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Mar 21, 2014 | The Rev. Nathan Jennings

C. S. Lewis On Christian Love

[Diolog MagazineOne of C. S. Lewis’ most cherished books is The Four Loves. With a title like this, we might think that we are going to receive a simple exposition of four different types of love. Although the work does follow this basic outline, it turns out really not to be Lewis’ point.

 

He does, of course, enumerate four different loves, what he calls affection, friendship, “Eros,” and finally, charity, or genuine Christian love. Lewis contrasts the other three loves, affection, friendship and Eros, with charity, calling the former “natural” loves and reserving charity to the realm of “supernature.”

 

But it is not a simple taxonomy, nor is it a simple hierarchy ending with charity. Lewis’ real point is that “the highest does not stand without the lowest.” He means that for us, as human beings, rational animals, touching in our own nature the beasts on the one hand and angels on the other, we cannot love with a “higher” love unless we also take up a “lower” love into it.

 

For Lewis, the relationship of the “lower,” “natural” loves to God’s divine gift of charity is exactly analogous to the incarnation itself. Christ is perfect God and perfect human being. Perfect Christian love is perfectly divine and perfectly natural—in fact, it perfects the natural loves. Lewis explains that:

 

Divine Love does not substitute itself for the natural—as if we had to throw away our silver to make room for the gold. The natural loves are summoned to become modes of charity while also remaining the natural loves they were.

 

Jesus Christ does not leave behind his humanity to give himself to us. Rather, it is exactly because God has become human in Christ that God can give himself to us so fully—and that, “not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking up of the Manhood into God,” (Lewis quotes the Athanasian Creed here [BCP p. 865]). So too, charity does not get lost in our natural loves, or simply overrule them. Rather, our natural loves are taken up into and transfigured, by the Spirit, whenever we experience the gift of true Christian love. And it cannot be any other way. If our love is to be human love, it must include that love that comes to us naturally: affection, friendship and romance.

 

Another ongoing theme throughout his work, in contrast to the previous, is that, in fact, without the Spirit and grace of God, the natural loves become most unnatural—cannot even remain or be what they ought to be. We are built to run on grace. Without grace, even what is supposed to be our own as human beings is either lost or turned demonic. Our “natural” loves need God, too. They can’t “work right” without grace.

 

So, although affection, according to Lewis, is responsible for nine-tenths of any joy or comfort in this human life, without being bound up in the grace of God it can degenerate into the need to be needed, self-pity and jealousy. With God’s grace, it has the power to bring together people who would not normally have chosen one another, simply because affection grows through proximity and familiarity. God loves the unlovable, and affection, taken up by the Spirit, can help us share that same grace.

 

Again, Lewis lauds friendship and seeks its rehabilitation as a modern virtue. Nevertheless, without God’s grace and charity, friendship can descend into party-mentality and rebellion: “It makes good men better and bad men worse.” But when transfigured by grace, real friendship is, in some ways, the most “spiritual” of the “natural” loves. In friendship we enjoy with another something other than ourselves that we both share: we get out of ourselves together. And so friendship is part of our fellowship with the saints, sharing together in our worship of God.

 

Finally, there is “Eros,” or romantic love. As a scholar of medieval literature, Lewis has high praise for the way in which erotic or romantic love is the only natural love that causes us to move beyond ourselves, ecstatically, for the sake of another. Lewis’ accusation, of course, is that erotic love can quickly become obsessed with itself. The lover does not want happiness, or even goodness—the beloved. But in Christian marriage and a grace-filled romantic relationship, “Eros” comes the closest to what the word “charity” means for us as Christians: love which bowls us over for the sake of another. Lewis celebrates that God chose this as his natural sacrament of the love of Christ for the Church.

 

Lewis puts his point another way. When it comes to natural loves, each “gods” in their own way: “The god dies or becomes a demon unless he obeys God.” Without God, without his grace and Spirit, without the gift of charity to take them up and transform them, all of these natural loves pass away, or, worse, they become idols. But by the Spirit, in God’s grace, all these natural loves become the very means by which we share in God’s love for God, the world and ourselves.

 

Jennings is professor of Liturgics and Anglican Study at Seminary of the Southwest.