C. S. Lewis on Homosexuality & Disgust

In the last few days, there has been an extensive debate over a post by Thabiti Anyabwile arguing that Christians should have done more to invoke people’s “gag reflex” about gay sex in order to oppose same-sex marriage. I responded directly to this yesterday, and also published a response by Kyle Keating.

Today, I want to highlight C. S. Lewis’s most extensive comment on the subject of homosexuality.

Lewis is probably the most effective, clear-headed communicator of Christian belief to unbelievers the Church has produced in a century. He understood how to appeal persuasively to his readers’ heads, hearts, and imaginations. His perspective is worth listening to when it comes to one of the most difficult communication challenges the Church faces in America today.

Lewis wrote in a very different cultural situation, where there was much more stigma attached to homosexuality than there is today. However, since Anyabwile encourages Christians to adopt an approach which would appeal to the same “nausea” which Lewis references, it’s worth taking Lewis’s evaluation of this approach seriously.

In Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, C. S. Lewis wrote about the schoolboy homosexuality at Wyvern, the boarding school he attended as an adolescent. He then speaks directly to an imaginary reader:

Here’s a fellow, you say, who used to come before us as a moral and religious writer, and now, if you please, he’s written a whole chapter describing his old school as a very furnace of impure loves without one word on the heinousness of the sin. But there are two reasons. One you shall hear before this chapter ends. The other is that, as I have said, the sin in question is one of the two (gambling is the other) which I have never been tempted to commit. I will not indulge in futile philippics against enemies I never met in battle.

(“This means, then, that all the other vices you have so largely written about…” Well, yes, it does, and more’s the pity; but it’s nothing to our purpose at the moment.)

This point is worth examining on its own. In the last few decades, Christian leaders have made a big issue of speaking out against gay rights and same-sex marriage. During the same period of time, they have taken a much softer line on no-fault divorce, fornication, and other offenses against the sanctity of marriage.

Lewis was an unusually persuasive apologist because he spoke humbly about struggles with sin in a way that others who struggled could relate to. This made him an attractive and trustworthy guide, and made the Gospel as he presented it believable and approachable.

Returning to Lewis’s words, toward the end of the chapter, he takes up the theme of homosexuality again (emphasis added):

The Wyvernians seem to me in retrospect to have been the least spontaneous, in that sense the least boyish, society I have ever known. It would perhaps not be too much to say that in some boys’ lives everything was calculated to the great end of advancement. For this games were played; for this clothes, friends, amusements, and vices were chosen.

And that is why I cannot give pederasty anything like a first place among the evils of the Coll. There is much hypocrisy on this theme. People commonly talk as if every other evil were more tolerable than this. But why? Because those of us who do not share the vice feel for it a certain nausea, as we do, say, for necrophily? I think that of very little relevance to moral judgment. Because it produces permanent perversion? But there is very little evidence that it does. The Bloods would have preferred girls to boys if they could have come by them; when, at a later age, girls were obtainable, they probably took them. Is it then on Christian grounds? But how many of those who fulminate on the matter are in fact Christians? And what Christian, in a society as worldly and cruel as that of Wyvern, would pick out the carnal sins for special reprobation? Cruelty is surely more evil than lust and the World at least as dangerous as the Flesh. The real reason for all the pother is, in my opinion, neither Christian nor ethical. We attack this vice not because it is the worst but because it is, by adult standards, the most disreputable and unmentionable, and happens also to be a crime in English law. The world may lead you only to Hell; but sodomy may lead you to jail and creat a scandal, and lose you your job. The World, to do it justice, seldom does that.

If those of us who have known a school like Wyvern dared to speak the truth, we should have to say that pederasty, however great an evil in itself, was, in that time and place, the only foothold or cranny left for certain good things. It was the only counterpoise to the social struggle; the one oasis (though green only with weeds and moist only with fetid water) in the burning desert of competitive ambition. In his unnatural love affairs, and perhaps only there, the Blood went a little out of himself, forgot for a few hours that he was One of the Most Important People There Are. It softens the picture. A perversion was the only chink left through which something spontaneous and uncalculating could creep in. Plato was right after all. Eros, turned upside down, blackened, distorted, and filthy, still bore the traces of his divinity.

In the Southern Baptist Churches where I grew up in the late 80’s and early 90’s, there was no shortage of the the sort of appeals to disgust that Anyabwile thinks Christians should use more often. There was also a lot of “oh gross” reactions to homosexuality among my classmates at school.

