Real Maturity, C.S. Lewis, and Imagination

Many people see, either tacitly or explicitly, maturity as the smothering of childhood. But what if it is not the systematic burying of childlikeness so that we can dutifully (and often morosely) handle the cares of adulthood? What if maturity handles the responsibilities of life with all the care and gravity they deserve but not at the expense of childlikeness?

Healthy maturity is that which knows when and how to be childlike. A child might interrupt her parents to blurt out a seemingly random question about fruit flies or bodily functions or Barbie dolls or why the iPad won’t work because she’s too immature to recognize the discourtesy. A mature adult might have the same question but knows when and how to ask it so as not to disrespect or disrupt others.

Children love fairy tales, adventure stories, mystic lands, and heroic characters that launch their imagination and turn a backyard into Middle Earth, a swing set into Hogwarts, a rocking chair into a TIE fighter, and a bunk bed into a Captain Hook’s ship. Every stick is a wand or weapon and every towel a cape. Children embody their heroes in their play and live out the lives of legends. Mature adults love the same stories, are moved by the same heroes, and lose themselves in the same far-away places but without the towel-capes and slat board swords. (I’ll leave you, dear reader, to interpret what this might mean for ComicCon and Cosplay fans.) Many of us call these stories “guilty” pleasures. We indulge them privately and feel a bit sheepish about it.

What if they aren’t “guilty” but rather just pleasures? What if the places our imaginations take us are actually right where we ought to be, healthy and rich places for our minds and souls?

C.S. Lewis was one of the most brilliant Christian thinkers and writers of the 20th century. He knew multiple ancient languages, was an expert in classic literature and mythology, and an Oxford professor. He wrote magisterially on the nature of God and the relationship between God and man and was a devastating Christian apologist. His work is just shy of the biblical canon for many believers to this day. In short, C.S. Lewis was a mature adult, intellectually superior to most, and fruitful to the extreme. He is to be emulated and looked up to in many ways. Lewis had this to say regarding maturity and becoming and adult:

“When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

“The modern view seems to me to involve a false conception of growth. They accuse us of arrested development because we have not lost a taste we had in childhood. But surely arrested development consists not in refusing to lose old things but in failing to add new things? . . . Where I formerly had one pleasure, I now have two.”

“It is usual to speak in a playfully apologetic tone about one’s adult enjoyment of what are called ‘children’s books.’ I think the convention a silly one. No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty – except, of course, books of information. The only imaginative works we ought to grow out of are those which it would have been better not to have read at all.”

Well now. That paints things in a different light altogether. One of the greatest, most brilliant, most productive Christians in recent history says that we are to somehow, some way, carry childlikeness into adulthood with us! That, friends, is maturity at its best. Any other form is soulless and dull.

 Imagination and Information

We draw the line between imagination and information. We grow out of the former to invest in the latter. We decide that the former has value for life while the latter is mere escapism from life. This, Lewis would argue, is where we go wrong. He would say that the collection of information, the pursuit of knowledge, is not enough without the fostering and feeding of imagination as well.

Imagination guides and shapes our use of information. If we know all the facts and truths we are just a static hard drive, a library. Libraries are full of information, stacked high and deep. But what can a library do with all the knowledge it holds? Not a thing. It is a static repository, and that is what we are without imagination. What do we do with information? Where does it apply? How can we do the most good with it? Who knows? The person with imagination, who values the virtues of great heroes and can envision and form a better story, knows. That person is curious.

Curiosity and imagination are conjoined twins. With one comes the other. Imagination continually asks “what if” then envisions the possible answers and lets the mind run with possibilities. Curiosity asks just about anything, and then explores the answers and presses to figure it out and see what else there is. It pokes and prods. Curiosity gives flesh to imagination. If information is dead on its own, these are the life force that animates it and moves it to action.


91K0v4UqB-LThis is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Curious Christian: How Discovering Wonder Enriches Every Part of Life that is due to be released in early 2017.