Tuesday, August 21, 2007

C. S. Lewis and Rousseau as religious pluralists

In his famous novel, Émile (1762), Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote a short section, entitled, “The Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar,” in which a vicar pours out his heart to a young listener regarding his faith and his views on religion. The passage was not well-received because of a controversial section in which the priest seems to support a kind of religious pluralism. Here is the contested section (from §225, italics mine):
I look upon the various particular religions as so many salutary institutions, prescribing in different countries an uniform manner of public worship; and which may all have their respective reasons, peculiar to the climate, government, or laws of the people adopting them, or some other motive which renders the one preferable to the other according to the circumstance of time and place. I believe all that are established to be good when God is served in sincerity of heart. This service is all that is essential. He rejects not the homage of the sincere, under whatsoever form they present it.
Rousseau’s vicar views religion as the service of God, and that service may be done within any religious framework. Orthopraxy, not orthodoxy, is what matters: “I seek not to know any thing more than what relates to my moral conduct; and as to those dogmas which have no influence over the behavior, and about which so many persons give themselves so much trouble, I am not at all solicitous.”

Two hundred years later, C. S. Lewis is well-known as a favorite author among Christians for his many books, including Mere Christianity and The Chronicles of Narnia. In the final Narnia book, The Last Battle, Lewis has a section near the end of the book in which a Calormene is welcomed by Aslan into the “new Narnia.” The Calormene has, for all his life, served the “terrible god Tash who fed on the blood of his people” (42). When the Calormene finally comes face-to-face with the “Glorious One” Aslan, the interaction between them is quite surprising for the average exclusivist evangelical:
I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou has done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? (205)
Rousseau and Lewis convey very similar sentiments in their respective novels. Through the mouth of a vicar (Rousseau) and a lion (Lewis), each author presents an argument for a kind of religious pluralism. Both emphasize moral action over the profession of certain beliefs. Both identify religion with service to God. And Lewis, in particular, seems to view God as one who rewards moral human action while letting a person be punished by Satan for immoral action (it is clear that God does not punish, but rather gives that person up to the false god, who might be identified with the devil of classical Christian thought).

Questions for Discussion:
What do you think about these two passages? Do you agree with the vicar and/or with Aslan? What is the basis for your agreement or disagreement? Is Lewis the Rousseau of the 20th century? Or is Lewis something different altogether? Is the Enlightenment the basis for each author’s views? Is there a better argument for religious pluralism than the views presented by these two authors, and if so, what? What do you think about the emphasis on orthopraxy over orthodoxy? What is the relation between right actions and right beliefs, and how does one’s salvation relate to these twin dimensions of religion? Finally, where might an Eastern view of religion (as opposed to these Western European views) agree or disagree with the views presented here?


Camassia said...

From my limited knowledge of Lewis, I think he believed in something like the Catholic "baptism of desire," whereby people who never heard the Gospel or who heard only distortions of it may yet follow God as best they know how and God will accept it. That's different from true pluralism, as Rousseau's vicar seems to describe it, which does not regard Jesus as bringing a unique revelation to the world but is simply one of many regional expressions of the divine.

Both of them do smack of works righteousness, however, which is obviously going to be a problem for believers in sola fide. I tend to go back and forth on that one, depending on what I'm reading and what mood I'm in.

D.W. Congdon said...


I certainly don't think Lewis was a pluralist in the way that Rousseau and others like Hick are pluralists, but this passage is very, very close -- and it certainly bears close similarities to the vicar's statements.

That said, I definitely disagree with both of them. I don't have a "works righteousness" bone in my body, which means I may be a universalist but not a pluralist. That said, if I am going to support one of these two views, it is going to be Lewis's.

Aric Clark said...

Interesting comparison. I think it is reasonably safe to say these men come from different directions at the problem. Rousseau was basically a deist, where as Lewis argued pretty forcefully against deism. For Rousseau and other enlightenment modernists it was conceivable that the God who established the order of things was being served anonymously by many people from different places, because God wasn't necessarily directly involved in their actions at all, but represented certain principles than anyone could arrive at independently. Lewis on the other hand would want to see a more active hand of God involved even in the work of the non-Christian. I think you and Camassia are right that they both have a sense of works-righteousness about them.

However, I think you've given the pluralist short shrift by assuming that all forms of pluralism necessarily involve works righteousness. Mark Heim seems to have a very interesting project in developing a Reformed pluralist viewpoint, in my estimation.

Lee said...

In fairness to Lewis, I think one needs to take into account what he wrote elsewhere on this. For instance, in Mere Christianity he says:

"Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him."

