C. S. Lewis’s “Christmas Sermon for Pagans”

C. S. Lewis’s “Christmas Sermon for Pagans” December 28, 2023

In Monday’s Christmas Miscellany, we discussed an article about how Christmas destroyed paganism.  I recalled that there is another take on the relationship between Christianity and paganism, this one by C. S. Lewis.

A few years ago, a piece that Lewis wrote for The Strand Magazine in 1946 was discovered.  It’s entitled “A Christmas Sermon for Pagans” and has still not been published in any collection of Lewis’s writings.

Last year about this time, Lewis expert Crystal Kirgiss made it available on her blog.  It is getting attention now  because Kerry J. Byrne of Fox News wrote an article about it, focusing on how “it addresses, with almost startling prescience, many of the same culture-war issues simmering for years in the United States and exploding across the nation after the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks on Israel.”

You need to read it all, but let me tell you a little about Lewis’s argument first.  He begins by saying that though he accepted The Strand‘s assignment to write a Christmas sermon for pagans, he worried that there may not be enough pagans left for him to write to.

Lewis, the classically-educated literary scholar, knows that a pagan has more in common with a Christian than either of them have with a “post-Christian” secularist.

Actual pagans like Homer, Aristotle, and Virgil would agree with Christians like Shakespeare, Milton, and Hopkins that there is an objective right and wrong, an objective nature, and living deities to whom we are accountable.  Lewis says that the pagans also tended to know that they are in trouble with the gods, that their behavior whether intentional or unintentional will bring about their doom, unless they can somehow placate the gods.

The post-Christians, though, believe in something else entirely:

Now the post-Christian view which is gradually coming into existence—it is complete already in some people and still incomplete in others—is quite different. According to it Nature is not a live thing to be reverenced: it is a kind of machine for us to exploit. There is no objective Right or Wrong: each race or class can invent its own code or “ideology” just as it pleases. And whatever may be amiss with the world, it is certainly not we, not the ordinary people; it is up to God (if, after all, He should happen to exist), or to Government or to Education, to give us what we want. They are the shop, we are the customers: and “the customer is always right.”

Sound familiar?  Lewis is just getting started.

Have you not begun to see that Man’s conquest of Nature is really Man’s conquest of Man? That every power wrested from Nature is used by some men over other men? Men are the victims, not the conquerors in this struggle: each new victory “over Nature” yields new means of propaganda to enslave them, new weapons to kill them, new power for the State and new weakness for the citizen, new contraceptives to keep men from being born at all.

Meanwhile, the post-Christians are constructing new secular ideologies that presume to take the place of actual religions, whether Christian or pagan.  But those certainly can’t work in a climate of moral relativism:

As for the ideologies, the new invented Wrongs and Rights, does no one see the catch? If there is no real Wrong and Right, nothing good or bad in itself, none of these ideologies can be better or worse than another. For a better moral code can only mean one which comes nearer to some real or absolute code. One map of New York can be better than another only if there is a real New York for it to be truer to. If there is no objective standard, then our choice between one ideology and another becomes a matter of arbitrary taste. Our battle for democratic ideals against Nazi ideals has been a waste of time, because the one is no better than the other. Nor can there ever be any real improvement or deterioration: if there is no real goal you can’t get either nearer to it or farther from it. In fact, there is no real reason for doing anything at all.

Without denying the problems of paganism, Lewis floats the idea that maybe post-Christians need to become pagans before they can become Christians.  The world is composed of people who do not know they are sick (the post-Christians); those who know they are sick (the pagans); and “those who have found the cure” (the Christians).  A person must realize they are sinners before they can be truly receptive to Christ.  (Sounds like Law and Gospel to me.)

For (in a sense) all that Christianity adds to Paganism is the cure. It confirms the old belief that in this universe we are up against Living Power: that there is a real Right and that we have failed to obey it: that existence is beautiful and terrifying. It adds a wonder of which Paganism had not distinctly heard—that the Mighty One has come down to help us, to remove our guilt, to reconcile us.

So read the whole essay linked here: A Christmas Sermon for Pagans,

Dr. Kirgiss first gives us a photocopy of the article in The Strand, but if you scroll past those yellowed pages, you will find an easier-to-read transcript.

 

Photo:  C. S. Lewis via Flickr, Public Domain

 

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