Feast of the Holy Seven Maccabee Children, Solomone their Mother, and Eleazar their Teacher
HOW DID C. S. Lewis understand the concept of salvation, and how does it relate to his overall theological vision? In one sense, this question yields a simple answer: Lewis’s soteriology can be summed up as theosis, or the deification of the human person in Christ, coming to share in divine life. The present essay seeks to establish three points: first, that Lewis’s concept of deification consists in humanization, realized through kenosis; second, that Lewis illustrates this theology best through the poetic imagery of the face; third, that Lewis’s soteriology reveals his theological anthropology, cosmology, and eschatology. Theosis, in other words, is the key focus of Lewis as a theologian.
1. Kenosis: Deification as Humanization
In the resolution to Till We Have Faces, having ascended to the heavenly palace of the Mountain god in her vision, Orual encounters the glorified Psyche. “Now I knew that she was a goddess indeed,” Orual says upon meeting the glorified Psyche, since “[h]er hands burned me when they met mine” (306). Psyche, like her divine lover at an earlier point in the book, has been so consumed with divine radiance that her very presence is like burning fire. Yet, as Orual soon realizes,
she was the old Psyche still; a thousand times more her very self than she had been before the Offering. For all that had then but flashed out in a glance or a gesture, all that one meant most when one spoke her name, was now wholly present, not to be gathered up from hints nor in shreds, not some of it in one moment and some in another. Goddess? I had never seen a real woman before. (306)
Psyche has not been completely rewritten, nor metamorphosed into a creature wholly discontinuous with the Psyche that Orual knew and raised. On the contrary: she has become fully and completely herself, more fully herself than when Orual knew her best. This revelation leads Orual to the confession that she has “never seen a real woman before”: in the presence of divine glory, she realizes that humanity itself is a foreign concept to her, something she has had no prior experience with. She, in the counterpart epiphany to Ransom’s exclamation when beholding the victorious King Tor, likewise realizes that she “has lived all [her] life among shadows and broken images” (Perelandra, 176).
Did You Miss the Inklings Festival?
For Lewis, it is not that humanity gets in the way of divinity, but that the people who call themselves humans are not fully so. “What are we? What are we not? A man / Is a dream about a shadow” (“Arrangement of Pindar” in The Collected Poems of C. S. Lewis, 364). Hence, humanization is a synonym for deification. Lewis describes the process of salvation as “be[ing] made into a man” (Mere Christianity, 179), and this is so because of the incarnation: since the means by which God offers humans divine life is the Word becoming flesh (John 1:14), through Him in whom “[f]or the first time we saw a real man” (Ibid., 180), so the process of deification produces, likewise, real humans. Put another way, as fallen human creatures come to participate in divine life, they become more human, not less. That transformation is due in part to the fact that Christ exemplifies what it means to be human. This is key: “God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man” (Ibid., 216).
For Lewis, the content of this new humanity is defined by kenosis, or self-emptying love, revealed ultimately in Christ’s death on the cross. Indeed, this is the chief point of the incarnation for Lewis: the Son of God becomes a man so as to offer unto God as man “willing submission to humiliation” (Ibid., 57); indeed, “[Christ] could surrender His will, and suffer and die, because He was man,” something that He is incapable of in His divinity, which nevertheless enables Him to “do it perfectly” (Ibid., 58). Christ’s demonstration of true humanity consists precisely in the way that he dies.
“Death,” as Fr. John Behr writes, becomes thus “a defining moment: not the end, but the beginning; not disappearance, but revelation” (Becoming Human, 4). If Christ, the new man, demonstrates true humanity in His death, then naturally, human participation in this divine initiative looks like a responsive self-abandonment: “Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life” (Mere Christianity, 227). Most importantly, this responsive self-emptying is in conformity to Christ’s own: the kenosis of Christ’s incarnation, ultimately expressed in His self-sacrificial death on the Cross, is the divine charism initiating humanity into the same kind of self-sacrificial love toward God and others, and thus creating authentically human creatures. No abstract act of submission will suffice: “Our attempts at this dying will succeed only if we men share in God’s dying…but we cannot share God’s dying unless God dies; and He cannot die except by being a man” (Ibid., 58). In the death of Christ, divinity and humanity are juxtaposed, and mutually revealed. In the words of Michael J. Gorman, “Kenosis is theosis. To be like Christ crucified is to be both most godly and most human. Christification is divinization, and divinization is humanization” (Inhabiting the Cruciform God, 37).
Two important features define the new humanity for Lewis. First, it consists in true personhood, and deification ultimately bestows such personhood upon the human creature, through the paradox of self-surrender and abandonment. True human personhood, revealed in Christ on the Cross, consists in active, practiced kenosis, which in turn produces true persons: “It is when I turn to Christ, when I give myself up to His Personality, that I first begin to have a real personality of my own”; likewise, “[u]ntil you give up your self to Him you will not have a real self” (Mere Christianity, 226). This real self is not at odds with the individual, but the full flourishing thereof: like Psyche, the further humans plunge into Christ “the more truly ourselves we become” (Ibid., 225). Moreover, conformity to Christ does not create uniformity among deified humanity. “He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself,” Screwtape complains: “creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His….He is full and flows over….[and] wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct” (The Screwtape Letters, 47). Screwtape is not wrong: “There is so much of Him that millions and millions of ‘little Christs’, all different, will still be too few to express Him fully” (Mere Christianity, 225). Participation in the life of God, in fact, is the only means to true personhood, since “[t]here are no real personalities anywhere else” (Ibid., 226). The personality received in Christ, further, is a source of pleasure to the one who receives it: “‘God has cared to make me for Himself,’ says the victor with the white stone, ‘And has called me that which I like best’” (George MacDonald: An Anthology, 12). Broken humanity, by contrast, is trapped in entropic repetition: as Lewis observes, “How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints” (Mere Christianity, 226). Kenosis is the only path to divine life—to a share in divine love, freedom, creativity, and glory, that is, to true humanity.
David Armstrong is an Orthodox Christian who enjoys a shameless love affair with Jews, Judaism, and other Christians. He is currently an Accelerated Masters student in Religious Studies at Missouri State University in Springfield, MO, where he is nearing completion of his undergraduate degree in Religious Studies with a minor in Classical Greek. He has an avid interest in far too many things, and would do well to specialize.
*Excerpted from Mr. Armstrong's breakout presentation at the second annual Inklings Festival: "When We Have Faces: The Theoria of C. S. Lewis". The full presentation will be available to Eighth Day Members in the digital files of our Premium Content.