Author C.S. Lewis is pictured in a 1955 portrait by Walter Stoneman. Experts agree that Lewis succeeded in capturing the Christian imagination where the theological abstractions of churches often seemed too high brow. (CNS/courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London)
Unless you read the Christian blogs, you will have missed the 50th anniversary of the death of C. S. Lewis, who died on the same day as John F. Kennedy. Lewis died quietly in his home, at the age of 65, when his body just broke down.
We don't get many people like C. S. Lewis. He had three first class degrees from Oxford, in classics, philosophy, and English, meaning that he was a top student in three different fields at one of the world's great universities. He went on to become one the best public spokesman for Christianity in the last century, and easily the best-selling, at least in the English-speaking world. A member of the Church of England (the body that in America we call Episcopalian), he wrote as effectively as anyone has for the average man who wanted to know the answers to the basic questions, like “who is God?” and “What's the point of the Resurrection, and did Jesus really rise from the dead?”
He also said some Catholic-like things. In one of his last books, Letters to Malcolm, he declared his belief in purgatory, which was a radical claim to make in his world. He argued that Christians should pray for the dead, which was even more radical. To his fellow Protestants, these beliefs were wrong, wrong, wrong, and also very very bad for you.
As a result, some Catholics have said Lewis was almost a Catholic or really a Catholic underneath it all, and that he might have entered the Church if he'd only lived longer. Some of them explain his staying Protestant by pointing out that he had grown up a Protestant in Northern Ireland and was never able to shake the anti-Catholic prejudices of his youth.
Lewis was clearly and consciously a Protestant. Even though he said he believed in purgatory, he was quick to say he didn’t believe in the “Romish doctrine.” He thought we should pray for the dead but didn’t say anything about our friendship with the saints. He seems to have had no devotion to the Blessed Mother at all.
He dodged questions about the Church and about authority in general. He described himself as “a very ordinary layman of the Church of England” but never tried to justify his own peculiar version of Christianity his church taught. He was never so Protestant as in his feeling free to dip into Catholic teaching and take out what he wanted, like the idea of purgatory, without submitting himself to the Church that taught it.
We wish he had become a Catholic, for his sake, and I think he would have been an even deeper thinker had he entered the Church, but God gives us all sorts of gifts from all sorts of places, and one of those was the writing of C. S. Lewis. Though we have Catholic writers of equal and greater stature, like Chesterton at the beginning of the century and Benedict at the end, no Catholic writer did exactly what he did.
Part of what he did was to remind us of the realities we don’t see, among them the truth about everyone we know. “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses,” he said in a sermon, and to know that even the dullest person you meet may become a creature you’d want to worship or a horror of the sort you only see now in nightmares, if then.
“All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations,” meaning heaven or hell, Lewis continued. “It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”
It took a rather extraordinary mortal to put it that way.
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He can be reached at .
Unless you read the Christian blogs, you will have missed the 50th anniversary of the death of C. S. Lewis, who died on the same day as John F. Kennedy. Lewis died quietly in his home, at the age of 65, when his body just broke down. We don't get many people like C. S. Lewis. He had three first class degrees from Oxford, in classics, philosophy, and English, meaning that he was a top student in three different fields at one of the world's great universities.