Looking Beyond Ourselves

‘We should, I believe, distrust states of mind which turn our attention upon ourselves. Even at our sins we should look no longer than is necessary to know and to repent them; and our virtues or progress (if any) are certainly a dangerous object of contemplation. When the sun is vertically above a man he casts no shadow; similarly, when we have come to the Divine meridian our spiritual shadow (that is, our consciousness of self) will vanish. One will thus in a sense be almost nothing: a room to be filled by God and our blessed fellow creatures, who in their turn are rooms we hep to fill.’

C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 3 (30 November 1954)

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Book review: ‘Anglican Theology’ by Mark Chapman

13732149I enjoyed this book but found the title ‘Anglican Theology’ misleading. I recognize the validity of the author’s point that telling our story is sometimes the best way of exploring Anglican theologies, since there have been so many of them (Reformation/Tudor, High Church/Stuart etc.)! But even given this point, I thought a more honest title for the book would have been ‘Church of England Theology’.

The vast majority of the book describes theological controversies in the Church of England, most of which had to do with the nature of authority in the Church and its relationship to the British crown. A Christendom relationship between Church and State, with Anglicanism as the ‘Established Church’, was assumed in all these controversies. But for the vast majority of Anglicans around the world today this is irrelevant, as our churches have never been ‘established churches’. So how can we find a way forward toward a vibrant Anglican Christianity that does not assume a privileged position of power in society? What is our Anglican identity when we are not an established church? And what forms of episcopacy are appropriate in such contexts?

The penultimate chapter introduces the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, but rightly points out its inadequacies (it was intended as the basis for Anglican reunion with other churches, not as a definitive statement of Anglican essentials). The author points out that if the Quadrilateral is seen as definitive of Anglicanism, its omission of any mention of the Book of Common Prayer (in its many and varied editions) is very strange. Surely this is one of the most characteristic features of what Anglicans actually do: we worship together using the Book of Common Prayer and/or books based on it. For many of us, this is where we both discover and develop our theology.

I enjoyed Mark Chapman’s honest description of the way in which later generations have adopted revisionist understandings of certain defining moments in Anglican history, in service of their own theological agendas. But I have to say that I would enjoy reading a more future-oriented volume, which takes these convictions Anglicans have developed in the past and asks how we can move forward as a global family of churches, and what theological ideas can unite us and energize us in the very different situations we find ourselves in today.

Clive Staples Lewis, November 29th 1898 – November 22nd 1963

(Repost from previous years, slightly adapted)

On this day fifty-five years ago, the great C.S. Lewis died.

Because of the assassination of President Kennedy on the same day, the death of Lewis has always been somewhat overshadowed. Far be it from me to downplay Kennedy and what he stood for, but for me, Lewis was by far the more influential man.

In the early 1990s I lent a United Church minister friend a copy of Lewis’ Mere Christianity; when he gave it back to me, he said, “Do you have any idea how much this man has influenced you?” Mere Christianity came along at just the right time for me; I was seventeen and had begun to feel the lack of a rigorous intellectual basis for my faith. In this book, Lewis gave me just that. I went on to read pretty well everything he had written, including the various editions of his letters which seem to me to contain some of the best common-sense spiritual direction I’ve ever read. I’ve parted company with Lewis on a few issues (pacifism, Conservative politics, the ordination of women), but for the most part I still consider him to be one of the most reliable guides available to a rigorous, full-orbed, common-sense Christianity.

Lewis was a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and, later, of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and in his professional career he taught English literature. Brought up in Ireland in a conventionally religious home, he became an atheist in his teens. Later, in his late twenties and early thirties, he gradually came back to Christianity (he told the story himself in his book Surprised by Joy) and went on to become a popular writer and speaker on Christian faith. He claimed for himself Richard Baxter’s phrase ‘Mere Christianity’; although he lived and died entirely content to be a member of the Church of England (‘neither especially high, nor especially low, nor especially anything else’, as he said in his introduction to Mere Christianity), he had no interest in interdenominational controversy, preferring to serve as an apologist for the things that most Christians have in common.

