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C. S. Lewis and the Christian Life

C. S. Lewis and the Christian Life Ep. 14

May 9, 2018 Speaker: The Rev. Brian K. McGreevy


The Lion, the Witch, and the Bible

By Robert Velarde
NavPress – Good and Evil in Narnia

The Last Battle — the final volume of the Chronicles of Narnia — is dark and sad, especially for those who love Narnia and are reading the book for the first time. Beyond the hint in the title, the opening words of the book, “In the last days of Narnia,” are disconcerting. Not much later, Tirian is referred to as the last king of Narnia. The reader senses that something dreadful is going to happen. But what? The warlike Calormenes, who have formed an alliance with a traitorous ape named Shift, have secretly been entering Narnia and are bent on conquest. Surely the great Lion Aslan will send help, won’t he? And so he does send aid by way of Eustace Scrubb and Jill Pole. But it is not enough. The Calormenes are victorious, and Narnia comes to an end. The story, however, does not end. Evil exists, but as in Christianity, good will ultimately prevail.

It is not only in the final volume but also all the way through the Chronicles of Narnia that we see themes of good and evil displayed. Characters are presented with challenges and choices and must make a decision about how to act. What they decide to do has repercussions in their own lives and the lives of those with whom they are connected. All this sounds a lot like our own life stories, doesn’t it? Indeed, our daily ethical challenges, both great and small, are reflected in many ways in the pages of the Chronicles. Without forgetting that we are reading a made-up narrative, and certainly without losing a sense of the fun of it all, we can learn valuable lessons in morality from these seven classic tales.

In the chapters that follow, we will look at what are, for the most part, pairs of ethical opposites — virtues and vices — as reflected in the Chronicles of Narnia. These will help us wrangle with specific ethical issues that each of us must face in life. Before that, though, it will be helpful to gain an overall view of C. S. Lewis’s ethical beliefs, especially as they are reflected in the Chronicles. The first thing to note is that Lewis was by no means infected by the modern (or, more accurately, postmodern) hesitancy in calling wrong, wrong.

Moral Absolutes

Most people would condemn such things as rape, child abuse, and terrorism. But why? (Or, more disturbingly, why not?) On what basis do we determine right and wrong? Do cultural conventions set the standards? Or could it be that a God exists and is the source of such standards for all people at all times? Ethics is the branch of philosophy concerned with right and wrong and, consequently, with how one should or should not live.

In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis explained that as an atheist, he argued against God on the basis of evil and suffering in the world. He asked how he had gotten the idea of what is just and unjust, reasoning that in order to consider something as wrong, one must have a concept of right. But where does this standard come from? Following his conversion to Christianity, Lewis often made the case for objective moral truth. He was aware of fine ethical distinctions and moral ambiguities, but, more basically, he wanted to affirm the difference between good and evil. Paul Ford correctly observed in reference to morality in Narnia, “Lewis believed there was a clear distinction between right and wrong; between morality and immorality; and between good acts and bad acts.”

Lewis wrote before postmodernism had gained the popularity it did in the late twentieth century. His position on moral absolutes reflected the earlier, “modern” view that truth (meaning truth that is valid for all times and in all places) really exists and can really be known. Later thinkers in the postmodern vein were more likely to view truth and morality as relative to culture and to individual situations or tastes. Alan Jacobs elaborated, “Lewis wrote in a time when, among the educated British public if not among their professional philosophers, there was considerably more agreement than there is now about, for instance, what constitutes a valid and rational argument for a given case. . . . His apologetic works presuppose, and rarely make any argument for, the criteria for rationality themselves. Today those criteria simply cannot be assumed.”

These days, Lewis’s argument for objective moral law would have to be bolstered for those influenced by relativistic ethics. But it may be that the climate of our day is warming again to ideas of definite right and wrong. Lewis’s words still resonate with those who sense the danger of an ethic in which any type of behavior might be acceptable under the right circumstances. As old-fashioned as the ideas of virtue and vice in the Chronicles of Narnia might at first appear to be, they speak to an eternal need to know how to act when we are faced with a choice. Few books can inspire us so well with the courage to do what is right as can these simple tales. Maybe their underlying philosophy is not weak or outmoded after all.

Of course, Lewis did not develop his ethical ideas without the influence of past thinkers. While a thorough analysis of the philosophical influences on C. S. Lewis is beyond the scope of this chapter, it will be beneficial to gain at least a basic understanding of these influences.

