You won’t find a more apt example of an excerpt that is contradictory to an author’s broader writings than this bit from C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity:
Before leaving the question of divorce, I should like to distinguish two things which are very often confused. The Christian conception of marriage is one: the other is quite the different question-how far Christians, if they are voters or Members of Parliament, ought to try to force their views of marriage on the rest of the community by embodying them in the divorce laws. A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian yourself you should try to make divorce difficult for every one. I do not think that. At least I know I should be very angry if the Mohammedans tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine. My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognize that the majority of the British people are not Christian and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives. There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not.
This argument provoked a strong response from Lewis’ friend and fellow Inkling, J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien drafted a response to Lewis sometime in 1943 but never sent it. After Tolkien died, the letter was found folded up inside his copy of Lewis’ “Christian Behavior.” (Which, of course, would be republished as part of Mere Christianity.) The bold parts are my emphasis.
My dear L.,
I have been reading your booklet ‘Christian Behavior.” I have never felt happy about your view of Christian “policy” with regard to divorce. …
[Y]ou observe that you are really committed (with the Christian Church as a whole) to the view that Christian marriage – monogamous, permanent, rigidly “faithful” – is in fact the truth about sexual behavior for all humanity: this is the only road of total health (including sex in its proper place) for all men and women. That it is dissonant with men’s present sex-psychology does not disprove this, as you see: “I think it is the instinct that has gone wrong,” you say. Indeed if this were not so, it would be an intolerable injustice to impose permanent monogamy even on Christians. If Christian marriage were in the last analysis “unnatural” (of the same type as say the prohibition of flesh-meat in certain monastic rules) it could only be imposed on a special “chastity-order” of the Church, not on the universal Church. No item of compulsory Christian morals is valid only for Christians…. I do not think you can possibly support your “policy,” by this argument, for by it you are giving away the very foundation of Christian marriage. The foundation is that this is the correct way of “running the human machine.” Your argument reduces it merely to a way of (perhaps?) getting an extra mileage out of a few selected machines.*
The horror of the Christians with whom you disagree (the great majority of all practicing Christians) at legal divorce is in the ultimate analysis precisely that: horror at seeing good machines ruined by misuse. I could that, if you ever get a chance of alterations, you would make the point clear. Toleration of divorce – if a Christian does tolerate it – is toleration of a human abuse, which it requires special local and temporary circumstances to justify (as does the toleration of usury) – if indeed either divorce or genuine usury should be tolerated at all, as a matter of expedient policy.
Under your limitations of space you have not, of course, had opportunity to elaborate your “policy” – toleration of abuse…. A Christian of your view is, as we have seen, committed to the belief that all people who practice “divorce” – certainly divorce as it is now legalized – are misusing the human machine (whatever philosophical defense they may put up), as certainly as men who get drunk (doubtless with a philosophic defense also). They are injuring themselves, other people, and society, by their behavior. And wrong behavior (if it is really wrong on universal principles) is progressive, always: it never stops at being “not very good,” “second best” – it either reforms, or goes on to third-rate, bad, abominable.
The last Christian marriage I attended was held under your system: the bridal pair were “married” twice. They married one another before the Church’s witness (a priest), using one set of formulas, and making a vow of lifelong fidelity (and the woman of obedience); they then married again before the State’s witness… using another set of formulas and making no vow of fidelity or obedience. I felt it was an abominable proceeding – and also ridiculous, since the first set of formulas and vows included the latter as the lesser. In fact it was only not ridiculous on the assumption that the State was in fact saying by implication: I do not recognize the existence of your church; you may have taken certain vows in your meeting place but they are just foolishness, private taboos, a burden you take on yourself: a limited and impermanent contract is all that is really necessary for citizens. In other words this “sharp division” is a piece of propaganda, a counter-homily delivered to young Christians fresh from the solemn words of the Christian minister.
Tolkien understood the stakes. The debate strikes at the heart of what it means to confess that the Christian faith is “true.” As Tolkien wrote, no article of Christian morality is intended exclusively for Christians. Rather, the faith teaches us that submitting to the laws of our creator is the surest way to live reconciled lives with his creation. This is what we ought to mean when we say Christianity is true. We don’t simply mean that it provides factually accurate information about the world or that it offers an authentic path to spiritual fulfillment for those who choose to follow it. We mean that Christianity gives an accurate accounting of the world in its fullness and that it instructs us in how we ought to relate to the world.
