C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and the Puritan Paradigm of Conversion

 In a letter of 11 December 1944 C. S. Lewis mentions five “shining examples of human holiness”. Along with Saint Francis, George Herbert, George MacDonald, “and even burly old Dr. Johnson” we find John Bunyan. Lewis admired John Bunyan, whose The Pilgrim’s Progress Lewis knew wel1.[2] He spent part of the Christmas holiday of 1929 (before he had become a Christian) indexing it (cf. Lewis, Letters to Arthur Greeves 320), and later, after his conversion, it served as a model for his first work of apologetics, The Pilgrim’s Regress. Once he described, in terms that fit well his own writings, the genesis of Bunyan’s masterpiece:

My own guess is that the scheme of a journey with adventures suddenly reunited two things in Bunyan’s mind which had hitherto lain far apart. One was his present and lifelong preoccupation with the spiritual life. The other, far further away and longer ago, left behind (he had supposed) in childhood, was his delight in old wives’ tales and such last remnants of chivalric romance as he had found in chap-books. (Essays 147)

There are other parallels between Bunyan and Lewis. Both had returned to a fervent Protestant Christianity as adults; both addressed religious topics in a style that has had its first and greatest success outside academe; and both recognized that Christianity was of momentous importance. “In my opinion”, Lewis wrote,

the book [The Pilgrim’s Progress] would be immeasurably weakened as a work of art if the flames of Hell were not always flickering on the horizon. […] the image of this is necessary to us while we read. The urgency, the harsh woodcut energy, the continual sense of momentousness, depend on it. (Essays 152)

Even before his definitive conversion to Christianity, Lewis responded to a trait of Bunyan’s he described as “the horror of religion and sometimes almost of insanity”. An echo of this phrase occurs in Mere Christianity where Lewis describes God as “the supreme terror” (37, cf. also Letters to Arthur Greeves 319).

Lewis’s sympathy for Bunyan went beyond an admiration for his writing and a similarity in their religious histories. In Bunyan, Lewis found a Puritanism to which he instinctively responded. The centre of Puritan Calvinism was the experience of conversion which, because of its importance, was analyzed in great detail. There are many different descriptions of the steps in conversion. One convenient list is provided by Monica Furlong in her book on Bunyan, Puritan’s Progress: calling, conviction, faith, repentance, justification, forgiveness, sanctification, and perseverance (108).[3] A subtle analysis among Puritans of the psychology of conversion was necessary because one had to be as certain as possible that he had experienced a true, not a sham, conversion. There were two tests. One was to verify in oneself the stages of conversion as they had been disclosed in Scripture; the second was the evidence of an upright life. Arthur Dent in The Plaine Man’s Path-way to Heaven (1601) lists eight signs of such a life: “A love to children of God; A delight in his word; Often and fervent praier; Zeale of Gods glorie; Deniall of our selves. Patient bearing of the crosse, with profit and comfort;

Faithfulnesses in our calling; Honest, just and conscientious dealing in all our actions among men” (Furlong 32). An analysis of Mere Christianity reveals a remarkable similarity between its structure and the steps of conversion of English Puritanism. The fact is that the four books of Mere Christianity, assembled from several series of broadcast talks, represent a powerful contemporary restatement of this quintessentially Protestant theologoumenon. That the books of Mere Christianity exhibit such cohesion and coherence indicates how deeply rooted was Lewis’s Calvinism.

To Book I of Mere Christianity correspond calling and conviction, the initial stages of the Puritan paradigm of conversion. In this case, however, the call is not the proclamation of the Gospel but God’s voice speaking in man’s conscience on whose universal and implacable summons Lewis insists: “It seems, then, we are forced to believe in a real Right and Wrong. People may be sometimes mistaken about them, just as people sometimes get their sums wrong; but they are not a matter of mere taste and opinion any more than the multiplication table” (18). This call excites in man a conviction of his sinfulness and of his powerlessness to break sin’s hold on him. These Lewis describes in the final chapter of Book I, the title of which well captures its contents: “We Have Cause to be Uneasy”. Lewis evokes the fear that should be occasioned in man by his continual breaking of the law of conscience in a world where the laws of nature are relentlessly enforced by the Power behind the universe:

There is nothing indulgent about the Moral Law. It is as hard as nails. It tells you to do the straight thing and it does not seem to care how painful, or dangerous, or difficult it is to do. […] if there does exist an absolute goodness it must hate most of what we do. (36f.)

