C.S. Lewis on Theology as a Map

At the risk of beginning an article sounding like an ancient curmudgeon, kids these days can’t appreciate one area of life that has become infinitely easier over the last ten years: navigation. No more printing out eight-page documents with step-by-step instructions (and then shuffling through these going 75 down the highway). No more buying Mapscos at the beginning of a cross-country trip. Now, just turn on the data and you have a handheld portal that can lead you to anywhere in the world.

Maps are important to life. We use them to drive, to hike or bike, and even to plan out a career. They aren’t the endgame in and of themselves, but they help us reach whatever it is we are hoping to see.

In Book IV of Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis reminds us that theology is immensely practical, and argues that doctrine functions as a sort of map to help us see God more clearly. Perhaps you’ve encountered people who question the necessity or importance of deep theological reflection. Perhaps you yourself wonder if it’s worth it. “Why the need to wrestle with doctrine? Doesn’t it just divide us?”

Lewis, in his simple and colorful style, paints us a picture about a man he met who had an experience with God alone in the desert. This man was adamant that the experience surpassed any sort of theological evaluation and rendered the task of theology meaningless. Lewis, while not discounting the man’s experience, pushes back on the idea that experience always supersedes doctrine:

“Now in a sense I quite agreed with that man. I think he had probably had a real experience of God in the desert. And when he turned from that experience to the Christian creeds, I think he really was turning from something real to something less real.

In the same way, if a man has once looked at the Atlantic from the beach, and then goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic, he also will be turning from something real to something less real: turning from real waves to a bit of coloured paper. But here comes the point. The map is admittedly only coloured paper, but there are two things you have to remember about it.

In the first place, it is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. In that way it has behind it masses of experience just as real as the one you could have from the beach; only, while yours would be a single isolated glimpse, the map fits all those different experiences together.

In the second place, if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary. As long as you are content with walks on the beach, your own glimpses are far more fun than looking at a map. But the map is going to be more use than walks on the beach if you want to get to America.

Now, Theology is like the map. Merely learning and thinking about the Christian doctrines, if you stop there, is less real and less exciting than the sort of thing my friend got in the desert. Doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of map. But that map is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God—experiences compared with which any thrills or pious feelings you and I are likely to get on our own are very elementary and very confused. And secondly, if you want to get any further, you must use the map.”

Lewis reminds us that theological reflection, while necessary, is not ultimate—God is. Theology functions as a map, informed by centuries of church history, that helps us move beyond our limited experiences. In theology and church history we are guided by a chorus of voices who help us to avoid wandering down the wrong path.

Studying theology and church history takes effort. But it’s an important endeavor to the health of our souls:

“You see, what happened to that man in the desert may have been real, and was certainly exciting, but nothing comes of it. It leads nowhere. There is nothing to do about it. In fact, that is just why a vague religion—all about feeling God in nature, and so on—is so attractive. It is all thrills and no work; like watching the waves from the beach. But you will not get to Newfoundland by studying the Atlantic that way, and you will not get eternal life by simply feeling the presence of God in flowers or music. Neither will you get anywhere by looking at maps without going to sea. Nor will you be very safe if you go to sea without a map.”

These are friends from days past helping us on today’s journey. They’re encouraging us, yes, but also warning us:

“Consequently, if you do not listen to Theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones—bad, muddled, out-of-date ideas. For a great many of the ideas about God which are trotted out as novelties today, are simply the ones which real Theologians tried centuries ago and rejected.”

If you are a church leader, remember your call to do the intense work of theological reflection so that you can help others on their journey. If you are like Lewis’ friend who discounted the relevance of doctrine, remember that theology is not the stuff of stuffy academic buildings but is actually immensely important and practical to your daily life. Faulty theological coordinates can be disastrous.

In reflecting about maps and the spiritual journey, another character from Lewis’ writing comes to mind. We first meet the traveling Dr. Ransom in the opening sentence of Out of the Silent Planet:

“The last drops of the thundershower had hardly ceased falling when the Pedestrian stuffed his map into his pocket, settled his pack more comfortably on his tired shoulders, and stepped out from the shelter of a large chestnut-tree into the middle of the road.”

I think these two illustrations complement one another. A map (and, in our case, theology) is vital, but it is not the final destination. We look at it for direction, but we don’t look to it as the consummation of our travels. Sometimes a map stays in our pocket, always near and ready at hand but not immediately before our eyes as the chief object of our attention (it is dangerous to drive focused only on a map!). Informed by the map, we step out and walk the road of faith toward the celestial city, with our eyes ultimately centered on Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith.


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