C.S. Lewis on the Importance of Theology

C.S. LewisEvery­one has warned me not to tell you what I am going to tell you in this last book. They all say ‘the ordi­nary reader does not want The­ol­ogy; give him plain prac­ti­cal reli­gion’. I have rejected their advice. I do not think the ordi­nary reader is such a fool. The­ol­ogy means ‘the sci­ence of God,’ and I think any man who wants to think about God at all would like to have the clear­est and most accu­rate ideas about Him which are avail­able. You are not chil­dren: why should you be treated like children?

In a way I quite under­stand why some peo­ple are put off by The­ol­ogy. I remem­ber once when I had been giv­ing a talk to the R.A.F., an old, hard-bitten offi­cer got up and said, ‘I’ve no use for all that stuff. But, mind you, I’m a reli­gious man too. I know there’s a God. I’ve felt Him out alone in the desert at night: the tremen­dous mys­tery. And that’s just why I don’t believe all your neat lit­tle dog­mas and for­mu­las about Him. To any­one who’s met the real thing they all seem so petty and pedan­tic and unreal!’

Now in a sense I quite agreed with that man. I think he had prob­a­bly had a real expe­ri­ence of God in the desert. And when he turned from that expe­ri­ence to the Chris­t­ian creeds, I think he really was turn­ing from some­thing real to some­thing less real. In the same way, if a man has once looked at the Atlantic from the beach, and then goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic, he also will be turn­ing from some­thing real to some­thing less real: turn­ing from real waves to a bit of coloured paper. But here comes the point. The map is admit­tedly only coloured paper, but there are two things you have to remem­ber about it. In the first place, it is based on what hun­dreds and thou­sands of peo­ple have found out by sail­ing the real Atlantic. In that way it has behind it masses of expe­ri­ence just as real as the one you could have from the beach; only, while yours would be a sin­gle glimpse, the map fits all those dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ences together. In the sec­ond place, if you want to go any­where, the map is absolutely nec­es­sary. As long as you are con­tent with walks on the beach, your own glimpses are far more fun than look­ing at a map. But the map is going to be more use than walks on the beach if you want to get to America.

Now, The­ol­ogy is like the map. Merely learn­ing and think­ing about the Chris­t­ian doc­trines, if you stop there, is less real and less excit­ing than the sort of thing my friend got in the desert. Doc­trines are not God: they are only a kind of map. But that map is based on the expe­ri­ence of hun­dreds of peo­ple who really were in touch with God-experiences com­pared with which any thrills or pious feel­ings you and I are likely to get on our own are very ele­men­tary and very con­fused. And sec­ondly, if you want to get any fur­ther, you must use the map. You see, what hap­pened to that man in the desert may have been real, and was cer­tainly excit­ing, but noth­ing comes of it. It leads nowhere. There is noth­ing to do about it. In fact, that is just why a vague religion-all about feel­ing God in nature, and so on-is so attrac­tive. It is all thrills and no work; like watch­ing the waves from the beach. But you will not get to New­found­land by study­ing the Atlantic that way, and you will not get eter­nal life by sim­ply feel­ing the pres­ence of God in flow­ers or music. Nei­ther will you get any­where by look­ing at maps with­out going to sea. Nor will you be very safe if you go to sea with­out a map.

In other words, The­ol­ogy is prac­ti­cal: espe­cially now. In the old days, when there was less edu­ca­tion and dis­cus­sion, per­haps it was pos­si­ble to get on with a very few sim­ple ideas about God. But it is not so now. Every­one reads, every­one hears things dis­cussed. Con­se­quently, if you do not lis­ten to The­ol­ogy, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones — bad, mud­dled, out-of-date ideas. For a great many of the ideas about God which are trot­ted out as nov­el­ties to-day are sim­ply the ones which real The­olo­gians tried cen­turies ago and rejected. To believe in the pop­u­lar reli­gion of mod­ern Eng­land is ret­ro­gres­sion — like believ­ing the earth is flat.

Take from the 23rd chap­ter of Mere Chris­tian­ity by C.S. Lewis (read online).