“Idealism can be talked, and even felt; it cannot be lived.”
~CS Lewis, Surprised by Joy, p. 226

I  consider myself to be an idealist, and so I wonder if this quote is true.

Here are some helpful definitions of an idealist:

  • A person who cherishes or pursues high or noble principles, purposes, goals, etc.
  • A visionary or impractical person.
  • A person who represents things as they might or should be, rather than as they are.
  • A writer or artist who treats subjects imaginatively.
  • A person who accepts the doctrines of philosophical idealism, as by representing things in an ideal form, or as they might or should be, rather than as they are.

If we are to believe Lewis, and the definitions above, then maybe in real life it is not possible to pursue high or noble principles, purposes, goals, etc. At least not for very long. And it seems we are to believe that idealists are impractical, and imaginative. We might even go so far as to say that they live in a fantasy world. If so, maybe that is why they do well writing novels and creating art.

From the Christian worldview, we might call some idealists, prophets. These are people who advocate for heaven on earth. A person who has an aching sense that all these wrongs should be righted. And yet, idealism itself is subjective as well. That is, what is perfect to one, may not be perfect to another. For example, if my idea of ideal is that every Christian child should receive a free Christian education, what about my Christian neighbor who says that Christian children should be in secular schools so as to be salt and a light? Since there is not much uniformity about what God’s Kingdom on earth really looks like, we are left to hope for the best.

I speculate that idealists must be emotional people; and those who are in touch with, and expressing of emotions. And they must have strong instincts or intuitions which are fueled by emotional passions.

Because I am an idealist and a Christian, I do not know how to be a Christian without being an idealist. I wonder if it is even possible. I mean, it must be, since I assume not all Christians are idealists. And yet, many idealists do eventually seek out religion, in some form, as it fits well with idealistic tendencies.

So, let me slightly modify Lewis’ quote: Idealistic Christianity can be talked, and even felt; it cannot be lived.

Let’s take for example, money. Jesus told at least one person to give away all their money and possessions. An idealistic Christian today might hear that and decide that they need to do likewise. And yet, how practical and reasonable is that? I once had a discussion about this and my conversational partner said: “If you give away your car, how will you get to work? You will find out within minutes of doing that, that you will need to procure another car before tomorrow morning. Or try to take the bus.”

Ah, yes. The practical reality. And while many things Jesus taught are possible, there are also many that are probably impractical—at least in our world. For example, “You must be perfect, just as God is perfect. Do not judge anyone. Cut off your foot or hand if it causes you to sin. In faith you can command a mountain to be thrown into the sea.”

So, what’s left if idealistic Christianity can’t really, practically, be lived? Well, I would contend that there are three other types of Christianity: rational Christianity, responsible/service Christianity and adventurous Christianity. Honestly, if we toss out idealism, I am not sure if the others can be lived either. Perhaps all of Christianity is not really livable. At least in the eyes of the world.


Perchance we should ask what Mr. Lewis meant when he said it could not be lived. Not practically? Not successfully? Not in a satisfying manner? Not without regret? Maybe CS Lewis was both a rational man and an idealistic man. And if so, possibly he determined that rationalism carried the day in his life. But that does not necessarily mean the same is true for every other human. For example, it could be that a true idealist will often not live long, but may be true to oneself. I think of Joan of Arc, John Baptist and even Jesus.

And so maybe we are not to worry about whether something “is livable” or if “it works.” We can still live, and then die when death comes our way.

Mr. Mencken said something like, the idealist is the one who determines that rose soup would be tastier than cabbage soup, on account of one smelling better than the other.

And therefore, what could we make of that notion? Only that idealists may make mistakes; they may go hungry and they might frequently be proven wrong. But would it be better for them to cease be idealists, in order to be spared such potential miseries? Or can they still have happy lives, being true to self, and sometimes overseeing failed experiments (as in the case of the rose soup)? I both think and feel that it is better to be genuine than not. But then again, maybe I only value being genuine because I am an idealist.

I know that I talk idealism, and that I feel it. And I suppose, despite Mr. Lewis’ warning, I will go on trying to live it. Because I don’t really have an alternative. I mean, I am not much of a servant; I am only mildly adventurous; and I struggle to be consistently rational.

That said, maybe one day I will learn that he was right. Sigh. But if so, at least I could say that I tried.


© 2019, Alignment Life

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