Shine As the Sun: C.S. Lewis and the Doctrine of Deification

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It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses.

—from “The Weight of Glory”

When he was president of the Oxford Socratic Club during the 1940s and 50s, C.S. Lewis featured weekly discussions on “repellent doctrines.” By these, he meant traditional Christian teachings that seemed puzzling or implausible—teachings on suffering, miracles, hierarchy, and the like. Lewis thought these doctrines conveyed truths that modern people most needed to know but were least likely to recognize: “We must never avert our eyes from those elements in [our religion] which seem puzzling or repellent; for it will be precisely the puzzling or the repellent which conceals what we do not yet know and need to know.”1 For many Christians today, deification would be such a doctrine. Deification (also known as theosis or divinization) sees salvation not merely as divine pardon but rather as a process of spiritual transformation that culminates in mystical union with God. As Lewis understood it, human beings could one day enter into the very beauty and energy of God and become “true and everlasting and really divine persons.”2 In his book Mere Christianity, which can be seen as a manifesto on the subject, Lewis argues that the whole purpose of Christianity is to turn people into what he variously calls “new men,” “little Christs,” “Sons of God”—and “gods and goddesses.”

Lewis knew such language might give many of us a shock, but he insisted that this is “precisely what Christianity is about.”3 Although largely forgotten by Christians today, deification is at the heart of Lewis’ vision of reality. From his sermons to his apologetic essays, from his space fiction to his children’s stories, one can hardly find a corner of his literary universe that is not illumined by the idea. Although scholars in recent years have begun to explore “the overlooked Lewis”—including his affinities with Christian mysticism and the details of his spiritual formation in the Church of England—little attention has been given to the importance of deification in Lewis’s thought, or to its place within the larger constellation of his beliefs including joy, myth, temptation, and sacramental life.4 To understand it not only promises to bring us closer to the mind of C.S. Lewis, but to offer fresh perspective on the pursuit of happiness and the possibilities of the faith.

A Forgotten Strand
It is not surprising that some modern Christians might find this idea baffling or even heretical; but neither is it surprising that Lewis did not since his mind was “shaped by the whole scope of intellectual history and Christian thought…liberated from the narrow confines of the religious views of the day.”5 Lewis encountered the idea of deification everywhere from St. Athanasius to George MacDonald, and he knew the doctrine was held from earliest times by many church fathers (like Athanasius) who helped establish the canon of the New Testament and the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation.6 These fathers taught that Adam and Eve were created in the image and likeness of God, but after the fall they were estranged from their creator and subject to pain, sorrow, and death. Deification, then, is the restoration of the divine likeness that humanity lost along with its beauty, purity, and incorruption. In holding to deification, not only was Lewis in harmony with Eastern Orthodoxy, where the doctrine remains a distinguishing mark, but with many voices in the West like St. Augustine and St. Bernard of Clairvaux—and a forgotten strand of Anglican tradition including Lancelot Andrewes, Richard Hooker, Charles Wesley, and Ann Griffiths.7 If Lewis has been called a “thoroughly Western man,” it is equally true that he articulated ideas like deification in terms that are “profoundly in harmony with the patristic and Orthodox standpoint.”8

Lewis, of course, was not a systematic theologian, nor did he construct a tidy formula of deification. Rather than use the term explicitly, he conveyed the idea in scriptural terms of being “in Christ,” becoming “new creatures,” or sharing in the “glory of God,” as well as with literary images like the celestial light, the face, the dance, the fountain, the marriage, the winged horse, and the statue-come-to-life. Significantly, rather than Lewis the scholar or Lewis the rationalist, it was Lewis the poet, Lewis the Romantic, Lewis the lover of myth, and Lewis the imaginative writer who was most sensitive to this idea’s power. In this, too, he showed himself kindred to the mystical tradition of the Christian East, where theology is more experiential than systematic, more poetic than propositional. As one contemporary Anglican author has noted, “The language of transforming love is used most effectively by poets rather than theologians…[and] in the East poets and theologians are sometimes the same people.”9

