March 26th, 2012Screwtape and a Possible Theological Error by C.S. Lewisby Joseph Pearce


I've recently received a query from someone who is puzzled by a section in Letter Thirteen of The Screwtape Letters. I consider this particular section to be a theological faux pas on Lewis' part.


Here's the query:


In Letter 13, Screwtape writes:



"As you ought to have known, the asphyxiating cloud which prevented your attacking the patient on his walk back from the old mill, is a well-known phenomenon. It is the enemy's most barbarous weapon, and generally appears when He is directly present to the patient under certain modes not yet fully classified."



1) Do you think readers are supposed to be able to identify what Screwtape is describing here?

Is this God's presence in the Holy Spirit? Is this a great cloud of witnesses that may accompany God's presence?



Then Screwtape states:



"Some humans are permanently surrounded by it and therefore inaccessible to us.



2) Again does this sound to you like Lewis intends for us to recognize who these special humans were? Are these special humans certain Biblical figures? Were they special saints?


And here's my response:


I'm not sure that I can answer definitively but I'll offer my opinion, for what it's worth.


Clearly Lewis cannot mean the Elect, in a Calvinist sense, because such a reading would imply that everyone else is the non-elect and therefore doomed any way, in which case Screwtape and Wormwood would not need to bother with their "patient". The cloud must be the presence of grace, which being an outpouring of God's love would not be understood by the demons, and therefore not neatly "classified" within their graceless psychological framework.


Regarding your second point, I believe quite frankly that this is a little heterodox on Lewis' part, if I am understanding what he is saying correctly. No human being (with the possible exception of the Blessed Virgin) is free from demonic temptation. We are not only tempted to sin, we are all sinners. Even the saints were sinners, as all of them are always telling us!


This, at least, is my reading of the lines in question. Do with it what thou wilt!


What are your thoughts on the subject?

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  • March 27 2012 | by Dena Hunt

    I don't know anything about Anglican theology, per se, but many Protestants (all? I don't know) believe in the "once saved, always saved" concept, which would make an impermeable "cloud" for demons.
  • March 30 2012 | by Erobe

    Regarding 2) this could also be hyperbole on the part of the speaker. SL isn't a catechism meant to teach the tennants of the faith. Still, interesting thoughts!
  • April 3 2012 | by Ben Trovato

    I have two observations to offer: one is that although all saints were sinners, some by the time of their death were approaching perfection, so perhaps by that time in their lives they became inapproachable by some of the lesser Demons (Screwtape is not the bottom dog in the Lowerarchy, whatever pretentions he assumes);

    The second is that Lewis warns us that Screwtape is a liar, as one would expect. He may be covering his back here, to account for souls he has failed to succeed in tempting.

    Incidentally, I personally think that to suggest Our Lady was immune from temptation is to diminish her greatness...
  • April 3 2012 | by maria josé vilaça

    I suppose one could also say that the cloud stands for our free "YES" to God's will and presence on our life and to the protection of the Virgin Mary. I think that demons "give up" when we put ourselves under Her protection. I don't mean that we are not tempted. Even Jesus was tempted! But I suppose that Lewis could say that it's kind of a lost cause for demons.
  • April 3 2012 | by Catholicus

    I'd say he meant "effectively inaccessible".
  • April 3 2012 | by Fred Hunker

    "Attacking the patient" may mean more than simple tempting. It may refer to "infestation, vexation, or obsession", forms of demonic influence short of possession. This would be different from, or in addition to simple temptation. The patient would be protected from these forms of the physical presence of evil, but still subject to temptation.
  • April 3 2012 | by mk

    I think he is simply talking about people in a state of Grace. Anyone coming out of confession would be "Full of Grace". In a state of Grace one is totally open to the presence of God. Mary spent her entire life in this state.
  • April 3 2012 | by Daria M Sockey

