Putting It in the Words of C. S. Lewis
by Vernard Eller

Dr. Eller submitted this essay to House Church Central in 1993.

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Anyone who has followed my work at all knows that the heart of my concern lies in what I see happening in the life of the church (the Church of the Brethren in particular but the larger church as well), namely a serious deterioration of commitment to biblical, gospel truth. In expressing the concern, I have been hard put to find a term that accurately identifies the source and locus of the threat. I have been quite cautious about using "liberalism," or "modernism"-- first, because there are no clear, commonly-accepted definitions of those terms; and second, because they leave me sounding like the fundamentalists (who throw them around so freely and loosely), when fundamentalism is not my party at all.

However, recently , in teaching a college class on the works of C.S. Lewis, I came across a writing of his that presents the issue so clearly that I know nothing better to do than copy his ideas. So, putting it.in the words of C. S. Lewis...

Of course, it has never occurred to anyone to call C.S. Lewis a fundamentalist; so perhaps, by sticking close to him, I can avoid being dismissed as one, too. Just as with me, Lewis also has been cautious in using the term "liberalism'; yet he gets it clearly enough defined that I can now be a bit freer with it--able always to point and say, "That's what I intend by the term."

The book in point is Lewis' fantasy' novel, The Great Divorce (and all my citations will be simply page numbers of the Macmillan paperback edition of this work). The story is that of a busload of residents from Hell (Ghosts) taking an excursion to Heaven, where they engage in conversation with different Spirits (residents of Heaven whom they had previously known intimately on earth). Lewis requests that it not be thought that he is speculating about the actual cosmography of Heaven, Hell, Earth, or anything else. What he truly' means to investigate is the distinction between "human lostness" on the one hand and ''human savedness" on the other; and his imaginary cosmography is simply a vehicle for doing that.

The fundamental issue he raises in the book's preface is that "liberalism" inevitably tries somehow marry Heaven and Hell (i.e., gloss over any hard and fast distinction between savedness and lostness), whereas "the gospel" insists on the great divorce between them:

The [liberal] attempt is based on the belief that reality never presents us with an absolutely .unavoidable "either/or", that, granted skill and patience and (above ail) time enough, some way of embracing both alternatives can always be found; that mere development or adjustment or refinement will somehow turn evil into good without our being called on for a final and total rejection of anything we should like to retain. This belief I take to be disastrous error. [5]

Allow me, then , to translate Lewis' very general statement into the specifically Christian statement which he implies throughout the book proper: The great "either/or" of the gospel is that either salvation is through Jesus Christ or there is no salvation at all only lostness. (That word "salvation," I propose, should be kept wide open. Let it not narrowly intend only a human individual's going to heaven when he dies, but any entity's--from the single individual through all sorts of corporate groupings even up to the created universe itself--any of these finding ''health,'' the "truth" of becoming what it was created to be.)

Lewis makes no effort to prove that his great "either/or" is indeed biblical; and I will not take time to do it for him--but only express the opinion that both Jesus and perhaps every writer represented in the New Testament could be cited in support of this either/or thesis.

"Liberalism," on the other hand. might be defined as "the offendedness at the particularity and exclusivity of this thesis that, accordingly chooses to reject the either/or in favor of a more liberal both/and.” Specifically. the liberal tendency is to tie salvation to human sincerity." Whatever road individual s choose to take, if they be sincere seekers, their chosen route eventually will get them to the common human destination of "salvation." And at least one thing which must be said about the both/and thesis, this thesis that ultimately any road can prove a right one," is that--no matter how appealing and convincing we may find it--it is not derived by using the New Testament as one's rule of faith and practice.

I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish; but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road. [6]

That statement of Lewis' is very important. Neither his view nor that of myself, historic Brethrenism or the New Testament is "excluding" in the sense the liberals take it to be. True salvation is to be found only by' traveling "the right road"--but that implies no limit at all regarding how many people God finally will be able to put back on that road. Indeed, a major point of Lewis' Great-Divorce story is that it is not for us to say when, how, or whether that God- possibility for any person finally is shut off. Thus, we certainly can say that Judas Iscariot (for instance) was on a wrong road; but we cannot say with any sort of certainty that we know what road he has traveled since, or where he is now. That's God's business--not ours.

To understand the excerpts that follow, we will need a bit of detail regarding Lewis' imaginative cosmography. For him Hell represents essentially Illusion" and Heaven essentially ''Reality.'' So Hell is simply' a "grey town" with a "subdued and delicate half-light" which is forever taken as the (illusory) "promise of the dawn"--the dawn that never comes. The point, however, is that the inhabitants of the grey town are so completely under illusion that they' don't know it to be Hell--and wi1l deny at length that it is such (some even arguing that it is Heaven)! Tlie essence of their illusion is that grey town is still a place of human possibility and that, consequently. This still has them on a “right road" to salvation.

