When I was an undergrad, my friend Matt Canlis introduced me to A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken’s spiritual memoir about falling in love with his wife Davy, their studies at Oxford and joint conversion to Christianity under the influence of C. S. Lewis, her premature death at the age of 40, and his struggle to come to terms with it.
The book explores the danger of idolatry in romantic love in a particularly poignant way, but I won’t try to summarize that lesson here.
Instead, I want to focus on a letter from C. S. Lewis which Vanauken excerpts in the book. Vanauken taught at Lynchburg College, and he and his wife led an informal ministry to students there. Less than a month into the fall term in 1953, Vanauken writes,
we were confronted with a major problem: homosexuality. A girl came to talk to Davy alone; a boy to talk to us both. They came because we were Christians. Our pre-Christian view of homosexuality had been tolerant: if that was what people wanted, why not? And one of our dear friends was a pleasant lesbian lady. But now as Christians what did we think? We didn’t know. We knew St. Paul was rather stern about it; but maybe he meant just sex, homosex, without love. Sex that came before God. Might there be, perhaps, a Christian love, marriage even, between men or between women that included homosex but was not dominated by it? We did not know. Our Rector thought not. Eventually I wrote to C. S. Lewis.
Here is Lewis’s reply (slightly edited to expand abbreviations):
I have seen less than you but more than I wanted of this terrible problem. I will discuss your letter with those whom I think wise in Christ. This is only an interim report. First, to map out the boundaries within which all discussion must go on, I take it for certain that the physical satisfaction of homosexual desires is sin. This leaves the homosexual no worse off than any normal person who is, for whatever reason, prevented from marrying. Second, our speculations on the cause of the abnormality are not what matters and we must be content with ignorance. The disciples were not told why (in terms of efficient cause) the man was born blind (John 9:1-3): only the final cause, that the works of God should be made manifest in him. This suggests that in homosexuality, as in every other tribulation, those works can be made manifest: i.e. that every disability conceals a vocation, if only we can find it, which will ‘turn the necessity to glorious gain.’ Of course, the first step must be to accept any privations which, if so disabled, we can’t lawfully get. The homosexual has to accept sexual abstinence just as the poor man has to forego otherwise lawful pleasures because he would be unjust to his wife and children if he took them. That is merely a negative condition. What should the positive life of the homosexual be? I wish I had a letter which a pious male homosexual, now dead, once wrote to me—but of course it was the sort of letter one takes care to destroy. He believed that his necessity could be turned to spiritual gain: that there were certain kinds of sympathy and understanding, a certain social role which mere men and mere women could not give. But it is all horribly vague and long ago. Perhaps any homosexual who humbly accepts his cross and puts himself under Divine guidance will, however, be shown the way. I am sure that any attempt to evade it (e.g. by mock or quasi-marriage with a member of one’s own sex even if this does not lead to any carnal act) is the wrong way. Jealousy (this another homo. admitted to me) is far more rampant and deadly among them than among us. And I don’t think little concessions like wearing the clothes of the other sex in private is the right line, either. It is the duties, burdens, the characteristic virtues of the other sex, I suspect, which the patient must try to cultivate. I have mentioned humility because male homosexuals (I don’t know about women) are rather apt, the moment they find you don’t treat them with horror and contempt, to rush to the opposite pole and start implying that they are somehow superior to the normal type. I wish I could be more definite. All I have really said is that, like all other tribulations, it must be offered to God and His guidance how to use it must be sought.
In several ways the letter is dated—for example the reference to taking care to destroy a letter confessing to homosexuality, or the equation of homosexuality with cross-dressing.
Still, several points seem (to me) worth highlighting:
- Lewis recognizes that debates about causation are not important.
- He does not just discuss the negative condition—that homosexual acts are sin—but also considers the “positive life” of homosexual persons relevant and important.
- Here, he insists that “every disability conceals a vocation, if only we can find it, which will ‘turn the necessity to glorious gain.'”
- However, he does not presume to have a definite program, but says humbly, that “Perhaps any homosexual who humbly accepts his cross and puts himself under Divine guidance will be shown the way,” and that, “like all other tribulations, it must be offered to God and His guidance how to use it must be sought.”
Lewis’s point about humility may seem a little insulting to some (myself at times included). But Disputed Mutability had a good post that’s relevant to this a few years back. Also worth a read if you haven’t seen it.