[Note: When I originally read and reviewed this book, I took the editor’s claim at face value that he had been a longtime friend of C.S. Lewis. Apparently, this is not the case, based on the research of Kathryn Lindskoog.]
God In The Dock: Essays On Theology And Ethics, by C.S. Lewis, edited by Walter Hooper
As someone who is quite fond of the writings of C.S. Lewis , I was glad to be able to pick up a book I had long looked forward to reading. In many ways, this particular book is a feast of scraps, a topically organized collection of essays, articles, and letters about theology and ethics by C.S. Lewis that had been largely forgotten until they were collected after his death by his longtime friend and personal secretary, Walter Hooper. The essays themselves are divided into several parts: part I consisting of those the editor judges to be clearly theological, part II those the editor judges to be semi-theological, part III those essays the editor judges to be ethical in nature, and part IV consisting of a brief collection of letters. The contents of the book cover 340 pages or so of core material, and range from ruminations on Christmas and the doctrinal importance of liturgy to discussions of punishment by humanitarian means, miracles, the relationship of science and religion, and the judgment. These various essays and articles were published in small-scale journals and magazines, and show a great deal of consistency of approach and a certain gracious humility and pointed honesty in C.S. Lewis.
If someone should ever decide to make a book of my more obscure but thoughtful writings, I would hope that it would bear at least a slight resemblance to what is in these pages. Throughout these essays we see Lewis engaged in a give-and-take with others, mostly responding to others in a sort of debate , showing concerns, addressing matters within his expertise, and pointing out matters of controversy from his perspective. As Lewis was an articulate intellectual layman who wrote often from his own particular religious background as well as from the point of view of an openly avowed intellectual with an interest in literary criticism who sought to communicate with ordinary people of no particular technical expertise, I have long found his writing and approach to be congenial to my own. Continually, Lewis is apologizing for having written something in a particularly ambiguous or unclear way so as to cause confusion, and then seeking to make his point again in different language, seeking first a meeting of minds that allows others to understand what he is really saying, and so that he understands what they are saying, so that at that point a meaningful discussion of means and ends can begin. The audiences dealt with are largely either internal Christian audiences, often of an Anglican kind, where Lewis’ place as a well-known and well-regarded layperson allowed him the liberty to fence with the ordained ministry of his church in ways that must have stung for some of the people Lewis debated over matters of theology and ethics. While Lewis was humble as to his own abilities to engage in emotional appeals to “come to Jesus,” the fact that he participated openly and publicly in discussions with ordained ministers must have been viewed as somewhat cheeky and daring, and maybe even disrespectful, by some people who believe themselves above accountability to laypeople concerning the practices and behavior of ordained ministers.
Even apart from the specific context of Lewis’ writings in various intramural debates among fellow Christian apologists, or in his pointed critiques of his contemporary political culture, these essays sparkle in large part because they are so eminently quotable . Those who are only familiar with Lewis’ longer writings, without a familiarity with this hurly burly essay work would miss a large part of how he became the writer he did, with his thoughts sharpened in discussions with others, often in the printed word. In these occasional pieces, written as debate pieces in the Socratic Club, as replies to people who took offense to one aspect or another of his books or public addresses, or as responses to the writings of others that he read in the newspaper or in various magazines, or even one particularly humorous and biting discussion of the home life of a particular vicar whose lack of authenticity in talking about family life is noted, Lewis sharpens his language, examines those aspects of his thinking or writing that are unclear or misleading, and refines both his thoughts and writings as a result of a lengthy conversation with fellow thoughtful Christians and open-minded atheists. For those of us who, like him, speak and write in public, especially those of us who as laypeople have no particular claim to official authority, this sort of book is a worthwhile example of a life spent profitably in the public square, and a worthy model of the approach and attitude to take in these efforts.
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“To a mind which did not share our emotions, and lacked our imaginative energies, the argument from size would be sheerly meaningless. Men look on the starry heavens with reverence: monkeys do not. The silence of the eternal spaces terrified Pascal, but it was the greatness of Pascal that allowed them to do so. When we are frightened by the greatness of the universe, we are (almost literally) frightened by our own shadows: for these light years and billions of centuries are mere arithmetic until the shadow of man, the poet, the maker of myth, falls upon them. I do not say we are wrong to tremble at his shadow; it is a shadow of an image of God. But if ever the vastness of matter threatens to overcross our spirits, one must remember that it is matter spiritualized which does so (41).”
“If we had noticed that the young men of the present day found it harder and harder to get the right answer to sums, we should consider that this had been adequately explained the moment we discovered that schools had for some years ceased to teach arithmetic. After that discovery we should turn a deaf ear to people who offered explanations of a vaguer and larger kind—people who said that the influence of Einstein had sapped the ancestral belief in fixed numerical relations, or that gangster films had undermined the desire to get right answers, or that the evolution of consciousness was now entering its post-arithmetical phase. Where a clear and simple explanation completely covers the facts no other explanation is in court (115).”
“It is important to realize that there is some really fatal flaw in you: something which gives the others just that same feeling of despair which their flaws give you. And it is almost certainly something you don’t know about—like what the advertisements call ‘halitosis’, which everyone notices except the person who has it. But why, you ask, don’t the others tell me? Believe me, they have tried to tell you over and over again, and you just couldn’t ‘take it’ (153).”
“Finally, I must add that my own work has suffered very much from the incurable intellectualism of my approach. The simple, emotional appeal (‘Come to Jesus’) is still often successful. But those who, like myself, lack the gift for making it, had better not attempt it (244).”
“It may be said that by the continued use of the word punishment and the use of the verb ‘inflict’ I am misrepresenting Humanitarians. They are not punishing, not inflicting, only healing. But do not let us be deceived by a name. To be taken without consent from my home and friends; to lose my liberty; to undergo all those assaults on my personality which modern psychotherapy knows how to deliver; to be re-made after some pattern of ‘normality’ hatched in a Viennese laboratory to which I never professed allegiance; to know that this process will never end until either my captors have succeeded or I grown wise enough to cheat them with apparent success—who cares whether this is called punishment or not? That it includes most of the elements for which punishment is feared—shame, exile, bondage, and years eaten by the locust—is obvious. Only enormous ill-desert could justify it; but ill-desert is the very conception which the Humanitarian theory has thrown overboard (290-291).”
“Thus in the ruthless war of promiscuity women are at a double disadvantage. They play for higher stakes and are also more likely to lose. I have no sympathy with moralists who frown at the increasing crudity of female provocativeness. These signs of desperate competition fill me with pity (322).”