Great Thinkers Who Influenced Lewis

Lewis was clearly moved by the likes of English journalist and writer G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936) and Scottish novelist George MacDonald (1824–1905). Some elements of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) are also reflected in Lewis’s ethical concepts. As Armand Nicholi has observed, “Lewis agrees with German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who pointed to the ‘moral law within’ as a powerful witness to the greatness of God.” But the greater philosophical influences on Lewis were classical philosophers. Gilbert Meilaender rightly explained, “Lewis’ views are best characterized not by reference to contemporary thinkers but . . . by reference to Augustine, Plato, and Aristotle.” So great were the influences of Plato and Aristotle on Lewis that he once wrote that losing the influence of these two philosophers would be like the amputation of a limb.

Plato believed in the unchanging world of Ideas or Forms. Because ethical standards are derived from this unchanging standard, Plato concluded that ethical standards are also unchanging. Similarly, Lewis believed there are transcendent, universal, and unchanging standards rooted in natural law. Moreover, like Plato, Lewis believed that the current world is not all there is—that a better, more real world awaits us. As Lewis has a character say in Till We Have Faces, “Nothing is yet in its true form.” Lewis also affirmed his affinity for Plato in The Last Battle. When Narnia is destroyed, it is revealed that Aslan’s country contains the real Narnia—bigger and more beautiful than the “copy” or “shadow” that was destroyed. The character Digory Kirke makes the connection obvious when he says of the discovery that he has entered the real Narnia that it is all explained in Plato.

Lewis also owed much to Plato’s pupil Aristotle. Aristotle believed that in the pursuit of ultimate good or happiness, ethical standards require a balance between extremes—a golden mean—of vice and virtue. According to Aristotle, developing moral character is more important than following strict rules of conduct. What matters is living a virtuous life based on reason.

Consequently, virtuous moral choices are desirable and, if habitually made, will shape our character for the better. Lewis, too, was more concerned with the virtuous life and the importance of our daily choices in given situations than he was with adherence to specific ethical commands.

Despite these influences by Aristotle and Plato, Meilaender considered Lewis’s overarching social and ethical views “as, quite simply, Augustinian,” referring to the African theologian Augustine. In The Four Loves, Lewis called Augustine a great thinker to whom he owed a tremendous debt. Lewis, like Augustine, viewed evil as a privation. Good exists, but when the good is missing, the result is evil. Lewis often referred to evil as parasitical on good or as a perversion of it, such as in a 1933 letter in which Lewis referred to evil as “good spoiled.” Ethically, Augustine believed in transcendent and unchanging standards that have their source in a personal, active God who has revealed Himself not only in general revelation (evidence of God in nature or human conscience) but also in special revelation (such as in the Bible and the Incarnation). Lewis would agree with these points as well as with Augustine’s position that happiness can be found only in God. Also, like Augustine, Lewis’s ethics were built upon a foundation of love. Lewis agreed that true longing and, hence, happiness can be found only in God. In commenting on the Golden Rule (“Do to others what you would have them do to you,” Matthew 7:12), Lewis acknowledged that repeating this phrase is meaningless unless one is able to love his or her neighbor — a task that cannot be carried out unless one first loves God. This is an Augustinian view requiring obedience as well as love.

In at least one area of his ethics, Lewis appears to have owed more to Scripture than to any philosopher or theologian. That area is what is known as “the problem of evil.” Given that the biblical God is all-loving as well as all-powerful, why does evil exist?

The Problem of Evil

The Old Testament prophet Isaiah wrote, Woe to those who call evil good and good evil. (Isaiah 5:20)

Biblically, it is clear that good and evil exist, as do moral distinctions between them. The story of the Bible is the story of a struggle between good and evil, with good ultimately prevailing over evil as our world draws to a close. In an Augustinian sense, our world is not the best possible world, but it is the best way to the best possible world. Hence, evil exists, but it will finally be vanquished. While some have accused Christianity of promoting a sort of dualism between God and Satan, Christian theism does not truly promote such a dualism, because Satan is a created being and his power does not match that of God, who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and ever-present. But in that case, why does evil exist?

The Greek philosopher Epicurus phrased the problem of evil as follows: “God either wishes to take away evils, and is unable; or he is able and unwilling; or he is neither willing nor able, or he is both willing and able. If he is willing and is unable, he is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character of God; if he is able and unwilling, he is envious, which is equally at variance with God; if he is neither willing nor able he is both envious and feeble and therefore not God; if he is both willing and able, which alone is suitable to God, from what source then are evils? or why does he not remove them?” The basic problem is how to explain the presence of evil and suffering in light of the existence of an all-powerful and loving God.

