Bliss Is Not For Sale: Catastrophic Conversion and the Roots of Protestantism

This one comes to us from W.H. Auden, who included it as the entry on […]

David Zahl / 6.12.12

This one comes to us from W.H. Auden, who included it as the entry on Puritanism in “A Certain World: a commonplace book,” his collection of alphabetized wisdom. As beautiful a distillation of the Protestant ‘break-through’ as it may be, the words are actually not Wystan’s. It’s an excerpt from The Oxford History of English Literature, written by none other than Clive Staples Lewis.

“Theologically, Protestantism was either a recovery, or a development, or an exaggeration (it is not for the literary historian to say which) of Pauline theology… In the mind of a Tyndale or Luther, as in the mind of St. Paul himself, this theology was by no means an intellectual construction made in the interests of speculative thought. It springs directly out of a highly specialized religious experience; and all its affirmations, when separated from that context, become meaningless or else mean the opposite of what was intended… The experience is that of catastrophic conversion. The man who has passed through it feels like one who has waked from nightmare into ecstasy. Like an accepted lover, he feels that he has done nothing, and never could have done anything, to deserve such astonishing happiness. Never again can he ‘crow from the dunghill of desert.’ All the initiative has been on God’s side; all has been free, unbounded grace… His own puny and ridiculous efforts would be as helpless to retain the joy as they would have been to achieve it in the first place. Fortunately they need not. Bliss is not for sale, cannot be earned. ‘Works’ have no ‘merit’, though, of course faith, inevitably, even unconsciously, flows out into works of love at once. He is not saved because he does works of love: he does works of love because he is saved. It is faith alone that has saved him: faith bestowed by sheer gift. From this buoyant humility, this farewell to the self with all its good resolutions, anxiety, scruples and motive-scratchings, all the Protestant doctrines originally sprang…