At the time of this writing, the most comprehensive analysis of C. S. Lewis’s Christian apologetics from a philosophical perspective is John Beversluis’s C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion. Since this book came out 20 years ago, in many ways I find this to be rather unfortunate. Even my own book, C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea, is primarily concerned with one of Lewis’s arguments and does not attempt an overall evaluation of Lewis’s apologetics, though in the first chapter I do touch on a few other matters.
Published by William B. Eerdmans’ press, it was touted as the first truly critical study of Lewis’s philosophical theology. This statement implies that what people had written about Lewis until that time had been largely uncritical. In addition, I think there would be some justice in that understanding of the Lewis literature until that time. People who like C. S. Lewis and write about him have a tendency when writing to write for people who already like Lewis, and what they say often fails to imagine what someone who think Lewis just has things wrong must be thinking. I remember many conversations with my good friend and atheist philosopher Keith Parsons when I was a seminary student and he was a beginning philosophy graduate student. I would point to aspect of Lewis’s thought that he I thought he would find appealing, and he took my remarks seriously for awhile, only to find out a few days later that he had read some things in Lewis which seemed to him to be argumentatively very weak and guilty of superficial thinking. The Lewis I portrayed to him always sounded like a serious Christian thinker, the Lewis he read always sounded to him like someone who stood in need of a good intellectual pounding.
A good deal of the secondary C. S. Lewis literature is often very appealing to people who like what he has to say, but has little to say to people who inclined to be skeptical. I do not exactly fault secondary writers for exhibiting too much enthusiasm. What I fault them for is a failure to get inside the minds of people who really think that Lewis is wrongheaded and superficial. To read some Lewis fans, we should expect every unbeliever who reads Lewis to slap their heads and say, “I never thought of that. Gosh, I should be a Christian.” (And if they do not, of course they are wicked.) Further, secondary writers have a tendency not to advance the discussion any further than it was after Lewis wrote.
Anyone who wants to see how C. S. Lewis sounds to people who find his apologetics woefully inadequate should read C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion. I say this as someone who believes that Christianity is credible for approximately the reasons that C. S. Lewis said that it was credible. I disagree with just about everything in the book, and sometimes I cannot see how he can possibly make the statements he does about Lewis. But a thinker’s ideas are best developed in a dialectical atmosphere, in which proponents of a thinker’s thoughts face a loyal opposition, an opposition that finds his ideas interesting enough to discuss but thinks them mistaken. So far, the closest thing to the “loyal opposition” that Lewis has had (if you discount the one-issue criticism of Anscombe) has been John Beversluis.
We can expect book critical of a well-known apologist to follow one of two patterns. One pattern we might call the Debunking Job. The apologist is, on this view, simply an intellectual fraud; deserving of as complete a demolition as anyone can imagine. We see this is the kind of books some years written by defenders of the theory of evolution against scientific creationism. A similar tone seems to emerge in most books written by evolutionists in response to the Intelligent Design movement. The target deserves no respect, and the goal is not merely to criticize, but to discredit. The critic perceives the apologist’s project to be wrongheaded from start to finish, and it is the duty of the Debunker to expose the apologist as a complete failure whose reputation is undeserved.
Another type of book that a critic can write in response to Lewis would be what I would call the Constructive Criticism. This is what we find in Thomas V. Morris’s critique of Francis Schaeffer’s apologetics, written in 1976. For Morris, it is not that Schaeffer’s attempt to defend Christianity is simply misguided; the problem is that his overly simplistic arguments are thought to prove a good deal more than they really do. A more modest, more philosophically adequate, Christian apologetics is recommended in place of the overblown and simplistic apologetics advocated by Schaeffer.
Beversluis’s book was published, as I indicated earlier, by Wm. B. Eerdmans press, a Christian publishing house that had published some of Lewis’s writings, and had cove recommendations from Christian philosophers William Alston and Alan Donagan. For this reason, someone who picked it up might very well expect that it would be a treatment of Lewis similar to the treatment Morris gave Schaeffer. Most people who read the book thought of it as a Debunking Job. The arguments found in Lewis’s apologetics are portrayed as abject failures, and Beversluis does not offer the Christian apologist an alternative. Lewis’s arguments, on Beversluis’s account, frequently commit egregious fallacies which freshmen students are taught to avoid in introductory logic classes.
Further, at one point, Beversluis impugns Lewis’s intellectual honesty, suggesting that the unbeliever needs more desperately to accept the conclusions of his apologetic arguments than he needs to understand those arguments. What he seems to be implying is that Lewis is prepared to make his case appear stronger than it really is because people need to accept Christianity more than they need to honestly reflect on the legitimacy of his arguments. I don’t know what this can be except a charge of intellectual dishonesty.
However, if Beversluis or anyone else were to prove that C. S. Lewis was a petty hack, and a less than honest one at that, what would follow from it? Not much, I take it, about the believability of Christianity, except, of course, that many people who thought they had good grounds from Lewis to believe it actually lack those grounds. But surely Beversluis knows that there are Christian philosophers who are highly regarded even by non-believers, and the lesson from a debunking of C. S. Lewis would have to be that apologetics is something best left the pros like Alvin Plantinga, a product of Beversluis’s alma mater, Calvin College, or Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne.
Therefore, the argument that Lewis failed as a Christian apologist is one theme of the book, but it is not the primary theme. There is, for Beversluis, something fundamentally amiss with the very enterprise of Christian apologetics itself, and Lewis, as opposed to others, was perceptive enough to see the problem, even though he was unable to find an adequate solution to it. The problem is as old as Socrates’ Euthyphro. If, as Lewis had throughout his apologetic career insisted that it must, “good” must mean approximately the same thing when we apply it to God as what it means when we apply it to human beings, then the fact of suffering provides a clear empirical refutation of the existence of a being who is both omnipotent and perfectly good. If one the other hand, we are prepared to give up the idea that “Good” in reference to God means anything like what it means when we refer to humans as good, then the problem of evil can be sidestepped, but any hope of a rational defense of Christianity goes by the boards.
