Taking Issue with C. S. Lewis

I’m treading on dangerous ground here, but I think C. S. Lewis has something wrong. In The Weight of Glory we come across this passage, which also appears as an excerpt in the Wikipedia deinition of Sehnsucht.

In speaking of this desire for our own faroff country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

My issue with Lewis’ thinking here is that it conflicts with my understanding of the depravity of man. I have no problem with the idea that what every man needs is Jesus Christ; what I do have an issue with is that a man without Christ has any concept of his need for Him (and I realize that Lewis is almost saying that, but not really). Don’t get me wrong, I agree with Lewis in essence, but when he says that we misidentify Nostalgia, Romanticism, and Adolescence for that longing for another country, he misses the point. I would contend that the only reason that anyone in England had a past that contained elements that could be called good was because of the influence of Jesus Christ upon English culture. If Mr. Lewis were to consider a cannibal in the darkest parts of Africa, which aspect of his life would be the mistaken longing for heaven? One could argue, I suppose, that even his depravity is that mistaken urge, and I would be more inclined to that argument, but I don’t believe that’s the argument made here. When Lewis says, the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience, I do not think he would attribute to our cannibal’s depravity the idea of a sweetly piercing secret.

I also can’t find a place in Scripture where Christ calls someone to Him, by telling them that He was that thing they always wanted. Instead, He calls men to repent and to escape the coming judgement, He calls men to fear a God that has the power to cast their body and their soul into hell.

I should say this: I love this passage by Lewis. It does speak volumes to me, but it speaks to me as a Christian, and on some level, I think it would speak to men who were raised in a nation built around the morality of Jesus Christ. And that is where I think Lewis misses the mark. If we read this passage (as I originally did) and come away from it with a method for speaking to sinners, we have cheated ourselves. “There is a city for which you have been longing” is not the message that we see in Scripture. Instead we are told to speak to men who are damned and to show them a Savior. And once they know Him, they can rightfully say that now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.

As always, comments, critiques, and outright criticisms are welcome.

14 thoughts on “Taking Issue with C. S. Lewis”

  1. what exactly is depravity…or sin for that matter…it would seem that those are the real questions. These days it would seem that we often mistake cultural differences for depravity and sin…mankind is the creation of God and it is not unlikely that all of his desires and pursuits revolve around for something higher than himself…it is when man comes to Christ that He realizes that He has been searching for Christ all along…Jesus did say “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand…what does a Kingdom reflect…it’s King and Who is the King of Heaven….so in essence Jesus is saying I am the one you have been looking for…

  2. what exactly is depravity…or sin for that matter…it would seem that those are the real questions. These days it would seem that we often mistake cultural differences for depravity and sin…mankind is the creation of God and it is not unlikely that all of his desires and pursuits revolve around for something higher than himself…it is when man comes to Christ that He realizes that He has been searching for Christ all along…Jesus did say “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand…what does a Kingdom reflect…it’s King and Who is the King of Heaven….so in essence Jesus is saying I am the one you have been looking for…

  3. daprofessor,
    I’m quite willing to accept that a man’s life is his wasted efforts at fulfilling himself by his own filthiness instead of what he needs (Jesus Christ). By pointing out the cannibal, I was not trying to say that he was “more depraved” than a man of England in Lewis’ day (though he may very wall have been), it was instead to point out that what Lewis saw as reflections of the desire for a better country that exist in every man, does not in fact exist in every man.
    To my mind, Lewis was not trying to argue that a cannibal’s fond memories of the first Long Pig he ever had was him mistaking his cannibalistic desires for his desires for Heaven (though it may well have been).
    In some ways, Lewis argues more along my lines in the novel, The Last Battle, where the dwarves who disbelieve every one refuse to acknowledge the beauty of the transformed stable and instead believe all the beauty to be squalor. The depravity of man keeps him from recognizing beauty on his own. Given the choice between heaven and hell, the depraved man will say “Heaven” and then leap into the flames assured that he made the right call.

