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His painful road may not be ours

22 November 2013

Richard Harries on C. S. Lewis's life and approach to suffering

Yearning for goodness: C. S. Lewis, who died on 22 November in 1963

Yearning for goodness: C. S. Lewis, who died on 22 November in 1963

C. S. Lewis: A life
Alister McGrath
Hodder and Stoughton £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis
Alister E. McGrath
Wiley-Blackwell £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18

LIKE many Christian believers of all denominations, I am deeply grateful for the writings of C. S. Lewis, especially for some of his wartime essays such as "The Weight of Glory", and for later books such as Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on prayer.

Many will also be grateful for these two books by Alister McGrath. Both reflect his thorough research, careful weighing of evidence, wide reading, and clarity of expression. Having a similar background in Oxford and Belfast, and a similar vocation as a Christian apologist, he is particularly well placed to enter into the mind and feelings of Lewis.

Although the main outline of C. S. Lewis's life is now well known, McGrath's account can be warmly recommended to anyone who wants a sympathetic, factually based, and balanced biography. He has read all the correspondence in order, and his scientifically trained mind leads him to question Lewis's account in some places - for example, on the date of his conversion.

The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis, as the title suggests, looks particularly at the philosophical world of Oxford in the 1920s, and considers some of the main themes in Lewis's writing, such as the relationship between his more philosophical arguments and his understanding of desire - which is perhaps better understood as unattainable longing.

McGrath agrees with Austin Farrer's judgement on Lewis that "We think we are listening to an argument; in fact we are presented with a vision, and it is the vision which carries conviction."

The book contains useful studies on different aspects of Lewis as a Christian thinker; and I particularly enjoyed the slightly mischievous chapter in which McGrath argues that Lewis should be seen as a "real" theologian, not just the amateur one that he himself claimed to be.

Lewis was criticised for seeing pain in too instrumental terms, "a slightly puzzling criticism later levelled against him by his Oxford contemporary Austin Farrer", as McGrath puts it. In view of that remark, I reread both The Problem of Pain and Farrer's essay on Lewis "The Christian Apologist". It reaffirmed my earlier judgement that Farrer's critique is both correct and hugely important.

Here I must declare a personal interest, as they say. Many years ago I wrote a little book on C. S. Lewis, and was amused to receive a letter from a lady in America, asking, in effect, how I, a mere mortal, dared to criticise a god such as Lewis? I was slightly less amused when, for whatever reason, my book no longer appeared in the United States. In that book, besides expressing huge admiration for Lewis, I had been critical both of his picture of God and, following Farrer, his account of suffering. Farrer, commenting on Lewis, had written:

"Pain cannot be related to the will of God as an evil wholly turned into a moral instrument. Pain is the bitter savour of that mortality out of which it is the unimaginable mercy of God to rescue us. When under suffering we see good men go to pieces, we do not witness the failure of a moral discipline to take effect; we witness the advance of death where death comes by inches. By failing to keep so elementary a consideration sufficiently to the forefront of his scene, Lewis risks forfeiting the sympathy of a compassionate reader, for all the evidences of a compassionate heart he abundantly displays."

McGrath's main purpose in these books is to tell Lewis's life story, and expound his thought. It is a pity that he does not tackle the residual unease a fair number of people, otherwise sympathetic to Lewis, feel about him; for the fact is that there are aspects of Lewis's understanding of pain which are spiritually damaging. His dearly loved brother Warnie, for example, found the book "apologetically unconvincing". I believe that the unhelpful picture of God Lewis sometimes presents stemmed from a too easy universalising of his own experience.

His own state he thought of as one of rebellion; so we can understand how pain became, for him, "God's megaphone" to break down human resistance to God as our Creator. Lewis himself finally gives in and kneels, "the most dejected and reluctant convert in all Eng-land". True joy, about which he was such an eloquent writer, came later.

But others are led by a gentler path: "the drawing of this love and the voice of this calling", wrote Julian of Norwich, words later quoted by T. S. Eliot. Lewis took a very Western, Augustinian view of the fall of man with its catastrophic consequences, and there is little sense of his taking evolution seriously, nor of humanity as "the crown of creation".

Lewis had a bad relationship with his Belfast father, and a terrible experience of bullying and sadism at school; it would be surprising if this had not affected his whole outlook. Fortunately, this went with a wonderful imagination linked to a powerful yearning for beauty and goodness.

But if it is inevitable that we all, to some extent, create a god whom we most love or a god we most fear, there is always the danger of thinking that the path others travel will be the same as ours.

The Rt Revd the Lord Harries of Pentregarth is an Honorary Professor of Theology at King's College, London.


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