Daily Archives: August 26, 2012

Meditations with C. S. Lewis: Trusting the Images

When the purport of the images — what they say to our fear and hope and will and affections — seems to conflict with the theological abstractions, trust the purport of the images every time.[1]

C. S. Lewis’s friend Owen Barfield once wrote of him that “what he thought about everything was secretly present in what he said about anything.”  In the Lewis quote above, from Letters to Malcolm, we have a fine example of what Lewis thought about something that was at least secretly present, and often overtly present, in what he said about anything.

Lewis’s preference for images over abstractions, his deep satisfaction in image-rich language and distaste for image-deficient language, was something he described often in his writings.  For example, in Studies in Words Lewis discussed the word bitch at some length, noting that in his time bitch was already well along the journey from being a word freighted with a vivid picture – a canine picture – to being a mere epithet, divested of picture-content (that journey is now complete).  We can see this clearly when we contrast the word bitch with catty: the feline image still lives in the latter word in a way that the canine image that once lived in bitch resides there no longer.

But for Lewis the point wasn’t just an academic one; it had profound theological implications.  For example, in Chapter 11 of Miracles Lewis takes on apophatic theology – that is, a theology that seeks understanding of God only by describing what He is not – by telling a parable of mystical limpets and erudite limpets.[2]  The parable goes thus: one sage of a limpet “catches a glimpse of what Man is like,” and goes about reporting his vision to his limpet-disciples.  As he must, the limpet-sage uses “many negatives . . . Man has no shell, is not attached to a rock, is not surrounded by water.”  For the sage limpet and his disciples, these negatives safeguard what is actually a “positive and concrete” vision of man.  But later, erudite limpets, “who write histories of philosophy and give lectures on comparative religion,” with no such positive vision, glean only the negatives from the sage limpet’s words.  And so “they reject as crude, materialistic superstition any doctrine which would attribute to Man a definite shape, a structure, and organs.”

Rejecting the sage limpet’s positive images, and deriving an image-depleted abstraction from his negative ones, the erudite limpets impoverish both their theology and their spirituality exactly like the “de-mythologizers” of Christianity did — and still do.  As Lewis continued in the letter to Malcolm quoted above:

For our abstract thinking is itself a tissue of analogies: a continual modelling of spiritual reality in legal or chemical or mechanical terms.  Are these likely to be more adequate than the sensuous, organic, and personal images of scripture — light and darkness, river and well, seed and harvest, master and servant, hen and chickens, father and child?  The footprints of the Divine are more visible in that rich soil than across rocks or slag-heaps.  Hence what they call ‘de-mythologising’ Christianity can easily be re-mythologising it — and substituting a poorer mythology for a richer.[3]

[1] C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer 54 (1963).

[2] Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study 118-19 (Simon & Schuster 1996)(1947).

[3] Lewis, Letters to Malcolm 54-55.