Little did I know until I cracked the cover that this was the very population Lewis was invited to address, initially delivering his words over radio broadcast in England during World War II. By that time (so the preface to my edition tells me), many English had become disillusioned with faith. Not intellectual enough for me, they said. And yet, where to turn to for hope while London is ravaged by bombs? How to carry on amidst the senseless evil of the world?
After serving as an air raid warden, Lewis began to “speak about the problems of suffering, pain, and evil, work that resulted in his being invited by the BBC to give a series of wartime broadcasts on Christian faith.” (XVII) Lewis “told his radio audience that he had been selected for the job of describing Christianity to a new generation precisely because he was not a specialist…[and] that he had accepted the task because he believed that England...had never in fact been told in basic terms what the religion is about.” (XIX)
Over the past few years, I have felt exactly the same way about my own community, where I feel a lack of knowledge and understanding has led to false assumptions at best and prejudices at worst. Where is the intellectual curiosity? When did Christianity lose its mystery? I know I can’t answer those questions here, so I’m going to ask for Lewis’s help in tackling a different question that ironically, he makes easier to answer.
Among the objections raised regarding the Christian faith is the question of the Trinity. How can you claim to believe in one God and yet say he is three persons -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit?
Let me begin by saying that this question can be difficult for Christians as well. The very early church was split about the identity of the Holy Spirit, and many struggle to explain the divinity of Jesus, let alone a more mystical being like the Spirit. But I’ve heard some good sermons on this topic and particularly like the way Lewis teases out the issue. Before I turn to his rationale, I want to use this fundamental, go-to verse as a basis for discussion:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)
I memorized this as a child. It was probably one of the first verses I memorized. I heard it repeated everywhere -- Sunday School, “grown-up” church, summer camp, kids’ clubs and youth groups… But I don’t ever remember someone explaining the word “begotten”. I had always wondered, why a “begotten” son? Thankfully, Lewis provides an answer.
“To beget is to become the father of; to create is to make. And the difference is this. When you beget, you beget something of the same kind as yourself. A man begets human babies… But when you make, you make something of a different kind from yourself. A man makes...a statue. If he is a clever enough carver he may make a statue which is very like a man indeed. But of course, it is not a real man.
“Now that is the first thing to get clear. What God begets is God; just as what man begets is man. What God creates is not God; just as what man makes is not man. That is why men are not Sons of God in the sense that Christ is. They may be like God in certain ways, but they are not things of the same kind. They are more like statues or pictures of God.” (157-8)
What it comes down to is this: that when the verse says God gave his begotten son, it is saying that God gave God. The son has to be God too.
Lewis makes a further point on this, to say that while we read this event as a sequence, as though the Father came first and then later, the son existed, isn’t the case. Rather, “there never was a time before the Father produced the Son.” (173) Christians believe that the three-in-one God was not created when Christ arrived in the manger but rather has always existed.
So already here we have God in two. How can this be?
“The human level is a simple and rather empty level. On the human level one person is one being, and any two persons are two separate beings -- just as, in two dimensions...one square is one figure, and any two squares are two separate figures...In God’s dimension...you find a being who is three Persons while remaining one Being, just as a cube is six squares while remaining one cube. Of course we cannot fully conceive a Being like that: just as, if we were so made that we perceived only two dimensions in space we could never properly imagine a cube.” (162)
Lewis stresses that it’s not so important to be able to imagine a three-in-one being. We shouldn’t let our limitations prevent us from “being actually drawn into that three-personal life” where we can experience all of God. (162-3) What might this look like?
“An ordinary simple Christian kneels down to say his prayers. He is trying to get in touch with God. But if he is a Christian he knows that what is prompting him to pray is also God: God, so to speak, inside him. But he also knows that all his real knowledge of God comes through Christ, the Man who was God -- that Christ is standing beside him, helping him to pray, praying for him.
“God is the thing to which he is praying -- the goal he is trying to reach. [God the Father] God is also the thing inside him which is pushing him on -- the motive power. [God the Holy Spirit] God is also the road or bridge along which he is being pushed to that goal. [Christ]
“So that the whole threefold life of the three-personal Being is actually going on in that ordinary little bedroom where an ordinary man is saying his prayers. The man is being caught up into the higher kinds of life -- what I called Zoe or spiritual life: he is being pulled into God, by God, while still remaining himself.” (163)
Lewis has one more illustration for us in order to help us understand this complexity. To return to that famous verse that begins, “For God so loved the world,” we are reminded that God loves. And not only that, God is the expression of love itself. We have all heard the phrase “God is love.” But have we considered what it means to say that? Because saying “God is love” has “no real meaning unless God contains at least two Persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, He was not love.” (174) But since the three-in-one God has always existed, love has too. Christians believe “that the living, dynamic activity of love has been going on in God forever and has created everything else.” (175) Now that’s a hopeful message, that love has always and will always be present!
Lewis points out that the Son is “the self-expression of the Father -- what the Father has to say” as “light from a lamp, or heat from a fire, or thoughts from a mind” and yet, God chose to describe himself as “Father and Son [because it] is more like the relation between the First and Second Persons than anything else we can think of. Much the most important thing to know is that it is a relation of love. The Father delights in His Son; the Son looks up to His Father.” (173-4)
This, Lewis says, is “perhaps the most important difference between Christianity and all other religions: that in Christianity God is not a static thing -- not even a person -- but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life...a kind of dance.” Lewis admits that the Holy Spirit is more difficult for us to understand. The Holy Spirit isn’t something we look at. Rather, “he is always acting through you...God is love, and that love works through men -- especially through the whole community of Christians. But this spirit of love is, from all eternity, a love going on between the Father and the Son.” (176)
And what about that last half of the verse? The part of John 3:16 that talks about believing in God’s son and receiving everlasting life? Lewis explains that should we accept God’s gift to us, then we undergo a transformation. Whereas we begin as only statues of God’s creation...
“This world is a great sculptor’s shop. We are the statues and there is a rumour going round the shop that some of us are some day going to come to life.” (159)
That is to say, that for now we are invited to “this three-Personal life…[to take our] place in that dance” and that we will receive a new spiritual life -- “sharing a life which was begotten, not made, which always has existed and always will exist.” (176, 177)
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.