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.”

Sense-knowledge about God is not second-class knowledge

Nor is sense-knowledge about God through his Creation second-class knowledge. Lewis expresses this idea memorably in his poem “On Being Human,” which compares the angels’ incorporeal way of knowing with our way – to the advantage of the latter. While angelic minds can directly behold the Platonic forms of things—“pure Earthness and right Stonehood” and the essence of a tree, they cannot know the blessedness of that tree’s shade on a sunny day, for they have no skin or sense of touch. Air they know intellectually, but the smells of “the field new-mown” and “the wood-fire smoke that whispers Rest” escape them, for “an angel has no nose.” The poem concludes: “here, within this tiny, charmed interior, / This parlour of the brain, their Maker shares / With living men some secrets in a privacy / Forever ours, not theirs.”

The resurrection body

Lewis returns to the spiritual significance of bodies in his reflections on the new bodies we will have at the resurrection. Not only will the life of the senses be preserved in those bodies (in some way beyond our understanding), but the experience of the material world that we had in this life will somehow also be “drawn up” into that world: “I can now communicate to you the vanished field of my boyhood – they are building sites today – only imperfectly by words. Perhaps the day is coming when I can take you for a walk through them.” What’s going on here? It seems that for Lewis, “there is continuity between nature and spirit in the redemption of sensations or sense-memories.”[1]

“How far the life of the risen man will be sensory, we do not know. But I surmise that it will differ from the sensory life we know here, not as emptiness differs from water or water from wine, but as a flower differs from a bulb or a cathedral from an architect’s drawing.”[2]

Famously, Lewis argued that our pets would somehow appear in that New Earth as well, because in their physical presence, they were close to our hearts in this world. Their importance to us in this world will be reflected in the next. Mere months before his death, in a letter to the “American Lady,” he mused: “My stuff about animals came long ago in The Problem of Pain. I ventured the supposal—it could be nothing more—that as we are raised in Christ, so at least some animals are raised in us. Who knows, indeed, but that a great deal even of the inanimate creation is raised in the redeemed souls who have, during this life, taken its beauty into themselves? That may be the way in which the ‘new heaven and the new earth’ are formed. Of course we can only guess and wonder. But these particular guesses arise in me, I trust, from taking seriously the resurrection of the body: a doctrine which now-a-days is very soft pedaled by nearly all the faithful—to our great impoverishment.”[3]

One might add – the resurrection of the body is “soft-pedaled” today precisely because we no longer believe our bodies have any spiritual importance. And this is tied up with the fact that we no longer value the humanity of Christ in his Incarnation. Lewis admits that we do think of Christ’s humanity once a year, at Christmas (not coincidentally, the only time most Protestants ever think of Mary). But as for the rest of the year: “In Reflections on the Psalms, he expressed his feeling that we stress the humanity of Christ too exclusively at Christmas, and the deity too exclusively after the Resurrection. It’s almost as if we think Christ once became a man and then presently reverted to being simply God.” But that is of course not so. “Once the second Person of the Trinity takes on humanity, he will not lay it down again.”[4]

In Miracles, Lewis mused on the post-ascension moment in which Christ went “to prepare a place for us,” which he assumed entailed his creating a “new Nature which will provide the environment or conditions for His glorified humanity and, in Him, for ours.” Remember, the church – and certainly the medieval church – understood that Christ’s humanity did not disappear after he rose – his Ascension was not some divine escape act, out of Nature and into “some unconditioned and utterly transcendent life.” Rather, says Lewis, “It is the picture of a new human nature and a new Nature in general, being brought into existence. . . . The old field of space, time, matter, and the senses is to be weeded, dug, and sown for a new crop. We may be tired of that old field: God is not.”[5]

Not only did Lewis affirm the materiality of the New Creation that the incarnate and risen Christ prepared for us to share with him, he thought of it as more solidly material than this one. To Arthur Greeves he wrote:

“I agree that we don’t know what a spiritual body is. But I don’t like contrasting it with (your words) ‘an actual, physical body.’ This suggests that the spiritual body wd. be the opposite of ‘actual’—i.e. some kind of vision or imagination. And I do think most people imagine it as something that looks like the present body and isn’t really there. Our Lord’s eating the boiled fish seems to put the boots on that idea, don’t you think? I suspect the distinction is the other way round—that it is something compared with which our present bodies are half real and phantasmal.”[6]

Lewis stressed that though “we know and can know very little about the New Nature,” the New Testament accounts of the resurrected Christ don’t leave us the option of seeing that nature as immaterial: “The local appearances, the eating, the touching, the claim to be corporeal, must be either reality or sheer illusion. The New Nature is . . . interlocked at some points with the Old.” The Incarnation, played out in the nativity, crucifixion, resurrection, and finally ascension, paved the way for a new, and still in some senses physical, reality. And for this reason, we may not dismiss materiality with a Gnostic wave of the hand, as if it didn’t matter to God and shouldn’t to us.[7]

Lewis’s most direct statement of how important our bodies and senses are to us spiritually comes in his sermon “Transposition,” which as we saw in the “creation chapter” pressed home the undeniable reality that we finally have no other conduit to the divine besides our bodies and our senses. That is simply the sort of creatures we are, and that’s OK—and we know it’s OK because in the Incarnation, God shared that embodied sensuous reality with us.

To turn the connection on its head, Lewis also confessed that he found this sacramental principle of transposition – that we can approach God only through our earthly, sensory experience of a material reality that mysteriously participates in the spiritual reality of God – helpful in understanding the Incarnation. We are told in one of the creeds [actually the one that bears Athanasius’s name] that the Incarnation worked ‘not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of the Manhood into God.’” And how does the Incarnation do that? Lewis is careful here, professing that he “submit[s] all to the verdict of real theologians,” but he seems to say that the Incarnation provides that pathway through which our sense experiences become, not mere representations of deity, but actually the way (and the only possible way) that we are “veritably drawn into Deity.” (“Transpositions,” 71) This is certainly Athanasian: “He became man that we might become gods.”

[1] Fiddes, 96-97.

[2] 67-68.

[3] Letters, vol. ?, 518.

[4] Vaus, 81, paraphrasing Reflections on the Psalms (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1958), p. 134.

[5] 515.

[6] The Letters of C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves (19 August 1947), para. 1, pp. 510-511.

[7] Miracles, chap. 16, para. 19, p. 153.

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

  1. Pingback: C.S. Lewis and the Five Senses « Mere Inkling Press

  2. there is a Jeremiah text that keeps on coming up for me in all your blogs, especially the simplicity and radical statement ” Athanasian: “He became man that we might become gods.” is the old testament version of the same jer. 31 :31 and God will write on the lining of the heart – i really do not know if it theologically correct but its truth resonates
    like the smell of fresh mown grass
    and “the wood-fire smoke that whispers Rest”

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