C.S. Lewis and Myth

C.S. Lewis believed the pagan myths were mere creations of man and so conveyed the truths of men, but that Christianity was a true myth.  Lewis was convinced of the Christian story as real because of an atheist he knew who accepted Jesus as having historically existed.  This is strange that he put so much validity to this atheist’s claims while he apparently ignored the conclusions by others who contradicted historical proof.  Whatever his reasoning, Lewis seemed to have made the leap that historical reality equates to divine reality. 

Two things must be forgiven Lewis for his knowledge was limited.  First, the doubts about Jesus having historically lived have only continually grown stronger since that time.  Even during Lewis’ lifetime, there were plenty of intellectuals doubting the supposed historical proofs of Jesus, but Lewis was ultimately looking for any reason to believe.  He simply wanted to believe.  Second, either he wasn’t knowledgeable in the field of mythology or else certain issues weren’t well known among scholars of his day.  Anyways, his assumption that the Christian myth was the only one claimed to be historical is utterly false.  The rational framework (i.e., the apologetics) of Lewis’ Christian beliefs fall apart under the careful scrutiny of contemporary knowledge.  These arguments still are powerful though partly because ignorance of such matters is still immense.  One can still find biblical scholars who seem ignorant or dismissive of the fact that other religious myths have been claimed to be historical, but I suppose that is simply the danger of academic specialization in particular when in service of dogma.  The question that comes to mind is that even if Lewis had more knowledge would this have changed one iota his desire to believe and hence his ultimate conclusion of belief.  If his desire was strong enough, he could’ve found other ways to rationalize his belief.

I should point out an important factor.  Lewis was attracted to pagan mythology.  It affected him in a way that the Christian myth initally didn’t.  His intellect got in the way of his appreciating Christianity.  He wanted to rationally understand how Jesus life could have influence on him now besides merely being an example (which wouldn’t be enough to support conversion).  Tolkien helped Lewis to realize he was putting Christianity on a different level than Paganism, and that he needed to approach Christian myth in the way he did with Pagan myth.  Tolkien’s more poetic mindset helped Lewis understand his own intellectual bias.  Christianity was myth as well, but it was true myth… the Word of God incarnate.

This is all fine and dandy, but doesn’t make for good apologetics.  By this, I mean that it wouldn’t convince anyone that isn’t already a Christian or isn’t already looking for a reason to believe.  His dismissal of pagan myths as merely human stories hints at a tremendous lack of insight and understanding.  The Pagans were similarly inspired by divine visions when creating their stories.  Also, like Christians, many Pagans conflated mythology with history.  His separation between Christianity and Paganism is artificial and unhelpful.

I will, however, give credit where it’s due.  Lewis did come to a middleground position that no Christian fundamentalist could ever accept.  He didn’t simply dismiss pagan myth.  He had studied myths for himself and he realized they held powerful truths, but ultimately the apologist in him had to limit this insight.  He required that a myth be absolutely true or else just a story.  As I see it, the point of myth is that it can never be clearly defined.  Clear definitions are of man and not of the divine.  The intellectual desire of apologetics in trying to prove Christianity ultimately undermines the very value of Christianity… not that ignorance is the answer.  Whether or not Jesus (or any mythological character for that matter) actually lived is ultimately insignificant.  The teachings that are claimed to be from Jesus had been spoken before by others.  They’re either true or false based on their value.  Besides, God could just as easily speak through any mythological character or actual human as through Jesus… and Jesus never claims otherwise.  Plus, even if Jesus had existed, it proves absolutely nothing.  First century teachers and prophets making astounding claims (such as being Christ, Messiah, Son of God and Son of Man) and having astounding claims made about them (such as healings, miracles and salvation) were dime a dozen.

Basically, if Lewis (like any other Christian) wished to believe, then he was free to have faith.  But such faith is at best a spiritual experience and so rationality is besides the point.  Anytime rationality is used to support faith it inevitably fails as it becomes mired in rationalization.  Lewis, of course, became aware of the limitations of rationality.  But, differently than Tolkien, he had a stronger tendency towards relying on intellectual understanding.  He necessitated an initial “belief” in a rational groundwork for Christianity (i.e., belief in the historical Christ) before he could embrace belief on its own terms.  His problem was that he couldn’t imagine Christianity as being respectable or worthy without this initial claim of proof.  To me, this puts the whole edifice of Christianity on rather shaky ground.  For one, it can’t be proved by secular standards of historical and scientific scholarship.  Secondly, even if it were true, there is no way to distinguish it from all of the other historical claims of equal validity.  Why not be Jewish, Muslim, Manichean or Buddhist instead of Christian?  All of the founders of these religions have been claimed to be historical.  Furthermore, many early Christians outright denied Jesus being historical.  They actually believed the historical claims undermined his spiritual value.  Whether or not you agree with this assessment, it demonstrates that a Christian almost two thousand years later has no reason to feel secure in historical claims when the earliest Christians couldn’t even agree.

The problem for Lewis’ apologetics comes down to a single factor.  All myths have to be judged on the same level.  Claims of historical proof or divine status aren’t original or exclusive to Christianity and so can’t be used to distinguish it.  Even the theology of Christianity mostly isn’t original and exclusive.  I don’t mean to dismiss the truth of Christianity, but I’m only trying to convey that Christians will have to dig a bit deeper to find it.  Lewis intuitively sensed a truth in Christianity and that is what is important.  The problem comes when a person believes what intuitively makes sense to them must be absolutely true for everyone.  I do suspect there are something like universal truths, but even so I doubt they exist on the surface level of any given story or doctrine.  Lewis maybe should’ve stayed closer to his actual experience rather than looking for a Christian explanation.  Instead of trying to bring his personal truth into the context of collective religious myth (i.e., orthodox Christian doctrine), he might’ve found even more insight by following it into the depths of the poetic imagination, the spiritual substratum.

I shouldn’t be so critical of Lewis.  I respect a person who struggled with trying to understand such difficult issues.  He did have a very questioning attitude.  He was as openminded as someone could be and still retain some connection to orthodox Christianity.  He has helped many Christians to have a more open relationship to traditions outside of Christianity.  Along with Carl Jung, Lewis aided the interfaith dialogue and helped lay the groundwork for the for the contemporary interest in comparative mythology.  Lewis represents the beginning of a transition from traditional apologetics towards a more sophisticated analysis of religion, but ultimately Lewis is still an apologist even if above average in intelligence.

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