However, I saw as clearly as Lewis did that this was neither Christian nor ethical. If it were really trying to be faithful to Scripture, they would notice that the very same vice lists that condemned homosexual activity also condemned fornication, and treat both vices in the same way. In fact, however, the attitude toward the two vices was dramatically different.

When pastors and Christian friends talked this way, the obvious hypocrisy undermined their credibility and, by extension, the credibility of their Christian witness.

When I read Lewis’s words on homosexuality when I was 17, it is no exaggeration to say that his humility and realism preserved the credibility of traditional Christianity for me.

33 thoughts on “C. S. Lewis on Homosexuality & Disgust

  1. My reaction to Lewis was much like yours when I read him at 19. It was a relief to finally find a Christian who did not despise me and find me disgusting just because I was attracted to other guys

    I’m a virgin, by the way, so I have never even done any of the things Mr. Anyabwile finds so disgusting. Nevertheless, in spite of remaining celibate, it was clear that people like Mr. Anyabwile found me gag inducing.

    More damning, however: Do a search of his blog for posts on the topic of “homosexuality.” Now do a word search on the resulting page listing all those posts. Look for

    Mercy: Not one hit
    Forgiveness: Not one hit
    Cross: not one hit
    Grace: two hits both so general they say nothing

    For those who think Mr. Anyabwile was right to be blunt about they “yuck factor,” nothing could show the damage of such a way of thinking better than Mr. Anyabwile’s own inability to think of forgiveness in connection with homosexuality at all.

    • Hmm, while that does raise some eye-brows, I caution against such rigid litmus tests. For example, I found similar results examining my pastor’s blog (http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/?s=homosexuality – though the “gay” keyword is also helpful) – yes: I would have liked to have seen more explicit grace & gospel, but I have still found my pastor’s treatments of this topic to be winsome and articulate. And I am encouraged by pastor DeYoung’s most recent such post, which is entirely pastoral (rather than political or theological as is usually the case).

      Did Mr. Anyabwile mess up? Most certainly – his friends will admit that. My prayer is that he is confronted and posts an apology & clarification – and that this will help challenge the conceptions of many! He is an excellent pastor, and this reminds me that even the best of us can get things so dead wrong – it’s especially a shame this mistake is so public with the potential for such damage!

      Also pray that he engage with someone like you or I, who can honestly challenge him: many pastors simply do not consider the faithful homosexual Christian when they write such things.

      • Oh, I don’t stop at just the number of times a pastor mentions forgiveness or the cross. I also look at the context in which these words are used. In Mr. Anyabwile case, for instance, the word grace was not used in the sense of offering mercy and grace to those who are attracted to their own gender.

        This is the huge difference between Pastor DeYoung’s and Mr. Anyabwile, the manner in which forgiveness is addressed. Yes, Pastor DeYoung only mentions forgiveness in one article but he does in the context of pledging to tell of Christ’s forgiveness. It is obvious that he recognizes the Church’s failure to do so and wishes to change that. He may not change it as much as I would like to see but the manner in which he used forgiveness shows the intent is there. Mr. Anyabwile showed no such desire to offer forgiveness nor, even in his recent post responding to criticisms of his “gag reflex” entry did he even mention forgiveness.

        This does not mean I am giving Pastor Deyoung a pass. He errs significantly in that he does not mention Christ’s mercy anywhere near often enough. But it does mean that when he speaks the Law to homosexuals or about homosexuals, I am going to listen to him with a much more positive attitude than when I read what Mr. Anyabwile writes.

  2. Outstanding piece. When I read the Gospel Coalition article, my mind immediately went to Lewis’ remarks, which, when I first read them, were a refreshment and a relief. It’s nice to see this set forth so effectively.

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  5. “We attack this vice not because it is the worst but because it is, by adult standards, the most disreputable and unmentionable, and happens also to be a crime in English law.”

    I wonder, though, how Lewis would explain the fact that many find homosexual acts disgusting even though it is no longer a crime in England or in America (and even before Lawrence v. Texas, the law was rarely enforced in the few states where it was still on the books).

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  7. I cannot tell you how many times, when ministering in the church and advocating for the LGBT community people have responded by saying, ‘yes, but this struggle with chastity is different’, ‘yes, but this inclination is not natural’. I LOVE the language of C.S. Lewis, “I will not indulge in futile philippics against enemies I never met in battle.” – stunning.

  8. I actually always found that passage in Surprised by Joy somewhat surprising. It’s not that I don’t see what he’s getting at, or think that he doesn’t have a valid point, so much as he seems (to me) to take his point too far.

