by Sarah Arthur
I learned a fancy new phrase in my theology class at seminary last year: theological anthropology, or the Christian doctrine of human nature. What is a human being? How is a human being different from God? How are we different from other creatures?
These are the questions that a doctrine of theological anthropology seeks to answer. And it’s not merely theoretical. Throughout Christian history, believers have insisted that a robust understanding of human nature provides the individual Christian with a healthy self-understanding and care for others.
C. S. Lewis was no exception. His fiction echoes with classical theological anthropology, much of which shaped my own self-understanding as a young person struggling to make my way in a culture that devalues and degrades our humanness. Two examples stand out. The first is the notion of human “hybrids”—made of body and spirit—who experience peaks and troughs in the spiritual life, as illustrated in The Screwtape Letters. The second is the notion of human dignity and shame as illustrated at the end of Prince Caspian. This article will consider each example in turn.
The first illustration comes from Lewis’s satire The Screwtape Letters. (For the uninitiated, the book comprises of letters from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew, Wormwood, offering advice on how to tempt the human in his charge.) Early in the book, Wormwood’s human “patient” becomes a Christian but then begins to lose his initial spiritual excitement. Wormwood sees this as a positive development, but Screwtape isn’t so sure. Hasn’t Wormwood heard of the “law of Undulation”?
To explain what he means, Screwtape defines human beings as amphibians: half spirit, half animal. They are the original hybrids. The spiritual side of them is drawn to eternal things, able to fix on an eternal object. But the material side of them is bound in time and thus subject to changes, to gradual deterioration. So the closest thing they can come to a steady course is what Screwtape calls the “law of Undulation,” or the repeated peaks and troughs in life. At one point (such as the “patient’s” conversion) a person is at a spiritual and physical peak, full of energy and enthusiasm; and at another point he sinks into a trough of dullness in mind and body, feeling distant from God and disinterested in most everything.
The non-self-reflective human might be tempted, in the troughs, to try to work himself back up to a peak; or, conversely, to begin thinking that the peak was a bit excessive in the first place. This is the demonic “advantage” to a trough. But Screwtape warns that, because God does not want to override human freedom, God allows for the troughs—indeed, specializes in the troughs—because it is in the times of dryness that humans recognize their need for God and seek God of their own volition. God would prefer to have us voluntarily close by, even if we are miserable in the meantime. (But of course, Screwtape can’t understand why God desires us; Screwtape simply can’t believe it’s because of love. God must have some ulterior motive!)
Lewis’s notion of “the law of Undulation” was a watershed to me as a teenage reader, wrestling with ups and downs as any teenager does. Once I became aware of my hybrid nature—half material, half spiritual—I could better tune in to the troughs and peaks in my emotional and physical energy. When my enthusiasm for life was low, I was encouraged to remember that it is not a permanent state of affairs. Indeed, a trough just may be when God is trying to get my attention. Likewise when I am at a peak, I can remember not to cling to that spiritual high too tightly, but to thank God for having joy in life for the time being.
The second example of a robust theological anthropology in Lewis’s writings is the notion of human dignity and shame as illustrated in the closing chapters of Prince Caspian, the second book Lewis published in his acclaimed children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia. As the story winds down, Aslan offers the defeated Telmarines the opportunity of a new life in the world from which they came. He describes their ancestry as that of pirates in our world who accidentally ended up in Narnia generations ago. Prince Caspian is a descendant of those same pirates—a point Aslan makes sure the prince acknowledges. Caspian does, but not with pride: he says, “I was wishing that I came of a more honorouable lineage.” At this point Aslan makes a statement of theological anthropology that the readers are meant to hear and claim as well. “You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve,” said Aslan. “And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor in earth. Be content.” But what does this mean?
Lewis is alluding to the biblical notion that human beings are creatures of tremendous dignity and worth, descended from the first humans made in the image of God (Genesis 1:24-26). Those humans walked with God and were made caretakers of all creation—they were, as the psalmist says, not much lower than the angels (see Psalm 8). In addition, God became incarnate in the form of a human through Jesus Christ, an act that caught up all of humanity into the divine life (see Mere Christianity, Book IV). It is this knowledge, Lewis says, that should raise the head of the lowest beggar.
But as descendants of Adam and Eve, humans also inherit their shame. Our ancestors broke God’s law by eating fruit from the forbidden tree (Genesis 3), and the guilt of their trespass is handed down from generation to generation through our spiritual DNA, you might say, only to be cleared by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We can never escape from that heritage except through faith in Christ, in whom we are “new creations” (see 2 Corinthians 5:17). It is this knowledge that should bring humility to the highest person of prestige and power.
Lewis’s notion of human dignity and shame at the end of Prince Caspian was both an encouragement and a caution to me as a young reader—and can be to other readers as well. As to encouragement, there are many people who long to grow in their spiritual journey but feel held back by their troubled family history. They may think they can never overcome their painful heritage and become the people God has called them to be. Lewis’s theological anthropology in Prince Caspian can encourage them to claim their true heritage as Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve, descendants of the Lord and Lady of creation, who are made in God’s image. As to caution, others may unwittingly fall into the sin of spiritual pride, thinking they are on a level above the sinning populace. To be reminded of their shameful spiritual ancestry—which they share with everyone else—could be an important corrective toward proper spiritual humility.
In these illustrations, Lewis offers a theological anthropology that profoundly shaped my self-understanding as a young person, both by encouraging me to recognize my hybrid-ness (and not take my spiritual troughs too seriously) and by presenting a nuanced picture of my human heritage as daughter of Adam and Eve. It also gave me a robust understanding of the fallen yet beloved and redeemable human creatures around me. So, what might change in the hearts and actions of today’s young people if they encountered Lewis’s theological anthropology in a similar way?
Sarah Arthur is a consultant to the Northern Michigan C. S. Lewis Festival (www.cslewisfestival.org) and the author of numerous youth resources, including The God-Hungry Imagination: The Art of Storytelling for Postmodern Youth Ministry (Upper Room Books, 2007). She is presently completing graduate studies at Duke Divinity School in Durham, NC. She can be reached at www.saraharthur.com.
NOTE: Later in the book, Screwtape speaks similarly of the humans’ horror of the Same Old Thing: they like change because they are materially bound in time, but they also like permanence, because there are spiritually bound in eternity. So again, the only way they can moderate between change and permanence is through what Screwtape calls rhythm, or the repeating patterns in the broader seasons and cycles of life.