altGod in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics by C. S. Lewis, edited by Walter Hooper (Eerdmans, 1970)

I found this to be one of the best collections of short Lewis essays I've read. It's a relatively long book (346 pages) but the individual essays are short and easily readable. It helps a lot that the editor has thoughtfully translated the many times Lewis—who seems to prefer to quote his sources in their original language—lapses into tongues.

(It occurs to me that I would have a lot more time to read if I didn't insist on writing about the books. On the bright side, however, writing up the quotations not only gives readers the flavor of a book—or at least the book as seen through my eyes—but also serves as a useful reference and memory aid for me.)

From "Dogma and the Universe"

Change is not progress unless the core remains unchanged. A small oak grows into a big oak: if it becomes a beech, that would not be growth, but mere change. (p. 45)

In the twinkling of an eye, in a time too small to be measured, and in any place, all that seems to divide us from God can flee away, vanish leaving us naked before Him ... as if nothing but He and I existed. And since that contact cannot be avoided for long, and since it means either bliss or horror, the business of life is to learn to like it. That is the first and great commandment. (p. 47)

From "Answers to Questions on Christianity"

If there is anything in the teaching of the New Testament which is in the nature of a command, it is that you are obliged to take the Sacrament, and you can't do it without going to Church. (p. 61)

From "Myth Became Fact"

God is more than a god, not less; Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about "parallels" and "Pagan Christs": they ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block if they weren't. (p. 67)

From "Horrid Red Things"

All language, except about objects of sense, is metaphorical through and through. To call God a "Force" (that is, something like a wind or a dynamo) is as metaphorical as to call Him a Father or a King. On such matters we can make our language more polysyllabic and duller: we cannot make it more literal. (p. 71)

From "Christian Apologetics"

[Speaking to a group of Anglican priests and youth leaders} It seems to the layman that in the Church of England we often hear from our priests doctrine which is not Anglican Christianity. ... It is not, of course, for me to define to you what Anglican Christianity is. ... But I insist that wherever you draw the lines, bounding lines must exist, beyond which your doctrine will cease either to be Anglican or to be Christian: and I suggest also that the lines come a great deal sooner than many modern priests think. I think it is your duty to fix the lines clearly in your own minds: and if you wish to go beyond them you must change your profession. This is your duty not specially as Christians or as priests but as honest men. ... We never doubted that the unorthodox opinions were honestly held: what we complain of is your continuing your ministry after you have come to hold them. (pp. 89-90)

If one has to choose between reading the new books and reading the old, one must choose the old: not because they are necessarily better but because they contain precisely those truths of which our own age is neglectful. (p. 92)

What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects—with their Christianity latent. ... It is not the books written in direct defense of Materialism that make the modern man a materialist; it is the materialistic assumptions in all the other books. In the same way, it is not books on Christianity that will really trouble him. But he would be troubled if, whenever he wanted a cheap popular introduction to some science, the best work on the market was always by a Christian. (p. 93)

I find that the uneducated Englishman is an almost total sceptic about History. I had expected he would disbelieve the Gospels because they contain miracles: but he really disbelieves them because they deal with things that happened 2000 years ago. He would disbelieve equally in the battle of Actium if he heard of it. To those who have had our kind of education, his state of mind is very difficult to realize. To us the Present has always appeared as one section in a huge continuous process. In his mind the Present occupies almost the whole field of vision. Beyond it, isolated from it, and quite unimportant, is something called "The Old Days"—a small, comic jungle in which highwaymen, Queen Elizabeth, knights-in-armour etc. wander about. Then (strangest of all) beyond The Old Days comes a picture of "Primitive Man." He is "Science," not "History," and is therefore felt to be much more real than The Old Days. In other words, the Pre-historic is much more believed in than the Historic. (pp. 94-95)

It is useless to direct attention (1) To sins your audience do not commit, or (b) To things they do, but do not regard as sins. They are usually not drunkards. They are mostly fornicators, but then they do not feel fornication to be wrong. It is, therefore, useless to dwell on either of these subjects. (Now that contraceptives have removed the obviously uncharitable element in fornication I do not myself think we can expect people to recognize it as sin until they have accepted Christianity as a whole.) (p. 96)

We must learn the language of our audience. And let me say at the outset that it is no use at all laying down a priori what the "plain man" does or does not understand. You have to find out by experience. (p. 96)

Lewis does include a few examples of words, common to the society of his own peers, which have meanings quite different for the "average Joe." I think class language differences were much greater in England, and in Lewis's time, than they are in America now that television has largely homogenized our speech, but I have observed the problem even here and now. It is of no use—even worse than useless—for example, to use the word "capitalism" without a careful effort to make sure we and the people we are communicating with are working from even remotely similar definitions of the word. Very often we are not.

