Lewis 103: The Weight of Glory

 

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I’ve always heard zippy CS Lewis quotes, but when I tried to pick up one of his important sounding books like Mere Christianity,  The Abolition of Man or even the fictional Space Trilogy, it always seemed like a struggle.  One Master’s degree in Christian Thought and Cultural Apologetics later … and it can still be a struggle. But struggle through his stuff, and others, we did. Hence this site …

to follow such recognized thinkers as Lewis, his friend JRR Tolkien, and their own cadre of companions from throughout the ages, names like Homer, Augustine, Bede the Venerable, Boethius, Beowulf, whoever wrote Dream of the Rood, Dante, Coleridge, Pascal, Wordsworth, T.S. Eliot, Virgil and Yeats, for starters

Let CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, Oxford Literature Professors (and their ilk) be your friendly, time-travelling guides on this journey through space and time, and beyond …

Take Lewis, for starters.  How does one go about coming up with a novel argument for the existence of God? Argument from cause, from design, from Being, from order and the 2nd law of Thermodynamics – by the 20th century, just about everything had been thought up. But Lewis expounds an argument for God from our own desires that seems nearly without precedent, and can be found in his famous 1941 wartime lecture, The Weight of Glory:

                       Merton College, Oxford       Pulpit in which Lewis delivered The Weight of Glory Sermon, St. Mary the Virgin Chapel, Oxford

“If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith.  Indeed if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but  too weak.  We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer  of a holiday at the sea.  We are far too easily pleased.”

These “mud pies in a slum” can have a strong appeal, however. Lewis compares the appeal of ancient poets who could only point to what Christian poets like Milton found, such as Milton’s “enormous bliss of Eden.”  But any secular good or desire “must bear only a symbolical relation to what will truly satisfy,” and our deep need for satisfaction is undeniable. Lewis continues

In speaking of this desire for a far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am 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 which pierces with such sweetness that when … the mention of it becomes imminent,  we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot both 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.”

Or, as a friend has put it, “I need an infinite God to satisfy all the desires of my heart.” If we are just evolved slime, where does this desire or need come from? Or like the philosophy student who famously questioned whether or not anything at all really existed, we are met with the question “And who, shall I say, is asking?”

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Lewis waxes poetic about all this just a bit further, comparing this lasting Joy with the vanishing “spots of joy” Wordsworth described in his 1815 poem, Surprised by Joy (written on the memory of a deceased child). Wordsworth penned the lines

Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom
But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind—
But how could I forget thee?—Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss!—That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.[2]
Of these fleeting moments of joy, or as Lewis puts it “names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret which pierces with such sweetness,” Lewis counters with
“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 itself to be 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 was longing.”
Continuing, Lewis proclaims
“These things – the beauty, the memory of our own past – are good images of what we really desire; but if mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of the 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 visited.”
aug restless    pascal
Lewis’s argument from Joy / Desire is not entirely without precedent
Lewis further claims that the denial of this vision, this urge, is itself a spell that needs to be broken.  Counter to Freud’s claim that religion is an illusion that needs to be psychoanalyzed away,  instead, “you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years.”
Thus, Lewis has interjected an argument for God based in our own longings – longings for meaning, significance, happiness and even beauty.  And it is an argument that is difficult to deny.  Lewis describes the process of his own conversion, guided by the acknowledgement of his own longings, in his autobiography Surprised by Joy, but that is a another story.
Continue on to super advanced studies in Lewis, Lewis 104: Men without Chests, the Tao and The Abolition of Man
[1] C.S. Lewis, “Weight of Glory” in Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1980). All quotes, unless otherwise noted, are taken from this short, 20 page sermon.
[2] William Wordsworth, “Surprised by Joy” in Poems (1815). Online available www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/50285/surprised-by-joy.

 

 

 

 

 

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