The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses – Throwback Thursday Books

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).

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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).

Me too.

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.

The Four Loves — Throwback Thursday Books

C. S. Lewis stands as an unofficial saint among English-speaking Christians. That’s especially true in the “Evangelical” tribes in the United States. I think he would find that odd, given his Anglican commitments, but he’s not the only unofficial saint to get the shaft through misappropriation and misinterpretation. The mythological hatchet job Eric Metaxas did on Bonhoeffer comes to mind as an example (but that’s a conversation for another time).

I have read Lewis since my sophomore year in college. I was never taken by the dogmatic, philosophical, and hardcore apologetic elements of his work. That’s the place that seems to grab many, but I went elsewhere. I was most attracted simply by his conversion story as he recorded it in Surprised by Joy.

“You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen,” he wrote, “night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” (p. 266).

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I read those words not too long after I found myself the most dejected and reluctant (re)convert in all of Pella, Iowa. That’s not such a big pond for such a small fish, but it was the pond in which I found myself at the time. I identified strongly (and still do) with his description of “a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape…” That captured my position precisely.

No, it wasn’t the argument and apologetics. It was the philosophy or theology. It was his fiction. I loved The Screwtape Letters. I read annually The Great Divorce. I devoured the Narnia chronicles. I savored the Perelandra trilogy. I even enjoyed his Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. In later years, I read and meditated on Till We Have Faces. I was captured not by argument but rather by art. I was somewhat repelled by what seemed to be a brand of smug certainty that had no place in my paradoxical Lutheran heart (by the way – even when I was an atheist, I was a “Lutheran” sort of atheist).

One piece of Lewis prose cuts against the grain here. The Four Loves has been a touchstone for me for most of the last four decades. I will proceed to the paragraphs which riveted me in the beginning and continue to pin me down to this moment. Lewis discusses the fourth of the four loves – agape, charity, self-giving rather than self-seeking love. He meditates on the cost of that love for the lover and why such love must be costly.

“If I am sure of anything,” Lewis writes, “I am sure that His [Christ’s] teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preferences for safe investments and limited liabilities.” That was precisely my approach to love and to life. I treated love as a scarce commodity which could hardly ever be secured, and which was sure to flit away at the least breeze of adversity or disagreement. If self-giving love was such a rare and unstable thing, why should I put any stock in it?

“I doubt whether there is anything in me that pleases Him less,” Lewis continues. I must always still pause at this statement and take it in. Precisely that which makes the most sense to me about Love makes the least sense to the author of that Love. “And who,” Lewis asks, “could conceivably begin to love God on such a prudential ground – because the security (so to speak) is better?” (page 120). Yet, that is precisely my default position in loving. No wonder it works so poorly for me on my own.

Our Lord’s love, Lewis notes, must be of a quite different quality. “Even if it were granted that insurances against heartbreak were our highest wisdom,” he writes, “does God Himself [sic] offer them?’ Does God guard against the cost of loving in the face of possible abandonment? “Apparently not,” Lewis responds to his own question. “Christ comes at last to say, ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’” (page 121).

Shit. I know, not the most eloquent response. But it is precisely what comes to mind every time I read these words.

Then comes the big finish. If I thought this was terrifying before, just wait. “To love at all is to be vulnerable,” he writes. “Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact,” he suggests, “you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken,” he concludes, “it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy,” Lewis declares, “or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell” (page 121).

Double shit. Still precisely what comes to mind every time I read these words.

Lewis knew all about wrapping and protecting his heart from hurt. He had spent a lifetime doing just that. Then he met and ultimately married Joy Gresham. Three years later he buried her, dead from cancer. They were certainly the three best years of his life. Then he plunged into the depths of despair as he recorded in A Grief Observed. Grief is the price we pay for loving. And Lewis paid the bill in full.

Once written, books do not change. But we are readers certainly do. I collided with the words of The Four Loves at a more superficial level many times over the years. Lewis examines and describes our love for pets as a genuine love and real loss when they die. I was grateful for his perspective. The loss of parents, grandparents, relationships of all kinds, jobs, communities, hopes and dreams – Lewis knew and described it well.

