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

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Great Fountain of Energy
To see salvation as Lewis did—as transformation by divine energy leading to deification, and not merely justification or redemption in which Jesus “paid the price” for sinners in order to satisfy God’s justice or wrath—could be a helpful shift in perspective for some modern Christians. So argues Professor Robert Rakestraw, a scholar in the Baptist tradition who, in an Evangelical theological journal, defended the doctrine of deification for its solid scriptural foundation and its rich patristic heritage. “Rather than seeing our progressive sanctification as something done for us by God from outside…we may take a kind of quantum leap forward by understanding sanctification as the very life and energy of God in us.”18 As such, the Christian life promises to become more than merely an external moral imitation of Christ. A genuine life in Christ may become a real possibility. C.S. Lewis certainly would agree, explaining that the Christian life is something more than mental or moral; it is not just thinking about Christ or copying Christ, but means that “Christ is actually operating through [us].”19

But exactly how does Christ operate through us? And how does one acquire the “Christ-life” within? In Mere Christianity, Lewis asserts that three main ways to achieve this are baptism, belief, and Holy Communion. Although Lewis said he was puzzled that such things should convey spiritual life, he noted that “we have to take reality as it comes to us”; and he adds, “If you want to be wet you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them…. They are a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very center of reality. If you are close to it, the spray will wet you: if you are not, you will remain dry.”20

Lewis thought that because men and women were created as physical beings, God uses material things (water, bread, wine) to infuse them with divine grace. In Christianity—which is “almost the only one of the great religions which thoroughly approves of the body”—the body as well as the soul participate in the spiritual life, and one day the rapture of the saved soul will “flow over” into the glorified body.21 Although we may not be able to conceive exactly what we will be in the next life, Lewis insists that “we may be sure that we shall be more, not less, than we were on earth.”22 In other words, deification will not come to destroy the human body but fulfill and resurrect it. Thus in Christianity, the body is not to be dismissed as an inferior prison-house of the soul as it might be in Plato or in streams of gnostic thought—including contemporary American varieties of gnosticism.23 In Lewis’ view, it is not God but the devil who despises matter and resents the mingling of spiritual things with “dirt and slime.”24

Big Medicine
A critic of the fast-food industry recently began a lecture about nutrition and public health with the provocative statement: “Food is the most important subject.”25 He was not necessarily intending to make a metaphysical statement, but he did. Christians, too, have traditionally seen food as essential to their story—in both good and bad ways. From the food that led to death in Eden, to the food of immortality in the Eucharist (John 6:48-57), eating is a crucial reality. For Lewis, Holy Communion was not only a symbol of union with God, but a genuine and concrete way to receive the good infection of divine grace; it has been called “the highest form of union with God here below, since it is physical and spiritual communion with Christ the God-man.”26 Like many of Lewis’ Christian beliefs, however, this one was an acquired taste. We are told by his biographer George Sayer that when Lewis first returned to the church in the early 1930s following his conversion, he took a rather limited view of Holy Communion, receiving it only on great holidays. But by the early 1940s—about the same time he began meeting his spiritual director regularly for confession and counsel—Lewis began to perceive the sacrament differently and to receive it weekly, finally developing a great reverence for the mystery of the Eucharist.27 In Letters to Malcolm, which was published the year of his death, Lewis spoke of Holy Communion as an experience where “the veil between the worlds” gets thin: “Here a hand from the hidden country touches not only my soul but my body…. Here is big medicine and strong magic…[and] I should define magic in this sense as ‘objective efficacy which cannot be further analyzed.’”28 Although Lewis believed that Christ’s body and blood were present in the bread and wine, he did not accept the precise medieval formula of transubstantiation (perhaps like Lancelot Andrewes he thought it verged on monophysitism), and he was reluctant to explain the eucharistic mystery. To seek to capture it with one’s mind, he said, “is like taking a red coal out of the fire to examine it: it becomes a dead coal.”29

In light of that analogy, it is instructive to remember the passage in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader where the children meet a venerable Old Man living near the world’s end, a retired star named Ramandu. Every morning, Ramandu is brought a fire-berry from the valleys in the sun by a bird. The fire-berries—little coals which are too bright to look at—will take away a little of the Old Man’s age until he becomes young as a newborn child and rises again at the earth’s eastern rim to join the great dance. This episode is a case study in “making all things new,” and in it we find echoes not only of Elijah’s miraculous sustenance by the ravens who carried him bread and meat during his sojourn in the desert (I Kings 17), but also of the vision of Isaiah who saw the Lord of Hosts on a throne in the temple attended by Seraphim singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy” (Isaiah 6), one of whom took a live coal from the altar with tongs and brought it to the prophet’s lips and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips, and your iniquity is taken away, and your sin is forgiven.”

In our day, Lewis’ stress on the importance of the sacrament of Holy Communion might seem out of place in many of the fastest-growing Christian communities.30 But Lewis was adamant that eternal life must be spread not only by purely mental acts like belief, but also by bodily acts like baptism and Holy Communion. He insisted that Christianity “is not merely the spreading of an idea…[because] God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.”31