Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Although many Protestants do not celebrate this 40-day season, many churches do celebrate this period as a way to prepare for Easter.
We’ve been rereading The Screwtape Letters with our Bible Study group this year. These letters by C.S. Lewis document an exchange between an older demon, Screwtape, and his younger nephew, Wormwood. While C.S. Lewis would hardly qualify as a social scientist, I appreciate the ways that he recognizes the importance of context when it comes to theology and belief.
There are two lessons that have been especially helpful for me to think about as I prepare for the season of Lent.
For they [people] constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls. (Letter IV, Screwtape Letters)
Over the years, I’ve frequently remembered C.S. Lewis’ admonition that our physical posture matters when we talk to God. Although many Christians–including myself–sometimes see religion as largely about belief, our practices matter. Sociologists of religion rarely just use doctrine to characterize people; our spiritual practices, the communities that we belong to, and our background all shape religious identity.
Keep his mind off the most elementary duties by directing it to the most advanced and spiritual ones (Letter III)
As a sociologist, I tend to think about the big picture. Poverty is largely a product of unjust social structures, which create broken relationships among people. Sexism and racism, even as they manifest themselves in individual lives, are fed by larger societal beliefs and norms about gendered and racial and ethnic differences, and an unequal allocation of power and resources.
Yet in thinking at the macro-level, I am guilty of not seeing my role and place in society, and unfortunately can start to frame problems at a more distant level. I am reminded that just thinking more justly (or researching and teaching to that end) is not enough. For me, the practice of spiritual discipline is a way to remember that the day-to-day, the most “elementary duties,” are core to who we are, and they affect our relationships with one another.
As I celebrate Mardi Gras with friends tonight, I look forward to taking the words of Lewis–and my physical nature–more seriously.