God the Father of Lights: C. S. Lewis on Christianity and Paganism
by Michael Ward, appearing in Volume 33
A Requiem Mass celebrated at Santa Maria ad Martyres in Rome. The Pantheon, built in the second century, was consecrated as a church on May 13, 609. Photo: New Liturgical Movement/Luca Schirano
Most people would struggle to identify the church in Rome dedicated to Saint Mary and the Martyrs. But refer to it as “the Pantheon,” the home of all the gods, and everyone would immediately know what you are talking about.
Examples could be multiplied almost indefinitely of Christian buildings associated with a pagan past or even still showcasing pagan imagery. In Venice, for instance, the church of Saint Mary of Nazareth, better known as the Scalzi, features statues of sibyls (pagan oracles) in the sanctuary.
At Caprarola, in central Italy, the Villa Farnese, built for a cardinal, houses plentiful pagan iconography cheek-by-jowl with Catholic art, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for a high-ranking church official to celebrate paganism and Christianity under one roof. Saint Mary’s Church, Iffley, near Oxford, has an archway that shows the four evangelists jostling side by side with Aquarius, Pisces and other characters from the signs of the zodiac.
The interplay between paganism and Christianity intrigued C. S. Lewis. His reflections on this relationship are well worth bearing in mind when visiting churches that seem to have a surprisingly relaxed attitude to pagan imagery and the pagan past.
The Hellespontine Sibyl and the Sibyl of Samos are two of the six statues of pagan sibyls in the church of Saint Mary of Nazareth in Venice, also known as the Scalzi. Photo credit: wikimedia.org/Didier Descouens
A Language More Adequate
It was largely through his love of pagan mythology that Lewis himself became a Christian. And in his best-known writings, the seven Chronicles of Narnia, he demonstrated very ingeniously how Christianity can incorporate and redeem pagan traditions.
The immediate human cause of Lewis’s Christian conversion in 1931 was a long night-time conversation with two good friends, J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, on the subject of Christianity, metaphor, and myth. (Tolkien was Catholic, Dyson an Anglican.) What had been holding him back from accepting Christianity was, he said in a letter, “a difficulty in knowing what the doctrine meant.”
Tolkien and Dyson showed him that Christian doctrines are not the main thing about Christianity. Doctrines are translations into concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in “a language more adequate: namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection” of Christ. The primary language of Christianity is a lived language of an actual person being born, dying, and living again.
When Lewis realised this, he began to understand what Christianity really meant, because he had been fascinated from childhood by stories of dying and rising gods. He had always found these pagan stories to be “profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant.’”
The difference between his attitude to the pagan myths and to the Christianity he then rejected was that he did not try officiously to explain the pagan myths. These stories he saw to be fruitful in their own terms. They had to be accepted as saying something in their own way, not treated as a kind of allegory and translated into something less, something secondary, into mere “doctrines.”
Doctrines are the product of analytical dissection. They recast the original, equivocal, historical material into abstract, less fully realized categories of meaning. In short, doctrines are not as richly meaningful as that which they are doctrines about.
Lewis now understood that the essence of Christianity was the story recounted in the gospels, rather than the commentary upon and explication of that story in the epistles, and that the Christ-story could be approached in a way similar to the way he approached pagan myths. Christianity is the “true myth.” In paganism God expressed Himself in an unfocused way through the images human imaginations deployed in order to tell stories about the world. The story of Christ is “God’s myth” — the story in which God directly expressed Himself through a real, historical life of a particular man, in a particular time, in a particular place: Jesus of Nazareth, crucified under Pontius Pilate outside Jerusalem, circa AD 33.
God the Father of All Lights
That there were certain similarities between pagan myths and the true myth did not lead Lewis to conclude, “so much the worse for Christianity,” he explained in “Is Theology Poetry?” It led him to conclude, “so much the better for Paganism.” Paganism contained a good deal of meaning that was realized, consummated, and perfected in Christ.