From "Work and Prayer"

Prayers are not always—in the crude, factual sense of the word—"granted." This is not because prayer is a weaker kind of causality, but because it is a stronger kind. When it "works" at all it works unlimited by space and time. That is why God has retained a discretionary power of granting or refusing it: except on that condition prayer would destroy us. (p. 107)

From "On the Transmission of Christianity"

I took so many quotations from this chapter that it has its own post.

From "The Founding of the Oxford Socratic Club"

In any fairly large and talkative community such as a university there is always the danger that those who think alike should gravitate together into coteries where they will henceforth encounter opposition only in the emasculated form of rumour that the outsiders say thus and thus. The absent are easily refuted, complacent dogmatism thrives, and differences of opinion are embittered by group hostility. Each group hears not the best, but the worst, that the other group can say. (p. 127)

From "The Trouble with "X"

It's not a question of God "sending" us to Hell. In each of us there is something growing up which will of itself be Hell unless it is nipped in the bud. (p. 155)

From "Dangers of National Repentance"

The first and fatal charm of national repentance is ... the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting for our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing—but, first, of denouncing—the conduct of others. (p. 190)

The hard sayings of our Lord are wholesome to those only who find them hard. (p. 191)

From "On the Reading of Old Books"

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about "isms"and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. ... It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that first-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire. (p. 200)

Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. (p. 201)

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. ... We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, "But how could they have thought that?"—lies where we have never suspected it. ... None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. ... Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them. (p. 202)

We are all rightly distressed, and ashamed also, at the divisions of Christendom. But those who have always lived within the Christian fold may be too easily dispirited by them. They are bad, but such people do not know what it looks like from without. Seen from there, what is left intact, despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity. ... That unity any of us can find by going out of his own age. It is not enough, but it is more than you had thought till then. Once you are well soaked in it, if you then venture to speak, you will have an amusing experience. You will be thought Papist when you are actually reproducing Bunyan, a Pantheist when you are quoting Aquinas, and so forth. (p. 204)

From "The Decline of Religion"

The "decline of religion" [is] a very ambiguous phenomenon. One way of putting the truth would be that the religion which has declined was not Christianity. It was a vague Theism with a strong and virile ethical code, which, far from standing over against the "World," was absorbed into the whole fabric of English institutions and sentiment and therefore demanded church-going as (at best) a part of loyalty and good manners [or] (at worst) a proof of respectability. Hence a social pressure, like the withdrawal of the compulsion, does not create a new situation. The new freedom first allows accurate observations to be made. When no man goes to church except because he seeks Christ the number of actual believers can at last be discovered. It should be added that the new freedom was partly caused by the very conditions which it revealed. If the various anti-clerical and anti-theistic forces at work in the nineteenth century had had to attack a solid phalanx of radical Christians the story might have been different. But mere "religion"—"morality tinged with emotion," "what a man does with his solitude," "the religion of all good men"—has little power of resistance. It is not good at saying No. (pp 219-220)

We have not yet had (at least in junior Oxford) any really bitter opposition. But if we have many more successes, this will certainly appear. The enemy has not yet thought it worthwhile to fling his whole weight against us. But he soon will. This happens in the history of every Christian movement, beginning with the Ministry of Christ Himself. At first it is welcome to all who have no special reason for opposing it: at this stage he who is not against it is for it. What men notice is its difference from those aspects of the World which they already dislike. But later on, as the real meaning of the Christian claim becomes apparent, its demand for total surrender, the sheer chasm between Nature and Supernature, men are increasingly "offended." Dislike, terror, and finally hatred succeed; none who will not give it what it asks (and it asks all) can endure it; all who are not with it are against it. That is why we must cherish no picture of the present intellectual movement simply growing and spreading and finally reclaiming millions by sweet reasonableness. Long before it became as important as that the real opposition would have begun, and to be on the Christian side would be costing a man (at the least) his career. But remember, in England the opposition will quite likely be called Christianity (or Christo-democracy, or British Christianity, or something of that kind). I think—but how would I know?—that all is going reasonably well. But it is early days. Neither our armour nor our enemies' is yet engaged. Combatants always tend to imagine that the war is further on than it really is. (pp. 222-223)

