On this day 80 years ago, C. S. Lewis climbed the steps to the canopied pulpit in Oxford’s historic Church of St. Mary the Virgin to deliver a sermon to one of the largest congregations ever assembled in the building. The result, according to Walter Hooper, who recently passed away after almost 50 years of faithfully serving as Lewis’s Boswell, was a sermon “so magnificent” that it is “worthy of a place with some of the Church Fathers” (The Weight of Glory [HarperOne, 1980], 17).
Eight decades later, Lewis’s sermon-turned-essay is a timely vaccine for our current cultural climate so divided by race, political party, sexuality, class, religion, and identity.
Clashing Identity Narratives
Lewis’s idea regarding glory addresses one of the main narratives of modernity: identity. In his sermon, Lewis said he initially believed that glory meant either fame, as in being better known than other people, or luminosity. Neither idea appealed to him, though it certainly appeals to us. Fame is measured by Twitter and Instagram followers; the accumulation of a certain number of them makes one a “social-media influencer.” Instead, Lewis found that eternal glory in heaven will come from God. In fact, the idea of this “weight or burden of glory” is almost beyond our capacity to understand, in that we could be “a real ingredient in the divine happiness . . . to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work” (39). In the current identity narrative, people define themselves and others based on race, class, sexuality, religion, and political party. Innate to each of us, Lewis observes, is “a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy” (32). In our quest to fulfill this desire for affirmation, significance, or power, these classifications turn into golden calves, giving rise to idolatry. Of course, differences can be good, but it never ends well for those who make modern classifications of identity into gods. Fixating on these classifications makes us like the child who “wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea” (26).
Instead, Lewis encourages us to put an end to the temporal pursuit of this search for identity, because we have work to do. “A cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain inside.” The walls of our world are pitiless indeed. Spend a few minutes on social media and observe how people—Christians included—speak to each other as a reflection of our division. Like the dinosaur, grace is extinct, replaced with a collective anger simmering just below boil. Like all great writers, for emphasis Lewis can turn the ear into the eye and make the audible visual. Christians are to follow our great Captain, Jesus Christ, into the dark places and crevices of the world, bringing his light to these cultural fissures of identity.
Holiness, Now and Forever
It is just here, in perhaps the best-known phrase from The Weight of Glory, that Lewis’s words are most applicable for us today. In the penultimate sentence he writes, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses” (46).
Holiness, along with glory, will one day be perpetual and eternal for each of us. These will be our common denominators and our authentic identity in the great multitude, leaving all earthly identities to fade away.