According to C. S. Lewis, “there are no ordinary people.” As he wrote, “it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit–immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” The question is, in which direction are we encouraging them? If Gilbert Meilaender is correct–and he offers plenty to persuade us in this re-release of The Taste for the Other–Lewis understood one’s journey to heaven or hell, to becoming a child of God or of the Devil, as one aided and abetted by fellow travelers. No action of ours is neutral; each is fraught with eternal consequences for our neighbor and ourselves.
A Coherent Picture of Man As an Eternal, Social Creature
A former professor of religion at Oberlin College and now Board of Directors Chair in Theological Ethics at Valparaiso University, Meilaender takes Lewis seriously as a theologian in examining his diverse writings for a coherent picture of man as an eternal, social creature. From expository works such as Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain to fiction for children and “grown-ups” like The Chronicles of Narnia and That Hideous Strength, Lewis made the case for civilized society and Christianity. Therein Meilaender discerns what he calls Lewis’s “reality principle”: People were created for fellowship with God, and so “to fall short of this destiny is to fall short of full humanity.”
Ironically, Lewis’s own Christian pilgrimage began with great reluctance: “Remember, I had always wanted, above all things, not to be ‘interfered with.’” But the Hound of Heaven took the offensive, and soon Lewis found “God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord.” No longer viewed as an ethereal, impersonal spirit, Immanuel became for Clive Staples Lewis the “Divine Surgeon,” as Meilaender titles the central chapter of his book. Viewing God primarily as a healer, and not as judge or jailer, Lewis sees the Christian sojourn on earth (and in purgatory) as the process by which human beings are “cleansed and made fit to dwell in the divine presence.” As “God’s patients, not yet cured,” Christians receive not merely absolution for their sins but adoption into His family.
Meilaender sees a logic in Lewis’s emphasis on community as both the means and end of a person’s sanctification. It follows that Lewis had no problem adopting what Meilaender calls an “Anglo-Catholic” view of purgatory. Because “the communion of saints” was central to his understanding of God’s agenda, Lewis saw one’s life on Earth as only part of a continuum of sanctification: What begins this side of the vale, stretches beyond death’s door. As Meilaender explains: “God is not to be pictured, at least for Lewis, as if he were hard at work setting up requirements which must be met for life in the community of his love. Rather, God is at work building that community, and he may use pains to move some people toward the end he desires for them.” How Lewis squares this with a Day of Judgment, though, is not explained by Meilaender.
Meilaender’s study begins with Lewis’s understanding of earthly goods. As “created things,” earthly goods should be received as a gift from God. Otherwise, through idolatry or self-denial they become obstacles to community. Instead of serving others with earthly goods, the idolator turns away from both natural and divine community to lustful self-gratification. Surprisingly, while asceticism appears holy for its renunciation of earthly goods, Lewis thinks it is actually worse than idolatry because it paints a dimmer picture of God, who is One to be enjoyed. The idolator-as-sensualist, at least, understands that there are things worth enjoying. Meilaender concludes that we must “learn to delight in things without seeking security in them.” This way we preserve what Lewis called the “taste for the other, that is, the very capacity for enjoying good.”
Equality Versus Hierarchy
Turning from things to people, Meilaender spends the second and longest chapter of the book, examining Lewis’s understanding of love, justice, equality, and pride. Interestingly, Lewis demoted equality in deference to hierarchy as a vital principle of community. For Lewis, the beauty of community was not in any rigid conformity by fleshly automatons but in its uniting of diverse individuals and relationships. In fact, he thought the individual would be overlooked precisely in those societies that prized sameness over “particularity.” Lewis observed, “Where personality is in question, I will not give up a wrinkle or a stammer.” Driven by envy instead of love, the “I’m-as-good-as-you” mentality erodes community, and its “flat equality” poisons those apolitical communities that form the basis of civil society: namely, family and friends. Koinonia knows nothing of “quantitative assessments”; instead, “humility, gratitude, and admiration” point the way.
Regarding political equality, Lewis likened it to medicine or clothing, which is needed only because of our sickly or fallen state. The “real reason for democracy,” he explained, is that mankind is “so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows.” As Meilaender recounts, Lewis also expressed a “genuine reservation about the economic organization of modern Western societies,” especially their promotion of mere buying and selling as a way to make a living. One’s work should be inherently worth doing, and not simply a means to a paycheck. The latter was too future-oriented for Lewis, who preferred that each day be received as a gift from God. True, Lewis commented that he would rather live “under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies”; he was, however, no Lockean. Aristotle and Augustine suited him best.
Lewis admits that his sketch of what a “fully Christian society would be like” will please few on either side of the political aisle. Although he does note it, Meilaender does not discuss sufficiently a related insight of Lewis: “Most of us are not really approaching the subject in order to find out what Christianity says: We are approaching it in the hope of finding support from Christianity for the views of our own party. We are looking for an ally where we are offered either a Master or–a Judge.” Just when we thought we could slip out to play the prosecutor, enlisting the Almighty in our quest to rid society of its non-Christian elements, Lewis throws us back in the dock where God had us all along.
Meilaender’s later discussions of earthly and divine love, as well as ethics and epistemology, will prove heady material for the non-philosopher. But the latter chapter, which examines Lewis’s views on the fact-value distinction, moral education, and the difference between desiring to be good and desiring to be God’s, provides timely counsel in these days of moral relativism and spiritual drought. Those who are interested in a more accessible introduction to the Lewis canon should consult Kathryn Lindskoog’s C. S. Lewis: Mere Christian, also reissued this year. Originally published in 1973, five years before Meilaender’s original study, this survey of Lewis’s theology and cultural commentary is a veritable “C. S. Lewis for Dummies.”
A “Weight of Glory” That Cannot Be Taken Too Seriously
“It is good for us to be cured of the ‘illusion of independence.’” Though Lewis confessed that regular church attendance was, for him, never easy, he affirmed its propriety and entered wholeheartedly into other forms of Christian community: from intellectual jousting with the Inklings, to his late marriage to Joy Davidman, to everyday home life at the Kilns with brother Warren. “Jack,” as his intimates knew him, was not given to luxury and so practiced Christian charity by writing letters with his rheumatic right hand and donating two-thirds of his book royalties with his left. In his brothers and sisters in Christ, Lewis found a “weight of glory” that could not be taken too seriously.
Meilaender’s exploration of Lewis’s social and ethical thought deserves its reprinting in our postmodern age. As G. K. Chesterton put it, “It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own.” Lewis makes it easier, through essays, treatises, and fiction (totalling thirty-five books before his death in 1963) that provide a tonic for mind and spirit. Reissued to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of Lewis’s birth, The Taste for the Other invites us “to exist at Aslan’s pleasure and to achieve self-fulfillment only in right relation to him.” As the Great Lion declares in The Silver Chair, for those who are thirsty, “there is no other stream.”