The Screwtape Letters and the Theological Virtues

ImageIn C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, an older demon gives advice to a younger, inexperienced tempter. These Letters are one of my favorite books and have helped me deal with temptation many times over the years. I was privileged to attend a class on the Christian Tradition on Vices and Virtues, in which we studied these letters through that lens. Here are my thoughts on letter nine, written from the eyes of an angelic warrior who has intercepted the correspondence and passed it on to Lewis. I really enjoyed writing my replies to the letters in class, and I post them for the reader’s enjoyment and proof that a class can be a blast!

Again and again, old Screwtape urges his protege Wormwood to different variations of the same old tricks, just with a different spin that depends on circumstances. Take Letter 9, for instance. The “patient” is still struggling with the Law of Undulation, the emotional and spiritual rise to mountaintop times and descent into difficult or spiritually dry times. Screwtape acknowledges the Law, of course, which is something created and not bad in and of itself. It relates to human physicality. While we angels are non-temporal beings, the humans are subject to this most physical Law. The Law might better be described as the Trend, or the Pattern, as it is a leitmotif running throughout the physical Universe. For instance, on the smallest scales, even the very nature of matter is wavelike, with peaks and troughs. The relationship between particles and waves stands at the very heart of quantum physics.

            At any rate, what Screwtape suggests is the same old strategy of taking something good and corrupting its proper order into disorder and evil. In this case, he offers means by which the man may fall away from grace in the low periods. While God made the low times to serve as times of drought that bring the human servant of God into conscious awareness of his need and dependency on Him, and to purify his loves, it seems that the diabolical sees opportunity  in this to do one of two things, depending on the nature of the man.

            If prone to despair, then Screwtape advises thought patterns and actions that lead to despair. If prone to hopefulness, he suggests complacency instead. I find that the solution to both temptations here is quite similar, but before I continue with that, I would like to discuss a very interesting quote nestled in the section on pleasure as temptation. In offering pleasure as a lure, Screwtape reveals the enemy’s plan by his admission that “an ever-increasing craving for an ever-diminishing pleasure is the formula.” Our Master incarnated once told them it was foolishness to gain the whole world but lose their soul. What Screwtape says “gladdens Our Father’s heart” below is to have the man’s soul in return for absolutely nothing, save smoke and lies. This is the heart of the enemy, and why I hate them so. Our incarnated Master told them as much. “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly,” He said, “but the thief comes only to kill, steal, and destroy.” That is what he does with pleasure- steals it, and uses it to destroy rather than point toward true joy as it was meant to do. Thus Screwtape must, as he himself freely acknowledges, turn it from that which is natural to that which is not. The pit of Hell cannot create pleasure, unless one so redefines pleasure that the willful destruction of all that is good and beautiful and true in oneself leading to total personal destruction can be pleasurable. But even masochism is closer to true pleasure than such a state. In trying to create a pleasure, the enemy has set himself a logical impossibility. But of course, considering how frequently the demons tempt with “jargon not logic,” perhaps their own reason is more corrupted than they might wish– but I am digressing. What I am trying to say is that if pleasure becomes harder and harder to attain, it is being used as temptation to give up one’s soul for less and less, much less than the whole world to be sure. This should serve the humans as a warning sign that it might be time for fasting and prayer.

            Now let’s move onto the other point– the proper response to passing through the lowlands of faith. As Screwtape said, there are two improper responses- despair, and contentment with spiritual dryness. Both ultimately boil down to different forms of despair, but the second tries to live with it. Because they converge into the same thing, they have the same answer– the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. For the man troubled by temptations to despair, the advice of Screwtape to keep him from Christian fellowship with experienced Christians and to focus him upon the “appropriate passages in scripture” reveals a need in the man’s life for Christian encouragement in the whole counsel of God (the humans call this the Gospel, I believe), not just cherry-picked verses of scripture. What the man needs to counter despair is hope. The courage to continue in hope stems from faith and is motivated by love. These things exist most fully in the Church body, and that is why the evil one tempts Christians to wander away from the flock. The “hopeful” man’s continuation in the Christian virtues also depends on his connection to the Church. The faithful preaching of the Scriptures and fellowship with more mature Christians will remind him that the current low state of his soul is not meant to remain. Sanctification means growth in likeness to Christ. Our Master had His low points in the Incarnation, but he was not content to stay there. The encouragement of the church will remind the dry Christian that he is not meant to stay that way, but grow into maturity in Christ. Both errors find their correction in the three theological virtues, mediated by Scripture and fellowship in the Church. His personal relationship with God and private-Scripture reading will come along, if I understand this response to Screwtape’s diabolical temptations correctly.



One thought on “The Screwtape Letters and the Theological Virtues

  1. Pingback: The Screwtape Letters and the Joy of Humility | thesoapboxguild

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