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 youâ€”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. Wordsworthâ€™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 thingsâ€”the beauty, the memory of our own pastâ€”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.