C S Lewis as apologist…

Posted by on Nov 5, 2016 in Blog | 1 comment

You are probably aware of the work of C S Lewis. His Narnia series transformed more than a few childhoods, and while exploring Narnia’s imaginary fortunes, Lewis provides a narrative that interprets the main contours of the Christian faith in a way that is both accessible and meaningful. It is a remarkable feat.

While Narnia forms its own kind of apologetic for the Christian faith, Lewis was also a systematic defender of Christianity. I’ve recently completed teaching a unit in apologetics at Vose Seminary (where I serve as principal), and here are some of the notes from our study of Lewis…

CS Lewis, whilst best remembered as the author of the Narnia series, distinguished himself in many fields… as academic, medievalist and literary critic; as poet and novelist; as Christian apologist and lay theologian; as radio broadcaster; as atheist turned Christian; as long time bachelor who married American divorcee Joy Davidman late in life – the romance being the subject of the slightly inaccurate[1] but very popular movie, Shadowlands. His death in Oxford of renal failure was on the day of John Kennedy’s assassination (22 November, 1963).

Whilst Lewis’ own work is notable, he was also instrumental in JRR Tolkiens life, and their friendship and Lewis’s interaction and critique of early versions of Tolkien’s Lord of Rings greatly impacted its final version. Jointly they were the key leaders of the Oxford Inklings.

Initially a philosophy tutor at University College, Oxford in 1924, from 1925-1954 he was Fellow and Tutor of English Literature at Magdalen College, Oxford. In spite of his fame (and perhaps because of it – the political backbiting at Oxford often saw Lewis viewed with jealousy and hostility) he had three failed attempts to become a Professor at Oxford, eventually being persuaded to take up the founding chair of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he finished his career.

Our focus is on Lewis as Apologist.

Lewis as Apologist

Lewis was born in Belfast, Ireland on 20 November 1898. His parents were Protestant Christians who worshipped in the Church of Ireland (Anglican). His mother, Flora, was the daughter of a Church of Ireland priest, and had a deep faith. She died when he was 9, and this changed his life dramatically. He said that as an atheist he was angry at the God who didn’t exist. God’s failure to answer his boyhood prayers to save his mother saw him face square on the problem of pain. By the time he was fifteen he declared himself an atheist. His conversion was in two stages – first to Theism then to Christianity. His book Surprised by Joy recounts his journey.

Lewis’s apologetic ministry began in 1940 with the publication of The Problem of Pain and is often considered to end in 1948 after his defeat at the Socratic Club in Oxford by Elizabeth Anscombe who criticised aspects of the logic in his book Miracles. However, this is probably an overstatement, and whist Lewis’s focus shifted after this encounter, he refined his argument in Miracles in a later edition which came out in 1960. In addition, though Anscombe had criticised one aspect of Miracles, she was actually sympathetic to the basic drift of the argument, and simply felt it needed refining. McGrath argues that Lewis’s golden era as an apologist dates from 1940-1955 – the latter being the year he moved from Oxford to a chair at Cambridge.[2] Apologetics was something he did at Oxford – at Cambridge he seemed content to explore an assumed faith rather than a challenged faith, and so he writes for a more obviously Christian audience, with books such as Reflections on the Psalms (1958) and The Four Loves (1960).

Helpfully McGrath suggests three apologetic gateways used by Lewis:

  • Reason: Here a logical and argumentative approach is used. So in Miracles and Mere Christianity Lewis argues that Christianity makes more sense of reality than secular alternatives.
  • Longing: Our desire and longing for something of ultimate significance is perpetually dashed in this world. Whence then the desire? Is it not a hint at the transcendent? Earthly longings are a mirage – hinting at a true homeland elsewhere. You might well have read the oft cited insight from Mere Christianity: ‘If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.’
  • Imagination:[3] As only a fraction of human experience can be captured using precise and literal language, to convey the depth of religious experience we need an appeal to the imagination (which is not to say the imaginary – but actually the opposite – the images which help us to understand reality). Lewis at his best helps us to think we are listening to an argument, whilst we are actually being presented with a vision.

