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.