Most of us were baffled when Westminster College announced that Katharine Jefferts Schori, the presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, would deliver the C.S. Lewis Lecture on science and religion. IRD colleague Bart Gingerich pointed out that the breadth of differences between the two figures is too expansive to summarize. The New Testament tells us the Rich Man could see Lazarus over the gulf between the Inferno and Paradise. Judging from this lecture, it’s doubtful Schori can see Lewis over the gulf that separates them.
The topic of the lecture, science and religion, provides a rich and endless list of possible directions to explore Lewis’ thoughts. From the warnings against scientism in The Abolition of Man, to the history of medieval science in The Discarded Image, to the excellent comparison between the thoughts of Lewis and Freud by Armand Niccolai, to the literally dozens of other essays and writings Lewis produced on the subject. But alas, Lewis’s name is only invoked at the beginning and the end of the lecture, as if the speaker did so only out of courtesy.
The majority of the talk is rather unremarkable. Jefferts Schori employs the sort of new age imagery and buzzwords like “earth-creature,” “stardust,” and “wisdom-teacher” that any student of Lewis would be completely unfamiliar with.
It’s unclear what, if any, relation Lewis has to any of this. And judging by the text it seems Jefferts Schori hasn’t got a clue either. She spends most of her time explaining how science and religion both seek to answer the questions we have about our existence. Science does so through empiricism and religion by asking about the meaning of things. She clarifies, of course, that she uses the word religion “in a very broad context, akin to the way ‘spiritual’ is often used in common parlance, rather than its more academic sense as a set of practices and beliefs that bind a community together.”
The “academic” definition seems oddly similar to the Christian definition, at least as Lewis would have defined it. If only Jefferts Schori had read that marvelous little book entitled Mere Christianity. In chapter 23 she would have found Lewis explaining why men need maps to find their way to God. The maps, of course, are the creeds, the doctrines, and the traditions of the Church.
Nonetheless, in a lecture about the search for meaning that has nothing to do with the teachings of C.S. Lewis, she closes with the claim that “This is what C.S. Lewis understood so deeply. Born in the Irish context of ancient domination by a power that saw his land as resource to be exploited, he looked toward a story of transformative justice, even if it required the giving of one’s life. He looked deep into his community’s past, Celtic and Christian, tribal and communal, in search of an ethic that would transcend the story of exploitation and empire.”
The problem with this statement, similar to the problem of most heresy, is that it is neither wholly true nor wholly false. Yes, C.S. Lewis was born in Ireland. Yes, that is a country that has been exploited by England in the past. Yes, it’s even true Lewis remained proud of his Irishness despite living in England for most of his life. He even confessed that his first visit to England, as a young child sent to a boarding school, instilled a hatred of England that took many years to heal. But the phrasing of Jefferts Schori’s statement makes us imagine Lewis as a member of some oppressed minority driven by a strong sense of social justice, or whatever term they are using now. Lewis did have a young and natural dislike of England, but as far as I know, we have no support that it stemmed from any resentment against imperialism. Rather, his descriptions make it seem like the hatred of a young boy torn from his home and forced into a strange land and a concentration camp of a boarding school.
Second, it is also true that Lewis looked deep into his “community’s past.” But he was hardly a poor oppressed Irishman driven by a desire to transcend the ethic of Empire, whatever that means. Jefferts Schori could at least have done Lewis the courtesy of reading his autobiography. Lewis delved into his past and explored the Celtic and Norse Myths, but he did so because he was seeking something. It’s all there in black and white. Lewis tells us he was looking for joy. “From these books again and again I received the stab of joy.”
It is a further misrepresentation to say Lewis explored his Christian roots because of his Irishness. In fact, it’s an outright lie. He openly rejected Christianity and said of his conversion that it was not he seeking God, but rather God seeking him. His spiritual senses were convicted accidentally through the influence of Tolkien, Chesterton, MacDonald, and Dante. He never studied Christianity because of poor old Ireland. I know it is difficult to imagine, but he studied Christianity because he became a Christian. The truth was inescapable. In his words, “I gave in, and admitted God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”
Lewis was a great Christian and a great man because he was an earnest seeker of the truth, and once he found the truth, he strove to teach and share it with others. Christianity for him was not a tool for his pet causes. It was the only means of salvation. It was the truth. It deserves to be praised, defended, and studied for its own sake. Of course, this type of fanaticism, once called Christianity, may be difficult for Ms. Jefferts Schori to understand.