The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

Power in the Blood: True Religion and Transformation in C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces

I’ve been reflecting on Till We Have Faces and all the different things we could discuss. There’s more to say about Greek philosophy and how it’s reflected in the book, and about the Christian symbolism and nature of myth that Lewis smuggled in, or about the constant dualities which become, over and over, unifications. But I’m afraid we’d end up with more words than the book has itself, so I’ve decided to limit myself to two more articles. In two weeks, we’ll explore how Lewis’ views of women shifted and changed over the years, and how this book is, in many ways, a rebuttal to his own previous views.

But first, this week we’re going to talk about an underlying theme of Till We Have Faces: Lewis’ thoughts about how a true religion must function.

I’ll mention one obvious thing to start: Lewis believes that the truest religions must have mysticism at the core. This is true in all his books. No one changes without meeting Aslan, or recognizing Maleldil, or getting on the bus to Heaven. Lewis cared deeply about theology and wanted Christians to “get it right” in what they believed. But at the end of the day the most important thing (the only important thing?) was seeing God “face to face.” For Lewis, it was the transformational moment, the mystical experience, of meeting Christ (Aslan, etc.) that formed the core of true faith. Obviously this is true in Till We Have Faces, as Psyche and then eventually Orual become something greater than human after interacting with the gods.

Now, let’s look at a speech Lewis once gave to some young clergymen. We’re going to look at a decent-sized chunk of it, and apologies in advance for some of the ways Lewis talks about other religions as well as tribal peoples (the word “savages” is used, among other things that may reveal he knew a little less about some religions than he thought). You can read the entire speech here if you like.

We’ll start where Lewis is talking about how to find a religion that is true. Which is to say, not just a set of beliefs, but something that we could look at and say, “This is real and honest and insightful.” Something that is the product of actual mystical union with God, not simply a construct of belief.

He starts by saying this:

I have sometimes told my audience that the only two things really worth considering are Christianity and Hinduism. (Islam is only the greatest of the Christian heresies, Buddhism only the greatest of the Hindu heresies. Real paganism is dead. All that was best in Judaism and Platonism survives in Christianity.) There isn’t really, for an adult mind, this infinite variety of religions to consider.

A couple of notes. We’re pretty used to thinking of Islam as a completely different religion than Christianity, but it was common in Lewis’ day (and still in many scholarly circles) to refer to it as a heresy of Christianity. In other words, it’s an offshoot of Christianity where the beliefs of the Christian segment moved away from orthodox theologies to become something else. (Much in the same way that Christianity could be called a heresy of Judaism.) Lewis’ suggestion here is that Islam is not more true than Christianity, but less. He also sees Buddhism as a heretical offshoot of Hinduism, and is saying essentially the same thing (“Any truth in Buddhism can be seen perhaps more clearly in Hinduism” or something to that effect.)

“Real paganism is dead” is such a delightfully Lewisian thing to say that I laughed when I first read it. Lewis loved (ancient) paganism so much. It’s funny because many orthodox Christians are vehemently opposed to paganism, ancient or modern, but we have to remember that Lewis saw himself as one who had come to Christ through paganism. His love of myth and Greek gods and Norse mythology was the pathway toward Christianity for him. It’s one of the reasons he could write a novel about Greek myth and never once mention Christ (or even a singular supreme being) and then be surprised that the Christian community never embraced the book the same way that they did, say, The Screwtape Letters. In any case, his point here is that while there may be things like Wicca or neopaganism (he was indeed aware of these), in his opinion there was nothing like “true paganism” anymore. No doubt he means something much more along the lines of Merlin in That Hideous Strength.

“All that was best in Judaism and Platonism survives in Christianity.” While he dismisses Islam and Buddhism as mere heresies, Lewis sees the Christian departure from Judaism as a strength (as we might expect). Christianity, in his view, held on to the most valuable bits of Judaism. The Platonism bit is interesting. We’ve talked before about how Lewis was enthralled by the neo-Platonism of Charles Williams, to the point that it distressed J.R.R. Tolkien. But there’s a long history of Christians in the West dragging Platonic thought into their theology, from Justin Martyr to Augustine and straight through the medieval period to today. I suppose Lewis is mentioning it to point out that Platonic philosophy alone was inferior to what it could be when incorporated into Christianity.

