I have read and enjoyed a number of C. S. Lewis’s stories. I remember being read the Narnia series of stories by my father when I was small. Though you can tell that they have a Christian analogy this does not get in the way of them being good stories.
I cannot say that I have read much of his non-fiction work, but I know that he was renowned as a Christian writer. I was reminded of this by a post from the myownashram blog.
C. S. Lewis is still often quoted by Christian evangelists. As he was an atheist who converted to Christianity he is seen as validating their beliefs. One quote that I have seen used a lot is this one:
There is no question of just a crowd of disconnected religions. The choice is between (a.) The materialist world picture: wh. I can’t believe. (b.) The real archaic primitive religions; wh. are not moral enough. (c.) The (claimed) fulfillment of these in Hinduism. (d.) The claimed fulfillment of these in Xianity. But the weakness of Hinduism is that it doesn’t really merge the two strands. Unredeemable savage religion goes on in the village; the Hermit philosophizes in the forest: and neither really interfaces with the other. It is only Xianity which compels a high brow like me to partake of a ritual blood feast, and also compels a central African convert to attempt an elightened [sic] code of ethics.
Some Christian sights embellish the quote, this is an example from a Catholic site, which gives no reference . Searches fail to find a corresponding original text!:
Religions are like soups, he said. Some, like consomme, are thin and clear (Unitarianism, Confucianism, modern Judaism); others, like minestrone, are thick and dark (paganism, “mystery religions”). Only Hinduism and Christianity are both “thin” (philosophical) and “thick” (sacramental and mysterious). But Hinduism is really two religions: “thick” for the masses, “thin” for the sages. Only Christianity is both.
I think in dismissing all religions apart from Christianity and Hinduism he does a disservice to many; I am sure that Taoism, Judaism, Sikhism and many more are practiced by both the highly sophisticated and the simple country village folk. I will leave that point for followers of these religions to answer though. I will answer one question: Is his comment on Hinduism true though? I don’t believe it is.
Firstly C. S. Lewis is very much a man of his time, place, and class. When looking at Hinduism he is quick to include the simplest village Hindu, but when looking at Christianity seems to only be looking at his own “Church of England”, and “Safe” converts. If he had included the South American Christians who carry out animistic rituals, the Snake Handling cults, or even the Shakers and Pentecostals he would have seen a big difference between these and his highbrow church In fact there is as much disconnect between a Voodoo-practicing Christian in a Caribbean village and a Church of England Bishop as there is between a Vedantist and a village Hindu.
Secondly, is Hinduism really split into a “high” and “low” version? To a certain extent all religions are, a Hindu farmer is unlikely to follow theological discussions about advaita, dvaita, etc. This is just as true of Christianity though, not many Christians will even have heard of Transubstantiation for example. And despite what C. S. Lewis says the main thread of Hinduism, Ahimsa, Samskara, Reincarnation, and Moksha connects all levels.
Though he had a parochial view, not all Western scholars were set in their time like this . We can see this in what some of his contemporaries said:
The vast literature, the magnificent opulence, the majestic sciences, the soul touching music, the awe inspiring gods. It is already becoming clearer that a chapter which has a western beginning will have to have an Indian ending if it is not to end in the self destruction of the human race. At this supremely dangerous moment in history the only way of salvation for mankind is the Indian way.
- Arnold Toynbee
If there is one place on the face of the earth where all the dreams of living men have found a home from the very earliest days when man began the dream of existence, it is India….For more than 30 centuries, the tree of vision, with all its thousand branches and their millions of twigs, has sprung from this torrid land, the burning womb of the Gods. It renews itself tirelessly showing no signs of decay.
- Romain Rolland
It seems that others saw a lot more in Hinduism than he did. In fact even before his generation the Transcendentalists had been greatly influenced by Hinduism.
Incidentally the atheist Philip Pullman criticises C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books as “blatantly racist” and “monumentally disparaging of women”. I think that this is unfair. Lewis’s attitudes to women are what you would expect at that time; the girls receive gifts of a healing juice and a horn while the boy gets a sword and shield! As for racism, if there is any then I failed to notice it.
By the way, just as C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series can be enjoyed by non-Christians, so can Philip Pullmans “His Dark Materials” trilogy can be enjoyed by non-Atheists. They are a very enjoyable read.
Some people may disagree with me recommending books with Christian or Atheist analogies. In my view reading books like this helps you to understand other people’s worldviews, and thinking about the differences and similarities can help you understand your own beliefs.