Tag Archives: C.S. Lewis

Impressions of “Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer” and “The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses,” by C.S. Lewis

The Weight of Glory (AD 1942) and Letters to Malcolm (AD 1964) are both Christian non-fiction works by CS Lewis, probably the best Christian writer of the 20th century. They are both written in his easy style — though more like one believer exchanging notes with another rather than tools for conversion — and both are relatively short. But more than a generation separate their publications, and in that time Lewis honed his craft. Yet they are the work of the same man. They are reflections — transpositions or projections — of the same mind.

The cover for Letters to Malcolm shown above contains part of the Flower of Life, one of the many shadows a hypercube onto a 2 dimensional surface.  A hypercube, when unfolded onto 3 dimensions, makes the shape of a cross. Our human brains are not evolved to understand 4-Dimensional entities, so all the graphics in this post are different ways of translating what a cube of cubes means onto a computer page.  In both of these books, C.S. Lewis tries to project man’s relationship with God, or at least the hyperdimensional nature of God’s presence, onto paper.

The Weight of Glory is a collection of nine lectures, but the central core is #4, “Transposition,” an accessible guide to an abstract theological issue. Letters to Malcolm may be the finest writing Lewis ever produced — it only appears to be straight-forward, but is as strong and subversive a defense of Christianity as St Augustine’s Confessions (AD 400).

Days of the week

The most striking line of St Augustine’s writings, to Christians who nowadays bother to read it, is probably this:

Therefore will I speak before Thee, O Lord, what is true, when ignorant men and infidels (for the initiating and gaining of whom the sacraments of initiation and great works of miracles are necessary, which we believe to be signified under the name of “fishes” and “whales”) undertake that Thy servants should be bodily refreshed, or should be otherwise succoured for this present life, although they may be ignorant wherefore this is to be done, and to what end; neither do the former feed the latter, nor the latter the former; for neither do the one perform these things through a holy and right intent, nor do the other rejoice in the gifts of those who behold not as yet the fruit

The context for the bolded section is the chief difficulty that St Augustine had in converting to Christianity: how could an educated, modern world accept the literal truth of the Bible, with its bizarre miracles (Jonah being swallowed by a whale; Christ feeding the multitude with a few fishes and loaves). Augustine’s solution was that these “names” in fact “signify” sacramental truths. While Augustine’s writing is latinate and complex, it appears he does not believe in the literal truth of either miracle.

Without getting into specific historical claims (the general pattern of Biblical literature implies to me the The Book of Jonah is written as a comedy, or at least a satire), Lewis introduces the concept of “transposition.” Lewis means by transposition what geometers mean by “projection” — the translation of an object from a higher dimension to a lower one. For instance, if you had a cube, you could project (or in Lewis’s term, “transpose”) is into a square — that is one correct way of viewing a cube on flat paper. Or you could use perspective, and show that cube as a sequence of angled rectangles. Lewis gives an example of projecting/transposing a beach onto paper by drawing it with pencils.

Thus, lines like “thrones and dominions,” or “on the right hand of the Father,” or (perhaps) “fishes” and “whales” are projects into a lower-dimensional space of higher-dimensional reality. Lewis elides the dimensionality at which this stops. For instance, is it the case that fishes and whales are 3D dimensional projections of higher-dimensionality reality, or (to follow Augustine) are the names fishes and whales themselves the lower-dimensional projection.

“Transposition” is the hermeneutic key of The Weight of Glory. But it’s also the key I think, to Letters to Malcolm, an extremely readable book on the importance of prayer. Transposition matters in thinking about the nature of time. And it matters in thinking about the nature of Scripture.

Christians are told to pray for their “daily bread.” While “thy will be done” might be translated as “… if it’s actually a good idea,” most of us have our own ideas that we are encouraged to pray for. Peace or victory, justice or forgiveness, a raise or a successful relationship. But in many cases a “successful” prayer would require not simply changing the future, but also the past. For instance, if you receive a letter from a lawyer, and you pray it is good news, the only way that pray could “work” is if the prayer succeeded in changing the the past event of composing that letter.

Atheists accuse Christians of thinking they have a a “friend in the sky.” But it is more accurate to say the sky is in Him. In the same way, urgent prayers do not hope for a friendly response in time — they hope for a response for He whom Time is within. Time is not absolute reality, God is.

Let’s put it another way. We are used to logical thinking, such that if something is a square it cannot be a triangle, or a point. But a pyramid is a square on its bottom, a triangle on its side, and a point on its top. These lower-dimensional shapes are projected (or Lewis would say, transposed) from the higher-dimensional object of a pyramid. The drawing of a pyramid on the dollar bill is just one of many projections of a pyramid, including just one of the possibly projections or transpositions of its shapes. Likewise, the hypercube when further unrolled (transposed) onto 3 dimensional space is a cross, and when projected (transposed) head-on, it appears to be composed of five squares.  Or any of the other shapes in this blog post.

So when we pray for a miracle, in the past, present or future, we are praying for the projection of time that we see to be in conformance with our request. We are praying for time to be rotated in a specific way, in the way we might rotate a model pyramid to see the triangle, or the square, or the point. And (given the trickiness in rotating all of space-time to change the plane of reality), the phrase “Thy Will be Done” might be understood as “If that’s actually a good idea.”

Which is weighty and glorious. Until He answers our prayers with “No,” or “Not yet.” Then we remember that the angels are like fire, and He is like a bull.

I read Letters to Malcom and The Weight of Glory in their Audible editions.

Impressions of “The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklinkgs,” by Philip and Carol Zaleski

On the recommendation of Mark Safranski, I recently read this history of the “Inklinkgs” literary society. The narrative focuses primarily on the group’s two most famous members, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. The authors spend considerable time with two writers I was not previously familiar with, Owen Barfield and Charles Williams.