In writing to Lewis on these matters Tolkien would have been preaching to the choir. Which is precisely what makes this oft-quoted section of Mere Christianity so baffling. If it came from any other pen, the natural thing would be to point out that the presuppositions behind the author’s analogy are faulty. The argument simply assumes that religious dogma is strictly personal and, therefore, ultimately relative. You have your practices and I have mine. In this view, religious teachings are not a true description of how to live well and justly in the world, they are just a set of suggested behaviors that followers of a religion should consider practicing. There is no necessary connection between a religious command and human flourishing. This is simply the modern view of religion: Religion consists of private devotional beliefs and (empty) public ritual.
Of course, there was no greater debunker of that entire system of thought than C.S. Lewis. To read him is to come face-to-face with a man who, according to one friend, was “the most thoroughly converted man I ever knew.” Few people wrestled with the absolute, pervasive nature of Christ’s lordship more capably and intelligently than Lewis.
Consider the social critique in That Hideous Strength as one example of this “thoroughly converted” mind. In that book, Lewis is not merely defending an article of faith or a specific political platform. He’s defending an entire orientation toward the world. To borrow a phrase used by Doug Wilson to describe his debates with Christopher Hitchens, the conflict between St. Anne’s and the NICE in Lewis’ novel is not an academic exchange of mutually exclusive beliefs. It is a collision of lives and worlds. The world of St. Anne’s is for Christianity. The NICE is for applied science, modernity, and industrialization.
St. Anne’s Christianity is worth describing in more detail: The home is defined by an integrated way of life directed toward creational flourishing. Some of the less appreciated aspects of this life will be recognizable to many younger evangelicals with broader social interests. St. Anne’s is an agrarian home where they grow most of their own food, where animals come and go as they please, and where the boundaries between “mine” and “yours” are quite a bit fuzzier than they are in our own experience. It’s a place where the land is valued as such and is not buried under the growing burden of human abuse. If it calls to mind scenes from Wendell Berry’s Port William, you are on the right track. In all these ways, That Hideous Strength is extremely friendly to those of us concerned by the abuses of creation perpetrated by industrialization.
But we mustn’t stop there in our analysis of Lewis’ social imagination. If we reduce Lewis’ critique to ecology, we have missed his point. Lewis’ ecological views flow out of something more basic and essential. What Lewis is describing is an orientation toward the world. As such, it encompasses an ethic toward the land, but it is not limited to that.
To discover the bedrock of the book’s social vision, one need look no further than the book’s first word: “Matrimony.” At its roots, That Hideous Strength is a book about marriage. The book begins with Jane Studdock contemplating the love poems of John Donne. The story ends with a chapter titled “Venus at St. Anne’s.” In that chapter, nearly every major character is paired off, including Ransom, who returns to the planet Venus. More on that shortly. Significantly, Mark and Jane are finally reunited, this time sans contraception with the expectation that their child will be the Pendragon, the one who saves England.
And if you scratch a little deeper, you find that this book actually dovetails marvelously with the planetary themes of Lewis’ work discussed so marvelously in Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia. St. Anne’s, by the book’s end, has come to represent the alliance of Venus and Jupiter. In fact, it isn’t even that subtle. Jupiter’s viceregent, Ransom, is whisked off to Venus. And that is not coincidental. Lewis didn’t choose Venus based on whim. Venus, in Lewis’ work, denotes beauty and fertility. Jove, meanwhile, signifies a secure and satisfied kingly joy. Their union signifies creation at its apex, as the beauty and fertility of creation (Venus) is brought under the wise, joyful lordship of its creator king (Jupiter). If you remove marriage, you are removing the beauty and the joviality that animate all of St. Anne’s. If you lose the larger worldview implied by marriage’s design, you lose the entire social vision of That Hideous Strength.
This brings us back to the oddness of Lewis’ concession in Mere Christianity. Certain aspects of the Christianity articulated at St. Anne’s are very much en vogue right now. Evangelical Christians are talking about how to build deeper ties to our local communities by shopping local. We’re attempting to respect and sustain creation by being less wasteful with our resources. Some of us have a renewed interest in agrarian communities.
We’ve had many conversations at my church, a broadly reformed evangelical college-aged congregation, about these sorts of issues. Just this past weekend, my pastor and I attended the Prairie Festival at The Land Institute. At Grace, we’re trying to articulate a broadly Christian social imagination that encompasses all of life. And we aren’t alone in that pursuit. The growing number of evangelical publishers releasing books dealing with Christianity and ecology suggest a broader trend. So far as they go, these are all desires and ambitions that Lewis and Tolkien would warmly commend.
