April 9, 2009

Mere Ecumenism: C.S. Lewis and the Mormons

Here's the abstract for my paper on C.S. Lewis. The Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology has invited me to present the paper (still in the works) at their conference in May at Claremont. Thoughts, questions, suggestions are welcome: 


Since the 1950s various Latter-day Saints have shown particular interest in the religious and fictional works of C.S. Lewis, apologist for “mere Christianity.” Lewis’s recently published collected letters add new insight to Lewis’s other works and I will utilize them to explore three areas of interest. First, the letters demonstrate how Lewis’s personal experiences on his path from atheism to Christianity contributed enormously to his later apologetic efforts. “You ask me my religious views,” an 18-year old Lewis responded to lifelong friend Arthur. “I believe in no religion…Superstition of course in every age has held the common people, but in every age the educated and thinking ones have stood outside it.” Almost fifteen years later he confessed to Arthur, “How deep I am just now beginning to see: for I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ—in Christianity.” Lewis retained memories of his former unbelief which affected his works—- many of which demonstrate his concern for what he called the “virtuous heretic.” Much like members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Lewis sought for and found ways to hope for those not converted to Christianity during mortality. Second, Lewis’s works have transcended denominational boundaries to reach an impressively diverse Christian audience. Thus his general apologetic approach is an insightful model of charitable, respectful and ecumenical engagement, despite any theological difficulties in Lewis’s understanding. Finally, because Lewis has often been utilized by LDS General authorities, teachers and authors, a call for a continuing and more responsible engagement is appropriate.

16 comments:

bwebster said...

I look forward to the entire paper; I hope you'll post it here after your presentation.

As to your point about Lewis' hope for the unevangelized, I was struck a few years back at how well The Great Divorce addresses a question I had always had about missionary work in the spirit world: if the existence of God was so obvious, as it seems it would be in the next life, wouldn't everyone just convert?

Lewis' answer, of course, was, "No." After all, there are self-limiting and self-destructive aspects of our lives here in mortality that we cling to in spite of at times overwhelming evidence that we should give them up. Lewis, in Divorce, pointed out that same self-defeating behavior won't magically go away just because we're dead, something a few of the Book of Mormon prophets point out as well.

Finally, note that Divorce in essence posits the same thing we (LDS) preach: a common afterlife, but divided into a paradise and a spirit prison, with missionary work among those in prison. I wonder if Lewis, coming to Christianity relatively late in life, interpreted the Bible ('this day you will be with me in paradise', 'by which he also went and preached to the spirits in prison') a bit more directly than did the Catholic and Protestant scholars of his day. ..bruce..

BHodges said...

b, thanks for the words.

Lewis actually wrote about death quite often in his letters. When he was about 4 years old his little dog Jacksie was killed by a car and Lewis declared from then on his name was Jack. As you may know his mom died when he was a boy, and this was followed by some alienation from his father. By the time his dad died he harbored a lot of hurt feelings over that relationship, and in the way he treated his dad. I think he had particular concern for that and he returned to the theme of salvation for the dead often in his letters- most often in tandem with the concept of prayer, interestingly enough. He strongly believed in praying for the dead, and he occasionally hinted at the possibility of all being eventually saved- some after they had suffered and "paid the utmost farthing." (He borrowed some thoughts from George MacDonald on this, in my opinion. ) He quoted the scripture on baptism for the dead a few times, noting that if baptism was fine for the dead, prayers especially could be. Though there are important differences in how Lewis believed it would all play out compared to what Latter-day Saints believe, (I think he would see baptism by LDS authority only as rather ridiculous, for example) his holding out hope for all is very interesting.

cinepro said...

Did Lewis ever come into contact with the Church, or express his opinion over any LDS doctrines?

I wonder how he would feel to find himself quoted in LDS services in support of LDS doctrines.

BHodges said...

Elder Maxwell sent him a copy of the Book of Mormon around 1960 but I have not discovered if he received a reply yet. Also, he mentioned the Book of Mormon in an essay on Literary theory and the Bible. It'll be in the paper.

Clean Cut said...

I too look forward to the full paper! Very interesting.

SmallAxe said...

In your opinion, why has CS Lewis caught on among LDSs?

BHodges said...

smallaxe: I'll talk a little bit about that in the paper; I think there are a lot of reasons. Lewis is massively accessible to many Christians in general; it's no wonder to me he has caught on among LDS. The odd part of the affinity is some radical differences, including a belief in creatio ex nihilo, an ontological gap between humans and God, and no similar sense of "authority." Still, LDS love him, and one reason, I believe, is because even with the differences Lewis still seems to be on your side. His sincerity is infectious. He turns a phrase so wonderfully, he talks of basic moral principles in a fresh and engaging way. He seems to have a very works-oriented view of salvation with a strong undergirding sense of the necessity grace. He shies away from dogmatic opinions on any particular Christian church (in his published works, at least. He had a few things to say about Catholics, and any church that made "teetotalism" a necessary principle, though he didn't think such things would prevent one's salvation). His occasional reference to theosis, "a society of gods and goddesses" etc. doesn't hurt, either.

