The Screwtape Letters and Process Theism
by Duff Watkins
Duff Watkins is a graduate of Centre College, Danville, Kentucky, and is presently enrolled in the Yale Divinity School, New Haven, Connecticut. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 114-118, Vol. 8, Number 2, Summer, 1978. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis is a collection of fictitious epistles from a suave, professional, and insidious devil to a younger, inexperienced, but just as insidious fellow demon. The purported author of the letters is Screwtape, a self-described undersecretary in the Department of Temptation, who offers sagacious advice to his young nephew Wormwood, a "junior tempter." Screwtape and Wormwood plot and scheme together lay claim to yet another soul for Hell’s population and in doing so reveal both their knowledge of human ways as well as the vast array of techniques employed for manipulating earthlings to diabolical ends.
Though Lewis’s personal theological perspective is rarely considered or studied in terms of Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy, Lewis’s portrait of "the Enemy" (i.e., Jesus Christ) in The Screwtape Letters is more than a little similar to the rudiments of the christologies espoused by John Cobb, Peter Hamilton and others. In short, "the Enemy" as presented in The Screwtape Letters functions quite well in terms of process thought.
Herein lies an advantage of process thought: the works of Christians such as author/scholar C. S. Lewis, though steeped in a more orthodox tradition of Christianity, do indeed fit relatively easily and function relatively well within the schema of process thought. This is not to say that certain doctrinal differences do not exist between Lewis and process theologians. The significant thing is that the particular school of process thought is flexible and comprehensive enough to function credibly and adequately, in both the theological and philosophical senses, without denigrating or disparaging the Christian faith which it seeks to incorporate and elucidate.
In his own wax, Screwtape concurs with the rudiments of process thought:
In a word the Future is, of all things, the thing least like eternity. It is the most completely temporal part of time -- for the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays . . . Hence nearly all vices are rooted in the Future. Gratitude looks to the Past and love to the Present (SL 63-69) . . . Humans do not know the future, and what the future will be depends largely on just those choices which they now invoke the future to help them make. (SL. 118)
True to process thought, Screwtape implies that the world is a process of becoming in which transience and activity are fundamental; he further indicates that the only eternal aspect of the Future is the question of potentialities which may or may not be actualized; and he indirectly supports Whitehead’s supposition that the justification of any system of thought lies in its ability to organize and elucidate immediate experience.
Because he concurs with Whitehead’s supposition, Screwtape directs Wormwood to oppose reason and science:
Your man has been accustomed, ever since be was a boy, to having a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head . . . Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church . . . The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy’s own ground. By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient’s reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result? . . . Above all, do not attempt to use science . . . as a defense against Christianity. [This] will positively encourage him to think about realities he can’t touch and see. (SL 8-10)
This attempt to conjoin and utilize the realm of science, with its accent on empirical and sentient data, and the realm of philosophy, with its accent on the quest for metaphysical truths, is basic to process theology. As Norman Pittenger writes, "Process thought is the name usually given to the view of the world that takes with utmost seriousness the dynamic, living, evolutionary quality of our existence and of the world in which we live (PT 205).
Moreover, as Screwtape himself admits, a distinct advantage of the Enemy is his full understanding of real life, derived from his former existence in the human world. A supposition of process thought is that the Enemy’s participation in human selfhood, i.e., as a human being, is a culminating proof of a higher metaphysical reality. Hence Screwtape’s and Wormwood’s success in claiming souls derives not so much from their abilities to present and indirectly define their victims’ "realities" but from their victims’ inability, or more likely, unwillingness to discern or encounter the higher metaphysical realities which Christ represents. This is exactly the case when Screwtape reminisces that he once showed a wavering atheist pictures of reality (e.g., a street newsboy, a passing bus, etc.) in order to prevent what might have resulted in a sudden unexpected victory for Christ. Herein lies the value of the empirical flavor of process thought: earthly reality is considered to be an experiential touchstone, a pointer to or an avenue by which to gain access to higher truths. Screwtape’s aversion to and fear of human reason and science is especially understandable when viewed in light of process thought. Reason coupled with humankind’s innate sense of wonder results in a preoccupation with metaphysical questions which is most frequently (too frequently according to Screwtape!) transformed into a human quest for spiritual development.
Screwtape repeatedly reveals his ignorance of and inability to appreciate God’s love of humans as enacted through Christ. The freedom of humans to reject or accept God’s love is an act of persuasive rather than coercive love. As Daniel Day Williams notes, "Love means to will the freedom of the other, the acceptance of the consequences of the relationship to another, and the vulnerability which goes with that acceptance (SFL 60-64)." Thus if God is love, Jesus as Christ is the agent through which God’s love for humankind is communicated. God’s love, however, is communicated to humankind by Christ in such a way as to leave humankind free. Hence God seeks to persuade rather than coerce the human spirit. Though he does not fully comprehend it, Screwtape at least recognizes the Enemy’s strategy:
the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids Him to use. Merely to override a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo . . . the creatures are to be one with Him, but yet themselves; merely to cancel them, or assimilate them, will not serve. (SL 38)
The Enemy’s reluctance to coerce, says Screwtape, should be regarded by all demons as an invitation for mischief.
