Sunday, April 17, 2016

Lewis on Puritanism, Catholicism, and rigorism

"We have come to use the word 'Puritan' to mean what should rather be called 'rigorist' or 'ascetic', and we tend to assume that the sixteenth-century Puritans were 'puritanical' in this sense. Calvin's rigorist theocracy at Geneva lends colour to the error.

But there is no understanding the period of the Reformation in England until we have grasped the fact that the quarrel between the Puritans and the Papists was no primarily a quarrel between rigorism and indulgence, and that, in so far as it was, the rigorism was on the Catholic side. On many questions, and specially in their view of the marriage bed, the Puritans were the indulgent party; if we may without disrespect so use the name of a great Roman Catholic, a great writer, and a great man, they were much more Chestertonian than their adversaries.

The idea that a Puritan was a repressed and repressive person would have astonished Sir Thomas More and Luther about equally. On the contrary, More thought of a Puritan as one who 'loued no lenton fast, nor lightlye no faste elles, sauing brekefast, and eate fast, and drinke fast, and slepe fast, and luske faste in their lechery'--a person only too likely to end up in the 'abominable heresies' of the Anabaptists about communism of goods and wives. And Puritan theology, so far from being grim and gloomy, seemed to More to err in the direction of fantastic optimism. 'I covld for my parte', he writes,'be very wel content that sinne and payn and all wer as shortly gone as Tindall telleth vs. But I wer loth that he deceued vs if it be not so.'

More would not have understood the idea, sometimes found in modern writers, that he and his friends were defending a 'merry' Catholic England against sour precisions; they were rather defending necessary severity and sternly realistic theology against wanton labefaction -- penance and 'works' and vows of celibacy and mortification and Purgatory against the easy doctrine, the mere wish-fulfillment dream, of salvation by faith.

Hence when we turn from the religious works of More to Luther's Table Talk we are at once struck by the geniality of the latter. If Luther is right, we have waked from nightmare into sunshine: if he is wrong, we have entered a fools' paradise. The burden of his charge against the Catholics is that they have needlessly tormented us with scruples; and, in particular, that 'antichrist will regard neither God nor the love of women'. 'On what pretence have they forbidden us marriage? 'Tis as though we were forbidden to eat, to drink, to sleep.' 'Where women are not honoured, temporal and domestic government are despised.' He praises women repeatedly: More, it will be remembered, though apparently an excellent husband and father, hardly ever mentions a women save to ridicule her. It is easy to see why Luther's marriage (as he called it) or Luther's 'abominable bichery' (if you prefer) became almost a symbol. More can never keep off the subject for more than a few pages..."

[C.S. Lewis, "Donne and Love Poetry," Selected Literary Essays. I've added paragraph breaks to make it easier to read.]

Lewis's mention of Chesterton is keen. The odd streak of Epicureanism that ran through Chesterton is not mentioned often enough. It makes him an unusual (some might use stronger language here) Catholic apologist.

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