But Lewis – in the majority of his work – and Tolkien would say we must look more closely at the underpinnings of our social ethic. The dominant metaphor for all those commendable activities described above is that of marriage. The ecological, communal, and creational (a far superior word to “environmental”) goals are all understood through the metaphor of marriage, by which we mean a permanent, communally recognized, community-sanctioned relationship characterized by affection and fertility. That’s the best description you’ll find for Lewis’ ethic toward the land, but it flows out of his ethic of sexuality. In much of his writing, and especially in That Hideous Strength, that is quite clear. So understood, we can now see that Tolkien’s letter is simply Tolkien’s attempt to help his friend see that his concession in Mere Christianity actually undermines his larger social vision. That’s why Tolkien pushes so hard in the letter above. In staking out his odd position on divorce, Lewis was giving away much more than a single law on the books of a single nation. Rather, he was giving away the metaphor that shapes all elements of the Christian worldview.
On a note more relevant to contemporary evangelicals, this is why we need to be crystal clear on what the defining themes of our social vision actually are. Matt is fond of saying that the problem with the culture war for evangelicals wasn’t necessarily the “war” part, but the “culture” part. We were defending certain values in the absence of a culture that can sustain those values. Now younger evangelicals are reacting against that and are attempting to develop a robustly Christian social ethic that holds all of creation accountable to the claims of Christ. It’s a most welcome development.
However, it is important to understand that evangelical commitments to both the pro-life cause and the preservation of traditional marriage are not contrary to those broader counter-cultural concerns. Rather, they fit into that social agenda quite neatly. More than that, if Lewis and Tolkien are correct, the heart of that social vision is not an ethic of the land or economics or sustainability. It’s marriage, understood as both the private union of a man and woman and the larger social vision implied by the imagery of marriage; of a community united together in formally-recognized union and relating to one another in an affectionate, fertile way. Such an ethic is good for all areas of life, but it is premised on a certain understanding of marriage. And if we move away from that, we’re moving away from far more than sexual norms.
I am not familiar with a lot of Lewis’ work outside of his fiction. I have read a handful of his books but not many and not recently. But this seems to fit the Lewis that I have understood. First, think about how Divorce affected him personally. His wife had been divorced. She was not completely innocent of responsibility, but she had been physically abused and was married to a serious alcoholic. And she had been divorced before she became a Christian. The current church regulations meant that he was unable to marry her in a church ceremony in spite of her poor health and other extenuating circumstances.
Practically I think you are mixing two different things in your illustrations. There is moral and ethical rules for living, there are cerimonial rules for living and there are cultural rules. I think as Christians we mostly give up cerimonial rules (ie the Old Testament cleanliness and food codes). But we have a hard time giving up cultural rules that are not specifically Christian. For instance, many Christians still view alcohol (even in moderation) and dancing as inappropriate activities for Christians. Although most Christians are no longer actively trying to pass laws against culturally prohibited activities.
The third set is the important set. Biblically prohibited or proscribed behaviors. Most people will put in divorce, homosexuality, adultery, but leave out other biblically proscribed behaviors like honoring parents, caring for poor, not charging interest, etc.
I think that Lewis is right here. While I may believe that there is a moral code I should follow as a Christian, I find it less than helpful for the state to force others to follow the same code, especially if I ask the state to do it on behalf of Christianity. It is not that I don’t think that the world would be better if people voluntarily followed a Christian moral code. But forcing people to follow a code that they do not believe in is a good way to create resentment. And once the resentment is in place those things that are resented get lumped in with all of the things around the resentment.
The sacrifice and morality that Christ invites us to does not work well when combined with the force of the state to require adherence. On the other hand, voluntary choice to have strong marriages, honor parents, care for the poor can help call people to God.
The state should be involved in protecting the weak. So divorce is less important a state matter when women are more equal partners in a marriage. But the state’s interest is stronger when women cannot hold property or have jobs outside the home. I do not think that we should abolish all regulations, but we should acknowledge that there needs to be convincing ideas that are outside pure Christian theology.
Adam, I would simply point out that Christians have allowed an extremely lax view of marriage and divorce in the public sphere for decades now. The resentment from non Christians has not decreased (though now the focus has largely shifted to gay marriage).
