The Next C.S. Lewis? A Note on Austin Farrer

71Yrc6f1aoLIt was sometimes said after C.S. Lewis’s death that his apologist’s mantle had fallen on the shoulders of Austin Farrer.[1] The two men knew each other well,[2] and Lewis’s respect for Farrer’s work[3] was warmly reciprocated.[4]

This post aims to give a brief overview of some of Farrer’s intellectual concerns in the area of theological imagination, concentrating on those which most accord with Lewis’s own ideas.

James Patrick writes: “The central insight in Farrer’s writings, and the one that related his thought most closely to that of Lewis . . . is his insistence that knowledge is a poetic unity involving reason and imagination, and in the case of knowledge of God, revelation . . . The Glass of Vision and The Rebirth of Images are in fact contributions toward a new methodology for the study of the Bible, one that begins with careful reading and an understanding of the nature of poetry.”[5]

Fundamental to Farrer’s whole approach was his belief that “a man cannot apprehend anything without an act of imaginative creation.”[6] Imagination is necessary for perception, not only of simple things like matchboxes, where we supply in our mind’s eye the hidden sides, but also of human speech, where imagination supplies the meaning of the sentences, the attitude and intention of the speaker, and the indefinable quality of the person as a whole. Here “the imaginative build-up is untraceably complex,”[7] but it is relatively reliable because we are men listening to men. But when we are listening to God, there is not the same reassurance. How do we know that our imaginations are not counterfeiting?

Farrer draws a parallel between poet and prophet. The poet constantly relates his imaginative creations to “the deep nature of human existence,” the “realities,” the “stuff,” the “general quality of the life we live,” so that his imaginative inventions illuminate its character and “move under its control.”[8] The resulting inventions are therefore “not fantasies.” Rather, the great poet “works at his poetry, developing his images,” adjusting them continually according to how well they explicate life as he lives it. Something resembling this happens in the process by which divine revelation emerges into time and space as prophetic vision: “though it takes shape in the human imagination, [it] may do so under a similar objective control.”[9] That control is “the special action of a self-revealing God.” Special, as opposed to general. A poet such as Shelley “uses certain methods to set his imagination acting; and this gives him imaginative scope to act”: his imagination is generally sustained, even though he might deny it, by divine power. A scriptural writer such as St John “uses similar methods; and this gives the Holy Ghost scope to move his imagination”: his faithful and obedient imagination is not only sustained, but especially fired and directed, by divine power. For “belief in inspiration is a metaphysical belief; it is the belief that the Creator everywhere underlies the creature, with the added faith that at certain points he acts in, as, and through the creature’s mind.”[10] Farrer writes:

God is no more outside me than within: I am his creation just as much as . . . the physical world is. He has the secret key of entry into all his creatures; he can conjoin the action of any of them with his will in such fashion as to reveal himself specially through them. God speaks without and within; he reveals himself both through the situation with which he presents the recipients of revelation, and through the imagination, in terms of which he leads them to see and hear the voices and the sights surrounding them.[11]

Farrer considers Jeremiah for a moment as a poet and asks what constrains his use of poetical images. Jeremiah’s imagination is constrained, he answers, by “the particular self-fulfilling will of God, perceptible in the external events of history and nature which God controls, perceptible also in a direct impact upon Jeremiah’s inspired mind.”[12] This is true of all revelation which “as we receive it is a function of two things equally – partly a function of the divinely controlled event, and partly a function of the parable in terms of which we personalize, or theologize, the event.”[13] The “parable” to which Farrer refers here appears to mean the symbolic framework within which we set the event: do we see the event as a manifestation of the symbol “king,” “judge,” “redeemer,” “loving parent” or what? As with Old Testament prophecy, so with the central events of Christian theology, the death and resurrection of Jesus: they “did not dictate the fresh way in which the kingdom of God was seen: it had to be imagined . . . it is in some manner the invention of the human mind.”[14] The historical facts may be taken as fixed; “it is the symbolism investing them that will move and grow.”[15] And this symbolism, if it is to be revelatory, must “impose itself,” under the pressure of the God who “wishes to speak to us.” The symbol will arrive “as a symbol, not as an allegory. The seer sees the imaged object; it comes as something charged with divine significance. What significance, and how much, he does not at first know. He may read several allegories off it, and still not exhaust it.”[16]

