Thursday, February 17, 2005


The essence of religion? While he was at Oxford in the early 1940's, C.S. Lewis created and chaired a debating club called the Oxford Socratic Club. It was intended to foster debate among people on campus, especially the religious and non religious. The following is taken from a paper he presented to that group titled Religion without Dogma? I should add, before I bring in the quote, that Lewis is responding to a previous paper making the assertion that all religion is about immortality, which is offered up to the credulous as a bribe for joining the "club." Lewis responds that Hinduism is a major religion which is not about immortality; there, the prize is relief from immortality. And Judaism has little interest. He then responds to the idea that immortality is all that religion is about:
I cannot sufficiently admire the divine tact of thus training the chosen race for centuries in religion before even hinting at the shining secret of eternal life. He behaves like a rich lover in a romance who woos the maiden on his own merits, disguised as a poor man, and only after he has won her reveals that he has a throne and palace to offer. For I cannot help thinking that any religion which begins with a thirst for immortality is dammed, as a religion, from the outset. Until a certain spiritual level has been reached, the promise of immortality will always operate as a bribe which vivitates the whole religion and infinitely inflames those very self regards which religion must uproot. For the essence of religion, in my view, is the thirst for an end higher than natural ends; the finite self's desire for, and acquiescence in, and self rejection in favour of, an object wholly good and wholly good for it. That the self rejection will also turn into self finding, that bread cast upon the waters will be found after many days, that to die is to live - these are sacred paradoxes of which the human race must not be told too soon. ... I could not believe Christianity if I were forced to say that there were a thousand religions in the world and that 999 were pure nonsense and the thousandth true. My conversion, very largely, depended on recognizing Christianity as the completion, the actualization, the entelechy, of something that had never been wholly absent from the mind of man. And I still think that the agnostic argument from the similarities between Christianity and paganism works only if you know the answer. If you start by claiming on the other hand that Christianity is false, then the pagan stories may be another nail in the coffin... But if the truth or falsity of Christianity is the very question you are discussing, then the argument from anthropology is pure petitio.
Lewis was a scholar of the classical literature and familiar with a wide range of ancient texts.

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