    Isn't there a Catholic concept known as being "confirmed in grace"? I don't have any theology manuals out right now, but I it refers to a state that might be granted to an individual, such that they are pretty much beyond the possibility of mortal sin. In fact, the example used was St. Thomas Aquinas. The confessor who heard his dying confession said it was the confession of a six year old child. This isn't to say that such a person never has the least failing, but it's also true that we can commit small sins entirely "on our own" without having first been tempted by Satan. Anyway, whenever I read this passage from Screwtape, this is the concept I thought it was referring to.
  • April 3 2012 | by Will

    I am shocked, SHOCKED, to learn that Lewis was not an orthodox Catholic.
  • April 3 2012 | by That Hat Lady

    This is why Catholics must stop quoting C.S. Lewis and analyzing his work as if it is an authentic interpretation of Catholic apologetics. . It is NOT! We have the Holy See's writings for that. Lewis is a talented writer, but he is only entertainment. He isn't even Catholic.
  • April 3 2012 | by Jim

    Lewis never pretended to be a theologian. In fact in one of his books he says if any of his writings, ideas, trouble you, drop them, walk away and forget it. (I'm paraphrasing ) He is no Calvinist that is for sure.
    I do think he is referring to a cloud of God's Grace with which we must cooperate. Demons do not understand this. But remember, this is mythical, symbolic, writing, not meant to be taken with iron literalness.
  • April 3 2012 | by Dennis Henderson

    You can taste the grace if you put a finger up and invite the presence.
  • April 3 2012 | by kathy wrobel

    After reading Peter Kreeft's "The Snakebite Letters," which is an update of Lewis's Screwtape... I agree with his theory that Lewis is referring to those who are given the gift of "contemplative prayer"... an experience that mystics are privy to in a profound way... an inner union with the Triune God while still on their earthly life journey.
  • April 3 2012 | by Brent

    Lewis also states that everything Screwtape says is not necessarily true, even from his own point of view. Could it be that Screwtape is making excuses for some of this patients that got away?
  • April 3 2012 | by CatholicYM

    I don't think CS Lewis is theologically incorrect on this point. I the Our Father, when literally translated, says "deliver us from the evil one." Catholics pray a St. Michael prayer, in which we ask him to protect us from the "snares of the devil." If we believe that God listens to our prayers and answers them when they are in line with His divine will, why can't we go along with the author's idea of a type of cloud to keep demons from spearheading us? Remember, this is a fictional work anyway, no one denies that. I don't think Lewis is interfering with Catholic doctrine at all.
  • April 3 2012 | by R.C.

    I don't think you've correctly identified the phenomenon which has Screwtape & Co. flummoxed and stymied.

    I expect, rather, that this cloud is not merely the presence of actual grace generally -- which the demons would find uncomfortable to be around but is apparently not so asphyxiating so as to prevent them tempting or harassing the person to whom God grants it -- but the active presence of God to a person actively experiencing the heights of contemplation and mystical union...or something of that sort. The language Lewis uses suggests that this "inaccessibility" is a rare exception even among Christians, and thus could not be referring to actual graces of the common kind.

    These are things far above me, so it may be that I myself am in error here, but don't the spiritual writers say there are three ways (Purgative, Illuminative, Unitive) and that for those walking in the highest of these stages (Unitive) the gift of contemplation is given to some (though not all)?

    The Catholic Encyclopedia said: "The unitive way is the way of those who are in the state of the perfect, that is, those who have their minds so drawn away from all temporal things that they enjoy great peace, who are neither agitated by various desires nor moved by any great extent by passion, and who have their minds chiefly fixed on God and their attention turned, either always or very frequently, to Him. It is the union with God by love and the actual experience and exercise of that love."

    While persons in this state of perfect charity, while in that state, are no doubt able to be tempted nonetheless, it may be that demons are unable to directly influence thoughts so long the body and soul walk in mystical marriage with the Lord in this fashion. If that's the case, then the demons would be forced to rely on other, indirect avenues of temptation (through other people or through circumstances, or waiting for the Christian to slip through mere concupiscence).

