Myth and Joy (Sehnsucht) played a central role in C. S. Lewis' pilgrimage to Christian truth and in shaping his apologetics, particularly his argument from desire. Far from being separate themes, myth and joy were convergent streams in Lewis' thinking and experience that he so effectively presented in his work to help people see the meaning and sweetness of life in Jesus Christ. For Lewis, real Joy found its uncommon expression in the true Myth which became Incarnate and explains how everything (experience, reason and desire) fits together. Human imagination illumined by the Holy Spirit brings real Joy and true Myth together to picture Reality, which Lewis said is that about which truth is . Lewis reached that stage in his journey when imagination (the organ of meaning) and reason (the organ of truth) were no longer at loggerheads but became divinely given pointers to something and Someone outside natural experience.
This paper explores the central motif of Myth and Joy in Lewis' work and their referral in his apologetics. While there were many people who influenced and helped propel Lewis down the path of Christianity, I will look at three in particular - George MacDonald, Owen Barfield and J. R. R. Tolkien - through whom Lewis came to tie reason and imagination together.
Lewis believed that Christian truth must be defended with sound logic and philosophy. But this apologetic needed to be explicated in order that its meaning could be made clear to its hearers. That is why he felt this could best be accomplished through the proper use of myths. By myth he did not mean legends and fairy tales but a real unfocused gleam of truth falling on human imagination. In his classic
From a theological perspective Lewis saw true myths as memories or echoes of God Himself and He left us with human imagination as their receptor. He explained this relationship in describing how he came to write the Narnia Chronicles, as a mythological expression of the Gospel story:
"It was he [the imaginative man] who, after my conversion, led me to embody my religious belief in symbolical or mythopoeic form, ranging from Screwtape to a kind of theological science fiction. And it was of course he who has brought me, in the last few years, to write the series of Narnian stories for children; not asking what children want and then endeavoring to adapt myself (this was not needed) but because the fairy tale was the genre best fitted for what I wanted to say."
Lewis undertook the daunting task of awakening modernity's deadened imagination to the eternal realities by telling stories of worlds of fixed moral order, serenity and blissfulness. He had help from a few friends in understanding imagination as a vehicle to convey the Reality who stands behind and above the visible world.
III. George MacDonald
In addition to the early rationalist influence of his atheist tutor,William Kirkpatrick - the Great Knock - the young Lewis also fell under the influence of nineteenth century Scottish preacher, poet, scholar, novelist, teacher, fantasist and Christian apologist George MacDonald. It was MacDonald's appeal to the imagination and his basic illuminating insights into justice, love, nature and myth-making that Lewis called "gold all through". Of MacDonald Lewis wrote, "I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote him. But it has not seemed to me that those who have received my books kindly take even now sufficient notice of the affiliation. Honesty drives me to emphasize it."
MacDonald s writing pointed Lewis toward recognizing all imaginative meaning originates with the Creator God of Christian scripture. For instance, the following MacDonald insight is of the kind found in much of Lewis writing:
"To inquire into what God has made is the main function of the imagination. It is aroused by facts, is nourished by facts, seeks for higher and yet higher laws in those facts; but refuses to regard science as the sole interpreter of nature, or the laws of science as the only region of discovery...this outward world is but a passing vision of the persistent true. We shall not live in it always. We are dwellers in a divine universe where no desires are in vain, if only they are large enough."
"I did not yet know (and I was long in learning) the name of the new quality, the bright shadow, that rested on the travels of Anodos. I do now. It was holiness. For the first time the song of the sirens sounded like the voice of my mother or my nurse...It was as though the voices which had called to me
from the world s end were now speaking at my side...never had the wind of Joy blowing through any story been less separable from the story itself...That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me, not unnaturally, took longer. I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying
In the MacDonald anthology he edited Lewis explained further how there was in that one particular work something or someone being expressed to him to which he was somehow strangely connected:
"Phantastes was romantic enough in all conscience; but there was a difference. Nothing was at that time further from my thoughts than Christianity and I therefore had no notion what this difference really was. I was only aware that if this new world was strange, it was also homely and humble; that if this was a dream, it was a dream in which one at least felt strangely vigilant; that the whole book had about it a sort of cool, morning innocence, and also, quite unmistakably, a certain quality of death, good death."
In a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves in 1915 he further described the work's remarkable impression upon him: "Of course it is hopeless for me to try to describe it, but when you have followed the hero Anodos along the little stream of the fairy wood, have heard about the terrible ash tree...and heard the episode of Cosmo, I know you will agree with me." What Lewis referred to was how Anodos, the hero of Phantastes, is pursued by a shadow, an ominous influence that is both outside him and in his mind:
"Everything, henceforward, existed for me in its relation to my attendant...I lay down to rest in a most delightful part of the forest, carpeted with wild flowers. I lay for half an hour in a dull response, and then I got up to pursue my way. The flowers on the spot where I had lain were crushed to the earth: but I saw that they would soon lift their heads and rejoice again in the sun and air. Not so those on which my shadow had lain. The very outline of it could be traced in the withered lifeless grass, and the scorched and shriveled flowers which stood there, dead and hopeless of any resurrection."