When one notes that Lewis was addressing a general audience—on the wireless—one can appreciate the effectiveness of his restatement in universal terms of the initial stages of Christian conversion. Lewis is brilliant in uncovering evidence for the moral law and the role of conscience in the little irritations of everyday life.

The third and fourth steps in conversion are faith and repentance, the topics of Book II. The ground having been prepared in Book I, the good news of Christianity is cast upon it, raising in the minds of the men who hear it the possibility of an egress from their woeful state. Only Christianity, Lewis maintains, fully answers all man’s needs. Unlike atheism, pantheism, or dualism, Christianity can offer hope to fallen man because it corresponds to reality: “Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity” (44). Christianity views the universe as being at war (47). Extraordinary treatment is, therefore, needed for a desperate situation: “Enemy-occupied territory – that is what this world is” (44). Christ’s work of atonement is the means by which man can come out of the “hole” into which he has fallen: “The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start” (54).[4] Man emerges by faith – or, in Lewis’s words, by “baptism, belief, and […] Holy Communion” (59). Repentance is presupposed:

Laying down your arms, surrendering, saying you are sorry, realising that you have been on the wrong track and getting ready to start life over again from the ground floor—that is the only way out of our “hole”, This process of surrenderthis movement full speed asternis what Christians call repentance. (56)

Book III of Mere Christianity is entitled “Christian Behaviour”. In it Lewis moves into the second half of the Puritan paradigm of conversion—justification and forgiveness—in which the virtuous life witnesses to the authenticity of the conversion: “[..,] if what you call your ‘faith’ in Christ does not involve taking the slightest notice of what He says, then it is not Faith at all—not faith or trust in Him, but only intellectual acceptance of some theory about Him” (I28). Forgiveness is man’s experience of justification; and the sinner convicted by God’s grace knows he has been justified when his life corresponds to the biblical ideal which Dent describes in The Plaine Man’s Pathway to Heaven. The moment of justification and forgiveness comes in The Pilgrim’s Progress when Christian’s burden falls from his back at Mount Calvary. He continues his journey objectively justified and forgiven, although his subjective moral struggle is far from over. Lewis follows this scheme in Book III which, in its detailed presentation of Christian behaviour, perfectly captures Bunyan’s description of salvation as “a work of many steps” (Furlong 142). The virtues practised and the vices avoided, therefore, indicate the process by which justification is ascertained and forgiveness continually experienced.

All of Dent’s signs are present with the exception—understandable given Lewis’s audience—of “A delight in his word”.[5]

The final two stages—sanctification and perseverance—are more the work of the hereafter than of the present. Calvinist teaching is that man is utterly sinful and polluted,[6] a teaching that, as we shall see, Lewis implicitly accepted. Sanctification, then, is an eschatological gift which man enjoys fully only when he perseveres to the end, crossing into the heavenly Jerusalem. In Book IV Lewis links sanctification and perseverance. He begins by describing sanctification as the new life (Zoe) that Christ communicates to his followers:

The Spiritual life which is in God from all eternity, and which made the whole natural universe, is Zoe. A man who changed from having Bios to having Zoe would have gone through as big a change as a statue which changed from being a carved stone to being a real man. And that is precisely what Christianity is about. (135)

Lewis then moves on to the doctrine of the Trinity and God’s eternal now, the goal of the Christian life and, as such, the fruit of perseverance. But the moral life which God accomplishes in his regenerated sons is completed only in heaven:

The command ‘Be ye perfect’ is not idealistic gas. […] He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. […] He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long […] (I7l).

It will be long indeed, and Book III is a striking parallel to the difficulty Bunyan’s Christian had to feel his election amid temptations and what seemed to be compromise.

