Saturday, April 17, 2010

C. S. Lewis, Intellectual Honesty, and Christian Apologetics

 Ed Babinski wrote:

Oh, and here are some C. S. Lewis quotations too, since he is well known for copying the "reversal" statement from Chesterton and carrying on about how "atheists can't be too careful" when it comes to the "books they read."

But read these statements from Lewis himself . . .

"Even more disturbing as you say, is the ghastly record of Christian persecution. It had begun in Our Lord's time--'Ye know not what spirit ye are of' (John of all people!). I think we must fully face the fact that when Christianity does not make a man very much better, it makes him very much worse... Conversion may make of one who was, if no better, no worse than an animal, something like a devil."

--C. S. Lewis in a letter to Bede Griffiths, dated Dec. 20, 1961, not long before Lewis' death, The Letters of C. S. Lewis, ed., W. H. Lewis, (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1966), p. 301.

"I envy you not having to think any more about Christian apologetics. My correspondents force the subject on me again and again. It is very wearing, and not v. good for one's own faith. A Christian doctrine never seems less real to me than when I have just (even if successfully) been defending it. It is particularly tormenting when those who were converted by my books begin to relapse and raise new difficulties."

--C. S. Lewis to Mary Van Deusen, June 18, 1956 [1]

"One of the things Christians are disagreed about is the importance of their disagreements. When two Christians of different denominations start arguing, it is usually not long before one asks whether such-and-such a point 'really matters' and the other replies: 'Matter? Why, it's absolutely essential.'"

--C. S. Lewis, Preface to Mere Christianity

One of Lewis's most compelling traits was his intellectual honesty in facing difficult issues for Christianity.

I often notice the contrast between someone like Lewis, who wrote a few works of Christian apologetics upon request, and was the President of the Oxford Socratic Club because he thought it good to encourage open dialogue on these issues pertaining to the credibility of Christianity, and a professional apologist like Bill Craig. Lewis was a Medieval and Renaissance Literature scholar who had done a lot of philosophical thinking on his way to becoming a Christian, although that thinking was conditioned by the philosophical scene in Oxford in the early part of the century. His philosophical journey led him to Christianity, and he thought he should explain why he was a Christian.

Sometimes Lewis's writing resounds with a lot of intellectual confidence, and if you quote those passages alone (and more recent apologists love to quote them) you might be left with the idea that Lewis thinks the task of apologetics is a slam dunk you can pull off on your lunch hour. But at other times he comes across as someone who knows how to pose very tough questions to his own beliefs.
I talked about this some in the second chapter of CSLDI, in which I maintained that a fully developed perspective on Lewis's apologetics has to include both the Confident Apologist and the Christian Agnostic. Nobody seems to have picked up on that part of my discussion, something I find somewhat disappointing.

On a completely different matter, when you combine Lewis's exposition of the problems with Welfarism in "Is Progress Possible: Willing Slaves of the Welfare State" with his eventual acceptance of the single-payer British National Health Service, it makes his overall position stronger, not weaker. It is the same with Christianity. Lewis can see the apologetical difficulties he faces, he is honest about them, but he allows you to see how his faith and intellectual honesty can be combined. That makes his apologetics more compelling to me than the kind of apologetics (both theistic and anti-theistic) that attempts to relentlessly smash doubt at every turn, even when those apologetics are done by professional philosophers, and contain more a more polished response to philosophical issues of the day than we find in Lewis. I can always polish Lewis's philosophy. I can't impart intellectual honesty where it is missing.


Ken Pulliam said...


Thanks for this post. I found it very interesting. I have much more respect for Lewis than I do most evangelical apologists. To me, intellectual honesty is of the utmost importance. I am interested in trying to arrive at the truth, at least to the extent it is possible to do so.

I think many evangelicals also are dishonest in how they use Lewis. They don't reveal some of his less than "orthodox" views which would cause many evangelicals to squirm. They simply cherry pick quotes from him and pretend that he was an evangelical just like most American evangelicals.

Joshua Blanchard said...

It seems to me that Lewis had more of the spirit of the general academic, who is (ideally) interested in the pursuit of the truth. Lewis didn't have a programmatic strategic enterprise in the way that a William Craig or a Gary Habermas do.