Monday, May 20, 2013

C.S. Lewis: Apostle to the Sceptics, Defender of the Faith

“The more I think about his work, the more I tend to see two C.S. Lewises, who often appear together in the same book and article. One is the Christian rationalist whose arguments are frequently valuable, and who has helped many fellow-Christians and many agnostics to overcome intellectual doubts, but who has to be read critically. The other is the humble Christian believer who subjected his own insights to the authority of the Scriptures, realizing that unless we become like children we cannot enter the Kingdom. But also in his rationalist guise Lewis confessed Christ as his Saviour, and throughout his life he struggled to fulfil the commandment to love God and the neighbour, and to promote the gospel by whatever means he had at his disposal.”
This quote is from an article I wrote fifteen years ago, in connection with the 100th anniversary of C.S. Lewis’s birth (Clarion, July 10, 1998). I still stand behind that evaluation and am using the quote as a kind of synopsis of the present article, which is written to remember the 50th anniversary of Lewis’s death. In a sense this article serves as an extension of the review I posted a few weeks ago of a recent Lewis biography by British theologian Alister McGrath. In that review I focused on some of the reasons for Lewis’s continuing popularity as a Christian writer and apologist but said little about his actual message. I will now attempt to fill that gap, at least as far as is possible in a brief essay. My focus will be on straightforward apologetic and religious works, rather than on worldview issues or on Lewis’s imaginative writings. I hope to turn to those topics on yet another occasion. Although the present essay is not intended as another review of McGrath’s bibliography, I will more than once mention it, but I will refer to Lewis’s own work as well.

The question of orthodoxy

Lewis has been lauded by many evangelicals and other Christians as a defender of “mere Christianity,” that is, of “the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.” This assessment is confirmed by most of his writings. There are exceptions, however. The most disturbing, in my view, is his attitude toward the Old Testament. While he appears to accept the infallibility of the New Testament and constantly defends it, his explanation of parts of the Old Testament is at times reminiscent of that of the so-called “higher critics.” Best known perhaps is his “symbolic” explanation of the fall into sin (in chapter V of The Problem of Pain, 1940) and of the creation account itself. He accepted a version of evolution, although he did not really like it. But he insisted that he had no religious problems with the theory; his real concern was that it contributed to the “chronological snobbery” of the modern age —namely the belief in constant evolutionary progress, so that the past is necessarily inferior to the present. Lewis’s critical attitude is also evident in his Reflections on the Psalms (1958). Particularly the first few chapters, which deal with judgment and cursing (imprecations) in the psalms, raise questions about his orthodoxy. Strangely enough, much of the rest of the book comes across as orthodox and is both instructive and edifying. Yet another issue that raises objections is Lewis’s belief in purgatory. (He does make clear that he rejects the medieval view and does not see purgatory as punishment for sin but only as a means of purification.)

In view of the above it may seem strange that most orthodox Christians continue to see Lewis as a reliable defender of the biblical faith. One reason for this attitude is that, unlike the theological “liberals” of his day, Lewis believed in the divine origin of the Bible message, including that of the Old Testament. Another reason, of course, was his valiant and unceasing battle against the opponents of the Christian gospel and the help he thereby gives to those who struggle with conflicts and doubts. His view of the New Testament is orthodox. Ever since his conversion he defended its historicity against biblical critics, and ever since his conversion he proclaimed it to be the gospel of salvation, which had to be believed in all its details. Lewis was a thorough-going supernaturalist. As a critical commentator writes (Richard B. Cunningham, in C.S. Lewis: Defender of the Faith), the gospel that Lewis taught was:
The old story of creation, redemption, and consummation; of incarnation, cross, resurrection, and ascension; of faith, hope, and love; of angels and heaven and devils and hell; of the urgency of decision and the eternal finality of temporal choice. Here [Lewis says] is the good news, the gift that is absolute demand, the answer to the problems of existence. Accept it and live; reject it and die! There is no third way!
There is yet another element, the one to which McGrath draws attention. Trying to explain Lewis’s continuing appeal to successive evangelical generations, he writes,
Lewis is seen to enrich and extend faith, without diluting it. In other words, evangelicals tend to see Lewis as a catalyst, who opens up a deeper vision of the Christian faith, engaging the mind, the feelings, and the imagination, without challenging fundamental distinctives…. While this involves a selective reading of Lewis, this does not seem to cause any fundamental concern. Lewis is grafted on to evangelical essentials, engaging weaknesses without compromising strengths.
Apparently, then, these evangelicals manage to ignore the unorthodox elements in Lewis’s teachings and to focus on the biblical ones. No doubt, many other Christians follow that approach as well. (Surprisingly, even most of Lewis’s atheistic critics do the same.) We will now look at some of the ways in which Lewis opened up “a deeper vision of the Christian faith.”

