Today’s guest post is authored by Richard Barrett, Fellow in Residence at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA, where he is completing his Ph.D. dissertation (History, Indiana University), “Civic Devotions to the Mother of God in Late Antique Constantinople.” He is also active as a church musician, having sung recently with both Cappella Romana and the Choir of the Patriarch Tikhon Russian American Music Institute. He is also Artistic Director of The Saint John of Damascus Society, a sacred arts nonprofit that supports educational and outreach efforts related to the music of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
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Lewis the ‘Anonymous Orthodox?’
C. S. Lewis represents a dilemma for Anglophone Orthodox readers. It is tempting for some to claim him as a fellow traveler, an “anonymous Orthodox.”
On the one hand, as one of the most popular and widely-read Christian apologists of the twentieth century—to say nothing of the author of the beloved Narnia books—he bears a lovable, yet authoritative, avuncularity; as a result he is able to speak complicated truths with a devastating and sophisticated simplicity that is accessible to all audiences.
In terms of doctrine, Lewis’ discussion of the atonement in terms of ransom is in line with the thought of Eastern Fathers like Gregory of Nyssa and Athanasius. In addition, Orthodox may find his arguments that Christianity is explicitly and intentionally prefigured by paganism resonant and helpful; certainly, those Orthodox who read his earliest apologetic work, The Pilgrim’s Regress, will likely be struck by the path of John towards what looks to be a very recognizable sacramental Christianity, complete with the apparent voice of God telling the protagonist, “…was there any age in any land when men did not know that corn and wine were the blood and body of a dying and yet living God?”
On the other hand, there are elements of Lewis’ apologetics that Orthodox will perhaps find troubling; his reductionist “mere Christianity” with its ecclesiology of convenience, for example, and his marginalization of the Virgin Mary.
A Man for Every Room
To be sure, Lewis is a figure many would claim.
Obviously American Evangelicals want to see him as one of their own. Joseph Pearce, a Catholic biographer, attempted to tease out the extent to which Lewis could be seen as an ally of the Catholic Church in the book C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press, 2003). In terms of Orthodox Christianity, it’s clear that Lewis had some amount of sympathy and affection; he participated in the Oxford-based Orthodox-Anglican ecumenical organization, The Fellowship of Ss. Alban and Sergius, and he wrote fondly about attending Orthodox churches when he traveled to Greece. This sympathy and affection is eagerly seized upon by some Orthodox writers, particularly given that at that time some believed that communion between Anglicans and Orthodox was certain and pending. As with Catholicism, however, Lewis’ apparent belief that the Church of England’s claim to apostolic succession was sufficient and therefore the default option for an “ordinary layman” like himself was not to be shaken.
Between Lewis and Schmemann
Much of this is well-covered territory; what has generated much less discussion are parallels between Lewis and contemporary Orthodox voices. One such example might be this oft-quoted passage from Mere Christianity:
Hope is one of the Theological virtues. This means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither. It seems a strange rule, but something like it can be seen at work in other matters. Health is a great blessing, but the moment you make health one of your main, direct objects you start becoming a crank and imagining there is something wrong with you. You are only likely to get health provided you want other things more–food, games, work, fun, open air. In the same way, we shall never save civilisation as long as civilisation is our main object. We must learn to want something else even more. —Mere Christianity 3.10
Compare this with Fr. Alexander Schmemann, a much-admired English-language scholar and apologist in the Russian Orthodox Church who was roughly contemporary with Lewis:
Christian love is sometimes the opposite of ‘social activism’ with which one so often identifies Christianity today. To a ‘social activist’ the object of love is not ‘person’ but man, an abstract unit of a not less abstract ‘humanity.’ But for Christianity, man is ‘lovable’ because he isperson. There person is reduced to man; here man is seen only as person. The ‘social activist’ has no interest for the personal, and easily sacrifices it to the ‘common interest.’ Christianity may seem to be, and in some ways actually is, rather sceptical about that abstract ‘humanity,’ but it commits a mortal sin against itself each time it gives up its concern and love for the person. Social activism is always ‘futuristic’ in its approach; it always acts in the name of justice, order, happiness to come, to be achieved. Christianity cares little about that problematic future but puts the whole emphasis on the now–the only decisive time for love. The two attitudes are not mutually exclusive, but they must not be confused. Christians, to be sure, have responsibilities toward ‘this world’ and they must fulfill them. This is the area of ‘social activism’ which belongs entirely to ‘this world.’ Christian love, however, aims beyond ‘this world.’ It is itself a ray, a manifestation of the Kingdom of God; it transcends and overcomes all limitations, all ‘conditions’ of this world because its motivation as well as its goals and consummation is in God. And we know that even in this world, which ‘lies in evil,’ the only lasting and transforming victories are those of love. To remind man of this personal love and vocation, to fill the sinful world with this love–this is the true mission of the Church. —Great Lent: A Journey to Pascha, pp. 25-6
These are clearly parallel statements, reflecting the heavenly economy discussed in Mark 8:35:
For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.
Consider the literal meaning of the Greek word for sin, άμαρτία, “missing the mark.” According to both of these passages, “aiming for earth” will always result in a “missing of the mark.” To avoid sin, to hit the mark, we must “aim for heaven,” for something “beyond this world.”
There are subtle differences: for Lewis, aiming at heaven is something we do; it requires an act of will from our end. For Schmemann, aiming beyond this world must occur in the context of Christian love. Strict Calvinists might argue that Lewis’ construction is absolutely in error, that our total depravity renders any act of will or struggle on our part towards heaven impossible. Still, given the concept in Orthodox Christianity of συνεργεία or cooperation between divine grace and human freedom (cf. 1 Cor 3:9, “We are fellow-workers with God”), this objection may be set aside. From an Orthodox perspective, both formulations are correct; it does require an act of will on our part, and it must come from love (making it a cooperation with God, since God is love, cf. 1 John 4:8).
Such points of convergence are intriguing, and it will no doubt be an interesting study to see where and how else Lewis’ thought runs parallel to those of twentieth century Orthodox figures. Still, these examples can do little more than tantalize, and Lewis remains an enigmatic figure when it comes to ecclesiastical ties, even in terms of the Anglican church, ostensibly his home.
Lewis’ “mere Christianity”, being a reductive exercise, cannot be confused with Vincent of Lerins’ rubric of “the faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.” The Orthodox reader may view Lewis sympathetically—but not uncritically—and must ultimately pick and choose with Lewis as much as Lewis did with Christianity.
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