In Praise of C.S. Lewis

John Piper, author of Experiencing God, has an excellent resource available on-line entitled Don't Waste Your Life which seeks to remind Christians that there are many things that we can do during this life to occupy our lives, but most of these are ultimately wastes of our time. He encourages us, one and all, to not waste our lives, but rather to live in the way that God created us to live.

In the first chapter of his book, I came across a short passage on the importance of C.S. Lewis in Piper's life. I thought it was quite possibly the best tribute I had ever seen to Lewis, so I wanted to set it forth here.

Someone introduced me to Lewis my freshman year with the book, Mere Christianity. For the next five or six years I was almost never without a Lewis book near at hand. I think that without his influence I would not have lived my life with as much joy or usefulness as I have. There are reasons for this.

He has made me wary of chronological snobbery. That is, he showed me that newness is no virtue and oldness is no vice. Truth and beauty and goodness are not determined by when they exist. Nothing is inferior for being old, and nothing is valuable for being modern. This has freed me from the tyranny of novelty and opened for me the wisdom of the ages. To this day I get most of my soul-food from centuries ago. I thank God for Lewis’s compelling demonstration of the obvious.

He demonstrated for me and convinced me that rigorous, precise, penetrating logic is not opposed to deep, soul-stirring feeling and vivid, lively—even playful—imagination. He was a "romantic rationalist." He combined things that almost everybody today assumes are mutually exclusive: rationalism and poetry, cool logic and warm feeling, disciplined prose and free imagination. In shattering these old stereotypes, he freed me to think hard and to write poetry, to argue for the resurrection and compose hymns to Christ, to smash an argument and hug a friend, to demand a definition and use a metaphor.

Lewis gave me an intense sense of the "realness" of things. The preciousness of this is hard to communicate. To wake up in the morning and be aware of the firmness of the mattress, the warmth of the sun’s rays, the sound of the clock ticking, the sheer being of things (“quiddity” as he calls it). He helped me become alive to life. He helped me see what is there in the world—things that, if we didn’t have, we would pay a million dollars to have, but having them, ignore. He made me more alive to beauty. He put my soul on notice that there are daily wonders that will waken worship if I open my eyes. He shook my dozing soul and threw the cold water of reality in my face, so that life and God and heaven and hell broke into my world with glory and horror.

He exposed the sophisticated intellectual opposition to objective being and objective value for the naked folly that it was. The philosophical king of my generation had no clothes on, and the writer of children’s books from Oxford had the courage to say so.

You can’t go on "seeing through" things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to "see through" first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To "see through" all things is the same as not to see.

Oh, how much more could be said about the world as C. S. Lewis saw it and the way he spoke.

Yes, how much more. For me, it wasn't so much Mere Christianity as it was God in the Dock. The same themes that Piper extols for Lewis are apparent in God in the Dock -- a treasury of thoughts from a man who was able to bring together myth and intellectual achievement in a way that had not been done before and with a style that has not been matched since.

As we approach Thanksgiving, I find that I am thankful to God that He gave us C.S. Lewis for a time since Lewis was instrumental in many people's turning to Christianity and remains one of the most potent voices for orthodox and understandable Christianity today.


Jason Pratt said…
Thanks, Bill.

As it happens, tomorrow (or Thursday, I forget whether it was the 21st or 22nd) is the anniversary of his death. He died on the same day in 1963 as JFK was assassinated; which understandably overshadowed things. {s}

I still regard _Miracles: A Preliminary Study_ to be, pound for pound, the best philosophical apologetic of the 20th century. Like Tolkien's work in LotR (for fantasy epics), it can be critiqued, and properly so in some cases; but (also like LotR) it sets a bar worth gauging by: people vault it, or they don't.

(Incidentally, Beversluis recently released a revised edition of his critique of Lewis' apologetics. I'll be looking forward to Victor Reppert's comments on this, over at DangIdea.)

