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


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. The pure light walked in the darkness and the darkness, thus received into the heart of Deity, was swallowed up. In his uncreated light the darkness was drowned.”[2]

In other words, by not just creating us, but also becoming one of us, Christ ennobled and raised up all of humanity. The truest things about ourselves are all areas where we reflect the image of our Creator—not just as he is in the Trinity, but also as he is in the Incarnation: “Our own composite existence,” said Lewis, is “a faint image of the divine Incarnation itself – the same theme in a very minor key”.[3] The fact that we are spirit dwelling in a body parallels Christ’s divine spirit dwelling within his human spirit.[4]

To get a sense of Lewis’s deep devotional engagement with the theme of the Incarnation, remember that Miracles was published in 1947, and Lewis had first read his Greek edition of Athanasius’s De Incarnatione on Christmas Eve, 1942 (years previously to writing the introduction to his friend Sister Penelope’s translation). The date of this and a subsequent reading (Good Friday, 1958) indicate that he read the book not only with a scholarly interest, but also devotionally.

Moreover, he had started reading his friend Dorothy Sayers’s earthy sequence of radio plays on the life of Christ, The Man Born To Be King, sometime around 1943. Writing soon after (May 1943) to Sayers, he confessed that he had even had the properly medieval affective response to her appropriately earthy portrayal the Incarnation: “I shed real tears (hot ones) in places: since Mauriac’s Vie de Jesus nothing has moved me so much. . . . I expect to read it times without number again.”[5]

This he indeed did. At Sayers’s 1958 funeral, he said that he had read it “every Holy Week since it first appeared, and never re-read it without being deeply moved.” That would mean that by the time of his eulogy for Sayers, he would have read Sayers’s deeply incarnational play sequence at least 16 times, and likely he continued to read it five more times before his own death Nov. 22, 1963.[6] In 1949, in answer to an American Nazarene man’s question about modern authors, Lewis replied that although he usually didn’t read modern authors, “I think D. Sayers Man Born to be King has edified us in this country more than anything for a long time.”[7]

Lewis engaged the doctrine of the Incarnation on a deeply imaginative level. He uses a set of striking images for the Incarnation and what it did for us and for all of Creation. One is that of the deep-sea diver. Like the diver working on a salvage project, Christ goes down into his own creation “in order to bring the whole ruined world up with him to new life.[n. 66: Miracles 115].”[8]

The beautiful, organic, mutual vision of this coming down and drawing up seemed, to Lewis, like a great dance: “The partner who bows to Man in one movement of the dance receives Man’s reverences in another. To be high or central means to abdicate continually: to be low means to be raised: all good masters are servants: God washes the feet of Men.’”[9] The whole final section of the Fall-redemption story Perelandra shows us this dance, in strongly Incarnational terms: “The Incarnation was for Lewis the turning point of the universe. In Perelandra, he has this reflection: “All which is not itself the Great Dance was made in order that He might come down into it. In the Fallen World He prepared for Himself a body and was united with the Dust and made it glorious for ever. This is the end and final cause of all creating, and the sin whereby it came is called Fortunate and the world where this was enacted is the centre of worlds. Blessed be He!”

These images evoke the old idea – rooted in Athanasius’s thought and dominant in the East but shared as well by Augustine and the Western tradition – of salvation as theosis, usually translated in English as “deification” or “divinization.” What happens to us in that process is akin to what happens to the creatures who had been turned to stone in the White Witch’s courtyard: static pictures of God, made in his “sculptor’s shop,” “some of us . . . some day [are] going to come to life’”[10] under the vivifying power of the breath of the dying-and-rising Aslan:

“We are not begotten by God, we are only made by him: in our natural state we are not sons of God, only (so to speak) statues. We have not got Zoe or spiritual life: only Bios or biological life which is presently going to run down or die. The whole offer which Christianity makes is this: that we can, if we let God have his way, come to share in the life of Christ. If we do, we shall then be sharing a life which was begotten, not made, which always has existed and always will exist.”[11]

“This is touching doctrine with the glow of imagination. L’s fundamental insight is that, by entering the dance or drama of the Trinity, we truly become sons and daughters of God; we truly become persons. This is mainline Christian doctrine, expressed in an imaginative form.”[12]

[1] Mere Christianity (Glasgow: Collins, 1990 [1952]), 188.

[2] Vaus (I think), 83.

[3] n. 58: Miracles, 115.

[4] n. 59: Miracles, 115.

[5] 577.

[6] “Panegyric for Dorothy L Sayers,” in On Stories, p. 93.

[7] Letters vol. II, 988-989.

[8] Paul S. Fiddes, “On Theology,” The Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis (c.u.p., 2010), 89 – 104; 98.

[9] Fiddes, 99; n. 75: Miracles 128.

[10] Fiddes, 94; n. 33: Mere Christianity 136.

[11] Fiddes, 94; n. 36: Mere Christianity, 150.

[12] Fiddes, 94.

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

  1. Wow what I difference a day makes – wonderful – thank you – we are white as snow ! We just need to catch up to Gods declaration about us – we are the light of the world

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s