Smuggling for God: What the Emerging Church Movement Can Learn from C. S. Lewis’ Incarnational Aesthetic

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There remains, however, a crucial, yet often overlooked, social dimension in Lewis’ incarnational aesthetic—a dimension I refer to as the sympathetic imagination. Because this more earthly aspect directly challenges the persistent individualism of late-, as well as post-modernity, I would like to suggest its particular relevance to the EC’s embrace of the arts today. Let’s begin with Lewis’ most explicit statement concerning the role of sympathy in the exercise of the imagination, as found in Miracles (1947). In his chapter on the Incarnation—“The Grand Miracle”—he explains how God becoming man is replicated “in a very minor key” throughout all of nature by the sympathetic relations humans enjoy with each other and even with animals. An awareness of these lower transpositions—especially through an exercise of the poetic imagination—reveals a world in which “everything hangs together and the total reality, both Natural and Supernatural…is more multifariously and subtly harmonious than we had suspected.” At this point, Lewis is most interested in developing the incarnational principles of recapitulation and vicariousness as they intimate the Grand Miracle, but he also acknowledges their profound social implications. In marked contrast with the natural human tendency of self-sufficiency, he emphasizes how identification with and sacrificing for others, and receiving their selfless offerings in return, is a way of disclosing, albeit imperfectly (or “faintly”), a fundamental attribute and activity of the Divine Life.18

Later, in a more thorough discussion in the Epilogue to An Experiment in Criticism (1961), Lewis correlates this sympathetic disposition with the benefits of literary practice and experience. Chiefly among them is the capacity of the imagination to enter into the perspectives and experiences of others:

Good reading, therefore, though it is not essentially an affectional or moral or intellectual activity, has something in common with all three. In love we escape from our self into one other. In the moral sphere, every act of justice or charity involves putting ourselves in the other person’s place and thus transcending our own competitive particularity. In coming to understand anything we are rejecting the facts as they are for us in favor of the facts as they are. The primary impulse of each is to maintain and aggrandize himself. The secondary impulse is to go out of the self, to correct its provincialism and heal its loneliness. In love, in virtue, in the pursuit of knowledge, and in the reception of the arts, we are doing this.

For Lewis, the immediate “good of literature” is that it “admits us to experiences other than our own,” and, in so doing, “heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality.”19 Of course, this requires a “baptized imagination”—one that permits any artistic or literary endeavor, even the “sub-Christian” variety, to point upwards to God.20 But, again, note that for Lewis this imagination has a profound horizontal dimension as well—one that begins and ends in a phenomenology of sympathetic relations with others.21 Here, we find the sort of concreteness that Lewis appreciates in the “spontaneous tendency of religion” to resort to poetic expression. After all, for Lewis, it is poetic not “ordinary” language that conveys the presence of the object as much as its meaning. This is what I think Lewis has in mind when he extols the remarkable powers of poetic language—the way it uses “factors within our experience so that they become pointers to something outside our experience.” What can he be referring to here except the arena of our interpersonal relationships, where love, transgression, alienation, and forgiveness all provide opportunities to “verify” fundamental Christian ideas? Forgiveness, for one, resists precise definition, but it can be communicated with uncanny specificity and emotional impact in poetic language and a wide array of other artistic forms. Ultimately, Lewis despaired that while this storehouse of “hints, similes, [and] metaphors” was crucial to late-modern apologetics, it was under-appreciated, and, consequently, under-utilized.22

This may not be the case today, especially considering the EC’s enthusiastic and, at times, exotic attempts at new forms of Christian community and “corollary apologetics.” The EC, in fact, describes itself as intensely relational.23 But, as Paul Roberts and others inside the movement observe, EC ecclesiology is “still unformed and provisional”—in large part, I think, because it lacks a central organizing principle.24 It would be much too modern, of course, to build anything on a blueprint, let alone one blueprint(!), but the incarnational aesthetic offered by Lewis is remarkably fluid, adaptive, and missional. More importantly, it modulates the EC’s passion for relevance with a relational phenomenology of sympathetic imagination that strongly resists, as St. Anne’s did in That Hideous Strength, potent cultural pressures of competitive individuality, on the one hand, and reductive homogenization (the proverbial “lowest common denominator”), on the other. However Lewis’ aesthetic is applied—in the creation of new forms of worship, new channels of literary endeavor (especially on the Internet), or sponsorship of the arts—it must be informed by the “The Grand Miracle.” The Incarnation was, after all, Lewis’ chief source of inspiration, and he devoted most of his life to letting it work its peculiar magic in his mind and craft. “It digs beneath the surface, works through the rest of our knowledge by unexpected channels, harmonises best with our deepest apprehensions and our ‘second thoughts,’” he observed, “and in union with these undermines our superficial opinions.”25 Ultimately, for Lewis, that’s what smuggling for God is all about.

Philip Harrold is Associate Professor of Church History at Winebrenner Theological Seminary. This paper was presented at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s triennial Summer Institute, Oxbridge, in the summer of 2005.