Lewis' Chapter Five (pp. 37-47) recounts the conversation between a lost Ghost just up from Grey Town and a saved Spirit who, on earth, had been his college classmate and longtime colleague. What follows is excerpted directly from these pages of The Great Divorce:

G (Ghost): "Ah, Dick, I shall never forget some of our talks.... You became rather narrow-minded toward the end of your life; ... you were coming to believe in a literal Heaven and Hell!"
S (Spirit): "But wasn't I right?"
G: "Oh, in a spiritual sense to be sure. I still believe in them in that way. I am still, my dear boy, looking for the Kingdom. But nothing superstitious or mythological...."
S: "Excuse me. Where do you imagine you've been?"
G: "Ah, I see. You mean that the grey town with its continual hope of morning (we must all Five by hope, must we not?), with its field for indefinite progress, is, in a sense, Heaven, if only we had eyes to see it? .... "
S: "I didn't mean that at all. Is it possible you don't know where you've been? ...You went there because you are an apostate."
G: "Are you serious, Dick? ...Do you really think people are penalized for their honest opinions?--even assuming" for the sake of argument, that those opinions were mistaken.
S: "Do you really think there are no sins of intellect?"
G: "There are indeed. Dick. There is hidebound prejudice and intellectual dishonesty, and timidity and stagnation. But honest opinions fearlessly followed--they are not sins...."
S: "It all turns on what are 'honest opinions ,"
G: "Mine certainly were.... When the doctrine of the Resurrection ceased to commend itself to the critical faculties which God had given me, I openly rejected it. I preached my famous sermon. I defied [the conservatives]. I took every risk."
S: "What risk? What was at all likely to come of it except what actually came--popularity, sales for your books, invitations, and finally a bishopric? ...Let's be frank; our opinions were not honestly come by. We simply found ourselves in contact with a certain current of ideas and plunged into it because it seemed modern and successful.... When did we put up one moment's real resistance to the loss of our faith? ... You know that you and I were playing with loaded dice. We didn't want the other to be true. We were afraid of crude salvationism, afraid of a breach with the spirit of the age, afraid of ridicule, afraid (above all) of real spiritual fears and hopes...."
G.: "The point is that they were my honest opinions, sincerely expressed."
S: "But errors which are sincere in [your] sense are not innocent.... Will you come with me to the mountains [the heart of heaven's Reality]? It will hurt at first, until your feet are hardened. Reality is harsh to the feet of Shadows. But will you come?"
G: "Well, that is a plan.... I should want a guarantee that you are taking me to a place where I shall find a wider sphere of usefulness-and scope for the talents God has given me--and an atmosphere of free inquiry...."
S: "No, ... no sphere of usefulness: you are not needed there at all. No scope for your talents: only forgiveness for having perverted them. No atmosphere of inquiry, for I will bring you to the land not of questions but of answers, and you shall see the face of God.... There was a time when you asked questions because you wanted answers, and were glad when you had found them. Become that child again: even now...."
G: "[But] that question-and-answer conception of thought only applies to matters of fact. Religious and speculative questions are surely on a different level."
S: "We know nothing of religion here: we think only of Christ. We know nothing of speculation. Come and see I will bring you to the Eternal Fact, the Father of all other facthood.”
G: "I should object very strongly to describing God as a 'fact...."
S: "Do you not even believe that He exists?"
G: ''Exists? What does Existence mean? You will keep on implying some sort of static, ready-made reality which is, so to speak, 'there,' and to which our minds have simply to conform.... Frankly, I should not be interested in [such a 'God.'] It would be of no religious significance. God, for me is something .purely spiritual. The spirit of sweetness and light and tolerance--and, er, service, Dick service. We mustn't forget that, you know.... [But, then, bless my soul, I'd nearly forgotten. Of course I can't come with you. I have to be back [in grey town] next Friday to read a paper. We have a little Theological Society down there.... I'm taking the text about growing up to the measure of the stature of Christ.... I'm going to point out how people always forget that Jesus (here the Ghost bowed) was a comparatively young man when he died. He would have outgrown some of his earlier views, you know" if he'd lived.... What a different Christianity we might have had if only the Founder had reached his full stature!"

Whatever may have been C.S. Lewis' point in writing as he did, my point in "putting it in the words of C.S. Lewis has not been particularly a desire to attack the liberals and their liberalism. My concern goes a whole level deeper to matters of our being honest before God and of God's not being mocked. So if our theology is to be that of liberalism, let us at least have the grace to quit voting and saying that the New Testament is our rule of faith and practice. There is involved an "either/or" that won't allow us to have it both ways at once. Not normally, of course, but here at least is one "great divorce" of which I fully approve.

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