From "God in the Dock"

The first thing I learned from addressing the R.A.F [Royal Air Force] was that I had been mistaken in thinking materialism to be our only considerable adversary. Among the English "Intelligentsia of the Proletariat," materialism is only one among many non-Christian creeds. ... Even where Christianity was professed, it was often much tainted with Pantheistic elements. Strict and well-informed Christian statements, when they occurred at all, usually came from Roman Catholics or from members of extreme Protestant sects (e.g. Baptists). My student audiences shared, in a less degree, the theological vagueness I found in the R.A.F., but among them the strict and well-informed statements came from Anglo-Catholics and Roman Catholics; seldom, if ever, from Dissenters. (pp. 240-241)

I wonder what my Baptist friends—such normal and reasonable people—think about being considered an "extreme Protestant sect"?

From "Cross-Examination"

Writing is like a "lust," or like "scratching when you itch." Writing comes as a result of a very strong impulse, and when it does come, I for one must get it out. (p. 258)


The way for a person to develop a style is (a) to know exactly what he wants to say, and (b) to be sure he is saying exactly that. The reader, we must remember, does not start by knowing what we mean. If our words are ambiguous, our meaning will escape him. I sometimes think that writing is like driving sheep down a road. If there is any gate open to the left or the right the readers will most certainly go into it. (p. 263)

The world might stop in ten minutes; meanwhile, we are to go on doing our duty. The great thing is to be found at one's post as a child of God, living each day as though it were our last, but planning as though our world might last a hundred years.  (p. 266)

From "First and Second Things"

A foreign policy dominated by desire for peace is one of the many roads that lead to war. (p. 281)

From "The Sermon and the Lunch"

Must we not teach that if the home is to be a means of grace it must be a place of rules? There cannot be a common life without a regula. The alternative to rule is not freedom but the unconstitutional (and often unconscious) tyranny of the most selfish member. (p. 286)

From "The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment"

Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. (p. 292)

The practical problem of Christian politics is not that of drawing up schemes for a Christian society, but that of living as innocently as we can with unbelieving fellow-subjects under unbelieving rulers who will never be perfectly wise and good and who will sometimes be very wicked and very foolish. (p. 292)

From "Delinquents in the Snow"

According to the classical political theory of this country we surrendered our right of self-protection to the State on condition that the State would protect us. Roughly, you promised not to stab your daughter's murderer on the understanding that the State would catch him and hang him. Of course this was never true as a historical account of the genesis of the State. The power of the group over the individual is by nature unlimited and the individual submits because he has to. The State, under favourable conditions (they have ceased), by defining that power, limits it and gives the individual a little freedom.

But the classical theory morally grounds our obligation to civil obedience; explains why it is right (as well as unavoidable) to pay taxes, why it is wrong (as well as dangerous) to stab your daughter's murderer. At present the very uncomfortable position is this: the State protects us less because it is unwilling to protect us against criminals at home and manifestly grows less able to protect us against foreign enemies. At the same time it demands from us more and more. We seldom had fewer rights and liberties nor more burdens; and we get less security in return. While our obligations increase their moral ground is taken away.

And the question that torments me is how long flesh and blood will continue to endure it. There was even, not so long ago, a question whether they ought to. (p. 308)

What I fear ... is not, or not chiefly, sporadic outbreaks of individual vengeance. I am more afraid, our conditions being so like that of the South after the American Civil War, that some sort of Ku Klux Klan may appear and that this might eventually develop into something like a Right or Central revolution. For those who suffer are chiefly the provident, the resolute, the men who want to work, who have built up, in the face of implacable discouragement, some sort of life worth preserving and wish to preserve it. That most (by no means all) of them are "middle class" is not very relevant. They do not get their qualities from a class: they belong to that class because they have those qualities. For in a society like ours no stock which has diligence, forethought or talent, and is prepared to practise self-denial, is likely to remain proletarian for more than a generation. They are, in fact, the bearers of what little moral, intellectual, or economic vitality remains. They are not nonentities. There is a point at which their patience will snap. ...

