Thursday, February 15, 2024

C. S. Lewis on the Fringes of Mysticism

I have been wondering whether evolutionary psychology and cognitive science can explain the varieties of religious experience.  In particular, I have been thinking about the essential religious experience of mysticism--the immediate sense experience of the divine by seeing, hearing, or feeling the Transcendent Order behind or beyond Nature.  I am considering whether mystical experience ultimately expresses the shamanic ecstasy or awe before the Numinous that was the original religious experience in prehistoric foraging bands of human beings, which C. S. Lewis identified as "the seed of religious experience."

A preeminent example of Christian mysticism in the New Testament is the apostle Paul on the road to Damascus.  Paul was a Jewish leader who persecuted the Jewish Christians.  He was on his way from Jerusalem to Damascus where he would persecute the Christians there.  Suddenly, a light from heaven flashed around him.  He fell to the ground and heard the voice of Jesus asking him why he persecuted Jesus.  Those travelling with Paul saw the light and heard a sound, but they did not hear or see Jesus.  When Paul rose from the ground, he was blind, and would remain blind for three days.  In Damascus, Ananias, a Christian disciple, had a vision of Jesus telling him that Paul would be chosen to preach Christ not only to the Jews but also to the Gentiles.  When Ananias placed his hands on Paul, Paul's sight was restored, and he was filled with the Holy Spirit and baptized.  He began to preach that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God.  This provoked the Jews to persecute him.  Some of the Roman rulers believed that he was insane (Acts 9:3-19; 22:6-21; 26:12-24).

Although he was not one of the original apostles, Paul claimed that his having seen Jesus entitled him to be considered an apostle.  "Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?" (1 Corinthians 9:1).  He interpreted his mystical vision as a direct revelation from Jesus: "I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin.  I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ" (Galatians 1:11-12).  He even claimed to have ascended into "the third heaven" and up to "paradise"--"whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know--God knows" (2 Corinthians 12:1-4).  Paul also affirmed one of the fundamental themes of mysticism--deification.  As believers contemplate God, they become like God.  As Paul said: "we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate (or reflect) the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit" (2 Corinthians 3:18).

As the most popular Christian writer of the past one hundred years, Lewis offers a good entry into the modern Christian understanding of mysticism.  David Downing has shown in his book Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C. S. Lewis (2005) that Lewis studied the history and literature of mysticism throughout his life, and the themes of mysticism ran through his writings.  The title of Downing's book refers to a passage where Lewis describes his conversion in mystical terms: "Into the region of awe, in deepest solitude there is a road right out of the self, a commerce with . . . the naked Other, imageless (though our imagination salutes it with a hundred images), unknown, undefined, desired" (Surprised by Joy, 221).  

In one of his letters, Lewis defined mysticism as "a kind of direct experience of God, immediate as a taste or colour" (Letters, 3:109).  This echoes the language of Evelyn Underhill, whose work on mysticism Lewis studied, who described mysticism as "the direct intuition or experience of God."  She claimed that while "every human soul has a latent capacity for God," mystics have "realized this capacity with an astonishing success" (Mystics, 9, 11).

Lewis denied that he himself was a mystic.  In his Letters to Malcolm, he observed: "You and I are people of the foothills.  In the happy days when I was still a walker, I loved the hills, and even mountain walks, but I was no climber.  I hadn't the head.  So now, I do not attempt the precipices of mysticism" (85).  In a private letter to a woman who was troubled by some shocking passages in the Bible, Lewis wrote: "But why are baffling passages left in at all?  Oh, because God speaks not only for us little ones but for the great sages and mystics who experience what we only read about, and to whom all the words have therefore different (richer) contents" (Letters, 3:357).

But even if Lewis was not a mystic, he developed the mystical theme of deification.  He interpreted Paul's teaching about how reflecting God's glory transforms Christians into God's likeness by saying "a Christian is to Christ as a mirror is to an object" (Christian Reflections, 6).  He repeatedly used this metaphor of spiritual growth as mirroring Christ.  Thus, "every Christian is to become a little Christ" (MC, 153).  "The whole purpose for which we exist is to be thus taken into the life of God" (141).  In Heaven, we will be "gods and goddesses" (175).  We will be "true and everlasting and really divine persons only in Heaven" (WG, 174-75).

Since Lewis was not a mystic, he could not directly experience--he could not really see--the divinization of human beings in Heaven.  He could only imagine what this is like and express this through metaphorical imagery.  So, at the end of his Narnia Chronicles--his fairy-tale for children that has sold over 100 million copies, which has become a series of major motion pictures--he evoked a figurative image of eternal bliss in Heaven.  At the end of The Last Battle, Aslan the Lion--the Christ-like ruler of Narnia--has been speaking to the characters about how they now must die and then enter the real Narnia, where they will live forever.  Lewis has Jewel the Unicorn declare:

"I have come home at last!  This is my real country!  I belong here.  This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.  The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this.  Bree-hee-hee!  Come further up, come further in!" (196).

Then Lewis writes about death and eternal life in the last sentences of The Last Battle

"And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them.  And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after.  But for them it was only the beginning of the real story.  All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before" (210-211).

In his "spiritual biography of C. S. Lewis," Devin Brown adapted these words to give a vision of Lewis (Jack) after death entering Heaven:

"And for us this is the end of Jack's story, and we can most truly say that he lived happily ever after.  But for Jack, it was only the beginning of the real story.  All his life in this world and all his adventures on earth had only been the cover and the title page: now at last he was beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read; which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before" (224).

But while Lewis could only evoke the reality of Heaven through the metaphorical language of a fairy-tale, mystics like Paul could actually see Heaven through mystical hallucinations arising from ecstatic experiences in their brains, particularly through ecstatic epilepsy.  That's the topic for my next post.


Brown, Devin.  2013.  A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C. S. Lewis. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.

Downing, David C.  2005.  In the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C. S. Lewis.  Downer's Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Lewis, C. S. 1955.  Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life.  New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World.

Lewis, C. S. 1960.  Mere Christianity.  New York: Macmillan.

Lewis, C. S. 1964.  Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer.  New York: HarperCollins.

Lewis, C. S. 1973.  Christian Reflections.  Edited by Walter Hooper.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Lewis, C. S. 1980.  The Weight of Glory, and Other Essays.  New York: HarperCollins.

Lewis, C. S. 1984.  The Last Battle.  New York: HarperCollins.

Lewis, C. S. 2007.  The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume III: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy 1950-1963.  Edited by Walter Hooper.  New York: HarperCollins.

Underhill, Evelyn. 1964. The Mystics of the Church.  New York: Schocken.

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