Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Adam Gopnik on C. S. Lewis

Anyone who thinks that Wilson has written a good biography of Lewis should read John Beversluis's "Surprised by Freud." Beversluis is anything but a Lewis partisan; he wrote a full-length critique of Lewis's apologetics in 1985. But he has no use for the kind of psycholoanalyzing Wilson indulges in. Unfortunately, it's not online. Or you can read Gilbert Meilaender's critique of Wilson,

or this by Kay Lindskoog.

And what do we make of a comment like "Lewis never stops to ask very hard why this faith rather than some other," and again "He is never troubled by the funny coincidence that thsi one staggering cosmic truth happens to be the established religioin of his own tribe, supported by every institution of the state, and reinforced by the university he works in, what Gladstone called the "God-fearing and God-supporting university of Oxford."

Really. Isn't that where Richard Dawkins hangs out these days? And wasn't he refused a full-professor position at Oxford because of his open espousal of Christianity? And he wrote at some length about why this faith and no other, and it was "Mere Christianity," not some sectarian doctrine, that he spent his life defending.

Again we get the "C. S. Lewis cult" gambit. Lewis has a "cult following," therefore anything his supporters say about him must be bunk; we have the more realistic portrait here." I don't deny the existence of misguided devotion to Lewis; what I deny is the implied Bulverization of anyone who rejects some negative characterization in particular.


Anonymous said...

Man oh man, considering your overblown reaction to this article, I'm beginning to think Gopnik really did hit the nail on the head. The "logic" which led you to pull Dawkins into this is kinda mind-numbing, not to mention, slightly anachronistic.
By the bye, despite all the writings Lewis did on christianity, I don't think you'll find much if any evidence to see him dealing seriously with the excellent point Gopnick makes about the nice coincidence of finding that the cosmic truth is located in his own country's official religion.
On the whole, I think Gopnick's article is quite evenhanded, nay even slightly more sympathetic than not, toward Lewis. And he does a very good job of giving a glimpse into Lewis' scholarly work. Books like The Allegory of Love and The Discarded Image are the true gold nuggets of the Lewis canon.

Jason Pratt said...

I don't have my copy of _Surprised by Joy_ or the letters collection handy, but I recall the 'mere parochialism' (so to speak) of Christianity being a major factor in Lewis' unbelief during his teens and as a young man. (An attitude reinforced, if I recall correctly, by his tutor, Prof. Kirkpatrick.)

Similarly, I recall much of the debate between him and Tolkien (with support from Hugo Dyson) focusing on getting Lewis past the 'mere parochialism' problem. And again, I recall his appreciation of the value of Chesterton's work (in _The Everlasting Man_) being of much the same type.

As it happens, I _do_ have Lewis' first "religious" book at hand: _The Pilgrim's Regress_, his (hastily written) highly allegorical autobiography of his early life and spiritual journey (if I may use a badly cliched phrase), written recently after his conversion. And the 'mere parochialism' aspect is _definitely_ represented there as being a major factor in his unbelief.

(Randomly opening a page in early chapters, I find an immediate quote from George Bernard Shaw as part of Lewis' topical intro conceit to 'Book Three--Through Darkest Zeitgeistheim'; "The more ignorant men are, the more convinced are they that their little parish and their little chapel is an apex to which civilization and philosophy has painfully struggled up." I'm willing to bet a Coke I can find another ten references to such a problem for Lewis in this book alone. {g})

Considering the _extreme_ antipathy Lewis delivered for many years against "his own country's official religion", my own first guess (if I was effectively ignorant of his written material) would be that he _didn't _consider an eventual acceptance of its truth to be a "nice coincidence" (much less a "funny" one). And, as it happens, that's what I do find when I actually take time to check the material, too.

And yes, I agree that his scholarly works are truly overlooked gold. {g} (I would love to go back and re-read his contributory volume to the OHEL sometime. Sigh... four years reading backlog and climbing...)

Victor Reppert said...

Well, Dawkins obviously was not there at the same time as Lewis, but plenty of religiously hostile people were, including everyone who did Oxford philosophy. If Gopnik can appeal to Gladstone, who came from a previous century, I can appeal to Dawkins, who came a generation later.

I think I'm missing an argument here:

1. Christianity is the official religion of Britain.
2. Therefore, probably, Christianity is false.

Could you maybe supply the missing premises?

I'm not saying the article was as bad as it could have been or as bad as some others, but it has a lot of nonsense in it. It also assumes the ridiculous modern idea that sex is necessary for happiness. It's certainly one thing that makes people happy, but it is surely not the only thing, and it begs the question against Lewis's own belief that the real source of all human happiness is God.

I am glad that he is appreciative of Lewis's scholarly works (as was Wilson), but I also believe that Christianity is credible for approximately the reasons Lewis said it was. Gopnik does not, but he offering no good reason for thining as he does.