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Lewis on Newman

An addendum to yesterday:

It has already been noted that CS Lewis was not an Anglo-Catholic, for the reasons given here. Further confirmation comes from his comments on John Henry Newman, once the nineteenth century’s premier Anglo-Catholic before he ceased being either, in Letters to Malcolm 6. First, some praise for Maurice, Bonhoeffer, and Establishment:1

I can’t remember exactly what I said about not making the petition for our daily bread too “religious”, and I’m not quite sure what you mean—nor how ironically—by asking if I’ve become “one of Vidler’s young men.”!

About Vidler. I never heard the programme which created all that scandal, and naturally one wouldn’t condemn a dog on newspaper extracts. But I have now read his essay in Soundings and I believe I go a good deal further with him than you would. Much of what he quotes from F. D. Maurice and Bonhoeffer seems to me very good; and so, I think, are his own arguments for the Establishment.

He then goes on to criticize a particular way of employing the word “religion”;2 and it is in this context that Newman’s name appears:

At any rate I can well understand how a man who is trying to love God and his neighbour should come to dislike the very word religion; a word, by the way, which hardly ever appears in the New Testament. Newman makes my blood run cold, when he says in one of the Parochial and Plain Sermons that Heaven is like a church because in both, “one single sovereign subject—religion—is brought before us”. He forgets that there is no temple in the new Jerusalem.

He has substituted religion for God—as if navigation were substituted for arrival, or battle for victory, or wooing for marriage, or in general the means for the end. But even in this present life, there is danger in the very concept of religion. It carries the suggestion that this is one more department of life, an extra department added to the economic, the social, the intellectual, the recreational, and all the rest. But that whose claims are infinite can have no standing as a department. Either it is an illusion or else our whole life falls under it. We have no non-religious activities; only religious and irreligious.

Religion, nevertheless, appears to exist as a department, and, in some ages, to thrive as such. It thrives partly because there exists in many people a “love of religious observances”, which I think Simone Weil is quite right in regarding as a merely natural taste. There exists also—Vidler is rather good on this—the delight in religious (as in any other) organisation. Then all sorts of aesthetic, sentimental, historical, political interests are drawn in. Finally sales of work, the parish magazine, and bell-ringing, and Santa Claus.

None of them bad things. But none of them is necessarily of more spiritual value than the activities we call secular. And they are infinitely dangerous when this is not understood. This department of life, labelled “sacred”, can become an end in itself; an idol that hides both God and my neighbours. (“When the means are autonomous they are deadly”.) It may even come about that a man’s most genuinely Christian actions fall entirely outside that part of his life which he calls religious.

I read in a religious paper, “Nothing is more important than to teach children to use the sign of the cross.” Nothing? Not compassion, nor veracity, nor justice? Voilà l’ennemi.

One must, however, walk warily, for the truth that religion as a department has really no right to exist can be misunderstood. Some will conclude that this illegitimate department ought to be abolished. Others will think, coming nearer to the truth, that it ought to cease to be departmental by being extended to the whole of life, but will misinterpret this. They will think it means that more and more of our secular transactions should be “opened with prayer”, that a wearisomely explicit pietism should infest our talk, that there should be no more cakes and ale. A third sort, well aware that God still rules a very small part of their lives, and that “a departmental religion” is no good, may despair. It would have to be carefully explained to them that to be “still only a part” is not the same as being a permanent department. In all of us God “still” holds only a part. D-Day is only a week ago. The bite so far taken out of Normandy shows small on the map of Europe. The resistance is strong, the casualties heavy, and the event uncertain. There is, we have to admit, a line of demarcation between God’s part in us and the enemy’s region. But it is, we hope, a fighting line; not a frontier fixed by agreement.

What is Lewis’ point? Precisely that there is a particular sort of sensibility that is apt to confuse religion and God, or church and God, and to find a kind of satisfaction in religious observance itself, as such–and Newman he takes as exemplary of this sensibility. Lewis doesn’t object to “religious observances,” but to observances given the wrong kind of weight and construed in their relation to God in a disordered way; and thus we should note the (not at all incidental) way in which he relativizes, quite explicitly and drastically, the importance of liturgy. Hardly the words of an Anglo-Catholic.

Lewis mentions Newman two other times in Letters to Malcolm. The first, in 18, has to do with his influence on a “Presbyterian divine,” Alexander Whyte–worth remarking, Lewis indicates, because it is evidence of the divine’s broad-mindedness. There is no endorsement of any particular position of Newman’s. Some readers may find what he goes on to say with respect to “Puritanism” and introspection rather shocking–shocking, because Lewis defends the latter as an occasional practice, though he criticizes making an obsessive habit of it:

The question is before my mind at present because I’ve been reading Alexander Whyte. Morris lent him to me. He was a Presbyterian divine of the last century, whom I’d never heard of. Very well worth reading, and strangely broad-minded—Dante, Pascal, and even Newman, are among his heroes. But I mention him at the moment for a different reason. He brought me violently face to face with a characteristic of Puritanism which I had almost forgotten. For him, one essential symptom of the regenerate life is a permanent, and permanently horrified, perception of one’s natural and (it seems) unalterable corruption. The true Christian’s nostril is to be continually attentive to the inner cess-pool. I knew that the experience was a regular feature of the old conversion stories. As in Grace Abounding: “But my inward and original corruption . . . that I had the guilt of to amazement . . . I was more loathsome in mine own eyes than was a toad . . . sin and corruption, I said, would as naturally bubble out of my heart, as water would bubble out of a fountain.” Another author, quoted in Haller’s Rise of Puritanism says that when he looked into his heart, it was “as if I had in the heat of summer lookt down into the Filth of a Dungeon, where I discerned Millions of crawling living things in the midst of that Sink and liquid Corruption.”