Then Anne died ten years ago, and I started the conversation all over again. That was the moment I came to an infinitely deeper appreciation of both the wounds and the wisdom Lewis shared. I know many live and die by Mere Christianity, for example. But I prefer my Lewis wounded and uncertain, human and humble. That’s when I feel like I can talk to him as a friend.

Friendship was a love of great value to Lewis. This love is worth mentioning here as well. Most are familiar with his deep and generative friendships with the “Inklings” – that astonishing little literary guild which included Owen Barfield, Jack A. W. Bennett, Lord David Cecil, Nevill Coghill, Hugo Dyson, Adam Fox, J. H. Grant III, Roger Lancelyn Green, Charles Williams, and J. R. R. Tolkien. The spiritual wisdom and literary power of that group is quite astonishing. Lewis describes friendship as sharing a desire and care for “the same truth.”

“Hence,” he writes, “we picture lovers face to face but Friends side by side; their eyes look ahead.” (page 66). It is not surprising that in a week and a half we shall hear Jesus describing his disciples as his “friends” in John 15. Lewis puts it this way. “The Friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out,” he writes. “It is the instrument by which God reveals to each,” he says, “the beauties of all the others” (page 89).

I won’t rehearse his arguments on erotic love, the third of the four. He has some legitimate cautions about the contemporary tendency to divinize and then idolize human erotic love. He is also a bit more jaundiced in his views than I think the evidence warrants. But it’s worth reading and drawing your own conclusions in that regard.

One of the great side benefits of reading The Four Loves is that it makes Till We Have Faces much more accessible and understandable. Lewis rewrites and reinterprets the Eros and Psyche myth in a complex, subtle and mature fashion. Faces is his most mature and ambiguous work. Thus, I find it his most compelling. But without his reflections on the promise, power, and peril of love (especially erotic love), it can be hard to follow.

I’m grateful for Lewis’ leading in my own return to the Christian faith. I am even more grateful for his challenge to the simplicities of that faith as he went deeper into live and love and loss. He’s not a saint in my personal pantheon. But I’d like to think that we might have been friends.

Unburying Brokenness

Bryan Stevenson’s memoir, Just Mercy, has dozens of stories of triumph. Stevenson and his colleagues at the Equal Justice Initiative have advocated for and freed hundreds of people who were unjustly convicted and sentenced. Those stories are all deeply moving. But I was most affected by a story of failure toward the end of the book.

Jimmy Dill was wrongly accused, convicted, and sentenced to death. He was mentally disabled and suffered a significant speech impediment. Stevenson and his colleagues worked feverishly to have Dill’s sentence reviewed and his execution stayed. But all their attempts were defeated.

Stevenson narrates his last phone call with Mr. Dill, just a short time before the execution. Some of Mr. Dill’s last words to Stevenson were, ““Mr. Bryan, I just want to thank you for fighting for me. I thank you for caring about me. I love y’all for trying to save me.”[i]

As Stevenson sat at his desk, Mr. Dill was executed. Stevenson teetered on the brink of despair. He wondered why he did all this. “I can just leave,” he said aloud to no one but himself. “Why am I doing this?”[ii]

In a few moments, the answer came to him. “I do what I do because I’m broken, too,” he wrote.

My years of struggling against inequality, abusive power, poverty, oppression, and injustice had finally revealed something to me about myself. Being close to suffering, death, executions, and cruel punishments didn’t just illuminate the brokenness of others; in a moment of anguish and heartbreak, it also exposed my own brokenness. You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it.[iii]

Bryan Stevenson was tempted to bury his brokenness in denial and despair. Fortunately for him, and for all of us, he was saved from that tomb.

The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) tells the tale of a fearful slave who buries his brokenness and inters his insecurities. Jesus makes clear that this behavior is not consistent with what it means to be fully and functionally human. I can’t help but think about President Trump, buried in the White House in denial and despair. What little humanity remaining in that poor soul is draining away from him by the second.

What does the third slave bury? He buries his fear. He fears the punishing power of the master if he gets it wrong. So rather than risking failure, he tucks his fear in a napkin, lays it in a hole in the ground, and covers his anxiety. With his terror safely tucked away, he can get on with his normal life. Normal, that is, until the time comes for the accounting.

