The Boldness of a Stranger – Correspondence Between C.S. Lewis and H. Lyman Stebbins

In addition to writing the classic series  Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis is known for the many books he wrote on Christianity. With works such as The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity, Lewis was one of the most well-known Christian thinkers of his day. He was remarkably close to Catholic thought in many ways, but chose to remain Anglican. It was because of this reputation that H. Lyman Stebbins (who later founded Catholics United for the Faith) wrote to C.S. Lewis.

In November of 1998, Lay Witness published the original letters written between the two men with commentary by Madeleine Stebbins, widow of CUF founder H. Lyman Stebbins.

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Published for the first time in commemoration of the centenary in 1998 of the birth of a great writer, C.S. Lewis.

Lyman Stebbins was brought up an Episcopalian, in a vaguely Christian way, and attended Yale College, from which he graduated in 1933. He was aware of a lack of spiritual and intellectual content in his college courses, with the exception of a marvelous course on the poetry of Robert Browning taught by William Lyon Phelps, which for the first time briefly brought him into contact with a Christian worldview.

At a young age, he became a general partner of deCoppet and Doremus, a Wall Street firm, and a member of the New York Stock Exchange. In the midst of his successful career, he had a keen sense of the emptiness of this world and a growing awareness that there must be something more to life. This perception took on a deeper dimension when, in 1938, he suddenly came down with tuberculosis and was forced to take an almost two-year leave of absence from work. No longer immersed in the business world and its frenetic activity, he had time to read and think. His hunger for truth and beauty increased, as well as a more profound longing for God. The months of suffering, in and out of hospitals, became a time of grace. He finally went back to work in 1940.

Then for Christmas 1942 a friend gave him The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. All at once a light went on in him and over the dull landscape of his life. In June 1943 he wrote in his diary:

The new clear eye to which the beauties of heaven are suddenly apparent sees, also in brightened colors, the allurements of hell. Notice also that in the first rapture at the sight of heaven, so long obscured from view, I assume that this time my strength and fidelity will be equal to the fight, forgetting that my history shows nothing but frailty and failure.

That book, which obviously made a deep impression on him, opened the enormous C.S. Lewis door. He started reading all his books and was enthralled. That led him to Catholic bookstores that sold C.S. Lewis’ books, where he discovered a rich trove of books on the Catholic Church, about which he realized he had been taught nothing. Almost immediately, her claims to be the true Church founded by Christ struck him as intellectually compelling. Deduced from Scripture, proven by the early Fathers of the Church and Church history, everything rang true, and followed logically. As his conviction grew with more and more study, he increasingly felt the call to enter the Church. However, there were still great obstacles of a personal kind in his family.

So he turned to the man who got the ball rolling in the first place. Maybe C.S. Lewis could show convincing reasons for not entering the Catholic Church.

The correspondence speaks for itself.

April 20(?), 1945

Dear Mr. Lewis,

Please forgive the boldness of a stranger in imposing on your patience, but I want advice, and dare to seek it from you. I am an Episcopalian, and one of the many people, I am certain, who have been led by your books to a reconsideration of Christ, of Christianity, and of the Church.

But the pursuit of one of your books—The Pilgrim’s Regress—led me to Sheed and Ward, and from there it was but a step to an inquiry into the claims and history of the Roman Catholic Church. (It has been suggested that this was a regress indeed!)

My situation at present is this: I find the case for Rome entirely compelling, and I am not immune to the shameful tendency of putting a personal belief into the form: “Any reasonable and honest man will have to admit, etc., etc.” The point is that you are the principal check to this tendency since you are a living disproof of the assertion. The consideration, “This is convincing to my mind” simply does not become a decision as long as it is balanced by “For some good and sufficient reason it is not convincing to the mind of C.S. Lewis.”

I would not dare ask you to write to me what you consider to be the arguments which throw the decision to the Anglican and against the Roman Catholic Church. But I do dare ask you if you would do me the great favor of recommending the books which, in your opinion, present these arguments most persuasively.

I shall be extremely grateful for any guidance you can give me, and can only plead, as my excuse for picking on you, that you picked on me on the happy day I bought your books.

Yours sincerely,

H. Lyman Stebbins


May 9, 1945

Dear Mr. Stebbins,

My position about the Churches can best be made plain by an imaginary example. Suppose I want to find out the correct interpretation of Plato’s teaching. What I am most confident in accepting is that interpretation which is common to all the Platonists down all the centuries: What Aristotle and the Renaissance scholars and Paul Elmer More agree on I take to be true Platonism. Any purely modern views which claim to have discovered for the first time what Plato meant, and say that everyone from Aristotle down has misunderstood him, I reject out of hand. But there is something else I would also reject.