II

I do not say that Lewis consciously accepted every detail of Puritan theology; but Puritan principles help us comprehend the method and the effectiveness of Lewis’s popular introduction to Christianity. The roots of these Calvinist views are to be found in Lewis’s biography. He was an Ulsterman, and, as his friend J. R. R. Tolkien once observed, “There is a good deal of Ulster still left in C. S. L., if hidden from himself” (Letters 95). Such influences do continue, often in hidden ways. Lewis’s beloved tutor, for example, W. T. Kirkpatrick—“the Great Knock”—was an Ulster Presbyterian turned atheist who nevertheless, as Lewis delightfully reports, “always, on Sundays, gardened in a different, and slightly more respectable, suit” (Suprised by Joy 113).[7] And Lewis was aware, to some extent, of the hold his past had on him. He had been raised an Anglican, but his nanny, a Protestant, had exerted a strong influence on him which he confessed he had difficulty shaking.[8] Accepting that Lewis’s anthropology was fundamentally Calvinist accounts for some of his ideas which are otherwise perplexing. For example, the very title—Out of the Silent Planet—of the first volume of his science-fiction trilogy, expresses a version of the total depravity of man. The” silent planet” is Earth (Thulcandra), dark in an otherwise radiant universe because it is under control of Satan, “the Bent One”. “Our world” Ransom says, “is very bent” (Planet 137). How different this is from the glorification of earth and man as its apogee that one finds elsewhere in the Christian tradition: “The glory of God is a living man; and the life of man is the vision of God.” (lrenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, 4.20.6). An episode strongly indicative of a Calvinist view of man’s depravity occurs in the second volume of the trilogy, Perelandra. The crisis of the novel occurs when Weston—who is literally possessed by Satan—and the hero, Ransom, struggle for the soul of the woman, a new Eve who must decide whether to obey or disobey God’s command. Weston brings into his discourse all of human culture: the arts, science, the whole history of man. Ransom, like Weston a university professor, can find no counter argument. Only the inappropriate figures of Lady Macbeth and Agrippina come to his mind (Perelandra 132). Eventually, in a long and horrible sequence, he brutally murders Weston, first by assault—“He felt its ribs break, he heard its jaw-bone crack. The whole creature [i. e., Weston, labelled ‘the Un-man’, metamorphized into the devil that possesses him] seemed to be cracking and splitting under his blows […]”— then by drowning and, finally, by burning him alive in subterranean fire. Ransom, the aetherial, languid mystic of That Hideous Strength, is here energized by hate:

[…] an experience that perhaps no good man can ever have in our world came over him—a torrent of perfectly unmixed and lawful hatred. The energy of hating, never before felt without some guilt, without some dim knowledge that he was failing fully to distinguish the sinner from the sin, rose into his arms and legs till he felt that they were pillars of burning wood. […] it is perhaps difficult to understand why this filled Ransom not with horror but with a kind of joy. The joy came from finding at last what hatred was made for. […] he felt that he could so fight, so hate with a perfect hatred, for a whole year. (157)[9]

One finds in Lewis’s writings, and especially in the science-fiction trilogy, many indications of the total depravity of fallen man and the radical disorders in man’s scientific and cultural achievements. Nor are such indications absent from Mere Christianity. One such is a matter of emphasis, in that virtue brings with it a sensitivity to vice: “When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him” (83). The same idea is found in the definition of total depravity used by contemporary Calvinists:

Total depravity […] means that the corruption of sin extends to all men and to all parts of all men. […] Walking in the light illumines areas of darkness which are immediately confessed; walking in that increased light illumines further areas of darkness, and so on and on throughout the Christian life. (Ryrie 111 and 113)

Elsewhere in Mere Christianity Lewis draws a parallel between man and “a slug or a crab”. He is “a small, dirty object” in the sight of God, so that all that man—“self-centred, greedy, grumbling, rebellious”—has “done and can do is nothing” (109, 162, 126). “We begin to notice,” Lewis says, “besides our particular sinful acts, our sinfulness; begin to be alarmed not only about what we do, but about what we are. […] the rats of resentment and vindictiveness are always there in the cellar of my soul.” (160f.). There is abundant evidence of Lewis’s pessimistic assessment of the human condition. And I may note that, given the present condition of man, one begins to comprehend Lewis’s continuing popularity.