A Christian rationalist

Lewis has been called an “apostle to the sceptics,” and that description is to the point. He himself had been a religious doubter and his autobiography (Surprised by Joy, 1955) shows the extent to which his conversion was influenced by intellectual concerns. Having subscribed to various philosophies and worldviews in attempts to make sense of life and the world, he finally concluded that only Christianity can properly and fully explain the various aspects of human experience. Ever since his conversion in the early 1930s he made it his task to convince others of this truth.

He does so, for example, in the “Broadcast Talks” and Mere Christianity. What is interesting here, as McGrath points out, is that Lewis does not begin with Christian doctrine or with aspects of Christianity that people fail to understand or that cause them problems. Rather, he begins with human experience and moves from there to the question of the existence of God. In the first chapters of Mere Christianity, for example, he shows how the common human idea of right and wrong, and the common experience of guilt in the case of wrong-doing, can best be explained with reference to the existence of a higher power who is both lawgiver and judge. He gives similar explanations of other experiences, such as desire and longing, arguing that natural desires have a corresponding object, and that God is the ultimate object of the human search for happiness. As he writes in Mere 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.” It is reminiscent of Augustine’s remarks in his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds rest in you.” Christianity, then, explains why the world and humankind are the way they are. There is a “fit” between doctrine and life; if one accepts the Christian gospel as true then everything else “falls into place.”

Lewis uses that argument elsewhere, for example in his paper “Is Theology Poetry?” (1944). Here he specifically compares the worldview of scientific naturalism with Christianity, showing again that the latter alone accounts for what we observe and learn and experience. Christian theology, he argues, can account for science, art, morality and the sub-Christian religions. The naturalistic point of view cannot explain any of these things, not even the phenomenon of science itself. He concludes the paper with the well-known words, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.”

Another argument Lewis frequently uses against naturalists and other atheists (for example in Chapter 3 of his book Miracles, 1947) is that naturalists base their arguments on the power of human reason but that according to these same naturalists human reason is nothing but the chance product of mindless matter. How then can it be reliable? A similar question had already plagued Charles Darwin, who spoke of the “horrid doubt” that arose in him when considering “whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one,” he asked, “trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?” In Miracles, Lewis illustrates the problem by quoting the atheistic evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane, who wrote, “If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true…and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.” Lewis calls this “the cardinal difficulty of naturalism.”

Divine initiative

Lewis relished defending the faith with the help of rational arguments. To call him a Christian rationalist is not to suggest, however, that for him the defence of that faith, and belief itself, were simply matters of external evidence or speculation or logic. Nor did he believe that the initiative in conversion lay with the human being, or that it had been his own reasoning that had brought him to God. It was God who had called him to repentance. Lewis writes about this at large in his autobiography. A central theme in the story of his conversion to theism (which anticipated his return to Christianity by about a year) is that that conversion was not the result of his search for God, but of God’s relentless and compassionate search for him. He had been “compelled to enter.”

At the same time Lewis shows that an opposite explanation must also be rejected — namely that his turning to God was a matter of wish-fulfilment. That was how Sigmund Freud and other atheists explained the appeal of religion, portraying belief in God as the search for a father figure, and God himself, in McGrath’s words, as a “consoling dream for life’s losers, a spiritual crutch for the inadequate and needy.” It is true, Lewis came to see that God is the ultimate object of the human search for fulfilment, but that insight came after his conversion. For years the existence of a personal God had implied for him not the beginning of personal happiness but the end of his cherished independence, and he fought long and hard to continue “calling his soul his own.” When he finally submitted he was, he writes, very much a dejected and reluctant convert.

Knowledge by acquaintance

Lewis teaches that if conversion is a gift of grace, so is perseverance in the faith. This is the topic of his lecture “On Obstinacy in Belief” (1955). The central message is that Christian belief is not just a matter of rationality (although it is that too) but also, and especially, of relationship. He refers to Augustine’s distinction between credere Deum esse — to believe that God exists — and credere in Deum — to believe in (or to have faith in) God, that is, in the God who reveals himself. “Believing that God exists” can still be the topic of philosophy and speculative thought; “believing in God” speaks of a personal relationship. It is no longer a matter of argument, but of acquaintance.

Lewis begins this lecture by saying that critics of Christianity like to contrast the scientific attitude toward evidence with the Christian one. Whereas scientists proportion the strength of their conviction to the evidence, Christians, these critics claim, think it is meritorious to ignore the need for evidence; indeed, to persevere in their belief even in spite of contrary evidence. Scientific knowledge is therefore considered far more secure than the knowledge of faith.* In answering this charge, Lewis remarks that, contrary to the critics’ opinion, evidence plays an important role in a person’s initial conversion. Converts will refer to natural or philosophical evidence, or to the evidence of history, of religious experience, of authority, or to all of them combined. For authority, he adds, is a kind of evidence. “All of our historical beliefs, most of our geographical beliefs, many of our beliefs about matters that concern us in daily life, are accepted on the authority of other human beings, whether we are Christians, Atheists, Scientists, or Men-in-the-Street.”

