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The Wisdom and Humility of C.S. Lewis

Summary:
I recently read a truly profound book, which is available from both Amazon and the publisher, SVS Press’s website, On The Incarnation by Saint Athanasius. I confess that in attitude and knowledge until relatively recently, my understanding of Christianity was essentially shaped by modern commentaries, including the writing of C.S. Lewis. What attracted me to this work was the preface he wrote, in which I believe Lewis provided advice with a significant measure of wisdom and humility. Before I get to what I learned, I realize—and have had recent email correspondence to this effect—that for some purchasing books is a luxury that is not currently practical. I did further research and found an excellent Catholic Internet resource,

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I recently read a truly profound book, which is available from both Amazon and the publisher, SVS Press’s website, On The Incarnation by Saint Athanasius. I confess that in attitude and knowledge until relatively recently, my understanding of Christianity was essentially shaped by modern commentaries, including the writing of C.S. Lewis. What attracted me to this work was the preface he wrote, in which I believe Lewis provided advice with a significant measure of wisdom and humility.

Before I get to what I learned, I realize—and have had recent email correspondence to this effect—that for some purchasing books is a luxury that is not currently practical. I did further research and found an excellent Catholic Internet resource, The New Advent, which has posted numerous writings of The Church Fathers. Therefore, readers can find a good translation of On The Incarnation at the site at this link. In addition, C.S. Lewis’s Preface and the specific translation he praised (which is good but perhaps not equal to the more recent one by John Behr with his introduction that SVS published) currently is available at this link, but I don’t know for how long.

The Value of Ancient Books

What Lewis wrote is compelling: “There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about ‘isms’ and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.”

To me, Lewis’s reasoning about the value of ancient texts is sheer common sense; certainly a good teacher, especially if he has written a work referencing the original texts, might help the reader in understanding Plato, for example; but if the reader never reads an actual text, he will not, as an editor and translator for one of the Focus Philosophical Library English translations of Plato noted,  engage in a “dialog” and debate the tenets offered by Plato, which has much value; tangentially, we often think Plato’s writing is meant as dogma, but it is nothing of the kind. Similarly, I find the same reservations in reading recent commentaries on Scripture. Modern commentary is all well and good, but it often comes—unfortunately—with at best a secular perspective or ignorance, even bias, as I’ve noted in some of my writings on LewRockwell.com.

And here C.S. Lewis makes his core thesis:

“This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.

“Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why—the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (‘mere Christianity’ as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.”

How Jesus Christ Unites Christians Despite Irreconcilable Differences between Denominations

Lewis also makes an excellent observation on the divisions within the Christian faith (by that, I’d consider many core beliefs of Protestants versus Roman Catholics versus Orthodox Christians):

“We are all rightly distressed, and ashamed also, at the divisions of Christendom. But those who have always lived within the Christian fold may be too easily dispirited by them. They are bad, but such people do not know what it looks like from without. Seen from there, what is left intact despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity [emphasis added]. I know, for I saw it; and well our enemies know it. That unity any of us can find by going out of his own age. It is not enough, but it is more than you had thought till then. Once you are well soaked in it, if you then venture to speak, you will have an amusing experience. You will be thought a Papist when you are actually reproducing Bunyan, a Pantheist when you are quoting Aquinas, and so forth. For you have now got on to the great level viaduct which crosses the ages and which looks so high from the valleys, so low from the mountains, so narrow compared with the swamps, and so broad compared with the sheep-tracks.”

And now let me reveal what C.S. Lewis to his delight discovered about this ancient text, On The Incarnation:

“When I first opened…De Incarnatione I soon discovered by a very simple test that I was reading a masterpiece. I knew very little Christian Greek except that of the New Testament and I had expected difficulties. To my astonishment I found it almost as easy as Xenophon; and only a master mind could, in the fourth century, have written so deeply on such a subject with such classical simplicity. Every page I read confirmed this impression. His approach to the Miracles is badly needed today, for it is the final answer to those who object to them as ‘arbitrary and meaningless violations of the laws of Nature.’ They are here shown to be rather the re-telling in capital letters of the same message which Nature writes in her crabbed cursive hand; the very operations one would expect of Him who was so full of life that when He wished to die He had to ‘borrow death from others.’ The whole book, indeed, is a picture of the Tree of Life—a sappy and golden book, full of buoyancy and confidence. We cannot, I admit, appropriate all its confidence today. We cannot point to the high virtue of Christian living and the gay, almost mocking courage of Christian martyrdom, as a proof of our doctrines with quite that assurance which Athanasius takes as a matter of course. But whoever may be to blame for that it is not Athanasius.”