Screwtape also finds solace and opportunity in the modern quest for the historical Jesus.
You will find that a good many Christian-political writers think that Christianity began going wrong, and departing from the doctrine of its Founder, at a very early state. Now, this idea must be used by us to encourage once again the conception of a "historical Jesus" to be found by clearing away later "accretions and perversions" and then to be contrasted with the whole Christian tradition... We thus distract men’s minds from Who He is, and what He did. (SL 106f)
Despite Screwtape, process thinkers have advanced strong arguments advocating historical analyses of the Christian tradition.
Schubert Ogden insists that people today no longer express their understandings of the meaning of existence in the mythological language of the classical theological tradition. Hence what is needed from theology is a thoroughgoing attempt to translate the meaning of the church’s traditional witness into terms in which contemporary people either do or can most readily understand their life as human beings (RG 79f). Almost as if in direct reply to Screwtape, Daniel Day Williams asserts that historical biblical criticism is essential to prevent "faith from taking flight from history and creating a picture of the Christian revelation which distorts historical fact" (SFL 156f). Much to Screwtape’s chagrin, Jesus stands to gain rather than lose influence over the world as a result of historical analyses, and nowhere is this more true than in process thought. As Robert Mellert notes, our present historical criticisms are very similar to efforts by the Christians of the first centuries: "We are attempting to explain the primitive Christian experience of Jesus in the language of a philosophical perspective of God and man to suggest how that perspective might deal with the inter-relation of humanity and divinity in the person of Jesus, who is called the Christ (WPT 79f).
Yet Hell itself is not devoid of its own philosophical pretensions. Though it is not surprising that the following Satanic discourse is in direct contrast to most Christian doctrines and traditions, it is interesting to note that Screwtape’s ramblings touch upon an important issue in process christology:
The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good, and your good is yours. What one gains another loses. Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger. "To be" means "to be in competition" (SL 81).
By definition, a process christology involves the compatible co-presence or even the inseparability of God and man in a decisive manner revelatory of both God and man. Thus christology means that the deepest and truest nature of man is at root continuous with God’s nature (FET 161f). This is where devilish logic errs. By failing to grasp the true significance of such concepts as history and love, Screwtape does not perceive the enrichment that time, in general, and Christianity, in particular, offer to persons.
The struggle of humankind is to align itself as well as possible with the will or the activity or the "objective presence" of God, but not in such a way as to denigrate human individuality. Even Screwtape perceives that "the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct" (SL 38).
The distinctiveness of Jesus lies in his determination to remain increasingly susceptible to God’s influence. Though God instills within every entity its initial conceptual aim, the person of Jesus is important for humankind because Jesus strove diligently and successfully to prehend God and obey the resulting prehensions and thereby kept his own subjective aim aligned with God’s aim and purpose.
Screwtape also recognizes the importance of opening up and allowing, to use biblical terms, the Spirit to descend upon one:
What (the Enemy) wants of the layman in church is an attitude which may, indeed, be critical in the sense of rejecting what is false or unhelpful, but which is wholly uncritical in the sense that it does not appraise -- does not waste time in thinking about what it rejects, but lays itself open in uncommenting humble receptivity to any nourishment that is going (SL 73) . . . the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one -- the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts. (SL 56)
Hence humans can emulate Jesus, though perhaps not as successfully, in facilitating their prehension of God by seeking to ensure that their subjective aims are in accord with God’s. In short, the actualization of human potential (i.e., becoming all that we as humans can become) is the best means to ensure that the God of Christianity is not confined to the skies.
To conclude, Screwtape observes that "it is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out" (SL 20). In reality this statement seems true. There exists in humankind a proclivity to articulate that innate sense of human wonder that is manifest in and by religion. Process thought offers a viable framework which gives free rein to this proclivity and in doing so assists humankind to derive the maximum amount of meaning and joy from the simple fact of their existence.
FET -- Loomer, B., "Empirical Theology Within Process Thought," in The Future of Empirical Theology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.
PT -- Meland, B., "The New Creation," in Process Theology, ed. Ewert Cousins. New York: Newman Press, 1971.
RG -- Ogden, S., The Reality of God. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1960.
SFL -- Williams, D. D., The Spirit and the Forms of Love. New York Harper & Row, 1968.
SL -- Lewis, C. S., The Screwtape Letters. New York: MacMillan & Co., 1961.
WPT -- Melert, B., What Is Process Theology? New York: Paulist Press, 1975.