Pentecost with C.S. Lewis
The Holy Spirit isn’t so much the one you look at, as he is the one who turns you from looking at yourself and your sin to your Savior, Jesus.
Several years ago while reviewing the third article of the Apostles’ Creed with my confirmation class, I asked the catechumens, “How would you describe the Holy Spirit?” One young man thought for a moment and replied, “He’s like the bat-signal.”
I’ll admit at first I was a bit confused, but curious. So I smiled, and asked him the famous catechism question, “What do you mean?”
“Well,” he explained, “The bat-signal is a sign for help, to send help, and it points to the one who comes to save the day.”
To be sure, all analogies break down at some point, but as far as analogies go, this young man was on the right track. The Holy Spirit is indeed the Helper as Jesus promised he would be. “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16-17). The Holy Spirit is another advocate, as some translations put it. Not only that, the Holy Spirit is sent to point the way to the one who comes to save the day. The Holy Spirit points us to Jesus who came, not as a comic book superhero, but as Savior of the cosmos, as your Savior from sin, death, and the devil.
As the season of Easter comes to a close, the church looks forward to celebrating the Day of Pentecost, the day when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the disciples in Acts 2. The young man from my catechesis class understood something important about the Scripture’s teaching on the person and work of the Holy Spirit: to approach the mystery of what is unknown we can begin with what is known. And thankfully, our Lord makes himself known throughout the Scriptures, not leaving us guessing or groping in the dark.
In John 3, Jesus uses the imagery of hearing the wind blow and knowing the wind is present by its sound, just as the Spirit is known by Jesus’ word and those who confess and believe his word. In John 7, Jesus spoke about the work of the Spirit with the imagery of water: “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:38-39). In John 14, Jesus promises the Holy Spirit using the language of a courtroom defender, advocate, or counselor - the Paraclete - or Helper, as it is often translated.
To approach the mystery of what is unknown we can begin with what is known.
C.S. Lewis understood the language of imagery and the gift of God’s imagination in communicating Scripture’s teachings, and in his writing, he often communicated the mysterious and challenging parts of Scripture in memorable and vivid ways.
A few highlights of Lewis’s work come to mind as good examples. First, in the second book of his Space Trilogy, Perelandra, Lewis’s main character Elwin Ransom is on the planet Venus (Perelandra) and is engaged in a conversation with his nemesis from the previous book, Dr. Weston. Weston spends a great deal of time trying to convince Ransom that he has changed for the better by discovering a vague and shallow spirituality, which resembles something more like ‘the force’ in Star Wars than it does anything of real spiritual substance in the Christian faith. Indeed, as the conversation moves along, the reader quickly discovers that what Dr. Weston takes for spirituality is nothing more than disguised self-righteousness and veiled wickedness. Towards the beginning of their conversation, Ransom has this to say about the Holy Spirit: “You see, I’m a Christian. And what we mean by the Holy Ghost is not a blind inarticulate purposiveness…We worship him because he is wise and good.” (Perelandra, p. 91, 93).
According to Lewis, through his character Ransom, the Holy Spirit is not some kind of “force” which can be manipulated or conjured by men, much less originating in man. Rather, the Holy Spirit is a person, to use the language of the Creeds. The Holy Spirit is also personal, that is it leads, guides, and directs believers to wisdom and goodness in Christ, not haphazardly, but with intent and purpose. The Holy Spirit leads and guides in truth to Jesus who is the way, the truth, and the life. Ransom also confesses that the Holy Spirit is worshiped, which reflects what Scripture teaches that we worship one God in three persons.
In more technical language, this is what Christians confess in the Athanasian Creed when we say, “And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one, the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost.”
The work of the Holy Spirit can also be seen in Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. Throughout the series, the parallels between Aslan and Jesus are far more clear and abundant than that of Lewis’s imaginary world of Narnia and the person and work of the Holy Spirit. And yet there is one image that he uses several times throughout the books that bears a striking similarity to the work of Jesus giving the Holy Spirit in John 20.
In John 20, you recall, Jesus meets his disciples in an upper room. It is one of several of his physical appearances after his resurrection from the dead. He shows them his hands and his side. He eats and drinks in their presence. He speaks words of comfort, “Peace be with you.”
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:21-23)
Lewis picks up on this connection between Jesus’ breath and the sending and giving of the Holy Spirit. In The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe, Aslan meets Lucy and Susan after his resurrection. “Aslan stooped his golden head and licked her forehead. The warmth of his breath and a rich sort of smell that seemed to hang about his hair came all over her” (p. 162).
Not long after he appears to the girls, Aslan goes to the White Witch’s castle and approaches the statues of talking animals that she had turned to stone. In a scene reminiscent of Jesus’ breathing out the Holy Spirit to give life and forgiveness to his disciples and his church, Aslan breathes on the statues and brings them back to life. In The Magician’s Nephew, Aslan creates Narnia and gives the gift of speech to the talking animals by sending forth his breath in word and song, just as the Holy Spirit is so often depicted in Scriptures as the breath or wind of God that goes forth to give life.
Lastly, one of Lewis’s more detailed explanations of the Holy Spirit is found in Mere Christianity. One of the great strengths of Mere Christianity is that it was originally written for 10-15 minute radio talks broadcasted on the BBC. Lewis was called upon to give these talks for his great ability to translate deep, mysterious, and complicated theological topics in everyday language for the people to better understand the Christian faith, a task which he excelled at.
In Book Four of Mere Christianity, Lewis begins to lay out some foundational thoughts on the doctrine of the Trinity:
This third Person is called, in technical language, the Holy Ghost or the ‘spirit’ of God. Do not be worried or surprised if you find it (or Him) rather vague or more shadowy in your mind than the other two. I think there is a reason why that must be so. In the Christian life you are not usually looking at Him. he is always acting through you. If you think of the Father as something ‘out there’, in front of you, and of the Son as someone standing at your side, helping you to pray, trying to turn you into another son, then you have to think of the third Person as something inside you, or behind you. Perhaps some people might find it easier to begin with the third Person and work backwards. God is love, and that love works through men - especially through the whole community of Christians. But this spirit of love is, from all eternity, a love going on between the Father and the Son (p. 175).
I remember a seminary professor once describing the Holy Spirit as the ‘shy’ member of the Holy Trinity. He meant what Lewis meant in this quote from Mere Christianity. The Holy Spirit isn’t so much the one you look at, as he is the one who turns you from looking at yourself and your sin to your Savior, Jesus. We see how this works in the way the Holy Trinity works for us and our salvation. God the Father sends God the Son. God the Son lives in perfect obedience to God the Father, takes on our sin and death, dies in our place, rises again. God the Son promises to send God the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son. And God the Holy Spirit returns justified sinners back to the Father through the Son.
That young catechumen had it right. The Holy Spirit is God and is sent by God to point you to the one who comes to save the day. The Holy Spirit, the Helper, points you to Jesus, your advocate, who has come to save the day for you and for all in his death and resurrection.
“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:16-17).