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The Conservative and the Progressive

thomas merton and cs lewis


William Van Ornum - published on 10/10/13

C. S. Lewis and Thomas Merton both have their followers, though they tend to be of different ideological stripes. Reading them together can give Christians a fuller picture of the faith.

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Although they both lived in the same era and wrote about what was important in Christianity, the lives of C. S. Lewis and Thomas Merton ran on parallel paths that never crossed. Each produced their main literary works in the period between 1945 and 1963, and there are many similarities and contrasts in their lives and thinking.  Last week we looked at Merton’s work; now it is time to look at Lewis and Merton together.

C. S. Lewis was born in Ireland in 1898. Like Merton, he experienced the death of his mother early in his life, was sent away to boarding school, and had to figure out as a young man how he would deal with a World War. Similar to Merton, he was drawn to an academic career, but was more successful in finding one than was Merton. C. S. Lewis became a don at Oxford and then at Cambridge. He died on November 22, 1963. We are approaching the 50th anniversary of his death, the remembrance of which will no doubt be eclipsed by thoughts on President John F. Kennedy, who died earlier on this same day.

Lewis and Merton were both atheists in their early life. Each had a strong conversion experience where they felt God had sought them out, drawing them into his loving arms. Lewis wrote about this in an early book called Surprised by Joy.

Unlike Merton, Lewis was drawn toward writing fiction and fantasy. He was nurtured by regular meetings with J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, besides being one of the translators of the original Jerusalem Bible. Lewis wrote the charming set of stories about Narnia. He also wrote a science fiction trilogy, which began with the book, Out of the Silent Planet.

Merton was a pacifist. Lewis went into the British army and defended his country in the trenches of France. He captured 60 German soldiers and marched them back to the British camp.

There are many exceptions, but Christians of a progressive bent have been drawn toward Thomas Merton because of his emphasis on social justice and confronting evil in the world.  His books have also drawn many people to become interested in Cistercian monasticism. The book of his which is similar to Lewis’s Surprised by Joy is The Seven Story Mountain.

Persons tending toward what the press likes to call conservative Christianity, traditionalism, and even evangelical Christianity are frequently drawn to C. S. Lewis. Whereas Merton pushed his version of Catholicism outward into the world and even into Eastern religions, Lewis looked within and believed that the most important elements of the faith were those which guided each person’s belief and daily actions.

Lewis’s Mere Christianity encapsulates the main doctrine of all the different Christian branches. In some ways, it is a “common cause” of traditional Christian doctrines. For Lewis, it was important to emphasize the Incarnation, Ministry, Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ, as well as all aspects of the Apostle’s Creed. He asserted that these were all real events that occurred in historical time and were not merely metaphors or helpful guidelines for living (as many liberal Christians in Europe were implying at the time, and as many do today).

Merton confronted social evils – especially nuclear war and racism. During World War II, when the Nazi Germany threatened his homeland, Lewis introduced his own thinking, which said that the way people treat each other each day in their own home and in their own neighborhood might be the most important actions of all. These ideas came out in the form of a letter from one devil to another in his masterpiece, The Screwtape Letters. He was criticized for not putting criticism of the Nazis at the top of his hierarchy.  Nevertheless, during World War II he was a strong voice on the BBC, presenting succinct apologetics for the basic doctrines of Christianity. It would be interesting to speculate on his views concerning abortion.

Lewis saw physical and mental pain as sometimes being humanly insurmountable but spiritually efficacious. He believed that the way one deals with these could bring about changes of character and grace and prepare the Christian for union with God in the next life. He would be classified by theologians as a supernaturalist, as he focused a great deal on the meaning of the true reality of heaven and hell. In the book The Great Divorce, he imagined what the spiritual universe of heaven, hell, and purgatory would look like – with a bit of British humor thrown in besides.

Lewis wrote in a humble and down-to-earth style that reached the reading public in Europe and the United States. In 1948, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

Both Lewis and Merton struggled with the meaning and issues of physical and emotional intimacy and a relationship with a particular other. Merton’s struggles led him directly back into monastic life. Lewis became married in the middle 1950s; by 1960, his new wife succumbed to cancer.

This led Lewis to write about his unimaginable grief. He poured out his heart in a book published under a pen name. A Grief Observed continues to be read today by persons whose lives have been disrupted by the deaths of those whom they love.

After his wife died, Lewis’s health and vitality diminished. He died at the age of 65, in the presence of his lifelong best friend and brother, “Warnie” Lewis. Like St. Paul, he ran the race to the finish. Merton died at the age of 53 in Asia before he could say everything he wanted to. We can only speculate how Merton’s theological thinking would develop – many have written and currently write about this.

C. S. Lewis has been a favorite author of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Pope Benedict, in one of his books on the life of Christ, cites Lewis on one of the early pages and gives Lewis a footnote of credit. I have no doubt that Merton’s work influenced the 1983 pastoral letter of the American bishops on nuclear war.

I have found that alternatively reading C. S. Lewis and Thomas Merton brings together some of the often perceived disparities between what we call traditional versus progressive Catholicism.  (And Lewis himself was a Protestant!) These authors bring out paradoxes in bas relief and offer intriguing thoughts and meditations.

Both authors continue to inspire study by others. There is an international Merton Society as well as a section of Bellarmine College in Kentucky where Martin’s papers now reside. Lewis’s papers are conserved at Wheaton College in suburban Chicago. Both in the United States and in Britain there are C. S. Lewis societies. The one that meets in New York City has monthly talks in a parish hall where tea and dessert is always served. Spiritual pilgrims visit the monastery in Kentucky where Merton lived, as well as the 8-acre estate called “The Kilns” outside of London were C. S. Lewis lived.

These are great spiritual writers whose books and letters illuminate the issues that were percolating before Vatican II and in the years directly afterward. They may be especially insightful because they were written before 1970 and the divisive hot button issues which have captivated many Christians since then.

William Van Ornum is Professor at Marist College and Director of Research for the American Mental Health Foundation in New York City.

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