A redated post.
C. S. Lewis is easily the most influential Christian apologist of the 20th Century. This is remarkable in view of the fact that he only wrote three books that can be correctly said to have been devoted to Christian apologetics: The Problem of Pain, Mere Christianity, and Miracles: A Preliminary Study. There are, of course, a number of essays with considerable apologetic content, and much of even his fiction has apologetic overtones, yet if we think of what his apologetic books were, it is just those three. And those three books are fairly short.
Nevertheless, for many people C. S. Lewis succeeded in the apologist’s task, the task of showing that Christianity is worthy to be believed by modern intelligent people. I would count myself as one of those people. As an 18-year-old Christian with a powerful need for a faith that made sense, Lewis was immensely helpful in providing that. After going through seminary and doctoral work in philosophy, I find that Christianity is still believable for approximately the reasons that Lewis said that it was reasonable. That is not to say that I find everything equally acceptable or cogent, or that I think that Lewis’s developed his arguments with sufficient precision to be defensible as they stand from a philosophical perspective. The word “approximately” is in that sentence for a reason. However, if I am right about what Lewis has accomplished, this is a considerable achievement.
I think there are several important elements to Lewis’s success as an apologist.
One contributing factor is the fact that Lewis’s authorship on a wide range of topics makes it possible for those who know him in virtue of his other writings to know him as an apologist. So, for example, in the Chronicles of Narnia we see Professor Kirke using an argument in favor of believing Lucy’s claim that she has been to Narnia that is similar to his famous “Mad, Bad or God” argument in Mere Christianity. In That Hideous Strength Lewis presents an account of what happens when people seriously take ethical subjectivism to heart, in The Abolition of Man we see these views defended by philosophical argument, and in Mere Christianity we find moral objectivity used as the grounds for theistic belief. Lewis brings the historical understanding of a literary scholar, the sharpened wit of a philosopher, the keen human understanding of a novelist, and the compassion of a writer of children’s books, to his apologetics.
One striking feature of Lewis’s writings is their persistent refusal to patronize the audience. He was firmly convinced that he could explain complex philosophical and theological concepts to a popular audience without talking over their heads, using the jargon of specialists, or by talking down to them, acting as if they would be unwilling or unable to understand the relevant concepts. In the opening chapter of Beyond Personality, the last of the books the comprised Mere Christianity, we find Lewis saying this:
Everyone has warned me not to tell you what I am going to tell you in this last book. They all say “the ordinary reader does not want Theology; give him plain practical religion.” I have rejected their advice. I do not think the ordinary reader is such a fool. Theology means “the science of God, and I would think that any man who wants to think about God at all would like to have the clearest and most accurate ideas about Him which are available. You are not children: why should you be treated like children? Even in dealing with children, Lewis steadfastly refuses to insult their intelligence. In another passage in Mere Christianity he says “Most children show plenty of ‘prudence’ about the things they are really interested in, and think them out sensibly.” I think this is one reason for Lewis’s success as a writer of children’s fiction; he refused to insult the intelligence even of the children for whom he wrote.
Lewis also had a tremendous ability to know what the layperson did understand, and did not understand. This resulted in part from his visits to the RAF and talking with the airmen. He knew how lay audiences thought and what their stumbling-blocks were. Lewis knew what sorts of language, so familiar in church, would be unrecognizable to lay audiences, and he avoided it.
Another reason for Lewis’s popularity as an apologist is that his apologetics are rational without being rationalistic. Lewis firmly believed that Christian faith is supported by reason, and was not shy about presenting arguments in favor of his Christian beliefs. At the same time Lewis never made the assumption that human beings were purely and simply rational, and that the emotions or the will were insignificant.
The Christianity Lewis defended was traditional, historic Christianity, deeply committed to a thoroughgoing supernaturalism. He did emphasize central Christian doctrines like the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Deity of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, heaven, hell, and the Second Coming. The Christianity he espoused had a miraculous element for which he did not apologize. However, with respect to other issues, the bulk of Lewis’s apologetic work was neutral with respect to questions dividing Christians. I am not claiming that Lewis was completely successful in sticking to “Mere Christianity” in his apologetics and did not sometimes espouse doctrines that are at issue amongst Christians. For example, Lewis’s treatment of the problem of evil presupposes the libertarian view of free will, and his conception of hell is at odds with Calvinist theology. But what I mean is this: that his apologetics can be readily accepted and employed by people who accept the infallibility of the pope, even though he did not. It can be accepted by people who accepted biblical inerrancy, even though he did not. In fact a good deal that Lewis says can be accepted by Calvinists, even though Lewis was not a Calvinist. Lewis is arguably the most successful ecumenist of the twentieth century, bringing together Catholics and Protestants, inerrantists and anti-inerrantists, and other groups of Christians otherwise divided.
Lewis also brought the perspective of a Christian convert to his apologetics. He was an atheist, and a rather hostile one, in his teens, and came to believe in God only at the age of 31. This means that he is able to look at Christianity from the point of view. Logically, for example, there seems no good reason to suppose that the size of the universe can be used as an argument for atheism, and yet, in many minds, it does serve as such an argument, and Lewis found it necessary to respond to it.
All of these things, I believe, have contribute to Lewis’s popular success as an apologist. However, all of these achievements, which are considerable, are quite compatible with Lewis’s having provided poor and inadequate reasons for accepting Christianity. Lewis's apologetics still must be put before the bar of rational argument, just like anyone else's.