Intellectually, Lewis addressed this topic in The Problem of Pain. Emotionally, he grappled with the matter in A Grief Observed. His beliefs were nicely nuanced, and he certainly did not minimize the complexity of the problem. He admitted that Christianity does not necessarily have a neat or complete explanation for the problem of evil, but he said that Christianity’s explanation is far better than others. He affirmed the biblical picture that, in the grand view, God is in the process of redeeming the good and establishing justice for all time. Through Christ’s suffering, a way has been made to rescue the repentant and punish the incorrigibly wicked.

This view of God’s sympathy for and activity on behalf of the suffering is implicitly addressed in the Chronicles. One example is Digory’s mother, Mabel, and her serious illness — something that grieves Aslan. The death of Caspian in The Silver Chair is another example. Caspian dies, but he arrives in Aslan’s country (heaven) submerged in water and is revived by the blood of the Lion — a distinctly Christian image no doubt inspired by the concept of being cleansed by the blood of Christ (see, for example, Hebrews 9:13-15). Aslan weeps for Mabel and Caspian, thus expressing God’s sympathy for the human predicament. (Recall that Jesus wept for Lazarus and, by extension, for the human condition, as told in John 11:1-44.)

History is a stage on which God is working out His final solution to the problem of evil. In the Chronicles of Narnia, Christ is represented by Aslan, while His opponent, Satan, is represented most nearly by the White Witch, Jadis.

The Lion and the Witch

In Aslan and the White Witch, we see the personification of the struggle between right and wrong, good and evil. This is not an interplay of two abstract concepts but the interaction of two individual characters in Narnian history. Reflected in their relationship is the drama that God is writing in terrestrial history as He prepares for the final defeat of evil.

In each of the Chronicles, Aslan the Lion is the centerpiece of all that is good, holy, and just. Other characters may embody these traits, but not nearly to the same extent and not consistently. Aslan stands for virtue, condemns vice, and is clearly a Christ figure, though not in a strictly allegorical sense. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, he willingly sacrifices his life to save the human child Edmund from death. In Prince Caspian, Aslan participates in the overthrow of the evil usurping King Miraz, while in The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader,” he is present in many instances of good, for example, in a powerful encounter with Eustace and as the source of Reepicheep’s longing. In a scene in The Silver Chair reminiscent of Jesus’ discussion with the Samaritan woman at the well described in John 4, Aslan speaks with Jill Pole on issues related to salvation and once again seeks, through those who serve him, to overcome evil with good, restoring Prince Rilian and, in the process, destroying the evil Witch of the Underworld. In The Horse and His Boy, the four principal characters — Shasta, Bree, Aravis, and Hwin — each learn ethical lessons from Aslan regarding humility and pride. When Shasta is alone with Aslan, the great Lion explains the role he has played in the boy’s life, always watching over him.

The White Witch (Jadis in The Magician’s Nephew) is not an opposite of Aslan in a dualistic sense. She is a created being from another world who enters Narnia at the time of its creation. There are some parallels to the Christian account of Satan, such as the Witch tempting Digory in the garden, but they should not be pressed to the point of actually equating the Witch with Satan, as there are simply too many differences. That the Witch is evil is clear. Aslan himself refers to her as evil in The Magician’s Nephew, and she exhibits a number of vices indicating her evil nature: unfairness, dishonesty, pride, cruelty, a warlike nature, and impenitence.
Those characters in the Chronicles who are allied with Aslan act more like him, while those who are the Witch’s helpers reflect her own evil propensities. So it is for us. There are good behaviors (virtues) and bad behaviors (vices). We can choose whom we follow and how we will act.

Vices and Virtues in Narnia

Lewis believed that everyday ethical decisions move one closer in character to good or evil. As a result, even the small ethical decisions made daily are, in the long run, incredibly important. These decisions for good or evil accrue in our character like a savings account earning compound interest, said Lewis, indicating that a series of decisions for the good, however small, may accumulate over time and result in a good ethical decision in the future. Or, conversely, a series of small evil decisions will build up, tarnishing one’s character and allowing entry for further (and likely increased) evil. Lewis elaborated on this matter in Mere Christianity, in which he wrote, “Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you . . . into something a little different from what it was before.” Over the course of a lifetime, we are turning this central part of ourselves into either a “heavenly creature” or a “hellish creature.”