I am not sure what you mean. Do you mean that non-Christians still resent Christians for being against divorce? If that is your point I don’t think it is accurate. For one, most Christians believe that divorce is wrong, but do not advocate for it being illegal. Second, if anything I think that the gay marriage debate brings up the hypocrisy of the church in regard to divorce. Some Christians say that the church is pro-family and not anti-gay, but our acceptance of divorce is a good example of how many wish we would treat gay marriage.
This is not a slippery slope issue in my mind. But I know that is how some want to treat it.
Speaking of which, Lewis’s argument here naturally applies to gay marriage.
The quote from Mere Christianity points something out that I feel completely missing from the rest of this discussion. It assumes that Christians have certain beliefs about marriage that are true (in the sense defined in this article), but it also points out that people who follow the teachings of Islam also have certain beliefs about imbibing alcohol that they hold as true in the same sense. Should Muslims be pushing for everyone to be governed by sharia law? Should Christians be pushing to create a Christian theocracy? What happens when differing visions collide? I find it interesting that I run into evangelicals who are horrified by the political power wielded by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, but who are trying to gain similar political power in our modern political systems.
Hear me out: I’m not saying that we should be uninvolved in politics. I’m also not saying that we as the Church universal shouldn’t be standing together for what we believe in, especially when it comes to protecting the powerless from the powerful. But do we really want to even try and use the power of the state to enforce every aspect of what we believe to be true Christian / human living? Note that this question ignores that all Christians won’t agree on all ethical points — which makes sense since they don’t agree on all doctrinal points either.
I want to add one more thing to this. In the first comment, Adam Shields said “The sacrifice and morality that Christ invites us to does not work well when combined with the force of the state to require adherence.” What a great statement. I would add that the only way we can live the sort of life Jesus calls us to is through the Spirit. And here is where the rub comes: Any Christian vision of culture and human flourishing will be rooted in the Spirit’s work enabling believers to be truly human. In other words, how can we expect non-Christians to live as Christians when they lack the help of the Holy Spirit?
[…] and Lewis’ disagreement about marriage and why evangelicals should care about it is now up at Mere O. Share this:EmailFacebookTwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like […]
Adam, I’m not sure where it is that scripture prohibits the charging of interest. But, that is for another day and context…
If you don’t see it then you are reading from a modern western context. Interest was a pretty big deal to an aweful lot of Christians. I am not saying that applies to modern society. I am saying that we like to pick and chose what areas of scripture apply. And we like to ignore the more difficult ones and harp on the ones that do not apply to us. Lewis wrote Mere Christianity in 1952 based on lectures given in the early 40s. But he did not get married to Joy until 1957, so he was not being easy on marriage because of his own marriage issues around divorce.
Joy was going to be kicked out of the country because of her immigration status. So he married her civilally before he sought out a church marriage. The church marriage was initially denied because Joy had been divorced. But he eventually had a friend marry them in her hospital room.
What Lewis talking about is grace for the real living that happens. His own marriage is based on that. He was not trying to prove a point. Marriage (or children from the discussion yesterday) should not be about proving a point. When it is about proving a point then bad things happen.
We must remember the times in which Lewis was writing. If you are a fan of old movies, you might notice the importance of the legal aspects of marriage on male-female relationships from the 1930’s up until the late 1960’s. These “restrictions” and “hindrances” on romantic relationships have totally disappeared from current film and television images of what now passes as “expected” male-female behavior. In a way we have lived into Lewis’ separation of secular and Christian marriage.
I suspect that he might reconsider his argument if he were around today.
I agree with Brad’s point. Tolkien provides no justification for why “x” group of people should expect to see their religious beliefs enshrined in law while “y” group of people should not. Tolkien considered tolerating divorce as tolerating human abuse, but he provided no reason why everyone should be obliged to agree with him.
Tolkein wrote, “A Christian of your view is, as we have seen, committed to the belief that all people who practice “divorce” – certainly divorce as it is now legalized – are misusing the human machine (whatever philosophical defense they may put up), as certainly as men who get drunk (doubtless with a philosophic defense also). They are injuring themselves, other people, and society, by their behavior.”
This being the case, should we make drunkenness illegal? And not just public drunkenness, since that has boundaries that Tolkein does not place on it. Yet we already essentially tried this in the 20’s, and it didn’t work well. Ultimately, it caused more problems than it solved. Sadly, in a society as large as any industrialized society is, some leeway must be made for the reality of sin. Divorce may or may not be beyond that leeway, but there must be some somewhere.
