Mark Shea reprints an interesting letter from C. S. Lewis to Sheldon Vanauken, who had written for counsel on how to counsel students with questions about Christianity and homosexuality (reprinted in A Severe Mercy [reprint: HarperOne, 2009, pp. 146-148]). [Note, I have spelled-out Lewis's abbreviations and retained his original emphasis.] The letter is dated 14 May 1954.

First, to map out the boundaries within which all discussion must go on, I take it for certain that the physical satisfaction of homosexual desires is sin. This leaves the homosexual no worse off than any normal person who is, for whatever reason, prevented from marrying.

Second, our speculations on the cause of the abnormality are not what matters and we must be content with ignorance. The disciples were not told why (in terms of efficient cause) the man was born blind (John 9:1-3): only the final cause, that the works of God should be made manifest in him. This suggests that in homosexuality, as in every other tribulation, those works can be made manifest: i.e. that every disability conceals a vocation, if only we can find it, which will ‘turn the necessity to glorious gain.’ Of course, the first step must be to accept any privations which, if so disabled, we can’t lawfully get. The homosexual has to accept sexual abstinence just as the poor man has to forego otherwise lawful pleasures because he would be unjust to his wife and children if he took them. That is merely a negative condition.

What should the positive life of the homosexual be? I wish I had a letter which a pious male homosexual, now dead, once wrote to me—but of course it was the sort of letter one takes care to destroy. He believed that his necessity could be turned to spiritual gain: that there were certain kinds of sympathy and understanding, a certain social role which mere men and mere women could not give. But it is all horribly vague and long ago. Perhaps any homosexual who humbly accepts his cross and puts himself under Divine guidance will, however, be shown the way. I am sure that any attempt to evade it (e.g. by mock or quasi-marriage with a member of one’s own sex even if this does not lead to any carnal act) is the wrong way. Jealousy (this another homosexual admitted to me) is far more rampant and deadly among them than among us. And I don’t think little concessions like wearing the clothes of the other sex in private is the right line, either. It is the duties, burdens, the characteristic virtues of the other sex, I suspect, which the patient must try to cultivate. I have mentioned humility because male homosexuals (I don’t know about women) are rather apt, the moment they find you don’t treat them with horror and contempt, to rush to the opposite pole and start implying that they are somehow superior to the normal type.

I wish I could be more definite. All I have really said is that, like all other tribulations, it must be offered to God and His guidance how to use it must be sought. 

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21 thoughts on “A Letter from C.S. Lewis on Christian Piety and Homosexuality”

  1. John says:

    You have spelled-out Lewis’s abbreviations except homo. Says a lot really.

    1. Ken Abbott says:

      Charitably, John, I believe Justin just missed those two occurrences in editing, since everywhere else it appears he truly did spell out the words. We should try hard not to be quick to take offense where none is intended.

      1. John says:

        Ken, it is difficult to deny the reputation Christians have for vilifying gay people. This reputation isn’t entirely unjustified. We may not like it (and many of us prefer to “blame the victim” rather than admit this legacy of hate exists) but the first step out of this mess is for Christian leaders to be extra careful about how they talk/write about this subject.

        1. Ken Abbott says:

          John, all of this reminds me of a phenomenon justly lampooned by cartoonist Berke Breathed many years ago: “Offensensitivity,” that talent for finding offense in just about everything. It is a hallmark of our age of “toleration” and not a very pretty one.

          I agree with you that some professing Christ have harbored un-Christlike attitudes towards persons with same-sex proclivities and we should all be mindful of our hearts and tongues. But almost in the same breath as our Lord forgave repentant sinners he admonished them to go and sin no more. His harshest words were for the stubbornly unrepentant and the self-righteous, those who excused themselves and saw no personal need of a savior. As the life of the Christian should be one of ongoing repentance (paraphrasing Martin Luther), so the gospel of grace calls all to repent and believe in the one who brings the kingdom of God.

          1. John says:

            Ken, with respect – I don’t think Justin would have corrected it if the potential for offense was entirely absent.

    2. Justin Taylor says:

      All it says is that I missed two of them. That’s the reason I spelled-out the rest of the abbreviations. I’ve fixed them now.

      1. Reformed Totally says:

        Justin,

        Why so defensive in your response to John? I don’t know who John is, but I think the fact that you had spelled out all of the abbreviations except for two is very clear with what your intention was–namely to spell out the abbreviations.

