The Effectiveness of Analogy

In explaining the way Christians see good, Lewis offers a vivid analogy: “… the Christian thinks any good he does comes from the Christ-life within him. He does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us; just as the roof of a greenhouse does not attract the sun because it is bright, but becomes bright because the sun shines on it.”

Such analogies appear throughout Mere Christianity. Why are they so effective in making complex ideas accessible? In what ways does this particular analogy reinforce and clarify the statement that precedes it?

This question goes right to the heart, not just of Lewis’s own method as a writer, but to the heart of the gospel itself!

Let me explain. Analogies make complex or abstract ideas concrete and accessible by embodying their truth in a particular image. But the particular image has to be fit to receive and adequately embody that particular truth. It’s a gift, an act of intuitive imagination, to find the right image for the right truth, and when we do find it, we often find it so rich that it has more to give than we first imagined, it embodies more than we first thought of. Take this very analogy from Mere Christianity. It immediately makes the point clear that it is God’s goodness pouring onto us that allows us sometimes to shine with his reflected light, not that we shine with goodness in order to attract him.

It tells us so much more. The image of the sun, endlessly giving light and warmth and generative power, tells us so much about God’s goodness, and the image of both the glass and the greenhouse are just as rich, with their suggestion that we both reflect and absorb God’s goodness and that in doing so we make possible the growth of those gospel seeds he has sown within us. All that is implicit in the image Lewis has chosen, and is working deep within us as we read it even though in this place he only makes one of those meanings explicit.

Why is imaginative analogy so rich and why is Lewis so confident in using it? Firstly this way of explaining things is deeply rooted in Scripture and is the very method that Jesus himself uses in his teaching. Jesus himself used both elements of the analogy Lewis uses; the image of light and, implicitly, the growth of the seed.

There is something deeper still. If Jesus uses concrete images and pictures to embody His meaning, perhaps it is because He is Himself, embodied meaning! He is the Word made flesh! At the heart of the Gospel is the glorious truth that God did not stay remote, inaccessible, up in heaven, beyond all human thought and imagining, but he so loved the world that he came to be in it, not as an abstract concept but as a living person; the Word was made flesh so that we could ‘behold his glory’. In the incarnation God became concrete and accessible and so made it clear that we can grasp his truth in and through the images of the world he made.

Of course we must pass through and beyond these images to their maker, but the images of the world God himself has made can still be our guide. And if you think about it, it’s a remarkable fact that always and everywhere around us as we look out into nature we find that what we see; the rising and setting of the sun, the coming of spring after winter, the tree putting forth its leaf, the butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, all these images are not only scientific phenomena ‘out there’, but also a kind of poetry, infinitely suggestive of something going on ‘in here’. Now if, as atheists and materialists maintain, the universe is a cold indifferent process unwinding by blind laws to a final entropy and the human mind is just a brief accident thrown up by the process, then we would not expect to find any such correspondence or analogy.

The mere process of nature wouldn’t teach us anything or help us to think. But if, as Lewis believed, the whole Cosmos is made in and through the Logos, the mind and meaning of God, and our minds too are made in the image of that ‘Logos’, then of course we should expect to find constant analogies between the outer truths expressed in God’s creation and the inner truths taught by his Word. And when that Word became human like us, we should expect him to teach by analogy, to show us the true meaning of the light that shines in darkness and the seed that yields a hundred fold after it has been buried in the ground.

It’s not just that thinking with analogies helps us to understand the things of God, the very fact that we can think with analogies at all is part of the evidence that there is a God!

Lewis’s analogies work so well because they are found in and drawn from the mind of God expressed for all time in Jesus Christ.

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Find more from Malcolm Guite at http://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/blog/.

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