  4. daprofessor,
    I’m quite willing to accept that a man’s life is his wasted efforts at fulfilling himself by his own filthiness instead of what he needs (Jesus Christ). By pointing out the cannibal, I was not trying to say that he was “more depraved” than a man of England in Lewis’ day (though he may very wall have been), it was instead to point out that what Lewis saw as reflections of the desire for a better country that exist in every man, does not in fact exist in every man.
    To my mind, Lewis was not trying to argue that a cannibal’s fond memories of the first Long Pig he ever had was him mistaking his cannibalistic desires for his desires for Heaven (though it may well have been).
    In some ways, Lewis argues more along my lines in the novel, The Last Battle, where the dwarves who disbelieve every one refuse to acknowledge the beauty of the transformed stable and instead believe all the beauty to be squalor. The depravity of man keeps him from recognizing beauty on his own. Given the choice between heaven and hell, the depraved man will say “Heaven” and then leap into the flames assured that he made the right call.

  5. That’s what I call an attention-getting headline. I’m not one to gloss over Lewis’s foibles (really!) and he definitely had some. I’m not sure that his perspective on Sehnsucht was one of them, though.

    I’ll grant, instantly, that depravity, not Joy, is the main roadway (or the main obstacle, both at once) to the gospel. But we also know that God “has set eternity in the hearts of men” and I believe that at some level everyone knows, or at least suspects, that something is deeply wrong with this world. By the grace of God, there are moments when an inexpressible longing for something better leaks in… In Acts, I can speculate that part of Paul’s argument re: the “unknown God” was an appeal to the instinctive knowledge the Greeks possessed that the most basic ingredient in life was still missing. Their petty idols, with their interesting stories and influence on livestock, melted into insignificance when the Creator of Heaven and Earth walked on stage. That’s the first passage that springs to mind, but there are others.

    I guess what I’m saying is that Joy appears, to me, to be a biblically-endorsed thread that winds heavenward. Joy and Sin work together to lead men to repentance, perhaps through ommission and commission. There may be a need to nuance here: We’re dying because of our depravity, not our Sehnsucht – but certainly Joy is a clue to holiness. It’s an elusive path, but it’s there.

  6. That’s what I call an attention-getting headline. I’m not one to gloss over Lewis’s foibles (really!) and he definitely had some. I’m not sure that his perspective on Sehnsucht was one of them, though.

    I’ll grant, instantly, that depravity, not Joy, is the main roadway (or the main obstacle, both at once) to the gospel. But we also know that God “has set eternity in the hearts of men” and I believe that at some level everyone knows, or at least suspects, that something is deeply wrong with this world. By the grace of God, there are moments when an inexpressible longing for something better leaks in… In Acts, I can speculate that part of Paul’s argument re: the “unknown God” was an appeal to the instinctive knowledge the Greeks possessed that the most basic ingredient in life was still missing. Their petty idols, with their interesting stories and influence on livestock, melted into insignificance when the Creator of Heaven and Earth walked on stage. That’s the first passage that springs to mind, but there are others.

    I guess what I’m saying is that Joy appears, to me, to be a biblically-endorsed thread that winds heavenward. Joy and Sin work together to lead men to repentance, perhaps through ommission and commission. There may be a need to nuance here: We’re dying because of our depravity, not our Sehnsucht – but certainly Joy is a clue to holiness. It’s an elusive path, but it’s there.

  7. Hey Ariel! Thanks for the reply. I definitely think that joy is in the mix and I think that Sehnsucht definitely exists. But I also think that the argument as it is made by Lewis, (here and in other texts) doesn’t pierce deep enough. Lewis makes Sehnsucht out to be the natural state of man, and I don’t think I buy that. It’s quite possible that he didn’t mean it that way, and I don’t really want to try to nail down his intentions. What I do know is that my previous understanding of the concept had me walking away with some concepts about man’s depravity that are incompatible with my understanding of the work performed by the revelation of God.

    I think what I’m getting at is that while every man doesn’t necessarily know that they need another country, they all know that they need a Savior. The longing for heaven comes with additional revelation (which many cultures have in spades)

    And having said all that and thinking about what you said some more, I’m not sure that we disagree (or if we do, it’s a tiny gulf that separates us)

    Anyway, thanks for the read. Good luck with your move (I have prayed mightily about the weight of your bureau and your other bulky belongings. Also about your spindly girly-man arms and legs. God is gracious and there are company’s that do this stuff for money, you know? 😉 )

  8. Hey Ariel! Thanks for the reply. I definitely think that joy is in the mix and I think that Sehnsucht definitely exists. But I also think that the argument as it is made by Lewis, (here and in other texts) doesn’t pierce deep enough. Lewis makes Sehnsucht out to be the natural state of man, and I don’t think I buy that. It’s quite possible that he didn’t mean it that way, and I don’t really want to try to nail down his intentions. What I do know is that my previous understanding of the concept had me walking away with some concepts about man’s depravity that are incompatible with my understanding of the work performed by the revelation of God.

