Friday, October 02, 2009

Beversluis's critique of C. S. Lewis: Some Background

The beginning of a review of Beversluis's new book that I am writing. 

Before reviewing the the new edition of this book, some historical background is in order. John Beversluis's C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion came out in early 1985. It was published by a Christian publishing house, Eerdmans, which had also published several works by Lewis. It was advertised as iconoclastic and critical, and it certainly was. But it also was recommended on its cover by two Christian philosophers of the first rank: William Alston and Alan Donagan.

In spite of its publishing house and the recommendation of Christians, Beversluis's book was an ambitious and far-reaching critique of Lewis's apologetics. A Christian philosopher, Thomas Morris, had written a critique of Francis Schaeffer while at the same time suggesting more modest and philosophically adequate alternatives to what he took to be Schaeffer's oversimplifications. Beversluis's project, while aimed at the "C. S. Lewis cult" of persons who write "worshipful tributes" to Lewis,  was no pruning operation. It was an attempt to cut down Lewis's apologetic tree root and branch. All of Lewis's apologetical arguments were deemed palpable failures, guilty of the twin fallacies of the straw man and the false dilemma. Further, Lewis's apologetics were filled with "irresponsible writing" and thinking that was "considerably worse than fuzzy." The impact of Lewis's exchange with Elizabeth Anscombe in 1948 led him to back away from apologetics. When his wife died, his reflections on the suffering this caused led him to abandon his "Platonistic" defense of God's goodness, found in The Problem of Pain, in favor of an implicitly Ockhamistic understanding in which God is good no matter what he does. But this understanding, Beversluis notes, renders the claim "God is good" empty of content. This apologetical problem is not Lewis's alone, Beversluis claimed. It is shared by anyone engaged in the "search for rational religion." The upshot of a close study of Lewis's apologetics not only shows that Lewis failed to successfully defend Christianity, it also shows that the problem of evil essentially dooms any attempt to make theistic religion rational. Either "good" has a recognizable definition congruous to the way we use "good" in ordinary human contexts, in which case God turns out not to satisfy the definition because of the suffering he permits, or it has no recognizable meaning and is essentially vacuous. The thrust of Beversluis's argument, therefore, is a defense of atheism, (or at least a defense of atheism given certain assumptions that Lewis accepted) although some commentators speculated taht he might be a fidiestic theist rather than a religious skeptic.

To say that this book provided a major shock to Lewis admirers would be a gross understatement. Many condemned it as not just inadequate, but also underhanded and dishonest. The use of Lewis's words as a grieving husband to undermine his prior apologetics was found offensive and "despicable", and even his praise of Lewis was considered "patronizing."

While some of Beversluis's rhetoric opened him to criticism of this sort, a 1991 review essay of A. N. Wilson's atrocious biography of Lewis showed that, contrary to popular opinion amongst Lewis fans, Beversluis was not a merely hostile critic. Not only was Beversluis critical of the ungrounded psychoanalyzing that filled the Wilson volume, he also backed away from a Lewis-basher's favorite bedtime story, the Anscombe Legend. Beversluis pointed out that he didn't abandon Christian apologetics after the Anscombe incident, and if he had, the Argument from Abandoned Subjects would prove nothing. "He wrote no more works on courtly love or Paradise Lost either."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I look forward to this! I have Beversluis book on the shelf and your review might be a good starting point to read it.