Revolutions seldom cure the evil against which they are directed; they always beget a hundred others. Often they perpetuate the old evil under a new name. ... A Right or Central revolution would be as hypocritical, filthy and ferocious as any other. My fear is lest we should be making it more probable. (p. 309)

From "Is Progress Possible?"

As a Christian I take it for granted that human history will some day end; and I am offering Omniscience no advice as to the best date for that consummation. I am more concerned by what the [Atomic] Bomb is doing already.

One meets young people who make the threat of it a reason for poisoning every pleasure and evading every duty in the present. Didn't they know that, Bomb or no Bomb, all men die (many in horrible ways)? There's no good moping and sulking about it. (p. 312)

As a means to the ends I care for, [science] is neutral. We shall grow able to cure, and to produce, more diseases—bacterial war, not bombs, might ring down the curtain—to alleviate, and to inflict, more pains, to husband, or to waste, the resources of the planet more extensively. We can become either more beneficent or more mischievous. My guess is we shall do both: mending one thing and marring another, removing old miseries and producing new ones, safeguarding ourselves here and endangering ourselves there. (p. 312)

Two wars necessitated vast curtailments of liberty, and we have grown, though grumblingly, accustomed to our chains. The increasing complexity and precariousness of our economic life have forced Government to take over many spheres of activity once left to choice or chance. ... Classical political theory, with its Stoical, Christian, and juristic key-conceptions (natural law, the value of the individual, the rights of man), has died. The modern State exists not to protect our rights but to do us good or make us good—anyway, to do something to us or to make us something. Hence the new name "leaders" for those who were once "rulers. We are less their subjects than their wards, pupils, or domestic animals. There is nothing left of which we can say to them, "Mind your own business." Our whole lives are their business. (pp. 313-314)

I dread government in the name of science. That is how tyrannies come in. In every age the men who want us under their thumb, if they have any sense, will put forward the particular pretension which the hopes and fears of that age render most potent. They "cash in." It has been magic, it has been Christianity. Now it will certainly be science. Perhaps the real scientists may not think much of the tyrants' "science"—they didn't think much of Hitler's racial theories or Stalin's biology. But they can be muzzled. (p. 315)

The question about progress has become the question whether we can discover any way of submitting to the world-wide paternalism of a technocracy without losing all personal privacy and independence. Is there any possibility of getting the super Welfare State's honey and avoiding the sting?

Let us make no mistake about the sting. The Swedish sadness is only a foretaste. To live his life in his own way, to call his house his castle, to enjoy the fruits of his own labour, to educate his children as his conscience directs, to save for their prosperity after his death—these are wishes deeply ingrained in ... civilized man. Their realization is almost as necessary to our virtues as to our happiness. From their total frustration disastrous results both moral and psychological might follow. (p. 316, emphasis mine)

From "We Have No 'Right to Happiness'"

I believe—whatever one school of moralists may say—that we depend for a very great deal of our happiness or misery on circumstances outside all human control. A right to happiness doesn't, for me, make much more sense than a right to be six feet tall, or to have a millionaire for your father, or to get good weather whenever you want to have a picnic. (p. 318)

When I was a youngster, all the progressive people were saying, "Why all this prudery? Let us treat sex just as we treat all our other impulses." I was simple-minded enough to believe they meant what they said. I have since discovered that they meant exactly the opposite. They meant that sex was to be treated as no other impulse in our nature has ever been treated by civilized people. All the others, we admit, have to be bridled. Absolute obedience to your instinct for self-preservation is what we call cowardice; to your acquisitive impulse, avarice. Even sleep must be resisted if you're a sentry. But every unkindness and breach of faith seems to be condoned provided that the object aimed at is "four bare legs in a bed." (p. 320)

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, July 3, 2020 at 9:16 am | Edit
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I'm intrigued by his suggestion that it's not only better, but easier, to read Plato rather than a modern book about Plato. I've never tried to read Plato, but I tried to read Aristotle and my reaction was that I might as well have been reading it in the original Greek for all the sense it made to me.

Posted by Kathy Lewis on Friday, July 03, 2020 at 10:52 pm

From my own experience, I can at least say that it is much better to read C. S. Lewis than a modern book about Lewis. :)

Posted by SursumCorda on Sunday, July 05, 2020 at 8:22 am
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