Nowadays evangelicals (especially in the United States) have claimed Lewis as a defender of a rigorous Christian orthodoxy (despite the fact that he did not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and was an enthusiastic smoker and imbiber of alcoholic beverages). Likewise, Roman Catholics have sometimes pointed out that many fans of Lewis have gone on to convert to Roman Catholicism (something he himself never did, because he believed that Roman Catholicism itself had parted company on some issues with the faith of the primitive church), and have resorted to blaming his Irish Protestant background as somehow giving him a phobia about Catholicism that made it psychologically impossible for him to convert to Rome. Lewis himself, I believe, would not have approved of these attempts to press him into the service of advancing a particular Christian tradition or denomination. I believe we should take him at his word: he was an Anglican by conviction, but was most comfortable with the label ‘Christian’.

What about his books? Well, there are many of them! In his professional discipline of literary criticism he wrote several influential books, including The Allegory of Love (on the medieval allegorical love poem), The Discarded Image (an introduction to the world view of medieval and renaissance writers), An Experiment in Criticism (in which he examines what exactly it means to take pleasure from reading a book), A Preface to Paradise Lost (in which he introduces us to one of his favourite works of literature, John Milton’s famous poem Paradise Lost), and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (this is only a selection of his works of literary criticism).

Turning to his more specifically ‘Christian’ works, in The Screwtape Letters Lewis gave us an imaginary series of letters from a senior to a junior demon on the art of temptation; along the way, as Lewis intended, we get some penetrating insights into practical, unpretentious, daily holiness. Miracles and The Problem of Pain are intellectual defences of Christian truth (the first examining the question of whether miracles are possible, the second dealing with the issue of evil and the goodness of God). Reflections on the Psalms is a series of meditations on the issues raised by the psalms (including an excellent chapter on the ‘cursing’ psalms), while Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer gives us accurate guidance on what a life of prayer is really all about. In the ‘Narnia’ stories and the Space Trilogy, Lewis baptizes our imagination, using the genre of fairy story and science fiction to present Christian truth in a fresh and compelling way. And in Mere Christianity he presents his case for the truth of Christianity and a good explanation of its central ideas.

These are just a few of his books; there are many websites that give exhaustive lists.

This website by Lewis’ publishers is of course focussed on trying to sell books – Lewis’ own books, collections of his writings published since his death, and many of the books that have been since written about him. Personally, I like Into the Wardrobe better; it isn’t trying to sell me anything, but includes a biography, a collection of papers, articles, and archives, and some excellent links.

Since his death Lewis has become almost a cult figure, especially in the U.S., and the number of books and articles about him continues to grow. He himself was uncomfortable with the trappings of fame, and I believe he would have been horrified with the growth of the C.S. Lewis ‘industry’ today. It seems to me that the best way to observe the  anniversary of his death is to go back to his books, read them again (or perhaps for the first time), ponder what he had to say, and pray that his work will lead us closer to Christ, as he would have wanted.

Rest in peace and rise in glory, Jack. And once again, thank you.

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Happy birthday, John Donne (1572-1631)

A Hymn to God the Father

Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
         Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
         And do run still, though still I do deplore?
                When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
                        For I have more.


Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won
         Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
         A year or two, but wallow’d in, a score?
                When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
                        For I have more.


I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
         My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
         Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
                And, having done that, thou hast done;
                        I fear no more.

A John Masefield poem for the Nativity

You who have known the darkness slowly yield,
And in the twilight the first blackbird’s cry
Come, with the dripping of the dew new-shaken
From twigs where yellowing leaves and reddening berries lie,
And seen the colour come upon the field,
And heard the cocks crow as the thorps awaken,

You know with what a holiness of light
The peace of morning comes, and how night goes –
Not goes, but, on a sudden, is not, even.
Now God Himself is Man and all the banded Night
Will perish and the Kingdom will unclose.
O man, praise God, praise Him, you host of heaven.

From the play ‘The Coming of Christ’ (words by John Masefield, music by Gustav Holst). (For more information about this play visit ‘A Clerk of Oxford’s blog here)