If there were an ancient Platonic Society still existing at Athens and claiming to be the exclusive trustees of Plato’s meaning, I should approach them with great respect. But if I found that their teaching was in many ways curiously unlike his actual text and unlike what ancient interpreters said, and in some cases could not be traced back to within 1,000 years of his time, I should reject their exclusive claims—while ready, of course, to take any
particular thing they taught on its merits.

I do the same with Christianity. What is most certain is the vast mass of doctrine which I find agreed on by Scripture, the Fathers, the Middle Ages, modern Roman Catholics, modern Protestants. That is true “catholic” doctrine. Mere “modernism” I reject at once. The Roman Church where it differs from this universal tradition and specially from apostolic Christianity I reject. Thus their theology about the Blessed Virgin Mary I reject because it seems utterly foreign to the New Testament; where indeed the words “Blessed is the womb that bore thee” receive a rejoinder pointing in exactly the opposite direction. Their papalism seems equally foreign to the attitude of St. Paul toward St. Peter in the epistles. The doctrine of Transubstantiation insists on defining in a way which the New Testament seems to me not to countenance. In a word, the whole set-up of modern Romanism seems to me to be as much a provincial or local variation from the central, ancient tradition as any particular Protestant sect is. I must therefore reject their claim:
though this, of course, does not mean rejecting particular things they say. I’m afraid I haven’t read any modern books of Roman-Angelican controversy. Hooker (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity) is to me the great formulation of Anglicanism. But the great point is that, in one sense, there is no such thing as Anglicanism. What we are committed to believing is whatever can be proved from Scripture. On that subject there is room for endless progress. However you decide, good wishes. Mention me in your prayers.

Yours sincerely,

C.S. Lewis

June 16, 1945

Dear Mr. Lewis,

It is not possible to describe the gratitude I feel for your trouble and interest in answering my inquiry. Now I find myself in something of a quandary. Not to write to you again would be ungracious; and anyway, I want to write to you again. Yet if I do write to discuss the points you raise, you may with some justice think I am going beyond the original terms. If I accost you in the street and ask for a light, you may think that permissible and may willingly accommodate me; but if, then, with a great show of gratitude, I go on to suggest a small loan, I can imagine that your amiability might suffer something of a chill.

The original object was for me to get your views, not you mine. But though in general an exchange of views is enough to hope for from a discussion, in my case I am under the necessity of being convinced one way or the other; and this is an inducement to me to answer each point as it appears to me, and not turn aside in silence with an internal “not proven.” So please believe that this letter is more an exercise than anything else; that I am not trying to trap you into a debate with a total stranger in a foreign land; that I think you have already done much more than you were obliged to do; and that I thank you very much indeed.

I agree that I am most confident in accepting what is common to all Christians down all the centuries. But it cannot be said that the Roman Catholics differ with what is common to all, including Roman Catholics. It is just in the important area where there is disagreement that I feel the need of an authority. It seems to me that the whole idea of seeking an interpretation of a text from some outside authority or authorities presupposes that no one
specific interpretation can be proved from the text itself. The question, “Where shall I find a true interpretation of a doubtful text?” is not answered by “Read the text,” nor is it answered by “Believe the texts which are not in doubt.” And yet, “We are committed to believing whatever can be proved from Scripture” seems to me just such an answer to just such a question.

If we adopt the principle that unanimity is the mark of the area of doctrine which must be believed, does not recent history as well as our own reason tell us that that area will shrink and shrink? It is true that the remaining area would always be where we would feel most confident; the question is how long it would be big enough to sustain life.

There is another point in this connection which perplexes me. You imply that you would reject an interpretation if it could not be traced back to within 1,000 years of Christ’s time. Yet, on the subject of what can be proved from Scripture, you say there is room for endless progress. I do not see how these two principles can be reconciled. Suppose we were to progress one step tomorrow—really progress. Would another generation be wise in rejecting the step because it could not be traced back to within 1,900 years of His time? If progress is both good and possible, then we cannot reject a group which claims to have progressed in interpretation, on that very ground. We must be able to convict them of a contradiction.

