C. S. Lewis on Liberal Christianity

After writing yesterday’s post on open communion, I found my mind almost inevitably drawn towards C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce; particularly, the wonderfully funny, yet painfully prophetic caricature of liberal Christianity drawn within that book – the ‘episcopal ghost’. This character embodies the attitudes within the liberal movement that have led to practices such as open communion, and Lewis deserves great credit for seeing the potential that the assumptions of liberalism had (and have) for undermining the faith as early as he did.

Whilst it was extremely tempting to quote the entire chapter involving this character, I have achieved something that I always find difficult and exercised restraint, limiting myself to its most illuminating passage. In this segment, the central protagonist has encountered the ghost of a ‘progressive’ bishop who, like everyone else in the land described in The Great Divorce, is clinging desperately to the things that they had truly put first in their earthly lives, and which are now hindering their ability to be brought to meet and see God – in the case of this bishop (who, I’m sure, would get on famously with many Anglican ministers I have met in the past) it is the spirit of free inquiry that he cannot relinquish. The main protagonist speaks first:

‘Will you come with me to the mountains? It will hurt at first, until your feet are hardened. Reality is harsh to the feet of shadows. But will you come?’

‘Well, that is a plan. I am perfectly ready to consider it. Of course I should require some assurances…I should want a guarantee that you are taking me to a place where I shall find a wider sphere of usefulness – and scope for the talents God has given me – and an atmosphere of free inquiry – in short, all that one means by civilisation and – er – the spiritual life.’

‘No,’ said the other. ‘I can promise you none of those things. No sphere of usefulness: you are not needed there at all. No scope for your talents: only forgiveness for having perverted them. No atmosphere of inquiry, for I will bring you to the land not of questions but of answers, and you shall see the face of God.’

‘Ah, but we must all interpret those beautiful words in our own way! For me there is no such thing as a final answer. The free wind of inquiry must always continue to blow through the mind, must it not? “Prove all things”…to travel hopefully is better than to arrive.’

‘If that were true, and known to be true, how could anyone travel hopefully? There would be nothing to hope for.’

‘But you must feel yourself that there is something stifling about the idea of finality? Stagnation, my dear boy, what is more soul-destroying than stagnation?’

‘You think that, because hitherto you have experienced truth only with the abstract intellect. I will bring you where you can taste it like honey and be embraced by it as by a bridegroom. Your thirst shall be quenched.’

‘Well, really, you know, I am not aware of a thirst for some ready-made truth which puts an end to intellectual activity in the way you seem to be describing. Will it leave me the free play of Mind, Dick? I must insist on that, you know.’

‘Free, as a man is free to drink while he is drinking. He is not free still to be dry.’

The Ghost seemed to think for a moment. ‘I can make nothing of that idea,’ it said.

‘Listen!’ said the White Spirit. ‘Once you were a child. Once you knew what inquiry was for. There was a time when you asked questions because you wanted answers, and were glad when you had found them. Become that child again: even now.’

‘Ah, but when I became a man I put away childish thing.’

‘You have gone far wrong. Thirst was made for water; inquiry for truth. What you now call the free play of inquiry has neither more nor less to do with the ends for which intelligence was given you than masturbation has to do with marriage.’

‘If we cannot be reverent, there is at least no need to be obscene. The suggestion that I should return at my age to the mere factual inquisitiveness of boyhood strikes me as preposterous. In any case, that question-and-answer conception of thought only applies to matter of fact. Religious and speculative questions are surely on a different level.’

We know nothing of religion here: we think only of Christ. We know nothing of speculation. Come and see. I will bring you to Eternal Fact, the Father of all other fact-hood.’

‘I should object very strongly to describing God as a “fact”. The Supreme Value would surely be a less inadequate description. It is hardly…’

‘Do you not even believe that He exists?’

‘Exists? What does Existence mean? You will keep on implying some sort of static, ready-made reality which is, so to speak, “there”, and to which our minds have simply to conform. These great mysteries cannot be approached in that way. If there were such a thing (there is no need to interrupt, my dear boy) quite frankly, I should not be interested in it. It would be of no religious significance. God, for me, is something purely spiritual. The spirit of sweetness and light and tolerance – and, er, service, Dick, service. We mustn’t forget that, you know.’

from The Great Divorce (2002), pp.39-42, Harper Collins.

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2 thoughts on “C. S. Lewis on Liberal Christianity

  1. Pingback: C. S. Lewis on the Resurrection Body | Journey Towards Easter

  2. Pingback: C. S. Lewis on Knowing | Journey Towards Easter

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