Tuesday, October 14, 2014

C. S. Lewis: Is Theology Poetry? (Part 1: More on Myth)

On November 6, 1944 C.S. Lewis gave a lecture entitled, “Is Theology Poetry?*,” to the Oxford Socratic Club. He sought to answer the question:
"Does Christian theology owe its attraction to its power of arousing and satisfying our imaginations?" In other words, are the people who believe it "mistaking aesthetic enjoyment for intellectual ascent or assenting because they enjoy?"

Lewis argues, “If theology is poetry, it is not very good poetry.” He mentions Odin's heroic appeal (again, expecting his audience to know the reference, which they probably did at the Oxford Socratic Club in 1944.) He then says, "If Christianity is only a mythology than I find the mythology I believe in is not the one I like best. I like Greek mythology much better, Irish better still, Norse best of all." So by "poetry", Lewis seems to have meant "mythology". At least, he uses the words interchangeably here.

I love the point he makes about the confusion between imaginative enjoyment and intellectual assent which Christians are being accused. He says this does not seem to happen in other situations either, even in children: "It pleases their imagination to pretend that they are bears or horses, but I do not remember that one was ever under the least delusion." (See, not only is he brilliant, he's funny, too!)

Even if our theology (i.e. our Christian belief system) does please our imagination, that would not be a reason to reject it as false. (Here comes "Balder" again!) Here again, Lewis is making the case for the Incarnation of Christ as the Myth that became Fact:
SÁM 66, 75v, death of Baldr
"Theology, while saying that a special illumination has been vouchsafed to Christians and (earlier) to Jews, also says that there is some divine illumination vouchsafed to all men. The divine light, we are told, “lighteneth every man.” We should, therefore, expect to find in the imagination of great Pagan teachers and myth makers some glimpse of that theme which we believe to be the very plot of the whole cosmic: storythe theme of incarnation, death, and rebirth. And the differences between the Pagan Christs (Balder, osiris, etc.) and the Christ himself is much what we should expect to find. The Pagan stories are all about someone dying and rising, either every year, or else nobody knows where and nobody knows when. The Christian story is about a historical personage, whose execution can be dated pretty accurately, under a named roman magistrate, and with whom the society that he founded is in a continuous relation down to the present day. It is not the difference between falsehood and truth. It is the difference between a real event on the one hand and dim dreams or premonitions of that same event on the other."
Lewis says it is like watching something gradually come into focus: "first it hangs in the clouds of myth and ritual, vast and vague, then it condenses, grows hard and in a sense small, as a historical event in first century Palestine."

We see this within the Christian tradition itself. Lewis writes, "the earliest stratum of the old Testament contains many truths in a form which I take to be legendary, or even mythical — hanging in the clouds, but gradually the truth condenses, becomes more and more historical." He gives the example of moving from the story of Noah’s ark or the sun standing still to the more factual information in 1 and 2 Kings. By the time you reach the new Testament, "history reigns supreme, and the Truth is incarnate."
And “incarnate” is here more than a metaphor. It is not an accidental resemblance that what, from the point of view of being, is stated in the form “god became man,” should involve, from the point of view of human knowledge, the statement “myth became Fact.” The essential meaning of all things came down from the “heaven” of myth to the “earth” of history. In so doing, it partly emptied itself of its glory, as Christ emptied himself of his glory to be man. That is the real explanation of the fact that Theology, far from defeating its rivals by a superior poetry, is, in a superficial but quite real sense, less poetical than they. [...] That is the humiliation of myth into fact, of god into man; what is everywhere and always, imageless and ineffable, only to be glimpsed in dream and symbol and the acted poetry of ritual becomes small, solid no bigger than a man who can lie asleep in a rowing boat on the lake of galilee. you may say that this, after all, is a still deeper poetry. I will not contradict you. The humiliation leads to a greater glory. But the humiliation of god and the shrinking or condensation of the myth as it becomes fact are also quite real."
So when God became man, Myth became Fact. Cool! I love C. S. Lewis!

(This covers about the first half of the essay, so I will talk about the second half tomorrow.)

*You can read the entire essay here.


In response to the 31 Day blogging challenge, I will be posting every day in October. You can read previous posts HERE. Follow me on Facebook and/or Twitter to be notified of new posts. You can also Subscribe to get posts sent to you by email. (There is a simple form towards the top on the right where you can do this.)

Feel free to comment with your own thoughts and questions!

Index of Posts:
Day 1: 31 Days of C. S. Lewis (Introduction)
Day 2. C. S. Lewis on Longing (In "The Weight of Glory")
Day 3. C. S. Lewis on Sehnsucht (Longing and Desire in The Weight of Glory)
Day 4. C. S. Lewis Audio Recordings
Day 5: C. S. Lewis Online Resources
Day 6: C. S. Lewis: The Intolerable Compliment (The Problem of Pain)
Day 7: C. S. Lewis: What is "The Weight of Glory"?
Day 8: C. S. Lewis: The Great Divorce and The Weight of Glory
Day 9: C. S. Lewis: A Grief Observed
Day 10: C. S. Lewis, Myth, and Postmodernism
Day 11: C. S. Lewis, Myth, and Postmodernism (Part 2)
Day 12: C. S. Lewis and Postmodernism (Part 3 - Conclusion)
Day 13: C. S. Lewis: The Grand Miracle (Myth and Allusions)

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