He also says that "the Christian thinks any good he does comes from the Christ-life inside him. He does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us."

I think that Lewis's position was probably close to some of the early fathers: that it was possible for someone to respond to such knowledge of the divine logos that has been given to them even if they didn't know it as incarnate in Jesus. Now, there is a legitimate question, I think, to what extent that response (whatever exactly it consists of) is a "work," but he's pretty clear that whatever good we do is a consequence of grace and that we are only saved through Christ.

But Camassia is also right that Lewis wasn't a relativist or pluralist in the Rousseauean sense of regarding all religions as equally true (or false).

D.W. Congdon said...

Obviously, my title was meant to be a little provocative. I was being a bit facetious in calling Lewis a "religious pluralist." As a man who studied under Wayne Martindale, worked at the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College, and have met and carried on email discourses with Walter Hooper, I have intimate knowledge of Lewis's own beliefs.

That said, I don't think the similarity between Lewis and Rousseau is merely limited to this one passage. Rousseau's major view is that religion is a basic human need. It has an important and necessary role in human existence, and as such it does not really matter where that need is satisfied, but it ought to be satisfied sincerely in some religious capacity.

Lewis is more orthodox than Rousseau, but no less modern in his mentality. He, too, sees religion as a kind of human need or basic human desire that only service to God properly fulfills. In other words, like Rousseau, he has a natural theology of religion. This is most evident in his short work, The Abolition of Man, in which he identifies the basic moral law manifest in all human cultures. Lewis calls this the Tao. Religion is the necessary outcome of a human society that seeks to order itself in accordance with the Tao.

I'm oversimplifying things, of course, but all I'm trying to say is that Lewis has a rather modern mentality with a strong view that there is some general moral core that is both natural to all people and embodied in a certain extent in all religions. This doesn't make him a pluralist in the full sense of the term, but it's also not the view of the early fathers - at least I don't think so.

D.W. Congdon said...


I'm not familiar with Heim's work apart from word of mouth. What is his basic thesis? What is he trying to accomplish?

I didn't mean to imply that pluralism is entirely equatable with "works righteousness." That's too simplistic. But it's a rather sticky situation for pluralism insofar as it bases one's "salvation" on something apart from Christ's work.

Perhaps Heim tries to show how Christ opens up the "stage" for other religions, so that his work is still definitive, but it embraces other religions. Is that close?

Lee said...

I dunno, it's obviously misleading to talk about "the" view of the fathers on just about anything, but guys like Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen certainly thought that non-Christians could attain to a partial knowledge of God and the right way to live even though such knowledge was incomplete apart from knowledge of Christ. Typically this was grounded in their doctrine of creation - that the logos which became enfleshed in Jesus is the same logos through which the world was created and which enlightens the reason of every human being. And human beings were created with a certain inbuilt tendency to seek God.

Now, this may not be a correct view, but I don't see how it's distinctly modern either.

Camassia said...

OK, you probably know more about this than I do, but isn't the idea of a general morality based on natural law actually pretty old? Catholics I know trace it back to Thomas Aquinas, at least. And just recently I was reading Jaroslav Pelikan describing the ancients' efforts to see "types" of Christian themes in pagan cultures (Sybil, Plato, Odysseus etc.).

I do agree, though, that Lewis had a tendency toward pelagianism, and to my mind this was because he placed so much weight on free will. Human freedom was his answer to the problem of pain, the problem of hell, the problem of God's obscurity and probably a bunch of other things. It's not difficult to see how this attitude could bleed over into works righteousness. (I also suspect that, like a lot of religious conservatives these days, he was circling the wagons against atheism and immorality.)

However, on another matter I'm really interested in your answer to your last question. I've heard the Eastern Orthodoxy tends to be Arminian, but they're also pretty adamant about being the One True Church.

D.W. Congdon said...


Let's be clear: the passage from Lewis's book says nothing about knowledge of God. The Calormene simply serves Tash faithfully, but Aslan accepts that service as service to him. Knowledge of the truth has nothing to do with it.

You are quite right that the ancients held to a natural tendency toward God or the Good, but I do think that the anthropocentric nature of the Enlightenment has an important role to play in the views of both Rousseau and Lewis. The emphasis on human freedom, human action, and human service are not exclusively modern but certainly find their home in modernity. While Lewis is definitely interested in the ancient notion of the Tao (or the Logos in the early apologists), I think he also stands squarely within the modern age.

D.W. Congdon said...


I think you are definitely right that Lewis's stress on human free will is the major player in this debate.