What so stirred Lewis about MacDonald's imaginative writing as well as many ancient myths was their quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying, and ecstatic reality in which we all live. Such writings helped Lewis come to understand his own ecstatic experience of Joy and that Truth involved more than just a rationalist pursuit.
IV. Owen Barfield
Lewis referred to his life-long friend Owen Barfield in
Barfield set the stage for Lewis to consider the religious explanation for that deeper, coherent meaning that is beyond time and space but manifested in them. Lewis writes:
"There, not here, was the fuller splendor behind the sensuous curtain...we could talk religiously about the Absolute; but there was no danger of Its doing anything about us. It was there; safely and immovably there. It would never come, never (to be blunt) make a nuisance of Itself. This quasi-religion was all a one-way street; all eros steaming up, but no agape darting down. There, like Dante s virtuous Pagans, in desire with nothing to fear; better still nothing to obey...All who embrace such a philosophy live like Dante s virtuous Pagans, in desire without hope. Or like Spinoza they so love their God as to be unable even to wish that He should love them in return...And so the great Angler played His fish and I never dreamed that the hook was in my tongue. But two great advances had been made. Bergson had showed me necessary existence; and from Idealism I had come one step nearer to understanding the words, We give thanks to thee for thy great glory. The Norse gods had given me the first hint of it; but then I didn't believe in them, and I did believe (so far as one can believe an Unding) in the Absolute."
The connection between desire and hope led Lewis to sort out the perplexing multiplicity of religions and acknowledge that the real clue to it all was that hard-boiled Atheist when he said, "Rum thing, all that about the Dying God. Seems to have really happened once" and by Barfield s encouragement of a more respectful, if not delighted, attitude to Pagan myth. "The question was no longer to find the one simply true religion among a thousand religions simply false. It was rather Where has religion reached its true maturity? Where, if anywhere, have the hints of Paganism been fulfilled?...There were only two answers possible: either Hinduism or in Christianity. Everything else was either a preparation for, or else a vulgarization of these."
V. J. R. R. Tolkien
From the time he read
It was two more years later until Lewis confessed Christ as he rode in his brother's motorcycle sidecar to Whipsnade zoo:
"When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. Emotional perhaps is the last word we can apply to some of the most important events. It was more like when a man, after a long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake."
It was not what occurred on the motorcycle that was pivotal in his life but what happened three nights earlier with his friends J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson. That September evening, Lewis had a breakthrough conversation about metaphor and myth while walking with Tolkien and Dyson. His two friends explained the Pagans myths of dying and resurrecting gods did not disprove Christianity but rather they reveal that pagan people received a glimpse of the Truth and the Reality that would become Incarnate some two thousand years ago. The ancients' imagination were the receptors of the echoes and shadows of what God left the world as to the object of all desires and aspirations.
Tolkien argued that human stories follow patterns and embody myth which originates in God and carries something of His truth, although often in a distorted form . In the Gospel accounts of Christ, argued Tolkien, the best elements of good stories are found, except that everything found there is actually true. The myth and history - factual truth - are the same stream, with no separation between the two. Several weeks later Lewis wrote his boyhood friend, Arthur Greeves, the following remarkable account of this powerful breakthrough:
"...now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn t mind it at all; again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself... I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in the Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meaning beyond my grasp even tho I could not say in cold prose what it meant. Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God s myth where the others are men s myths: i. e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call real things. Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a description of God (that no finite mind can take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The doctrines we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. Does this amount to a belief in Christianity? At any rate I am now certain a) That this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approach the other myths. b) That is the most important and full of meaning. I am also nearly certain that it really happened."
This deep discernment overcame his last intellectual hurdle and established for Lewis the eternal verity of Christianity. He later wrote "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else." Myth and Joy, reason and imagination finally converged. This motif became embedded in Lewis' theology and his defense of the faith. In
"Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens - at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle...Those who do not know that this great myth became Fact when the Virgin conceived are, indeed, to be pitied. But Christians also need to be...reminded that what became Fact was a Myth, that it carries with it into the world of Fact all the properties of a myth. God is more than a god, not less; Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting in our theology."
