The titular sermon of this collection contains one of the most quoted passages in C.S. Lewis’ writings. How often has a preacher wrapped up a sermon with the bit about how we’re satisfied making mudpies in a slum because we don’t know what it means to play on the seashore? It is often such a roundly inspiring text that we’re often oblivious to the fact that it comes at the end of Lewis’ first paragraph. We might think it’s time to go home; Lewis is just getting started.
His rhetorical powers are amply on display in this anthology of public addresses, sometimes on spiritual themes, sometimes on political ones. Throughout his career Lewis was engaged as a speaker and lecturer, and from beginning to end it’s easy to see why. Reading them on the page is demonstration enough of his skill; what it would have been like to hear his own voice delivering the words from the prison of print is beyond my imagining.
The fact that I don’t always agree with his position only serves to highlight his keen mind. His arguments are solid, though it’s often the starting premise I take issue with. In that famous sermon itself, “The Weight of Glory”, he begins quite naturally where most Platonists do: with the idea that while this world is good, the spiritual one is better. From this core concept his imagery and inspiration weave a great spell, particularly when he presents us our lives in terms of exile, desiring “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” The eternal life God promises, says Lewis, is one where we outlive Nature. Yet he seems to have forgotten (at least in my opinion) that Nature will be resurrected as we will be, with new heavens and a new earth. We are not living outside the real world, but only letting ourselves see half of it. To trade the realm of the physical for the realm of the spiritual is not to change worlds, only to trade one half of the world for the other–which would leave us no better off. There may be a wall dividing these two halves of the world from each other, as Lewis imagines. But the promise is not that we will one day get past the wall. It is that the wall itself is coming down and the world will one day be whole. To continue on this theme, though, would be to write a sermon in itself.
“Why I Am Not a Pacifist” surely ranks as one of the most politically conservative things Lewis ever wrote. Delivered for a pacifist society at Oxford in 1940 (apparently by invitation for debate), he ultimately argues that both human and divine authority is for war in a righteous cause, though he also delves into the important question of how we know righteousness from wickedness. At one point he mentions his duty to take into account his society’s authority, his indebtedness to society for his upbringing and education and tolerant laws which allow for Pacificism and dissent–to which I wanted to reply: Yes, but my indebtedness to my society also gives me the duty to notice where my society has gone wrong and endeavour to correct it, to try and change it for what I might think to be the better.
The power of these talks is not whether you agree with Lewis wholeheartedly. Agree with him or not, you will find ideas here aplenty to stimulate debate, engage the intellect, and spark the imagination. Most probably stop after the famous opening number, but those who venture further will find a wealth of intelligent thinking that remains as relevant to us as it clearly must have been to his original audiences. That’s because Lewis, firmly though his feet were planted in his own time, could see deeply into the human heart as well as he could perceive the Divine movement in the world, and these things do not change as much as we think they do. Here you might find a voice that speaks at least a nugget or two of wisdom, if you’re willing to listen.