[Part 1 of this essay appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Knowing & Doing]
The Pagan Imagination
nd as reason casts about, looking for things that are not only meaningful but identifiably true, it inevitably finds a great many stories presented for its consideration, some of which are much more true than others, and very few that are completely untrue. This point was important to Lewis because, as a boy, he had been told by his schoolmasters that Christianity was one hundred per cent correct and every other religion, including the pagan myths of ancient Greece and Rome, was one hundred per cent wrong. He found that this statement, rather than bolstering the Christian claim, undermined it and he abandoned his child faith ‘largely uunder the influence of classical education’.1
Having discovered through personal experience that the first thing necessary for Christian faith is an apprehension of Christianity’s meaningfulness, and not (not immediately, not primarily, in the order of explanation) its truth, Lewis was untroubled by the similarities between, for instance, the pagan Jupiter and the Hebrew Yahweh. The similarities ‘ought to be there’,2 it would be a problem if they were absent. And so he takes pleasure in pointing out, in Miracles, that ‘God is supposed to have had a “Son,” just as if God were a mythological deity like Jupiter.3 The resemblance needs to be present, given that God works through human myths as well as through His own true myth, the historical story of Jesus Christ. Since God is the Father of lights,4 even the flickering lights of paganism could be attributed ultimately to Him. Christians should feel no obligation to quench the smouldering wick burning in pagan myths: quite the reverse, they should do whatever they could to fan it into flame. Lewis, with Edmund Spenser, one of his greatest poetic heroes, believed that ‘Divine Wisdom spoke not only on the Mount of Olives, but also on Parnassus.5 Of course, the Parnassian wisdom was not as complete as that offered in Christ, it was not sufficient or salvific, but it should be admired and respected as far as it went.
By acknowledging the wisdom of Parnassus, Lewis was following the example of St Paul. In the Book of the Acts, Paul preaches to the men of Athens, using the pagan gods to communicate his message. He says to the Athenians that God ‘is not far from each one of us, for `In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your poets have said, `For we are indeed his offspring’ (Acts 17: 27-28).
Paul gives two quotations there, but who is he quoting? Moses? Isaiah? One of the minor prophets? He is not quoting the Hebrew scriptures at all, but rather Greek poetry, poetry about the pagan gods, in particular the king of the pagan gods, Zeus. The first quotation comes from Epimenides, a Greek poet and philosopher of the sixth century before Christ. Epimenides wrote a poem in which he refers to Zeus as the god ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’. And the second quotation comes from Aratus, a poet from about 300 years before Christ, who again refers to Zeus, saying that ‘we are indeed his offspring’.
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