Friday, March 20, 2009

C.S. Lewis: Private or Public?

In many respects C.S. Lewis lived a relatively private life. His popularity caught him by surprise, as he did not set out to become a celebrity. But neither did he live a sheltered academic life. He often interacted with his peers, with friends and, of course, with the public via his BBC radio talks, lectures, and books.

John Randolph Willis wrote, "Although Lewis's ethic is largely personal ... nonetheless it is by no means devoid of social implications, which in some instances ... are spelled out quite clearly."

Richard John Neuhaus remarked: "... there is something to be said regarding 'C.S. Lewis in the Public Square.' ... If we do not think of Lewis's work as public, it is probably because of our shriveled definition of 'public' that equates 'public' with the 'political,' and further equates the political with the governmental. Lewis was a public man. For even the most reclusive author, to publish is to go public ... His effort was to engage, inform, and elevate what is today called 'public discourse' ..."

Though certainly private in many ways, Lewis did in fact engage the culture of his day on ethical matters. During World War II, for instance, he spoke and encouraged military personnel, addressed an Oxford pacifist society, delineating his views on war and pacifism, encouraged students to continue their important intellectual pursuits, and more. He also spoke his mind on ethical matters regarding love, marriage, and sex.

In addition, his series of journalistic articles collected in Present Concerns indicates Lewis often wrote with the specific intent of addressing concerns of his day on a popular level via such avenues as newspapers and magazines.

C.S. Lewis not only wrote about and discussed ethics, but also lived his life accordingly. Although he would likely scoff at any strict distinction between "public" or "social" and "private" ethics, the term private is used here to refer to his daily life and activities and how they demonstrate Lewis's ethics as realities in his life.

His arguments were not just talk or abstract intellectual pursuits. Indeed, he practiced what he preached -- or at least made a great effort to live virtuously. Lewis had an active spiritual life, for example, which included extensive and regular times of prayer alone and with others. Considering his busy academic schedule, ongoing writing projects and speaking engagements, such dedication to prayer is revealing.

Lewis also personally responded to large quantities of correspondence, viewing each letter as a ministry opportunity. His letters to children demonstrate the personality of a kind, caring person who encouraged children and took their questions seriously.

Lewis also encouraged his students and friends. When his wife Joy passed away, he cared for her two children and included them in his will. Lewis also often offered financial assistance, sometimes anonymously and always discreetly, as he did not feel the need to announce such acts of kindness, thus exemplifying the sentiments of Jesus in Matthew 6:1-4, which speaks of giving in secret.

His many speaking engagements, articles and books also formed part of his ethics, specifically his desire to reach out to skeptics, encourage Christians and interact with culture. This sort of engagement with the popular culture in areas beyond his area of academic expertise, raised the eyebrows of many of his peers and, as many have argued, likely cost him advancement at Oxford.

What drove Lewis? Christ did, along with a sincerely lived out Christian worldview infusing every area of his life. For Lewis there was no separation between his "spiritual" life and the rest of life. It all fit together, as it should.

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