'I know exactly what this man is going to do,' he murmurs. 'He is going to start explaining all these mythological statements away. It is the invariable practice of these Christians. On any matter whereon science has not yet spoken and on which they cannot be checked, they will tell you some preposterous fairytale. And then, the moment science makes a new advacne and shows (as it invariably does) their statement to be untrue, they suddenly turn round and explain that they didn't mean what they said, that they were using a poetic metaphor or constructing an allegory, and that all they really intended was some harmless moral platitude. Were are sick of this theological thimble-rigging'. Now I have a great deal of sympathy with that sickness and I freely admit that 'modernist' Christianity has constantly played just the game of which the impatient sceptic accuses it.
Lewis takes the most unusual tack not of defending the Bible's more outlandish episodes or dismissing them as mere metaphor, but making a virtue of their being metaphors. For figurative language is not simply a poet's indulgence but crucial to everyday speech:
But very often when we are talking about something which is not perceptible by the five senses we use words which, in one of their meanings, refer to things or actions that are. When a man says that he grasps an argument he is using a verb (grasp) which literally means to take something in the hands, but he is certainly not thinking that his mind has hands or than an argument can be seized like a gun.... [A]ll speech about suspersensibles is, and must be, metaphorical in the highest degree.
A characteristically sharp observation, albeit one that mistakes the tree for the forest. Figurative speech plays a strong role (see?) in our speech and writing, but always to augment meaning, never to replace. The terminology is always well-defined, and the imagery is not taken literally: no one thinks the wave of democratic protests spreading across the Middle East is the same kind of wave that just hit Japan (well, almost nobody). And yet, Jesus Christ is regularly taken to be the son of an old man in the sky. More than that, a considerable chunk of the United States's population believes, for instance, that God created man as is, no evolution involved.
Lewis rightly dismisses such crude thinking, but argues that the wild stories and images are necessary because God is so far beyond our comprehension that only metaphor will suffice, and to this end enlists a number of them in his cause. In a particularly clever metaphor-within-a-metaphor (a meta-phor?), humanity are like erudite limpets in an aquarium who, having glimpsed their owner/God outside the tank, can only describe him in relation to his not being a limpet.
This is all interesting as far as it goes, but it's still an evasion of what God is actually supposed to be, if he exists (a mighty if Lewis takes entirely for granted). Again, we know democracy--self-governance by a given population--"exists," but as an idea, as a concept. What is God, then? What is Jesus and the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection supposed to be? Lewis will have nothing of the abstraction of God that I considered when reading The Screwtape Letters. Definite God must be, yet this is the closest we get to a definition:
....[I]n addition to the physical or psycho-physical universe known to the sciences, there exists an uncreated and unconditioned reality which causes the universe to be; that this reality has a positive structure or constitution which is usefully, though doubtless not completely, described in the doctrine of the Trinity; and that this reality, at a definite point in time, entered the universe we know by becoming one of its own creatures and there produced effects on the historical level which the normal workings of the natural universe do not produce; and that this has brought about a change in our relations to the unconditioned reality.
This is still maddeningly vague: an "uncreated and conditioned reality" with "a positive structure or constitution." Small wonder that metaphor and the erudite limpets are so useful to Lewis's purposes, for they are quite lively, lovely images. But they are not convincing to one not already persuaded of God's existence. I think this is probably true of any argument on such matters; that many theories and ideologies are post hoc justifications for ideas we have already come to. But to someone who doesn't already believe in God, a sentence like "Even our sexuality should be regarded as the transposition into a minor key of that creative joy which in Him is unceasing and irresistable" is just so much pretty verbiage.
Again I stress how much I appreciate the originality of Lewis's argument. Rather than the emperor having no clothes, as happens when Biblical literalism crashes up against scientific progress, after Lewis, one is left looking at clothes in search of an emperor.