    The fact is, other sins may indeed be reprehensible, but his descriptions of the pederasty at his school really are horrifying. I suppose I am one of those Christians whom he addresses his aside to, who are wondering at the way in which he has described such evils while seeming to gloss over the natural sense of revulsion, essentially saying: well, cheating, and pride and other sins are terrible sins too, and we’re not so hard on those, and maybe we should have some feelings of horror in relation to them.

    True, but that doesn’t necessarily explain or take away from the natural repugnance we feel when reading about older boys preying upon and sexually abusing younger, vulnerable boys; and I’ve always hard a hard time understanding in what sense this pederasty brought them “out of themselves,” rather than simply being a further manifestation of their egos and insatiable lust for power and pleasure.

    I have enormous respect for Lewis, and love Surprised by Joy, but have always scratched my head at that particular section of the book and wondered if I wasn’t missing something. Maybe I am, and my respect for Lewis has always urged me to assume that there is more to what he is saying than I am immediately perceiving.

    I don’t think horror or revulsion or disgust or nausea can be the goal or end of our moral response to homosexuality (though I think they can be useful signposts for a well-formed and mature conscience) and too often have been used to overlook or prejudicially dismiss the humanity of the homosexual; but in this case this isn’t homosexuality we’re talking about: it was a systematic and widespread program of abusive pederasty. Reading Lewis’ descriptions, I have always wondered what effect this had on the younger boys, and their life-long perceptions of sexuality.

  9. As a Catholic (and a Thomist), I do not normally find myself on Protestant blogs. However, it seems Mr Anyabwile, while certainly wrong on a variety of other theological points unrelated to this topic, is actually pretty accurate with the sense of disgust the Church should have toward Sodomy. You betray your Modern impulse when you seek to normalize or reduce to “one sin among many” a sin that is not simply the same as fornication. Homosexuality should indeed reduce us to a gag-reflex. It is against nature to such an extreme that it represents a thorough departure from natural laws that can be known by reason. Fornication, for example, while still sin, is not equivalent in the eyes of God. It still conforms to the natural good of men and women procreating, even though it is out of the proper context. This is not to say it is not also egregious, but it is not equivalent to pure perversity that is intrinsically ordered toward nothing but physical pleasure.

  10. Very good conversation, on the whole. I believe it is worth considering, in the context of Lewis’ Wyvernian observations, that these were almost entirely adolescent boys – albeit of varying ages. If any schoolmasters (teachers) were also practicing pederasty, as may well have been the case (I don’t recall Lewis specifically saying so, but he may have) it’s quite a different matter. “The sins of my youth” (including sodomy) do not necessarily a pederast make! Yet, it goes without saying that any kind of “institutionalized” homosexual behavior in boarding schools and colleges has long been regarded as one among the many “boys will be boys” sorts of sin. This may be what Lewis was referring to in the comment about being brought “out of themselves.” When adults in authority abuse boys in such settings, it is clearly a most egregious violation. In the matter of “natural” behavior, I’m impressed at the number of otherwise intelligent people who still argue that other mammals, and varieties of species, practice same-sex behavior, as it to say, “why shouldn’t human beings?” Do they really believe human beings are not a higher order of animal, and therefore capable of behavioral modification?

    • Lewis only describes consensual sexual behavior between the boys at the school. He describes one case of an older boy trying (unsuccessfully) to force a younger boy to sleep with him, and condemns the attempt at coercion much more harshly than he condemns the other boys. He does not discuss or even hint at abuse by adult men.

      The only reference he makes to any kind of sexual activity with adults involves rumors that some of the boys at the school were able to obtain “anatomy lessons” from one of the housemaids, whose age is not specified.

    • Our brains may be more evolved than any other species, but we are still bound to the rules of nature and genetics. However much we may want to believe that we transcend base feelings and desires, our behaviors are shaped by our hormones, chemical reactions in our bodies, signals from our brains and bodies in response to external stimuli, etc. Sexual orientation in many cases is hardwired into our brains, and suggesting that human beings as a higher order species can just ignore that (for whatever religious or personal beliefs) is very unrealistic. If changing sexual orientation through behavioral modification is as plausible as you suggest, then it must be true both ways: heterosexuals must as easily be converted into homosexuals as you presume homosexuals must. Take a moment to think about the reverse scenario, in which you are forced to defy your natural brain and body functions and find sexual attraction toward the same sex and “turn gay.” I presume you would be repulsed by the thought, as I believe homosexuals would by suggestions of behavioral modification therapy. In fact, several medical organizations such as the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Psychiatric Association have reported that, after many years of studies and reviews on the subject, behavioral modification attempts have been largely futile and confirmed to be harmful, with lasting psychological damage and trauma on the victims.

