Peter Kreeft has called it C. S. Lewis’s “golden sermon.” Walter Hooper places it first in an otherwise chronologically-ordered series of addresses by C. S. Lewis, saying that “The Weight of Glory” is “so magnificent that not only do I dare to consider it worthy of a place with some of the Church Fathers, but I fear I should be hanged by Lewis’s admirers if it were not given primacy of place.” This is high praise. And the sermon rises to the high expectations created by such praise. The sermon was preached June 8, 1941 and published a few months later in the 43rd volume of the journal Theology. Because today’s date is June 8, it’s fitting to recall some cherished lines from this oration that centers on the Christian conception of love and its relation to heaven’s future rewards:
. . . if we consider the unblushing nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. . . . We are far too easily pleased.
Lewis means that we settle for the satisfaction of desires that seem grand to us from the limited perspective of our current lives. Heaven’s rewards outstrip whatever else we could possibly imagine. Some criticize the Christian religion for its mercenary appeal to heavenly rewards as an incentive to Christian conversion and Christian living. But Lewis sorts out this confusion with a comparison to do with marriage. Some men marry for money; others for love. In the first instance, the act is unquestionably mercenary. Not so when a “real lover” enters into marriage. Some rewards are proper to the acts that bring them to fruition. Acting for the sake of our heavenly reward is like this. It is, in fact, the paradigm case of this. There is also this difference. When the saints’ reward is received, it will not be viewed as the effect of a bribe. It will, rather, be experienced “as the very consummation of their discipleship.” In the meantime, when the reward is an expected rather than a lived experience, disciples cannot yet know the fulfillment of the desire natural to it. We can only approximate what it is like to live in possession of our future reward if we obey the revealed will of our Lord. This, I believe, is what the New Testament means by “the obedience of faith.” The faith is rooted in a promise, already the present experience of saints past, and the obedience is a consequence of that faith, an act we perform in the here and now.
. . . longing transforms obedience, as gradually as the tide lifts a grounded ship.
Lewis can write with uncanny clarity when he wants to. And he can write with mystifying creativity when it best serves his purpose.
Now, if we are made for heaven, the desire for our proper place will be already in us, but not yet attached to the true object, and will even appear as the rival of that object.
Does Lewis mean that our highest finite aspirations—even when these are absurd, shortsighted, or inimical to the fear of God—are signs of a deeper desire we deny or believe does not exist, namely, a desire for God? In this context we come to a wonderfully disturbing paragraph:
In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that settled the matter.
What a description of our common experience. Lewis draws out, through his close attention to the facts of our inner life, what we scarcely know to be there. When it is described with such care and accuracy, we finally recognize it. It is a kind of discovery of our true self. What do we do with this new self-awareness? Action of some kind must be proper to this realization. But what action, exactly? And how do we know that we’re not fooling ourselves when we think this very real desire latches onto what really will satisfy? Aren’t we accustomed to the disappointment of our longings? Why should it be any different with this yearning that defines our very selves? Lewis argues from the reality of this desire to the reality of the thing desired. It is a specimen of apologetics that does not feel like an argument. It is, in other words, the best sort of apologetic there is. Some paragraphs further into his message, Lewis contemplates the “idea of glory.”
Glory suggests two ideas to me, of which one seems wicked and the other ridiculous. Either glory means fame, or it means luminosity.
How simple is that? And yet, how true? Fame. A “competitive passion” among those who desire to be better known than other people. Lewis does not say that they desire to be better than other people. No, they want to be better known. This is a kind of glory. This is wickedness. What about luminosity? It is ridiculous. “Who wishes to become a kind of living light bulb?” Lewis’s exploration of the Christian ideal of glory brings together a conception of fame and the absence of vanity. For the details, you must read the sermon for yourself. But here is a morsel to whet your appetite:
Perhaps it seems rather crude to describe glory as the fact of being ‘noticed’ by God. But this is almost the language of the New Testament. St. Paul promises to those who love God not, as we should expect, that they will know God, but that they will be known by Him (1 Cor. 8:3).
To quote one of my seminary profs, Howard Hendricks, “If that doesn’t light your fire, your wood is wet!” Toward the end of his sermon, Lewis circles back round to the idea of reward and the kind of reward the disciple of Jesus can look forward to.
Nature is mortal; we shall outlive her. When all the suns and nebulae have passed away, each one of you will still be alive. . . . Meanwhile the cross comes before the crown and tomorrow is a Monday morning.
Today, the 8th of July 2015, is indeed a Monday! But the seeming dreariness of the weekly recycling of things we do and crave and pursue is overcome with hope. And what seems so routine and ordinary is ignited with purpose.
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.
We do not construct a world of “everlasting splendors” by thinking positive thoughts. It is there before us, ready to behold, if we have eyes to see.
◊ ◊ ◊
Other posts in this series . . .