C. S. Lewis: Membership and Being ‘in’ Christ

In an essay entitled Membership, originally read to the Society of Saint Alban and Saint Sergius in Oxford, C. S. Lewis contrasts the two oft-opposed social visions of collectivism and individualism with the Christian vision of the Mystical Body of Christ. Starting with the recognition that, on biblical grounds, Christianity can never be a solely individual affair, Lewis then goes on to consider how subtle the pressures are on us today to make it just that (so that we do not bring our Christianity into public life) and also how collectivist views of society can flatten out personality, and reduce people to being no more than discrete members of a homogenous class, thereby losing sight of the significance of each individual life – the abstract ‘society’ becomes more important than the concrete human person, made in the image of God.

Our age is strange insofar as it celebrates both these extremes – it lionises the rights of the individual to do whatever he or she pleases, and yet, because we have divorced ourselves from any means of providing ourselves with objective moral guidance, we take our direction from the rules established for us by the State, so that it intrudes ever further into our lives, and all kinds of things which would ordinarily have been considered immoral or unjust are justified because it is for the good of society overall. What Saint Paul meant by our being members however is, as Lewis goes on to stress, something very different from either extreme – he meant something more akin to organs, and this is made clear by the analogy he uses of our being the Body of Christ.

Lewis, towards the end of his essay, and after having clarified what it is that distinguishes membership in the Mystical Body from the flattening egalitarianism of the collective, goes on to consider the place of the individual within that Body, and comparing it to our modern ideas about our inherent value simply as human beings, not as creatures made in the image of God, and of our perennial celebration of originality. This part of the essay reads very much like a sermon, and for that reason I thought I would end by quoting it (almost) in full, so that the full force of Lewis’ vision of what it means to be ‘in Christ’ (and therefore what it is to have true personality) can be felt:

…the Christian life defends the single personality from the collective, not by isolating him but by giving him the status of an organ in the mystical Body. As the book of Revelation says, he is made “a pillar in the temple of God”; and it adds, “he shall go no more out.”  That introduces a new side of our subject. That structural position in the Church which the humblest Christian occupies is eternal and even cosmic. The Church will outlive the universe; in it the individual person will outlive the universe. Everything that is joined to the immortal head will share his immortality. We hear little of this from the Christian pulpit today…

…If we do not believe it let us be honest and relegate the Christian faith to museums. If we do, let us give up the pretence that it makes no difference. For this is the real answer to every excessive claim made by the collective. It is mortal; we shall live for ever. There will come a time when every culture, every institution, every nation, the human race, all biological life, is extinct, and every one of us is still alive. Immortality is promised to us, not to these generalities. It was not for societies or states that Christ died, but for men. In that sense Christianity must seem to secular collectives to involve an almost frantic assertion of individuality. But then it is not the individual as such who will share Christ’s victory over death. We shall share the victory by being in the Victor…

…As mere biological entities, each with its separate will to live and to expand, we are apparently of no account; we are cross-fodder. But as organs in the Body of Christ, as stones and pillars in the temple, we are assured of our eternal self-identity and shall live to remember the galaxies as an old tale…

…True personality lies ahead – how far ahead, for most of us, I dare not say. And the key to it does not lie in ourselves. It will not be attained by development from within outwards. It will come to us when we occupy those places in the structure of the eternal cosmos for which we were designed or invented. As a colour first reveals its true quality when placed by an excellent artist in its pre-elected spot between certain others, as a spice reveals its true flavour when inserted just where and when a good cook wishes among the other ingredients, as the dog really becomes doggy only when he has taken his place in the household of man, so we shall then first be true persons when we have suffered ourselves to be fitted into our places. We are marble waiting to be shaped, metal waiting to be run into a mould…

…The reason we recoil from this is that we have in our day started by getting the whole picture upside down. Starting with the doctrine that every individuality is of “infinite value” we then picture God as a kind of employment committee whose business it is to find suitable careers for souls, square holes for square pegs. In fact, however, the value of the individual does not lie in him. He is capable of receiving value. He receives it by union with Christ. There is no question of finding for him a place in the living temple which will do justice to his inherent value and give scope to his natural idiosyncrasy. The place was there first. The man was created for it. He will not be himself till he is there. We shall be true and everlasting and really divine persons only in heaven, just as we are, even now, coloured bodies only in the light.

Essay Collection: Faith, Christianity and the Church (2002), pp.338-339, Harper Collins.

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One thought on “C. S. Lewis: Membership and Being ‘in’ Christ

  1. Pingback: Motivations for (Un)belief: Another ‘Sermon’ by C. S. Lewis | Journey Towards Easter

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