A Sword Between the Sexes? C. S. Lewis and the Gender Debates
reviewed by S. M. Hutchens
A Sword Between the Sexes? is a thoroughly researched and masterfully composed account of a development its author detects in C. S. Lewis’s thought on gender matters that moved, as Lewis matured, from the hierarchicalism and gender essentialism of “Priestesses in the Church?” and That Hideous Strength toward the greater egalitarianism of works like The Chronicles of Narnia and Till We Have Faces, a movement influenced by his encounters with outstanding women whose qualities he earlier would have been inclined to deny or ignore.
In Van Leeuwen’s construction, the earlier Lewis is inconsistent in his opinions on gender equality, and she interprets this by offering that he was frequently a better man than his theories. In the notorious “Priestesses” essay opposing women’s ordination (1948), for example, Lewis notes that the woman is not “necessarily or even probably less holy or less charitable or stupider than a man,” thus professing the equality of women with men in the spiritual and intellectual qualities required for the priestly office. He insists, however, that she is disqualified by her sex, which cannot sacramentally reflect the people of God at the altar. The egalitarian error, he believed, arose from the belief that “sex is something superficial, irrelevant to the spiritual life,” when in fact all creation, including creation at worship, is significantly colored by its Creator with gender, of which sex is an expression that can never be overlooked or regarded as insignificant.
Van Leeuwen notes that in his essay “Membership” in The Weight of Glory, Lewis says, “I do not believe God created an egalitarian world. I believe the authority of the parent over the child, the husband over the wife, the learned over the simple, to have been as much a part of the original plan as the authority of man over beast.” In the same essay, however, he affirms the justice of women’s political and legal equality, indicating that he would “view with the strongest disapproval any proposal to abolish [universal] suffrage, or the Married Women’s Property Act.” Van Leeuwen indicates that in this and many similar instances, Lewis simply does not recognize, nor is he bothered by, the inconsistency of his views. In the same places he professes sexism in its most primitive and retrograde forms, he may be found granting imprimatur to institutions of sexual equality.
Those who know Lewis will have already seen a glimmer of the problem here: In the “Priestesses” essay, for example, used by Van Leeuwen to represent Lewis in his less enlightened period, he not only defends women’s political and legal equality, but also makes it clear he regards them as the equals of men in piety, zeal, learning, and the qualities that make for equal competence in vocations once thought to be solely the province of males. Why then, is Lewis’s clear and early belief that to some significant degree “gendered behavior is in many ways a social construction” only treated seriously as something understood by the better-sanctified Lewis of 1960?—a question that brings to mind St. Paul’s similar ignorance of what his egalitarian left hand was writing against his hierarchical right.
Given the weight and potency of Lewis’s mind, a better explanation than inconsistency, as Michael Ward notes in Planet Narnia, is that Lewis, as an orthodox Christian in the Pauline line, always believed in the fundamental equality of men and women that is in no way effaced by the hierarchies in which they also stand, an equality fully acknowledged in both his earlier and later works. It is a dubious venture to place a discount on Lewis’s earlier professions of belief in women’s equality to men in writings like “Priestesses in the Church?” only to present them at full value as his mature opinions when he exhibits them later on.
Fortunately for the reader, Van Leeuwen gives the interpretive key to her viewpoint in her approval of Kevin Giles’s teachings on the logical incoherence and un-Christian character of any attempt to impress hierarchy or its subordinations on the Godhead or humankind created in its image. This is regarded as of pagan derivation, and the long history of war between orthodox Christianity and Arianizing influences that would make the Son and Spirit inferior in divine nature to the Father is seized upon as the rightful history of egalitarianism—thus confirming the scholars of their persuasion in their Sisyphean assignment of finding ways to de-christianize all the hierarchical material found in Scripture and the long, misguided history of the Christian Church.
Van Leeuwen notes that “there certainly is a long tradition of Christian (and, indeed, non-Christian) thought which assumes hierarchy in gender relations.” This, however, she believes egalitarians have the duty and the ability to consign to history’s dustbin as incompatible with the creeds, which, because they emphatically confess the equal God-ness of the Persons of the Trinity, must therefore be regarded as teaching their non-hierarchical equality—a theology necessary for and foundational to egalitarian anthropology.