Mark’s review is more thoughtful and comprehensive than these impressions. You read should it.”

I was struck by the relationship between Tolkien and Lewis. Tolkien was the more conventionally religious. Lewis had the more interesting path, including an early (and only literary?) interest in sadomasochism and an often quixotic (sometimes conveniently so) view of Christian doctrine and practice. The discussion of Barfield and Williams serves as a way of providing background between Tolkien and Lewis – who are perhaps as close to Christian literary prophets as the world has since the death of John.

The deterioration of their relationship seems to have had multiple causes. Tolkien was a perfectionist who tried to make a Middle Earth as internally coherent as possible, C.S. Lewis‘ Narnia was intended to be fun and easy to read. Tolkien seems to have become increasingly hostile to Protestantism, while Lewis never last an inner wildness. As neither was quite as humble as they presented themselves.

The sub-plot of Owen Barfield was interesting. For most of the book a minor hanger-on with an inexplicable interest in a quack German philosopher, he finds a kind of celebrity in the United States among both Christian and counter-culture circles. The book never mentioned Barfield in association with explicitly Christian counter-cultural groups (though it briefly does with dungeons-and-dragons and the drug subculture), and more would have been appreciated.

Intellectually, new things I learned of were an alternative reading of That Hideous Strength (one of my favorite books of all time), the bizarre “two Jesus theory,” and just how chummy the British academic system was. I regret the authors never satisfactorily explained Barfield’s “evolution of consciousness” theory, as the phrase is used over and over again, and never seemed to mean anything in particular.

On unabridged audible the Fellowship was more than 26 hours, but went very fast. (Compare it to the 33 hours of The Wise Men, which took me a year to complete).

The Apologetics of C.S. Lewis

Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts
C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

How can the incomprehensible be understood?

Through analogy.

To understand C.S.Lewis’ writings on Christianity, take seriously the Christian idea that you may live forever.

These thoughts coming after reading Lewis’ four best known Christian books. A Grief Observed is a selection of Lewis’s private journals on the death of his wife. The Screwtape Letters is a comedy about demons and their surprisingly bureaucratic method of corrupting human souls. The Great Divorce is a journey to the afterlife. Mere Christianity, reads both as a basic introduction to Christianity and its ultimately purpose.

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In every work Lewis views as central the Christian belief that Christ will “come to judge the living and the dead,” that Christians “look for the resurrection of the dead, and live everlasting… the life of the world to come.” In other words, that we may live forever.

Lewis seems is the first writer I’ve encountered to truly consider this possibility seriously.

And the wolf will dwell with the lamb,
And the leopard will lie down with the young goat,
And the calf and the young lion and the fatling together;
And a little boy will lead them.
Also the cow and the bear will graze,
Their young will lie down together,
And the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra,
And the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den.
Isaiah 11:6-8

C.S.Lewis fought in the First World War, and lived through the economic disruption of the 1920s. So by “to live forever” in keeping with the Christian creeds, Lewis did not understand flying-babies-with-harps. The literal implication of Christian doctrine is

  • A massive disruption in the market for security
  • A massive disruption in the market for commodities
  • A massive disruption in the market for time

The consequences to these to the government, military, agricultural, industrial, and luxury sectors of the economy — that is much of human life — is clear. The corruption of those who have confused market virtues with personal virtues perhaps less obvious, but no less destructive

If you mistake for your own merits what are really God’s gifts to you through nature, and if you are contented with simply being nice, you are still a rebel: and all those gifts will only make your fall more terrible, your corruption more complicated, your bad example more disasterous. The Devil was an archangel once; his natural gifts were as far above yours as yours are above those of a chimpanzee.
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

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The seemingly hyperbolic words of the scriptures…

They will hunger no longer, nor thirst anymore; nor will the sun beat down on them, nor any heat
Revelation 7:16

… may be less a description of eternal bliss, and more a description of the next environment in which bliss might be found through Christian belief and practice, for those willing to do so.

for the Lamb in the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and will guide them to springs of the water of life; and God will wipe every tear from their eyes.”
Revelation 7:17

What Christianity does not promise is absence of other people. In fact, we are promised there will be others. This next land, where security, commodities, and time are all filled full, is already inhabited. In the midst of our happiness will be some of our enemies.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You have anointed my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Psalms 23:5

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But what equilibrium might be found in that situation? How does rational choice work when we aren’t choosing security, or commodities, or time?

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.
John 13:34

Lewis’s answer (explicit in Mere Christianity and The Great Divorce, implicit in A Grief Observed and Screwtape Letters) is that there are only two steady states: to be close to others, or to be infinitely far away from them. The life in this world, and even the connections we make in this world, are not ends in themselves. They are the context for an everlasting series of decisions in the life of the world to come, which will lead to the limit of alienation or the limit of Oneness.

You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.
Leviticus 19:18

“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.
Deuteronomy 6:4-7

That is to say,

Hell is a state of mind – ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind – is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly. For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakeable remains.
C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

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But to understand Lewis’s writings on Christianity, take seriously the Christian idea that on this world, we suffer.

But Lewis’ best work here is A Grief Observed, because instead of attempting to defend a theological position using logic, reason, and argument, he is reeling over the death of his wife. No Christianity, no concept of everlasting life, is more than a children’s story without more knowledge of the world than a child has. So as this post began with lofty and general concepts of Christianity, teaching, and the resurrection, I’ll close it with Lewis’s own words on his own grief.

If this world, with its scarcity markets in security, commodities, and time is just a context for the next, what sort of context is it?

Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

For what and Whom is that context necessary?


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