Reflections on C.S. Lewis' Inclusivism

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James Sennett's chapter in The Chronicles of Narnia and Philosophy considers several views on the extent of salvation:

Universalism: Everyone will be saved.
Pluralism: There is no one, true religion. Multiple religions are legitimate paths to God.
Inclusivism: There is one, true religion, but some who are technically in other religions are nonetheless on a legitimate path to God by means of the correct religion, even if they don't know it.
Exclusivism: There is one, true religion, and the only path to God is through explicitly following that religion.

Sennett argues, correctly I think, that Lewis was an inclusivist. He allows for Emeth to be saved without any explicit trust in Aslan, but he insists that Emeth was following Aslan while falsely believing he was following Tash. Aslan clearly states that Aslan and Tash are not the same being, and the followers of Tash are evil and do not make it into Aslan's country. Universalism and pluralism are as easily ruled out as exclusivism. I haven't spent an awful lot of time thinking about inclusivism, because it seems so hard to square with Paul's train of thought in Romans 10. But Sennett has helped me see that Lewis' inclusivism makes sense of one puzzling element of the Narnia stories, and he's also helped me think a little more fully about what an inclusivist view should look like.

Sennett argues that inclusivism best explains something that might otherwise be puzzling in the Narnia stories. See The Mouse Trap Theory of Atonement at Green Baggins for a serious discussion of Lewis' theory of the atonement in the Narnia books. After reading Sennett, I'm now wondering if the discussion makes any sense. It's an attempt to get an entire theory of atonement out of an event that isn't really atonement for anyone but Edmund. Sennett has a much better alternative. He insists that the Narnians' following of Aslan is not Christianity. You don't have anything in Narnia like salvation by means of faith in a work of atonement. The stone table was one event for one person that turned the tables in one war against one opponent. It's much better to think of Narnians who follow Aslan in a way more like how Christians generally see faithful Jews before the time of Christ and how Lewis saw Emeth following Aslan without knowing it when he thought he was serving Tash. I think what Sennett is suggesting is that the real atonement for Narnians is the same one for us, namely the cross in our world. The Narnians don't know this to put explicit faith in it, but it's enough that Aslan does when he initiates the work of faith in their lives to guide them along in their progress toward greater understanding, some of which may only come after their death (as was the case with Emeth). I think this makes much better sense of what Lewis is doing with the stone table and how he might say that Narnians are saved.

Anther intriguing statement Sennett makes is that Aslan is not Jesus. I thought it was obvious that Aslan is Jesus. Isn't the stone table supposed to refer to the cross, even if it isn't really salvation for all the Narnians? Well, yes, literarily. But in the world of the fiction, Aslan is a lion. Jesus is a man. The incarnation of the first person of the Trinity as a man in our world is not the same incarnation as his incarnation as a lion in the Narnian world. The incarnation is hard enough to figure out philosophically, but a double incarnation? Fortunately, Prosblogion has already had two discussions of that issue for those who are curious.

Finally, it occurs to me that inclusivism fits best with a Calvinist model of divine sovereignty. Sennett's way of describing who among other religions is genuinely on the path to salvation is that they're the ones God is working in to move them toward the right attitudes and practices, despite not having the right information to know what the gospel even is. Without that, and without the evidence of explicit faith in Jesus Christ, it's very hard for there to be objective criteria for someone to be saved. The easiest way around that is for the criteria to be simply whoever God is genuinely working in, a work that will always be brought to completion, but that requires Calvinist views of divine sovereignty over human salvation. There may be other ways to do it, but that's certainly the easiest answer to the problem. Ironically, Calvinists are probably more likely to be opposed to inclusivism than other groups, and inclusivists rarely want to be Calvinists.

11 Comments

I would think that any version of Pelagianism (under which I'm not including Arminianism) would be just as easy to explain inclusivism. Even that Thomistic predestination would seem to work just as fine as an explanation.

How does Pelagianism do it? If it's all up to us, then aren't we dealing with pure works? Don't you then have the vagueness problem where there's no clear line between who does enough and who doesn't (or who has enough faith and who doesn't)? You need to distinguish between those with a genuine work of faith at God's initiative and those who don't if you're going to be able to say that someone who doesn't have explicit faith still has enough faith.

Thomistic predestination comes in two varieties, as I understand him. There's the more Calvinistic view that you find in the philosophical-theological works, and there's the semi-Pelagian view that you find in his biblical-theological works. In the latter, he insists that there's something we do that is in addition to what God does, but in the former he takes God's role and our role to be two sides of the same coin. I think with the latter, you might be right.