I really don't have an answer to the Eastern Orthodoxy question. But if someone does, I'd be interested in hearing more about it.

Lee said...

Well, let's not be too hasty.

Aslan says:

"I take to me the services which thou has done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted."

This seems to presuppose a knowledge at least of moral truth. Aslan isn't saying that it's ok to do evil so long as you do it sincerely. An oath kept for oath's sake is service to Aslan because it's good and a cruelty done, even if done in Aslan's name, is really service to Tash. This is in keeping with Lewis's view (expressed as you point out in The Abolition of Man) that there are certain fundamental moral truths that we can't not know. So, for Lewis, I think, the value of an action is always at least in part a function of its being oriented to the Good, objectively speaking. I think Lewis is still closer to St. Thomas than to Rousseau.

Halden said...

What Heim tries to do in his books on pluralism is take the bull by the horns and preserve the soreriological uniqueness of Christianity and the viability of other religions as leaving to viable "religous ends" as he puts it. For Heim, "salvation" in the Christian sense of the term is communion with the Triune God through Jesus Christ. As such, there is no "salvation" outside of Christian faith. But, he argues based on his articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity, that given the richness and plenitude of God's triune being that there are multiple "religous ends" that other religous traditions lead to which involve different levels of relation with God. So, for Heim, unlike for Hick, all religions don't lead to "the same place", they all lead to "different places" which do different degrees participate in different aspects of the Triune life. Christianity, of course for him is the truest and most proper religous end, becuase only in it is there union with Christ and communion with the Trinity, but other religions all receive some measure of revelation of the Triune God and thus participate in facets of God's being in their distinct religious ends.

So the result is a fascinating, quite Dante-esque vision of the eternal state. For Heim there really alre "many rooms" in the Father's house, which are all blessed ends, but definitely are not all created equal. Ultiamtely, I don't think his approach works because 1) it is inadequately Christocentic - it assumes that people can to some degree participate in the Triune life without going through Christ and 2) it ends up with some sort of heavenly segregation that I think is quite implausible. That said, I find his view fascinating, especially when he draws on the Divine Comedy.

Aric Clark said...


Doubtless you'll still regard Heim as insufficiently christocentric (though I still commend him to you for reading). I spent a great deal of time studying comparative religions, living amongst Buddhist monks in Taiwan and Thailand, with an Imam in Turkey, and Orthodox monks in Greece and actually came to my own faith through admiration of the conviction I encountered in these others. With this background, what I appreciate about Heim's work is that he emphasizes the distinctness of the different traditions in opposition to Hick who makes them essentially the same. Heim holds that they are distinct traditions with distinct ends thus positing multiple salvations, though salvation isn't even the appropriate term in all cases. To clarify a bit on what Halden says - he also holds that the only intellectually honest position any person of faith can hold is more of an inclusivist than a pluralist position as regards their own faith. In other words, as a Christian he can only view the other religions' ends as somehow finding their fulfillment in the triune God. A Buddhist might equally regard a Christian as accomplishing a limited form of enlightenment through selfless giving. And so on.

To me his position is most honest and simultaneously holds other religions in the highest respect, because it preserves their otherness to the point of accepting that differing traditions even have different ends.

Anthony DiStefano said...

Lewis placed great emphasis on desire, articulated & understood or not, in his considerations on life & judgement. He was not anything like a pluralist, any more than Nostrae aetate from Vatican II is a pluralist document. He believes that there are people who have an imperfect grasp of the truth—due to any number of reasons—and may not be morally culpable for that imperfect grasp. Emeth is an example. He longed for the good, true, & beautiful, for the numinous or the sacred, but was limited in his opportunities to see Aslan as the incarnation of these. Aslan judges him by his lifelong desire to encounter the truth, not by his service to Tash. Readers have to be careful of trying to do too much with passages like this, for Lewis is not here writing anything like a systematic account. I'm reminded of some readers of Narnia who criticize Lewis for a deficient presentation of the Trinity, sin the Emperor never appears & his relationship to Aslan is left unclear. "Don't expect fiction to play by the same rules as theological exposition," Lewis said in a variety of ways & places. This is not an excuse for imprecise language, but a reminder that the desire for allegorizing fiction can be deadly for the imagination. That said, elsewhere Lewis did address this problem, though to my knowledge never in great depth. He was not proposing a form of anonymous Christianity, but perhaps a recognition that there may be anonymous Christians, those who truly long for Christ but have had limited abilities for doctrinal education. It would be interesting to imagine Lewis's response to what we're doing here with the internet, & the availability of information at the touch of some keys.