Thick Christianity

C.S. Lewis, Transformation, and the Ancient Doctrine of Theosis Chris Jensen Part 4 of 20

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Thick Soup and Clear Soup

C.S. Lewis once Compared world religions to soups—thick soups and clear soups. The “thick” soups bubbled with mystery, matter, and ritual (e.g., ancient mystery religions) while the “clear” soups blended philosophy, thought, and ethics (e.g., Confucianism). The truest religion, Lewis believed, would be both thick and clear because neither alone could do justice to the fullness of reality. that’s why Lewis sought a religion of sacraments and dogma, body and soul, poetry and proposition.

Lewis found all this in Christianity. What’s more, Lewis saw Christian transformation in “thick” and “clear” terms too. To “be saved” was something more than just an external pardon by God or an intellectual consent to an idea—what he might call a “clear” approach to this crucial reality. For Lewis, salvation was an inward process involving the transformation of the whole person by the Holy Spirit and leading to nothing less than mystical union with God. In other words, Lewis embraced the ancient Christian doctrine of deification (or theosis) much as it was taught by the likes of St. Basil the Great, St. Athanasius of Alexandria, and St. Maximus the Confessor, and which is still taught today in the Eastern Orthodox Church. This doctrine was neatly expressed by St. Basil in the fourth century when he said that man is nothing less than a creature who has received the order to become god (note the lowercase “g”). Similarly, Lewis asserts in Mere Christianity that the whole purpose of Christianity is to turn people into “new men,” “little Christs,” “sons of God”—even “gods and goddesses.”1

This might sound puzzling, or even heretical to some, especially in a culture that tends to emphasize the “clear” side of the Christian faith. But it certainly made good sense to Lewis, whose writings reveal deification to be one of his central convictions. In his wartime sermon “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis said, “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be tempted to worship.”2

Lewis was a self-described ordinary layman of the Anglican Church, and he made no claims to be a theologian. But as a professor of literature, he read with an immense range and appetite. He encountered the concept of theosis in St. Athanasius’s On the Incarnation as well as in Pseudo-Dionysius, Richard Hooker, Lancelot Andrewes, and George Macdonald, to name a few. In his writings, Lewis expressed the idea of deification in scriptural terms (being “in Christ,” becoming “new creatures,” sharing in the “glory of God”) as well as in images and figures (dances, fountains, marriages, winged horses, statues-come-to-life). All attest to Lewis’s abiding belief in the transforming power of divine love.

Some of the perplexity over the doctrine of deification probably comes from its being confused with variations in other religions. In Christian terms, deification does not mean that human beings will evolve into something essentially equal to God. Despite his poetic bent, Lewis didn’t follow the path of Emerson or others who blurred dogmatic boundaries by confusing God and creation. Only God is essentially perfect, immortal, transcendent, and uncreated. Lewis was always clear on the difference between creature and Creator—an irreducible ontological difference. This is captured in the phrase of Rudolph Otto, a writer to whom Lewis often referred, that God is “wholly other.”

Stressing this boundary between God and creation, Lewis once said in his essay “Transposition” that he saw human destiny not as our absorption into Deity but rather as the fulfilling of humanity, in which human beings will become “like God… [but] with the likeness proper to me.”3

Deified human beings forever remain human while sharing at the same time in divine grace or energy, just as iron in the fire shares the properties of flame but doesn’t cease to be iron. Human beings won’t melt into an impersonal God like a salt statue tossed into the ocean, or become new and independent divine beings Lewis can’t be categorized with Hindus, Mormons, or any number of mystics who seemed to lose sight of the essential distinction between God and humankind.

If the doctrine of deification requires an understanding of God’s otherness and transcendence, it depends equally upon the understanding of His proximity and immanence. In other words, creation, although distinct from God, is penetrated by divine energy and wisdom. As Lewis once put it, in speaking of the theology of the sixteenth century Anglican Richard Hooker, “God is unspeakably transcendent; but also unspeakably immanent.”4 Centuries earlier, St. Athanasius made the point this way: God is in everything through His love, but outside of everything by His nature. Some have suggested that because an understanding of God’s immanence has been neglected in much modern theology, deification has fallen into the background.

Not so in Lewis. In Mere Christianity, Lewis speaks of humans making  in a type of polytheistic evolution.  Hence direct contact with the uncreated spiritual life of God (which he terms Zoe, as opposed to the created and natural life, Bios). This divine and eternal life is how believers share in the transforming power of Christ. Lewis calls it a communicable energy that can be spread into the depths of a person. This suggests that Lewis grasped the distinction made in the Christian East since the time of St. Basil between God’s uncreated essence, which remains beyond human reach or comprehension, and God’s uncreated energies (variously known as grace, love, glory, and light), which allow one to make direct contact with God.

