room of the Images, and the golden bell?
(5) The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe comes in fifth. It was of course the first of the Narnia stories that I read, and I loved the logic of the Professor when Peter and Susan come to him to question Lucy's sanity. People say this character is based on Lewis's tutor Kirkpatrick: perhaps, but I would say it is vintage Lewis.
(6) The Last Battle I found rather dreadful and terrifying as a child, and I still do. The scene of the Last Judgment is to my mind the best bit: but it isn't comfortable.
(7) Prince Caspian is last, not because I don't enjoy it, but because as a child I didn't get the story immediately, and found the bit about Bacchus and the dryads in the woods unintelligible because I didn't know the necessary classical background. Even though I now enjoy that part very much, I simply don't have the same depth of childhood response to it. The episode of Lucy's vision of Aslan when they are lost in the forest - she can see him beckoning (barely) but the others cannot, and refuse to accept her pleading, is classic Lewis. We are always given enough for our faith to follow, though often with difficulty, and in hindsight we know very well what we should have done but are very good at disguising the truth from ourselves in the conflicting passions of the moment. My most loved moment in the book is when Lucy wakes in the moonlit forest, and feels that the long sleeping trees are about to awake. She speaks, but the moment passes without the trees awakening, and she is left feeling that she had spoken a moment too soon or too late, or somehow said slightly the wrong words. There is something very deep in one's psyche that is touched by this passage, about our understanding of nature, or of the unconscious natures of others (but are they the same thing?). It speaks to our aching loss of some primal word of wholeness, of wisdom and integration that at times seems so elusively near our tongue yet so utterly irretrievable. Perhaps St Francis knew it.

After that piece of wholly and unashamedly self-indulgent reverie about the Chronicles of Narnia, now for something a bit more long-faced. I noted from the Catholic blog sites that one or two people were setting out a case for Lewis as almost a Catholic, or at least on a trajectory that would have catapulted him across the Tiber had he but lived a few years more. This doesn't stand up, at least not from his written work.

His posthumously published essay Christian Reunion sets out the problem for ecumenical efforts - that there is no common agreement about authority between Catholics and Protestants. Lewis states the problem, but doesn't answer it: in fact he says he says "I can see no way of bridging this gulf". The gulf Lewis identifies thus: "[for a Catholic] the real vice of Protestantism is the formless drift which seems unable to retain the Catholic truths" and ends in modernism; on the other side "the terrible thing about Rome is the recklessness [for a Protestant] with which she has added to the depositum fidei. You [the Catholic] see in Protestanism the Faith dying out in a desert; and we [Protestants] see in Rome the Faith smothered in a jungle." The problem is that the Catholic sees an absence of Doctrine in Protestanism - asking a Catholic to agree to Protestant doctrines is like "asking a man to say he agrees not with a speaker but a debating society". And the reason Lewis cannot be Catholic, he says, is that to accept Catholicism is not to accept a particular doctrine, but "to accept in advance any doctrine your Church hereafter produces.... like being asked to agree not only to what a man has said but what he is going to say."

Lewis's only suggestion is that unity won't come about by high Anglicans and liberal Catholics getting cosy together, (was that an anticipation of ARCIC?) but by people at the heart of each communion coming closest in spirit through union with Christ. Thus I do not see here, or anywhere else, a sign of Lewis drifting into Catholicism. The fact that he engaged in Anglo-Catholic practices such as viaticum and confession to a priest seem to me beside the point, as these were practices fully accepted within that wing of Anglicanism at the time.

One of the interesting things is that little Fount volume I have containing Lewis's essay (Christian Reunion and Other Essays) has a foreword by Walter Hooper who is encouraged by the opening of ecumenical dialogue at Vatican II. Now as I see it this turned into a red herring, for what came of this effort was exactly what Lewis said would not result in unity: liberal Catholics and High Anglicans having cosy conferences and producing glossy reports. And in this Lewis has been proved right. It is noteworthy, too, that nothing has changed in the gulf between Protestant and Catholic notions of authority, and in some ways it has worsened. The Vatican II definition of papal authority is if anything less limiting and less traditional than Vatican I: and in fact papal power, both before and after the council, was used to sweep away centuries of liturgy and accumulated tradition. Even if the liturgical reforms were not the direct will or act of any one Pope, there have been changes made or allowed that I think former popes would simply not have seen as within their juridical scope to make. One could argue that what one might call liberalising powers have been exercised in a very centralised and autocratic fashion. What has been missing is a firm hand in calling the Church back to centuries of tradition, even in the supposedly super-conservative reign of Benedict XVI, who removed the strictures on suppressed tradition but did not use his authority to say "No" with any great rigour. Thus the liberal Catholics, while decrying the notion of a centralised papacy and talking the language of a democratic Church, seem not to be wary of using episcopal and papal authority to enact sweeping and drastic reforms which they could not otherwise have pushed through.

On the other hand, have the conservatives had a conversion of heart on the notion of papal authority? They are much more likely these days to speak of the binding nature of tradition, to emphasise that the Pope has no authority to cast this aside, and to speak in their theology of the ultimate Tradition and guide of our belief, lex orandi, lex credendi. If this is true, then perhaps the road for a truly conservative and traditional path to unity will be opened by a clear notion of Tradition bound by the Divine Liturgy emerging, of which the Pope is the foremost guardian and servant. The text of the Bible and the text of the Magisterial Office will be seen through the text of liturgy: the Eternal and Living Word present in a Eucharist which has been restored to its proper place. In this way Lewis's concerns about the exercise of authority might be met, when authority becomes the servant of the Word, and the limits of its exercise are clearly defined by the prayer of the Church. There is a revival of Patristics and interest in tradition among some Reformed churches in the United States and more recently here in Britain, and Lewis's conundrum about unity could be solved by a convergence of traditional Catholicism and Reformed and Evangelical thought on the least likely of grounds: tradition.

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