Lewis also effectively rendered this insight in
"Death and re-birth - go down to go up - it is a key principle. Through this bottleneck in Nature, this belittlement, the highroad nearly always lies... The pattern is there in Nature because it was first there in God...The total pattern...is the real Death and Re-birth: for certainly no seed ever fell from so fair a tree into so dark and cold a soil as would furnish more than a faint analogy to this huge descent and re-ascension in which God dredged the salt and oozy bottom of Creation...The Corn-king is derived (through human imagination) from the facts of Nature, and the facts of Nature from her Creator; the Death and Re-birth pattern is in her because it was first in Him. On the other hand, elements of Nature-religion are strikingly absent from the teaching of Jesus and from the Judaic preparation which lead up to it precisely because in them Nature s Original is manifesting Itself."
[Parenthetically, this strongly held and maybe unique view of Lewis that in Christ myth became history leads him in
VI. Joy (Sehnsucht)
While Lewis struggled through the rational barriers to faith (his head knowledge), at the same time throughout his life he was also aware of deep human emotions which point to a dimension of our existence beyond time and space. He referred to this emotion as Joy or Sehnsucht and perhaps no one since Augustine has written of it so memorably and movingly. Like a thread he followed it from atheism to theism to Christ.
Along with his intellectual struggle to faith, he was also being drawn into an emotional relationship with the Person who is the Truth. Lewis understanding of Joy, of the imagination in its highest, purest state is described in his spiritual autobiography
Lewis described this sense of supernatural awe as being profoundly different in kind from natural intuition but both revelations are similar in the way we experience them:
The comparison is of course between something of infinite moment and something very small; like comparison between the Sun and the Sun s reflection in a dewdrop. Indeed, in my view, very like it, for I do not think the resemblance between Christian and the merely imaginative experience is accidental. I think that all things, in their way, reflect heavenly truth, the imagination not the least. Reflect is the important word. This lower life of the imagination is not a beginning of (i.e. not necessarily and by its own nature. God can cause it to be such a beginning), nor a step toward, the higher life of the spirit, merely an image. In me, at any rate, it contained no element either of belief or of ethics; however, far pursued, it would never have made me either wiser or better. But it still had, at many removes, the shape of the reality it reflected.
Like Augustine, Lewis believed that if there is a God, in whose image we are made and in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:23), then it would stand to reason that we would have a longing and a built-in craving for a Joy beyond all earthly satisfactions. Lewis believed if this were the case, it is what we should then expect to find in our experience, and he did. This mutuality of head and heart knowledge found its way deeply into all of Lewis writing, including his apologetic approach.
VII. The Lewis Apologetic
As in classic reformation tradition, Lewis saw apologetics as not resting on right words or clever argumentation, as if that were an end in itself, but as being predicated on God s ability to make Himself known and available through words. Lewis took very seriously the way words can generate an experience, even if we have not yet had it. For instance in Surprised by Joy he reflected on the profound effect the words from Longfellow s Saga of King Olaf ( I heard a voice that cried, Balder the beautiful Is dead, is dead-- ):
"I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale and remote) and then...found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it."
In his apologetics Lewis used words in such a way as to convey the quality of the Christian experience of God and to give clarity to the message of the cross of Christ. Apologetics must be always pointing beyond and above itself. Lewis was also ever mindful of his audience and how best to paint word pictures to reach both their head and heart.
"We must learn the language of our audience. And let me say at the outset that it is no use laying down a priori what the plain man does or does not understand. You have to find out by experience...You must translate every word of your theology into the vernacular. This is very troublesome...but it is essential. It is also of the greatest service to your own thought. I have come to the conclusion that if you cannot translate your own thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts are confused. Power to translate is the test of having really understood your own meaning."
In the world as we experience it there are things that are considered more valuable than others. The world is full of stories that warn about value systems that put arbitrary value on things whose very nature do not deserve it. There is also a sort a universal appeal to right behavior, justice, fairness and goodness. Where do these values come from? Such judgments are either arbitrary and capricious based on convenience or preference or they are rooted in something fixed, a standard that people intuitively know and appeal to with respect to their personal interests as well as those of others (something in
Lewis also argued often that any human longing points to a genuine human need, which in turn points to a corresponding, real object to that need. He uses this argument from desire in the following classic passage which some fifteen years ago made such a powerful impression upon me in my first steps of belief:
"Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food . A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for something else of which they are only a kind of a copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same."
Another instance where Lewis argued from desire to its object was in his most famous sermon - The Weight of Glory, which many believe is one of its most powerful presentations:
"A man's physical hunger does not prove that the man will get any bread; he may die of starvation in a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will. A man may love a woman and not win her; but it would be very odd if the phenomenon called falling in love occurred in a sexless world."
Lewis' fiction and non-fiction work carry this imagery of correspondence of echoes, foregleams and shadows found in the world and our longing for their full expression and fulfillment in heaven. In the same sermon Lewis captures our longing as follows:
"If we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendour of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy. At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in. When human souls have become as perfect in voluntary obedience as the inanimate creation is in its lifeless obedience, then they will put on its glory or rather that greater glory of which nature is only the first sketch."
