“Raiders of the lost Incarnation”: The beginning of the end of my book about C S Lewis and the manifold wisdom of medieval faith


Illumination from the Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves, duchess of Guelders, ca, 1440. God the Father launches the Dove of the Holy Spirit and the naked Christ child to earth, symbolizing the Incarnation—the moment the Virgin Mary conceived. The fishing nets and traps below make a further reference to the Incarnation, representing the corporeal prison of the soul.

Illumination from the Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves, duchess of Guelders, ca, 1440. God the Father launches the Dove of the Holy Spirit and the naked Christ child to earth, symbolizing the Incarnation—the moment the Virgin Mary conceived. The fishing nets and traps below make a further reference to the Incarnation, representing the corporeal prison of the soul.

 

Now we begin what my editor friend Jenn Woodruff Tait calls the “final peroration” (and I call the “trumpets and cymbals”) of my book’s closing chapter.

The whole thrust of Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis has led up to this last, rousing call to my fellow modern Christians – especially those with whom I most closely identify: American evangelicals.

To adapt the blunt phrase of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign: “It’s the Incarnation, stupid.”

Yes, the Incarnation of Christ launches the redemptive plan that leads to cross, the tomb, and the resurrection and ascension. But it is more. It is the Creator God entering his Creation. And not only entering Creation, but entering the part of Creation that is us. In the Incarnation, God experiences us from the inside.

This stunning event exalts two things: First, the humanity of Christ. Second, the humanity of humanity – of ourselves. To really “get” the Incarnation allows us to live all of life in light of Jesus Christ, and to affirm our own humanness—our own materiality, our own affectivity, our own rationality, our own cultural creativity.

It wipes away the Gnostic super-spirituality that is a serious problem of modern evangelicalism.

The medievals “got” the Incarnation with a particular acuteness that we can learn from – and it affected everything else they did. It allowed them to value their bodiliness, although not always their sexuality; to value their affectivity; and to value their rationality. It allowed them to value their culture: to keep Word and world, science and religion together.

The Incarnation was the linchpin of their theology, and the linchpin of their spirituality.

We don’t get this Incarnational correction, of course, just from medievals. We get it from Scripture and from Christian tradition – the two thousand year, worshipful, moral tradition of exegesis of scripture.

But Protestants who wish to grasp the Incarnation again are fighting upstream.

To take just one example: In a crucial (quite literally) sixteenth-century moment, a central symbol of the Incarnation was removed forcibly from the church. This was the moment when some zealous Reformers, disturbed by the questionable accretions of a millennium of medieval tradition, went beyond tearing down paintings and smashing statues to take the very body of Christ off of the crucifix. Left behind was only an abstract symbol of a judicial transaction.

The difference between worshiping in a space where there is no body of Christ on the cross, and worshiping in a space where there is a body of Christ on the cross, is that in the latter space, you cannot ignore the humanity of Christ. In that space, your own humanity—bodiliness, affectivity, rationality, community, society, culture—always stands (no, hangs) before you in the person of, the body of, the humanity of Jesus Christ the Lord.

And we wonder why so many Protestants look yearningly across the Tiber to the Roman Catholic Church.

In a sense, this whole book has told the story of what happens when you lose your hold on the Incarnation. But as I conclude, I think of a particularly personal example that has occupied me during the last two years.

Over the past two years I have been involved in founding and running a center for re-engagement between our faith and our work. I remember the moment, while directing this initiative and writing this book, that I realized the link between the two: The reason we have to have such a center is that by losing a vivid sense of the Incarnation, we have lost the sacredness of our own work.

How do we get back to understanding that our very daily work must nourish itself from our identities in Christ? We dwell, focus, meditate on the Incarnation—as the medievals did.

We must once again allow the world-changing miracle of the Incarnation to become, not just a part of our theology, but the beating heart of our theology and our spirituality and the way that we live our Christian lives.

We should get up every morning and look at a painting, a sculpture, an image of Jesus Christ in the flesh.

We should meditate not only on how Christ’s precipitous descent into the flesh and blood of humanity makes possible the sacrifice he made for our sins, but also on how it raises up the value and wonder and splendor of our own humanity. We humans are not explained, in a Darwinian sense, by biology. Not even, in a Kantian sense, by morality. No, we must hear again the truth Athanasius so staunchly defended, the medievals so lavishly celebrated, and modern imaginative writers such as C S Lewis captured again in the only way it really can be captured, apart from worship: in story that speaks to imagination: We were created in God’s image, and when that image was stained and saddened by sin, God became man so that we could become (again) gods—and reflect (again) that image.

