C.S. Lewis and the Myth of Creation (Part 1)

This is Part 1 of 3 Posts on C.S. Lewis’ view of Creation, Genesis 1, and Evolutionary Theory. It is the contention of this writer that one of Lewis’ most overlooked theological aspects was his view on how Genesis 1 operated on a theological and mythical level. This is an exploration of his views on the topic and will conclude that Lewis’ own views actually denounced reading Genesis 1 in a literal framework while, at the same time, holding the text up to a form of “true myth.” Lewis did not see evolutionary theory as such as being inimical to Christian truth or the truth of Genesis 1, though he certainly saw forms of it (namely, an anti-supernaturalist one) as theologically bankrupt.

It would be adamantly wrong to suggest that C.S. Lewis ever saw any tension between the findings and discoveries of the scientific world and the truth which Christian theology tells. The dichotomy which exists between the two areas in question is only present in terms of what they told us about the world, not in their ability to relay truth. Religion—specifically Christian religion—can tell us certain things about the world and our place in it that science cannot and vice-versa. Yet, Lewis would disagree with the sentiment that the two fields cannot complement each other in their pursuit of human understanding.

Lewis discusses issues of creation, evolution, origins, and Genesis in various books, essays, and letters throughout his life. The fact that God created was a central piece of Christian truth and within that framework his creation theology is multifaceted. We shall explore Lewis’ creation theology first by analyzing his view of “myth” and how that functions within his interpretation of Genesis. We will then explore the question of how Lewis saw both the creation of the universe and the creation of man (and the relationship between the two and God) within his theological framework. Finally, we will briefly look at how his creation theology, concentrated on myth and word, are displayed in Aslan’s creation of Narnia.

Critical—perhaps foundational—to Lewis’ view of creation was his idea of myth. Contrary to many modern conceptions of the word, “myth” was not seen by Lewis as fiction or falsity. In the same way that he saw Genesis as myth he saw the incarnation and resurrection of Christ as myth. Myth, for Lewis, is the human way of trying to explain certain realities which cannot be explained in ordinary language. It is our attempt to conceptualize and understand what cannot otherwise be understood. He notes, “What flows into you from the myth is not truth but reality (truth is always about something, but reality is that about which truth is), and, therefore, every myth becomes the father of innumerable truths on the abstract level”(GID, MBF, 66). Thus, myth can express truth in a deeper form than scientific or historically oriented language. It is a way of speaking about the true nature of things, or, thetruer nature of things. While science can confidently tell us that a star is composed of hydrogen, atoms, and molecules, Lewis would make the argument that a star is not solely that. Hydrogen, atoms, and molecules are what a star is made of, but that is not what it is. Speaking of stars as living beings, guardians, and gods is, in a mythical sense, more true to what a star is than a scientific explanation of its components.

Myth is broad. It is story or contains story. For Lewis, myth did not preclude historical event, though he certainly did not believe that all myth was rooted in events. The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, for example, is a myth which describes and explains certain realities and truths but has no basis in history or “fact.” The truth of the myth is that it teaches a principle that “becomes imaginable” (GID, MBF, 66). The power of truth in myth is that it removes the way we treat truth as abstraction. It takes the principle in question and makes it something more existentially—perhaps even ontologically—real. But the incarnation of Jesus or, say, the death and the resurrection of Jesus represent how the myth becomes fact. There is a distinguishing factor here. While myth transcends thought, Christianity transcends myth (ibid). Christianity is, as Lewis described it, the “great myth.” It is the final culmination of all the great myths of the past and it is in Christianity that the dying and rising god becomes fact. The important thing is that Lewis never imagines that in this process Christianity ever ceases to be myth. As much as it continues to be rooted in historical event, it continues to be rooted in the realm of myth.

