One of the gifts C. S. Lewis brings to the Christian conversation is the capacity to turn an issue about forty-five degrees and see it from a more helpful and challenging angle. That is the case in many of the essays in the little book whose title comes from the opening address. The book was originally published in the UK in 1949 under the title Transposition and Other Addresses, and the same set of talks was published in the U.S. that year under the title we have. The volume I have read repeatedly is the revised edition that brings together and updates these two somewhat divergent projects.
“Our Lord finds our desires not too strong,” Lewis writes in the opening address, “but too weak.” Lewis was convinced that we humans are always tempted to settle for too little rather than to desire too much. He suggests that we humans are “like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mudpies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at the sea,” Lewis continues. “We are far too easily pleased” (pages 3-4).
Lewis is describing some of the aspects of his “Argument from Desire.” In that imagery (for it is not really an argument, as such), Lewis proposes that we humans are created to desire God and all the goodness of God’s creation. Our desires for elements of creation reflect that larger desire and point to it. Desire is not the problem, Lewis suggests (echoing St. Augustine). The problem is desiring something less than God and then settling for that something as the end of the desiring process. As Augustine would note, desire is not sin. Disordered desire is.
“Now, if we are made for heaven,” Lewis writes, “then desire for our proper place will be already in it, but not yet attached to the true object, and will even appear as the rival of that object” (page 6). We are “made for heaven,” Lewis suggests, and therefore bear what St. Paul in 2 Corinthians refers to as the “weight of glory.” Or we might think about the imagery in Ephesians 2:10, where we are describes as God’s “poetry” (“workmanship” is too tame and too gendered by half for the word used). In fact, we are made to desire the glory of God for which we have been created.
That glory, Lewis notes, fills every human being, since all are made in God’s image. Thus, in this life, we are called to one bear another’s burdens as we are transformed from one glory into another. “There are no ordinary people,” Lewis writes. “You have never talked to a mere moral…Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses…” (page 19). This is a perspective that could inform a great many issues – beginning, for example, with systemic racism.
Most of these addresses were given during the Second World War, some on the BBC. They were answers to questions of faith raised by the catastrophe of the conflict. In “Learning in War-Time,” he reminds us that even such a catastrophe is penultimate and temporary. The question of life is not whether we will die but only when and how. Mortality becomes more salient but not more likely, since death finds us all. Therefore, we should hold our life plans lightly and desire our daily bread (page 30). That’s some helpful counsel in Covid-tide.
In the face of the question of pacifism, Lewis asserts that he is not one. He anticipates the insights of contemporary psychology, that most of our moral positions are justifications of decisions we’ve already made on other bases. “You cannot produce rational intuition by argument,” he suggests, “because argument depends on rational intuition. Proof rests upon the unprovable which has to be just ‘seen.’ Hence,” he concludes, “faulty intuition is incorrigible” (page 35). Lewis seems to have been listening in on contemporary political discourse.
Lewis is more practical than principled when it comes to pacifism. He is somewhat in the school of Christian Realism, which was ascendant in the middle third of the twentieth century in the West. “I think the art of life consists in taking each immediate evil as we can,” he wrote (page 45). I’m not at all sure his arguments bear much weight in the matter. Lewis could be quite conventional in many areas of life and theology.
In “Transposition,” one of his best-known addresses, Lewis returns to the more secure ground of Christian theology. He gave this address in May of 1944, on the Day of Pentecost. If the essence of sin is that our desires are inverted, as he argues in “The Weight of Glory,” in this essay he suggests that we try to understand “higher” meanings in the framework of “lower” meanings, rather than vice versa. The result can only be confusion.
He uses the analogy of a piano transcription of a musical piece originally scored for an orchestra. While the piano piece can convey the basics of the composition, a great deal of music will be lost in the transcription. “It is clear,” he writes, “that in each case what is happening in the lower medium can only be understood if we know the higher medium” (page 61). Lewis suggests that the spiritual nature of reality is more like the orchestra score and the naturalistic description of reality is more like the piano transcription.
