The Sense of Sin

We live in an age when the idea of sin is dismissed as a relic of an outmoded religious system designed to suppress one’s desires for happiness. As we’ve seen so abundantly recently, in our entertainment media and all the way to the Supreme Court, equality has now been applied to same-sex relationships. Anyone who disagrees with this new enlightenment is archaic. Our society needs the message that is at the very ground level of Christian understanding: all men are sinners, and we cannot cover up those sins by calling them something else. In The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis instructs us,

A recovery of the old sense of sin is essential to Christianity. Christ takes it for granted that men are bad. Until we really feel this assumption of His to be true, though we are part of the world He came to save, we are not part of the audience to whom His words are addressed.

In other words, the salvation message cannot come across to us until we are willing to recognize our sins. Lewis also describes how sin distorts every good thing God provides. In Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, he writes,

The only way in which I can make real to myself what theology teaches about the heinousness of sin is to remember that every sin is the distortion of an energy breathed into us—an energy which, if not thus distorted, would have blossomed into one of those holy acts whereof “God did it” and “I did it” are both true descriptions. We poison the wine as He decants it into us; murder a melody He would play with us as the instrument. We caricature the self-portrait He would paint. Hence all sin, whatever else it is, is sacrilege.

This sense of sin must return to our society. If it does not, we are lost.

C. S. Lewis: The Resurrection

On this Resurrection [Easter] Sunday, here is some insight from C. S. Lewis from his book Miracles:

The Resurrection is the central theme in every Christian sermon reported in the Acts. The Resurrection, and its consequences, were the “gospel” or good news which the Christians brought: what we call the “gospels,” the narratives of Our Lord’s life and death, were composed later for the benefit of those who had already accepted the gospel. They were in no sense the basis of Christianity: they were written for those already converted. The miracle of the Resurrection, and the theology of that miracle, comes first: the biography comes later as a comment on it. Nothing could be more unhistorical than to pick out selected sayings of Christ from the gospels and to regard those as the datum and the rest of the New Testament as a construction upon it. The first fact in the history of Christendom is a number of people who say they have seen the Resurrection.

What Kind of Love Is This?

On this Easter weekend, we think about why Jesus would subject Himself to the horrors of crucifixion. What kind of love is this, that God would decide to suffer such humiliation and pain, both physical and spiritual? And for whom? A race of people who thumb their noses at His love? A humankind that cares more about selfish interests than God and one another? Yes, those are the ones for whom He died. It’s hard to grasp. There must be something about our inherent value that led Him to do this. C. S. Lewis writes of this love that somehow looks beyond our selfishness and sees what we are supposed to be—a love that believes we are, for some reason, important:

If individuals live only seventy years, then a state, or a nation, or a civilisation, which may last for a thousand years, is more important than an individual. But if Christianity is true, then the individual is not only more important but incomparably more important, for he is everlasting and the life of a state or a civilisation, compared with his, is only a moment.

Lewis and God’s Severe Mercy

In a post a couple weeks ago, I referenced a new book about C. S. Lewis I was reading. Alister McGrath’s C. S. Lewis, a Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet, while not a full biography, nevertheless provides a satisfying interpretation of what motivated Lewis at various stages of his life. Its primary value, though, is his analysis of the significance of the variety of Lewis’s writings, noting how he shifted his emphases throughout his literary career. He began as an apologist and science fiction author, then altered his focus toward the imaginative world we all know as Narnia, as well as the engaging novel Till We Have Faces and commentaries on Biblical themes.

Beyond that, I appreciated the insight into his academic world—the rigors of daily tutorials, the struggle to research and write the kinds of works required in academia, and the dismay of university politics, which, in his case at Oxford, led to one disappointment after another, as he was always turned down for promotion. This was in spite of his fame and popularity in the wider world. McGrath explains that it was that very popularity that grated on his colleagues. They felt his popular writings were “beneath” him. Ah, the elegant snobbery that emanates from prideful hearts.

After completing this book, I had a great desire to return to another book I hadn’t read for over thirty years. I had often thought I wanted to reread it, but it took the Lewis biography to inspire me to do so. A bestseller in the late 1970s, A Severe Mercy relates a tale that involves Lewis directly. The author, Sheldon Vanauken, shares the true story of his relationship and marriage to Jean, better known as “Davy.” They began as pagans—Vanauken’s own term for them—who sought to selfishly guard their love against all distractions or threats. Gradually, their pagan love is transformed into love for God, which opens the door for a new understanding of godly love for one another.

