Saturday, November 5, 2011

C.S. Lewis – Pushing the Envelope or Christian Liberty – or Both?

In a letter to a correspondent identified as Mrs. Johnson; Lewis writes on August 7, 1956:

All you tell me is good and very good. Your Mother in Law has done good to the whole circle by the way she died. And where she has gone I don’t doubt that she will do you more still. For I believe that what was true of Our Lord Himself (‘It is expedient for you that I go, for then the Comforter will come to you’) is true in its degree (of course, an  infinitesimal degree in comparison, but still true) of all His followers. I think they do something for us by dying and shortly after they have died which they couldn’t do before – and sometimes one can almost feel it happening. (You are right by the way: there is a lot to be said for dying – and being born – at home).

What do we do with a paragraph such as the above? Some of us may endorse it; some may say that they don’t really see a Biblical basis for it, but that Lewis is certainly entitled to his opinion and conjecture; some may ponder it with the thought – “Well, I guess it’s possible”; and others may cry “Heresy – Lewis is teaching heresy!”

There’s a sense in which C.S. Lewis is like Abraham Lincoln – different constituencies want to take ownership of him and recreate him in their image. The thing about learning about a man or woman, or learning about the history of a people, whether a village, a nation, or a family, is that things get pretty complex before it’s all over – as if learning about history, any history, could ever be said to be really “over”.

People that call a wart a beauty mark can be accused of glossing over the facts, and those who call a beauty mark a wart are often accused of having agendas to discredit the subject – whether a person or family or village or nation.

My take on Lewis is that he’d be quick to say that he doesn’t know it all – and you’d be under suspicion if you told him that you, or your theological camp, knew it all. Lewis knew the danger of thinking that you know it all, and he knew the danger of looking down on others – he had been like that, and I think that when he met Christ, and as he came to know Christ – that perhaps he had a good look at Christ and then a good look at himself; with the result that his days of knowing it all were history.

Not everything in the Bible fits into a neat little definable compartment, nor does everything in life – and I think that not recognizing that, that glossing over the unexplainable as if it doesn’t exist, serves to dull our minds and imaginations and dampen our hearts.

Consider Paul’s words in Colossians 1:24: Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church...

Some of us can try to work what that statement, others gloss over it and act as if Paul never wrote those words.

Or what about Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:4: When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present…

Some of us can try work with that statement, others gloss over it and act as if Paul never wrote those words. To explain away either of the above Pauline quotations, to put them in a box (probably more for quarantine than for anything else), is to shut the door on the mystery behind the words. The Bible has statements in it that most of us – likely all of us – simply don’t fully understand. Life has experiences that we don’t understand. As we engage Biblical statements and paradigms, and as we engage life, hopefully we’ll do the best we can by the grace of God and be wise enough not to take all of our understanding for infallible dogma. If we never push the envelope of thinking, of imagination, or of heart ponderings, if we do not have the liberty in Christ to honestly engage the mysteries before us – and if we deny the freedom to others to do so in Christ, within the framework of the Bible and the Gospel – then we become not only our own jailers, but the jailers of others.

Much of my early Christian experience was one of forcing every Biblical verse into a straightjacket of doctrinal rigidity – whether the verse or passage or paradigm fit or not. Biblical passages were meant to be ridden and broken like a wild bronco, saddled with rigid thinking, devoid of imagination (for the most part), and controlled by the reins of conformity to denomination or particular tradition. Deviation from the norm was not acceptable.

I think that Lewis would hardly have considered his words to Mrs. Johnson as dogma, and I think he gladly gave others room for exploration of mysteries. Was Lewis pushing the envelope? I don’t think so, though you might, and that’s okay with me. Lewis was simply sharing his thoughts with a correspondent. Was Lewis exercising Christian liberty? I think he was; he must have felt free to express himself to Mrs. Johnson – too bad we all don’t feel free to share our musings. I wonder what we’d collectively find if we did exercise liberty in Christ to discuss and explore and roam the Biblical terrain?

Lest you should misunderstand me, I’m all for Biblical exegesis with integrity; but that means there are times when I have to say, “I don’t know what that means.”

I’ll close with another quotation from Paul; 1 Corinthians 13:12: For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

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