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C. S. Lewis: On Love, Gender, and Power

May 11, 2011

Guest Contributor, Beth Tracy, offers this review of Part II: Thinker (chapters 11-13). Caroline J. Simon, “On  Love,” 146-159; Ann Loades, “On Gender,” 160-173;  Judith Wolfe, “On Power,” 174-188 from Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis, edited by Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 2010.

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In chapter eleven, “On Love,” Caroline Simon focuses primarily on Lewis’s slim but appropriately titled volume The Four Loves.  She says “its conversational style and relative brevity” give it a deceptively simple appearance (146).  Lewis is anything but simplistic and Simon does an admirable job of teasing apart his theoretical work making his schematic on love understandable and eminently approachable.

The four types of love are Friendship, Romantic, Christian and Affection.  In addition to these are three analytical categories: Need-love, Gift-love, and Appreciative Love.  Simon’s descriptions of these supplementary elements are especially strong.  She further anchors Lewis’s theories in his specific cultural context.  This allows the reader to see Lewis’s limitations as well as his lasting contributions.  Simon shows Lewis to be well aware that his views of love were culturally influenced.  However, while building on the influences of Augustine, Spencer and Lewis’s own contemporaries, she states, “much of what Lewis says on the subject of love is of lasting value, in no small part because of his ability to give clear and winsome articulation to the best intellectual products of a long tradition” (152).

If there is one drawback to Simon’s essay, it is the all too brief final comparison.  Here she gives literary depictions of love in Lewis’s The Great Divorce and Till We Have Faces, while considering the echoes within them of Dante’s The Divine Comedy.  This topic is a book in itself and Simon’s stab at the topic seems more of an appendix.  It does not, however, undermine her earlier work.  Overall, Simon gives the reader a good introduction to Lewis’s theories on love which will serve them well in any future readings.

In November 2011, I was privileged to attend a University of St. Andrews Theology Research Seminar where Ann Loades gave a lecture on the evolution of C.S. Lewis’s concept of gender.  Based on an article published in the Priscilla Papers entitled “C.S. Lewis on Gender”,[1] she skillfully interwove Lewis’s own history, cultural setting and literary works with the development of his understanding of ‘masculinity.’  She examined impacts made on Lewis’s culturally conceived notions of gender in the strained nature of his upbringing, wartime experiences and marriage to Joy Gresham.  Here in chapter twelve, Loades’s new commentary “On Gender” might be better titled “On the Social Convention of Gender’ as its focus is much narrower than her previous article.

In this new exploration, Loades seems intent on identifying Lewis’s archaic views on gender as constituted by his opposition to the ordination of women.  She spends a great deal of time discussing the acceptance of women into the hallowed halls of Oxford, Cambridge and House of Lords.  She then discusses current strained interdenominational relationships over women officiates as if they were contemporary to Lewis’s time.

Evidence given to support the emerging social scientific understanding of gender in Lewis’s lifetime is minimal and cited works by Lewis referencing the topic are all written within a five year period (1943-1948) with his 1948 essay “Priestesses in the Church” perceived as the most damning evidence of his classically myopic view of women and gender.  While Loades does stress Lewis’s concern for the welfare of all people regardless of gender, she returns again to his opposition of women’s ordination and his argument that, “Men may make very bad priests, but at least they are masculine; as such, they symbolically affirm in their own person something of the divine nature which women in their own person cannot symbolically affirm” (165).

The critic Loades appoints to counter Lewis is one of his “younger contemporaries,” philosopher Donald MacKinnon.  MacKinnon finds Lewis’s claim “that a priest-celebrant must be male both obscure and indeed ‘strangely, even alarmingly, uncatholic’”(165).  Loades states that Lewis “must have been aware of at least some of these points at issue”(166).  MacKinnon, however, is objecting to Lewis’s views in 1992 – a full 44 years after Lewis’s ‘Priestesses’ essay and with over four decades of active gender study advances to his advantage.

Whereas her article “C.S. Lewis on Gender” opened an avenue of understanding for all of his works, this commentary restates his culturally formed bias for a particular time.  I would suggest students of Lewis read the two essays in conjunction with each other to obtain a broad understanding of the man and his views related to gender.

In chapter thirteen, “On Power,” Judith Wolfe discusses Lewis’s perceived ‘rigid hierarchy of power.’  She explains that Lewis came to his understanding of power through his conversion from theism to the Christian theological doctrine of one God in three persons.  For Lewis the concept of ‘power’ was modeled on the relationship between eternal Father and his co-eternal Son, which, to Lewis, is a hierarchically structured relationship of love (176).  Lewis’s hierarchy then becomes God is to Christ, Christ to humanity, man to woman, head to body, etc (180).

There are difficulties and weaknesses intrinsic to the hierarchy Lewis proposes.  Wolfe deftly discusses these.  In regard to humanity’s fallenness she uses examples from Lewis’s body of work to emphasize his belief that humanity in its fallen state tends toward self-centeredness and corruption but that “the correct exercise of power requires a common submission and directedness towards a shared good (and, ultimately, God)” (177).  Wolfe also writes that it is the strength inherent in the human/divine relationship of love, not the human lust for power, which Lewis is interested in portraying.  She states, “Lewis maintains that all relationships which are governed by love, and so transcend the allure of power for its own sake, should embrace [the] hierarchical order”(179).

In the section “Power in Lewis’s Fiction,” Wolfe discusses Lewis’s ideal visions of theoretical hierarchy and kingship, values Lewis viewed as essential to being human.  She asks, and leaves open for the reader to determine, if it is possible to transpose Lewis’s nearly divine ideals of power to the ordinary world.  And if so, to what extent the transposition can be accomplished.  Wolfe admits these questions expose a theological weakness in Lewis’s claim to a viewpoint beyond the epistemological corruption of the fall.  She goes on to suggest that his later works address and transform this weakness.  She explains, “For Lewis, part of the task of becoming human, taking one’s place in the hierarchy of being, is to acknowledge precisely this relationship of dependence [on God]”(185).  And therein lays Lewis’s understanding of power and its hierarchical structure.


[1] Priscilla Papers, Vol 24, No. 1, Winter 2010

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Beth Tracy spent twenty years in the entertainment industry working in film and television production before getting a real job studying religion.  She has a BS in Theatre from Emerson College, Boston, MA; an MA from Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, CA in Religion and is working on her PhD in Hebrew Bible at the University of St. Andrews.

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