“For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges.”
All – It’s been a long day and as much as I’d like to respond individually, I’m afraid I just don’t have the time or energy for it. But I did want to respond to some of the comments above.
First, regarding Tolkien and the specific analogy Lewis uses of the Muslim banning wine: Tolkien actually does tackle that in the letter, but the letter is three pages long and rather rambling at times – if you’ve read Tolkien’s letters at all you understand – so I was forced to condense.
Briefly, his response was to say that the Muslim who bans liquor is depriving his fellow citizens of a basic human right – the right to the moderate – we’d likely say “responsible” – enjoyment of alcohol. Obviously you can rebut that by saying “the Muslim doesn’t think it’s a human right,” and that’s fair enough. That said, our definitions for what constitutes a “human right” have to come from somewhere and Tolkien seems to be of the mind that that somewhere may as well be Christianity. And Christianity teaches that we have a right – depending on how you think about the Eucharist, perhaps even an obligation – to enjoy alcohol responsibly.
One of the underlying difficulties here is that most of us read these debates and, being good moderns, think in very religiously relativistic terms, which is precisely what Tolkien was attempting to debunk. We think of religion in terms of “private devotional beliefs plus basically meaningless public rituals” and so can easily fall into the habit of thinking of any attempt to make a legal tradition reflect religious teaching as “imposing one’s religion on others,” but such a mindset would have been utterly foreign to Tolkien – and Lewis for that matter. It’s also an utterly foreign way of thinking to most anyone else born before 1850. Tolkien and Lewis would say that you can’t speak of human rights or morality in any kind of meaningful way apart from Christianity because of the all-encompassing, pervasive nature of Christian teachings.
That said, another shade of nuance here is the reasoning for granting lenient divorce laws or, more applicable to the present, for allowing for same-sex marriage. Tolkien is open to viewing lenient divorce laws as a temporary necessity given prevailing social norms. His objection to Lewis isn’t about Lewis’ attitude toward divorce laws per se, but more about how he gets there. It’s one thing to get there by saying, “At this moment our society is not ready for x,” it’s quite another to say, as Lewis does, that “it would be immoral in any context to impose religious doctrine x onto society at large.”
Second, I want to say one thing about the Anabaptist argument that a few people are raising: It’s really interesting to read the Reformed Christians of the 16th c. talk about Anabaptist political thought. They called them “anarchists.” Why? Because they argued that Christians couldn’t become involved in the magistrate b/c the power of the cross and the power of the sword are antithetical. However, Jesus and Paul both seem to be of the mind that God has ordained for the state to exist. So the anabaptist position is either disagreeing with Jesus and Paul – an uncharitable reading of them, I think – or it’s saying that an institution ordained as a social necessity is off-limits to Christians. To the reformed, this was functional anarchy.
To be clear, there are very strong distinctions that need to be made in speaking about church/state issues. The church and state are distinct social bodies with distinct social goals. But I don’t think you can say “coercion is antithetical to the Gospel, so Christians can’t go there.” Maybe this is a good way to put it: If your political theology forces you to say that Wilberforce was in sin when he used the law to end slavery or that contemporary Christians are in sin when they join legislative bodies to fight abortion or human trafficking… well, then you need to rethink your political theology.
One final point – Let’s not confuse an argument that Christianity should inform a Christian community’s legal tradition with an argument for theocracy – whatever that term means. If the state exists to protect the liberty of its citizens, then you have to ask questions about what the nature of that protection is and what the nature of that liberty is. And if you define liberty as the church often has going back to Augustine, then you should end up saying that an action like banning pornography is not a violation of personal liberty, but a protection of it.
That doesn’t resolve the marriage debate, obviously, but I want to make sure we’re having the right conversation. I’m not arguing for theocracy. I’m simply arguing that it isn’t unreasonable to say that a state’s legal tradition should reflect Christian teachings, assuming that Christianity is true. How it goes about doing that is a separate question and full of complexities and ambiguities. But let’s try to keep in mind that the question isn’t simply “No Christian participation in the state” vs. “Theocracy.”
