For the most part, I find he (Lewis) is very close to Orthodoxy….Through this honest search, he came to many positions that the Orthodox Fathers hold as well. --Herman Middleton
ROAD TO EMMAUS is a Journal of Orthodox Faith and Culture, and it began in 2000. Many is the fine article that have emerged from ROAD TO EMMAUS, and ‘An Old Western Man: C.S. Lewis in Light of Orthodox Christianity’ (Vol. VIII, No. 1: #28) is more than worth the read. The article is done in an interview style between the editor of ROAD TO EMMAUS and Herman Middleton. Middleton has walked a creative path—a graduate of Wheaton College (Vatican of the American Evangelical Tradition and home of Lewis archives), post- Wheaton life as a theology student in Thessalonica Greece, author of the Orthodox classic, Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit’ and at the time of the interview, doing doctoral studies on C.S. Lewis from an Orthodox perspective. Middleton is the perfect person, therefore, to reflect on Lewis and the Orthodox Tradition.
What are some of the reasons those committed to the Orthodox Tradition might be interested in Lewis?
The answer is forthcoming at the beginning of the interview: ‘Many people have come to Orthodoxy through Lewis, or at least credited him with help along the way.’ The fact that Lewis has had such an impact on both Orthodox converts and some cradle Orthodox means that the curious might be interested in why this is the case. Middleton suggested that ‘there hadn’t been an in-depth study of him (Lewis) done from an Orthodox perspective’, hence his doctoral thesis on Lewis.
How should the Orthodox interpret Lewis? Was he an ‘Anonymous Orthodox’, a guide to the Orthodox way yet limited in his understanding of Orthodoxy? The interview balances both an appreciation for Lewis but a mild critique of Lewis from within the Orthodox family. What is it about Lewis, though, that gives him an affinity with the Orthodox way? Perhaps the title of the interview might point the way: ‘An Old Western Man’. What is meant by ‘An Old Western Man?’
Many are drawn to Lewis, when understanding goes deeper, because of his questioning of the modern ethos and way. Lewis was grounded in the Classical vision of Western thought and culture, and he was a defender of the ‘discarded image’ of the ancient way. Lewis was an Anglican that stood firmly and solidly within a more classical understanding of the time tried Anglican way. This meant he upheld an older western vision of faith, the church, liturgy, education and public life. The coming to be of the Reformation and the Enlightenment did much to undermine and erode such an older and deeper notion of the soul and society. Lewis was ‘An Old Western Man’ for the simple reason he challenged the modern world liberal world from within the riches of the western heritage with an older and forgotten (by many) vision. Lewis, like a prophet of old, called his culture to ‘Remember’ what had been lost by becoming modern (and postmodern).
Most of the interview with Middleton touches on why Lewis is so attractive to many within the Orthodox Tradition but why Lewis is not fully Orthodox. There are mild digs in the interview on the Anglican way (that Lewis would have appreciated), and many of Lewis’ books that pertain to Orthodoxy are peripherally discussed: The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, Letters to Malcolm, Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity, The Great Divorce and the Space Trilogy.
‘An Old Western Man’ is divided into 6 sections: 1) Introduction, 2) Thin Ice, Supposal, and Seeds of Divine Longing, 3) Lewis and Orthodoxy, 4) Christianity and Culture, 5) Lewis’s Fictional Works, and 6) Magic and Imagination in Children’s Literature. The initial sections of the interview tend to probe more the Lewis-Orthodox connection than do the latter couple of sections that trail off into comparisons between Lewis and Tolkien, Lewis-Tolkien contra Rowling and, underlying such a discussion, the Orthodox view of the imagination and fiction (good and bad) in the spiritual and religious journey. The fact that Rowling and the Harry Potter series takes such a beating in the article, whereas Tolkien and Lewis (for different reasons are held high) makes for an interesting, timely and valuable discussion, although I think the evaluation of Rowling and the Potter series misses much. But, back to Lewis and the Orthodox Tradition.
All of us (whether we realize it or not) are immersed in the matrix of modern liberalism. Most never think much about the underlying prejudices and worldview that predetermines how we think about what we think. This western modern (and postmodern) worldview emerged in late Medieval thought, took hold in the Reformation, accelerated in the Enlightenment and dominates most modern and postmodern thought. The initial signal that should alert the wary that something is amiss is the fact of amnesia. How many know what the wisest and best have thought in the past? Why has wisdom and contemplation been banished from the modern matrix? Why does fragmentation so dominate our day?
Why are such principles as liberty, individuality, choice, willing, equality, hyper activism unquestioned creeds and dogmas of our day? Lewis, like the Orthodox, share a certain suspicion of the modern project—both, like good critical thinkers, dare to question the dominant way of thinking and being of our age. Lewis was, as I mentioned above, a classical Anglican and the Orthodox tradition is rooted and grounded in the Classical way.
There was a period in Western history in which Western and Eastern Christendom were the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. The schismatic reality that fragmented East-West and West (Roman Catholic –Protestant) is an aberration and has created many a tragic consequence. Lewis comes from a catholic Anglican way that has many an affinity with the Fathers (East and West) of the historic Patristic era when mystical theology was prized. Middleton, I think, wrongly suggests, that Lewis ‘not having a formal foundation of Orthodoxy and the Church Fathers, he sometimes finds himself on thin ice’. Lewis, indeed, had a fine feel for the essence of the Fathers. The section in the interview on ‘Lewis and Orthodoxy’ points in such a direction. The interviewer asked this question: ‘How familiar was he (Lewis) with the Church Fathers?’ Middleton, rightly so, responded with these words: ‘We know that he read St. Athanasius on the Incarnation. He refers to St. Gregory the Great, to Origen, to St. Irenaeus and to John Chrysostom (although through a German commentator). He had a great respect for the Fathers, and an acute sense of tradition, but he didn’t regard himself as a theologian so he didn’t spend time developing his knowledge in this area’. Much hinges, of course, on how we define what it means to be a theologian (or a philosopher), and although Lewis did not write and publish academic tomes on Patristic theology, he certainly saw, thought and wrote through their soul and eyes. I don’t think Lewis can be denied being an accessible theologian in such probing books as God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics or Christian Reflections. There is much more to Lewis as a theologian than these primers, but as entrees to Lewis as a reflective theologian they more than demonstrate his ability to articulate how we might think about God midst all the challenges of this world.
