A Bawdy Theological Joke from C.S. Lewis?

“I should like Balls infinitely better”–so opens C.S. Lewis’ oft overlooked little essay “Priestesses in the Church?[1] He is quoting Caroline Bingley in Pride and Prejudice, who complains that it would be much more rational for balls to involve conversation rather than dancing. Her brother’s eloquent reply: “Much more rational, I dare say… but it would not be near so much like a Ball.”

The excerpt provides an illustration for Lewis’ argument against female ordination: that it would make the Church more rational, but not near so much like a Church. The somewhat mysterious, frustratingly irrational, yet very real differences between the sexes, even when the sexes are apparently performing the same roles in the same way, still obtain, like it or not, and make the Church what it is. I wouldn’t quite dot the I’s and cross the T’s in the exact ways that Lewis does given that he holds a more Anglo-Catholic view of ministers as priests than I do, but his essay succeeds superbly where most contemporary complementarian theology so drastically fails: it bases itself in the givens of created reality, rather than in a few proof-texts. To quote a summative section:

One of the ends for which sex was created was to symbolize to us the hidden things of God. One of the functions of human marriage is to express the nature of the union between Christ and the Church. We have no authority to take the living and semitive figures which God has painted on the canvas of our nature and shift them about as if they were mere geometrical figures.

This is what common sense will call “mystical”. Exactly. The Church claims to be the bearer of a revelation. If that claim is false then we want not to make priestesses but to abolish priests. If it is true, then we should expect to find in the Church an element which unbelievers will call irrational and which believers will call supra-rational. There ought to be something in it opaque to our reason though not contrary to it – as the facts of sex and sense on the natural level are opaque. And that is the real issue. The Church of England can remain a church only if she retains this opaque element. If we abandon that, if we retain only what can be justified by standards of prudence and convenience at the bar of enlightened common sense, then we exchange revelation for that old wraith Natural Religion.

Lewis then admits that, of course, men often fail to adequately take the place meant for them by nature. But he refutes the idea that the answer to this is for women to take on the role instead:

We men may often make very bad priests. That is because we are insufficiently masculine. It is no cure to call in those who are not masculine at all. A given man may make a very bad husband; you cannot mend matters by trying to reverse the roles. He may make a bad male partner in a dance. The cure for that is that men should more diligently attend dancing classes; not that the ballroom should henceforward ignore distinctions of sex and treat all dancers as neuter. That would, of course, be eminently sensible, civilized, and enlightened, but, once more, “not near so much like a Ball”.

Lewis’ line of argument becomes clear: female ordination seeks a reversal of role which is ultimately as impossible as a woman becoming a man.

This, then, should draw our attention again to Caroline Bingley’s words at the start of the essay: “I should like Balls infinitely better.” Lewis’ argument in this essay is basically “I’m sure she would.”

Whatever you make of Lewis’ argument, you’ve got to admit: that’s a fantastic double entendre. Do I have absolute proof this is what Lewis intended? No. But Lewis was a master wordsmith who knew more than a thing or two about philology. What’s more, he was steeped in classic philosophy, especially Plato (“It’s all in Plato, all in Plato” says Digory Kirke at the end of The Last Battle, remember). Plato likewise knew more than a thing or two about wordplay.

Parallel to Lewis’ career was that of Leo Strauss, the German-American political philosopher. Strauss famously advocated for a more “esoteric” approach to famous philosophical texts, encouraging people to find hidden and double meanings in the writings of Plato and others by paying careful attention–even to such things as the opening and closing words of a dialogue. I don’t know if Lewis knew Strauss’ work at all, and it wasn’t until 1952, four years after “Priestesses in the Church?”, that Strauss published his best known work on this topic, Persecution and the Art of Writing. But, even if they’re not Straussians, attentive readers to the Platonic corpus such as Lewis must surely have known that the opening or closing words of great texts can carry subtle meanings. Why would he not take advantage of this technique himself? Even though Lewis was writing at a time when female ordination enjoyed no popular support, anyone familiar with his approach to the sexes in That Hideous Strength (which preceded this essay) can tell you that Lewis was aware that his views on men and women chafed against the rising tide of cultural egalitarianism. It is not inconceivable, then, that he might hide a more cutting version of his argument in plain sight to avoid some controversy–something Strauss says is central to esoteric writing. And it can hardly be argued that Lewis was no esotericist–Michael Ward showed us otherwise in Planet Narnia.

I’m fairly confident, then, that this bawdy little theological and anthropological riposte is entirely intentional. On such a reading, Lewis’ argument against female ordination can be boiled down to that sly opening quote: the desire for female ordination amounts to the desire for women to have balls. An absurd idea in 1948, of course. What fool would ever think a woman could become a man?

  1. This essay can be found in print in the anthology God in the Dock.


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