Most all Lewis' apologetical work recognizes the inner sense we have that something important is missing, something is terribly wrong in our lives, and that the creation is a good thing gone bad. Lewis' approach in this regard follows along Augustine's famous line: "O, Lord you have made us for Yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You." and also Pascal's words: "We desire truth and find in ourselves nothing but uncertainty. We seek happiness and find only wretchedness and death. We are incapable of not desiring truth and happiness and incapable of either certainty or happiness."
Existentialist Jean-Paul Satre well understood this human dilemma when he said we cannot find happiness in anything human or created yet there is at work within us a innate desire to deny this inability to find satisfaction and fulfillment in the world. In great Lewis tradition, Alister McGrath describes the apologetic opportunity this presents us:
"This feeling of dissatisfaction is one of the most important points of contact for gospel proclamation. In the first place, that proclamation interprets this vague and unshaped feeling as longing for God. And second, it offers to fill it. There is a sense of divine dissatisfaction with all that is not God. This divine dissatisfaction has its origin in God and ultimately leads to God...in the midst of the world, something that is ultimately beyond the world makes itself available to us. We do not need to wait for eternity to experience God; that experience can begin, however imperfectly, now...we are doomed to remain incomplete in our present existence. Our hopes and deepest longings will remain nothing but just that; Our hopes and longings. This bittersweet tension remains real, even for the Christian who increasingly becomes aware of the wonder of God and the inadequacy of our present grasp of that wonder. There is a sense of postponement, of longing, of wistful yearning, of groaning under the strain of having to tolerate the present when the future offers so much. Perhaps the finest statement of this exquisite agony is found in Augustine s cry, I am groaning with inexpressible groanings on my wanderer s path and remembering Jerusalem with my heart lifted up towards it - Jerusalem my homeland, Jerusalem my mother. We are exiled from our homeland - but its memories haunt us."
Indeed, Lewis closes his spiritual autobiography also with a Jerusalem metaphor for Joy, not as a shadow but as fulfillment:
"It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer. While that other was in doubt, the pointer naturally loomed large in my thoughts. When we are lost in the woods the sight of a signpost is a great matter. He who first sees it cries, Look! The whole party gathers round and stares. But when we have found the road and are passing signposts every few miles, we shall not stop and stare. They will encourage us and we shall be grateful to the authority that set them up. But we shall not stop and stare, or not much; not on this road, though their pillars are of silver and their lettering of gold. We would be at Jerusalem.'"
Similarly despite the power of such contact with the reality outside his own everyday experience in life, Lewis was very careful (as should we) how he approached the notion of mysticism. He did not make use of it as an appeal to belief because of its tendency toward subjectivity. The authentic experience would always point one outside oneself to the Object of true religious affections. In
"I do not at all regard mystical experience as an illusion. I think it shows that there is a way to go, before death, out of what may be called this world - out of the stage set. Out of this; but into what? That s like asking an Englishman, Where does the sea lead to? He will reply, To everywhere on earth, including Davy Jones s locker, except England. The lawlessness, safety, and utility of the mystical voyage depends not at all on its being mystical - that is, on its being a departure - but on the motives, skill, and constancy of the voyager, and on the grace of God. The true religion gives value to its own mysticism; mysticism does not validate the religion in which it happens to occur. I shouldn t be at all disturbed if it could be shown that a diabolical mysticism, or drugs, produced experiences indistinguishable (by introspection) from those of the great Christian mystics. Departures are all alike; it is the landfall that crowns the voyage. The saint, by being a saint, proves that his mysticism (if he was a mystic; not all saints are) led him aright; the fact that he has practised mysticism could never prove his sanctity."
Lewis insisted that both true Myth and real Joy are cosmic pointers to God. He saw the work of apologetics as making use of what innately we know about ourselves and the Reality that is outside ourselves and then bringing them together by reasoned argument and metaphorical appeal. There is a goal and there is a way. It is work that constantly points outside itself and above itself to the Object of true religious affections. Lewis apologetics were not so much concerned with the voyage but the landfall. Like Lewis we too must address and balance appeals to both head and heart in our defense of our faith and present it in terms best understandable and identifiable to our audience. As a point of contact to many unregenerate, therefore, we could approach the presentation of Scriptural truth as the story of the Real Joy in the True Myth. Lewis summed up what we constantly must be mindful of when we are asked to give a defense for the hope we have in Christ, yet with gentleness and respect:
From all my lame defeats and oh! much more From all the victories that I seemed to score; From the cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh; From all my proofs of Thy divinity, Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me. Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust, instead Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head. From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee, O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free. Lord of the narrow gate and the needle s eye, Take from me my trumpery lest I die.
© 1997 Dave Brown's email@example.com
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