It seems that many in the West and East find Lewis attractive for the simple reason he attempted through a variety of literary means to engage the culture he lived in at a thoughtful and evocative level. Many Orthodox, as Middleton notes, have not done this, hence the appeal of Lewis. Lewis is both grounded in the classical way, but he knew how to interpet and apply such an ancient way to the tastes and longings of the era and ethos within which he lived----many Orthodox do not know how to do this, hence the appeal of Lewis. Middleton sums up this point well, when he stated:’ I recently spoke to a young Greek-American man who credits Lewis with saving his Orthodoxy precisely because Lewis dealt with modern criticisms of Christianity as an apologist. For some Orthodox I think he is very, very valuable -- Perhaps his most significant contribution is his interaction with modern western problems, which, as I said, we Orthodox haven’t really dealt with sufficiently’.
The section on ‘Lewis and Orthodoxy’ lights but does not land long on Lewis and the veneration of Mary and the saints, Christian unity, sacraments and liturgical renewal, 1950s movement towards Anglican-Orthodox unity, Lewis’ involvement in Society of St. Alban-St. Sergius (SSASS) and the publication in Sobornost of a lecture he gave for the SSASS, his views on the ordination of women and his lost lecture on icons.
There is a worrisome tendency when the Orthodox turn to Lewis to see him as close to Orthodoxy but, when day is done, not close enough. He is, as Timothy Ware stated, an ‘anonymous Orthodox’. I will, by way of conclusion, ponder the problem with such a position. The Orthodox Tradition is thoroughly grounded and rooted in the Patristic vision as such a vision has been interpreted and applied through the ages. The Fathers of the Patristic Era (West and East) were not formally and materially fragmented between the Orthodox East and the Roman Catholic West. This is a creation of post-Patristic theological differences. Those who claim to be committed to the Patristic view of the church are committed to the insights of the classical creeds and councils. Lewis was immersed in such a view—so is the Orthodox. Is Lewis an ‘Anonymous Orthodox’ because he, like the Orthodox, lives, moves and has his being from the old ways? There is something quite paternalistic about such a position. Lewis was a classical catholic Anglican, and both catholic Anglicans and Orthodox think and live from an older, deeper and fuller view of the faith journey. I’m sure most Orthodox would be somewhat miffed if a classical Anglican called them ‘Anonymous Anglicans’. The Orthodox Tradition is, simply put, part of the universal church and, as such, equal with the ancient Anglican Tradition (that harkens back to the 1st century). Anglicans do not claim that their notion of the church is the highest or best (the branch theory of the church is important to understand), but they are part of the universal church (past, present and future). The inclusive nature of such a position is something Lewis would have held high as a Patristic Anglican. The jockeying that often takes place about whose version of the church is the truest, purest and best perpetuates a post-Patristic schismatic view of the church. We desperately need, in our age, to return to a deeper ecclesial unity that was imperfectly embodied in the Patristic era. The game of ecclesial one upmanship will not do. Lewis was not an ‘anonymous Orthodox’ no more than Orthodox are ‘anonymous Anglicans’----both traditions, at their best and noblest, live from the time tried wisdom of the golden age of the church---the more we retrieve, in a thoughtful and reflective manner, such a perspective, the closer we will be to the white heat of the ancient way.
The final thoughts in the interview by Middleton do need to be heeded: ‘Lewis, I think, has a great deal to teach us about living and struggling as Christians in the modern world. His integrity as a scholar, his dedication to a life of prayer and study of scripture, and his ability to combine the two, the spiritual and the secular, are qualities that we can admire. Finally, however, the goodness of the tree is revealed through its fruit. Not only does Lewis’s legacy live in the hearts and minds of millions of Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christians, but Lewis’s works themselves attest to a profound understanding of Christian truth seldom found in the post-schism West’. I would add, by way of commentary, that Lewis’s insights not only ‘attest to a profound understanding of Christian truth seldom found in the post-schism West’, but also, and equally important in the post-schism East and West.
Lewis was, indeed, ‘An Old Western Man’, but he was much more. Lewis was, to be more precise, an old Christian Man of the classical era. This means he was neither East (Orthodox) nor West (Roman Catholic or Protestant) in his attachments---he, wisely so, transcended such tribalism. The closer we heed and hear Lewis and Orthodoxy, the more we will understand what the communion with the saints truly means and why. There is, in short, a genius to the older Anglican way that has still much to contribute for those who have eyes to see and souls attentive to receive. ‘An Old Western Man: C.S. Lewis in Light of Orthodox Christianity’ has many fine gems in it, but the paternalism that pervades the article means that both interviewer and Middleton often misses a deeper understanding of Lewis that, perhaps, only a catholic-orthodox Anglican fully understands. Sadly so, many within the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and more sophisticated Evangelical traditions shrink Lewis to their agendas----Lewis has a way of transcending such ideological interpretations of him, and this is why, for many reasons, he was and will remain a man for all seasons of the faith journey.