Orthodox America

My C.S. Lewis

by Theodore Hadzi-Antich

When I was asked to write an article for Orthodox America in honor of the centenary of C. S. Lewis' birth, my first reaction was to respond with an effusive, resounding "Yes, of course." Then I thought about it. What had I gotten myself into? I did not have any particularly deep insights into C. S. Lewis' philosophy, politics or theology, let alone his mind, heart or soul. During the course of these troubling ruminations, I came to see there is one, and only one, aspect of C. S. Lewis that I'm competent, and perhaps uniquely competent, to address. No one better than I knows the effect C. S. Lewis has had on me. This is the sole message I will try to communicate in this article because it is the only one regarding which I have any claim to understanding when it comes to the wonderful scribblings of C. S. Lewis. By way of background, I grew up within the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, regularly attending Sunday services with my family, and serving as an altar boy in our local parish on Long Island. However, like too many Orthodox youth, once away from home and at college, I took an arms-length approach to my Faith. Many of the lessons learned during Saturday church school were forgotten.

One sunny afternoon, browsing in a bookstore, I came upon a thin volume called Mere Christianity, authored by someone named C. S. Lewis, a person whose name I did not recognize at the time. For no particular reason that I can recall, I purchased the book, perhaps with the expectation that it may be of some passing interest in a moment of boredom.

Mere Christianity should have been marketed not as one book but as two separate and distinct writings. The first part, which is comprised of a studied effort to "prove" that God exists, is not very persuasive. But, after the "proofs," the book takes a dramatic turn, describing Christian virtues in terms I had not read before and contrasting them to human sins. I found myself unable to stop turning the pages in the latter parts of the book, seeing my life vividly depicted in Lewis' detailed descriptions of the sins of disobedience, anger, lust, gluttony, and envy, and, to my horror, seeing in myself very few (perhaps none) of the corresponding and opposite Christian virtues described so clearly by Lewis.

Then I arrived at a chapter called "Pride," and an electric current jolted me. Lewis writes that the Sin of Pride is the first sin, and the worst one. He recounts the biblical story of Lucifer, who, as the most brilliant of all God's created beings, existing at a time before sin existed, came to envy God and wanted to supplant Him on the Throne of Heaven. Sin was born the moment Lucifer came to envy God, and the Sin of Pride became the progenitor of each and every subsequent sin. Not being content with his position of eminence in heaven, Lucifer wanted to rule, and God granted his wish, albeit with a twist: Lucifer was to rule as Satan in Hell, and not as Lucifer in Heaven.

Lewis draws stark parallels to our own lives and the choices we are called upon to make. He explains that, in the final analysis, when we say to God, "Thy will be done," we are heading towards Heaven. When, however, because of our pride, God says to us, "Thy will be done," we are heading towards Hell, as did Lucifer during his descent. Lewis pointedly states that, at any given moment, each of us is heading either up the path to Heaven or down the road to Hell, depending upon whether we are living according to the will of God or our own will.

Lewis goes on to say that there is a flawless barometer we can use to determine the extent to which we are guilty of the Sin of Pride. If we perceive pride in others and are offended by it, we are proud. The more we perceive it in others, the greater is our own pride. A final twist clinches the chapter on pride with a disturbing look in the mirror. Lewis asks us to think about how much we dislike those whom we perceive as proud, how much they annoy us, and how much we would like to see them "get what they deserve." He says that if we feel this way about other people, it is a moral certainty that other people feel that way about us. Indeed, the more we see pride in others, the greater we have it in ourselves, and the more disagreeable we are to those around us.

These are tough revelations about ourselves. For a better, more thorough articulation, go read Lewis. That may lead you to the source of the ideas described by Lewis. Of course, Lewis did not make up these revelations. He is not Brigham Young. Rather, these are concepts that form fundamental elements of our Faith, as I have come to learn. The thing about Lewis is that he is able to communicate these ideas so well to those of us who otherwise may not have listened as carefully as we should.

When Lewis finishes demolishing our egos in the chapter, "Pride," he proceeds to describe a better blueprint for living - obedience to God's will. Along the way, he cogently explains other Christian virtues, such as charity, hope, faith, and love, pointing to the sharp contrasts between the Christian virtues and their opposite sins.

After reading Mere Christianity, I went on to devour virtually any writing of C. S. Lewis that I could find, including but not limited to The Screwtape Letters, The Four Loves, and Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer. Lewis' critically acclaimed science fiction trilogy - Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength - provided hours of thought-provoking thrills, chills - and insights.

Reading C. S. Lewis' seven-volume Chronicles of Narnia out loud with my children, chapter by chapter, at bedtime through the years has been a real joy. With three children whose ages span the better part of a decade, I have had the opportunity to read the Chronicles twice in the past, and I am now on the third reading, with my seven-year-old. These are more than children's stories. They are glorious allegories of good versus evil, right versus wrong, and truth versus falsehood. Lewis crafted the stories to depict Christian values by creating mind-searing images of alternative worlds where animals speak and where children are triumphant over dark forces seeking to ensnare them in the kinds of temptations that ring all-too-true in the context of our daily lives. These are excellent yarns that have amazed my children and me, and the memories of the readings are priceless, especially when I picture the sheer delight on my son's and daughters' faces as we sailed together with Prince Caspian and Reepicheep on the Dawn Treader, facing treacherous seas and even more treacherous foes.

Like each of us, C. S. Lewis is not perfect. For example, I think he could not be an effective initial compass for those who are either bona fide atheists or bona fide agnostics. His arguments and proofs regarding the existence of God are simply unpersuasive. Consequently, for those who come to the table with a blank slate, i.e., with no faith at all, C. S. Lewis is probably not the best place to start investigating the truths of Christianity. However, for those of us who have a constitutional, underlying belief that the Universe exists not merely as a result of the random movement of atoms (and where did those atoms come from?), but, rather, believe there is a guiding principle supporting all we hear, see, smell, feel, and understand, C. S. Lewis is a welcome beacon when we find ourselves adrift at sea.

In sum, C. S. Lewis helped open my eyes to certain essential truths that, in due course, assisted me in taking my Faith more seriously and less for granted. Although he was a member of the Anglican Church and not an Orthodox Christian, he communicated the essence of "mere" Christianity in a way that spoke to me directly, and his writing helped me concentrate my attention on the profound message that was always there waiting for me to hear in my own Orthodox Church.

Theodore Hadzi-Antich, an attorney who practices in Buffalo, New York, is a parishioner of SS Theodore Orthodox Church in Williamsville, NY.

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