October 1, 2010

“All Find What They Truly Seek”: C. S. Lewis, Latter-day Saints, and the Virtuous Unbeliever (p.1)

My 2009 SMPT presentation was published at last! See “'All Find What They Truly Seek': C.S. Lewis, Latter-day Saints, and the Virtuous Unbeliever,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 43, no. 3 (Fall 2010): 21–62. I encourage folks to subscribe to the publication and I'm also putting the paper here on the blog section by section. It's long and the footnotes are out of control, although they do contain many goodies. Feedback is very welcome. See also parts 2, 3, 4, and 5.  


R[oman] C[atholic]’s keep on writing to tell me (like you) that it is a
pity that “knowing so much” I shd. be held back from knowing so much
—C. S. Lewis1

We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and
treasure them up, or we shall not come out true “Mormons.”
—Joseph Smith2


The apologetic works of Clive Staples (“Jack”) Lewis have transcended denominational boundaries to reach an impressively diverse Christian audience. From the beginning of his apologetic career in the mid-1930s, Lewis received letters from Catholics, Evangelicals, Presbyterians, and other Christians thanking him for his inspiring words. Fans from various Christian traditions who felt a certain kinship with Lewis often expressed regret or bewilderment about his allegiance to the Anglican Church. A desire to claim Lewis as a representative of one’s own beliefs still tempts many Christians. Richard Ostling, a former Time magazine religion editor, has mentioned the “extraordinary” interest in Lewis among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who seem to believe Lewis is “almost a crypto-Mormon.” According to Ostling, this phenomenon “shows the extraordinary acceptability and the usefulness of C. S. Lewis, because of course most of what he says is perfectly acceptable to Mormons.”3

My approach to Lewis and Latter-day Saints differs from previous approaches. Rather than selecting context-less proof-texts which resonate with Latter-day Saints, I will explore how Lewis’s experiences impacted his beliefs regarding conversion.4 Lewis’s personal transition from atheism to Christianity led him to understand conversion as a process of coming home to God by embracing good and rejecting evil. For Lewis and Latter-day Saints alike, beliefs from an array of religions or philosophical traditions can be seen as signposts pointing to higher truths on the road home. Thus, part of Lewis’s broad appeal results from an ecumenical view of other religions that is similar to (though looser than) that of many Latter-day Saints.

This ecumenical view did not overshadow what Lewis saw as the fundamental necessity of faith in Jesus Christ, which raises the salient question: If Jesus Christ is the only name by which one can receive salvation, what is the fate of good people who have never heard, or had faith, in that name? Lewis held out hope for those not converted to Christianity during mortality, whom he referred to as “virtuous unbelievers” (2:256, 499). Moreover, because Lewis never came close to joining the LDS Church, he raises interesting questions for Latter-day Saints who believe one must accept “the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ” (D&C 20:9). To Latter-day Saints, Lewis is a believer—though a virtuous unbeliever in the “fulness of the gospel.” Often quoted by LDS authors, teachers, and General Authorities, Lewis is a representative recipient of God’s inspiration which Mormons believe can (and does) exist apart from official LDS channels. Further, he presents an interesting case study regarding the eternal status of non-LDS inspired voices.

Theology loosely understood involves the way believers conceptualize and make sense of their experiences in the world, their experiences with God, and their expected future experiences. Understanding Lewis’s place within the LDS theology of salvation helps clarify the soteriological possibilities extended by Latter-day Saint theology to those who, like Lewis, end their lives outside of Mormonism. Non-Mormons may be surprised to learn that Latter-day Saints do not expect to be the only residents in heaven. Further, because LDS theological positions have not been uniform or static, Latter-day Saints themselves may be surprised at the extent of these possibilities for non-Mormons.