One of Lewis’s main apologetic ideas, developed in the first five chapters of Mere Christianity, is that there is a common morality known throughout humanity. People all over the world know that there is a natural law and they sense when they break it. In the Narnia series this universal morality is portrayed as the ‘deep magic’ which everyone knows. In Mere Christianity he writes:

These then are the two points that I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.

Though he moved away from Apologetics as such, and focused on his role as a novelist, it is important not to separate the two too definitely. The Chronicles of Narnia (the seven novels in the series were written between 1949-1954), for example, are their own apologetic. Lewis felt the strongest argument for the Christian faith was that it made sense of the world – it was a meta narrative that had genuine explanatory power. Though Narnia is filled with animals and an imaginary world, it is a world that makes sense, and in its own way is the telling of the Christian story – a demonstration that it works not just in the world as we see it, but in worlds as we imagine them. The apologetic force of this should not be missed. In his essay ‘Bluspels and Flalansferes’ Lewis writes ‘All our truth, or all but a few fragments, is won by metaphor.’ Later he writes, ‘Imagination… is not the cause of truth, but its condition.’ By this Lewis means that we don’t grasp the meaning of a word or concept until we have a clear image to connect it with.

For Lewis, this was more than theoretical. His conversion to Christianity resulted after a night time conversation with J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, when they discussed Christianity, metaphor, and myth. Until then Lewis had held back from Christianity (he had abandoned his atheism and become a Theist) not so much because he had difficulty in believing but because he struggled to see what the doctrines meant. After discussion with Tolkien and Dyson, he saw that more adequate than the language of doctrine was the language of the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection. Lewis believed these images speak of meaning beyond ones grasp, even when we can’t say precisely in words ‘what it means’.

Lewis’s breakthrough came when he started to think of Christianity as a true myth. Lewis meant myth in the technical sense, not as a falsehood, but as a story about ultimate things. So the Christ story, sensed through the images of incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection, are a myth (because they speak of ultimate meaning) that is true – tied up in a particular time and place (the life of Jesus around 33AD). Thus, argued Lewis, while pagan myths were meaningful, they were not true. But Christianity was ‘myth become fact’ as Lewis called it.

Michael Ward argues that the apologetic significance of Lewis’ conversion is to remind us that in a post Christian world our task ‘is not so much to prove that Christianity is true as to show that it has meaning. Unless people see that Christian terminology actually makes sense and is not a foreign language, they are unlikely to care whether it is also true.’[4] Meaning is found not in abstract propositions, but in story. He spoke of the great disadvantages that the Christian apologist labours under, because you cannot turn the life of faith into an argument. It would be like Mozart trying to prove he was musical not by getting us to listen to one of his symphony’s, but by a discussion on music

This is not to suggest that Lewis placed no stock on rational argument. To the contrary, the clarity of his logic made him famous. But it is a reminder that for Lewis, the rational and the imaginative belong together. As such, the Narnia series are no less apologetic works than Mere Christianity; The Problem of Pain and Miracles.

References

McGrath, Alister E. The Intellectual World of C.S.Lewis. Chicester: John Wiley and Sons, 2014.

Ward, Michael. “How Lewis Lit the Way to Better Apologetics.” Christianity Today 57, no. 9 (2013): 36.

Endnotes

[1] For example, Davidman had two sons, not one as in the movie. Lewis is depicted as a shy, retreating academic, who had been cloistered away from life. In fact, Lewis’ booming voice and jovial manner was often commented on, and far from living a sheltered life, Lewis had fought in the trenches during World War 1, and returned to what most believe was an improbable affair with the mother of a friend (Paddy Moore) killed during the war, Mrs Jane Moore, who most assumed was his mother (she was 26 years older than Lewis). Whilst the nature of the relationship remains a matter of debate, Lewis lived with Mrs Moore until shortly before her death of dementia in 1951.  Their home The Kilns, was jointly owned by Mrs Moore, Lewis and Lewis’ brother, Warnie.

[2] Alister E. McGrath, The Intellectual World of C.S.Lewis (Chicester: John Wiley and Sons, 2014), 130.

[3] Ibid., 133.

[4] Michael Ward, “How Lewis Lit the Way to Better Apologetics,” Christianity Today 57, no. 9 (2013).

Well, there is lots more that could be said about Lewis, but perhaps this is enough to spur you to dig deeper into his work.

As always, nice chatting…

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