He examines and critiques the reductionism of naturalistic explanations and descriptions which claim to be exhaustive and conclusive. He points to the classic Christian experience of the “coincidence of opposites” as one of the places where spiritual description finds knowledge while naturalistic descriptions find only contradiction. The via negative (which is the result of the “coincidence of opposites”) tells us that there is something to be known by examining what God is not.
But we cannot rest there, Lewis suggests. “We must believe—and therefore in some degree imagine—that every negation will be only the reverse side of a fulfilling,” he writes. “And we must mean by that the fulfilling, precisely, of our humanity, not our transformation into angels nor our absorption into Deity” (page 67). Lewis has given a basic description of the Eastern notion of theosis, divinization, whether he intended to or not. It is this notion which has the greatest potential (largely unexplored) to bring together Christian theology East and West, North and South, mainline and Pentecostal.
One of his most beautiful addresses is “Is Theology Poetry?” I have always thought the answer to his question must be “Yes.” As in good physical science, Beauty is a pointer to the presence of Truth. In the end, the essay asks a question of meaning, about the intelligibility of existence. If existence is not intelligible, if — under all the scientific veneer – it is an opaque chaos, then why bother with real Science at all? Stick to pure instrumentality.
If, on the other hand, existence is intelligible, then metaphor and metaphysics become inevitable. “Christian theology can fit in science, art, morality, and the sub-Christian religions [apologies for that slur, but it’s in the text]. The scientific point of view cannot fit in any of these things,” Lewis argues, “not even science itself.” Whether Lewis knew Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem or not, he bears out its meaning here. The essay concludes with one of his more quoted lines – “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else” (page 92).
Lewis wrestles in two essays with his lifelong anxiety about belonging. In “The Inner Ring,” he connects the desire to be part of an inner circle with our desire to belong to God. Again, it is not the desire itself that is diseased. Rather, the object of the desire is disordered. “My main purpose in this address,” he notes, “is simply to convince you that this desire [the substitution of human belonging for belonging to God] is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action” (page 100).
In “Membership” he reflects on the tensions between individualism and the command in Christian scriptures to attend to the assembling together regularly as believers. He addresses, eighty years ago, the “spiritual but not religious” bent of our own time. And he worries about the tendency we see in the present moment that Christians have of equating their visible fellowships with the One, True Church. “The Christian is called not to individualism but to membership in the mystical body,” he writes (page 110). We are called to be members of another –neither individuals nor a collective.
In this address, Lewis makes some interesting observations about equality and the Christian faith. “Equality is for me,” he writes, “in the same position as clothes. It is a result of the Fall,” he asserts, “and the remedy for it” (page 114). So, for Lewis, equality is a political rather than a spiritual reality. Our value comes from God and is not inherent in us. “He loved us not because we were loveable, but because He is Love. It may be that He loves all equally,” Lewis allows, “He certainly loves all to the death – and I am not certain what the expression means. If there is equality,” he concludes, “it is in His love, not in us” (page 115).
The final essay is “On Forgiveness.” Lewis notes that typically when he asks God to forgive something, what he is really asking is that God would excuse that something. I resemble that remark. He captures the French proverb which notes that to forgive is first of all to accuse, not to excuse. “If you have a perfect excuse, you would not need forgiveness,” he writes, “if the whole of your action needs forgiveness, then there was no excuse for it” (page 122).
This transfers to our own forgiving and being forgiven. “To excuse what can really produce good excuses is not Christian charity,” he argues, “it is only fairness. To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you” (page 125). He acknowledges that this is hard, especially when we are called on to forgive the same offense over and over. But, he notes, “We are offered forgiveness on no other terms. To refuse is,” he concludes, “is to refuse God’s mercy for ourselves” (page 125).
There is much to dislike in these essays, and much with which one can disagree. But I have found the dialogue challenging and refreshing year in and year out. I’d invite you into some similar arguments with our friend, Jack.