And then, in his last sentence, he says, “There isn’t really, for an adult mind, this infinite variety of religions to consider.” Tell us what you really think, Jack! This might seem dismissive (or rather, this seems dismissive because it is), but remember that Lewis is speaking to a “friendly” audience of ministers. He’s not trying to convert anyone, and expects that everyone in the audience already more-or-less agrees with him. He’s not setting up an argument here so much as laying out the common ground he has with the people listening. In any case, he then comes to the meat of what we’re going to examine this week:

We may salva reverentia divide religions, as we do soups, into “thick” and “clear.” By thick I mean those which have orgies and ecstasies and mysteries and local attachments: Africa is full of thick religions. By clear I mean those which are philosophical, ethical, and universalizing: Stoicism, Buddhism, and the Ethical Church are clear religions. Now if there is a true religion, it must be both thick and clear: for the true God must have made both the child and the man, both the savage and the citizen, both the head and the belly. And the only two religions that fulfil this condition are Hinduism and Christianity.

Okay, so every religion according to Lewis can be divided into one of two camps: The “thick” religions and the “clear” religions. A puree or a broth. Clear religions are religions of the mind: “philosophical, ethical, and universalizing.” (Note that he specifically mentions Stoicism. The Fox is a Stoic, and we see him presented consistently before his death as a philosopher first, to the point that the gods are not people but helpful constructs for philosophy). Thick religions have “orgies and ecstasies and mysteries and local attachments.” He says, unhelpfully, that “Africa is full of thick religions.” Obviously Lewis hasn’t spent much time studying African religious practice…he’s picturing a stereotypical tribal religion full of fires and witch doctors and sacrifices. We could probably do a whole article digging into that, but let’s set that aside and focus on what Lewis is trying to get at…he sees some religions as primarily intellectual, and others as primarily visceral.

A religion that falls into just one of those categories, he says, cannot be true. There are good things, helpful things, about both. But each is missing the truth the other has. So a true religion must “be both thick and clear.” And his conclusion is that the only two religions that truly have both are Christianity and Hinduism. He goes on to explain why Hinduism doesn’t do it as well as Christianity, and then says this about Christian faith: “It takes a convert from Central Africa and tells him to obey an enlightened universalist ethic: it takes a twentieth-century academic prig like me and tells me to go fasting to a mystery, to drink the blood of the Lord. The savage convert has to be clear: I have to be thick. That is how one knows one has come to the real religion.”

Again, laying aside Lewis’ less-than-educated conception of African tribal ethics and religion, his point is that a true religion must have both “enlightened universalist ethics” as well as something visceral: Sacrifice. Blood. It is when someone like Lewis—the “civilized” Oxford don—takes communion and says “I’m drinking a blood sacrifice” that we see a true religion in action.

If you’ve read Till We Have Faces recently, you probably already see how this concept works as a sort of key to the novel. The first priest of Ungit, when he comes to the king and says that Psyche must be sacrificed, is opposed by the Fox and Orual. They’re arguing against the barbarity of it. Pointing out the inconsistencies in the priest’s theology and stories. The priest “is talking nonsense.” The priest is saying that the god is a beast but a shadow, a mother and son, a woman and her lover, and the sacrifice must be the worst person but also without flaw. It makes no sense to the philosopher or ethicist: “A child of six would talk more sense.”

The priest of Ungit is not shaken. He points out that the subtleties of Greek philosophy bring nothing concrete (rain or crops) but that sacrifice will. Greek philosophy doesn’t even create men who are full of courage (didn’t the Fox do the cowardly thing in a battle and thus become a slave?). No, according to the priest, “Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.”

So there we go—the priest uses the exact words Lewis did. And we see this throughout the novel, represented most overtly in the first priest of Ungit and the Fox. The priest is all blood and ritual. Lots are cast. Human sacrifices must be made occasionally, but animal sacrifice is just a part of worship, for the gods are holy and thirsty for blood and must be obeyed. Meanwhile, the Fox doesn’t think the gods exist in any meaningful sense. They are stand-ins to help the ignorant understand the philosophical underpinnings of the moral world. Intellect, theory, learning, knowledge are what matters. Everything else is superstition.

Psyche, who grew up under the care of the Fox, is taken aback when she meets and converses with the old priest. She tells Orual:

The Priest has been with me. I never knew him before. He is not what the Fox thinks. Do you know, Sister, I have come to feel more and more that the Fox hasn’t the whole truth. Oh, he has much of it. It’d be dark as a dungeon within me but for his teaching. And yet… I can’t say it properly. He calls the whole world a city. But what’s a city built on? There’s earth beneath. And outside the wall? Doesn’t all the food come from there as well as all the dangers?… things growing and rotting, strengthening and poisoning, things shining wet… in one way (I don’t know which way) more like, yes, even more like the House of [Ungit].

