Everything Else Thrown In: C.S. Lewis on Identity
“If there’s anything you should take from college, it’s to question everything.” These words, some of the first I ever heard from a professor, were meant to inspire understanding, although they produced quite the opposite. I wrestled with this thought and its ramifications. I struggled to reconcile the skeptic’s ideology with basic, human desire for truth. College is regarded as a place of discovery, but with a mindset of endless doubt, are we destined to discover only more questions? To question everything implies that we must also question our core selves. Questioning assumes distrust, which lends itself to insecurity and division. How can one find belonging and identity in the shifting sands of perpetual debate? Where can one find purpose?
Identity is valuable because we attach meaning to it. For as abstract a concept as it is, identity is indeed greatly influential over life’s course. Human beings assign meaning to identity by both attempting to define identity and improve it. If identity did not matter, we would not witness heated debates and emotional contests over race-ethnic, gender, and class identities, to name a few. Moreover, we are surrounded by constant attempts to improve identity—at the onset of the calendar year, for instance. Imagine the questions we ask ourselves, or those answered at the common funeral: What do I want to be remembered for? How do I want people to think of me? Am I a success or failure? We find ourselves synonymizing identity with reputation. Further, in identity we find security, a sense of belonging, home, and ultimately, an understanding of self—shallow as it may be. Identity is seen as the composite of an intersectionality of attributable components. But is that its true definition?
C.S. Lewis (1898–1963) directly and indirectly addressed the concept of identity to his secular audience; he dedicated his literary work and scholarship to exploring and perpetuating faith-based answers to skeptical queries. In his famous speech “The Inner Ring,” delivered to King’s College students in World War II-era London, Lewis acknowledges the boundaries by which we define identities and the motivations by which they assume value. This piece explores the concept of the Inner Ring: an exclusive membership or designation in a clique whose value is founded upon its inaccessibility. He describes that one of life’s “most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside…Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”
Lewis exposes the weak nature that identity assumes when it is based on exclusion—and he recognizes that simply avoiding a stigma of otherness is no fixed identity at all. He says, “The circle cannot have from within the charm it had from the outside. By the very act of admitting you it has lost its magic… The invisible line would have no meaning unless most people were on the wrong side of it. Exclusion is no accident; it is the essence.” This analysis is not to suggest that identity is bad, but rather, that it is so highly valued by humans in a competitive society that it may be used for negative ends. One’s identity can classify them as in or out, worthy or unworthy, committed or apathetic.
Further expounding on the value of identity, Lewis wrote, “You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you.” This is relevant to both religious and nonreligious identities. How can an identity become so deeply ingrained in one’s person that it leads them to give their life for their country? Or, perhaps it leads them to take their own life for a lack of identity found in life worth living. In Christianity, this same value is manifested in dying to oneself.
Lewis was spectacularly curious. He drew from his conversion as a former atheist and addressed philosophical and logical debate head-on. A theological writer to the secular reader, Lewis employed imaginative fiction and nonfiction approaches to craft timeless, widely celebrated literature. In response to my professor’s introductory statement, Lewis’s devilish character Screwtape would explain, “Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily ‘true’ or ‘false,’ but as ‘academic’ or ‘practical,’ ‘outworn’ or ‘contemporary,’ ‘conventional’ or ‘ruthless.’” In these terms, debates are endlessly waged between two opposing but equal sides, precluding any possibility of ultimate truth. The thinker is devoted to exploring all concepts of reality and identity—ever seeking, but never finding.
To this notion, Screwtape would further expound, “Prosperity knits a man to the world. He feels that he is finding his place in it, while really it is finding its place in him.” Prosperity may appear in varying forms contributing to identity: accumulation of wealth, accumulation of social capital, accumulation of knowledge. Indeed, Screwtape’s description posits that one’s own pursuit of identity can usurp their agency and corrupt the pursuit altogether. On a Christian basis, this legitimizes the faith even if by default only: if we will ultimately surrender ourselves or be surrendered, it is far better to surrender consciously and understand the consequences of that decision. Of course, Lewis also notes that such a prosperity of knowledge will unavoidably bring an individual into contact with ultimate Truth, which forces them to either reject it or embrace it. Lewis experienced this precise conflict and described his capitulation, “I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all of England.” As a cautionary tale to his skeptic readers, he wrote, “A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.”
Given Lewis’s conversion experience, then, what distinguished his curiosity from cynicism? How did he draw a conclusion into which he could invest his identity? The writer experienced a complex chain of events and outcomes on his journey to Christianity, but they were benchmarked by themes. First, he grappled with the identity of God. Not automatically leaping from atheism to Christianity, he initially waffled between accepting the existence of a deity and identifying that deity as the God of the Bible. In biblical framework, then, how do we identify God? God is a self-existing spirit independent of space and time; in both the Old Testament and New Testament, He refers to himself as “I AM.” God’s ultimate identity supersedes tenses, for He presently is, always was, and always will be.
