Devotional Reductionism

I’ve been invited to lead a program this weekend for a nearby chapter of the C. S. Lewis Society. I told them I didn’t wish to give a lecture but that I’d be happy to guide a Socratic discussion—in part as a nod to Lewis’s own presidency for many years of the Oxford Socratic Club, but more importantly as a way of preventing the afternoon from descending into mere adulation. As you know, I myself have always been one of CSL’s biggest fans, but I’ve no wish to lead a pep rally.

So the tactic will be to foment a debate by putting Lewis on the defensive. The group will have read Book II of Mere Christianity, and I thought I’d get things started by quoting Lewis’s friend Owen Barfield, who, singling out this collection of BBC radio broadcasts, offered the following: “I doubt very much that Lewis would have been happy with the notion of participation in the life of the Trinity…. Lewis, or so it seems to me, in his theological utterances always emphasized the chasm between Creator and creature rather than anything in the nature of participation.” I myself had the very good fortune of knowing Barfield fairly well during the last couple decades of his lengthy life, and we talked several times, in this regard, about what he liked to call Lewis’s “devotional reductionism”.

To say that CSL always emphasized the chasm is putting things a little too strongly, however. It would be fairer to say that there is a certain tension, if not inconsistency, in his writing—evident, indeed, in the five chapters of Book II—between division and participation. In the first chapter, where he sets himself against a rather vaguely defined “pantheism”, he insists that as a Christian “you must believe that God is separate from the world”; but by the time he gets to the fifth chapter he has no hesitation in saying that “the whole mass of Christians are the physical organism through which Christ acts”—indeed (perhaps heretically!) that bringing people to the faith is important since “every addition to that body enables Him to do more”.

In any case, my plan is to lead off with the question of how many Gods this alleged monotheist is actually talking about? That should be enough to incite at least a few of the Lewis faithful! Can a God who takes risks, invents matter, bestows free will, and “lands” in “enemy occupied territory”, as CSL puts it, really be the same as that One whose Self-surrender inwardly affects—in fact effects—man’s own self-surrender? Could this happen if Lewis were right to begin with about there being some sort of radical, ontological separation between Creator and creature?

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