If you think the title of this column indicates what follows will be an attack on C.S. Lewis, you are wrong.
On the contrary, the incident described below actually emphasizes the integrity which guided Lewis’ life.
Hypocrisy afflicts us all. It’s hold is strongest, it seems to me, on those who claim they are completely free of the flaw. To paraphrase Jesus’ words recorded in John’s Gospel, “Let he who is without hypocrisy among you cast the first stone.”
It’s quite possible for our own flaws to be invisible to us. However, one of the requirements of being a moral individual is self-examination. The more honestly we can explore and assess our own actions and nature, the healthier we will be.
Some hypocrisy seems rather innocuous. For example in All My Road Before Me, Lewis describes a day in 1922 spent canoeing with his close friend Arthur, and Veronica FitzGerald Hinckley. Veronica was a recent graduate of Oxford.
In light of Lewis’ eventual life’s work, this diary entry is rather ironic:
[Veronica] made one good remark—that an educational career is a school of hypocrisy in which you spend your life teaching others observances which you have rejected yourself.
While academia does host its share of hypocrites, this vice also flourishes elsewhere. Tragically, of all the myriad contexts for hypocrisy, religious hypocrisy is the most ill-begotten.
Naturally, we would assume that basically “good” people are relatively free of hypocrisy. This is true. However, the key to uprooting these sinful influences begins with recognizing them.
In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis acknowledges one of his most shameful acts. That it happened before his conversion to Christianity doesn’t lessen for him the wrongness of what he did.
And what was this great crime? It was on the occasion of his confirmation in the Anglican Church. Confirmation is a religious rite in which young people (particularly those in denominations which practice infant baptism) publicly profess, or confirm, their Christian faith. The problem arose because Lewis’ childhood faith had already been extinguished.
My [strained] relations to my father help to explain (I am not suggesting that they excuse) one of the worst acts of my life.
I allowed myself to be prepared for confirmation, and confirmed, and to make my first Communion, in total disbelief, acting a part, eating and drinking my own condemnation.
As Johnson points out, where courage is not, no other virtue can survive except by accident. Cowardice drove me into hypocrisy and hypocrisy into blasphemy.*
It is true that I did not and could not then know the real nature of the thing I was doing: but I knew very well that I was acting a lie with the greatest possible solemnity.
It seemed to me impossible to tell my father my real views. Not that he would have stormed and thundered like the traditional orthodox parent. On the contrary, he would (at first) have responded with the greatest kindness. “Let’s talk the whole thing over,” he would have said. But it would have been quite impossible to drive into his head my real position.
Lewis is sharing with us a sad episode of his life, to encourage us to confess our own transgressions and find forgiveness. After all, the last thing that God desires is people who just go through the motions—hypocrites who are “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.” (1 Timothy 3:4-5)
A Final Warning
In The Screwtape Letters, we find the mature (and Christian) C.S. Lewis describing the sort of religious hypocrisy to which we fallen creatures are prone. Screwtape, the devil, is here advising his understudy on fostering hypocrisy in his “patient.” He has been telling Wormwood that he should nurture a sense of superiority in the person he has been assigned to tempt.
I have been writing hitherto on the assumption that the people in the next pew afford no rational ground for disappointment. Of course if they do—if the patient knows that the woman with the absurd hat is a fanatical bridge-player or the man with squeaky boots a miser and an extortioner—then your task is so much the easier.
All you then have to do is to keep out of his mind the question ‘If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?’
You may ask whether it is possible to keep such an obvious thought from occurring even to a human mind. It is, Wormwood, it is! Handle him properly and it simply won’t come into his head.
He has not been anything like long enough with the Enemy [i.e. God] to have any real humility yet. What he says, even on his knees, about his own sinfulness is all parrot talk. At bottom, he still believes he has run up a very favourable credit-balance in the Enemy’s ledger by allowing himself to be converted, and thinks that he is showing great humility and condescension in going to church with these ‘smug,’ commonplace neighbours at all. Keep him in that state of mind as long as you can . . .
Hypocrisy is a powerful foe. But once it is recognized as the damning lie it is, hypocrisy loses its control over us. We are freed to rebuke it, repent of it, and be healed.
* “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged.” (1 Corinthians 11:23-31)