Lewis: The Weight of Glory

March 30, 2009

The Weight of Glory
C.S. Lewis (Harper San Francisco, 2001)
192 p.  First reading.

This is a collection of short pieces, addresses, and sermons, mostly on religious and moral themes.  They all display Lewis’ characteristic insight and literary grace, and a few of them are especially fine. For my own benefit, I here briefly summarize the content of each, beginning at the end.

“A Slip of the Tongue” and “On Forgiveness” are brief meditations on, respectively, the temptation to insulate ourselves from divine grace from fear of challenge and change, and the difference between forgiving and excusing.  Both serve as gentle spurs to self-examination.

“Membership” and “The Inner Ring” are concerned with rightly ordered interpersonal relationships, both in the Church and in society.  “Membership” is a sermon on what it means to be a “member” of the Church.  We tend to think the word means that one belongs, together with everyone else, in a more or less equivalent way, but Lewis reminds us that the word originally drew on a bodily analogy: just as the members, or organs, of our body each have a distinct role that contributes to the body’s overall health, so the members of the Church, the Body of Christ, serve in different but complementary ways. To speak of membership is to speak of vocation.  The Church is more like a family, where inequality of roles yields variety, enjoyment, and health, than it is like a state, where an artificial equality is enforced from without.  Lewis also makes some probing remarks about the basis of political equality and the meaning of the phrase “human dignity”.

“The Inner Ring” is one of Lewis’ most famous essays, and justly so.  He delivered it to students at King’s College, Cambridge in 1944, and it contains timely advice to those just launching themselves into the wide world.  The Inner Ring is the confidence and company of the People Who Matter.  It forms in every organization, almost always informally, and the list of who is In and who is Out is unstated but understood. Many, says Lewis, exhaust themselves in an effort to penetrate the Ring, to become a Favoured One.  He warns his listeners against this ambition.  The desire to enter the Inner Ring can provoke a man to evil actions which he would not otherwise commit, and furthermore the quest, when it succeeds, loses its appeal.  When once you are inside, you begin to look for another ring to enter.  Like all vices, it is a chasing after the wind, an attempt to “fill sieves with water”.  Rather than focus on social standing, Lewis counsels attention to craft: “If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters.”

“Is Theology Poetry?” takes up the question of how theological language ought to be understood.  Is it an attempt to appeal to our imaginations and appetites, or is it primarily addressed to our intellect?  Does it convey truths, or not?  Lewis points out, correctly, that the mere fact of a system of beliefs having aesthetic appeal does not make it untrue, nor does it mean that it is believed for aesthetic reasons.  By way of illustration, he gives a powerfully written description of the aesthetic appeal of scientific materialism, likening its account of the history of the world to an Elizabethan tragedy.  He then proceeds to examine the alleged poetic appeal of Christianity.  He admits, first, that it has relatively little aesthetic appeal to him personally, and then points out that the poetic element is in any case substantially reduced when moving from the Old Testament to the New.  The Church itself does not seem to be attempting to cultivate a myth.  It is true that some of her doctrines are expressed in language of metaphor and symbol, but that does not mean that the object of faith is merely metaphorical or symbolic.  When we say that Christ sits “at the right hand” of God, we mean what we say, but of course we don’t mean he literally sits on the right.  Theology is an attempt to convey truths.

“Transposition” is a thoughtful sermon preached at Oxford.  It explores the question of how to understand the fact that everything we call spiritual is, in fact, mediated to us through natural means.  Our religious language and imagery is drawn from the world around us; religious feelings of devotion, love, and sorrow all have non-religious significance as well. On what grounds, therefore, do we believe in the spiritual?  He develops his thoughts using analogies: a sick man may experience a particular unpleasant sensation in the stomach, and so may a man in love.  To a doctor there may be nothing to distinguish them, yet the experiences are certainly not the same.  The problem, says Lewis, is that an experience from a higher, more subtle, more complex realm (the mind and emotions) is being forced to manifest itself in a more rudimentary realm (the body); it must be transposed down, and in the process two or more quite different realities appear to be the same.  Furthermore, the activity in the lower domain can only be understood properly if we know about the higher domain.  A symphony can be played in a piano reduction, but only someone who knows about symphonies will be able to notice the resulting deficiencies.  To someone who approaches things only from below, it will always seem that “religion is only psychology, justice only self-protection, politics only economics, love only lust, and thought itself only cerebral biochemistry”.

“Why I Am Not a Pacifist” and “Learning in War-Time” were both given during World War II, and they deal in different ways with questions that had arisen as a result of the war.  Some Christians had argued, as some continue to argue, that pacifism is the appropriate Christian stance.  Lewis did not agree, and gives a quite closely reasoned critique of pacifism, and defence of just wars.  “Learning in War-Time” confronts a doubt which was felt by many students at that time: how can one justify study and intellectual life when a war is raging?  At a deeper level, this question asks about the purpose of intellectual life. Lewis answers that study, when carried out as a humble inquiry into truth, honours God, and has an intrinsic dignity. One might well ask, “What is the purpose of war?”  Is it not to safeguard other, higher pursuits, among which is study?

“The Weight of Glory” is, by a fair margin, the most probing and profound essay in the book.  I am going to leave it mostly untouched, because I am not able to speak adequately about it.  We all harbour, begins Lewis, a desire for a good we cannot name, a memory of a home we have lost:  “We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience.  We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name.” This desire, says the Church, is precisely for the glory which Christ has promised. Our understanding of what it means remains inchoate and symbolic, for we cannot grasp it, yet the thing we desire is real, and we have been made to find our fulfillment in it.  Lewis delves deeply into the traditional imagery and the history of Christian reflection on this promise.