Anonymous said…
The fact that CS Lewis is so loved shows how laughable Christian apologetics really are. His books contain ridiculous arguments that any real thinker will eat for breakfast (such as the trilemma and vague musing about how some "moral law" proves god's existence, even though the god of the bible is thoroughly evil).
Anonymous said…

I disagree with you. If all you have read from Lewis are his popular Apologetical works like "Mere Christianity", then I can see where you're coming from, but if you haven't even bothered to read such works as the "Abolition of Man" or "Miracles" then I feel you are sadly mistaken.

He was a great philosopher. Many Theists to this day have expounded on some of his arguments, especially sorts like Alvin Plantinga.
Anonymous said…
Furthermore, I'd really like for you to explain what you mean by your statements. You say alot of things you haven't backed up.

I warn you as well, when trying to prove that God is "evil" or that Christian Apologetics are "laughable", that you might want to be detailed and oriented with Philosophical and Theological concepts, else you will just be picked apart like most skeptics that come on here.
Anonymous said…
m, JRP, anyone,

If a non-Christian (with only a limited knowledge of Christian Apologetics) would like to read one of C.S. Lewis' books, which one of his books would you recommend him/her to read?

Jason Pratt said…
MaPS (Miracles: A Preliminary Study) is perhaps the toughest; but in many ways it is a summary and systematic fusion of his arguments elsewhere. In terms of topical progression, I recommend starting there.

It should however be treated as more of a springboard for further thought, than as a final word on the topics discussed. (As I noted, some of his particular arguments can be properly critiqued; and it isn't always easy to understand exactly what he is doing anyway. Victor Reppert and I, to give two examples of his analysts, disagree strenuously about what Lewis is primarily doing and accomplishing in his famous, or infamous {g}, chapter 3. Though both of us do agree that he is succeeding in what he is trying to do. {lol!} Beversluis of course does not agree with either of us, at least about the 'succeeding'. {g})

Still, Lewis offers a systematic progression argument in MaPS; and (notwithstanding some warts here and there) I find that to be a much better methodology than doing the typical salad-bar approach where an author discusses the cosmological argument for a while and then discusses the telological argument maybe or an ontological argument or maybe an argument from morality or from religious experience or (maybe if they run out of other things {ironic g}) an argument from reason.

There are some other advantages to MaPS, too, from a sceptical standpoint. Lewis doesn't refer to scriptural authority, for instance; and is not shy about stating that he thinks some of the OT to be fictional in content. He is not only respectful of evolutionary theory, including in effective cognitive development, but makes a statement that could have just as easily come from Patricia Churchland. (This is so unexpected, coming as it does in the midst of his argument from reason, that I know of some proponent as well as opponent commentors who simply ignore it and are continually surprised when I have to bring it up. {g} In total distinction from Plantinga's approach, I may add.) He typically doesn't try to take a position further than it can actually go by itself; and this throws off a lot of commentators, too (pro or con), who are expecting him to try to do more and so are sure that he is trying to do more here or there. But I would be appreciable of his restraint, were I a sceptic. (One largescale example of this is that Lewis doesn't try to analyze the NT for historical credence. Which is interesting because the whole thrust of his book is to prepare a reader to give the NT a fair analysis historically, pro or con: that's what the "Preliminary Study" is avowedly about. I theorize, based on his writing schedule elsewhere, that he got sucked into writing the Oxford textbook on 16th century literature excluding poetry, and doing this simply burned out his interest in trying to do something similar for the NT.)

The book doesn't exactly establish orthodox trinitarian theism, btw; but that's a measure of his intentional topical limitation: he kept to what he thought he could do and didn't try to jump beyond that.

It's very far from being his easiest book to read (as I've said): he includes details and angles that I still routinely discover after studying it for over 10 years, and I have often thought he was doing one thing when I suddenly discovered (on a closer read) that he was doing something else instead. Also, there is at least one glaring outright typo late in the book, where two phrases are topically reversed, but they come out grammatically correct anyway (which is why they weren't caught) but by context he had to have meant the phrases the other way around.

But, in martial art parlance (he would appreciate the fencing reference {s}), he provides a good form to build from. And despite (or because of) having been a militant apostate atheist himself, he is concerned to give his opponents credit (especially ethical credit). "At the sight of injustice," he relates, "they speak like men!--and like men of genius!" He is very much more on the side of the raging Shelley than a cold Paley. (Though I don't recall him using that phrase in this book specifically.)

