After digging into Time’s 1947 cover article on C.S. Lewis, I thought it might be fun to reprint a couple of Time articles from the 40s. Last week I shared a review of George MacDonald: An Anthology. This week’s review of The Great Divorce shows a little more depth.
“Excursion from Hell”
Time, 3/11/1946, Vol. 47, Issue 10
“Blake wrote the Marriage of Heaven and Hell…. I have written of their divorce.”
Thus ruddy, balding British Author Clive S. Lewis (The Screwtape Letters, etc.), a convert (1930) from well-bred skepticism to the Church of England, explains the purpose of his new book, The Great Divorce (MacMillan; $1.50).
Lewis’ chief target: “liberal” theologians who attempt to combine skepticism with faith. Said Lewis of his own conversion:
“I want to be left alone, to feel I’m my own master: but since the facts seemed just the opposite, I had to give in.”
In The Great Divorce, Author Lewis, who teaches medieval literature at Oxford, takes himself and a load of jostling, quarreling passengers from a twilit, drizzly city of endless streets to a fresh meadow at the foot of a cloudy mountain range. “The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world,” Lewis warns. But the grey city, he realizes, was Hell; he and his bus-mates are spirits on an excursion. Damnation is not final; they may stay in Heaven if they choose to.
Most of them do not. Explains an old (Scotsman who guides Lewis as Virgil and St. Bernard guided Dante:
“Milton was right. The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words ‘Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.’ There is always something they insist on keeping, even at the price of misery…. It has a hundred fine names—Achilles’ wrath and Coriolanus’ grandeur, Revenge and Injured Merit and Self-Respect and Tragic Greatness and Proper Pride.”
Gaitered Ghost. One by one, Lewis’ fellow excursionists fail to find Heaven to their liking. Most outspoken: the liberal theologian, a fat, gaitered ghost with a cultured voice and “a bright clerical smile,” who clings to his benign skepticism and open mind even in the forefields of Heaven. An old orthodox friend says to him:
“We know nothing of religion here: we think only of Christ. We know nothing of speculation. Come and see. I will bring you to Eternal Fact, the Father of all other facthood.”
“I should object very strongly to describing God as a ‘fact,’ ” says the liberal theologian. “The Supreme Value would surely be a less inadequate description. It is hardly….”
“Do you not even believe that He exists?”
“Exists? What does Existence mean? You will keep on implying some sort of static, ready-made reality which is, so to speak, ‘there,’ and to which our minds have simply to conform. These great mysteries cannot be approached in that way…. God, for me, is something purely spiritual. The spirit of sweetness and light and tolerance—and, er, service, Dick, service. We mustn’t forget that… .”
“I have to be back next Friday to read a paper. We have a little Theological Society down there. Oh yes! There is plenty of intellectual life. Not of a very high quality, perhaps. One notices a certain lack of grip—a certain confusion of mind….
“I’m going to point out how people always forget that Jesus . . . was a comparatively young man when he died. He would have outgrown some of his earlier views, you know, if he’d lived. As he might have done with a little more tact and patience…. What a different Christianity we might have had if only the Founder had reached his full stature! I shall end up by pointing out how this deepens the significance of the Crucifixion. One feels for the first time what a disaster it was: what a tragic waste….”
And with that, the clerical ghost hurries back to his grey, earthlike Hell, humming softly to himself, “City of God, how broad and far.”