2016-06-30
Go to Oxford, England, today, to the Eagle and Child pub on St. Giles street and you'll find, in addition to a hardy pack of regulars, a constant stream of pilgrims come to pay homage at the shrine of the Inklings. This tightly knit group, C.S. Lewis' intellectual family, wouldn't have stood out from many of the academic types you see strolling Oxford's High street today, but the Inklings are remembered for potently defending Christianity against a skepticism born in the First World War and nurtured by the horrors of the Second.

For many Christians, the Inklings, with Lewis at their center, did for faith what the RAF did for England in the Battle of Britain. And in the decades that

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  • followed, their example as dedicated, thinking Christians has influenced, comforted, even converted many. The ghosts of Lewis, "The Lord of the Rings" author J.R.R. Tolkien, lawyer and scholar Owen Barfield, and novelist Charles Williams attract fans of their fiction and their faith alike.

    What was that faith, which still commands such devotion from visitors? It is difficult to answer, since the Inklings represent such a wide divergence within the framework of Christianity. Tolkien was a staunch traditional Roman Catholic. Lewis was an Anglican with what are called �Anglo-Catholic� or �high church� tendencies. His friend Charles Williams was a Christian, but with links to Rosicrucianism and with interests in the occult and the mystery religions.

    Moreover, Lewis was the only one to describe in nonfiction his own religious faith. His religious writings are not systematic in any way. They address specific issues: the demonic, miracles, heaven and hell, etc. But a common thread can be read in the Inklings' writings that gives an indication of how they thought about the Christian faith.

    Christianity attracted in this period of tremendous foment a host of literary and academic notables: beside Lewis, Williams, Tolkien, and Barfield we can put G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, Austin Farrar, even T.S. Eliot, as a kind of distant Anglo-American cousin. The Inklings proper were constantly moving and changing, but the core group was the most intimate and concentrated gathering in this intellectual lineage.

    Their project, if it can be described as such, was a twofold one. Firstly, they wished to assert the intellectual defensibility of a Christian faith. Lewis himself had

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  • come to Christianity from a period of atheism by intellectual questioning. This aspect of their work was entirely Lewis� project. He was the convert, and to him the important point was not that Christianity was defensible, but that atheism was indefensible.

    For perhaps the hundred years or so preceding the Inklings, there had been a growing skepticism in England, indeed in the world, about the claims of Christianity. It was a scientific skepticism, rooted in Darwin and his theory of evolution, and a philosophical skepticism, the roots of which are very complex, but it is often blamed on Descartes and his subjectivism.

    In addition to the growing philosophical skepticism, there was the tremendous psychic traumas England had suffered in the World Wars--especially the first, from which fewer than a third of England's men had come back.

    In England generally, and the academy specifically, the Christian faith had become intellectually verboten. With Lewis in the lead, the Inklings intended to turn the tables on the skeptics, to lay open the prevailing intellectual climate to questioning. They had the reputations to pull it off. Tolkien and Lewis were academics of unimpeachable standing. Barfield, though a solicitor (lawyer), published some extremely gifted books on English literature, and Williams, with no formal education, had worked his way up to the position of editor at Oxford University Press.

    The larger aspect of the Inklings' project was a focus on what can be

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  • termed "myth," by which they meant not something untrue (as the word is often used today), or even something unverifiable by science. They understood myth as a way of approaching the structure that undergirds material reality.

    Myths were more real that the narrow definition of reality; they were in some sense the truly real. This is a theme evident in the work of Lewis and Tolkien (and less famously in Williams). The characters in the Chronicles of Narnia and the Space Trilogy are clearly identifiable as Christ-figures, evil figures, etc. Aslan, the Narnian Christ-figure, even tells the children that he exists in their �real� world, only with a different name.

    Williams� so-called spiritual novels are perhaps the most difficult to interpret. They deal with a wide range of spiritual topics, from Tarot cards to the role of the Holy Spirit in the church, but are not explicitly religious. Rather, they have a view of reality somewhat like that of "The X-Files": �the truth is out there,� and it is much more variegated, complex, and inexplicable than one would think.

    Lewis� little-read "Till We Have Faces" is a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth and is also difficult to understand: not explicitly Christian, nor allegorical like the Chronicles of Narnia. Yet it is most certainly Lewis� greatest work of literature; the issues it deals with, the complexities it communicates, are indicative of how Lewis� faith developed after the death of

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  • his wife. It also gives an idea of the Inklings' understanding of the reality that myth inducts us into. In the book's most poignant scene, Lewis� main character dreams that she has put the gods, especially Cupid, on trial. After the repeated reading of her charge, she stops and has a realization: �You yourself, Lord, are the answer, before your face all questions fall away.�

    Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" invents an entire world, with languages, histories, peoples, etc. There is nothing explicitly religious in the work; there are no gods or goddesses. But the reality presented is a reversal of our modern, post-Cartesian view of the world, in which what is philosophically and scientifically verifiable is what is most real, and what is not is all conjecture.

    This reversal is the Inklings' central assertion: The Christian faith is true, not because one can consent to its intellectual feasibility, but because it is true and is what is the truly real. It is of little consequence, asserts Lewis, whether I recognize God as real. It is of all consequence, both in and out of this world, whether God recognizes me. �Now we see in a mirror darkly,� the Inklings might say, �but then we shall see face to face.� What we see in the mirror is myth, myth allows us to approach the real, but it is only a foretaste of that reality which we shall experience hereafter.

    What does the understanding of myth mean for Christian faith? Numerous things, perhaps, but I will point to a single link between the Inklings' understanding of myth and their understanding of faith: the Eucharist. Like myth, the Eucharist is a key to the true structure of the universe for both Tolkien, a traditional Roman Catholic, and Lewis, who had a very high view of the Eucharist. For them, the Eucharist on the altar is Christ, broken and sacrificed for us on the cross. The sacrifice at Mass and on Calvary are one and the same real event--more real than Narnia or Middle Earth can ever be, but in an analogous way, beyond the pale of the material world and as true an indication of that invisible and overwhelming reality they saw as Christians.



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