In that same work, Lewis gave an illustration involving tennis. He noted that even a person who does not play tennis well may make a lucky shot now and then, but a good player has the training and experience that allows him or her to make numerous good shots and become someone whose tennis skill can be relied upon. Similarly, a person who regularly practices virtuous behavior will attain a godly quality of character. This quality and not specific actions, argued Lewis, is virtue.

In The Magician’s Nephew, because of the actions of a boy named Digory Kirke, evil has entered the new world of Narnia in the form of Jadis (the White Witch). Aslan the Lion asks Digory if he is prepared to undo the wrong he has caused. Digory tells Aslan that he is ready to do what he can. Then his thoughts turn to his mother, who lies dying a world away. With eyes full of tears, the twelve-year-old Digory asks Aslan to help his mother. Tears fill Aslan’s eyes, too, for he is acquainted with grief. But the Lion informs Digory that Narnia must be protected from evil, at least for a time, and that Digory must retrieve an apple from a tree in a distant garden so that a tree may be planted on earth for the protection of Narnia.

Riding upon the flying horse Fledge, Digory and his friend Polly begin an adventure that leads them to a beautiful valley. At the top of a hill, they come to a wall with golden gates. They realize that this is a private, perhaps even sacred, place. A message written on the gates warns that entrance to the garden is permitted only by the gates and that the fruit within must be taken only to help others. 
Digory approaches the gates, which open as he places a hand on them, and enters the garden alone. He plucks a silver apple from a tree and is tempted by the fruit’s appearance and smell. Why not take another one? Maybe the words on the gate were meant more as advice and not as rules, he thinks. As he glances around, he sees a strange bird in a tree watching him lazily with one eye barely open. For some reason, that sight helps him decide to obey Aslan, despite his longing for the silver apple.

As he begins to leave the garden, he sees the Witch. Her mouth is stained with the juice of a silver apple, and she tosses away the core. Her skin has turned white. Digory runs away, but the Witch is after him. He stops and threatens to return to his world then and there by the use of magic. Jadis tries to convince him to eat an apple because it has the power of youth as well as of life. If he does, he can rule the world as king, with her as his queen. This offer fails to induce Digory to eat the apple.

Next, Jadis tries another tack in her temptation of the boy. She tries to convince Digory to take an apple back to his mother so that she might be healed. Digory gasps and puts a hand to his head, for he loves his mother dearly and so much wants her to be healed. He struggles with the choice, feeling the force of the terrible decision before him. In the end, though, despite his desire to help his mother, Digory makes the right choice. He has made a promise to Aslan and he will not break it, no matter what.
In a way, each of us stands in a garden with forbidden fruit before us, just like Digory and just like Adam and Eve. These are the crisis points where our character is formed. The silver apple for us might be a sexual misadventure outside of marriage, an offer of illegal drugs at a party, the chance to destroy an enemy’s character with a lie, or any of innumerable other options. Regardless of the nature of our temptations, if we make good choices, we become more ethical people. If we make the wrong choices, our character becomes worse and worse.

While not meant as tutorials in vice and virtue, the Chronicles of Narnia are filled with examples of both. In the chapters that follow, we will look at seven sets of characteristics as reflected in the Chronicles:

  • courage and cowardice
  • fairness and unfairness
  • honesty and dishonesty
  • mercy and cruelty
  • peace and war
  • humility and pride
  • repentance and unrepentance

Although these are seemingly opposing traits, they are not always clearly a matter of virtue in opposition to vice. For example, Lewis would argue that engaging in warfare is not always wrong. Still, in most cases, the traits discussed in the following chapters are quite dissimilar. Hence, honesty not only is distinct from dishonesty but also is virtuous, while dishonesty is not.

What these chapters all have in common is the theme of good versus evil. In part, this is because of the nature of fantasy literature. And, in part, this is because of the nature of real life here on earth. Just as there eventually came a showdown between the Narnians and the Calormenes, and just as Digory was presented with temptation by the Witch, so all of us are engaged in the contest between right and wrong. We see it in small, personal decisions as well as in the great events of world history. May we learn from Peter and Reepicheep, Shasta and Jill, Digory and Polly, and other Narnian characters, especially Aslan, how to build a character for good.