        John,
        Why so quick to impugn Justin’s motives? Also, I guess I just must be clueless because I did not know that it was so offensive to say the word “homo” as opposed to “homosexual.” What have I missed?

        1. John says:

          Yes “homo” is a very offensive word. Justin did the right thing by correcting it.

          “Homosexual” is also offensive if used by a contemporary author. Lewis wrote this letter in 1954 – so it’s acceptable to reprint it using the original terminology. Just as it would be fine to reprint a speech by Martin Luther King without changing words like “negro” or “colored” (which he used frequently) to “black”.

          1. Wesley says:

            John –
            how is homosexual an “offensive” term? It is a technical definition as compared to heterosexual as to which sex one desires sexually and/or pursues romantically. What about that is offensive? Of course, one can SAY any word in a way that has a hard, dismissive or pejorative feel to it. But the term itself should cause no offence. That’s like a thin person saying the term “skinny late” at Starbucks is offensive because they have heard someone call them skinny.

            1. John says:

              How is negro offensive? It’s just an old word for black.

              Or is it a common courtesy to use the (current) term a minority use to describe themselves?

              1. Wesley says:

                Thanks for answering my question … those are completely different things bro. Not even close. But keep driving that civil rights road at top speed.

  2. Wesley says:

    I find it interesting to read this treatise on the subject before the time when to even say homosexuality is a sin is condemnable. What’s interesting is that, even in this time when homosexuality was not embraced anywhere near how it is now, Lewis is still both charitable and kind while still holding to the truths of Scripture. Ergo, we can still hold the fundamentals of the faith w/o being crass or rude or dismissive of those who needs Jesus as much as we do.

    1. Steve B. says:

      well said.

  3. Martin says:

    Amanda, perhaps the sin is an abomination. However, you should not call homosexuals an abomination. To call a a human being an abomination – that is the abomination. Be merciful, not judgmental.

    I guess if you persist to call homosexuals abominations, you should extend that description to the greedy, the abusive (many examples in business, as well as personal relationships), the alcoholics and those who cheat others. Wow … a lot of abominations walking among us.

    For, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:21 …
    “I meant that you are not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer yet indulges in sexual sin, or is greedy, or worships idols, or is abusive, or is a drunkard, or cheats people.”

  4. Nathan says:

    As always, Lewis is thoughtful and helpful. I agree with the sentiment that we cannot discern the “why” of the condition but must be content to be ignorant. I would be careful around the idea that a homosexual should remain single in the sense that it seems predicated on the idea that his desires cannot change. I think maleness is imprinted on the soul and thus redemption brings it out through progressive sanctification. Desires can change!

  5. Jacquee says:

    Dear all…

    I find my comfort and wisdom in God’s word…”Leave your simple ways and you will live; Walk in the way of understanding.

    Whoever corrects a mocker invites insult; whoever rebukes a wicked man incurs abuse.

    Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you; rebuke sounded
    silly. Whoever corrects a mocker invites insult;”

    For when I have grown so haughty as to consider myself lofty enough to be the Lord, that is when I realize that I have gotten up off my knees humbling myself before God in thankfulness.

  6. Beth says:

    Before you get to the issue of homosexuality, a significant commentary on the attitudes of our time versus the attitudes of 50 years ago is found in the first paragraph: the homosexual who chooses a life of chastity is “no worse off than any normal person who, for whatever reason, is prevented from marrying.” A single person who chose to remain chaste prior to marriage was still a “normal” person, and didn’t face accusations of not experiencing full humanity or of being strange by way of foregoing sexual relations.

  7. I don’t know why the church is so focused on homosexuality. I believe the Bible says it is a sin, but so are lust, envy, divorce, and pride. The church seems to pardon and accept these a lot more easily, even though the penalty without Christ’s sacrifice is the same for all. Why should we love people who are envious or getting a divorce, but not love those who are homosexual?

    1. David says:

      There is no question of not loving those who are same-sex attracted, Johnathan — to take the subject of JT’s original post as an example, one of C. S. Lewis’s best friends (Arthur Greeves) was a same-sex attracted man. (I don’t think Mr. Greeves was the author of the letter CSL refers to here.) To the extent there is presently a focus on homosexuality, is is because the world keeps bringing up the subject.

    2. ChrisB says:

      Johnathan, no one is pressing us to bless lust, envy, divorce, or pride, just same-sex relationships.

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Justin Taylor


Justin Taylor is senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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