Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Beversluis on C. S. Lewis

One issue that arose in relation to the discussion of John Ku's story is the critique of C. S. Lewis which impressed him. The book came out at the time when I began my doctoral studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana, and was the subject of numerous discussion amongst myself, fellow graduate student Tim Erdel, and Dr. Hugh Chandler, the eventual chair of my dissertation committee. The following is material for an essay I intend to publish in a volume I am co-editing with Steve Lovell on Lewis and philosophy, so comments are more than welcome.

My early reaction to the book was a very critical one, and I would still have to say (no surprise here) that I differ with the substance of the book at nearly every point. However, the book really does contribute to our understanding of C. S. Lewis and does advance the discussion. This is, to be honest, a good deal more than I can say for a number of more friendly books.

What the book succeeds in doing is providing the reader with a perspective on C. S. Lewis from the point of view of the unpersuaded reader. When I look at a great deal of the literature on Lewis, it isn;t so much that I think the literature too adulatory, but that I find that perspective of the critic is not given consideration. What that means is that people writing about Lewis very often do not succeed in making Lewis plausible to anyone who is not persauded already.

Criticism of a thinker you oppose can come in a couple of different forms. You may criticize someone because you think them an intellectual fraud whose has received an undeserved reputation in some quarters. You are attacking your target not because you think them a respectable opponent, but because you think them unworthy of respect. Or you can criticize a thinker because you think that, while their efforts are worthwhile, then nevertheless get it wrong in the final analysis, and you want to show why. The tone of the first type of critique is bound to differ profoundly from the tone of the second. In short, you can criticize someone as a Respected Intellectual Opponent or as an Intellectual Fraud.

In Beversluis we find a considerable ambivalence as to how to treat Lewis's works. In some passages he shows admiration for Lewis's intellectual gifts and achievements., suggesting that he intends his critique to be of the second variety. In other passages we find what seems to be Lewis-bashing. Richard Purtill, in an early review of the work, wrote:

"There is a notable lack of the principle of charity in the logician's sense, as well as of charity in the theological sense, despite much rather patronizing praise of Lewis." On this interpretation, anything Beversluis says about Lewis is patronizing, concealing his profound contempt for him. A recent book, S.T. Joshi's God's Defenders: What they Believe and Why They Are Wrong. 1clearly takes the contemptuous approach in his critique of Lewis while quite consciously building on Beversluis's work. And certainly the text of the book gives considerable ammuntion for this kind of a reading. As Thomas Morris writes:

It is Beversluis's aim to put his readers into a position where they can see Lewis's failures. In representative passages, he characterizes Lewis's 'irresponsible writing' as exhibiting a presistent tendency toward carelessness, inaccuracy, and oversimplfication wheneveer he discusses opposing views," and blasts Lewis's own positive positions as "confused," wrongheaded," shipwrecked," "disgraced," "considerably worse than fuzzy," "tendentious" and "desperate". Colorful passages in Lewis are labelled as "bellicose outbursts," and we find that Lewis doesn't just state his positions, he "gives vent to them. " The overall tone should be evident.

Reading Beversluis in this way, I was inclined to be a hostile critic of Beversluis. I believed that Beversluis was operating by the W. C. Fields-ish motto "never give a popular apologist an even break." I thought, and stiill think, that Lewis's arguments can by and large be defended against Beversluis's criticism. However, I also think that Beversluis's own views on Lewis are somewhat more complex, and probably less consistent, than I had been reading from his book. One would have thought that A. N. Wilson's hostile Freudian biography on Lewis would be right up Beversluis's alley, but in a review article for Christianity and Literature in 1992 entitled "Surprised by Freud", Beversluis takes Wilson to task for his attempt to psychoanalyze Lewis away. In the review essay he criticized Wilson for failing to treat the enormously influential apologist to who Beversluis actually ascribes the word "greatness" with adequate seriousness, and failing to consider how Lewis would respond to this kind of Freudian attack. In the review of Wilson he completely abandons any appeal to what I have referreed to in my book as the Anscombe Legend, the idea that Lewis gave up apologetics after being "defeated" by Anscombe at the Oxford Socratic Club. As he writes:

JB: First, the Anscombe debate was by no means Lewis's first exposure to aprofessional philosopher: he lived among them all his adult life, read theGreats, and even taught philosophy. Second, it is simply untrue that the post-Anscombe Lewis abandonedChristian apologetics. In 1960 he published a second edition of Miraclesin which he revised the argument of his third chapter and thereby repliedto Anscombe. Third, most printed discussions of the debate, mine included (65-73), failto mention that Anscombe herself complimented Lewis's revised version onthe grounds that it is deeper and far more serious than the originalversion (see Anscombe ix-x). Finally the myth that Lewis abandoned Christian apologetics overlooksseveral important post-Anscombe articles, among them "Is Theism Important?"(1952) -- a discussion of Christianity and theism which touches on philosophical proofs for God's existence and their relevance to the religious life -- and "On Obstinacy of Belief" (1955) in which he defendsthe rationality of believing in God in the face of apparently contraryevidence (the issue in philosophical theology during the late 1950s andearly 1960s). It is rhetorically effective to announce that thepost-Anscombe Lewis wrote no further books on Christian apologetics, but itis pure fiction. Even if it were true, what would this Argument fromAbandoned Subjects prove? He wrote no further books on Paradise Lost orcourtly love either.

In short, I think Beversluis intended for his book to be a critique of a Respected Intellectual Opponent, not an attack on what he took to be an Intellectual Fraud. And a critique of Lewis from the point of view of someone who takes him as a Respected Intellectual Opponent would be well worth reading. But I don't think the book succeeds as this type of critique, because if his criticisms of Lewis are correct, then not only was Lewis in error, he erred in ways that are not intellectually respectable.

Let's put it this way. Suppose I am playing a chess game with someone who is ranked above me, like Monokroussos or Rowley. And I see a quick and easy way to win the exchange (Rook for bishop or knight, almost always an advantage). Now maybe Dennis or Bob is just dropping the exchange. But, if I have more than a minute or so on my clock, I had better take a close look. It might be a trap. I might not have such hesitation if I were playing a beginner. Having studied Lewis for as long as I have, I can safely assert that when Lewis is wrong, he is rarely simply wrong. There is a good deal to be considered on his side before the view he espouses can be dismissed. In my susbsequent discussion of Beversluis's book, I wish to show how even if you think Lewis wrong, you have to take the measure of what he says before you can say that it is wrong. As a critic attempting to respond to a Respected Intellectual Opponent, Beversluis's book does not succeed because if Lewis is really guity as charged by Beversluis, he cannot be merely a Resepcted Intellectual Opponent who got it wrong, but an Intellectual Fraud who, in spite of a good reputation in some quarters, really can't think his way out of a paper bag.

Now he does not at any point in the review

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