There were counter tendencies in Lewis’s anthropology, cross currents disturbing but not diverting the flow of his ideas. The strong emphasis on free will, for example, in Mere Christianity and an allegiance to the sacramental principle are not characteristic of Puritanism. One is surprised, however, just how little there is in Mere Christianity about sacraments, and how restricted the little is. It is debatable that Lewis viewed them as essential elements of Christianity even though he himself, for example, practiced auricular confession (Green/Hooper 198, 203). There are in his theology three categories of Christian doctrine. One category is simply heresy, falsehood. A second is the truth of revelation in “the faith preached by the Apostles, attested by the Martyrs, embodied in the Creeds, expounded by the Fathers” (Christian Apologetics 65).[10] The third category consists of opinions that can be allowed but not imposed. Lewis’s belief in devils falls into this category: “I believe this not in the sense that it is part of my creed, but in the sense that it is one of my opinions” (Screwtape Letters 7). Auricular confession would be another instance of this category at the practical level, in that it is a recommendation of the Prayer Book that Lewis eventually and hesitantly acted upon (Green/Hooper 197f.). Thus, even when Lewis’s beliefs and actions suggest a Catholic sensibility, the fact that they are the result of his individual choice renders them essentially Protestant.

Important to this discussion is Lewis’s attitude towards the Incarnation, which is the foundation of sacramental Christianity. It has been suggested by James Patrick, for one, that Lewis’s theology of the Incarnation was limited. Lewis went as far as to entertain the possibility that the Word could have become incarnate in different forms in the various worlds in the universe:

But remember, if there are other worlds and they need to be saved and Christ were to save them as he would—he may really have taken all sorts of bodies in there which we don’t know about. (Letters to Children 52)

The effect is to remove from Christianity its uniqueness and its glory. This principle is not entirely countered by the statement in Perelandra that the Incarnation has determined post factum the mode of intelligent life. Invoking the Incarnation, the Lady answers Ransom’s lament that there are on the planet Perelandra (Venus) no non-human intelligent forms of life as he had found on Malacandra (Mars): “Since our Beloved became a man, how should Reason in any world take on any other form?” (62). But since there had been in Lewis’s universe other forms of rationality, another style Incarnation could nevertheless still be necessary if a Fall were to occur, e. g., on Malacandra. James Patrick quotes in this context Lewis’s remark that, in the Resurrection of Jesus, “we are not […] concerned with matter as such at all”. Patrick comments:

This kind of thinking is familiar in the American south, which is the intellectual child of Ulster. It involves formal affirmation of every anti-Gnostic platitude and the simultaneous nourishing of a habit of mind inherited from the Puritan side of the seventeenth century, which is unreflectively committed to the repudiation of the created glory of matter. Beneath Lewis’ treatment of the Christ and the saints there is always a fear of the incarnation (171).

The evidence supports Patrick’s conclusion. Lewis remained Protestant in sympathy. His Mere Christianity invoked the broadmindedness of Richard Baxter (1615-91) but without abandoning Calvinism’s teaching on the condition of fallen man. With that doctrine in place, Bunyan’s Puritanism is intact, whatever nods there may be in the direction of sacramental versions of Christianity. Off the famous hall Lewis describes in the introduction to Mere Christianity there is really only one door, and it leads into a chamber marked “Mere Protestantism”.

 

Works Cited

Bunyan, John. The Pilgrim’s Progress. Ed. Roger Sharrock. Hammondsworth: Penguin, 1965.

Browne, Thomas. Religio Medici. Everyman’s Library. London: J. M. Dent, 1906.

“Christian Apologetics”. Undeceptions. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1971.

Furlong, Monica. Puritan’s Progress. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1975.

Green, Roger Lancelyn and Walter Hooper. C. S. Lewis: A Biography. London: Collins Fount, 1979.

Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. London: Collins Fontana, 1955.

