C. S. Lewis on Myth (Part I)

C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis

Most people do not like being told that they are wrong. This is especially true when it comes to politics or religious faith. Interestingly, a number of pundits and scholars have taken to calling religious faith “myth” in recent years, especially religious faith that for many adherents hinges upon certain events that claim to be historical. The work of Joseph Campbell springs to mind, as do more contemporary perspectives such as those espoused by Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins. For perspectives such as these (most admittedly devoted to philosophical naturalism) and others (one thinks of certain Historical Jesus scholars over the years), Christian claims about the resurrection of  Jesus of Nazareth cannot be categorized as anything but “myth,” the stuff of legend, or theological story-telling. And, as one might expect, most Christians do not appreciate being told that their deeply held religious convictions are, in a word, myth. While for many the term “myth” connotes feelings of falsehood or story, Christian thinkers such as C.S Lewis conceived of myth in other terms. In the essay that follows, we examine Lewis’ conception of “myth,” as well as his understanding of the relationship between “myth” and “fact” in the Christian narrative.

The idea of myth was an important one for C.S. Lewis, especially with regard to his conversions to theism and Christianity, and his later apologies for the Christian faith. Lewis came to define myth in perhaps a non-traditional manner, writing that “Myth in general is not merely misunderstood history… nor diabolical illusion… not priestly lying… but at its best, a real unfocused gleam of divine truth on human imagination” (Miracles, 138). Thus, one must understand that what Lewis refers to as myth is not some cleverly narrated story but truth wrapped in narrative which can, when properly understood, convey great truths to its readers.

Norse Thor

Norse Thor

Early in his life, Lewis enjoyed the idea of myth, especially the mythology of the Norse gods. Yet as his theological journey brought him closer to theism, he expressed reluctance to fully embrace the myths of theism and (eventually) Christianity. In a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, Lewis expressed that he was not reluctant to profess faith in God because of historical considerations. It was instead his hesitancy concerning the propitiation and sacrifice of Christ (To Arthur Greeves, 976) that he wrestled with. He pens that the idea of a god dying for man moved him except when he found it in the Gospels, for he felt that he could not understand the event there; he “could not in cold prose say ‘what it meant’” (Ibid., 977). Yet even then Lewis viewed the myth of Christianity as holding certain historical accuracy. He writes “Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened” (Ibid., 977). At this point Lewis believed that while the Christian story was true, that “The ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of what God has already expressed in language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection” (Ibid., 977). Thus, Lewis came to believe that Christianity ought to be approached in a manner similar to other meaningful myths and that the story of Christianity almost certainly happened.

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