C. S. Lewis on Myth (Part IV)

This post is the final in our series examining C. S. Lewis’s view of “myth.”

C. S. Lewis (2)Lewis gives perhaps his clearest exposition on myth in his essay entitled “Myth Became Fact“. Lewis begins this essay with the idea that he is going to refute his friend Corineus and his assertion that no one who calls themselves a Christian is actually a Christian in any meaningful sense. To Corineus, Christianity is something horrible that no modern man could accept in its totality, and thus those who confess Christianity are really confessing modernism using Christian jargon. Lewis seeks to dispel the idea that Christianity is a “system of names, rituals, formulae, and metaphors which persist although the thoughts behind it have changed” (“Myth Became Fact, 138). Lewis asks Corineus, and those like him, “Why, on his view, do all these educated and enlightened pseudo-Christians insist on expressing their deepest thoughts in terms of an archaic mythology which must hamper and embarrass them at every turn?” (Ibid., 138)

This concern addresses Christians to this day, especially as academic Christians are still asked why they profess belief in such an outdated religion as Christianity. Lewis counters this claim by stating that “Even assuming… that the doctrines of historic Christianity are merely mythical, it is the myth which is the vital and nourishing element in the whole concern” (Ibid., 139). The Myth is itself part of the draw for the Christian faith. While Corineus postulates man should move with the times, Lewis responds that times move on without us, but that in religion we find something that does not pass away, something that abides even as the world shifts: Myth. A quick glance at history proves Lewis correct; He cites examples of Julian the Apostate, the Gnostics, Voltaire, and the Victorians –all who professed ideas that found wide acceptance in their time, but have passed to the wayside even as the myth of Christianity has expanded. Furthermore, Lewis argues that “those elements even in modernist Christianity which Corineus regards as vestigial are the substance: what he takes for the ‘real modern belief’ is the shadow” (Ibid., 140). To substantiate this, one must look closer at the idea of myth. Lewis delves into the difference between contemplation and enjoyment of an experience. “Human intellect is incurably abstract” (Ibid., 140) he says, but the reality we experience is concrete. Thus in experience, we are faced with a dilemma, “either to taste and not to know or to know and not to taste… You cannot study Pleasure in the moment of nuptial embrace… nor analyze humor while roaring with laughter” (Ibid., 140). We are incapable of both enjoying an experience and contemplating it at the same time; we may do one or the other, but not both. This perplexity presents us with a dilemma: How do we know real pain or pleasure? If we’re unable to conceptualize ideas concerning an experience until after the fact, do we not lose much of the integrity of our argument?

Myth or FactTo this difficulty Lewis presents the solution of myth: “In the enjoyment of a great myth we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction” (Ibid., 140). But this is often not what one looks for in a myth; frequently one reads a myth for the experience of ‘tasting’, not knowing a principle, “but what you were tasting turns out to be a universal principle. The moment that we state this principle, we are admittedly back in the world of abstraction. It is only while receiving the myth as a story that you experience the principle concretely” (Ibid., 141). While we cannot truly experience both contemplation and enjoyment at the same time, the event which brings us closest to that experience is myth. Furthermore, our acquaintance with myth brings us closer to the truth of reality. Lewis writes that myth is “the mountain whence all the different streams arise which become truths down here in the valley” (Ibid., 141). Myth transcends human thought; it is something that is so wonderful and deep that it at once provides a sense of joy and conveys upon us some great truth. Additionally, “as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth” (Ibid., 141). The myth of God coming to earth actually happened, without ceasing to be myth and transcend human thought.

“By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle” (Ibid., 141): to Lewis, it is belief in this miracle that makes Christianity exceptional. “To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact thought it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other” (Ibid., 141). Christian faith then is both holding to the facts of Christianity as well as the mythical aspects, those things which are perhaps too great to comprehend cognitively but are incredible, joyful experiences. Lewis is encouraging the Christian faith to neither rely wholly upon ‘scientific and explainable’ fact nor solely upon the puzzle and experience of myth. Lewis indicates that the mystery of faith is perhaps more important than the facts in saying, “A man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who assented and did not think much about it” (Ibid., 141). This should not be viewed as a defense of those who disbelieve that facts of Christianity but accept the myth, but as a challenge to contemplate and experience both the facts and the myth of the Christian faith.

MistLewis concludes his essay with a reminder to not forget that, “What became fact was a myth, that it carries with it into the world of fact all of the properties of myth” (Ibid., 142). As Christians, we can assent to the facts of Christianity, but we must never minimize the myth and mystery behind our faith. “We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about ‘parallels’ and ‘Pagan Christs’: they ought to be there –it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t” (Ibid., 142). As Christians, we should be glad for the way in which God speaks to man through myth. For in this way God reveals Himself to all men that they may find Him; proof of His love is evident in the parallels and similarities in morality and myth across the world. To Lewis then, the myth of Christianity is of the utmost importance. This myth allows us to experience and enjoy truth in reality while simultaneously conveying upon us principles of truth. Myth is the way God communicates with man, the medium by which truth is given to mankind. Myth speaks to man where he is, allowing him to enjoy and be fed, speaking as no other form of communication can. The Myth that Became Fact, the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Christ for the redemption of those who believe in Him, is the unsurpassable myth which gives life to all men who believe. This fact embodied in the truth of myth allows all men to come to God. “For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher” (Ibid., 142).


Sources

Lewis, C.S. An Experiment in Criticism. Canto ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 40-49.

–. Miracles. New York: HarperOne, 1996. 218.

–. “Myth Became Fact.” C.S. Lewis Essay Collection: Faith, Christianity and the Church. Ed. Lesley Walmsley. London: HarperCollins, 2002. 138-42.

–. “Reflections on the Psalms.” C.S. Lewis Selected Books. London: HarperCollins, 2002. 363-68.

–. “The Pilgrim’s Regress.” C.S. Lewis Selected Books. Third ed. London: HarperCollins, 2002. 167-71.

–. “To Arthur Greeves October 18th 1931.” C.S. Lewis Collected Letters, Volume I: Family Letters 1905-1931. Ed. Walter Hooper. London: HarperCollins, 2000. 975-77.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J. “On Scripture.” The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis. Ed. Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 75-88.

This essay was originally written at Peters College, Oxford University for Dr. Michael Ward.

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