Nothing is merely a by-product of anything else. All results are intended from the first. What is subservient from one point of view is the main purpose from another. No thing or event is first or highest in a sense which forbids it to be also last and lowest. The partner who bows to Man in one movement of the dance receives Man’s reverence in another. To be high or central means to abdicate continually: to be low means to be raised: all good masters are servants: God washes the feet of men. The concepts we usually bring to the consideration of such matters are miserably political and prosaic. We think of flat repetitive equality and arbitrary privilege as the only two alternatives–thus missing all the overtones the counterpoint, the vibrant sensitiveness, the inter-inanimations of reality. C.S. Lewis, Miracles.
In Chapter 14 of Miracles, C.S. Lewis addresses the miracle of the Incarnation – God became flesh and dwelt among us. One of the major ideas he addresses is the idea of dying and rising in creation, and how the Incarnation fits into, and gives meaning to, this theme. Along the way he asserts that minor things can turn out to be major and vice versa – a theme he addresses in the praise service at the end of Perelandra, as well. What strikes me about this is something I’ve been considering for a while.
When people begin to understand what I have to say about Lewis’s ideas about femininity and masculinity, I’m sure there is going to be considerable consternation over his portrayal of submission as feminine, especially as he’s already been accused of misogyny. It seems demeaning, though Lewis rather turns things on their head by expecting men to exhibit exactly the same kind of submission. Our culture – and all earthly cultures – are so permeated by the idea that it’s better to lead than to follow, to be in a position of power rather than a position of servitude, in authority rather than in submission. But that’s simply not the way that Lewis – or God – sees it.
The gospel of John is so fascinating because Jesus repeatedly claims both absolute submission to God and complete equality with God, almost in the same breath. Take, for instance, John 8:28-29 ‘then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me. . . . He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him.’ When he says, ‘I am he,’ he’s using the Old Testament name God used of himself. The unbelieving Jewish leaders clearly understood Jesus to be claiming equality with God, as they continued to try to find a way to kill him (they had started in chapter 5 after a similar exchange). Yet he is also indicating complete submission to the Father. There is no sense that submission because of his current role has anything to do with worth or power or ability, no sense that submitting to the Father is demeaning to the Son. Jesus is claiming to be fully God, and currently existing in a role in which he submits to all that the Father asks of Him – does and says only what the Father tells him to do and say.
Lewis demonstrates this same concept both in the above quote from Miracles and in the praise service at the end of Perelandra. When you compare the above quote to Perelandra, ‘It is loaded with justice as a tree bows down with fruit. All is righteousness and there is no equality. Not as when stones lie side by side, but as when stones support and are supported in an arch, such is His order; rule and obedience, begetting and bearing, heat glancing down, life growing up. Blessed be He!’, you realize that Lewis’s idea of equality, of worth and importance, has nothing to do with either submission or leadership. Both are temporary – changing from moment to moment and situation to situation. As I mentioned in a post on the arch metaphor, everyone is both in authority and under authority – as the stones in an arch both support and are supported by the stones above and below them. In Perelandra, the visual representation of the Great Dance follows the verbal one, and all of the interweaving strands are both central and peripheral – they are all important and unimportant, depending on your point of view.
So here’s how I’m thinking about submission. Men and women alike should submit to God’s good authority. Paul instructs those who live in a given country or city to submit to the laws and authorities governing the city or country. He tells employees to submit to their employers (I know it’s slaves and masters, but I think the implication is there) and children to submit to their parents. He even says all believers should submit to one another. I think few would take issue with those examples. They’re not gendered. The difficulty comes when he instructs wives to submit to their husbands. This, perhaps, is how submission has come to be seen as a feminine trait, and this is perhaps why Lewis chose to treat it as such. But ‘wife’ is simply a role, as is ‘son’ or ‘daughter’ or ‘employee’ or ‘resident’. It is not the sum of one’s being. Like Christ’s submission to the Father, there is no reason to see this voluntary, covenantal relationship as demeaning or as having any bearing on worth or power or ability. The word used of Eve at creation, usually translated ‘helper’, has unfortunate connotations, but in the Old Testament it is often used to describe God himself. He ‘helps’ us because we cannot do something alone – and the same is true of the woman helping the man. God created Eve because Adam needed her help! To be a helper is to be like God. To be the one in submission OR the one in authority is to be like God, and both men and women are called to do both, in various roles. The Bible never states or implies that women are subservient to or in any way inferior to men. It is full of people submitting to one another – even of men submitting to women, as Barak submitted himself to Deborah’s instructions regarding the battle with Sisera, and his reluctant/imperfect obedience was to his detriment. It seems to always be a matter of roles.
So I don’t believe that submission is well chosen as the ultimate image of femininity – I think perhaps Lewis comes closer to the mark on the fertility aspect. Perhaps submission, like charity, is a significant requirement for both genders. (It’s also interesting that when Paul calls wives to submission, he calls husbands to charity. So why isn’t charity seen as primarily a masculine trait?) I’m also wary of the idea that God is so ultimately masculine as Lewis portrays in his body of work – or at least, not without being also ultimately feminine, as in being the ultimate, the original, of both. While most of the descriptions of God in Scripture are masculine, he also does picture himself in feminine terms several times – as a hen protecting her chicks, and as a mother nursing her child for example. Masculinity and femininity alike – and equally – reflect God’s image.
What I do love about Lewis’s work is that he restores submission to God as necessary for all humans, and as a conduit of blessing. I love how he pictures Ransom as feminine – especially in the ship on the way to Malacandra in Out of the Silent Planet. (Read more here.) Other pivotal scenes depicting Ransom’s growth in submission include his acceptance of the necessity of going to Meldilorn and the scene in Perelandra in which he is tempted to assert his independence and learns ‘not to make that inner gesture.’ Ransom is blessed because of these choices – this learning to submit to God’s authority. ‘His day became better and better as the hours passed.’ He, a man, learns the joy of submission.
In depicting submission this way, Lewis, though retaining the cultural idea of submission as feminine, is at least removing the sting of our tendency – the tendency of all humans – to think that authority is somehow better than submission. He is reminding us – through making it clear that Ransom is a reflection of Christ and portraying him as learning submission – that our ultimate example of humanity was fully submis
sive to the Father. ‘[A]ll good masters are servants’, indeed.