Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Latin Letters of C.S. Lewis to Saint Giovanni Calabria

Though it seems unfashionable to say so, I came to theology by way of C.S. Lewis. Beginning in middle school, I began to make my way through his nonfiction, and basically finished his entire output by the time I went to college. By ways direct and indirect, I was also introduced to Chesterton, Bonhoeffer, and Kierkegaard through Lewis or fans of his.

It is regrettable that Lewis is held in such low esteem in theological circles today. The divide between theology "proper" and "popular" needn't be so wide, or at least so deep. The fact that Lewis has become the Christian writer par excellence for American evangelicals hasn't helped his cause, nor has his name's mention in seminarian's answers to "favorite theologian," nor still the relentless hyperbole of people like Peter Kreeft who calls Lewis "the greatest Protestant writer of all time."

However, Lewis never considered himself to be anything but a layperson dabbling in popular Christian writing aimed precisely at those in the pews who couldn't read or speak the language of theology "proper." And his overwhelming (and ongoing) success in that regard cannot and should not be dismissed out of hand, nor should we allow whatever prejudice might bubble forth regarding "popularity" cloud our ability to discern in Lewis his greatest gift: an unsurpassable command of the English language. Might we proffer the hypothesis that what made (and makes) Lewis so interesting is exactly his ability, unrivaled and potentially unattempted in much theology today, to write with clarity and excellence, to write essays and books and stories worth the paper they were printed on?

I asked Marilynne Robinson last summer if she likes or reads any current theology since Barth, and her answer was a flat no: "It just seems so weak today." Now, I might want to introduce Mrs. Robinson to a few modern theologians who might be able to change her mind, but the point is well taken; and, given her interests and favorite theologians, it seems just as likely that, in her encounters, the substance of theological writing is soft, and not only the theology itself.

All that is by way of introduction to a wonderful discovery I made this week, albeit 10 years after publication: the Latin letters written between C.S. Lewis and (then Don, now Saint) Giovanni Calabria in the late 40s and 50s. Here we have the most popular and influential lay Christian writer of the 20th century writing to an Italian priest in the aftermath of World War II, concerning ecumenism and Christian unity above all, and in the ancient language of the church (for the men had no other shared tongue between them). What a prize!

The letters are generally short, and they reveal little to nothing about Lewis's life or thought that one couldn't find elsewhere; but they are fascinating nonetheless. Rather than walk through them, I will instead share just two of my favorite quotes from the collection, and direct you to explore them for yourself.

From Letter 20, written 7th January, 1953, from Oxford, on the "Chinese disaster":
I used myself to entertain many hopes for that nation, since the missionaries have served there for many years not unsuccessfully: now it is clear, as you write, that all is on the ebb. Many have reported to me too, in letters on this subject, many atrocities, nor was this misery absent from our thoughts and prayers.

But it did not happen, however, without sins on our part: for that justice and that care for the poor which (most mendaciously) the Communists advertise, we in reality ought to have brought about ages ago. But far from it: we Westerners preached Christ with our lips, with our actions we brought the slavery of Mammon (nos occidentales Christum ore praedicavimus, factis Mammoni servitium tulimus). We are more guilty than the infidels: for to those that know the will of God and do it not, the greater punishment.

Now the only refuge lies in contrition and prayer. Long have we erred. In reading the history of Europe, its destructive succession of wars, of avarice, of fratricidal persecutions of Christians by Christians, of luxury, of gluttony, of pride, who could detect any but the rarest traces of the Holy Spirit?

(The Latin Letters of C.S. Lewis [trans. Martin Moynihan; South Bend: St. Augustine's Press, 1998], 75)
And from Letter 23, written 17th March, 1953, from Oxford:
What you say about the present state of mankind is true: indeed, it is even worse than you say.

For they neglect not only the law of Christ but even the Law of Nature as known by the Pagans. For now they do not blush at adultery, treachery, perjury, theft and the other crimes which I will not say Christian Doctors, but the Pagans and the Barbarians have themselves denounced.

They err who say "the world is turning pagan again". Would that it were! The truth is that we are falling into a much worse state.

"Post-Christian man" is not the same as "pre-Christian man". He is as far removed as virgin is from widow: there is nothing in common except want of a spouse: but there is a great difference between a spouse-to-come and a spouse lost. (83)
Even translated from Latin, the man has a way with words.

1 comment:

  1. Don't know if you know this or not, but Tim Jackson has got C.S. Lewis on his office bookshelves and I've heard him quote/reference him a few times. Just so you know that his influence isn't totally dead in the academy. I must say Screwtape blew my mind the first time I read it.