Screwtape on Extremes

My daily New Testament reading for the last couple of weeks was the letter of Ephesians.  The letter, one that weaves the theological and the practical together the way the always should be, ends with a popular passage that casts a vision not just of God’s glorious kingdom, but also of the darker side of reality against which war is fought, what one translation renders “this present darkness.”  A fitting reminder for what C. S. Lewis was trying to do with his Screwtape Letters.

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In Screwtape’s seventh letter to Wormwood, the “affectionate uncle” has something to say about “extremes” in their work of spiritual antagonism, beginning with whether or not Wormwood should let his patient know of his demonic existence.  Screwtape writes of their “policy” to conceal themselves:

When the humans disbelieve in our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism and we make no magicians.  On the other hand, when they believe in su, we cannot make them materialists and sceptics.

He then mentions the great hope of “emotionalizing and mythologizing the sciences” as a way of real victory for their party:

If once we can produce our perfect work– the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshiping, what he vaguely calls ‘Forces’ while denying the existence of ‘spirits- then the end of the war will be in sight.

It’s a great turn of phrase, the “Materialist Magician.”  And it points to a truly possible way that others might see and move through the world.

From there, Screwtape adds to his discussion concerning extremes, wondering whether they should “make the patient an extreme patriot or an extreme pacifist.”  It’s an interesting “either-or,” I think, that could be easily deconstructed.  But that’s not Screwtape’s point because

All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy, are to be encouraged.

But then, in an interesting twist, Screwtape brings up a kind of extremism that comes from factions, even (and perhaps especially?) in the church.  The “Cause,” whatever it is, might keep the church small but focused in an unfortunate way.

We want the Church to be small not only that fewer men many know the Enemy but also that those who do may acquire the uneasy intensity and the defensive self-righteousness of a secret society or clique.

In his biblical “knowledge,” the head demon even points Wormwood back to the problem in the Corinthian church and its struggle with various “founders and their followers.”

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Which does bring up the question of what an “appropriate extreme” might look like, especially in Our Current Moment when everything extreme is loud and seemingly clear and yet still unconnected from where many people have settled.  This is true in churches, too, where each church doesn’t just have it’s own “charism” but also has its own way of understanding the relationship between God and man and then between people in general.  Which makes you wonder how much of Lewis’s “mere Christianity” can still be found in the Church today.

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