With his fear, he buries his sense of vulnerability. But if Matthew is right, it is the vulnerable who are blessed. It is not in the absence of vulnerability but right through it that we find blessings. We can be broken open by our suffering. Or we can become unbreakable. This is the choice the third slave makes. In securing his skin, he loses his soul.

With his fear, he buries his capacities for joy…and love. I return over and over to the words of C. S. Lewis in The Four Loves.

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in the casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven, where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.[iv]

It seems that President Trump is simply refusing delivery on the reality of his election loss. The consequences of this refusal range from the comic to the consequential. I know most people are distressed but not surprised by his response. After all, walls are his answer to everything from immigration to protests outside the White House. He seems sure that if he simply denies the loss, it will eventually go away.

Passing judgment on this behavior is easy. But in his current actions, I think Donald Trump is the most American of presidents. After all, we have refused delivery on tragedy, loss, and accountability for much of our history. In this moment, Donald Trump and I are uncomfortably alike in our responses. Too often, Donald and I have believed that brokenness is best managed when it is buried. I know such a response is pathological, even when I do not resist the temptation. President Trump believes such a response is both normal and necessary. I feel sorry for him (a little bit).

What does Joe Biden offer that Donald Trump does not? He offers his brokenness. For me, the most telling line in his speech the other night was when he said he knows about losing. He wasn’t talking about election defeats. He was talking about a cherished wife and daughter, a beloved son. He was talking about how his losses have broken him open.

I do not have 20 years of income to protect and hide (does this refer to the third slave or the forty-fifth president?). I have not lost a national election. But ten years ago right now, I did lose my first spouse, Anne. Repeatedly, since then, I have struggled to keep my heart out of the hole that beckons for its burial. I have not been particularly successful in resisting, so I have a bit of empathy (for a few seconds now and then) for poor Donald.

This parable drives me every three years to another quote from The Four Loves. “If I am sure of anything,” Lewis writes, “I am sure that [Christ’s] teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities. I doubt if there is anything in me that pleases [Christ] less. And who could conceivably begin to love God on such a prudential ground — because the security (so to speak) is better?”[v]

I want to bury my brokenness. In the process I become unbreakable. That’s a living death.

The Christian good news is that God embraces our brokenness, finally and fully. That brokenness is wrapped in a napkin and put in the ground…for a little while. But it cannot stay buried. The brokenness of love always gives life. We Christians worship the breakable, and broken, God on the cross.

The third slave buried his brokenness because he did not trust the character of the master. He expected that failure would be punished, that the beatings would now commence. He did not know (or trust) that the master blesses vulnerability and makes risking holy. After all, Creation itself has always been the risk that Divine Love takes for the sake of relationship.

When we bury our brokenness, we lock up the very sources of blessing in our lives. It’s back to the Beatitudes again — poverty of spirit, mourning, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, peacemaking — in our fear we lock away precisely these pains. In the process, we make our hearts unbreakable. We make ourselves unblessable. That is what happens to the third slave. His fear makes him impervious to blessing, so the outer darkness is the only place that can accommodate him.

It is vulnerability which makes God fully human (if we can trust Paul’s words in Philippians 2). And we, who are created in God’s image, can only be fully human in our vulnerability. Becoming unbreakable makes us sub-human, inhuman, and inhumane. If we cannot unbury and welcome our own brokenness, we cannot welcome the brokenness of others. Instead we must punish them for their imperfections and failures.

That practice has been raised to the level of national policy and political philosophy.

As part of our morning ritual, Brenda and I read devotionally from a selection of Henri Nouwen quotes. A few days ago, we read this passage. “Your whole life is filled with losses, endless losses,” he wrote in Finding My Way Home.

And every time there are losses there are choices to be made. You choose to live your losses as passages to anger, blame, hatred, depression, and resentment, or you choose to let these losses be passages to something new, something wider, something deeper. The question is not how to avoid loss and make it not happen, but how to choose it as a passage, as an exodus to greater life and freedom.[vi]

Unburying my brokenness – that’s not a bad description for the daily path of discipleship. And it is my prayer that the current inmate at the White House might, miracle of miracles, discover a bit of his true humanity in the time to come.


[i] Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, p. 288. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid., page 289.

[iv] Page 121.

[v] Page 120.

[vi] Quoted in You are Beloved: Daily Meditations for Spiritual Living, page 343.