Farrer contends that man cannot conceive the ineffable except in images and that these images must be divinely given if he is to know a supernatural divine act. The images peculiar to Christianity began to be given by Jesus as he appropriated to himself and simultaneously transformed the archetypal images of Israel (king, Adam, temple, sacrificial lamb, Word), and was continued by the Spirit of Christ moving the minds of the apostles. “The Apostolic minds which developed and understood the images of faith performed a supernatural act: but supernatural acts . . . are continuous with natural functions, of which they are, so to speak, the upward prolongations. The boundary between the two need be neither objectively evident nor subjectively felt. The apostle would find himself to be performing a sort of activity well-known to the Rabbinic Jew, the activity of seeking fresh insights by the comparison and fusion of sacred images. Only now the images cluster round the central figures of Christ’s self-revelation, and the insights sought from them are insights into Christ and his saving work.”[17] These images are not all of equal importance, but may be ranked according to how well they illuminate one another. Thus, Farrrer suggests, the author of Revelation “reduces” the symbol of Judgment to that of Advent; it is not thereby abolished, but it is both relativized and, in some degree, criticized and interpreted.

We may fairly summarise Farrer’s understanding of the knowledge of God as a threefold process:

First, there are the images, images given by the scriptures or by the prophet’s experience or, in the case of the apostles, by the words and deeds of Christ; but these images need to be comprehended, not merely apprehended.

The second part of the process, comprehension, comes about as the apprehender of the image thinks within it, seeks out its significance, moves about within that image world, compares it with other images. The movement is not lawless or self-indulgent, it is controlled by reason as the imaginer rationally relates his imagining to other things. Various constraints – natural theology, public memory of Christ’s words and deeds, the relative importance of principal and secondary images, the empirical constraint of seeing how well new fusions illuminate existence (both the subjective experience of the imaginer and the external events of history and nature) – all these factors rein in, direct and rationalise imaginative efforts at comprehension. The images themselves also provide a constraint of sorts, for “we cannot by-pass the images;” the scriptural author is not at liberty to understand the images in any way he chooses, as if they were arbitrary allegories.

And the third part of the process is the pressure of God. This has, by definition, already been present in the first and second parts of the process; human apprehension and comprehension need not – indeed, should not – be considered immiscible with divine activity. Rather, human activity is to be understood as “diaphanous,” letting the divine show through; for “we all participate in supernatural act“[18] and “the creature and the Creator are both enacting the creature’s life.“[19] Lewis made these underlinings in his own copy of The Glass of Vision. It seems an appropriate point at which to conclude this brief examination of Farrer’s resonance with the ideas – and indebtedness to the example – of his more famous friend and colleague.[20]

Michael Ward, a leading expert on the works of C.S. Lewis, is Senior Research Fellow at Blackfriars, Oxford, Professor of Apologetics at HBU, and a writer and speaker. As an Anglican clergyman, he served as Chaplain of St Peter’s College in the University of Oxford from 2009 to 2012 and as Chaplain of Peterhouse in the University of Cambridge from 2004 to 2007.  Between 1996 and 1999 he was Warden of The Kilns, Lewis’s Oxford home.  He studied English at Oxford, Theology at Cambridge, and has a PhD from St Andrews.


