“Theology!” said Mr. Straik with profound contempt. “It’s not theology I’m talking about, young man, but the Lord Jesus. Theology is talk – eyewash – a smokescreen – a game for rich men. It wasn’t in lecture rooms I found the Lord Jesus. It was in the coal pits, and beside the coffin of my daughter. If they think that Theology is a sort of cotton wool which will keep them safe in the great and terrible day, they’ll find their mistake. For, mark my words, this thing is going to happen. The kingdom is going to arrive: in this world: in this country….”
That Hideous Strength, C.S. Lewis
These are the words of the Reverend Straik in Lewis’ “Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups”, That Hideous Strength. This novel is set in mid-20th century England (a fictionalized Durham, England actually) and about a husband and wife who find themselves on opposing forces as N.I.C.E., the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments, and a motley crew of Christians strive to win Merlin (yes, the wizard) to their respective sides. Here Straik is talking to Mark, the husband, about his eschatological beliefs and, in a sense, explaining why he is part of N.I.C.E., the force of evil in this novel.
Through these words we see that Straik is right about the coming divine judgment; but hinted in this section and more explicit elsewhere we see he is wrong about how the Judge works and who, in fact, the Judge is. Straik is ergo an antichrist. He knows some of the right words and even preaches them. But his god is not God. His god is one of might and wrath. His god gives signs of power. This is why Straik sides with N.I.C.E. – the being, “the Macrobe”, N.I.C.E. has established contact with performs tricks and seems to transcend our physical dimensions and even death. And this god’s demeanor fits what many of us know of power: he is merciless and bloodthirsty, demanding service and death even from his most ardent servants. But unfortunately for Straik, the being he has pledged to, though appearing all-powerful and the arbiter of justice, is merely a con, a trickster, the devil himself. [SPOILER! – His power pales in comparison to that of the true judge, who destroys N.I.C.E. via its own treacheries towards the novel’s end. In the end, the Macrobe demands a blood sacrifice and Straik, who as a shepherd should have died trying to save others, ends up fighting to save himself and eventually being overcome. – END SPOILER!] In more ways than one Straik shows the ironic truth of his words that merely knowing the truth about Jesus does not serve as a surrogate fleece to save a person on judgment day.
Before entering divinity school, I penned this quote into the cover of my journal. I did this to remind me of my beliefs before entering what my version of Christianity saw as a liberal theological school. Conservative Protestants love to emphasize faith in Jesus over external religious acts: it’s not going to church that saves you, but believing Jesus died for you, repenting and professing him. This quote can serve as a helpful reminder for theology students of any background to keep their focus on Jesus, a focus I have come to decide the New Testament encourages and demonstrates the more I have read the NT.
But I think this quote does something else. It challenges studying theology for the sake of increased theological knowledge by saying that knowing about Jesus is not enough. I am still tempted to think I will come out of seminary with some greater grasp on truth than when I entered, and that I will be “the better” for it, much as I know this is false. I think many of my classmates believe the same. This is worrisome. Not so much because I am currently concerned for our souls. It is worrisome because I fear inactivity, egoism, service of the self, waxing theologic in towers of ivory. Even if I do not return to Christianity or organized religion I want my too-self-centered life to be made of use for others. I want to teach and encourage students and help them feel good about themselves and their abilities. I want them to pursue truth.
This quote challenges me to strive towards a larger goal, one not of merely forming my own beliefs and thought but of using what I learn to better serve and love others.
Questions: A) Is the Western, academic theological pursuit – studying significant historic and contemporary claims about God to earn a living teaching others significant historic and contemporary claims about God – useless or morally bankrupt? B) If so, why and how should the pursuit be changed? If not, how is studying theology beneficial to serving others, spiritually and/or non-spiritually? C) It seems easy to love humanity and simultaneously hate humans. How do we apply our grander magnanimous aspirations to daily interaction with individuals?