Protestant readers in particular—I want you to ask yourself the question I began to ask on that sleepy Wednesday night, alone on the top floor of Christianity Today’s Carol Stream, Illinois offices, across from the Aldi’s grocery store and the MacDonalds restaurant, as I worked on an issue of Christian History magazine about “Mary in the imagination of the church”:

Why do we skip over the Incarnation and downplay the embodied, human Christ, in our theology and devotion?

Must we leave behind entirely the wisdom of the medieval period—the period that birthed both lavish Marian devotion and the Eucharistic theology of transubstantiation, as it attempted to get as close as possible to the physical, embodied Christ? (What, after all, is our questionable theology of an imminent “rapture” but the attempt to recapture that closeness – if only in our imaginings of the future?)

And if we did recapture the wisdom of the Middle Ages, then how could this medieval learning be reflected in Protestant practice?

Renewed emphasis on physical aspects of worship, such as art and architecture?

Openness to affective/imaginative modes of devotion?

Once and for all getting over the fear of so-called “works-righteousness” to live our ethics in compassionate, public (and of course theologically informed) ways?

Reclaiming ascetic spiritual disciplines as practices that, though subject to abuse in the past, hold crucial benefits especially for those of us accustomed to First World comforts and temptations?

All this is worth considering as an “ancient-future” path from weakness to strength.

Q: What do Aslan, St. Francis, and medieval mystery plays have in common? A: The Incarnation.


A garden statue of Francis of Assisi with birds

This post from the final “Incarnation chapter” of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis begins to turn the corner from C S Lewis on the Incarnation to medieval treatments of the Incarnation.

Aslan

Aslan “comes on the Narnian scene already and always a lion; he did not become lion to save Narnia,” therefore he is not precisely a Christ figure.[1] Nonetheless, he is “an Incarnation”: he is earthy, embodied, powerful in his materiality, and also the son of the Great Emperor. It is only a year after his extended reflections on the Incarnation in Miracles: A Preliminary Study that he turns back to continue work on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In the chapter in Miracles on “the Grand Miracle” (the Incarnation), Lewis “speculates on a springtime coming to the whole cosmos as the result of Christ’s incarnation on earth.” “Aslan, the incarnation of Christ in Narnian terms, represents in Narnia what Christ represents on earth: the God of the Chosen People, the ‘glad Creator’ of nature and her activities.”[2] He revealed his intention in a letter to a girl who had asked about “Aslan’s other name”: Continue reading

C S Lewis: Why value our bodies? Because we can know God ONLY through the senses


The steeple of Macha church, built in 1911When modern Christians lose the wonder of the Incarnation, we lose also the wonder of our own humanity. We intellectualize and spiritualize the faith to the point where we forget a simple fact. That is, that we can know God ONLY through our senses.

Lewis insisted on this fact, and he tied it not only to the Incarnation (in writings such as his powerful sermon “Transposition”) but also to the New Creation. The bodies we will have in that new reality, he insists, will be not less, but more solid and corporeal than those we have now. There would be no Caspar-the-Ghost-like cloud-dwelling angelic afterlife for the Oxford don. In fact, compared to the solidity he believed we will have in the New Earth (and Christ already has at the Father’s right hand), our present bodies begin to look rather wispy!

The subjective side of the sacramental principle: We know Him only through our sense experience

Why is it so important that we affirm our embodiedness in our relationship with God? Because we receive everything we know about him through our bodies, our senses, our experiences. We have no other way to understand Him. Analogy is more than analogy: it is sacrament. To use a word Lewis used to title a key essay (to which we will return), it is “Transposition.” Continue reading

The Incarnation and the importance of the embodied life in C S Lewis’s That Hideous Strength


Cover of "That Hideous Strength"

In this post from my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis, we look at the important lesson from Christ’s Incarnation that Lewis draws for us in his science fiction novel That Hideous Strength.

Another facet of the Incarnation that captivates Lewis is the way that it ennobles our humanity – even our very materiality. To try to abstract mind from body, spirit from matter is to commit the gnostic error and destroy (be false to) what we truly are as human beings. That Hideous Strength shows us in imaginative form how modern technocrats (the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments or N.I.C.E.) might try to eliminate that crucial materiality in a Gnostic quest for pure spirit. N.I.C.E.’s agents, in the attempt to eliminate the bodily—in fact, all biological life on earth—and retain only mind, lose their morality and their very selves. A sample of the dialogue gives a sense of the chilling vision at work here:

“And what is the first practical step?” [asks Mark Studdock to Feverstone, whom he is trying to impress in his effort to be counted one of the “inner circle”].

