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The ScrewTape Letters by C. S. Lewis: A Commentary, part 5

Key Themes in The Screwtape Letters, or,

What we learn from Screwtape

          This is part 5 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. 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. We turn now to an exposition of the key themes that are brought up in the Screwtape Letters. This part is a little bit touchy, because, as Lewis says in the preface, Satan is a liar. However, I think that we can discover a number of important themes that reflect the views of C. S. Lewis on key philosophical and theological issues. 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.


            There seems to be some debate as to the “orthodoxy” of C. S. Lewis. Some people, for example, seem absolutely “hell-bent” on proving that C. S. Lewis either did not believe in a real Hell, others that C. S. Lewis held to defective views of the atonement, the means of salvation, the extent of salvation, the scriptures, etc. We will not be able to address all of these subjects here, as Lewis himself does not address them all in this book, but we will, in what follows, attempt to outline some of the most important things that we learn from this little book. We will here consider 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.


The Natural Sciences

            Lewis does not say much about the Natural Sciences in the Screwtape Letters, but he does let on that he thinks that if you study the Natural Sciences enough you will end up arriving at conclusions that will most likely draw you towards God and Christianity. He notes that many modern physicists have been drawn towards God because their scientific research encouraged them “to think about realities he can’t touch and see.”[1]


Time and Change

           The notions of time and change are two very important concepts that every philosopher and theologian must deal with. What is time? What is Change? What is the relationship between time and Change? How is man related to these two? Even in this small book Lewis makes some comments about time and change which reveal his views on the matter. First of all, it is obvious that he sees a distinct relationship between change and time. That which does not change is timeless in an eternal present (“For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity.”[2]), and, “to be in time means to change.”[3]

Discussing time itself, and specifically human experience of time, Lewis says, first of all, that, “In a word, the Future is, of all things, the thing least like eternity. It is the most completely temporal part of time—for the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays.”[4] Thus, to live in the present, is to be most like God, who IS in an eternal present. Secondly, “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. And since they need change, the Enemy (being a hedonist at heart) has made change pleasurable to them .”[5] One need not be distracted by the topological portrayal of man as being “in” time, as this it is common to talk of time in spatial terms. Note, however, how humans are, by nature (as created by God), changing beings, but God is unchanging. Humans, therefore, are temporal, and God is not.


Metaphysics

            There is not a whole lot of drawn out metaphysical speculation in this book (fallen angels do their best to keep themselves, and humankind, from thinking about the Real), however, in the 30th letter Lewis has Screwtape discuss the meaning of the word “real”, in order to teach Wormwood how to keep the subject from thinking about the real. Here Lewis has Screwtape distinguish between (1) the use of “Real” whereby “‘Real’ means the bare physical facts, separated from the other elements in the experience they actually had.”[6] And (2) the use of “Real” whereby “‘real’ is being used in the opposite sense to mean, not the physical facts…but the emotional effect those facts will have on a human consciousness.”[7] Lewis says, “Either application of the word could be defended”, but “The general rule which we have now pretty well established among them is that in all experiences which can make them happier or better only the physical facts are ‘Real’ while the spiritual elements are ‘subjective’.”[8]

            There are a number of comments that we can note here. First of all, Lewis is very much a realist. One of the meanings of “Real” refers to that which is, regardless of how existing beings are interpreted by those who come in contact with them. This is the primary sense of “Reality” for Lewis, the sum total of all those things which are, regardless of how humans interpret them. Secondly, Lewis does not deny the “reality”—the actual existence—of our subjective interactions with that which is (i.e. – the meanings that we give to that which is, our interpretations of that which is, how that which is makes us feel). Thirdly, he not only sees materialism (the notion that only those things which can be experienced by the senses of humans can qualify as Real) as false, but as a diabolical creation which is used by the fallen angels to trick humanity into rejecting the reality—indeed the ultimate reality—of God.[9] I wonder, fourthly, if there is not a subtle strike at the hermeneutical philosophy of Martin Heidegger (as a creation of the Devil) in the notion that that which is Real is my reaction to that which presents itself to me, rather than the thing itself, and, not just any reactions, but reactions such as dread and despair.[10]

Go to part 6.


[1]Lewis, TSL, 14.

[2]Ibid., 76.

[3]Ibid., 44.

[4]Ibid., 77.

[5]Ibid., 126-127.

[6]Ibid., 154.

[7]Ibid.

[8]Ibid.

[9]We also see this notion in the very first letter. Cf. Ibid., 11-12.

[10]Ibid., 155.

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