The Genesis creation account, therefore, falls in with Lewis’ view of Christianity as myth, and for an English professor at Cambridge and Oxford his literary views on the passage confirmed it as a poetic myth. Quoting St. Jerome, Lewis regarded the story of creation in Genesis as being “after the manner of a popular poet” (RP, 109). The language and style of the creation account shed light on its specific meaning.

Lewis saw no problem in accepting the idea that Genesis was derived from earlier Semitic stories which were Pagan and mythical in content. He noted, “The first chapters of Genesis, no doubt, give the story of creation in the form of a folk tale” (GID, DATU, 42). As with any folk-tale, stories are created or derived from a source, changed, retold, and passed down generation by generation. The fact of redaction did nothing to hinder his reading of Genesis nor his view of inspiration (Lewis was not opposed to the discovery of scriptural inconsistencies and contradictions). For Lewis, the writing of Scripture—specifically the story of creation—was a dual effort between the Divine and man. He did not take issue with the fact that it was derived, altered, and developed over time but Lewis did take issue with how we conceive and understand the word “derived” as it related to scripture. The evolution of the Genesis story or myth did not require one to reject or even be unnecessarily skeptical regarding its essential truthfulness since man, in all his faculties, would have preserved the story and changed the story as he was guided by God (RP, 110-111). Of course, Lewis comes to that assessment with a certain amount of presupposition. The final individual(s) to write it down was inspired by God. The process was inspired by God, but this did not mean that the story fell from heaven in its final form like many theologians seem to functionally or implicitly suggest.

Lewis concludes his thoughts on the process: “Thus something originally merely natural—the kind of myth that is found among most nations—will have been raised by God above itself, qualified by Him and compelled by Him to serve purposes which of itself it would not have served” (RP, ibid). Lewis saw no reason to commit the genetic fallacy: how something came about said nothing about the reality or truthfulness of that something. Indeed, Lewis saw no problem with the development or orthodoxy as long as it was inspired by God along the way. Progressive revelation was fully acceptable as a means by which the Genesis account of creation developed, and in that vein, it carried all the intricacies of various cultures, generations, and changes. One can read Genesis and see both the hand of man and the hand of God equally. In Lewis’ view, this was beautiful.

The early chapters of Genesis tell us something about creation, the relationship between man and God as it was originally intended and the current situation which man finds himself in regarding that relationship. In his book The Problem of Pain Lewis conjectures a mythic account of creation, what it looked like to be made in the imago dei, and how the fall impacted God’s creation. Lewis’ account of creation told here is based out of his own imaginative framework. And while his retelling is consistent with his theology, Lewis by no means supposes that it should be accepted as what actually happened.

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About Randy Hardman

Randy Hardman is a blogger at www.thebarainitiative.com and the producer of the Youtube Channel TheBaraInitiative (youtube.com/thebarainitiative). He holds a B.A. in Philosophy and Religion from Appalachian State University, an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Asbury Theological Seminary (pending graduation) and is currently finishing up an M.A. in Theological Studies from Asbury Theological Seminary. He is a writer, book reviewer, speaker, and an avid Packer's fan!

  • Salvatore Mazzotta

    So, Lewis’ point about the early chapters of Genesis is not that what we read there really happened. Nor that it did not really happen. Not that Adam and Eve were real individuals who lived in time and space. Nor that they were not.

    His point seems to be that it doesn’t matter whether or not they were real.

    It mattered to Jesus (Matt. 19:4, Mark 10:6) and to Paul (Romans 5). Or perhaps the words the Bible attributes to Jesus and Paul are mythological too? Perhaps they never actually existed? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, I guess. As long as the myths associated with Jesus–such as His incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection–tell us some timeless truths about God.

    Lewis was a poor theologian. Heterodox even.

    • http://www.facebook.com/joshua.gibbs.737 Joshua Gibbs

      Jack was indeed a bad theologian – but he was a great apologist. He does not challenge secular assumptions except in regard to their internal consistency and so he presents Christianity in a way that is persuasive to secular minds. Since he mostly wrote as an apologist and not as a theologian I see no problem with that.