As a bonus (of sorts), the final two main chapters (not counting the epilogue and two topical appendicies) are for all practical purposes summary expositions of a book of George MacDonald's, whom Lewis regarded as his "Teacher", and who himself praised the criticisms of sceptics (and was a 19th century old-earth evolutionist).

The fact that someone as totally antithetical to MacDonald's orthodox universalism and Lewis' classical/natural theology approach, as John Piper, has such a high opinion of Lewis anyway, is kind of a minor miracle in its own right. {s} But it's a tribute to the man's accessibility. (Antony Flew, who lived at the time of Lewis' presidency of the Oxford Socratic Club, has a high regard for him, too, though also substantially disagreeing with him. {s!} Still substantially disagreeing him, I suppose I should say. {g})

Jason Pratt said…
Come to think of it, in a weird sort of way, if the one whom I loved the most (who is not a professing Christian the last time I checked) wanted to start with Lewis somewhere... I would send her to the OHEL! {lol!} (That was what Lewis called his Oxford History of Literature tome; he got to the point that he absolutely hated working on it.) It has absolutely nothing to do with Lewis making a Christian apologetic, but it has a lot to do with Lewis doing literary analysis of a bunch of Christian authors across a hundred years or so. After that you'll either be familiar with him and perhaps interested to listen when he turns to a different kind of analysis (literary analysis was his day-job, so to speak, but his actual degree was in philosophy), or you'll hate his guts and never want to read him again, in which case you needn't bother reading his actual apologetic works. {g!} Besides if you make it through the OHEL, MaPS should be a snap by comparison. {g}

Jason Pratt said…
Fun thought that just occurred to me: Lewis scored top grades for his teaching degree in philosophy--back when he was a militantly atheistic anti-ecclesiast! {ggg!} (I'm pretty sure that that was how the timing worked out... anyone know some better timing data?)

Anonymous said…

Thanks for you comments.

Ron said…
Interesting comments. For me it was reading Mere Christianity in my senior year of high school that got me thinking about Christianity seriously. I just started reading God in the Dock a few days ago and I really like that book too so far.
Tenax said…

the fact is, Lewis is entrancing at a number of levels. For someone without much backround in apologetic, as you say, Mere Christianity is genuinely intereting. And frankly, if you like fiction, so are his space trilogy (beginning with Out of the Silent Planet) and his Narnia books. I always liked the Pilgrim's Regress, but I am rather odd in that way.

Have fun reading :)

philip m said…
I read 'Man or Rabbit?' from God in the Dock, and I think it is his best short selection from any of his works. Piper's analysis is right on, as well.
Greetings to all in Jesus' name,

My copy of "Mere Christianity is nearly worn out! It's not only a riveting read IMHO, it's a necessary reference source for any Christian writer's library. I suppose that what I most admire about Lewis, is that he was able to give expression to complex commentary on philosophical issues in accessible terms. He was a lay-theologian's literary hero in my estimation. But that's just my opinion, even if I'm right. {s}

Laterness . . .
Hey Jason P.,

You said: "Fun thought that just occurred to me: . . . "

Wave! Here's another fun thought regarding your fun thought: Had Lewis remained an atheist, he would be lauded as a philosophical genius by unbelievers till this day. Conversely . . . well . . . need I finish the thought? {s}

Jason Pratt said…
Slowwwwwly catching up on comments...

{{Had Lewis remained an atheist, he would be lauded as a philosophical genius by unbelievers till this day.}}

Not entirely sure of that. No one thinks of him as being an unsung atheist genius prior to his conversion. But he matured more (after his service and wounding in WWI and once he got into academic work), so who knows?--he might have made for a perfectly smashing atheist apologist.

I’ve occasionally suggested over at DangIdea that if one of Victor’s students needs a dissertation topic, doing a comprehensive survey of Lewis’ atheist/anti-Christian apologetics (such as they were--he never did anything systematic with that) would be highly useful for understanding him better.

(I haven’t ever heard of someone doing this; I had thought The Most Reluctant Convernt would count, but I was disappointed.)


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