Psyche immediately recognizes something true in the priest’s religion. And she’s the first in the book to know that she needs both the philosopher and the priest. She embraces them both immediately, and so she goes to meet not the Beast, but the Lover. She recognizes the gods for what they are when first she has opportunity to meet them.

Note that the second priest of Ungit, a younger man, is deeply interested in the Fox, however—he jettisons the old ways to adopt a new, Greek version of the worship of Ungit. He doesn’t mesh the two, he turns the House of Ungit into a house of Greek philosophy with a new goddess complete with a new and more beautiful Ungit statue and a new way of doing things.

Orual sees a woman who comes into the house and still pours a bit of blood on the old stone of Ungit, she asks her if she always prays to the old Ungit, and the woman tells her, ““That other, the Greek Ungit, she wouldn’t understand my speech. She’s only for nobles and learned men. There’s no comfort in her.” The new priest has failed to incorporate the clear into the thick; he has merely exchanged one for the other.

The Fox learns his lesson about thick and clear, but not until after he dies. Once he comes face to face with the gods he realizes (as Psyche had suggested) that his worldview was perilously narrow. The Fox even becomes a sort of guide for Orual, taking her through the underworld and showing her things she wouldn’t understand without him. He apologizes profusely for having led her astray with his own thoughts when he was living.

Orual realizes in her visions of the gods that she is someone different than she thought. She thought she was enlightened, but she learns instead that she “is Ungit.” Horrible, ugly, blood-gorged Ungit, who she hates. And Psyche, who is on the road to godhood, is working to make Ungit beautiful. Orual, confused and frustrated, is told that she will also become Psyche.

I think this is a part of the novel that’s confusing for a lot of people. This just means we’re in the same place as Orual. Her first thought is, “To say that I was Ungit meant that I was as ugly in soul as she; greedy, blood-gorged. But if I practised true philosophy, as Socrates meant it, I should change my ugly soul into a fair one. And this, the gods helping me, I would do. I would set about it at once.”

She thinks if she doubles down on the clear religion, it will transform her and make her beautiful. But it won’t. It doesn’t.

What Orual needs, in reality, is two things: She must embrace the horrible reality that sacrifice is necessary; she has to accept what has happened to her sister…in fact, she discovers that she has begun to participate in that sacrifice, taking on her sister’s suffering and thus beginning the process of “becoming” her. She has to “become thick,” in Lewis’ words. And she must, once she sees herself clearly, come at last into mystical communion with the gods. She must see them and herself as they truly are.

Psyche brings the magical casket from the underworld that will make Ungit beautiful, and it is Orual who is transformed. Or, not exactly. It is Orual’s vision of herself that is transformed and she realizes she has always been beautiful. She has been wooed by the gods just as surely and just as long as Psyche has.

She has died before she died, so that she might live and become her true self. Psyche is a goddess now, but even more, Psyche had become her “true self.” As Orual/Ungit takes the casket, she came “to the highest, and to the utmost fullness of being which the human soul can contain.”

And now voices began to say that the god was coming to judge her.

Orual looks down into a pool of water and sees herself: “Two figures, reflections, their feet to Psyche’s feet and mine, stood head downward in the water. But whose were they? Two Psyches, the one clothed, the other naked? Yes, both Psyches, both beautiful (if that mattered now) beyond all imagining, yet not exactly the same.”

When the god comes and pronounces his judgment of Orual, it is both simple and complex. He looks on Orual and says only these four words, “You also are Psyche.” The god has spoken. The god has answered all her questions. She sees herself at last, she sees the god clearly at last, and she learns what she has never once dared to think her entire life: she is beautiful, and the god loves her.

We do not see everything that comes next, though it’s clear if we stop to think about the book or Lewis’ theology for a moment. Orual has died, and now must die again (she does…her old body gives out a few days after this final vision). And then, having embraced true religion, she will marry the Beast, the son of Aphrodite, Cupid, the god and be “united with the Divine Nature.” She is not only Orual, after all…she is also Psyche.

Matt Mikalatos is the author of the YA fantasy The Crescent Stone. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.


Back to the top of the page


This post is closed for comments.

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.