A Calling for All Christians

The concept of theosis has sometimes challenged those who are accustomed to thinking of salvation as a once-for-all-time decision or as merely an external  divine pardon in which God overturns our guilty verdict and lets us off the hook. This model, according to theologian Vladimir Lossky, was popularized by a treatise of Anselm of Canterbury called Cur Deus Homo (completed in Italy in 1098 A.D.), which tended to isolate the idea of redemption from the rest of Christ’s life and work. By so doing, the focus of salvation became the Passion and the Cross—where Christ is seen to have effected a change in the Father’s attitude toward fallen men. This forensic model of atonement suggests that an angry God, rather than sinful or mortal human beings, needs to be transformed.

Salvation as theosis, in contrast, accents human healing and transformation, looking to the Cross, certainly, but also to the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the sending of the Holy Spirit. Lewis insists this transformation is not a matter of exceptional experience reserved for a few special mystics, but rather the calling of all the baptized within the context of the sacramental life of the church. In Mere Christianity, Lewis asserts that the three main channels of spiritual transformation are baptism, belief, and Holy Communion.

Lewis insisted that “God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.”5 In Christianity—which he asserts is almost the only major religion that thoroughly approves of the body—the body as well as the soul participates in the spiritual life, and one day the rapture of the saved soul will flow over into the glorified body. That God’s glory is in some sense communicable to matter is suggested by the face of Moses, whose skin shone after he met with God (Exodus 34:29), or by St. Paul’s handkerchiefs and aprons, which healed the sick and drove away demons (Acts 19:12). For Lewis, deification won’t destroy the human body but will fulfill and resurrect it. In Christianity, the body is not to be dismissed as an inferior prison-house of the soul as it might be in Plato or in streams of Gnostic thought that persist to this day.

An Acquired Taste

Naturally for Lewis, the sacrament of Eucharist, or Holy Communion, was not merely a symbolic act but a concrete way to participate in the life of God. Like many of Lewis’s most cherished Christian beliefs, however, this one was an acquired taste. His biographer George Sayer says that in the early 1930s following his conversion, Lewis took a rather limited view of Holy Communion and received it only on great holidays. But by the early 1940s—about the same time he began meeting his spiritual director regularly for confession—Lewis began to perceive the sacrament differently and receive it weekly. Finally he developed a great reverence for the mystery of the Eucharist. In Letters to Malcolm, published the year of his death, Lewis spoke of Holy Communion as an experience where the veil between the worlds gets thin. “Here a hand from the hidden country touches not only my soul but my body…. Here is big medicine and strong magic …[and] I should define magic in this sense as ‘objective efficacy which cannot be further analyzed.’”6 For Lewis, this qualified sense of “magic” carried the positive connotation of mystery.

Lewis was reluctant to try to explain the mystery. He regretted that precise dogmatic definitions had been made on this subject in the West (in part because he thought they led to divisions among Christians). He once said he was glad that Jesus Christ said, “Take; eat,” rather than “Take; understand.”7 Although Lewis didn’t embrace the doctrine of transubstantiation, he did accept the doctrine of real presence as articulated by Anglicans like Lancelot Andrewes. In his reticence to take this mystery out of its holy context and regard it as an object among objects, he echoed the concern of Wordsworth, who once warned that we murder by dissecting. Or, as Lewis once wrote, “It is like taking a red coal out of the fire to examine it: it becomes a dead coal.”8

In light of that analogy, it’s instructive to remember the Narnian passage from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader where the children meet a venerable old man living near the world’s end, a retired star named Ramandu. Every morning, a bird brings him a fire-berry from the valleys of the sun. These little coals, too bright to look at, will take away a little of the man’s age until he becomes young as a child and rises again at the earth’s eastern rim to join the great dance. In this we find echoes of Elijah’s miraculous sustenance by ravens during his sojourn in the desert (1 Kings 17), and of Isaiah, who saw the Lord of Hosts on a throne in the temple attended by seraphim singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy” (Isaiah 6), one of whom took a live coal from the altar with tongs and brought it to the prophet: “Behold, this has touched your lips, and your iniquity is taken away, and your sin is forgiven” (v. 7).

Prayer and Confession

Lewis was known as a man of deep prayer. In this discipline, too, he revealed both “thick” and “clear” dimensions. His prayer was corporate as well as personal, fixed as well as spontaneous. Lewis regularly prayed from the Book  of Psalms (likely praying through all 150 Psalms each month) and from the Book of Common Prayer because he thought fixed or “ready-made prayers” handed down by the church kept him in touch with the permanent shape of  Christianity rather than merely the preoccupations of the moment. Lewis would often stand an hour or more doing his evening prayers, integrating his prayer with the reading of Scripture. Lewis knew that it mattered what body position he took in prayer and what he ate or drank beforehand. He once told his friend Harry Blamires that he shouldn’t hesitate to kneel and kiss the foot of the cross on Good Friday: “The body,” he said, “should do its homage.” As Lyle Dorsett notes in his book on Lewis’s spiritual formation, Seeking the Secret Place, the connection between the physical and the spiritual was driven home to Lewis when he added the discipline of fasting to his habit of prayer, finding relief from obsessive sins.