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  12. The reason that so many people agree that homosexuality is such an evil, abominable sin is that it’s not one of the more poplar sins. Only a few percent of the population is GLBT. It’s not like straight adultery that 90%+ of people are tempted with. It’s not like gambling, booze or any number of the more popular sins that people overlook because attacking those sinners is considered just plain rude.
    Any pastor can safely rail about the evils of homosexuality BUT, he won’t be the pastor for long if he attacks the more popular sins in the same venom. Imagine how quickly a congregation will give such a pastor the bums rush if he were to attack divorced people in the same way that he attacks GLBT people.

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  17. I know this is an older thread but wanted to thank all involved for the intelligent and civil conversation. It is a relief to find people who are willing to converse about incredibly difficult topics without resorting to insults or worse. Thank you for this very interesting post.

  18. I was surprised by Lewis’ attitude when I first read “Surprised By Joy”. However, reading this article has clarified a few things for me. First off, Lewis is not God, and he knows this. I “the Great Divorce” he creates a heavenly world in which one can yet be said after judgement and readily admits that this is not orthodox thought. That being said, that Lewis cannot bring himself to focus on the sin of homosexuality has no bearing on what the Bible says about it. i.e. that it states it is a sin. Note, too, that Lewis, as quoted in the article, says only that he cannot “give pederasty anything like a first place among the evils of the Coll.”. He does not say it is not an evil at all.

  19. Just read the book. Came late, so the thread is probably cold by now, but on the chance that someone is listening, I’d like to dispose of the canard that homosexuality in schools is necessarily a power relationship, as if a grotesque form of bullying. I went to boarding school, where this sort of behavior did occur, though not at all rampantly. Younger boys were favored not because of their weakmess or vulnerability but because of their androgeny. As Lewis points out, they were sought out by the Bloods (older boys with privileges) because girls weren’t available. This recalls the Greeks, who found it a useful diversion for keeping girls intact for marriage.

    And these arguments about abuse of power beg the question of cruelty raised by Lewis, cruelty being the antithesis of kindness, the ethical basis of Christianity. In my experience and what I’ve witnessed or read in the literature, the relationships, far from being exploitative, are usually mutual and reciprocal, the younger partner flattered at being the object of an elder’s desire (not to mention a kind of power in itself). The power thing is, I believe, just a pretext for censure flowing out of the visceral yuck factor. What might be a pleasurable or amusing pastime —you know, fun — to some boys is æstheticallly repugnant to most others, which leads me to think that, beyond the imperative to reproduce, sexual morality is, at base, a matter of justifying æsthetical responses or, to put it bluntly, taste. Of course real abuse exists, as does heterosexual abuse, as we are hearing loudly and constantly in the media right now. (By the way, buggery or quasi-male-female positions or roles, top-bottom, do not define homosexuality as is assumed, but rather simple affection. The only true sexual evil, hetero- or homo- is, in my view, S&M, which by definition is cruelty.) So, if one partner is physically weaker than the other, which women usually are vis-à-vis men, then all sexuality is exploitative. But then, that brings us to a dead end. Lewis was sensible, unbiased and right. Too bad those who control the mobs can’t or won’t see it his way.

    • Your comment reads like a pervert trying to justify his attraction to other men and boys. If we had opportunity for regular contact in real life I wouldn’t let you within 100 yards of my kids. Seriously. Anyabwile was exactly right to emphasize the innate repulsion that we should have toward homosexual “sex.” It isn’t sex anyway (sex being defined as the procreative act) but rather mutual masturbation of the most perverse sort. Your justification here should be setting off alarm bells for anyone with kids/impressionable young men who live/work around you.

      • Without that inate repulsion to sex that is not procreative, the human race would perish, so of course homosexuality, in my view, should never be normalized. I’m not justifying anything, just trying to clarify what I think Lewis, a Christian heterosexual, was getting at. As for your opinion of me, your hysteria, verging on the pathological, places you in the mob Lewis was trying to distance himself from. Alas, given your malice on this day of all days, your children have far more to fear from you than from me.

  20. I think another point of note about disgust is that it’s not rational. If the reason for your beliefs around homosexuality are based on disgust, and not the bible, or faith, or reason or the like, then that’s not a good basis for your beliefs, even if you come to the same conclusions as someone who’s beliefs around it are based on the bible, or faith or reason etc. We must examine the reason for our Christian beliefs (even those not to do with homosexuality), and if they come from a place of disgust, or hatred, or fear etc. and not from a place of scripture, and prayer, and faith and reason then that is not a good basis for one’s beliefs, even if you’ve come to the “right” conclusions.

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