“Yes, that’s the real question. As I said, the interplanetary problem must be left on one side for the moment. The second problem is our rivals on this planet. I don’t mean only insects and bacteria. There’s far too much life of every kind about, animal and vegetable. We haven’t really cleared the place yet. First we couldn’t; and then we had aesthetic and humanitarian scruples; and we still haven’t short-circuited the question of the balance of nature. All that is to be gone into. The third problem is Man himself.”

“Go on. This interests me very much.” Continue reading

C S Lewis on the Incarnation: Theosis, “coming down and drawing up,” the Great Dance, and statues coming to life


Iconnativity

In this third post from the final chapter of my Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis, I delve deeper into Lewis’s Incarnational theology and spirituality:

The Incarnation ennobles us, draws us up into God, and thus makes us our “best selves”

As well as pointing up our moral nature and demanding that we choose well, the Incarnation, for Lewis, performs an astounding work of drawing us up into the divine presence. Lewis launches into his key apologetic work Mere Christianity with this observation: “At the beginning I said there were Personalities in God. Well, I’ll go further now. There are no real personalities anywhere else. Until you have given up your self to Him you will not have a real self.”[1] This is a version of the classical Christian teaching of theosis, formulated by Athanasius, who said that “God became man so that we can become gods.” That startling language does not mean that we become what God is in his essence, but rather that we are re-attached to the divine life, which overcomes the death at work in us because of the Fall. He came to earth, to flesh, in order to lift us back up with him.

“Lewis has a couple of unique ways of describing the Incarnation. In Letters to Malcolm, he suggests that the Incarnation can be described as Heaven drawing Earth up into it. He asserts that when God the Son took on the human body and soul of Jesus, he took on with it the whole environment of nature—locality, limitation, sleep, sweat, aching feet, frustration, pain, doubt and death. Continue reading

C S Lewis on the Incarnation and human choice


choice-roads2

In this brief series of posts, we are looking at C S Lewis on the centrality of the Incarnation. Among other things, Lewis understands the Incarnation as a lens through which to see the importance of our own human choices:

Importance of human choice and human culture

Part of understanding and affirming the wonder of who we are as human beings, affirmed by the fact of the Incarnation, is being clear about ourselves as creatures capable of choice, who are responsible for the choices we make. Free will is a crucial part of Lewis’s anthropology and his case for hewing to the morality of the Old Western (Christian) tradition. Our wills are as essential, ordinary, and marvelous as our bodies. The choices we make on earth have transcendent, cosmic, divine (or infernal) consequences. Lewis loved Dante’s Comedia and appreciated Sayers’s take on that great poem. Sayers called it “the drama of the soul’s choice.” Drama. Acted out by humans in all their earthy but exalted embodiedness. Full of color, life, substance.

It may be fair to say that Lewis was a “Christian humanist” in this respect: our arts, sciences, cultural activities, and personal choices all contribute to heaven or hell on earth, and to our own salvation; many are “preparatio evangelii”–they lead us to God’s doorstep. In his essay “Christianity and Culture,” Lewis reflected: “[C]ulture is a storehouse of the best (sub-Christian) values. These values are in themselves of the soul, not the spirit. But God created the soul. Its values may be expected, therefore, to contain some reflection or antepast of the spiritual values.” Continue reading

How C S Lewis’s understanding of the Incarnation helped him–and helped him counsel others–in suffering


Crucifixion of Christ by Albrecht Altdorfer, 1526

Crucifixion of Christ by Albrecht Altdorfer, 1526 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In this second post from the final chapter of my Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis, I open the door to Lewis’s own incarnational spirituality:

The very fact that C S Lewis needed to see Christianity as satisfying not just to his intellect but also to his imagination shows us that he saw our full humanity as important in our faith. He had been taught well in that by the Romantics – Wordsworth, who he listed as one of the writers who most influenced him – George MacDonald – a true romantic who reveled in nature and its sacramental function, pointing to God. These predisposed the post-conversion Lewis to dwell lavishly, as the medieval authors he studied had dwelt, on the wonder of the Incarnation.

The Incarnation and Passion as ways God meets us in our suffering – and met Lewis in his

We will see how that fascination with the Incarnation – the enfleshment of the Creator God as a human being – emerged across his nonfiction and fiction writings. But it also gained a new and powerful meaning for him when he lost the love of his later life, his wife Joy. That Christ shared not only our humanity but our suffering helped Lewis get through that experience of grief: Continue reading