[1] See Richard Harries, C.S. Lewis: The Man and His God (London: Collins, 1987), 92. See also the discussion of Lewis and Farrer in Edward Gabriel Zogby, “C.S. Lewis: Christopoesis and the Recovery of the Panegyric Imagination” (Ph.D. diss., Syracuse University, 1974), 358-364.
[2] It is not known exactly when Farrer and Lewis became acquainted (they overlapped in Oxford for 37 years, all told), but they certainly had met by the early 1940s when Farrer began to make appearances at the Socratic Club of which Lewis was President. Farrer’s name appears on the list of Socratic speakers sixteen times in the twelve years between its founding and Lewis’s departure for Cambridge in 1954. (Only Lewis’s name appears more often in that period.) Lewis dedicated Reflections on the Psalms to Farrer and his wife, Kay. He corresponded with Kay on literary matters; she helped advise him on Till We Have Faces. Farrer witnessed Lewis’s secret civil marriage to Joy Gresham in 1956, conducted Joy Lewis’s funeral, read the lesson at Lewis’s funeral and gave the address at his memorial service.
[3] He provided a blurb for Saving Belief (1964) and wrote a preface for A Faith of Our Own (Cleveland, OH: 1960, 7-10) in which he described its author as ‘one of the most learned theologians alive’. Of Farrer’s preface to his Short Bible he wrote: “I don’t know that I ever got so much from so few pages before: deepest problems disarmed with a turn of the wrist. If only real theologians like him had started doing oeuvres de vulgarisation a little earlier, the world wd. have been spared C.S.L.” (letter to Kay Farrer, Whitsunday 1956.)
[4] He described Lewis as “the most successful theological apologist our days have seen.” (Austin Farrer, Faith and Speculation: An Essay in Philosophical Theology [London: A. & C. Black, 1967] 156.) He was of the view that Lewis’s imaginative and rational powers were “so fruitfully and so mutually engaged” and that it was “this intellectual imagination” which made the strength of his religious writings; “there lived in his writings a Christian universe that could be both thought and felt, in which he was at home and in which he made his reader at home.” (“In His Image: in commemoration of C.S. Lewis,” in Austin Farrer, The Brink of Mystery, ed. Charles C. Conti [London: SPCK, 1976], 45-47: 46.) Despite this mutual engagement, Farrer submits that Lewis’s imaginative side was his stronger suit: “his real power was not proof, it was depiction” (Brink of Mystery, 46) and he wrote of The Problem of Pain that, though “we think we are listening to an argument, in fact we are presented with a vision; and it is the vision that carries conviction.” (Gibb, Jocelyn, ed. Light on C.S. Lewis (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1965) 37.)
[5] James Patrick, The Magdalen Metaphysicals: Idealism and Orthodoxy at Oxford, 1901-1945 (Mercer University Press, 1985), 152-3. Avis regards The Glass of Vision as “outstanding” and is of the view that Farrer’s theory of images “has the heart of the matter in it.” (Paul Avis, God and the Creative Imagination: Metaphor, Symbol and Myth in Religion and Theology [London: Routledge, 1999], 4; cf. 5, 75.) See also David Brown, Discipleship and Imagination: Christian Tradition & Truth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 115, 234.
[6] Austin Farrer, The Glass of Vision (Westminster: Dacre Press, 1948) 114.
[7] Austin Farrer, “Inspiration: Poetical and Divine,” in Interpretation and Belief, ed. Charles C. Conti (London: SPCK, 1976), 39.
[8] Ibid., 42.
[9] Ibid., 42-43.
[10] The Glass of Vision, 53.
[11] “Inspiration: Poetical and Divine,” 44.
[12] The Glass of Vision, 126.
[13] “Inspiration: Poetical and Divine,” 45.
[14] Ibid., 43.
[15] Ibid., 45.
[16] Ibid., 46.
[17] The Glass of Vision, 109.
[18] Ibid., 31.
[19] Ibid., 33.
[20] To explore further Farrer’s indebtedness to Lewis, see, e.g., how Lewis’s “Myth Became Fact” (1944) appears to underlie Farrer’s “Can Myth Be Fact?” reprinted in Interpretation and Belief from the Socratic Digest (1945).  Ann Loades suggests that A Grief Observed influenced “Griefs and Consolations,” the last chapter of Farrer’s Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited.  See “The Vitality of Tradition: Austin Farrer and his friends,” in Hein, David & Henderson, Edward Hugh (eds.). Captured by the Crucified: The Practical Theology of Austin Farrer (New York: T & T Clark International, 2004), 15-46: 35.

