Key Themes in The Screwtape Letters, or,
What we learn from Screwtape: part 2
This is part 6 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. 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. Here, in part 6, we will look at some comments that Lewis makes concerning Theology Proper (the doctrine of God), and Christology.
Throughout this little book we find God described in many different ways. The fictional author is, of course, a fallen angel, so God is frequently referred to as “The Enemy”, but we also find many other descriptions which give us insight into Lewis’s understanding of the divine nature. For example, in the fourth letter we are told that God is pure spirit. In describing the human incapacity to know the nature of God, which we will consider below, Lewis also describes God as the “completely real, external, invisible Presence, there with him in the room.” We see, here, that Lewis is (1) denying that God is a construct of the human intellect—as Freudians and many atheists would propose. Rather God is completely real and outside of the human intellect. Lewis also alludes to (2) God’s Omnipresence, (3) divine transcendence and immanence, and (4) Divine invisibility or, rather, that the divine nature cannot be seen. Of particular interest is how Lewis has Screwtape refer to God as “The Presence”. There may also be an allusion to the claim that God is Being, the truly completely real existence that is itself, whereas all created things (everything other than God) simply receive Being from God and imitate God by being. Lewis, following Plato, Augustine, and Aquinas, may be referring to the notion that God is completely real, whereas created things are incompletely real—shadows, in a sense, of God’s Being. Whereas created things are real because they receive their existence from another, yet are never in complete possession of their essence; God is completely real—in complete and perfect possession of His essence (which is to Be). But perhaps I am reading too much into that phrase.
Other aspects of the divine nature that we find in this book is that God is the creator, inhabits eternity, the creator of all true pleasures, and one Being that is entirely distinct from all created things. Another theme that comes up frequently is God’s love for humanity, something which the demons are incapable of understanding. It is God’s love for humanity that drives His desire to redeem and sanctify fallen men. Screwtape later says, “He really loves the hairless bipeds He has created.” In the 19th letter, Lewis has Screwtape attempt to revise his statement about God’s love for humanity, “All His talk about Love must be a disguise for something else.” This provides Lewis with the opportunity to note that God’s love for Humanity is a self-giving Love which ultimately culminates in the cross.
We also see the undoubted evidence that Lewis believes in the doctrine of the Trinity, for he has Screwtape say, discussing how humans see God in their prayers, “There will be images derived from pictures of the Enemy as He appeared during the discreditable episode known as the Incarnation: there will be vaguer—perhaps quite savage and puerile—images associated with the other two Persons.”
Lewis also discusses how humans understand, or perceive, God. We find that he is fully in agreement with scriptures when he has Screwtape note that “humans do not start from that direct perception of Him,” for, as the Scriptures frequently repeat, no man has seen God (while in their earthly body). Rather, humans have a very physical understanding of God. Lewis has Screwtape stat that “If you examine the object to which he [the human subject] is attending [in prayer], you will find that it is a composite object containing many quite ridiculous ingredients. There will be images derived from pictures of the Enemy as He appeared during the discreditable episode known as the Incarnation: there will be vaguer—perhaps quite savage and puerile—images associated with the other two Persons.” Note how Lewis is subtly pointing out that humans tend to think of God as composed, when He is, in fact, simple. Our human intellects are incapable of comprehending something that is absolutely simple. We can only think of things that are composed objects. This human incapacity to truly grasp the nature of God is reinforced, first, by that which should be the object of human prayers, in a formula that reminds us of Augustine and Anselm, “Not to what I think thou art but to what thou knowest thyself to be.” Lewis goes on to describe God’s nature and man’s feeble knowledge of it in the following description, “the completely real, external, invisible Presence, there with him in the room and never knowable by him as he is known by it.”
Lewis notes that God has “the power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree He chooses and at any moment”, but that He freely chooses to not use that power.
Jesus is not mentioned all that much in this little book, however, the familiar doctrines of the Incarnation, the cross of Christ, and the historicity of the Resurrection. Lewis also clearly states that Jesus is the Creator. We are also told that Jesus, in heaven, still “wears the form of a Man”, even in His heavenly glory.
Go to part 7.
Lewis, TSL, 26.
Ibid., 74, 97.
Ibid., 76, 138-139.
For they will see Him in heaven. Cf. Ibid., 159.