Being that God is untouchable and unknowable by nature, we are able to know Him through Jesus Christ, who taught and exhibited the principles of godly behavior in divinely human form. Christ is characterized by kindness, mercy, patience, love, sacrifice, and ultimate Goodness—and He taught his followers how to practice those traits as they seek Him. However, principles definable by vocabulary inherently oversimplify the full extent of God’s identity—He is far too great to be entirely conceptualized in human thought. The mechanisms by which we imagine Him are not supernatural as much as they are functional. Therefore, traits of God’s identity are not gods unto themselves; implementations of Jesus’ teachings do not deify His followers. Images and demonstrations are not divine; they represent the divine. Likewise, a person is not legitimized by their identity solely, but they are represented by it.
Another debate concerning identity is the structure by which we associate identity unto itself. That is, we know that God exists independently of anything or anyone else; is the same true for human beings? Both a modern, secular scholar and a historical, Christian one would agree that it is not, although they would argue this distinction differently. When asked the age-old question, “What is the meaning of life?” novelist John Green answered simply, “Other people.” At first glance, an explanation this straightforward is striking; it appears to encapsulate the whole of human experience in two words. However, he approaches the issue somewhat ironically, regarding community as the extent of human experience, simultaneously disregarding the significance of individual personhood and devaluing individual complexity. It amounts to a gross oversimplification indeed. Green essentially argues that the safety found in numbers counteracts potential limitations to navigating life alone, precluding the possibility of either human autonomy or dependence on a higher power.
In contrast, Screwtape would answer, “When He [God] talks of their losing their selves, He means only abandoning the clamour of self; once they have done that, He really gives them back all their personality… when they are wholly His they will be more themselves than ever.” Lewis argues that any meaning in life is found only in directing one’s quest for meaning to their Creator, from whom they will receive liberty and identity in the truest and most eternal sense. Lewis does not discredit the significance of community, however, and would agree with Green that relativity to other people determines a degree of one’s own identity. He further writes, “When they have really learned to love their neighbours as themselves, they will be allowed to love themselves as their neighbours.” The definitions of Green’s and Lewis’s versions of social interdependence vary according to the anchor upon which they are set. Green proposes that other people are both the foundation and the byproduct of life’s meaning. Lewis, however, posits that faith in God is the foundation of life’s meaning and purpose, and other people are its earthly companions. He encapsulates the argument in this statement: “Look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.”
With any discussion of identity also appears the question: Is identity concrete? Although the concreteness of social attributes of identity is hotly debated and highly political, another facet of identity’s solidity is its relation to time. Is identity past, present, or future? Scholars from varying backgrounds—who claim varying identities themselves—would argue several different claims, but Lewis’s stance is clear. He explains, “The Future is, of all things, the thing least like eternity. It is the most temporal part of time—for the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays.” If identity can be associated with eternity—a reasonable assumption given the abstractness of both concepts, the past cannot be the frame by which identity is established and certainly not by which it is continuously cultivated. The past is essentially nonliving. Although it is significant, it is not current, and because it is not current, it is not fully accurate. The future, on the other hand, is uncertain, which makes it feeble grounds for identity. Identities possess hopes represented by the future, which also contributes to complexity, but those hopes are not realities, thus not identities. The present, therefore, is home to identity, for the present encapsulates all someone is and has ever been.
Beyond time, however, identity must be fully revealed in eternity. God, as the timeless spirit He is, is not limited to identity in the present, for His identity is not simply what has always been, but also what always will be. This is the gap within the human spirit that must be filled, as Lewis wrote, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” In seemingly the simplest of deduction, Lewis assesses the heart of the matter, which he formally defines as mere Christianity. He finds that when an individual honestly believes, fully surrenders, and becomes merely Christian—that is, Christian for the sake of Christ Himself, with no other motivations deciding the commitment for them—then that must be wherein they find all identity.
Lewis summarized this beautiful truth in a few sentences written decades ago, which bear repeating, even within this paper: “Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it… Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.”
When one takes root in the condition of being merely Christian, then that identity is exhaustive—and, beautifully but not coincidentally, eternal. Contrary to what the skeptic would argue, finding identity in Christ alone is expansive rather than exclusive. I am not limited to my faith; it is through my faith that I can question, define, and argue everything else. In the words of Paul, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
1 C.S. Lewis, “The Inner Ring,” 1944 (retrieved from The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis, 1949).
2 C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 1961.
3 Galatians 2:20.
4 C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 1942.
5 C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 1955.
6 Exodus 3:14, John 8:58.
7 John Green, “100 QUESTIONS ANSWERED!!!!!!!” (Vlogbrothers) https://youtu.be/nJs1dLGbGZY?t=87essentially
8 C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 1942.
9 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 1952.
10 C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 1942.
11 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 1952.
Kara is a third-year sociology major fascinated by the intersection of faith and logic. She enjoys reading, writing, music, politics, and ever-expanding her C.S. Lewis library.Tags: academia, atheism, belonging, college, CS Lewis, doubt, education, identity, John Green, literature, logic, purpose, reason, theology, truth, university