Much of my analysis is drawn from Lewis’s collected letters rather than from his other published works. I hope to include much fresh material that has remained untapped—material about the context of Lewis’s conversion and its inf luence on his unsystematic theology. From the first letter in which seven-year-old Lewis described the “adventure” of his pet canary Peter being chased by a cat (1:2–3) to the final letter more than fifty years later when sixty-four-year-old Lewis thanked a young boy for telling him how much he enjoyed his books (3:1483–84), Lewis’s letters trace his education, friendships, family life, inter-faith dialogue, and academic activities. He was a prolific correspondent; his letters fill three thick volumes and provide great insight into Lewis’s philosophical and theological thought.

Occasionally, Lewis seems to turn around and catch you reading over his shoulder. For example, in earlier letters to lifelong friend Arthur Greeves, he said that their correspondence would make a “jolly interesting book” and a “great diversion” for future readers (1:173, 146). This prediction proved true, but itmust have made Arthur nervous. Lewis later reassured him that anyone taking time to forage through their “tawdry nonsense” would be an “ill-bred cad” whose opinions they wouldn’t care about anyway (1:274). Lewis also recognized the potential for misquotation and proof-texting. Some critics of Lewis have used isolated quotes from various letters to claim he never gave up his “unholy fascination with pagan gods,” or that he hated children, or that he was something of a pervert.5 Careful evaluation of the letters is required because readers should not assume his letters, which were not written as a systematic whole, unequivocally give the clearest picture of Lewis’s thought.6 Lewis seems to warn later readers: “A heavy responsibility rests on those who forage through a dead man’s correspondence and publish it indiscriminately. In those books of [Sir Walter] Raleigh’s we find . . . letters like ‘a glass of good champagne’ side by side with mere squibs thrown off in high spirits or mere grumbles written when he was liverish.”7

I appreciate that heavy responsibility.8 First, I discuss a few aspects of Lewis’s journey to Christianity and argue that his personal experiences along that path contributed significantly to his sympathetic understanding of other religious traditions and philosophies. The next section documents Lewis’s views that conversion was a process, followed by the specific problem of the “virtuous unbeliever.” The article concludes with the paradoxical problem that Lewis, in Mormon terms, is himself a “virtuous unbeliever.” I explore the potential eternal status of inspired non-LDS post-Restoration voices.

Overlong Footnotes:

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, 3 vols. edited by Walter Hooper (London: HarperCollins, 2004–6), Vol. 2: Books, Broadcasts, and the War 1931–1949, 670. Vol. 1 is subtitled Family Letters 1905—1931; Vol. 3 covers Narnia, Cambridge and Joy 1950–1963; hereafter cited in the text as "CL" by volume and page. Lewis, a voluminous correspondent, frequently abbreviated common words.

[2] Joseph Smith Jr. et al., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, edited by B. H. Roberts, 2d ed. rev., 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1973 printing), 5:517. This particular sentence was added to the reconstruction of a Joseph Smith sermon on July 23, 1843, apparently in the handwriting of Jonathan Grimshaw, who may have been adding material recollected by George A. Smith. Grimshaw first wrote this: “Have the Presbyterians any truth? Embrace it. Have the Baptists, Methodists &c any truth? Embrace that. Get all the good in the world, and then you will come out a pure Mormon.” I thank W.V. Smith for his important assistance with my HC sourcing.

[3] Douglas LeBlanc, “Mere Mormonism: Journalist Richard Ostling Explores LDS Culture, Theology, and Fans of ‘Crypto-Mormon’ C. S. Lewis,” Christianity Today, February 7, 2000, (accessed April 12, 2010). Ostling also claims that Lewis “was aware of the LDS claims and totally rejected them,” which I believe is a significant overstatement. See Blair Dee Hodges, “C. S. Lewis: Crypto-Mormon? Part II: Lewis on Latter-day Saints,” lifeongoldplates.com, posted May 5, 2009. Ostling and his wife Joan co-wrote Mormon America: The Power and the Promise (New York: HarperOne, 1999).