—. The Letters of C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves: Personal & Inspiring Letters 1914-1963. Ed. Walter Hooper. New York: Macmillan, 1986.

—. Letters to Children. Eds. Lyle W. Dorsett and Majorie Lamp Mead. New York: Macmillan, 1985.

—. Out of the Silent Planet. London: The Bodley Head, 1938.

—. Perelandra. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

—. The Screwtape Letters and Screwtape Proposes a Toast. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1961.

—. Surprised by Joy. London: Collins Fontana, 1959.

—. “The Vision of John Bunyan”. Selected Literary Essays. Ed. Walter Hooper. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Patrick, James. “C. S. Lewis and Idealism”. A Christian for All Christians. Ed. Andrew Walker and James Patrick. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1990.

Ryrie, Charles C. A Survey of Bible Doctrine. Chicago: Moody Press, 1972.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Letters of], R. R. Tolkien. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter. Boston: Houghton Miffin, 1981.

Williams, Charles. Descent into Hell. London: Faber & Faber, 1949; first published in 1937.

[1] Inklings-Jahrbuch 15 (1997) 48-59.

[2] Cf. Lewis, Letters to Arthur Greeves 503. “Shining,” Lewis’s epithet for these examples of holiness, is itself used by Bunyan: “At last they espied a Shining One coming towards them […]” (Pilgrim’s Progress 172).

[3] A contemporary version of the steps of evangelical conversion can be found in Ryrie 75-95.

[4] On page 55 Lewis iterates his point: “We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed.”

[5] For example, to “A love to children of God” corresponds “Courtesy is one of the Christian virtues; and the New Testament hates what it calls ‘busybodies’” (Mere Christianity 76). Similarly, specific texts could be cited to illustrate the other signs, but it is really much more a question of the tone of Book II than any individual phrase. This quality of Book II is particularly true of Dent’s second sign, “A delight in his word”. Although the Bible is rarely referred to explicitly, its presence is constantly felt. Consider, e. g., the following text: “The sense in which a Christian leaves it to God is that he puts all his trust in Christ: trusts that Christ will somehow share with him the perfect human obedience which He carried out from His birth to His crucifixion: that Christ will make the man more like Himself and, in a sense, make good his deficiencies. In Christian language, He will share His ‘sonship’ with us, will make us, like Himself, ‘Sons of God’” (Mere Christianity 126).

[6] “When we think that all our righteousness stinks in his nostrils, and that therefore he cannot abide to see us stand before him in confidence even of all our best performances.” (Pilgrim’s Progress 187; cf. Furlong 146).

[7] There’s a whiff of Ulster in a remark the young Lewis, still in his atheist phase, made in 1918 when he described a collection of his poems, Spirits in Bondage, as “mainly strung round the idea […] that nature is wholly diabolical & malevolent […]” (Letters to Arthur Greeves 230).

[8] It is reported by a Jesuit priest that Lewis asked for “prayers that the prejudices instilled in me by an Ulster nurse might be overcome”. Guy Brinkworth, SJ, in a letter to the London Tablet (7 December 1963), 1317.

[9] The murder occupies thirty pages of the text. Lewis’ concept of hate owes something to Charles Williams, his friend and quasi-colleague; cf. Williams 190: “In the dream […] the roads were filled with many figures who hated – neither her not any other definite person, but hated. They could not find anything they could spend their hate on, for they slipped and slithered and slid from and through each other, since it was their hate which separated them. It was no half-self-mocking hate, nor even an immoral but half-justified hate, certainly not the terrible, enjoyable, and angry hate of ordinary men and women. It was the hate of those men and women who had lost humanity in their extreme love of themselves amongst humanity.” On page 190 Williams describes the historian Wentworth who presents a striking parallel to Weston: “[Wentworth] hated Aston Moffatt. Hate still lived in him a little, and hate might almost have saved him, though nothing else could, had he hated with the scholar’s hate. He did not; his hate and his grudge were personal and obscene.”

[10] Cf. Browne 2f.: “[…] the same belief our Saviour taught, the Apostles disseminated, the Fathers authorized, and the Martyrs confirmed”.

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