Along with private prayer, Lewis also attended church services on Sundays and great feasts, and during the school term he also went to the daily morning service (matins) before work. In 1952, he explained to a correspondent why he preferred church services with fixed prayer rather than extemporaneous prayer. With the latter, “we don’t know whether we can mentally join in it until we’ve heard it—it might be phony or heretical. We are therefore called to carry on a critical and a devotional activity at the same moment: two things hardly compatible.”9

Like his views about Communion, Lewis’s understanding of confession developed over time. Lewis insisted in The Problem of Pain that we are “creatures whose character must be, in some respects, a horror to God, as it is, when we really see it, a horror to ourselves.… I notice that the holier a man is, the more fully he is aware of that fact.”10 But it took Lewis almost a decade after his conversion to discover a person to whom he could confess. This man was Father Walter Adams, an Anglican priest and monk who was 71 years old when Lewis first went to him in October 1940 when Lewis was 42. Fr. Walter belonged to the Society of St. John the Evangelist, popularly known as the Cowley Fathers, located in Oxford a few blocks from Lewis’s college rooms. Lewis called Fr. Walter his “confessor and… Father in Christ” and met with him weekly for twelve years until Fr. Walter’s death in 1952.11

Shortly before his first appointment with the priest, Lewis wrote to a friend, “I am going to my first confession next week, wh[ich] will seem odd to you, but I wasn’t brought up with that sort of thing. It’s an odd experience. The decision to do so was one of the hardest I have ever made.”12 Shortly afterward, a relieved Lewis wrote back to his friend explaining that he had passed through the experience successfully and found himself alive and well. Years later, when a correspondent asked Lewis why she couldn’t simply confess her sins to a friend or neighbor, Lewis assured her that she could. But, he continued, the advantage with the priest was that he held a special office appointed by God for this and everything spoken would be kept in sacred silence. While Lewis valued the counsel he received from his spiritual father, he thought the most crucial thing was that the priest was the representative of the Lord and declared His forgiveness while holding one accountable for repentance.

Every Means Possible

If Lewis’s vision of theosis remains puzzling to some, it may be deeply attractive to others in an age when the Christian life has often been recast in abstract or solitary terms, or when traditional religious practices have been dismissed as dusty impediments to genuine spirituality. On the contrary, Lewis shows us that salvation is not just an idea but something to be done, and he points not only to the importance of personal faith but to the “thickness” and efficacy of spiritual direction, corporate prayer, fasting, confession, and Holy Communion—the very sacramental scaffolding that has helped countless seekers stay on track over the centuries. Indeed, many of us who were first led upward in the climb towards God by the clarity of Lewis’s apologetics were later guided into the thick “dark places” or mysteries of the Church by his counsel: “Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them”13

As we climb, Lewis warns us the path to perfection won’t be easy. The cross, he says, always comes before the crown. Transformation in Christ is a process that will be long and in parts painful, and we shouldn’t be surprised if we are in for a rough time. The reason? God will use every means possible—money troubles, illnesses, other temptations—to lift us to a higher level, forcing us to be braver, more patient, or more loving than we’ve ever been. “It seems to us all unnecessary,” he writes in Mere Christianity, “but that is because we have not yet had the slightest notion of the tremendous thing that He means to make of us.”14

Further Reading

  1. C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Mere Christianity (Book iv)
  2. A.M. Allchin, Participation in God: A Forgotten Strand in Anglican Tradition
  3. St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation
  4. Georgios I. Mantzarides, The Deification of Man: St. Gregory Palamas and the Orthodox Tradition

Sidebar Scripture Quotations

  1. He has granted to us his precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you might become partakers of the divine nature. —2 Peter 1:4
  2. Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. we know that, when he appears, we will be like him, because we will see him just as he is. —1 John 3:2
  3. We all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the lord, the spirit.” —2 Corinthians 3:18
  4. “Jesus answered them, ‘has it not been written in your law, “i said, you are gods”’? —John 10:34
Footnotes
  1. Mere Christianity, First Touchstone Edition, 1996, 154.
  2. The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, First Touchstone Edition, 1996, 39.
  3. “Transposition” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, 84.
  4. Quoted in A. M. Allchin, Participation in God: A Forgotten Strand in the Anglican Tradition, Morehouse-Barlow Co., 1988, 8.
  5. Mere Christianity, 65.
  6. Letters to Malcolm, Harcourt, Bravce & Co., 1963, 103.
  7. Letters to Malcolm, 104.
  8. Letters to Malcolm, 105.
  9. Letters of C. S. Lewis, Revised and Enlarged Edition edited by Walter Hooper, Harcourt Brace & Co., 1993, 420.
  10. The Problem of Pain, HarperCollins Edition, 2001, 62.
  11. Dorsett, Seeking the Secret Place: The Spiritual Formation of C. S. Lewis, Brazos Press, 2004, 86–88.
  12. Quoted in Dorsett, Seeking the Secret Place, 86.
  13. Till We Have Faces, 50.
  14. Mere Christianity, 176.
Chris Jensen teaches English at a community college in Portland, Oregon, where he lives with his wife and four children and serves as a liturgical reader at the Eastern Orthodox Church of the Annunciation (OCA). For several years he taught college seminar courses on C. S. Lewis. this essay is adapted from a paper presented in 2005 in Oxford.
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