Hey Jeremy,

I am no Lewis expert, but I'm not sure if Lewis was as precise in the story as the questions being asked. Could he be emphasizing a Christus Victor model of the atonement as the big meaning of the atonement while drawing out the implications of penal substitution for just one individual in the story (and thus for all readers who can identify with Edmund). If Lewis had made Aslan's subsitutionary element universal for all who 'believed' in him, it would have significantly affected the dynamics of the story and perhaps Lewis didn't want that. I think caution is in order when trying to derive someone's theology from a work of fiction. Sometimes creative license takes precedent over theological accuracy.

Well, I thought Pelagianism would say that it's possible to do it on our own, but we're stuck by bad example. God worked by giving an example of The Right Way.

If that is the case, the Vulcan could make it if, in his Vulcanism, he winds up doing what the example (being Christ) would've done even if he doesn't have that example as a moral guide.

Rey, that's a separate issue. You're thinking along the lines of who is capable of getting in, and Pelagianism seems to allow a broader group to get in. My argument is that it's hard for there to be a principled, clear criterion for getting in if inclusivism is true, because once you loosen the standards beyond explicit faith in Christ you always have the question of how much is enough, which means there's no objective criterion for drawing the line at a particular spot. Calvinism could solve that, because it has God bestowing grace on some and not on others. If some of them are like Emeth in other religions, then so be it. What brings them to salvation is God's gracious work, and that's either present or not, which creates a sharp line between the saved and the unsaved. Pelagianism doesn't provide anything like that.

Marcus, I don't think Lewis had a theory of atonement involved. He did seem to want the stone table scene to evoke Christ's death and resurrection in certain ways, but I don't think he wanted it to atone for anyone but Edmund to begin with, and I'm not sure he wanted it to atone for Edmund in the same way he saw the cross working for us. If that's right, then it seems wrong to look for Lewis' theory of the atonement in the stone circle scene.

It seems likely to me, too, that Lewis (whose writing I love but with whom I sometimes disagree) was an inclusivist. It seems impossible to me, though, to reconcile inclusivism with not only Romans 10 but also with many other passages. Some of the clearest may be John 3:16-18, 36; John 14:6; Acts 4:12; and 1 Timothy 2:5.

Jeremy,

Given that The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe is children's fiction and the first in its series, and I think (but am not certain) that Lewis did not have the intention of writing all of the later stories, which is more plausible?

1. Lewis intending children to see Aslan's act as analagous to Jesus' act, where he takes the place of a condemned person and his death effects victory for good in his world or

2. Lewis intending children to not see Aslan as acting like Jesus but to grasp that Jesus death on earth is what redeems the Narnians. The probelm is that it's too subtle for children to grasp and that no one would not have been able to make that suggestion if the Last Battle had not been written.

I do agree with your claim that Inclusivism is present in the Last Battle, but I do think we can find a theory of atonement present in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Your readers may be interested in my discussion of Lewis' view of the Atonement in my book, "Mere Theology: A Guide to the Thought of C. S. Lewis" published by InterVarsity Press and available from Amazon. I also address about 25 other theological topics in all of Lewis' work including Narnia. I also have a new book coming out soon from Zossima Press on the spiritual themes in the Narnia books entitled "The Hidden Story of Narnia". You can look for that on Amazon as well in the next few months.

Lewis wrote each earlier volume without the plan of any continuation. The first three books were each, as far as he knew, going to be the last. He had a draft of The Horse and His Boy before he wrote The Silver Chair, and he had started of The Last Battle before he wrote The Magician's Nephew, both of which (I believe) were started before he finished THAHB, so some of those later books benefited from knowing about the next book in the series. He refers to the Shasta/Bree story in TSC, and he refers to the events of TMN in THAHB.

Will, you're talking about his overall view from his other works, right? I have no problem with that. The Green Baggins discussion and the chapter on the atonement in Harry Potter and Philosophy are trying to get a view of the atonement out of a fictional story that doesn't look at all as if it's supposed to teach the correct theory of the atonement of the cross. That's my main problem with those arguments.

Lewis made his inclusivism even more apparent in Mere Christianity:

Here is another thing that used to puzzle me. Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him. But in the meantime, if you are worried about the people outside, the most unreasonable thing you can do is to remain outside yourself. Christians are Christ's body, the organism through which He works. Every addition to that body enables Him to do more. If you want to help those outside you must add your own little cell to the body of Christ who alone can help them. Cutting off a man's fingers would be an odd way of getting him to do more work.
My own way of putting it is that Jesus stands at the door of Heaven and no one gets in except by Him. We do not know all reasons Jesus might choose to let people in yet we know the ones revealed to us - and to assume any others risks putting stumbling blocks in the way of others (and I do not like swimming with millstones around my neck)

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