5 Big Ideas From C.S. Lewis You Should Know About

I just arrived home from Oxford where I was teaching American students in a study abroad program about imagination and theology in the writings of C.S. Lewis. We read excerpts from selected texts and my goal was to enable the students to leave the class knowing just a few things; not a huge assemblage of facts they would quickly forget, but several key ideas that were vital to Lewis and that are repeated over and over again in his work. This post takes a look at five of these ideas.

1. We must wake up.

Lewis writes in The Weight of Glory that "you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us."[1] He also writes in Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer that to apprehend God, "the real labour is to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more, to remain awake."[2]

The true perception of reality around us is not something at which we are very adept. We notice but we don't actually see. Familiarity breeds contempt in all of our lives. A tree is just a tree. But in our unawareness, or sleepiness, we aren't even aware of the need to see the tree. G.K. Chesterton rightly notes that "there is a law in the darkest of the books of life and it is this: if you look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times you are perfectly safe; if you look at it the thousandth time, you are in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time."[3] But that thousandth look requires awareness of our sleepiness and just about everything Lewis writes is an attempt to get us to this point of awareness which is the first step to waking up. Perceiving reality more clearly re-enchants the familiar, and allows us to see all of the material world charged with God.

2. God and reality are iconoclastic.

We are proficient at making idols in our lives. We fashion them around relationships, institutions, events, our past, our future, our job, our longings. We think the idol will deliver the happiness or fulfillment we seek if we can just attain what we long for. Lewis writes that all reality is iconoclastic. It will break every idol we make of it. We can choose to live in the fantasy and worship the idol, but it will break our hearts every time. We must be able to attain the point of living in reality, of choosing the real over the ideal. It is only in this place of radical acceptance that we can begin the work of waking up.

No change in this life comes without disequilibrium, and paradoxically, in the difficult times when we see reality as it is, we experience the most growth. Similarly, Lewis says that God is the great iconoclast. "Every idea of Him we form, He must in mercy shatter."[4] Because God is outside our experience and because as an infinite being he shatters the category of definition, we can't use words to describe God the way we can material reality.

We must tell stories and engage our imaginations. Jesus told parables, extended similes and metaphors to explain these spiritual realities. The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed. Like yeast. Like treasure hidden in a field. Like a merchant looking for fine pearls. It is nearly impossible to grasp God with our reason, and reason is the region where we live. Therefore any understanding of God we have must be provisional. We must allow him to continue to break the understanding we have to enable better and clearer understanding to take its place.

3. Atmosphere is important.

What does Lewis mean by this? In reading a story, the feeling or sense or quality of immersion that allowed a reader to imaginatively inhabit it was chiefly important to Lewis. To bask in the story itself without analyzing it was the goal. He writes about why we return again and again to certain books. He says it "is like going back to a fruit for its taste; to an air for its. . . what? for itself, to a region for its whole atmosphere--to Donegal for its Donegality and London for its Londonness."[5]

In the same way he read James Fenimore Cooper's books for the quality of "redskinnery" as he describes the world of the native Americans or the sense of the deathly he received from H. Rider Haggard's novel King Solomon's Mines. For Lewis, the experience was most notable in reading, but I think it could be experienced many ways. For example, watching films again and again or traveling repeatedly to a well-loved place. When we experience something by simply basking in its atmosphere and not attempting to define it, Lewis says that we can receive certain truths about reality in a way we cannot if we stop to think about what we're doing.

For Lewis there are two ways of seeing anything: looking at, or looking along. One is seeing, the other experiencing. We cannot do both at the same time and either one gives us a different understanding. Lewis writes that we live in time and have longings for how a thing will be or what we will feel, but then once we get there, time goes on and we haven't achieved what we really were looking for.

For example, when I visit Oxford, I always have the goal to get the true feel of the place, to somehow enter into its atmosphere in a way that will let me into something I feel excluded from. But it never happens. I get there and I have responsibilities and I never seem able to find what I'm searching for. And the object of this search isn't even very well defined. Lewis writes that we are always searching for the nonsuccessive in a life of successive moments and that sometimes, in art that is done well, we can get close to grasping our longings in a way not normally available to us. But we do this through a work of art or a place's "atmosphere," by inhabiting it and letting it work its magic on us. 

4. All of our longings have an end.

Our need to capture the nonsuccessive in a life of successiveness is really a picture of our often ill-defined desires and longings. We think a certain thing or person or place or event somewhere in the future will finally satisfy us, that we will finally arrive and be living the life of which we currently feel deprived. Lewis writes, "the belief that the very formula of universal process is from imperfect to perfect, from small beginnings to great endings, from the rudimentary to the elaborate. . . is perhaps the deepest habit of mind in the contemporary world."[6] It is the idea of universal evolutionism.

Our experience suggests otherwise, though this myth of universal progress is so ingrained in us that we find it difficult to accept the idea that it doesn't actually exist. Lewis writes extensively of his longings, what he calls joy, and the quest that ended in his understanding that all of his longings were ultimately a longing for God, and that the things which produce the longing are merely reminders, not the thing itself. Understanding this and reminding ourselves again and again when we try to fulfill our longings with things apart from God is one of the ways in which we begin to wake up.

5. We must see with others' eyes.

At the conclusion of An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis writes,

The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog.[7]

In order for us to wake up, to identify the true end of all our longings, to engage in beneficial iconoclasm, we need others. Lewis writes that we live in a narrow prison of self. We have to have others' visions and understandings of the world or we will never expand our own understanding. So we need Lewis, we need the great works of literature and film and art, we need our friends and families. It is easy for us to get trapped in our own narrow understanding, to remain comfortable and not engage with unfamiliar and uncomfortable ideas. Humility and willingness to listen to others enables us to overcome these obstacles.



[1] Lewis, C.S. The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. "The Weight of Glory." New York: The            Macmillan Company, 1949. p. 5.

[2] Lewis, C.S. Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1964. p. 101.

[3] Chesterton, G.K. The Napoleon of Notting Hill. The Collected Works of G.K Chesterton. Compiled by Denis J. Conlon. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991. p. 227.

[4] Lewis, C.S. Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1964. p. 109.

[5] Lewis, C.S. Spenser's Images of Life. Ed. Alastair Fowler. London: Cambridge University Press, 1967. p. 115.

[6] Lewis, C.S. The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. "Is Theology Poetry?" New York: The            Macmillan Company, 1949. p. 90.

[7] Lewis, C.S. An Experiment in Criticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961. p. 140.