The important thing to notice is the resemblance he observed between the Christian story and the stories of “pagan Christs,” as he called them. Since God is the Father of lights (James 1:17), He is the Father of “natural lights as well as spiritual lights,” Lewis told the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Even the flickering lights of paganism could be attributed ultimately to Him. He now believed with his poetic hero Edmund Spenser, as he put it in Spenser’s Images of Life, that “Divine Wisdom spoke not only on the Mount of Olives, but also on Parnassus.”
His inclusive attitude here reflects the approach of Christian poets in the sixteenth century. Of them he wrote (in a scholarly paper titled “Neoplatonism in the Poetry of Spenser”): “It was not felt desirable, much less necessary, when you mentioned, say, Jove, to exclude any of his meanings; the Christian God, the Pagan god, the planet as actually seen, the planet astrologically considered, were all welcome to enrich the figure, by turns or even simultaneously.”
He explained (in another scholarly work, “Hero and Leander”) that “gods and goddesses could always be used in a Christian sense” by a medieval or Elizabethan poet. Dante, Sidney, Spenser, and Milton all recognized that the redeemed gods could perform all sorts of good, true, and beautiful tasks. As he wrote in his magnum opus, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, for them “the gods are God incognito and everyone is in the secret.” They understood paganism as “the religion of poetry through which the author can express, at any moment, just so much or so little of his real religion as his art requires.”
In a review of The Oxford Book of Christian Verse, he coined the term “transferred classicism” for those poets who imagined their Christianity under classical forms. There, “God is, in some degree, disguised as a mere god” and the reader enjoys seeing “how well Christianity could produce the councils, catalogues, Mercuries, and battlepieces of ancient epic.”
Chaucer, a Christian poet, could describe himself as Venus’s “disciple.” This practice of using mythological untruths to hint at theological truths lasted as late as the composition of Milton’s Comus in 1634. It was, for most poets and in most poems, by far the best method of writing poetry which was religious without being devotional.
The Similarities Ought to Be There
One need not draw hard and fast lines between Christianity and paganism because God, as the Father of lights, is the source of all truth. Perhaps Lewis’s favorite theologian was Richard Hooker (1554-1600), the so-called “father of Anglicanism.” Hooker thought that “all kinds of knowledge, all good arts, sciences, and disciplines come from the Father of lights,” Lewis explained in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. As Hooker put it, they are “as so many sparkles resembling the bright fountain from which they arise.”
After the talk with Tolkien and Dyson, Lewis was no longer troubled by the similarities between, for instance, the pagan Jupiter and the Hebrew Yahweh. The similarities “ought to be there,” as he wrote in his essay, “Myth Became Fact.” It would be a problem if they were absent. And so he takes pleasure in pointing out, in his book Miracles, that “God is supposed to have had a ‘Son,’ just as if God were a mythological deity like Jupiter.”
This all-embracing Christian mentality was seen in the way that people in the Middle Ages interpreted the pagan poetry of the ancient Roman writer, Virgil. In his Fourth Eclogue, Virgil had written (Lewis’s translation):
The great procession of the ages begins anew.
Now the Virgin returns, the reign of Saturn returns,
and the new child is sent down from high heaven.
These lines were understood in the Middle Ages as a pagan prophecy of the birth of Christ. Dante viewed them as such in his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy. The adult Lewis made the Fourth Eclogue a regular part of his Christmas reading, finding in this Virgilian insight evidence that God could speak even through a Roman pagan in order to prepare the human imagination for the coming of the Christ-child.
Following Saint Paul
Here Lewis followed the example of Saint Paul. The apostle preached to the men of Athens, using the pagan gods to communicate his message. Paul tells them that God “is not far from each one of us, for ‘in him we live and move and have our being;’ as even some of your poets have said, ‘for we are indeed his offspring.’”
The first quotation comes from Epimenides, a Greek poet and philosopher of the sixth century before Christ, who wrote of Zeus as the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.” The second comes from Aratus, a poet from about 300 years before Christ, who says of Zeus that “we are indeed his offspring.”