This perception comes in the throes of his experience of grieving for his wife, in his book A Grief Observed. It was a great surprise to me, but perhaps it should not have been, that when A. N. Wilson published a scurrilous, tendentious biography of Lewis essentially psychoanalyzing away Lewis’s Christian commitments, Beversluis, the one-time bad boy of Lewis studies, would have none of it. In fact, he dismisses as “pure fiction” the claim he mentioned favorably in his book; that Lewis abandoned the rational defense of Christianity after his encounter with Elizabeth Anscombe.
However, this is going to pose a dilemma for Beversluis. How could C. S. Lewis have been both a petty hack as an apologist, and a dishonest one at that, but also be the hero of A Grief Observed? The grieving hero of A Grief Observed is a man of great intellectual perceptiveness and intellectual honesty, even though he was not successful as a Christian apologist, and though, in the final analysis, he avoids facing the logical implications of his own position on God and suffering. If Beversluis just sticks to demolition, of course, he avoids this problem. If, on the other hand, Beversluis’s approach to Lewis is that of the loyal opposition, then Lewis has to come across as a plausible and interesting thinker who, nevertheless, got it wrong (here’s why).
Although I think he originally intended the book to reflect the view of the Loyal Opposition, its tone for much of the way is that of a Debunking Job. I believe that the complimentary images of Lewis that Beversluis intended to convey were lost on most of his readers, both supporters and critics. That is not surprising, given the book's overall tone. Given the tone of his criticisms throughout much of the book, it is hard to believe that this same C. S. Lewis could be hero of A Grief Observed, who wrestles mightily and unsuccessfully with the problem of human suffering.
This is unfortunate, for reasons explained in Thomas V. Morris’s review:
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 persistent tendency toward carelessness, inaccuracy, and oversimplification whenever 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 labeled 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.
One of the big problems I have with much of the book is that Beversluis finds bones to pick with what Lewis says, and then declares his argument hopeless. No attempt is made to see the insight behind what Lewis has written, no attempt to develop the argument and produce the strongest version of the argument possible before saying that it fails. If Beversluis had given a more adequate treatment of Lewis’s apologetics and then concluded that the arguments were unsuccessful, this would have made \his account of Lewis’s grief experience more believable. As it stands, I myself was inclined to consider Beversluis’s favorable comments about Lewis to be somewhat disingenuous, until I read his review of A. N Wilson.
Again, consider these comments by Morris:
My main philosophical criticism of this book is that Beversluis seldom comes anywhere near digging deep enough to really appreciate a line of thought suggested by Lewis. All too often he gives a facile, fairly superficial reconstruction of a line of argument, and after subjecting it to some critical questioning, declares it bankrupt and moves on. What is so disappointing to the reader who is trained in philosophy is that in most such instances a few minutes of reflective thought suffice to see that there are very interesting considerations to be marshalled in the direction Lewis was heading, considerations altogether neglected by [Beversluis].
It is a mistake to expect Lewis to have arguments sufficiently polished to pass muster in present-day philosophical journals. Lewis, of course, simplifies them for general consumption. The real question is whether they provide legitimate insights that can be developed into good philosophical arguments. If someone is tempted to think that Lewis can do all of our thinking for us, then it is worthwhile to be reminded that there are things the skeptic can say back. However, this is hardly sufficient to establish a verdict of philosophical failure against C. S. Lewis, but that is what Beversluis does.
Consider, for example, Beversluis’s treatment of the argument from reason. Beversluis’s discussion is marred by two red herrings. First, because Lewis uses the term “the validity of reasoning,” Beversluis gratuitously assumes that Lewis thinks that the only kind of reasoning is deductive. However, of course, the term “validity” can be used in a broader sense to mean legitimacy. If everything except what comes from a “valid” cause is irrational, then, as Beversluis points out, we will have nothing to reason about. When Lewis says naturalism is incompatible with the validity of reasoning, he means by the phrase “the validity of reasoning” the reliability of reasoning as a means to truth, and does not have the formal deductive concept in mind. This requires intentionality, mental causation, and all the other things that AFR defenders find mysterious from the point of view of naturalism.
Second, because Lewis says that all possible knowledge depends on the validity of reasoning, Beversluis presumes that the argument depends crucially on the claim that we infer even perceptual knowledge from sense data. If this is the case, then Lewis’s position depends on a philosophy of perception that is rejected by most philosophers and is a vulnerable point in his argument. However, Lewis does not say we draw inferences when we perceive physical objects, he says that we will have to be able to make some inferences if someone challenges our perceptual beliefs. Second, even if we grant that perceptual knowledge is non-inferential, the conclusion that there are no rational inferences is epistemically disastrous for the naturalist. This is because the naturalism depends for its credibility on the natural sciences (which in turn relies heavily on mathematics), and philosophical argumentation.
These are, of course, not the only criticisms Beversluis makes against Lewis’s argument from reason; he does use a version of Anscombe’s argument from different explanation types against Lewis’s revised argument. I would refer the interested reader to my published discussions of that. But my point here is not to respond to his critique of Lewis’s argument, but to show that he very often reads Lewis in a tendentious manner, and that he treats as decisive objections that could be overcome with fairly simple improvements. Of course, Beversluis could have treated Lewis in a fairer way and still found his apologetic arguments wanting, and this would have made for a stronger and more effective critique.