Bearing One Another’s Burdens: Charles Williams’ Descent into Hell

--Father Michael, Holy Nativity Orthodox Church, Langley, BC, Canada


In Charles Williams’ novel Descent into Hell, one of the characters, an old man and a wise poet, Peter Stanhope, helps a young woman, Pauline, who is tormented by fear. She fears meeting her double. One might argue that she is psychotic, believing that her double exists and that she has several times seen her double walking toward her. Psychotic or not, Pauline’s fear is real. She is like everyone else. We all (and often) experience very real fear, worry, anxiety, doubt or any number of distressing feeling-thoughts over matters that are not real, over matters that we imagine may be real, or may become real, but are in fact not real. Few of us have hallucinations as Pauline seems to have, but all of us create mental scenarios that are no more real than hallucinations, but which produce in us very real emotional responses and even mental confusion.


I am intrigued by the way Stanhope helps Pauline. He does not question the logical possibility of meeting one’s double, nor does he attempt to assure Pauline that such a thing can’t “really” happen. He accepts her version of reality as hers, and offers to bear part of her suffering--the real suffering that she is experiencing because of what seems to be her fantasy. If she will allow him, Stanhope says to Pauline, he will carry her fear for her so that she will not have to bear it. Pauline doubts this is possible, but Stanhope persists and encourages her to accept that he will bear it. He refers to St. Paul’s words, “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ,” but he does not dwell there. He focuses on encouraging Pauline, when she feels fear coming on her to remember that she does not need to carry it, because he is carrying it for her. Stanhope will be afraid for her, so she doesn’t have to be.


When they part company, Stanhope allows himself to imagine and then feel the fear Pauline must experience seeing her double walking toward her, and the increasing dread that something terrible will happen if they ever meet. Of course for Stanhope, the fear is easier to bear than it is for Pauline. He feels it, but he feels it as one who is not trapped by it, as one strong, as one who willingly carries the load of someone weaker, someone he cares for. For her part, Pauline forgets about the matter and enjoys her walk home distracted by pleasant sights and smells and thoughts. She forgets until she realizes that she has not been afraid. In realizing that she is not afraid, fear seems to knock at her door. She knows that Stanhope must have done something--she doesn’t know what it is nor how it has worked--but she chooses to believe it, to accept that Stanhope is carrying her fear so she doesn’t have to: she said that she would let Stanhope handle the “trouble,” and to keep her word, that is what she would do.


On one level, we can say that Pauline’s deliverance from fear is a mere psychological trick. We see right through it. However, as most of us know from experience, psychological tricks seldom really work, or seldom work very well. Just on a psychological level, the trust necessary for one to believe fully the words of another--especially about a matter that as been deeply hidden and tormenting since childhood--is so rare that I am tempted to say its occurrence is miraculous. People whom we can trust are very rare. People whose wisdom is manifest, whose genuine care for us is not questioned, and whose love is not possessive, grabbing nor contingent, such people are very, very rare.


Understanding how a psychological trick might work is one thing, finding someone whose character is such that he or she can pull it off, that’s another matter altogether.


But if we probe deeper than the mere psychology, we might see something that Williams says is “hidden in the central mystery of Christendom.” This is something Williams calls “The Doctrine of Substituted Love.” What he seems to mean--I guess I’ll understand it more as I finish the novel--is that, so long as both parties are willing, it is indeed possible to “bear one another’s burdens.” Central to Christianity is Christ’s bearing the burden of sin for the whole world. Those who would be free from the driving passions of sin may experience the lifting, the freedom, from the sinful passions--if they really want it. Similarly, each of us is able to bear the burdens of those we love and have our burdens born in turn. In fact, Williams goes so far as to say this is a universal law, and “not to give up your parcel is as much to rebel as not to carry another’s.”


I think Williams is onto something. I have experienced something like this phenomenon myself in relationships with those I have come to trust. I have experienced, on the one hand, the lessening of anxiety, worry or any number of unnamed mental torments by obeying (trusting) the advice, counsel or just accepting the support of a friend. On the other hand, I have also taken the suffering of others into my heart. Whether or not it has done them any good, I cannot say. I’m sure correlations are not linear. One bears the pain of another out of love, not utility.

I don’t think “the doctrine of substituted love” is a good name for this principle. Nevertheless, I know that something like this principle functions in the universe. Love compels us to bear one another’s burdens. And just as compelling, love teaches us to let others bear our burdens, for so we fulfill the law of Christ.