[…] Why C.S. Lewis is Wrong on Marriage: Tolkien understood the stakes. The debate strikes at the heart of what it means to confess that the Christian faith is “true.” As Tolkien wrote, no article of Christian morality is intended exclusively for Christians. Rather, the faith teaches us that submitting to the laws of our creator is the surest way to live reconciled lives with his creation. […]
[…] Why C.S. Lewis Is Wrong on Marriage: Tolkein vs. Lewis on whether Christians should enact laws enforcing a Christian view of marriage. […]
It’s not clear to me how Lewis’ position entails that religious dogma is “ultimately relative.” One can believe, for religious or philosophical reasons, that action X is wrong, while feeling it would be inappropriate to create a law that forbids X. This distinction doesn’t seem to equate with relativism.
Rarely do I agree with C.S. Lewis.
Whew this is a juicy post!
I agree with Jake’s final words in his response:
I’m simply arguing that it isn’t unreasonable to say that a state’s legal tradition should reflect Christian teachings, assuming that Christianity is true. How it goes about doing that is a separate question and full of complexities and ambiguities. But let’s try to keep in mind that the question isn’t simply “No Christian participation in the state” vs. “Theocracy.”
As Christians, we need to stop functionally terminating the Gospel at the cross. Resurrection signals the beginning of New Creation. Creation put right. If we truly believe this, then it is our responsibility to cultivate new creation for all people. The reluctance to codify these precepts is fair! However, why is it that we haven’t been faithful in our own church jurisdiction, so as to provide a shining example (as mentioned above, divorce laws within the Church have been eroding for years). If we believe that the Kingship of Christ and his Way is the Truth for how we interact with all creation (and each other), then why aren’t we striving towards the same expertise that is demonstrated in the secular acadamia that tries to prove otherwise? I think the real problem here is that as a Christian community, we have provided very little evidence that our de facto understanding of ethics translates to anything very robust in practice. And if, as Jake, Tolkien and Lewis imply, marriage is our ultimate metaphor for human relationships to God and creation and each other, let’s be sure that we are gravely serious about it in Christian praxis. Maybe, if we learn to wash some folks’ feet, we will earn the authority to tell the world, no.
As I take an anabaptist position in church/state relations I don’t feel particularly charitable to Tolkien’s argument. If you take as a premise that christian marriage is a human good and that the good should be enshrined in law I understand why it is axiomatic that law should reflect the Christian understanding of marriage. Of course I think the same argument applies to adultery, pornography, drunkenness, etc and if consistently applied does in fact sound rather theocratic to my ears.
But that isn’t my main objection. I’d like to offer a bastardized version of Mclaren’s farcical “let’s just agree not to talk about homosexuality” proposal. Let’s agree not to try to get the state to enforce Christian ethics on non-Christians until the Church can agree to live by them herself! At least we don’t appear to be totally hypocritical in relation to issues such as gay marriage and abortion as we do not as a whole condemn publicly what we tolerate privately.
Divorce is a different issue. The protestant Church in the US has pretty much given up divorce. Evangelicals in my area are happy to say things like “God hates divorce” but in practice will not do anything about it whatsoever. Ministers in large and respected local churches divorce, remarry, and maintain their ministry. An acquaintance left his wife, began dating a woman in a small group at another Church while not even legally divorced with the apparent blessing of the (large, well known) Church he now attends. Another woman left her husband (with whom she has adopted several children) and currently lives with a man to whom she is not married while still remaining legally married to her husband and the best her many Christian friends can muster is a tepid disagreement with the proviso that certainly we should not judge. I could go on and on – but can only say “these things ought not be so!” When the Church is serious about moral excellence and demonstrates it consistently we might cast our gaze upon wider society without enduring much well deserved mockery.
Tolkien understood marriage in the same context that he understood the Church—not as metaphor, but as type. He presages John Paul II who calls marriage the Domestic Church. Marriage was not “like” the Church for Tolkien, it comprised the substance of Her. For Tolkien, the term “metaphor” does not apply, or apply as it is commonly used; for Lewis, it does apply. Bride and Bridegroom, in Tolkien’s worldview, are one, in a complete tangible unity. So divorce from the Church (schism) is understood as is divorce from one another. Both occur (schism and divorce), both are to be rejected as ‘good.’ ‘Good,’ as Tolkien understood theologically, applies universally, not just to some, and not just to Christians. That both schism and divorce occur was not lost on Tolkien. He understood the incarnation to mean that material realities such as marriage, such as the Church, were to be whole, thoroughly undivided, and tangibly discernible as the evangelical evidence that Christ was redeemer of the world, the clear meaning the disciples heard Jesus say, documented in John 17. Anything less, is compromised evangelism.