    I think what I’m getting at is that while every man doesn’t necessarily know that they need another country, they all know that they need a Savior. The longing for heaven comes with additional revelation (which many cultures have in spades)

    And having said all that and thinking about what you said some more, I’m not sure that we disagree (or if we do, it’s a tiny gulf that separates us)

    Anyway, thanks for the read. Good luck with your move (I have prayed mightily about the weight of your bureau and your other bulky belongings. Also about your spindly girly-man arms and legs. God is gracious and there are company’s that do this stuff for money, you know? 😉 )

  9. I have prayed mightily about the weight of your bureau and your other bulky belongings. Also about your spindly girly-man arms and legs.

    Thanks for the prayer support, Charles. God, in his omniscience, foresaw your prayers re: my spindly arms and legs and answered them – about twelve years ago. 😉 The issue requiring real faith is our three futons…

    Thanks for the clarifying comments on Lewis. I think you’re right, we probably aren’t that far apart. Maybe I would argue that the longing for a new and better world follows more closely (sometimes preceding, even?) the awareness of the need for personal rescue. Then again, maybe I would just let it rest.

    (Ever wonder why we handle our debates in passive voice?)

  10. I have prayed mightily about the weight of your bureau and your other bulky belongings. Also about your spindly girly-man arms and legs.

    Thanks for the prayer support, Charles. God, in his omniscience, foresaw your prayers re: my spindly arms and legs and answered them – about twelve years ago. 😉 The issue requiring real faith is our three futons…

    Thanks for the clarifying comments on Lewis. I think you’re right, we probably aren’t that far apart. Maybe I would argue that the longing for a new and better world follows more closely (sometimes preceding, even?) the awareness of the need for personal rescue. Then again, maybe I would just let it rest.

    (Ever wonder why we handle our debates in passive voice?)

  11. Lewis didn’t say that we mistake Nostalgia, Romanticism, & Adolesence for Joy — he said we call the Real Joy (or sehsucht) by those names to try to water it down. I believe that the Scripture is pretty clear that all people know deep down that God exists & that they ought to do something about Him.

    But I also think that you are onto something else in CSL’s theology: As a Reformed Christian, I do think Lewis is a bit optimistic about the longing that we all could follow if we simply listened closely enough. But Lewis doesn’t mean the longing is enough to save us. He just means that when we sigh deeply at the beauty in a piece of music, a work or art, or a landscape, it’s really actually because we’re longing for Heaven — God has let a bit of Heaven slip through there — even if/when we don’t know it.

    Thanks!

  12. Lewis didn’t say that we mistake Nostalgia, Romanticism, & Adolesence for Joy — he said we call the Real Joy (or sehsucht) by those names to try to water it down. I believe that the Scripture is pretty clear that all people know deep down that God exists & that they ought to do something about Him.

    But I also think that you are onto something else in CSL’s theology: As a Reformed Christian, I do think Lewis is a bit optimistic about the longing that we all could follow if we simply listened closely enough. But Lewis doesn’t mean the longing is enough to save us. He just means that when we sigh deeply at the beauty in a piece of music, a work or art, or a landscape, it’s really actually because we’re longing for Heaven — God has let a bit of Heaven slip through there — even if/when we don’t know it.

    Thanks!

  13. Admonit,
    Sorry for the (extremely) late response to your post. Looking back at my post, I didn’t mean to say what you rightfully say that I said. I do mean to say what you mention in your second paragraph. I think we are all given the revelation that “something is wrong with this world”, but as how to solve it, I think we are born with no clue. Maybe that’s the summary of what I was trying to get at. Lewis seemed to think that we all sort of know about this other country. I think a lot of cultures have that concept built until them, but I don’t think all men do.

    Thank for the feedback,
    Charles

  14. Admonit,
    Sorry for the (extremely) late response to your post. Looking back at my post, I didn’t mean to say what you rightfully say that I said. I do mean to say what you mention in your second paragraph. I think we are all given the revelation that “something is wrong with this world”, but as how to solve it, I think we are born with no clue. Maybe that’s the summary of what I was trying to get at. Lewis seemed to think that we all sort of know about this other country. I think a lot of cultures have that concept built until them, but I don’t think all men do.

    Thank for the feedback,
    Charles

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