One of the catalysts for this change is the time they spend in Oxford as graduate students. It is there they come under the influence of a number of Christian authors, the chief of which is Lewis. He befriends the Vanaukens and aids in the regeneration of their minds, helping them see the world through Christian eyes. The book includes a generous sampling of letters from Lewis to Vanauken that were newly revealed at the time of its publication.

The greatest lessons learned, though, come through Davy’s illness and death. Vanauken has a way with words, as befits a disciple of Lewis, and the poignancy of his experience with his wife’s death, the manner in which it teaches him the difference between selfishness and genuine love, and Lewis’s role in helping him to see the death as one of God’s severe mercies, is riveting. There are tears as Vanauken tells the tale, but also joy and the revelation of a closer walk with the God who is mercifully severe with us, for our own good.

I highly recommend these two reads. They engage both the mind and the heart.

Representative Government: An Insight from C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis didn’t write extensively on government, but when he did, he had insight into the basics. He uses the word “democracy” in the following quote, whereas I would prefer “representative government,” but his point is crystal clear and right on the mark:

I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true. . . .

I find that they’re not true without looking further than myself. I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost, much less a nation. . . . The real reason for democracy is . . . mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.

Looking at that cartoon, I concluded that another comment by Lewis in the same essay was also appropriate for today:

Democracy demands that little men should not take big ones too seriously; it dies when it is full of little men who think they are big themselves.

How very true.

C. S. Lewis: No More Pain

In July 1963, C. S. Lewis fell into a coma, and everyone thought that was the end for him. Yet he surprised the medical staff by sitting up and asking for tea. He did die four months later, but shortly after coming out of the coma, he wrote these poignant words to a longtime friend and correspondent:

Tho’ I am by no mean unhappy I can’t help feeling it was rather a pity I did revive in July. I mean, having been glided so painlessly up to the Gate it seems hard to have it shut in one’s face and know that the whole process must some day be gone thro’ again, and perhaps far less pleasantly! Poor Lazarus! But God knows best.

I think I can say I don’t fear death itself. My faith informs me of what awaits, and it will be glorious. But I share with most fellow mortals the anxiety, to some extent, of the steps leading to the glory. How much pain will there be? Will I retain my senses? So I can empathize with Lewis’s comments. I always want to have foremost in my thoughts that, as Paul said, to be absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord. That will be the ultimate reality that makes all pain fade away. There will be no more pain, no more tears. We will be in the presence of the One who is the essence of love.

An Oasis

As promised, Pondering Principles begins again today. My week away was well worth it. I never even touched a computer the entire time. Cruises are a lot about food, but I tried to limit the intake—somewhat. Working out nearly every morning must have burned some of those calories. At least I’m going to tell myself that.

It was my first time back in Puerto Rico in about four years, and I was glad to renew acquaintances. The door is open again to do some more teaching down there, possibly in November. That would be a fine way to spend Thanksgiving week.

One of the other highlights was a visit to St. Thomas. The views from the hilltops [mountaintops?] were stunning. I don’t use the word “awesome” too often, but it applies to the beautiful waters and architecture.

Yes, I rested, and God provides a rest for us from time to time. This one was needed. Some people are depressed as a cruise winds down; they don’t want to face coming back to “reality.” I don’t have that problem. My reality is from the Lord. He’s given me students to teach, good things to teach them, and a place to call home. The cliché is “count your blessings.” Well, that’s what I’m doing.

Although I didn’t enter cyberworld for a week, I did have time to delve into a new book about C. S. Lewis. I’m three-fourths of the way through and am enjoying it thoroughly. The subtitle is “Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet.” The focus is on Lewis’s writing, both the academic and the popular.

The book also has been an encouragement to me in a strange kind of way. The author details the trials Lewis went through during the late 1940s-early 1950s when the pressure of work, self-doubts, and the burden of taking care of a woman with dementia and a brother who went on alcoholic binges threatened to overwhelm him. He wondered if he would ever again find the time to write, and feared he had lost his edge in being able to write effectively. But what followed all these trials? The Chronicles of Narnia. His greatest success emerged from his darkest days.

As I consider the grading that is yet undone, the pressures of family and health, a manuscript that can’t find a publisher, and my own self-imposed regimen of attempting to say something worthwhile in this blog daily, I can empathize with Lewis. The encouragement is that I know the Lord leads us through every dry place into a refreshing oasis. His work is not done in me. Or you.

I’ve had my physical oasis this past week. The spiritual version is ongoing, if only I will tap into the Giver of all encouragement. I plan to do so.