C. S. Lewis on Karl Barth and His Devotees

C. S. LewisFrom a letter to his brother written 18 February 1940:

I am afraid the truth is in this, as in nearly everything else I think about at present, that the world, as it is now becoming and has partly become, is simply too much for people of the old square-rigged type like you and me. I don’t understand its economics, or its politics, or any dam’ thing about it.

Even its theology–for that is a most distressing discovery I have been making these last two terms as I have been getting to know more and more of the Christian element in Oxford. Did you fondly believe–as I did–that where you got among Christians, there, at least, you would escape (as behind a wall from a keen wind) from the horrible ferocity and grimness of modern thought? Not a bit of it. I blundered into it all, imagining that I was the upholder of the old, stern doctrines against modern quasi-Christian slush: only to find that my ‘sternness’ was their ‘slush’. They’ve all been reading a dreadful man called Karl Barth, who seems the right opposite number to Karl Marx. ‘Under judgment’ is their great expression. They all talk like Covenanters or Old Testament prophets. They don’t think human reason or human conscience of any value at all: they maintain, as stoutly as Calvin, that there’s no reason why God’s dealings should appear just (let alone, merciful) to us: and they maintain the doctrine that all our righteousness is filthy rags with a fierceness and sincerity which is like a blow in the face.

Sometimes the results are refreshing: as when Canon Raven (whom you and Dyson and I sat under at Ely) is sharply told in a review in Theology that ‘it is high time persons of this sort learned that the enjoyment of a chair of theology at Cambridge does not carry with it a right to criticise the Word of God’–that’s the kind of rap on the knuckles which has not been delivered for a hundred years!

But the total effect is withering. Of two things I am now persuaded. (1) That a real red-hot Christian revival, with iron dogma, stern discipline, and ruthless asceticism, is very much more possible than I had supposed. (2) That if it comes, people like us will not find it nearly so agreeable as we had expected. ‘Why have they desired the Day of the Lord? It is darkness not light.’ I have no doubt the young gentlemen are substantially right: this is the goods. We ought to have expected that if the real thing came it would make one sit up (you remember Chesterton ‘Never invoke gods unless you really want them to appear. It annoys them very much.’)

(From Yours, Jack, p. 61-2)

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