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A blog dedicated to the Source of everything good.

Monday, December 27, 2004

C. S. Lewis: reflections, human nature, and humility

If I had to pick just one characteristic of C. S. Lewis’ that I appreciate the most (if I had to pick just one), I’d choose his humility. Which really is a form of honesty. Beyond his astute literary genius, Lewis was able to illuminate for all humankind the truth of its own nature, as manifest in its aspirations, motivations, and foibles, because of his honesty. Even his fiction was not merely entertaining, but rich in substance. I confess to at times wishing I’d been born a generation or so earlier, across the ocean, and fortunate enough to attend Oxford or Cambridge while he resided there.

I’ve been reading Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms, which is especially enjoyable because, as Lewis writes in the Introductory chapter,
“In this book, then, I write as one amateur to another, talking about difficulties I have met, or lights I have gained, when reading the Psalms, with the hope that this might at any rate interest, and sometimes even help, other inexpert readers. I am “comparing notes”, not presuming to instruct. (p. 9)

The wonderful humility in this is that, by the very nature of his sincerity and abilities, he instructs quite masterfully, without pretense of explicit intent to do so. He is not writing as a dispassionate scholar, but from the heart.

Lewis’ approach resonates with me, and I hope to guide and educate my children in similar manner. Not in a completely analogous way, of course, because the nature of the pilgrim-to-pilgrim relationship differs from the parent-child relationship. But by sharing heart, thoughts, and attitudes, along with doubts and uncertainties, I hope to show my children a way to approach learning and life that will serve them well throughout their lives.

The Introductory chapter to ROTP begins thus:

This is not a work of scholarship. I am no Hebraist, no higher critic, no ancient historian, no archaeologist. I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself. (p. 9)

Now, this might seem a terribly unconvincing way to start a book. But that’s the beauty of it. Continuing:

If an excuse is needed (and perhaps it is) for writing such a book, my excuse would be something like this. It often happens that two schoolboys can solve difficulties in their work for one another better than the master can. When you took the problem to a master, as we all remember, he was very likely to explain what you understood already, to add a great deal of information which you didn’t want, and say nothing at all about the thing that was puzzling you. I have watched this from both sides of the net; for when, as a teacher myself, I have tried to answer questions brought me by pupils, I have sometimes, after a minute, seen that expression settle down on their faces which assured me that they were suffering exactly the same frustration which I had suffered from my own teachers. The fellow-pupil can help more than the master because he knows less. The difficulty we want him to explain is one he has recently met. The expert me it so long ago that he has forgotten. He sees the whole subject, by now, in such a different light that he cannot conceive what is really troubling the pupil; he sees a dozen other difficulties which ought to be troubling him but aren’t.

In other words, this book is more of a devotional than a scholarly study. One for the heart as well as the head.

I would like to outline some of the points which struck me in the first three chapters:

1) In terms of civil justice, we in modern America (as well as England) enjoy a much greater measure of justice overall than those who lived in the times of the Psalmists. This statement may make some sputter but really, it’s all relative. “Christians cry to God for mercy instead of justice; [the Psalmists] cried to God for justice instead of injustice” (pp. 16-17) I realize that this is a generalization, yet it's worth noting.

2) “…the [ancient] Jewish picture of a civil action sharply reminds us that perhaps we are faulty not only by the Divine standard (that is a matter of course) but also by a very human standard which all reasonable people admit and which we ourselves usually wish to enforce upon others. Almost certainly there are unsatisfied claims, human claims, against each one of us. …Of course we forget most of the injuries we have done. But the injured parties do not forget even if they forgive. And God does not forget.” (p. 18)

3) “…of course the fatal confusion between being in the right and being righteous soon falls upon [those who have been wronged]. …There is also…a still more fatal confusion -- that between the desire for justice and the desire for revenge. “ (p. 22)

4) The call to forgiveness: “It seemed to me that, seeing in [the Psalmists] hatred undisguised, I saw also the natural result of injuring a human being. The word natural here is important. This result can be obliterated by grace, suppressed by prudence or social convention, and (which is dangerous) wholly disguised by self-deception. …The reaction of the Psalmists to injury, though profoundly natural, is profoundly wrong.” (p. 27)

[it is written,] ‘Though shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart…thou shalt not avenge or bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.’ (Leviticus 19:17-18) ‘If thou seest the donkey of him that hateth thee lying under his burden…thou shalt surely help with him.’ (Exodus 23:4) ‘Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thy heart be glad when he stumbleth.’ (Proverbs 24:17) ‘If thine enemy hunger, give him bread’ (Prov. 25:21) (p. 28)

5) Indignation, which may “[pass] into bitter personal vindictiveness, …may still be a good symptom, though bad in itself. It is a sin, but it at least shows that those who commit it have not sunk below the level at which the temptation to that sin exists --just as the sins (often quite appalling) of the great patriot or the great reformer point to something in him above mere self." (p. 30-31)

(This is something that tends to confuse me: how do I know that any (or all) of my cares and concerns are not, at their root, selfish? Does it matter that they are if the selfishness they are rooted in is a desire to please God and further His kingdom on this earth because that’s the right and true thing to do, and I want to do the right thing because it makes me feel worthy? If I am seeking Him first, will not my desires, in some part, become conformed/transformed to His? Yet the flesh and the spirit still, and will always in this life, war.)

6) A more terrible sin (than vindictiveness): for “a man to think that his own worst passions are holy.” This “encourages him to add, explicitly or implicitly, ‘Thus saith the Lord’ to the expression of his own emotion or even his own opinion as [so many] so horribly do. (It is this, by the way, rather than mere idle ‘profane swearing’ that we ought to mean by ‘taking God’s name in vain’).” (p. 31)

7) “...the Supernatural, entering a human soul, opens to it new possibilities of good and evil. From that point the road branches: one way to sanctity, love, humility, the other to spiritual pride, self-righteousness, persecuting zeal…If the Divine call does not make us better, it will make us very much worse.” (p. 32)


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