But if for new converts external evidence does play an important role, the situation changes, Lewis says, for mature believers. Then the charge that Christians stick to their faith in the teeth of what appears to be contrary evidence is harder to contradict. But Lewis argues that this does not really count against Christianity. An attitude of perseverance in spite of contrary evidence may be objectionable in science, but is appropriate and even indispensable in Christianity. For Christians believe in a personal God whose knowledge of the needs of his creatures far surpasses their own. It therefore is to be expected that the way in which he directs their lives may well be different from what they themselves would desire. Moreover, God establishes a relationship with his people, makes himself known to them and asks them to trust him. Trust is essential in personal relationships and can only grow in situations where there is also room for doubt. It therefore will be tested. And so the Bible in various places reminds readers to expect and indeed give thanks for the trials and temptations they meet. Lewis concludes as follows:
Our opponents, then, have a perfect right to dispute with us about the grounds of our original assent. But they must not accuse us of sheer insanity if, after the assent has been given, our adherence to it is no longer proportional to every fluctuation of the apparent evidence. They cannot of course be expected to know on what our assurance feeds, and how it revives and is always rising from its ashes…. But they can see how the assent, of necessity, moves us from the logic of speculative thought into what might perhaps be called the logic of personal relations. What would, up till then, have been variations simply of opinion become variations of conduct by a person to a Person. Credere Deum esse turns into Credere in Deum. And Deum here is this God, the increasingly knowable Lord.

A man for all seasons

For orthodox Reformed believers, and for all who hold to the infallibility of Scripture, Lewis remains a bit of an enigma. He has been called an unorthodox defender of orthodoxy, and that describes him well. The biggest problem remains his critical attitude toward parts of the Old Testament. But as I hope to have made clear, he was not a “liberal” theologian in the common sense of the term. I do not believe, for example, that the ever denied that the Bible, including the Old Testament, proclaims God’s message to humanity, and he appears to have considered knowledge of the Old Testament as necessary for a proper understanding of the gospel. He did so, as he tells us in the Reflections on the Psalms, principally because Jesus himself accepted the Old Testament as revelation, teaching his followers (for example during the journey to Emmaus) that the Psalmists and prophets spoke of him. This clinched the issue for Lewis. It is true that he did not often quote from the Bible, not even from the New Testament. There is also little “proof-texting” in his work (but that, of course, is not necessarily a drawback). Yet he did know the gospel and attempted to live by the gospel message — by “the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.” And he was able to communicate that gospel, inspiring not only believers but also doubters and agnostics; not only lay people but also many an established theologian.

He did this, as we have seen, by showing that the gospel, and the gospel alone, makes sense of life and of the world; that it explains and satisfies our deepest desires; that it provides us with a much deeper vision of reality than we ever had before. He did it also by reminding us that the gospel is to be taken with great seriousness, that it is the gift that is at the same time “absolute demand.” To illustrate this aspect of his ministry I quote, by way of conclusion, from his sermon “The Weight of Glory”:
It may be possible for each of us to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…. (The sermon can be found in C.S. Lewis, They Asked for a Paper [London, 1962.] It was preached in Oxford; the date is not given.)

Here we have another noteworthy aspect of Lewis’s ministry. Christians often struggle with the question how we are to fulfil our task here on earth. Should our main concern be with the salvation of our souls and of the souls of our neighbours, far and near? Or is that an escapist attitude and are we to concentrate instead on cultural involvement, on “reclaiming the world for Christ”? In other words, should we as Christians focus on being “other-worldly” or “this-worldly”? This was the dilemma that American evangelicals faced in the 1940s and ’50s and that led to the rise of the “new evangelicalism.” Leaders of the movement, as McGrath told us, turned to Lewis for inspiration, not least because he could show them how to escape from a sectarian other-worldliness and to function as a “salt and a light” in the society and culture of their day. But there is always a danger, of course, of making distinctions where none should exist. Perhaps another explanation of Lewis’s continuing relevance (in addition to the ones already mentioned) is his message that the two positions should go hand in hand. This, too, is part of the tradition of “mere Christianity.” As we learn from the history of the early church, it was because believers constantly kept in mind their own and their neighbours’ eternal destiny that they cared for society, helping and comforting the poor, the ill, the dying. It was their belief in heaven that changed the world. In attempting to keep the two aspects in balance, Lewis speaks to questions raised as much by today’s generation as by previous ones. He remains relevant — “a man for all seasons.”

*Modern philosophers of science would place a question mark here. A few years after Lewis delivered this lecture, American philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn published his influential study The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), wherein he showed that scientists will stick to their paradigm despite the existence of anomalies, and that this tenacity is essential for the progress of science.

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