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Symbol or Substance? - Introduction


A dialogue on the Eucharist with C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Billy Graham. 

kreeftsymbolorsubstanceThe following conversation is fictional.  It never happened, at least not in this world.

However, it very well could have.  The idea of such a three-part conversation is not too far-fetched because two other conversations, which were the germs of my fictional one, actually did happen in this world.

(1)  According to some sources, Lewis had a conversation with two people from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association sent by Graham to Lewis to "feel him out" — an interview that sounds a little like the conversation between Jesus and the two messengers John the Baptist sent to Him when he was in prison (see Lk 7:19).

According to other sources, the visit was not from the Graham team but from Bob Jones, Jr., of Bob Jones University.  I have assumed the first source rather than the second in this book, to make the conversation more intelligent, polite, and open-minded.

(2)  Lewis also had very many conversations with his closest Roman Catholic friend, J.R.R. Tolkien; and at first some of these conversations were about their only serious difference of opinion, which was about Catholicism.  Lewis had converted to Christianity with Tolkien's help, and Tolkien pressed him to take the next step, from Anglicanism to Catholicism.

Lewis was a man who loved controversy and argument as a bear loves honey; but he very uncharacteristically asked Tolkien to"cease and desist" from that one conversation topic for the sake of their continuing friendship, according to Christopher Derrick and Joseph Pearce, both of whom wrote books on why Lewis never "poped".  Both report Lewis as saying to Tolkien something like: "You could not possibly understand where I am coming from; you were not born in Belfast."

So the literary genre of this book is neither simply fiction nor simply nonfiction.  It is what C. S. Lewis called a "supposal" when pointing out that his Narnia books were neither allegories nor simple fantasies but imaginative answers to the question of what forms he supposes the Son of God might have taken and what actions He might have performed if He had become not only a man on earth but also a lion in another world (Narnia), a world of talking animals.  Aslan is not an allegory for Jesus; Aslan is Jesus; that's what Lewis said to children who wrote to him that they were worried that they loved Aslan more than they loved Jesus.

Just as Aslan in Narnia is based on the historical figure of Jesus in this world, so my characters in this book (Lewis, Tolkien, and Billy Graham) are based on those three historical figures in this world.  The difference between my "supposal" in this book and Lewis' in the Narnia books (besides the obvious one that the Chronicles of Narnia is a masterpiece) is that Lewis set his fiction in a world that was also fictional — he had the imagination to invent a whole fictional world — while I set mine in the real world, in Tolkien's home in Oxford....

So in this book I picked three of the most famous, loved, and respected representatives of each of the three main Christian theological traditions or churches in the English-speaking world: the most famous modern Protestant evangelist (Billy Graham), the most famous modern Anglican Christian writer (C. S. Lewis), and the most famous and popular modern Roman Catholic writer (Tolkien), whose The Lord of the Rings was picked by three reader polls as "the greatest book of the twentieth century" and by another one as "the greatest book of the millennium".  Tolkien was not a religious apologist, preacher, or theologian, but he called The Lord of the Rings "a fundamentally Catholic and religious work".

I had the conversation move into many important issues, as conversations naturally do, including some of the classic differences between Protestants and Catholics (faith and works, Bible and Church, tradition, authority, the pope).  I had these three conversationalists, however, concentrate on the Eucharist, especially the Real Presence of Christ in it, because broadening the conversation further to try to do even a little justice to those other big issues would have required a book six times longer — and also because the Eucharist was the most passionate issue in the great divide of the Reformation, both between Catholics and Protestants and even among different Protestants.  And naturally so, since the issue was nothing less than whether Roman Catholics and "high Anglicans" or "Anglo-Catholics" were committing idolatry in bowing to bread and worshipping wine, adoring a symbol that they mistook for the God it symbolized; or whether Protestants were rejecting God's greatest gift, the most perfect, most intimate, most powerful, and most complete union with their Lord that was possible in this life, and reducing the substance, the "real thing", to a mere symbol and/or a subjective experience.  Anglicans took a via media position on this, as on most issues, objecting to Rome's authority and insistence on Transubstantiation but affirming the Real Presence....

A second reason why I focused on the Eucharist is that for me as a Roman Catholic the Eucharist is what it cannot be for a Protestant, viz., the source, summit, sum, and substance of my Christian life.

A second reason why I focused on the Eucharist is that for me as a Roman Catholic the Eucharist is what it cannot be for a Protestant, viz., the source, summit, sum, and substance of my Christian life.  But I also profoundly admire the faith, sanctity, sincerity, and personal passion of Billy Graham and also the mind of C. S. Lewis, who is clearly, in my opinion, the most brilliant and effective Christian writer of the last century.

Dearly would I love to have been a "fly on the wall" hearing a conversation among these three.  But the only way I can hear it is to invent it first.  I write the books that I wish someone else would write, but they don't, so I have to.  If I'm to read them, I have to write them first.  The same holds true for conversations.

I invite readers to be fellow flies on the wall listening to these three great Christians discuss one great mystery.  (Of course, we would have to be invisible flies; if the three of them ever saw all of us on their wall, they would fly — out of the house and out of the conversation.)

Of all the words in this book, the chapter titles are the least important and the most misleading.  I divided the conversation into short chapters merely as a convenience for readers' reference.  You do not find such divisions in real conversations between friends, only in formal debates or medieval "scholastic disputations".  Real conversations move like rivers, not like dominoes.  I tried to depict the conversation as it would actually have happened, with all its twists and turns and tangents and repetitions.



kreeft Kreeft, Peter.  "Introduction." from  Symbol or Substance? (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius press, 2018) 7-11.

Reprinted with permission of Ignatius press.

The Author

kreeft1kreeftPeter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College.  He is the author of many books (over forty and counting) including: Ask Peter Kreeft: The 100 Most Interesting Questions He's Ever Been AskedAncient PhilosophersMedieval PhilosophersModern PhilosophersContemporary Philosophers, Forty Reasons I Am a Catholic, Doors in the Walls of the World: Signs of Transcendence in the Human Story, Forty Reasons I Am a CatholicYou Can Understand the Bible, Fundamentals of the Faith, The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims, Prayer: The Great Conversation: Straight Answers to Tough Questions About Prayer,  Love Is Stronger Than Death, Philosophy 101 by Socrates: An Introduction to Philosophy Via Plato's Apology, A Pocket Guide to the Meaning of Life, Prayer for Beginnersand Before I Go: Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters. Peter Kreeft in on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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