C. S. Lewis and medieval Christians knew our bodies (and sex!) matter theologically – how ’bout us?

Christ ennobled and raised up all of humanity by becoming one of us. The truest things about ourselves are all areas where we reflect the image of our Creator.

Our embodiedness is important to our life with God both here on earth and at the resurrection (of the body): we receive all we know about God through our bodies, our senses, our experiences. Analogy is more than analogy: it is sacrament; to use a word Lewis used to title a key essay, it is “Transposition.”

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.

To speak in quasi-scientific sociological generalities and remove traditional understandings of what human beings are (including our embodied experience), and thereby to destroy traditional morality, is to, in fact, “abolish humanity”–to unmake us as creatures of God, and thus prevent us from reaching God as well (Abolition of Man).

Medievals did not do this. They swung from the metaphysical to the crassly physical with ease. In his Sixteenth-Century Literature, Lewis describes the mindset–simultaneously exalted and earthy–of a medieval which started at school, where they would learn “farriery, forestry, archery, hawking, sowing, ditching, thatching, brewing, baking, weaving, and practical astronomy. This concrete knowledge, mixed with their law, rhetoric, theology, and mythology, bred an outlook very different from our own. High abstractions and rarified artifices jostled the earthiest particulars . . . They talked more readily than we about large universals such as death, change, fortune, friendship, or salvation; but also about pigs, loaves, boots, and boats. The mind darted more easily to and fro between that mental heaven and earth: the cloud of middle generalizations, hanging between the two, was then much smaller. Hence, as it seems to us, both the naivety and the energy of their writing . . . They talk something like angels and something like sailors and stable-boys; never like civil servants or writers of leading articles.” (62)

Peter Kreeft concludes what I do, too:

“We moderns have lost the solid objectivity both of the high universals (especially truth and goodness) and of the low particulars, the concrete world. Both have been dissolved into a vague, abstract, ideological-political-sociological-psychological mid-range. We are the ‘middle’ ages” (Peter Kreeft, “How to Save Western Civilization: C. S. Lewis as Prophet,” in A Christian for All Christians: Essays in Honour of C. S. Lewis, ed. Andrew Walker and James Patrick (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1990), 200).

Lewis embedded this story of the loss both of exalted morality and, inextricably, of our sense of the value of our own embodiedness, in a story: That Hideous Strength. In that book, the redemptive community found at the household at St. Anne’s is so everyday, earthy, prosaic, ordinary in its routines, its talents (lack thereof) and especially its morality—“leftover Great Western morality.” Throughout the book this prosaic, common, ordinary, traditional morality is threatened,along with the goodness of our bodies and our material lives. In the end, the gods come down to save the embodied, moral lives of Mark and Jane. Their sexual intimacy has been progressively destroyed as Mark has become drawn into the gnostic machinations of N.I.C.E.–a group seeking ultimately to eliminate all biological life so humans can live as pure Minds.

But “male and female he created them,” and Christ came not just as a man but as a fetus in a woman’s womb. So at the end of That Hideous Strength, Mark and Jane are reunited in intimate sexual union. Throughout the book, women serve to draw the characters back to the divine in human embodiedness: Mother Dimble, an “earth mother” representing fertility, serves Jane in this way. Mother Dimble and Jane herself are channels of Charity, agents of salvation. Jane becomes a theotokos–a “God-bearer“–to Mark, saving him in something very much like the way Beatrice saved Dante. This was a theme in Dante’s life and work that fascinated Charles Williams, and Lewis was drawing, here, from Williams. In general it is fair to say, I think, that That Hideous Strength is the most “Williams-esque” of Lewis’s writings.

Well, lots more could be said on this. I’ll probably post again on this topic as I work on the chapter dealing with God’s Incarnation and human embodiedness for Getting Medieval with C. S. Lewis (Baker, forthcoming).

5 responses to “C. S. Lewis and medieval Christians knew our bodies (and sex!) matter theologically – how ’bout us?

  1. I think of That Hideous Strength as the narrative form of The Abolition of Man. Both deal with the same themes and contend with the same spirit. You have identified it as a gnostic spirit, which I think is right. It is very tempting to want to leave our bodies behind. Most people’s conception of heaven is of a place where we are no longer embodied, meaning that we are no longer subject to the limitations of a body. They site Saint Paul’s statement that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. But Paul was also adamant about the resurrection of the body. What need of such resurrection if being present with the Lord was already sufficient?

  2. Your post makes me want to go back to the Space Trilogy and do a more thoughtful read. On the surface, Peralandra has been my favorite because of the profound speculative insight Lewis brings to the psychology and theology of the Fall (to say nothing of his grand vision of a pre-or-Unfallen state). I read HS without catching the allusive world it obviously draws from. Will look forward to your chapter in the forthcoming book!

  3. Thanks, Chris. That Hideous Strength is perhaps my favorite of Lewis’s works because he’s addressing big themes that speak to the challenges of the modern world.

    As to abstraction, with computers, the internet, and television, I think the temptation IS to abstraction and to separating our minds and souls from our bodies. Not to sound like too much of a crank, but we do run the risk of gnosticism, ignoring the body. And, this is as much a temptation for those inside the Church as without.

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