Paul meets the men of Athens where they are, where they already have an inkling of meaning. He is not trying to obliterate their limited and incomplete religious knowledge. He takes what they already possess, imaginatively, and baptizes it. And apparently he had some success. When the Greeks heard Paul, “some mocked; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’”
Lewis would have been among those Greeks who followed Paul’s logic, finding it evangelistically effective. He was ready, like the apostle, to work upwards from the copy to the original, from Zeus to the true God.
And this attitude was not just intellectual or imaginative on Lewis’s part. It also affected his personal devotional habits as a Christian. I mentioned his reading of the Fourth Eclogue at Christmas. On honeymoon in Greece with his dying wife, Lewis found it hard not to pray to Apollo the Healer to heal his wife Joy of her cancer. “Somehow one didn’t feel it would have been very wrong — would only have been addressing Christ sub specie Apollinis,” he wrote a friend, the Wheaton College professor Chad Walsh, in 1960.
The Gods Must Die to Live
Lewis’s high view of the pagan gods affected the way he wrote his own Christian works. He was not averse, in fact he was wholly committed, to using paganism for literary purposes. As a good medievalist, Lewis was not concerned to keep pagan deities separate from the deity of his believed religion. He was ever prepared to present God sub figuris vilium corporum (“under the figure of vile bodies”), as Saint Thomas Aquinas put it.
He recognised that the gods had declined from deities whom people worshipped devoutly to symbols that writers used poetically, but he did not consider this a history of sheer loss. Although the gods “died into allegory,” as he explained in his first scholarly work, The Allegory of Love, they rose again into a world of romantic imagining, a world of myth and fancy, for “gods, like other creatures, must die to live.”
In his Narnia Chronicles he causes the seven planetary deities to enjoy a most sophisticated resurrection. Here in his most famous works, as I show in my book Planet Narnia, Lewis takes the seven planetary gods of the pre-Copernican cosmos and uses their various qualities and attributes as his imaginative blueprint for each Chronicle. Jupiter, the magnanimous king, associated with “winter past and guilt forgiven,” provides the controlling symbolism for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Mars, god of war and woods, shapes and orders Prince Caspian. The Sun, god of gold, spiritual illumination and the slaying of dragons, irradiates The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader.’
The Moon, sponsor of silver, lunacy, wetness and wanderings, infuses The Silver Chair. Mercury, lord of language, messages, speed, twins, and theft, runs throughout The Horse and His Boy. Venus, goddess of creativity, beauty, laughter, and magic apples from western gardens, fertilizes The Magician’s Nephew. And Saturn, father of death, darkness, and disaster makes his woeful presence felt in the final Chronicle, The Last Battle.
In this manner, Lewis gave a contemporary twist to the medieval practice of using cosmological material. One thing he particularly admired in Dante was his presentation of the best cosmological thought of his day, his acting as a medieval version of modern astronomers like Sir James Jeans and Sir Arthur Eddington.
The medieval cosmos, Lewis thought, was perhaps the greatest work of art the Middle Ages produced, and Dante’s presentation of it was only the most perfect of the various versions on offer. “They wrote it, they sang it, painted it and carved it. Sometimes a whole poem or a whole building seems almost nothing but verbalized or petrified cosmology,” he wrote in a scholarly paper on “Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages.”
We do not have space here to examine the songs and paintings which Lewis was referring to, but when speaking of the poems which verbalized this cosmology, Lewis had in mind not just Dante’s Divine Comedy, but also Chaucer and Henryson, in whose Knight’s Tale and Testament of Cresseid, the “character and influence of the planets are worked into” the story-line. He also had in mind Spenser’s Faerie Queene, which is both “a representation of, and hymn to, the cosmos as our ancestors believed it to be. There has been no delight (of that sort) in ‘nature’ since the old cosmology was rejected. No one can respond in just that way to the Einsteinian, or even the Newtonian, universe.”
