“The Four Loves” and Thoughts on Charity

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The sumptuous Botanical Gardens in Oxford.

The Four Loves has to be one of my favorite books by C.S. Lewis, right along with its fictional counterpart, Till We Have Faces.  It is a highly convicting read, though, and my first exposure to it this past Spring for a class in my graduate program was quite challenging for me, to tell the truth.  I am one of those affectionate sorts who can sometimes pride themselves on being able to love even the most unlovable people.  Some things that Lewis wrote in this book pierced my heart to the core.  It was a good thing for it revealed the painful truth that my love is nowhere near as unselfish as I would like to think.  Oh, how easily we deceive ourselves!

A common theme running throughout the body of Lewis’s work is the idea that God has designed nature in such a way that it not only points to His “invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature,” but it also teaches us about ourselves.  This was a realisation for Lewis that enabled him to begin the process of abandoning his atheism and I believe was most beautifully expressed in his essay, “The Grand Miracle.”  Lewis believed that God spoke to pagan cultures through nature’s design, even giving them hints into His salvific plans for mankind.  This plays into his concept of Christianity being the true myth; the pagan imagination could be a part of general revelation and provision of God’s grace for those not privy to special revelation. He prepared the world in many ways for that “fullness of times” – through prophets, philosophers, and pagan imagination as it considered the works of His hands. You can read more here in this excellent essay from one of my professors, Dr. Michael Ward:

“C.S. Lewis on Christianity as the True Myth:  Paganism contained a good deal of meaningful stuff that pointed to and was realised in the historical story of Christ.”

In The Four Loves, Lewis spends the first three-quarters of the book describing with vivid detail and piercing acuity what he calls our natural loves – both their beauty and how we distort them in our selfishness.  These are the loves we more or less naturally come by given how God created us, our environment, temperaments, upbringing, biology, etc.  He labels these Need-loves for, unlike God, we are “born helpless” and “as soon as we are fully conscious we discover loneliness” and that “we need others physically, emotionally, intellectually.”  He writes, “we need [others] if we are to know anything, even ourselves.”  We instinctively know this, too, for when we shun others we make excuses, intuiting that this shunning goes against something fundamentally human.

Lewis works his way through these “lower loves” continually returning to the theme that “the highest does not stand without the lowest.”  In other words, these lower forms of love have an important place with respect to their relationship with the highest form of love or Divine Gift-love, as he calls it.  He writes, “we must join neither the idolators nor the ‘debunkers’ of” the lower forms of human love:

“A plant must have roots below as well as sunlight above and roots must be grubby.  Much of the grubbiness is clean dirt if only you will leave it in the garden and not keep sprinkling it over the library table.  The human loves can be glorious images of Divine love.  No less than that: but also no more …”

As a side-note, I wonder if the reference to the library table might be a nod to his ideas of Contemplation and Enjoyment.  Love must be enjoyed or experienced from “along the beam” in the garden, not only contemplated in the study full of books.  Lewis was an incredibly consistent thinker and he skillfully transposed certain fundamental ideas into various subjects and contexts.  I would not be surprised if this was on his mind when he wrote these words.

This garden theme will appear again in his chapter on Charity.  These lower loves, as beautiful as they can be at times, are simply not enough.  Something must come to their aid if they are to be kept “sweet” and free from distortion.  And this is not to “disparage” these loves he writes for “it is no disparagement to a garden to say that it will not fence and weed itself, not prune its own fruit trees, not roll and cut its own lawn.”  A garden, such as the gorgeous botanical garden pictured above that my husband and I visited on our recent trip to Oxford, requires a worker to keep it from going wild.  And this need is its glory, according to Lewis.

“Its real glory is of quite a different kind.  The very fact that it needs constant weeding and pruning bears witness to that glory.  It teems with life.  It glows with colour and smells like heaven and puts forward at every hour of a summer day beauties which man could never have created and could not even, on his own resources, have imagined.”  

Lewis notes that as compared to such life and fecundity, our “decency and common sense”, things we use to hold such bounding vitality in check, will seem as dead and sterile as gardener’s tools.  Beside the natural “geniality of love” our work shows “grey and deathlike.”  In gardening terms, it is paltry labor beside the work of nature that provides the fertile soil and rain, light, and heat from above and below.  As for the gardener, “when he has done all, he has merely encouraged here and discouraged there, powers and beauties that have a different source.”  God is the source for it is written that God is love itself. Yet, the gardener’s share in the work, though paling in comparison to nature’s, is still “indispensable.”

“When God planted a garden He set a man over it and set the man under Himself.  When He planted the garden of our nature and caused the flowering, fruiting loves to grow there, He set our will to ‘dress’ them.  Compared with them it is dry and cold.  And unless His grace comes down, like the rain and the sunshine, we shall use this tool to little purpose.”

Most importantly, the work of our will is made all the more difficult by the sin-infested soil and weeds.  But, Lewis warns, “we should not work in the spirit of prigs and Stoics” for we are “hacking and pruning” that which is precious, indeed.  This stuff of the garden is,

“…big with a splendour and vitality which our rational will could never of itself have supplied.  To liberate that splendour, to let it become fully what it is trying to be, to have tall trees instead of scrubby tangles, and sweet apples instead of crabs, is part of our purpose.”

So, nature provides us with another strikingly clear and resonant metaphor for how our loves are taken up into God’s love and what part He gives for our weak and flimsy wills to play in the process.  I am convinced that the ability to use the natural world in creating such rich and edifying metaphors is a part of this general revelation that is God’s grace to us (and why Paul says that we are all “without excuse” in our suppression of the knowledge of Him – nature cries His name, after all!).

In the end, He takes our love up into Himself and enables us to “love what is not naturally lovable; lepers, criminals, enemies, morons, the sulky, the superior and the sneering.”  More importantly, He gives us the Incarnation and “as God becomes Man ‘not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by the taking of the Manhood into God,’ so here; Charity does not dwindle into merely natural love but natural love is taken up into, made the tuned and obedient instrument of, Love Himself.”

This is only a small glimpse of this wonderful little book; a tiny peek through iron gates into a wonderfully sumptuous garden.  I cannot recommend it enough.  I know it is one that I will be returning to again and again.  I hope you have been given enough of a taste to want more, too.  Enjoy!

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The beautiful gardens at Wadham College, University of Oxford.

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