How C.S. Lewis Came to Write the Preface to On The Incarnation

The story behind Lewis writing the preface is discussed on his official website. The translator and friend of the English language translation of On The Incarnation that included his preface was “Ruth Penelope Lawson, who was born in 1890 and had entered the (Anglican) convent of the Community of Saint Mary the Virgin (at Wantage, near Oxford) in 1912. Sister Penelope studied theology and church history, and expressed her practical delight in Greek and Latin by translating numerous works from the early church fathers.” Although out of print, I am pleased that her work is still available (one never knows for how long) on the Internet I previously provided. Quoting what I believe is an essential perspective of Saint Athanasius from her translation:

We saw in the last chapter that, because death and corruption were gaining ever firmer hold on them, the human race was in process of destruction. Man, who was created in God’s image and in his possession of reason reflected the very Word Himself, was disappearing, and the work of God was being undone.

The law of death, which followed from the Transgression, prevailed upon us, and from it there was no escape. The thing that was happening was in truth both monstrous and unfitting. It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die; but it was equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption. It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil; and it was supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or through the deceit of evil spirits. As, then, the creatures whom He had created reasonable, like the Word, were in fact perishing, and such noble works were on the road to ruin, what then was God, being Good, to do? Was He to let corruption and death have their way with them? In that case, what was the use of having made them in the beginning? Surely it would have been better never to have been created at all than, having been created, to be neglected and perish; and, besides that, such indifference to the ruin of His own work before His very eyes would argue not goodness in God but limitation, and that far more than if He had never created men at all. It was impossible, therefore, that God should leave man to be carried off by corruption, because it would be unfitting and unworthy of Himself.

(7) Yet, true though this is, it is not the whole matter. As we have already noted, it was unthinkable that God, the Father of Truth, should go back upon His word regarding death in order to ensure our continued existence. He could not falsify Himself; what, then, was God to do? Was He to demand repentance from men for their transgression? You might say that that was worthy of God, and argue further that, as through the Transgression they became subject to corruption, so through repentance they might return to incorruption again. But repentance would not guard the Divine consistency, for, if death did not hold dominion over men, God would still remain untrue. Nor does repentance recall men from what is according to their nature; all that it does is to make them cease from sinning. Had it been a case of a trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough; but when once transgression had begun men came under the power of the corruption proper to their nature and were bereft of the grace which belonged to them as creatures in the Image of God. No, repentance could not meet the case. What—or rather Who was it that was needed for such grace and such recall as we required? Who, save the Word of God Himself, Who also in the beginning had made all things out of nothing? His part it was, and His alone, both to bring again the corruptible to incorruption and to maintain for the Father His consistency of character with all. For He alone, being Word of the Father and above all, was in consequence both able to recreate all, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be an ambassador for all with the Father.

(8) For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world. In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are. But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us. He saw the reasonable race, the race of men that, like Himself, expressed the Father’s Mind, wasting out of existence, and death reigning over all in corruption. He saw that corruption held us all the closer, because it was the penalty for the Transgression; He saw, too, how unthinkable it would be for the law to be repealed before it was fulfilled. He saw how unseemly it was that the very things of which He Himself was the Artificer should be disappearing. He saw how the surpassing wickedness of men was mounting up against them; He saw also their universal liability to death. All this He saw and, pitying our race, moved with compassion for our limitation, unable to endure that death should have the mastery, rather than that His creatures should perish and the work of His Father for us men come to nought, He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own. Nor did He will merely to become embodied or merely to appear; had that been so, He could have revealed His divine majesty in some other and better way. No, He took our body, and not only so, but He took it directly from a spotless, stainless virgin, without the agency of human father—a pure body, untainted by intercourse with man. He, the Mighty One, the Artificer of all, Himself prepared this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself, and took it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt. Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection. Thus He would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire.

(9) The Word perceived that corruption could not be got rid of otherwise than through death; yet He Himself, as the Word, being immortal and the Father’s Son, was such as could not die. For this reason, therefore, He assumed a body capable of death, in order that it, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all, and, itself remaining incorruptible through His indwelling, might thereafter put an end to corruption for all others as well, by the grace of the resurrection. It was by surrendering to death the body which He had taken, as an offering and sacrifice free from every stain, that He forthwith abolished death for His human brethren by the offering of the equivalent. For naturally, since the Word of God was above all, when He offered His own temple and bodily instrument as a substitute for the life of all, He fulfilled in death all that was required. Naturally also, through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection. For the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word’s indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all. You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honored, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be. For the human race would have perished utterly had not the Lord and Savior of all, the Son of God, come among us to put an end to death.

(10) This great work was, indeed, supremely worthy of the goodness of God. A king who has founded a city, so far from neglecting it when through the carelessness of the inhabitants it is attacked by robbers, avenges it and saves it from destruction, having regard rather to his own honor than to the people’s neglect. Much more, then, the Word of the All-good Father was not unmindful of the human race that He had called to be; but rather, by the offering of His own body He abolished the death which they had incurred, and corrected their neglect by His own teaching. Thus by His own power He restored the whole nature of man…

No single essay can do justice to the richness of the thought expressed in On the Incarnation; I do hope everyone who finds what I write now of interest seeks out the full work; no matter what English translation one chooses to read, the power of its truth will be revealed. If nothing else, one obtains confirmation, as a believing Christian, in the infinite power of God’s perfect love for us. Like Lewis, I humbly hope readers become acquainted with this text.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son: More Relevant than Ever Today

I would also like to recommend another book, The Parable of the Prodigal Son: A Commentary in the Light of the Fathers also available from its publisher, New Rome Press. An Adobe Acrobat excerpt is available via this link. Citing St. Gregory of Nysssa, the author, Hieromonk Gregorios writes using ancient sources to confirm his commentary, quoting the Saint:

“The purpose of creating the world and man, was to make him a communicant of divine love. Because ‘the light should not remain unseen, the divine glory undeclared, nor the divine kindness unenjoyed. Nor should the other divine goods remain unengaged, without someone to become their communicant.’

“Since the purpose of man’s creation was that he become a communicant of divine goodness, he ‘was adorned by God with life, logos, wisdom and all the divine goods, so that by means of any of them he would aspire to the corresponding divine good.’ All such goods are collectively expressed by the phrase: in the image of God.”

What both the Parable of the Prodigal Son and On the Incarnation have in common is revealing the infinite depth of love God has for his suffering creations, human beings. From the former, we understand the loving and forgiving father is Jesus Christ himself. Reading Gary D. Barnett on LewRockwell.com, we realize, “Everything that has happened has been long-planned, and none of this was due to any natural occurrence of disease. The real pandemic is simply fear, and those perpetrating this fraud understand that any society that has been dumbed down to this level, and has become dependent and weak would be an easy target for this false flag coronavirus event. The plan was brilliant in that understanding the pathetic nature of the average American citizen was the key element in being able to not only achieve the goal of having an entire country’s population voluntarily place themselves in home prisons without resistance, but to destroy their own livelihoods, eliminate travel, isolate from family and society, and to distance and wear masks. They are now expected to accept long-term isolation, mandatory vaccination with poisons, complete restriction of travel, constant surveillance and tracing, and forcible removal and imprisonment of so-called infected family members, including children by agents of the state.”

If so many in the world were not Prodigal children who strayed so far from God into the fallen world and love it more than our Creator, perhaps we would not have been so easily deceived and ruled by fear. For as Hieromonk Gregorios wrote in his commentary:

“Despair is the devil’s most potent weapon. The tragedy is not falling into sin, but rather being unable to arise from our fall. The Prophet Jeremiah inquires: Shall he that falls arise? Or he that turns away, shall he not turn back again? (Jer. 8:4).” Quoting Saint John Chrysostom On Repentance 1,4, he writes also on repentance, “The prodigal son makes the decision to return to his father after realizing, based on his experience, what he had lost by departing far away from Him. The benevolent father allowed his child to ‘move away to a foreign country so that he could learn, by experience, the magnitude of his kindness, which he had formerly received by staying at home…after the prodigal son learned what a great evil it is to be deprived of one’s paternal love, he returned.

Man’s decision to return to his Paternal Home is a decision to return to the land of spiritual comfort: Return to your rest, O my soul. Ps. 114:7.” For as Hieromonk Seraphim Rose, who has written of the primacy of the Church Fathers’ teachings, wrote in his God’s Revelation to the Human Heart, “…the process of revelation occurs in a very simple way; a person is in need, he suffers, and then somehow the other world opens up. The more you are in sufferings and difficulties and are ‘desperate’ for God, the more He is going to come to your aid, reveal Who He is and show you the way to get out.”

I hope that as more and more people return “Home” they will find within the strength neither to hate nor to fear and also to remember what it is to be free; for I have faith Jesus Christ will show us the WayFor the Ancient books can help us as road maps to return to our true Home.

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