“Broaden your mind, Malcolm, broaden your mind! It takes all sorts to make a world; or a church. This may be even truer of a church. If grace perfects nature it must expand all our natures into the full richness of the diversity which God intended when He made them, and heaven will display far more variety than hell. ” – C.S. Lewis, “Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer”, 1964
This is one of my favorite college chapels in Oxford (if one can have a favorite). What is its connection to this quote from Lewis’s “Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer”? Let me explain.
One of the most striking things that hit home for me during our recent trip to Great Britain was the realization that the United Kingdom is a place where people’s belief in God has been worn thin from religious persecution and that of a singularly pernicious kind: the martyrdom of believers at the hands of other believers. In considering the bloody feuds that raged for centuries between Catholics and Protestants there, often over trivial doctrinal differences, it’s really no surprise to me that this tiny island is pretty much godless today. More and more I appreciate our American value of religious freedom and tolerance codified in the first amendment to our Constitution.
For me, it served as a humbling reminder of how murderously legalistic we can become as Christians if we are not careful. The late theologian Prof. Howard Hendricks, when teaching on church history, remarked that heaven is filled with believers who have killed each other thinking they were doing God’s will. Can you imagine the surprise? The thin line dividing good and evil running down every human heart should remind us to enter debates over doctrinal issues with much fear, trembling, and prayer. An overabundance of humility is required, too. We all see through a mirror darkly when we begin to speculate on matters outside the core of the Gospel and even the Gospel itself contains fathomless mysteries.
More and more I am convinced that God allows for diversity in the Body, as Lewis’s quote indicates. He was addressing the different styles of worship, liturgy, and prayer among believers. In particular, he was referring to a Catholic woman who collected the prayers of saints to use in place of her own personal prayers.
Back to Oxford: the gardens at Wadham College were beyond lovely and peaceful, a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the main streets. We visited them early in the morning, so there were few fellow tourists to disrupt the tranquility.
In the early 1920’s, while enjoying this beauty, C. S. Lewis read a book that would change his life: Samuel Alexander’s Space, Time, and Deity. From Alexander, Lewis learned what he later called “an indispensable tool of thought”- the division of one’s conscious thought life into two processes that he labeled Enjoyment and Contemplation. His life’s quest for Joy would be put on the path towards fulfillment here. In his essay, “Meditation in a Toolshed”, Lewis created a metaphor for understanding these concepts and it gives us a glimpse into the far-reaching effects they had in his own thinking. You can read more here: Looking Along the Beam.
The more I learn about C.S. Lewis, the more I appreciate how he was able to set aside differences in dogma in order to work closely with others. His own writing benefited greatly, indeed might not have been possible without the help of his fellow Inklings – a diverse set of Christians who gathered together to encourage and help one another in their common goal of undoing the negative effects of post-Enlightenment reductionism on culture.
Not that they refrained from lively discussions of doctrinal differences. They were just uniquely able to set these aside when needed and not allow them to destroy relationships, both professional and personal. What a model for us today!
I see that this is an example that our increasingly divided and compartmentalized culture needs to see modeled. Christians should be the example. Also, as our culture becomes more hostile to our Christian beliefs, I believe we will not have the “luxury” of such in-house divisiveness over issues peripheral the Gospel core of our faith.
We have already seen this take place in the pro-life movement with Protestants and Catholics joining forces to support each other in their efforts to protect the least amongst us. And this, despite having deep differences over the use of non-abortifacient methods of birth control.
The world needs to see people who disagree on certain things rally around common interests and discuss differences in civil and edifying ways – truly listening and moving beyond knee-jerk reactions. It needs to see how we can both “look at” and “along the beam” of each other’s beliefs.
In the end, I believe that if we are united in our love for Jesus, our differences should seem trivial, for our Lord is greater and far more concrete than any of our doctrines, practices, or liturgy. We are still shadows going through shadowy motions as we await the eternal “weight of glory” that will be revealed in Him one day. The One who is in us is greater than the doctrines that divide us.
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. – from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians
Bandersnatch: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings by Diana Pavlac Glyer
The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams by Carol and Philip Zaleski
Here is a wonderful lecture on preserving our distinctly American value of religious freedom from one of my favorite thinkers, Dr. Os Guinness: