The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing…to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, of the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously — no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner — no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.
The first time I read the portion in bold (by the way, bold emphasis added; italics are original), I felt like I’d been punched between the eyes. My secularist liberal arts education had, of course, trained me to think exactly the opposite: authors die, but deathless prose is, well, deathless. Or in the words of Belloc in the first Indiana Jones film, “We are just passing through history. The ark…the ark is history.” Not so, says Lewis; in fact, the exact opposite is true. Of course I knew the theology, and had from childhood. But I hadn’t yet managed to bring my liberal arts education into full submission to Christ, and so I hadn’t seen the impact of Christianity on this particular point until Lewis put it together for me in this passage, which is drawn from the title sermon in The Weight of Glory, a volume of collected sermons and addresses.
“The Weight of Glory” by itself is worth the price of the book, but the book also contains other addresses worthy of attention. “Learning in War-Time” is an exhortation to students to keep up their studies while war rages in Europe, explaining that the scholars, too, have their part to play in the world. “Why I am not a Pacifist” is exactly what it sounds like. “The Inner Ring” is an exploration of the desire to be one of the “in crowd” – and why it is not merely a bad idea, but a morally corrosive lust that will lead to even worse conduct if it is not crushed.
In addition to “The Weight of Glory,” though, there is one other address that stands out above all the rest: “Is Theology Poetry?”. The title is a little odd; it is not Lewis’ title, but rather a subject he was asked to explore in the invitation to speak. He took it (we presume, correctly) to be asking if theology is concerned primarily with aesthetics rather than truth: in other words, is theology subjective in the way that poetry is — simply a pleasing way of looking at the world? Can we choose a theology that we like and reject others that we do not, as we might choose and reject poems as a matter of personal taste? Or is it about facts, such that a duty inheres to get one’s theology right? In our own day, when it is almost universally confessed that theology is poetry, no subject could be more a propos.
This address is the source of the famous quote, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else,” and Lewis eloquently defends this point. By contrast, he says, the prevailing modernist “scientific” perspective cannot even account for itself, much less for art or morality. “If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of atoms, then I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees.” Lewis was no Van Tillian presuppositionalist, but at certain times he might as well have been. Together with the transcendental argument for morality in Mere Christianity, this is one of those times, and it’s just brilliant.