Kevin Barney said...

I'll look forward to your paper with interest. It's a great idea for a topic.

SmallAxe said...

The doctrinal differences are interesting. I agree that by and large he writes in a way that is accessible, yet philosophically sophisticated, for most Christians.

Have you looked into the history of the usage of CS Lewis in Mormonism? I'm wondering how much of his appeal is because of implicit endorsements by church leaders involved in a particular historical moment.

BHodges said...

Lewis was anything but a systematic theologian, which might also help in his accessibility though it also makes him easier to quote out of context- his own context sometimes contradicting itself. Thus you might technically accurately quote him on one issue, but fail to take into account something else he wrote that calls your point into question.

Also, as far as Lewis usage, the paper will briefly discuss that at the end. I've noticed a difference in how GA's employ CSL versus how some other writers do. (Also a difference in what some GA's will use in conference vs. in privately written books.) There has already been a lot of work done in that area by others, so I am basically taking their work, expanding it and bringing it up to date. An appendix to my paper will include an up-to-date list of all the conference addresses that quote Lewis, the reference they cite, and the point they make using Lewis.

Bonofiededge said...

Blah blah blah boring! Have you seen fast and furious yet? Vin diesel rules!

BHodges said...

I decided to combine points one and two. New abstract:

Since the 1950s various Latter-day Saints have shown particular interest in the religious and fictional works of C.S. Lewis, apologist for “mere Christianity.” Lewis’s recently published collected letters add new insight to Lewis’s other works and I will utilize them to explore two general areas of interest to Latter-day Saints. First, the letters demonstrate how Lewis’s personal experiences on his path from atheism to Christianity contributed enormously to his later apologetic efforts. “You ask me my religious views,” an 18-year old Lewis responded to lifelong friend Arthur. “I believe in no religion…Superstition of course in every age has held the common people, but in every age the educated and thinking ones have stood outside it.” Almost fifteen years later he confessed to Arthur, “How deep I am just now beginning to see: for I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ—in Christianity.” Lewis retained memories of his former unbelief which affected his works— many of which show concern for what he called the “virtuous heretic.” Much like members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Lewis sought for and found ways to hope for those not converted to Christianity during mortality. Because he wished to reach the largest audience possible he focused on "mere Christianity," a hoped-for middle ground of common belief. Thus, Lewis’s works have transcended denominational boundaries to reach an impressively diverse Christian audience. His general apologetic approach is an insightful model of charitable, respectful and ecumenical engagement, despite any theological difficulties in Lewis’s understanding. Second, because Lewis has often been utilized by LDS General authorities, teachers and authors, a call for a continuing and more responsible engagement is appropriate.

BHodges said...

Alright, final draft of the abstract. I should point out I am not fitting the paper to the abstract, but rather the abstract to the paper! The closer I am to being done writing the more accurate I can make the abstract:

“You ask me my religious views,” an 18-year old C.S. Lewis responded to lifelong friend Arthur Greeves. “I believe in no religion…Superstition of course in every age has held the common people, but in every age the educated and thinking ones have stood outside it.” Almost fifteen years later he confessed to Arthur, “How deep I am just now beginning to see: for I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ—in Christianity.” Since the 1950s various Latter-day Saints have shown particular interest in the religious and fictional works of C.S. Lewis. This paper will make use of Lewis’s recently published collected letters to argue that Lewis’s transition from atheism to Christianity led him to view conversion in general as a process of “coming home” to God by retaining good and rejecting evil. For Lewis and Latter-day Saints alike, various beliefs can be seen as stepping stones or signposts pointing to higher truths on the road home. Part of Lewis’s wide appeal results from an ecumenical view of other religions that is similar to (though looser than) that of Latter-day Saints. Lewis sought for ways to hope for those not converted to Christianity during mortality—those whom he referred to as “virtuous unbelievers.” Because Lewis never came close to joining the LDS Church he raises interesting questions on the eternal status of non-LDS inspired voices; to Latter-day Saints, Lewis is the virtuous unbeliever. Often quoted by LDS General Authorities, teachers and authors, Lewis is representative of the God’s inspiration which Latter-day Saints believe can (and does) exist apart from official LDS channels.

MSTP said...

Its very interesting . Good work .

--
Jeff





( High School Diploma online | online high school | Divorce | Protocol testing training )

Quill said...

Very nice piece of work, though I am suprised you made no mention of Lewis' "Tha Last Battle" and the slavation of the Tash-worshipping boy; one of his more overt inclusivist bits.

I was intirgued to read your post about his prayers for the dead and his thoughts on post-mortem salvation. I shall have to research that!

Thank you for your work!

(-In regard to what he would think of being cited by the LDS community, I imagine he'd be flustered, but would only hope enough of his material would be read to have an impact.)
(I am a Christian, and therefore respectfully disagree with Lewis being used to forward the LDS cause, especially if he is quoted out of context- which I am not accusing)

BHodges said...

Quill, thanks for stopping by. This particular post is an abstract of the full paper, which includes the selection from The Last Battle you mention.

(Parenthetically, I am a Christian, too. A Latter-day Saint Christian.)

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