Monday, March 21, 2016


We need friends in order to know anything--even ourselves.   ~CS Lewis

For the last few months—in preparation for a class that I’ve been teaching—I’ve been in the company of two good friends: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Although I am an admirer of both of these writers, the friendship I am referring to is between them. The story of how these two bookish Oxford professors produced some of the best-selling titles of the twentieth century (“The Narnian Chronicles” and “The Lord of the Rings,” among others) is a fascinating account of intellect, faith, and loss; but it is most interestingly a story of friendship. Tolkien and Lewis contributed to each other’s work not by writing together—each was far too much an individual genius—but by listening, supporting, goading, and even criticizing. In Lewis’ phrase, they “acted as midwives” in the process of bringing one another’s books to completion. They were friends.

Lewis and Tolkien, both combat veterans of World War I, met as new faculty members at an Oxford garden party in 1921, and remained friends until Lewis’ death in 1963. Of course a friendship of four decades is not going to be one long garden party, and their association had its share of tensions, jealousies, and disappointments. But through it all, they considered each other to be brothers in the faith, and they gratefully acknowledged what their friendship had contributed to making each the writer—and the person—he had come to be.

It’s impossible to determine what Lewis’s Narnia would have been like without Tolkien’s influence, and whether Tolkien would have quit dithering with the Silmarillion and gotten on with finishing The Lord of The Rings without Lewis’s prodding. Yet it’s no exaggeration to say that the literary works that flowed from their pens was, at least to some degree, a product of their friendship as well as their individual talent.

This is not an exercise in sentimentalizing friendship—as though Tolkien and Lewis had pledged that they were BFFs—but I see their relationship as a laboratory example of a profound element of reality: What the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead calls the “nexus.” In Whitehead’s “process” approach to philosophy the fundamental basis of everything—in the microcosm and the macrocosm, the atom and the galaxy, the material and the relational—is not the individual entity (to use a favorite Whitehead term), but the evolving relationship between entities.  Essence, then, is not located in “being,” but “becoming.” And the ever-emerging realities-of-the moment are connected not by a static link, but at an ever-changing point between what has been and what will be: the nexus. (Just try to pin that nexus down!) In fact, an “entity” itself becomes what it is at any given moment only as a stage in a continual process of change. This all sounds very deep, but it is easily illustrated by the difference between King Midas’ living daughter and a golden statue, between a person and a corpse. “Life is change,” the old adage truly says. When the “becoming” stops, so does the “being.”

This is readily seen in the slow-motion video of a caterpillar-becoming-a-butterfly, or the fascinating spring growth of a tree. But, although it is not so “material,” the constant-becoming of a relationship is no less real: Here is C.S. Lewis, and here is J.R.R. Tolkien, and here—at the nexus—is the friendship.  If the friendship were an aspect only of one or the other of them, it would not be a friendship. It is a life-force that flows between them, no less real than the corporeal being each of them is. Of course the joy of this—and the potential sorrow—is that, like all nexuses, it is not only always changing. It is “change” itself.

Beyond Lewis and Tolkien and the nexus-geyser out of which sprang their delightful books, I have been thinking about other historical friendships which have become historical precisely because their accomplishments are, in fact, products not of one or the other of them, but of whatever that life-force is between them. Let’s call it their nexus: Lewis and Clark, the Wright brothers, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. (I know it is a subtle difference, but I am not speaking of two people who get together to work on a project--rather of something that comes about because of a living connection.) C.S. Lewis describes the genesis of friendship as that moment when one says to the other, “What? You, too? I thought I was the only one…,” and the two new friends open together the doors of their isolation; the doors open onto a new place.

One of the deepest locations of finding reality at the place-of-coming-together is marriage. Studies in marriage therapy show that members of relatively healthy couples use the word “we” a lot; an emphasis on “I” when describing what one wants in a relationship is a red flag. One well-respected marriage counselor notes that—when they argue—members of happy marriages are concerned about the marriage (and their partner) and not just “winning the fight.” As one of my teachers liked to put it, “I may win the argument, but I may lose you!” Marriages (and friendships) die when “we” becomes “I” and the nexus is severed as viscerally as Solomon’s proposed dissecting of that baby; or when one or the other tries to freeze in place that life-force that must, in order to live, continue to grow and change.

Love is both formed and sustained at the nexus. In a marriage, each one pours himself, herself, into this living space, and pours him or herself out for the sake of the other. Rather than being consumed in the process, each is constantly renewed as the nexus is constantly reborn. The result is not a cut-out valentine heart pinned to the wall, but: “home,” “family,” “daily life,” “forgiveness”—a place of safety and welcome not just for these two, but for “all who enter here.” In a wedding sermon, written from prison to a young couple, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Up till now, it is your love that has made the marriage; from now on it is the marriage that will sustain your love.” The nexus.

At the request of a few friends, I will write a more complete account of the relationship and work of Lewis, Tolkien, and "the Inklings" in a future post.

Although "infinity" or "eternity" is beyond our ability to grasp, some approaches to cosmology posit that the universe itself may be infinite, and always changing--always "becoming." Whitehead suggests that "god" is eternally changeless and eternally open to change. I explored these mysteries in this meditation.
Alfred North Whitehead
JRR Tolkien

C.S. Lewis