C S Lewis on the Incarnation and human choice


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.”

This means, first, that older values of courage, fortitude, prudence, self-control are crucial to who we are as humans—thus as Christians; we can hear from pagan sources on ethics without worrying that we are giving up the Christian farm. But it also means that the whole cornucopia of human culture-making is a divine directive.

Through the Incarnation, God affirmed the value of and importance of bodily human life and all that goes with that, including the choices, the decisions we make morally over against the temptations that we face. We see Jesus faced with temptations in the wilderness and successfully navigating those. We see him eating and drinking with the disciples, eating and drinking with sinners to the point where they call him a wino and a glutton. This is Jesus as model:

[will paraphrase] “. . . Lewis also comments on Christ’s role as our example in a few places. For instance, how should we behave in the presence of evil people? Jesus speaking to the woman at the well, dealing with the situation of the woman caught in the act of adultery or eating with the ‘tax collectors and sinners’ is our example.[1] In The Four Loves, Lewis says that our imitation of God in this life must be an imitation of God in the flesh. Jesus is our model. Not just the Jesus of Calvary, but the Jesus also of the workshop, the roads, the crowds and the clamorous demands; the Jesus who faced surly opposition, the Jesus who lacked all peace and privacy, who constantly experienced interruptions, this Jesus is our example. The earthly life of Jesus, which is so strangely unlike anything we can attribute to the life of God in itself, is apparently not only like, but is, the divine life operating under human conditions.”[2]

The Great Divorce

If we turn to the wonderful Great Divorce, we find a similar emphasis. The whole story is a defense of the importance of choice, strongly echoing Dante’s similar tale. “[Lewis] terms it a ‘disastrous error’ to believe that ‘reality never presents us with an absolutely unavoidable “either – or”’, or to imagine ‘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’.”[3]

In other words, the Great Divorce is, as Lewis’s friend Dorothy L. Sayers characterized the Divine Comedy, a “drama of the soul’s choice,” which aims to show that our choices are unavoidable and will unavoidably land us in either heaven or hell! We are at the top of the chain of (natural) beings – given reason and free will by God, and then ennobled further by His incarnation as a human being, who in his own life demonstrated the importance of choosing well.

[1] n. 12: Reflections on the Psalms (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1958), 68

[2] Vaus, 81-2; n. 13: The Four Loves (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1960), 17

[3] n. 2: Preface to Paradise Lost (o.u.p., 1984), 72; cited in Jerry L. Walls, “The Great Divorce,” in The Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis, 251.

One response to “C S Lewis on the Incarnation and human choice

  1. Has anyone read ” The politics of god and the politics of man ” by Jacque Ellul ?

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