On the three subjects you mentioned, I am unable to see that any contradiction can be shown. On the principal disagreement with regard to the Blessed Virgin Mary, whether we may offer veneration and ask her intercession, I cannot fail to regard with deepest respect the woman who was the mother of Christ, who was hailed by the angel as full of grace, and who is described as blessed amongst women; and if we do believe in survival after death, and in the communion of saints, then it seems to me that, if it is reasonable for you to ask me, as you do, to mention you in my prayers, how much more reasonable that you should ask the same of the Blessed Virgin. As to the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, I agree that they cannot be naturally proved, but I do not see that they contradict themselves or anything else.

If Scripture permits one to believe in the Real Presence, and Cardinal Wiseman’s lectures on the Holy Eucharist convince me that it does, then I cannot see that there is anything in the doctrine of Transubstantiation that is incongruous, although, again, it cannot be naturally proved like a mathematical proposition.

As to papalism, and the attitude of St. Paul, the fact that St. Paul stood up to St. Peter can be advanced as an indication of their equality. But it seems to me that the fact that St. Paul makes so much of it, almost seems to boast of it, affords an equally strong indication on the other side. In the last analysis, this question, like so many others, reduces itself to the question of an infallible Church. If the Church cannot err, and teaches that the Pope
in some circumstances cannot err, then, in those circumstances, the Pope cannot err. It is here that I feel your example of Plato does not fit. Plato was not God and therefore one can say decisively that he would not have had the power to found an interpreting society which he would guide personally throughout all time. Christ did have such power, and we cannot be, without careful investigation, so decisive about the more debatable question of whether
He had the inclination.

St. Paul says that the Church is the pillar and ground of truth; he says that the Church is the Body of Christ, and how could the Body of Christ, as such, act in conflict with truth? Christ says “Whosoever heareth you heareth Me.” “As my Father hath sent Me, so also send I you.” “I am with you all days.” Who was He talking to? I cannot escape the conclusion that He said that after He left the world there would be someone on earth, until the end of time, who would have the right to speak authoritatively in His name; and that anyone who rejected this someone would thereby be rejecting Him and so the Father who had sent Him. It seems to me that we have it on His authority that this right is now vested somewhere. He wanted everyone to have access to the truth, and He cannot have expected that each individual would be a scholar or a theologian. Far from finding the claim to infallibility a stumblingblock in the Roman Catholic Church, it seems to me that any group which does not claim it cannot be the Church founded by Christ.

Am I wrong in thinking that the acknowledgment of an infallible authority is implicit in your letter? I’m sure you will accede to the proposition that we are committed to believing the truth. If you will, then your assertion that we are committed to believing whatever can be proved from Scripture is an assertion that whatever can be proved from Scripture is the truth, which is an assertion of the inerrancy of Scripture. From what kind of authority is it
possible to learn of the inerrancy of a written document? The witness of the author is obviously not valid, and so we cannot learn the inerrancy of Scripture from Scripture. It seems to me that the assertion by any authority short of an infallible one would be equally invalid. I could not assent to the following:

Scripture is inerrant.

I say so.

I may be wrong.

The true sequence seems to me to be as follows: I am satisfied that the New Testament is reliable historically; from reading that history I become convinced that Jesus Christ was God; I become convinced that He founded an infallible Church which should endure until the end of time; in the course of time this Church pronounces the inerrancy of Scripture; therefore, whatever can be proved from Scripture is truth. I cannot see any other way by which one can arrive at the conclusion, and it all requires an infallible authority.

Well, there is my exercise in expressing the considerations which your very kind letter brought to my mind. I hope there are not great gaps in the logic. My wife is English, and we hope to spend much time in England in the years to come; and we are agreed that, however deep a plot may be required, we shall contrive for ourselves the honor and the pleasure of meeting you.

Once more, my deepest thanks.

Sincerely,

H. Lyman Stebbins

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Lyman also wrote down some undated comments after he received C.S. Lewis’ letter. Most are incorporated in his response. But the following two are not: (1) “Plato left everything that he left in writing; Jesus Christ left nothing in writing”; and (2) “‘Unlike what ancient interpreters said.’Which?”

What was Lyman’s reaction to this correspondence? It was recorded on a cassette he made in 1987:

“I wrote to C.S. Lewis and got a fascinating and interesting reply. That letter of Lewis practically put me into the Church, because that man for whose intellect I had boundless admiration very carefully wrote a stupid letter, the stupidest thing he ever wrote. He summoned all that he could dream up to say as an argument against my becoming a Roman Catholic and there was no substance in any of it. My immediate response was that if this is the best this marvelous man can think of as an argument against it, then I’m all for it.

“So then when I was in London, I went to the Jesuit church at Farm Street on May 28, 1946, blessed day. I was received into the Catholic Church.”

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