Key Themes in The Screwtape Letters, or,
What we learn from Screwtape: part 3
This is part 7 in a series of blog posts that is dedicated to The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. To see part 1, click here; to see part 2, click here; to see part 3, click here; to see part 4, click here; to see part 5, click here; to see part 6, click here. In part 1 we introduced the Screwtape Letters and provided a brief outline of the book. In parts 2-4 we provided an analysis of the literary sources that inspired the Screwtape Letters. We saw that the two most obvious literary sources for The Screwtape Letters are (1) the biblical teachings on angels, demons, and sin, and (2) John Milton’s Paradise Lost. We then looked at a number of other influences, and references to other literature, that can be seen in the ScrewTape Letters. In part 5 we began an exposition of the key themes that are brought up in the Screwtape Letters. Due to the nature of the Letters, it is important to understand that Lewis is not providing an indepth philosophical or theological analysis of each subject, but, rather, is providing what might be called a popular-level analysis. In part 5 we looked at some comments that Lewis makes concerning the Natural Sciences, Time and Change (which might be considered a sub-category of natural philosophy, or Metaphysics--depending on how the subject is approached), and Metaphysics. In part 6, we looked at some comments that Lewis makes concerning Theology Proper (the doctrine of God), and Christology. Now, in part 7, we will look at comments that Lewis makes concerning Human Nature, Hamartiology (or the doctrine of sin), and Ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church).
When discussing prayer, we first come across some statements by C. S. Lewis that give us a glimpse at his understanding of human nature—that which is common to all that can be said to be Human, and as human. He has Screwtape say, “they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.” In the 8th letter Screwtape repeats the same claim, but in a different way, “Humans are amphibians—half spirit and half animal…As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time. This means that while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for to be in time means to change.”
Later he says, “Think of your man as a series of concentric circles, his will being the innermost, his intellect coming next, and finally his fantasy.” In this little phrase we get a hint of Lewis’s understanding of the composition of man. We already know that he sees humans as a composition of body and soul, but that we can distinguish, within the human person (not a “Real distinction”, but a distinction of reason), the “fantasy” or imagination, the intellect, and the will. Lewis seems to suggest that the Imagination is that which is most affected by experience or the senses. That the intellect is influenced by the imagination, and that the will is influenced by the intellect. Concerning the human will, Lewis is quite adamant that humans have freedom of the will.
Humans are temporal beings, and this temporality invades everything they do, “The humans live in time, and experience reality successively. To experience much of it, therefore, they must experience many different things; in other words, they must experience change.” Though humans are temporal, changing, creatures, they were destined for eternity.
This book is, in a sense, a book on sin and sins. Too lay out everything Lewis says about sin and sins in this little book would require a book length commentary, as such, we will only note one comment that C. S. Lewis makes, which are particularly interesting. He proposes that all sin is rooted in the future, saying, “nearly all vices are rooted in the future. Gratitude looks to the past and love to the present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead. Do not think lust an exception.”
Lewis says quite a bit about the church, both the local and the universal church, in the letters of Screwtape. Speaking of the universal church Lewis describes it, through the pen of Screwtape, as “the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners.” He not only notes that the universal church transcends time and space, but he also refers to it as invisible (another title that it has sometimes received), “it is quite invisible to these humans.” In the preceding sentence he alludes to what Jesus said about the universal church in Matthew 16:18 “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Screwtape says, concerning the universal church, “That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy.”
What does Lewis think about the Local church? One of the immediately obvious aspects of the local church, in Lewis’s understanding, is that it is filled with all kinds of different people from different levels of society, who are sinners saved by grace, but still humans struggling with very real sins and temptations. In the sixteenth chapter Lewis has Screwtape describe the church as follows, “being unity of place and not of likings, it brings people of different classes and psychology together in the kind of unity the Enemy desires.” Another aspect of the local church is its size and, more importantly, its many warring factions, as they appearance to outsiders. Lewis notes that the smaller the church, and the more it is fractured by inner divisions (regardless the reason), the more it will appear (to outsiders) like a cult. The more it appears like a cult, the less it will be able to successfully preach the gospel. The cult-like factions push men away from the Gospel, rather than drawing them in. Lewis comes back to this point in the 16th letter.
Lewis also discusses the importance of faithfulness to the local church. That is, it is not appropriate, thinks Lewis, to visit different churches incessantly. Rather, one should be faithful to his local assembly. The purpose of church attendance is not to find a church that suits one’s tastes, but, rather to modify one’s tastes so that they conform to God’s desire for the Christian—to become a disciple. Lewis also has something to say, interestingly enough, about church polity, “The congregational principle, on the other hand, makes each church into a kind of club, and finally, if all goes well, into a coterie or faction.” In other words, congregationalism is seen to be a form of church polity which is useful for creating the divisive factions, mentioned earlier, which are detrimental to the spread of the Gospel. Lewis explains that what God desires for “the layman in church is an attitude which may, indeed, be critical in the sense of rejecting what is false or unhelpful, but which is wholly uncritical in the sense that it does not appraise—does not waste time in thinking about what it rejects, but lays itself open in uncommenting, humble receptivity to any nourishment that is going.”
He doesn’t say much about church practice, except to say, first of all, that if they are made into a routine, then it is possible to think oneself Christian, when one is only imitating true Christianity. He notes, secondly, that some debates about the Lord’s supper are pointless (because those engaging in the debates don’t properly understand the points of the “sides” they have taken), and are more about semantics than truth.
Ibid., 46, 139.
Ibid., 143, 157.