This was an excellent book.  It was a gift, and I thank the person from whom I received it.

[Politics in context]
The secular community, since it exists for our natural good and not for our supernatural, has no higher end than to facilitate and safeguard the family, and friendship, and solitude.  To be happy at home, said Johnson, is the end of all human endeavour.  As long as we are thinking only of natural values we must say that the sun looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal, or two friends talking over a pint of beer, or a man reading a book that interests him; and that all economies, politics, laws, armies, and institutions, save insofar as they prolong and multiply such scenes, are a mere ploughing the sand and sowing the ocean, a meaningless vanity and vexation of spirit.

17 Responses to “Lewis: The Weight of Glory”

  1. […] Synopes of C.S. Lewis’ Weight of Glory essays. (via Happy Catholic) […]

  2. Tracy S. Altman Says:

    I just finished re-reading That Hideous Strength (after thirteen years or so), and noticed this time how much of it is an exposition of the “Membership” and “Inner Ring” essays. (Lewis seemed also to be weaving the thesis of almost every other essay or book he’d ever written; it was a bit dizzying at times. Not his best fictional work, but quite a trip for someone who’s read a lot of Lewis’ apologetics and non-fiction.)

  3. cburrell Says:

    This is the third or fourth time in the past few months that That Hideous Strength has come up. I must read it. (I abandoned the Space Trilogy after Perelandra, not aware that the best of the bunch was still awaiting me.)

    In one of those recent conversations, someone called That Hideous Strength Lewis’ “everything but the kitchen sink” book, for the reasons that you note.

  4. Nick Milne Says:

    …I abandoned the Space Trilogy after Perelandra

    Amazing. I only really decided it was worth *continuing* after Perelandra, having found Out of the Silent Planet to be good, but not great.

  5. cburrell Says:

    Chalk it up to my general aversion to science fiction. Perelandra‘s giant pink Dali-elephants striding across lily-pads (my memory may not be perfect) did me in.

  6. Nick Milne Says:

    I don’t even remember that, honestly. I was so engrossed in the speculative theology of the thing that I barely even noticed it was science fiction.

  7. Janet Says:

    I can’t even remember anything remotely like giant pink elephants in Perelandra. I think that CSL really captured evil in the character of the Unman. And, both the conversations between Tinidril and the Unman, and the doubts tht Ransom had were so revealing of the way that the enemy works on us.

    I think that in some way That Hideous Strength WAS Lewis’s greatest fiction. It doesn’t have the delights of Narnia, but it is so complex and yet so of a piece. The more you read it, the more it reveals. It seemed totally over-the-top in the 70’s when I first read it, and yet I have seen so much of it come true. I always thought that the “head” was, of course, just a symbolic idea that no one would really be interested in, but now it seems there are people who seem to want something like that.

    AMDG, Janet

  8. cburrell Says:

    Weren’t there giant creatures galloping across lily-pads? In my imagination they look as though they were drawn in a collaboration between Dali and El Greco. But I won’t press the point; I don’t remember the novel very well, not having read it since I was a teenager.

  9. Nick Milne Says:

    Well, there were “lily pad” sort of things – floating islands moving across an enormous sea. I don’t remember much of the fauna involved apart from the savage delight the Unman took in torturing it wherever he went.

  10. cburrell Says:

    To be honest, I don’t remember the Unman, so we’re even?

  11. Janet Says:

    LOL, something tells me you ought to read it again. I think you might appreciate it more now.


  12. Yeah, if you don’t remember the Un-Man, you don’t remember the book to any useful degree. It’s worth another try. It’s not really sci-fi, but if your aversion to sci-fi is an aversion to the whole idea of invented worlds, you probably still won’t like it.

    Some people like Perelandra and hate That Hideous Strength, some vice versa. Some love them both. Out of the Silent Planet is an enjoyable book, but doesn’t have nearly the weight of the others. I really don’t evaluate P & THS in literary terms anymore, though–they’re too much a part of me, have had too much effect on the way I see things.

    I’m pretty sure there are no pink elephants. I don’t remember any pink creatures but they may have been there. There is a Singing Beast.

  13. Tracy S. Altman Says:

    There ARE elephants in That Hideous Strength, though. But not pink ones. And they’re engaged in, er, activities quite other than striding across lily pads.

    Janet, I had a similar experience with THS–when I read it thirteen years ago, the N.I.C.E. people struck me as almost mere caricatures, not believable characters. Since then, though, I’ve met people–not many, but a few–who were themselves so nearly mere caricatures, that I find Lewis’ N.I.C.E. men more plausible now.

  14. cburrell Says:

    Alright, I should read it again. I’m putting it on my list — but it’s a long list.

  15. Phil Little Says:

    I must say for the first reading, I find it hard to understand what Jack is getting at. I understand the “mud pies”, but for the most part I have had a dictionary at my side to look up words transfinite = beyond infinity, and hymeneal = pertaining to marriage.

    I have been unable to find a “cliff notes for this week’s reading”. So I guess I will continue reading more of the sermon each day, trying to get a grasp of what is being said.

  16. Tsquare Says:

    Great Blog!……There’s always something here to make me laugh…Keep doing what ya do 🙂

  17. cburrell Says:

    Thanks, Tsquare. Nice to have you here. Too bad that you are a spammer.

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