[4] Previous approaches have focused mainly on quotations from Lewis that resonate with an LDS audience. Often, Lewis is approved insofar as he is seen to agree with LDS perspectives. For instance, see Marianna Edwards Richardson and Christine Thackeray, C. S. Lewis: Latter-Day Truths in Narnia (Springville, Utah: Cedar Fort, 2008); Nathan Jensen, The Restored Gospel According to C. S. Lewis (Springville, Utah: Cedar Fort, 1998); Andrew C. Skinner and Robert L. Millet, eds., C. S. Lewis: The Man and His Message (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1999). Exceptions include Mary JaneWoodger, “TheWords of C. S. Lewis as Used by the Leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Harvest Magazine, February, 2000 (discontinued, accessed May 3, 2010); Evan Stephenson, “The Last Battle: C. S. Lewis and Mormonism,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 30, no. 4 (Winter 1997): 43–69. The latter focuses mostly on areas of disagreement. My perspective differs only slightly from many of Stephenson’s conclusions.

[5] See David Cloud, “C. S. Lewis and Evangelicals Today,” Way of Life Literature, August 12, 2008, (accessed March 15, 2009); Trevor Thompson, “The Pervert, the Whip, and The Chronicles of Narnia,” Simon Magazine, December 14, 2005, (accessed March 15, 2009). See also A. N. Wilson’s controversial biography, C. S. Lewis: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002) and the reply by George Sayers, Lewis’s pupil and friend, “C. S. Lewis and Adultery,” in We Remember C. S. Lewis: Essays and Memoirs, edited by David Graham (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman, 2001), 97–103.

[6] Lewis once explained to his father how “correspondence is unhappily no true parallel to conversation: and it is just when one would be most ready for a talk in the odd hour of the day when one shoves ones [sic] work from one and lights the pipe of peace, that one is least ready to sit down and write a letter. I often wonder,” he added, “how the born letter writers whose ‘works’ fill volumes, overcame this difficulty.” CL 1:518. Lewis himself obviously overcame the difficulty. Even at three volumes, his letters are “collected” rather than “complete.”

[7] CL 1:665. Lewis was corresponding with his father regarding The Letters of Sir Walter Raleigh. Later, while reading the letters of Robert Southey, Lewis noted how reading letters written throughout one’s life can make a happy life look grimmer than it likely was, an appraisal of the incompleteness of such a record. Ibid., 2:421.

[8] Lewis would be especially concerned that a student of journalism like me had written a paper using his letters, since he would not “hang a dog on a journalist’s evidence.” CL 2:849. Given Lewis’s frequent lambasting of journalists, the reader will have to take this paper for whatever it is worth, see Ibid., 2:53, 849; 3:63, 114, 252, 410–11, 667, 786.

September 28, 2010

The Chicken Delicious Papers

My wife and I don't have children yet, but we do have a daughter-dog. Her name is Chicken Delicious and we love her to death. She's a mutt, her litter was rescued from a shelter at the last minute. Of course, we want her to be a part of our family forever, as this baby picture of her suggests:

Chicken and I co-edited her papers just in time to present them to my wife for our anniversary: The bound volume includes color photographs of Chicken's life and times. Page one starts off with an excerpt from Chicken's first journal entry:
"I am Chicken Delicious, and this is a minute account of all things that have come under my observations."
Because it is difficult for dogs to write, Chicken's papers are mostly photographs taken by other people of Chicken and her family. The journal does not include all known photographs of Chicken, however. Nevertheless, the editor (me) was quite conscientious in his selection, this is not a white-washed volume by any stretch. Photo's include some embarrassing moments, including the time when Chicken ripped open her favorite toy which we called "Tube-y," a long green canvas dog with a squeaker in it. Other embarrassing moments include Chicken's first bath and an unflattering picture of her sneezing. These moments do not detract from the overall positive account of Chicken's life so far.

The Chicken Delicious Papers, Journal, Vol. 1: 2007-2010 is a meticulously edited, and meticulously cute volume, a limited edition print run of (1) copy.   

BHodges's mother (left) and BHodges's wife (right)
enjoy reading on the couch with Chicken Delicious.