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C. S. Lewis at the Doors of Ecumenism

This guest post is by Brandon Rappuhn, Faithlife Live Product Strategist.

A number of years back, Catholic television station EWTN ran a series called Catholic Authors, hosted by Fr. John C. McCloskey III. Interestingly, alongside such Catholic writers as Flannery O’Connor and Hilaire Belloc, they aired an episode on C.S. Lewis, an Anglican who was quite passionate about not being Catholic.

Lewis is widely appreciated in Catholic literary circles. Numerous Catholic publications, especially from Ignatius Press, investigate Lewis’ theological leanings from a Catholic perspective. Why is this?

In the twenty-first century, Lewis’ writings are still drawing people into the Christian faith. What we really need to ask, then, is how does C.S. Lewis the Anglican facilitate discussion between Christians of all denominations?

Mere Christianity, one of the best-selling and most enduring works of Christian apologetics, provides an interesting common ground for all Christians. In the book, Lewis discusses the essential theological tenets of Christianity—such as faith, the Trinity, sin, and redemption—but he intentionally omits aspects of faith that might be objectionable to various denominations, such as justification and the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the preface to Mere Christianity, Lewis states,

The reader should be warned that I offer no help to anyone who is hesitating between two Christian ‘denominations.’ You will not learn from me whether you ought to become an Anglican, a Methodist, a Presbyterian, or a Roman Catholic. This omission is intentional (even in the list I have just given the order is alphabetical).(viii)

Immediately, passionate Christians of any denomination might shudder, thinking Lewis might be indicating a sort of relativism or postmodernism. But here Lewis isn’t proposing a new denomination or watering down existing theologies. What he actually does is provide a far more ecumenical approach: “It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms,” Lewis states. “If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in” (xv).

Lewis’ approach to interreligious dialogue is similar to that of the Catholic Church, stated in the Vatican II document Declaration of Religious Freedom:

Truth . . . is to be sought after in a manner proper to the dignity of the human person and his social nature. The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, in the course of which men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth. (14)

In Mere Christianity, Lewis allows for a common approach to readers of all Christian denominations, articulating what we share rather than what divides us. It is the hallway where we make that free inquiry and discuss the things we love most about our faith without being drawn into arguments about differences. We can discuss what we have in common on equal terms without dropping ultimatums about faith and dogma that set walls between passionate hearts. We can invite others to look inside our room, while glancing down the hall to see what other rooms look like.

Predating Vatican II, but in its spirit, Lewis states, “When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them” (xvi). The genius of Lewis was that he made it possible for Christians from every denomination to celebrate all that we hold in common.

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