Despite his poetic bent, Lewis didn’t follow the path of Emerson or others who blurred dogmatic boundaries by confusing God and creation or by teaching that human beings are naturally divine. Only God is transcendent, uncreated, and divine by nature. Therefore deification does not mean the “actualization” or “realization” of one’s latent divinity, a belief that is less Christian than monistic or pantheistic. Nor does deification mean that human beings eventually will evolve into something essentially equal to God (as suggested by the bumper sticker that proclaimed, “I am a Goddess: Worship Me”). Lewis was always clear on the difference between creature and Creator—an irreducible ontological distinction. Deified human beings forever remain human while at the same time sharing in divine grace or energy, just like blazing iron in the fire shares the properties of flame but doesn’t cease to be iron. Human beings will not melt into an impersonal God like a salt statue tossed into the ocean, or become new and independent divine beings in a type of polytheistic evolution. For this reason, Lewis cannot be categorized with Neoplatonists, Hindus, Mormons, or even certain Christian mystics who seemed to lose sight of the essential distinction between God and humankind.

A World “Big With God”
If deification requires an understanding of God’s transcendence, it equally depends upon God’s immanence: the complementary truth that creation, although distinct from God, is full of divine energy and wisdom. Lewis thought that both God’s infinite distance and God’s closest proximity must be kept in mind. He portrays the latter in the enchanted vision of Narnia, where trees dance, rivers teem with nymphs, birds carry messages, and stars are glittering people with long hair like burning silver. These stories suggest that Lewis perceived not just the abstract idea that God is omnipresent, but the concrete fact that God can be present in particular objects—or as he put it, that “all is holy and ‘big with God’…and every bush (could we but perceive it) a Burning Bush.”10 The most precious moments in life to Lewis were “when he was aware of the spiritual quality of material things, of the infusion of the supernatural into the workaday world.”11 The Anglican author A.M. Allchin has suggested that because this understanding of God’s immanence has been neglected in modern theology, deification has fallen into the background.12 Others have lamented a “false supernaturalism” that today has driven a wedge between the human and the divine by seeing grace as extrinsic to nature, thereby making the idea of human union with God implausible.13 But not so in Lewis.

In Mere Christianity, he speaks of humans making direct contact with the uncreated spiritual life of God, which he calls Zoe (in contrast to the created and natural life, Bios). This divine life is the means by which believers share in the transforming power of Christ; it is a communicable energy that can be spread into the depths of a human person by what he calls “good infection.” Instead of seeing divine grace as something external like paint that is applied to the surface of a person, Lewis sees it like a dye or stain that soaks right through.14 Implicit in Lewis’ writings is the notion of God’s essence and energies, a theological distinction in the Christian East that preserves both the transcendence and immanence of God. An image of such divine energies is found in Out of the Silent Planet, when the character Ransom, aboard a spaceship, experiences the sweet “unwounding brightness” of ethereal light that pours into his body from the heavens. Evelyn Underhill, the British author of a classic study on mysticism, once wrote a letter to Lewis in which she praised this novel and commented on the cosmic rays: “Perhaps the rays Ransom felt came more directly from the heart of God and so had a vivifying effect on those fit to receive them.”15 Underhill held a similar view of divine energies, writing elsewhere that “grace, for [St.] Paul, was no theological abstraction, but an actual inflowing energy, which makes possible man’s transition from the natural to the spiritual state.”16

With his stress on the interpenetration of the natural by the supernatural, and with his belief in human deification, perhaps it is not surprising that Lewis was featured in a chapter of a 1964 anthology called The Protestant Mystics. But in fact Lewis did not consider himself a mystic. Given the esoteric implications of the word mysticism and its relatively recent origin (coined by scholars in the late seventeenth century), a better word for Lewis’ theology is mystical. Nicholas Lossky, in his book about Lancelot Andrewes, the seventeenth-century Bishop of Winchester, could have been describing C.S. Lewis when he wrote:

The ultimate objective of the spiritual life being union with God, it could be said that the theology of Lancelot Andrewes is a mystical theology, on condition that one makes a little more precise the meaning of the term. It is not a matter, indeed, of any exceptional experience, reserved for a few, in some way outside the traditional ways of theology. It is on the contrary a matter of the interiorisation of the revealed Christian mystery, to which Andrewes calls all the baptized…. For Andrewes…this is only possible in faithfulness to what has been revealed, that is to say, within the scriptural and patristic tradition, thus, within the catholicity of the Church.17