I won’t listen to those who describe that vision as merely pathological. I have seen the “slimy things that crawled with legs” in my own dungeon. I thought the glimpse taught me sense. But Whyte seems to think it should be not a glimpse but a daily, lifelong scrutiny. Can he be right? It sounds so very unlike the New Testament fruits of the spirit—love, joy, peace. And very unlike the Pauline programme; “forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forth unto those things that are before.” And very unlike St. François de Sales’ green, dewy chapter on la douceur towards one’s self. Anyway, what’s the use of laying down a programme of permanent emotions? They can be permanent only by being factitious.

Only in the third instance (Letters to Malcolm 20) does he endorse a position of Newman’s, and this on one of the issues that makes evangelical appropriators of Lewis most uncomfortable, the subject of Purgatory.

Though even in Heaven some perpetual increase of beatitude, reached by a continually more ecstatic self-surrender, without the possibility of failure but not perhaps without its own ardours and exertions—for delight also has its severities and steep ascents, as lovers know—might be supposed. But I won’t press, or guess, that side for the moment. I believe in Purgatory.

Mind you, the Reformers had good reasons for throwing doubt on “the Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory” as that Romish doctrine had then become. I don’t mean merely the commercial scandal. If you turn from Dante’s Purgatorio to the Sixteenth Century you will be appalled by the degradation. In Thomas More’s Supplication of Souls Purgatory is simply temporary Hell. In it the souls are tormented by devils, whose presence is “more horrible and grievous to us than is the pain itself.” Worse still, Fisher, in his Sermon on Psalm VI, says the tortures are so intense that the spirit who suffers them cannot, for pain, “remember God as he ought to do.” In fact, the very etymology of the word purgatory has dropped out of sight. Its pains do not bring us nearer to God, but make us forget Him. It is a place not of purification but purely of retributive punishment.

The right view returns magnificently in Newman’s Dream. There, if I remember it rightly, the saved soul, at the very foot of the throne, begs to be taken away and cleansed. It cannot bear for a moment longer “With its darkness to affront that light.” Religion has reclaimed Purgatory.

Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy.”? Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.” “It may hurt, you know”—“Even so, sir.”

I of course think that Lewis is wrong here on the doctrinal locus itself, but I’m less interested in that than in the way in which Lewis makes use of Newman (and it is tentative: “if I remember rightly”): he uses him in opposition to what he took to be medieval doctrine and practice with respect to Purgatory. Rather than helping with a return to a medieval sensibility (note how he criticizes More and Fisher), Lewis, in this instance, finds Newman serviceable for escaping that very thing.

This, incidentally, is emphatically not Newman’s doctrine of development, and the attentive reader may find it significant that he refers to a poem rather than to the Essay. Lewis sees not continuity in “development,” but discontinuity, and uses Newman to leapfrog over an entire epoch of church history in order to return from high medieval corruption to a form of Christianity he considers purer. Does that sound sort of Protestant? Why, yes: which is why he makes it clear that the Reformers had “good reasons” for throwing doubt on the doctrine, at least in its contemporary form.

What do we make of these references? On the liturgical question–the crucial one, because of the role liturgics plays in Anglo-Catholicism–Lewis is decidedly not Anglo-Catholic, and charges Newman with a fundamental error regarding the relationship of “church” and God. Yet reading Newman can be evidence for Lewis of broad-mindedness, a broad-mindedness that Lewis himself demonstrates several times in these excerpts. Finally, he finds one of his literary works useful in (re-)formulating what he takes to be an older, pre-late-medieval doctrine of Purgatory. Only in this last instance could he with any justice be called “Anglo-Catholic,” and even there the moniker would, it seems to me, be misleading. Better to simply call him an English churchman, or a broad churcher: one notes that he does not make the doctrine essential to the faith, particularly in the form in which it had become traditional, and in doing so adheres rather closely, not to nineteenth century Romantics, but to his own church’s first doctrinal statement, the Ten Articles, which similarly targets high medieval abuses. One similarly notes that he is happy to give praise to Presbyterians as well when he finds it suitable. Thus Pastor Wilson’s description of Lewis’ basic orientation yesterday seems to be apt:

And by the way, while we are here, Peter says in passing that C.S. Lewis was a “real Anglo-Catholic.” That is, I am afraid, inaccurate. Lewis’ own view of it was that he was “a very ordinary layman of the Church of England, not especially ‘high,’ nor especially ‘low,’ nor especially anything else.” It would be more on point to say that he was a stout supernaturalist, and a conservative representative of a broad church approach in the tradition of Baxter. He could coexist with the Anglo-Catholics precisely because he did not share their liturgical, ecclesiological, or doctrinal principles.

  1. Thanks to Steven Wedgeworth for directing my attention to this passage.
  2. One should be careful here; there is also a good and necessary use of the term, as Lewis makes clear.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

2 replies on “Lewis on Newman”

I would like to add this article from Dr. Chris Armstrong to the discussion:

It seems to me that this would mostly depend on how one defines Anglo-Catholicism. With various waves occurring since the Oxford Movement, there seems to be a real ambiguity as to what constitutes an “Anglo-Catholic” by both low and high churchmen. As far as I know, Lewis embraced the doctrinal teachings of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, Apostolic Succession, had a strong sacramental theology, became more liturgically focused with age, venerated saints and images (with moderation), and a kind of “Purgatory.” As a self-identifying Anglo-Catholic, that would be more than enough to pass my “litmus test.” Lewis was certainly a “Broad Churchman,” but I am not convinced that “Broad Church” and “Anglo-Catholic” are mutually exclusive. Thoughts?

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