    Again, that's all beyond me. Whether demons can gain a direct hold on a Christian's mind at the very moment that a Christian, walking the Unitive way, is engaged in the prayer of contemplation and filled with perfect charity is something I just don't know (though it seems dubious to me).

    And, the Catholic Encyclopedia seems to suggest that there are people who, after a certain point in their life, start to be this way all the time.

    So perhaps that's a way to let C.S.Lewis out of having made a blunder?

    Of course, there's always another. Lewis starts <i>Screwtape</i> by reminding the reader that the devil is a liar, and not everything he says is true even from his own point of view.
  • April 3 2012 | by Jacob Morgan

    The subject in the Screwtape Letters died in an air raid at the end of the book and was saved. So the once saved-always-saved theory is very unlikely when in most of the book it is clear that the subject was not necessarily saved even though he had a reconversion experience and spiritual ups and downs.

    The 39 articles (sort of a summary of what Anglican beliefs were at one point) does imply the potential to "fall away" after baptism in article 16. It also has sections supporting predestination and lack of free will, so it really is not very clear but is not generally considered Calvanistic. But Lewis wrote as a Christian, not as an Anglican, and borrowed much (if not the most) from the Catholic Church. Lewis's belief in Purgatory, for example, directly contradicted the 39 articles. His writings really never came across to me as once-saved-always-saved.

    The existence of free will is not dependent on the ability of demons to tempt, is it? Maybe it was not a permanent force field but that people full of grace, with no attachment to sin, etc., were very hard to tempt. The book made clear that demons were not honest, even with each other.
  • April 3 2012 | by R.C.

    In reply to Dena Hunt:

    "Once Saved Always Saved" is more seen among some Baptists and non-denominational "Independent Bible Churches." You don't typically see that view among (well-informed) Anglicans, and you especially didn't see it among Anglicans in C.S.Lewis' day.

    Lewis, while he regarded himself to be not particularly on the "Romeward" side of his own communion (that is, not High Church) or particularly anything else, would by more recent standards be regarded (when compared to the varied spectrum of Christian opinion) as rather Catholic in his sacramental theology and soteriology, so far as he ever wrote about them. This is no doubt because he was so familiar with the Christian writers of the Middle Ages and with the Church Fathers.

    So, no, Lewis would not have held a "Once Saved Always Saved" view or even a classically Calvinist notion of "the Elect." He worked hard to prevent the reader from seeing anything that he'd regard to be "his opinion," but if <i>The Great Divorce</i> gives any hint, I'd peg Lewis as holding that election is based on foreknowledge, not a fate that is forcibly fixed by God. But Lewis would quickly remind us that such questions often view God as having to work within Time, which is false, and that such distinctions are likely meaningless and prevent accurate description in human language.
  • April 3 2012 | by Tom Vaillancourt

    I believe that this cloud is the shekinah (the Glory of God) which accompanied the tabernacle in Exodus. Even though we are all sinners, it does seem that some of the saints(whether or not, they are canonized) do have a special protection (more than enough Grace?) against temptation.
  • April 3 2012 | by Dena Hunt

    Thanks, R.C.
  • April 4 2012 | by Burt

    um...Sanctifying Grace is a pretty orthodox doctrine sir smile
  • April 6 2012 | by Maggie

    Our Lord was not free from demonic temptation. Is there a theological reason why our Lady should have been free from temptation? Obviously she would not have consented in the slightest, but why should she be free from temptation when her Son wasn't?
  • April 7 2012 | by Louis Shapiro

    In the book, "The City of God," dictated by Our Lady to Sister Mary of Jesus of Agreda during the Middle Ages, Mary says that she too was tempted, just as Adam and Eve were who also were created without sin. But Our Lady prevailed as did Jesus, the new Adam, when He was tempted in the desert.
  • April 8 2012 | by Dena Hunt

    Dear Louis,
    Just to avoid confusion, The City of God was written by St Augustine of Hippo, in the 4th century. Sr. Maria de Jesus de Agreda wrote The *Mystical* City of God in the 17th century.