The Gods’ New Life
As for the buildings that verbalized or petrified this cosmology, Lewis is thinking of the Old Sacristy of San Lorenzo, Florence, in which the constellations depicted on the cupola above the altar are there not for mere decoration, but because they are in the right position for the day (July 9, 1422) the altar was consecrated.
The dome over the altar of Brunelleschi’s Old Sacristy at the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence depicts the constellations on July 9, 1422, the date the altar was consecrated. Photo credit: flickr.com/greentool2002
He also mentions the Salone at Padua, which is designed so that at each sunrise the beams will fall on the Sign in which Sol would then ride. “Just as the planets are not merely present in the Testament of Cresseid but woven into the plot, so in the buildings the cosmological material is sometimes woven into what we may call the plot of a building.”
Images of the zodiac appear next to apostles and saints in the Salone of the Palazzo della Ragione in Padua. Originally completed by Giotto, the fresco cycle was repainted by Niccolò Miretto and Stefano da Ferrara following a fire in 1420. Photo credit: luoghigiottoitalia.it
It is in connection with “the plot of a building” that Lewis came nearest to disclosing his secret imaginative plan for Narnia. One of his American correspondents, Professor William Kinter, had suggested that Lewis’s publications could be laid out to form a kind of literary cathedral. Lewis wrote back saying, “It’s fun laying out all my books as a cathedral. Personally I’d make Miracles and the other ‘treatises’ the cathedral school: my children’s stories are the real side-chapels, each with its own little altar.”
Each with its own little altar. Let the reader understand! The Narnia Chronicles are all “about Christ,” as Lewis admitted in a letter, but they are about Christ by means of what in “The Alliterative Metre” he called the seven “spiritual symbols” furnished by medieval cosmology and classical mythology. Christ, like Jupiter, is the king of kings. Christ, like Mars, is the lord of hosts, mighty in battle, before whom the trees of the field clap their hands. Christ, like Sol, is the light of the world and more to be desired than gold. Christ, like Luna, reflects the Father to mankind. Christ, like Mercury, is the Word of God. Christ, like Venus, is the bright morning star. Christ, like Saturn, makes of death itself a tool of divine purpose.
If Lewis had meant the whole Narnia series to be “about Christ” in a simple sense, the seven books would constitute one large, single altar dedicated to Him. Since the septet is actually “about Christ” as understood by means of the heptarchy — “the seven kingdoms of the seven planets,” as the poet John Donne called them — each Chronicle constitutes its own peculiar understanding and representation of the Divine nature.
And so the pagan gods rise to new life in the seven heavens of Narnia. Lewis’s professional expertise as a literary historian and his theological imagination as a Christian writer are ingeniously united. In his survey of the great medievalists of the twentieth century, called Inventing the Middle Ages, Norman Cantor is quite right to note that Lewis’s fictional works cannot be separated from his scholarly writing. Both show how he sought “to transmute [his] medieval learning into mythopoetic fiction, fantasy literature for a mass audience that communicated the sensibility of medieval epic and romance.”
Dante, Chaucer, Henryson, and others had Christened the planetary gods in works of considerable complexity and subtlety, for, as Lewis put it, “intricacy is a mark of the medieval mind.” By adopting and adapting their methods, he shows himself to be an heir of their line, ready and willing to baptize paganism and put it to Christian effect.
The pagans may have turned the planets into gods and goddesses, but that was only an imaginative extension of the Biblical picture of the celestial bodies as angelic powers who are “telling the glory of God.” Christians need not spurn such cultural accretions, as long as they were correctly understood and put in their proper context. When the true God arrives, then, and only then, “the half-gods can remain,” he wrote in The Four Loves. Half-gods, recognized as such, have their own proper excellence. We do not have “to throw away our silver to make room for the gold.” Rather, it is a case of “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you.” He writes in Christianity and Culture, “it is lawful to rest our eyes in moonlight — especially now that we know where it comes from, that it is only sunlight at second hand.”