C.S Lewis on old books

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.

Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why—the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.

C.S Lewis Introduction to Athanasius: On the Incarnation

C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life

You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? The words “compelle intrare,” compel them to come in, have been so abused be wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.

C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life

On emotional spirituality

On emotional spirituality

I was reading a sample of the book “Strip the Vanity of the Heretics” by Coptic Orthodox Bishop Anba Raphael online whereon a particular section jumped out to me. Part six of the section ‘Intellectual errors of deviant religious groups’ (which probably includes all Protestants for him) goes..

Humans are composite of body, soul and spirit. If the spirituality is linked to the body only, it will be an ill, Pharisaic, literal religiosity. If it is linked to the soul only, the religiosity will be psychological, passionate, emotional, unreal, and temporary.

So in the Orthodox approach, we deal with God “in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23,24).

In the Orthodox approach, the body becomes spiritual, yet worship will not be according to the flesh. And the soul transcends, yet the worship will not be at an emotional level. The spirit is leading the human being, but becomes subject to the Spirit of God. The deviated approach, however, depends on the excitement of the emotions of the hearers, whether by enthusiastic songs with loud music, or emotional words flared with passion, or enthusiastic preaching, filled with emotional and psychological inspiration. “It is these who set up divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit” (Jude 19).

Or even more with the most refrains filled with enthusiasm and emotion, for example, repeating several times, “the blood of Jesus Christ purify me from every sin” with a loud and enthusiastic voice, like someone walking in a demonstration!

Even if the term is correct dogmatically, the emotional and passionate cheering is wrong, because it wears off quickly, and man returns back to real coldness, after the unreal heat fades away. We did not hear from the fathers that they were shouting in this way. Such emotional sickness is not found in the church hymns or praises. This counterfeit spirituality is like fire in the straw, and Orthodox spirituality, is like water carved in the rock, quietly, with depth and continuation. Therefore we reject this emotional worship because it is from the soul not the spirit.

The total eight sections are well worth reading and whilst I don’t agree with all of the document (obviously being Protestant) this section spoke to me as someone who in recent years found themselves caught up in a lot of ‘emotional spirituality’. I will be the first to confess however that even now in the singing the words of some hymns and songs that I still get emotional and I can’t help it and it has only gotten worse the older I’ve gotten. However, I would venture that the Bishop here is not advocating a stoic dispassion towards the gathering of believers for worship but of the deliberate seeking out of such emotionalism both by the leadership and the broader body.

It is often talked about in many Christian festivals or conferences that after attending such things attendees are hit with a sort of ‘slump’ when they return home. Likewise I think this is what the Bishop touches upon when he states the ‘unreal heat fades away’ after the emotionally intense periods of worship we see in some churches. The kind of intensity isn’t sustainable day in and day out and in some cases we may even mistake emotional receptiveness to the work of God in the life of the believer. This is dangerous because the temptation arises to forsake sanctification in other areas of our life because we mistake our emotionality for genuine long term spiritual growth. This I think has become a big area for a lot of British Evangelicals who are so often lambasted for being so ‘unemotional’ as a nation. We are coaxed and cajoled in shaking off the ‘shackles’ of our staid nature and eventually having done so are convinced that we have finally become ‘free in the spirit’ (Romans 8:2).

At the same time the Evangelical in me recognises the necessity of conviction in bringing about actionable change in the life of the believer and a personal relationship with God. Even as a teenager one of my biggest issues with liturgy was the seeming insincerity by which I saw it carried out and it nearly drove me out. However, the imagery of spirituality ‘like water carved in the rock, quietly, with depth and continuation’ is one that resoundingly appeals (admittedly emotionally) within me.

Their is a danger of loving our services and traditions (on both sides of this) more than the souls of the people around us wherever we are. Despite this I believe the adoption of genuinely spiritual worship is foundational to long term and far reaching spiritual growth. So many young Evangelicals I know are biblically illiterate, undisciplined and unsure of how to share their faith – I know because I am one. I am not convinced that evangelical spirituality as it stands today prepares believers to go into the world and make a lasting change because we are like ‘children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming’ (Ephesians 4:14) when Paul admonishes us to cease being these very things. This isn’t an argument to dispense with Evangelicalism altogether but to stop looking to emotional intensity as a means to measure our  own or others relationship with God or the authenticity of what we encounter. Many people believe in something sincerely and with a great deal of emotion, but that is no indicator of the beliefs authenticity. For us that should only come through our searching of scripture in its proper context.

I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.

C.S Lewis, God in the Dock