C. S. Lewis to Sheldon Vanauken on Homosexuality

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:

  1. Lewis recognizes that debates about causation are not important.
  2. 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.
  3. Here, he insists that “every disability conceals a vocation, if only we can find it, which will ‘turn the necessity to glorious gain.'”
  4. 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.

13 thoughts on “C. S. Lewis to Sheldon Vanauken on Homosexuality

  1. The number one thing for which I have always appreciated this letter from C. S. Lewis is that he sees that a same sex attracted person may have a positive vocation directly resulting from his/her struggle with sexual temptation. This is completely different than the modern attitude among many Christians who seem to see gays as weak or lessor believers, at best, and essentially close the door to any ministry or service we might have in the Church outside of our own little groups.

    I too was rather hit by his reference to humility and, yet, I have to admit there is a tendency among gay people to act sort of superior to “straights.” In fact, an entire TV show was based on this idea “queer eye for the straight guy” that sort of portrayed straight people as unsophisticated slobs. But I think, to be honest, it’s a defense mechanism. So I don’t doubt that Lewis did, in fact, pick up on that among the gay people he knew. Might be a lesson for us in the Church to not be so quick to rush to judgement against straight for not being able to understand us – maybe our attitude sometimes comes off rather self absorbed when we do that????

  2. I don’t think that there is an intrinsic connection between homosexuality and pride; but then, he doesn’t say that there is. Probably, to the extent that his observation is accurate (and he was plainly anything but bigoted or phobic about homosexuality), it’s an example of a culturally conditioned response and/or compensation. And let’s be honest — there is no shortage of arrogant cattiness in the gay community, the Christian gay community not excluded.

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  5. “This leaves the homosexual person no worse off than any normal person who is, for whatever reason, prevented from marrying”.

    Perhaps not. But just because someone else has the same problem as me, even if for different reasons, doesn’t somehow justify the problem or make it go away.

    I feel just as bad for Chinese straight men who can’t marry because of the gender imbalance in China as I do for gay people who can’t marry because of the sheer bloody-mindedness of the Church and/or the state they live in. It’s a tragedy in both cases and is made no easier to bear by the knowledge that other people suffer the same fate.

    You may think it strange, but I don’t go to bed at night comforted in my loneliness by the fact that millions of Chinese men will share my fate that night. It just makes me feel worse. I know what their misery feels like and how cruel and arbitrary life, and the God that created it, really is. That’s the worst part of it, knowing that all the Christian talk of a loving God is just so much bunk. There’s no love in putting someone on earth, making him a loving creature and then denying him every opportunity to experience that love.

    • I don’t think you should be comforted because someone else suffers the same as you – or something worse. Sometimes people tell us why are you crying when you didn’t get dessert for that dinner “while there are people in Africa” who have nothing to eat. It does not comfort us. It does not make our pain go away. But I do not believe that is C.S. Lewis’ point with THAT phrase.
      Nor does he try to reach out and justify the problem. He has no means to do so. As he says: it would all be especulation.

      But just because it’s hard, and we do not know of a reason why it is abnormal, for certain, that does not take it aways it’s sinfulness.

      The last thing. I think that we gay people think that everyone only see gays as sinners and strugglers. The only ones who have a burden for the rest of life. But the truth is that everyone has their burden. And everyone carries them for their whole life. Everyone, I believe, is born a sinner and just like the gay must learn to live with that the fornicator must learn to deal with his desires, the lier, with his lies, the unable-to-manage-anger-person his. You may not feel their burden and feel that is unjust – yours is definetly bigger. But I do not know where I read this but our sins are not bigger than our God, they are not bigger than us, they are not making us victims. We are the ones who practice sin. It’s not God who gives us this. It’s not His fault either if Adam and Eve sinned.

      I believe C.S. Lewis was saying a hard truth that is true for all humans: The sin – whicever one it is – is ours. We asked for it when we sinned together with Adam and Eve. We suffer because of the choices we made and continue making. Not the choices God made. It is our burden – but God is there for us. Accept what your life is – sinful – and God will show the way.

      I may be completely wrong. But so can anyone be. I hope this helps you – or anyone who reads this – understand what C.S Lewis is saying/trying to say. And if it just makes you more angry or rebellious against God… just ignore it. I would really love to help anyone, but thru the internet everything becomes so impersonal and everything can be desconstructed and given the meaning we want it to have. Lastly I am sorry if I have misunderstood what you said.

  6. 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 homo. no worse off than any normal person who is, for whatever reason, prevented from marrying.
    Lewis’s starting point is the same as Rick Warren’s (The Purpose-driven Life) with the same implications. Of course Warren is not going to call homosexuality abnormal although he clearly thinks it is. But both men see same-sex relationships as the moral equivalent of adultery. Or fornication, I guess. So, emotionally crippled, they are moral outcasts. By nature they lack any chance of experiencing love, faithfuness, and intimacy in good conscience; no wonder suicide rates among gay youth are so high, if this is what they are being told.

    • C. S. Lewis believed that Jesus was unmarried, and that Jesus is the greatest exemplar of love in human history. He would not agree that someone who does not marry must “lack any chance of experiencing love, faithfuness, and intimacy in good conscience.”

      At the time that he wrote this letter, he was in his fifties and a lifelong bachelor (he would not marry his wife Joy until several years after writing this letter). So when he said that homosexuals were no worse off than others who, for whatever reason, are prevented from marrying, he was speaking of decades of his own life experience. He was not a happily married man telling single people to suffer.

      Lewis’s biographers generally believe that he had had a sexual affair with Mrs. Jane Moore for many years prior to his conversion, however, whatever positive things may have come out of this relationship (and Lewis said long after his conversion that “She was generous and taught me to be generous, too.” However, Lewis regarded fornication as wrong, and said so throughout his writings. If he thought homosexual sex was equivalent to fornication, then he would regard a homosexual relationship in the same way that he regarded his relationship with Jane Moore, as a relationship that had some positive aspects, but was also marked by sin.

      Further, if you read the chapter on “Friendship” in The Four Loves, you will see that Lewis is sharply critical of the idea that sexual intimacy is the only way of experiencing love, faithfulness, and intimacy.

      Whether you agree with Lewis’s overall view of love and sexuality or not, this comment seems to reflect a complete failure to understand the context out of which Lewis is speaking. You may, if you like, reject Lewis’s whole conception of the relationship between Christian love and sexual intimacy. But if you think that Lewis agreed that sexual intimacy blessed by God was a necessary condition for a person to have “any chance of experiencing love, faithfuness, and intimacy in good conscience,” and arbitrarily denied that chance to homosexuals, you simply do not understand C. S. Lewis.

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