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4 Comments

  • Bruce Herman says:

    Michael — don’t know if you read these follow-up comments, but I recall a particularly lovely ride with you on a ferry between islands off the coast of Seattle some years back when we discussed CSL’s DISCARDED IMAGE… I think your brief reflection here on Farrer’s thought vibrates with a similar insight to that of Lewis in his meditation on the medieval model of the cosmos. What many moderns (and postmoderns) miss is that in short order the model (image) we currently employ will be as quaint looking as those of our ancestors. When we embrace the finitude of our images we are freed to enjoy them the more–and see their parable-like potential. And there’s a corollary in my field of painting — when the artist no longer imagines herself as the sole originator of a great work, she is freed to become “diaphanous” as you say, thereby ironically giving birth to much more compelling and lasting images. Holding our images lightly enough to allow the supercession of better or more fitting images is a basic posture of epistemic humility. I think the battle between the so-called “four horsemen of new atheism” (Dennett, Dawkins, et al) and believers might amount to little more than a pique over language and images if we all held them less tightly. The problem there, it seems to me, is that believers (as well as militant unbelievers) grip their images with white knuckles. God doesn’t need us to defend God, rather we are invited to the dance–an intoxicating dance that will sweep all into its majestic whirling around the still point, Christ.

  • Michael Ward says:

    Excellent points, Bruce. (And yes, I remember that ferry voyage clearly!)

    Yes, I suspect that a lack of epistemic humility (on both sides) is the cause of many battles and misunderstandings between believers and non-believers.

    In this respect, it’s interesting what Lewis says about scientific theories in Chapter 2 of ‘The Discarded Image’:

    “In every age it will be apparent to accurate thinkers that scientific theories, being arrived at in the way I have described, are never statements of fact. . . The astronomical or chemical theory can never be more than provisional. It will have to be abandoned if a more ingenious person thinks of a supposal which would ‘save’ the observed phenomena with still fewer assumptions, or if we discover new phenomena which it cannot save at all.

    “This would, I believe, be recognised by all thoughtful scientists today. It was recognised by Newton if, as I am told, he wrote not ‘the attraction varies inversely as the square of the distance’, but ‘all happens as if’ it so varied. It was certainly recognised in the Middle Ages. ‘In astronomy’, says Aquinas, an account is given of eccen-trics and epicycles on the ground that if their assumption is made (hac positione facta) the sensible appearances as regards celestial motions can be saved. But this is not a strict proof (sufficienter probans) since for all we know (forte) they could also be saved by some different assumption.’ (Note: 1a XXXII, Art. I, ad secundum) The real reason why Copernicus raised no ripple and Galileo raised a storm, may well be that whereas the one offered a new supposal about celestial motions, the other insisted on treating this supposal as fact. If so, the real revolution consisted not in a new theory of the heavens but in ‘a new theory of the nature of theory.’ (Note: A. O. Barfield, Saving the Appearances (1957) p.51)

    It puts me in mind too of what Lewis says in his seminal essay, ‘Bluspels and Flalansferes’: “the meaning in any given composition is in inverse ratio to the author’s belief in his own literalness.”

    In short, fundamentalisms, both Christian and non-Christian, cause problems . .

  • Robert MacSwain says:

    Michael, thank you for this, and not least because it reminds me that I need to get to the Wade Center at some point to look at Lewis’s copy of *The Glass of Vision*! Those who wish to follow up on your essay may be interested in my critical edition of this classic work, Robert MacSwain (ed.), *Scripture, Metaphysics, and Poetry: Austin Farrer’s “The Glass of Vision” With Critical Commentary* (Ashgate, 2013).

  • Jerry Root says:

    Thanks for this piece, Michael. Farrer’s work should be reintroduced to a new generation. He was able to rehabilitate Lewis’s tenderhearted, but deficient, ideas on animails in “The Problem of Pain”. Farrer’s ideas on natrual evil and the suffering of animals in “Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited”, can be used to rehabilitate Lewis’s weaknesses in The Problem of Pain.
    Furthermore, Farrer was part of the “Oxford Metaphysicals” that included E. L. Mascall, John Lucas, Basil Mitchell, and for a time, Iris Murdoch. Mitchell (president of the Oxford Socratic Club after Lewis went to Cambridge) was clear about the debt he owed to Farrer. Certainly influences can be seen in Mitchell’s “Faith and Criticism”.
    Blessings on your work, Michael.
    Yours,
    Jerry

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