Tolkien held the incarnational theology consistent with that of his Church; Lewis held an ambiguous incarnational theology, consistent with that of his Church. The manifestation of these understandings is reflected in their different understandings of marriage and divorce.
I think there needs to be the recognition that the government is more or less the world, or reasonably representative of the world and worldliness at that given time. To the degree with which Christ and the world overlap is the degree of realism we can approach agreeable moral judgements in politics.
If Christ and the world do not overlap, we render unto Caeser his due, but more or less get along with worshipping God, thanking him for the blessings of overlap and thanking him for his providence when they don’t over lap.
I think, with regards to the overlap, that massive attention must be paid to both the stir of the Spirit within us and the evidence of his wider workings on the earth among unbelievers. When Christ showed up, he showed up into a brute beast of a society but didn’t really set about changing it; rather, he set about changing hearts, and changed hearts in aggregate became a new society. This is why I’m inclined to think in regards to all things cultural that it’s more important we submit our own hearts before we try to convince or legislate others to do the same. If we strive for a theocracy, we get England more or less for five hundred years, and we run the risk of doing what God hasn’t yet done himself in damaging the wheat while pulling up the tares.
Christ and man are incompatible. The only compatibility we share is when one or the other is dead. Society and culture being man, and incompatible with God, ought we to foist God’s laws on the world, or simply live as we are inhabited by Christ, dead to sin, praying that the powers at be would be amenable?
[…] “Why C.S. Lewis is Wrong on Marriage,” Mere Orthodoxy […]
Leaving aside the question of whether or not we have a moral right to work to enshrine Christian ethics in law (we may or may not, but we will certainly have difficulty convincing anyone who doesn’t hold to basic Christian dogma that we do), it is worth asking whether doing so is ultimately helpful to the cause of Christ.
Christians of virtually any theological position can agree that the Fall has seriously damaged our ability as human beings to live holy lives according to God’s standard, which is amazingly comprehensive. The antidote to this is, of course, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, who enables us to obey God fully. The Holy Spirit, however, only indwells Christians. In the light of this, I wonder whether it is beneficial to attempt to enshrine all God’s commands in law. To attempt to force people to live according to a standard they do not accept and have not been empowered to uphold seems paternalistic at best and sadistic at worst.
What is the purpose of law and government, in the end? Is it to order every citizen of a given state to live a godly life, regardless of whether they have any inclination or ability to do so? Or is it to assure a relatively stable society, which attempts to keep its members from hurting each other, while recognizing that they do not have the ability to prevent individuals from hurting themselves? I’d argue for the latter, and that as a result the influence Christians have in the political sphere should be used to fight sins with identifiable victims–murder, rape, human trafficking, domestic abuse, etc…
If we change the sin to abortion, I’m guessing there’d be a greater consensus about enacting a government-enforced prohibition. And with good reason, as we’re talking ending a life, rather than just ending a marriage. Murder is within the government’s purview, if anything is.
But having spent some time up-close and personal with the top organizers of the Pro-Life movement (specifically annual march in Washington on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade) I’ve seen an unhealthy and unChristian approach.
If the Pro-LIfe movement was successful and tomorrow all abortions were outlawed, the organization would celebrate and give speeches and hand out awards to their leadership. They would congratulate one another and sing, “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow.” They would hug and cry in the great relief of the long-sought victory of their cause.
And the following day across the country, people would find themselves, for whatever reason, in situations that lead them to consider abortion. However horrific, some see it as the only solution. Changing the law doesn’t magically eliminate this errant desire. And the desire of broken people to seek broken solutions is the real concern of the church, the real problem that needs the Gospel.
Discussion about civil enforcement of Christian ethics, even if they are true and right, is interesting, but ultimately missing the point. It’s somewhat irrelevant whether divorce is legal. Our hearts should break over those find themselves so lost that divorce seems like a good option. Telling them we think it should be illegal, whether personally or through public discourse, only insures that they will never consider the church a safe place to go.
“Discussion about civil enforcement of Christian ethics, even if they are true and right, is interesting, but ultimately missing the point. It’s somewhat irrelevant whether divorce is legal. Our hearts should break over those find themselves so lost that divorce seems like a good option. Telling them we think it should be illegal, whether personally or through public discourse, only insures that they will never consider the church a safe place to go.”