She agrees with Philip Cary that in spite of Christianity’s ancient fathers being “hierarchicalists to a man,” they inadvertently produced creeds that undermined their leftover paganism by finding equality in the very essence of God. Belief that one excludes the other makes the discovery of equality in the Trinity the end of any claim that it might also be a hierarchy. Those who hold otherwise have adopted the views of pagans and heretics that were never the true doctrine of the Church, no matter how many blinkered apostles, saints, and doctors they might quote to their advantage.
Objectively Different Religions
There is, it should be noted, no nonsense from sophisticated egalitarians like Van Leeuwen about the unfraternal nastiness of those who claim egalitarianism and Christianity are two different faiths because they worship two different Gods. She is aware that whatever subjective attitudes may be, the judgment itself is coldly objective, and she makes the same from the other side. What her opponents call orthodox Trinitarianism, she identifies as a form of Arianism that takes its rise in pagan notions of the scala naturae, borrowing heavily, in Lewis’s version, from secular sources like psychoanalytic theory. In any event, she is at pains to demonstrate that it is not Christian.
As Chesterton observed so forcefully in Orthodoxy, however, Christianity cannot be known apart from its mysteries, its paradoxes, and its many teachings at whose threshold reason must acknowledge its source in the unthinkable. These include the doctrine of the Holy Trinity in which One is Three, of the Christ who is both God and man, of the bread which is the body of the Lord, of strength made perfect in weakness, of living only by dying, and of the master being the servant of all, among many others.
The particular paradox at issue between egalitarians and Christians involves the possibility of the perfect, active coexistence and co-operation of hierarchy and equality in personal relations, first within the Godhead, and then between men and women created in God’s image and likeness—Lewis called it “the Dance”—the primal created type of which is that between husband and wife.
Against the insistence that the Christian faith calls for affirmation of both equality and hierarchy lies the claim that subordination and equality cancel each other; where one is present, the other cannot be. In egalitarian philosophy, as it has developed, there are cooperative interpersonal relationships, but no Dance as Lewis envisaged it; no mystery or paradox in these matters is allowed. If the persons of the Godhead, or women and men, are equal in essence or nature, this rules out as irrational all hierarchy and the choregic submissions in which it is active.
Egalitarian Method over Evidence
In Van Leeuwen’s book, as in others attempting to press postmortem conversion on Lewis, he is presented as on a pilgrimage from being a less to a more reasonable man, a man finally coming to his senses—here, a man becoming egalitarian. Indications that he believed both in the equality of men and women and in their existence in a gender hierarchy are, in accordance with the tenets of egalitarian dogma, treated as evidence of an irrationality that he did not detect in himself.
The evidence presented here, apart from its conversion by egalitarian peristalsis, better supports the thesis that Lewis never changed his mind on these things because his writings were never free of pure elements of both sides of the equality-hierarchy paradox. If Lucy is the most spiritually acute Pevensie, Peter is high king in a land that was never right unless ruled by sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. Oruel is a paragon, and better than her fathers—but not a man—and never does one find a more sympathetic Lewis, for whom she, like our Lord’s Mother, in her own way stands for her race, for the feminine he believed we all are before God. This is an idea he professed many years before he wrote Till We Have Faces, in which there are no surprises on this account.
Given the history of Lewis’s regard for women—indeed, his ever-increasing love for what he had always loved—it is difficult to see how Oruel (or Joy, his Joan and Beatrice), “Queen, warrior, and best scholar!” can be regarded as an icon of incipient egalitarianism without a concurrent rejection of the counter-paradigm. In Van Leeuwen’s book this rejection is provided by egalitarian dogma and method, not by the life or writings of C. S. Lewis. The operation can only be performed effectively in an ideological atmosphere where the assertion that a woman is as good as, or better than, a man is treated as a denial that she also stands beneath him in order of “the living and semitive figures which God has created on the canvas of our nature”—which denial is at the foundation of the fiercely anti-Christian egalitarian religion, but not, as Lewis well knew, the Christian faith.
S. M. Hutchens works as a reference librarian in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He holds a doctorate in theology. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. firstname.lastname@example.org
“Fixing Lewis” first appeared in the November/December 2010 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95. This issue, as well as other issues, can be purchased at our online store. Read issues in digital format at the Touchstone digital archives! You can also subscribe to Touchstone at amazon.com to read on your Kindle.