C.S. Lewis’ Ingenious Apologetic of Longing
by Daniel Motley
For C.S. Lewis, the acclaimed Christian apologist and author, a permanent sense of longing characterized his deepest held beliefs about Christianity. He identified this feeling with the idea of sehnsucht, a German word meaning “longing” or “desire.” Sehnsucht appeared in many of Lewis’ favorite works of literature, including Norse mythology, the poems of Wordsworth, and the children’s stories of George Macdonald. It was “that unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.”
Another way of putting it? Sehnsucht is a feeling of nostalgia that faces towards the future. It appeared repeatedly in Lewis’ writing—in his fiction, scholarship, and apologetical works. In one of the most beloved passages in Mere Christianity, Lewis uses the concept as an argument for Christianity: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” The desires that spring up in us—those for love, safety, security, belonging—are never truly satisfied here in this life. Rather, they are pointers to another place, somewhere inaccessible to us now. Like the “forward-facing nostalgia” of sehnsucht, this feeling points us toward the heavenly home for which we were created.
In The Weight of Glory, Lewis argued that we’ve all experienced this longing—and are embarrassed by it. Sehnsucht is “the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name.”
But what is the source of these longings?…