People react viscerally to statements or thought processes they know on a gut level to be false. Most people, when given their own minds, understand on a deep level that legislating morality is an intrinsic infringement on God-ordained freedom, God himself having respected us so highly as to let us choose whether or not we are to sin and go to heaven or hell. Without diverging into another topic completely, airing the thought of banning divorce in public would be shut down because it is such a practically useless thought, and on such a basic level that it would undermine all validity of the intellect of the faith.
I do not mean that to be offensive, just to be realistic. I am adamantly against drunkenness but I love a good glass of booze, and I would hate that that freedom be even slightly infringed upon. So long as people are allowed to have sex (or a glass of beer), they ought to be free to divorce (or get drunk). It doesn’t make divorce and drunkenness righteous in any way, any more than a carpenter abets a crime by building the house it takes place in. It’s the same principle that allows a person to choose fidelity in marriage or sobriety in drinking.
There are a thousand debates running from this one. The great temptation of being intelligent or considering oneself intelligent (which I include myself in) is the temptation to inflict our knowledge, whether right or wrong, on the masses at large as some sort of grim social experiment, when really what is called for is that we maintain our own marriages in passion, sobriety, and sanctity.
Lewis is taking a skeptical view on marriage in the secular world, taking, as it were, the part of Moses who allowed divorce for the hardness of the Jews’ hearts. Moses had “given up” on a segment of his community pro tempore and reduced the rigor of a universal standard upon it. The Lord did not disallow this, but pointed (as Tolkien does) to universality of the standard. Lewis is transferring the Mosaic allowance to the marriage laws of the secular state, which governs people who do not recognize or live by Christian standards, even though it is clear from his other writings he believes the Christian standards to be universal and right.
One may disagree with his hypothesizing from an analogate of Moses’ seat, but the question is whether Christians as a group should support a Mosaic reduction in a non-Christian state, not whether there are or should be two standards. Lewis believed there were not, but that the reduction should be allowed by Christians; Tolkien did not think it should because of the universality of the standard, and sounds much more Christian. There is something to say for both views, but the point is this: Lewis was not contradicting himself in believing there should be exceptions to the rule–he had “not disallowed” precedent in the Torah for taking the lower road, knew it, and also, presumably, knew how bold he was in making his point.
Parenthetically, I have found, especially among Evangelicals, a great many desperate to downgrade Lewis by finding “mistakes” in him–to keep him as a kind of mascot, making sure, however, claws are pulled. A stumbling Lewis’s opinions on egalitarianism, where he is an enduring and very painful thorn in the side of their intelligentsia, can be more easily written off.
[…] you’ve seen these before, but here are comments included in a Mere Orthodoxy post from a letter written by JRR Tolkien criticizing CS Lewis’s […]
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[…] [iii] Qtd. in Jake Meador, “Why C. S. Lewis Is Wrong on Marriage,” Mere Orthodoxy, October 9, 2012, accessed October 30, 2014, https://mereorthodoxy.com/why-c-s-lewis-is-wrong-on-marriage/. […]
I agree. By the reasoning of this post, we should not only make drunkenness illegal, even private drunkenness. We should also make homosexuality illegal. And, most important of all, we should also make atheism illegal. All of these are “misuses of the human machine,” in the Christian view.
I am glad that I myself am not a homosexual or an atheist. But I would not like to see people prosecuted in the courts and punished for being homosexuals or atheists.
Sorry, Jake, but I think you’re missing the point here. What Lewis is talking about is how laws should be made, not about marriage. He’s talking about Paul’s point that we can’t expect non-christians to live by christian standards, and we certainly can’t legislate from this point of view not only because this puts us in danger if the public’s opinion turns against ours as Lewis points out, but because it associates Jesus’s name with intolerance, and we need to focus on Him, through whom obedience comes, rather than legalism… which is like… the point of the gospel.
[…] guest post is written by friend of the blog J.R.R. Tolkien. It is a general reaction to certain ideas bandied about […]
[…] C.S. Lewis was wrong on marriage, and Tolkien took him to task for it. Marriage isn’t only a construction of the state. It has a theological dimension too. — Read on mereorthodoxy.com/why-c-s-lewis-is-wrong-on-marriage/ […]
I don’t think Lewis and Tolkien were that far apart (why the letter was never sent?) .
I know lots of people who have a church wedding AND a civil one; always made sense to me.
I don’t think it should encourage people to betray their civil vows , they are still important , but these people who do this have all stayed together.
It all brings up the thorny issue of politics ; focus on faith, faith drives religion , religion drives culture , culture drives politics . SM.