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C.S. Lewis, Christian Apologist

Are Lewis’ Theological Arguments Any Good?

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Best known as a Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis argued for a reason-based Christianity rather than a faith-based Christianity. This is a curious decision on his part because, first, traditional Christianity is unquestionably faith-based, and second, Lewis’ own conversion had more to do with his longing for myths that tell higher truths, and his conclusion that Christian myths tell the highest sort of truth there is.

This focus on rational apologetics is the C.S. Lewis with which most people are familiar, but there is also another C.S. Lewis who focused on emotion. Lewis’ conversion to Christianity appears to have been more emotional than logical, despite some of his later protestations, and the importance of one’s inner state is discussed by him as early as The Pilgrim's Regress (1933) and as late as Surprised by Joy (1955). The tension and contradiction between believing because of emotion and believing because of logic is never resolved in Lewis’ writings.

In Mere Christianity, Lewis writes: “I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of the evidence is against it.” All of his books are designed to argue that a person’s best reasoning should tell them that the weight of evidence is in favor of Christianity, and hence that a reasonable person should be a Christian. This directly contradicts the traditional notion that a person should be a Christian on the basis of faith, and moreover that it is morally better for a person to believe because of faith rather than evidence.

C.S. Lewis rejected any value in taking “leaps of faith,” stating that any sane person who adopts Christianity despite thinking that the evidence and reason is against it is simply “stupid.” Of course, Lewis’ primary audience was supposed to be skeptics and atheists, not current believers. Skeptics disbelieve because of reason and evidence; therefore, only reason and evidence is likely to make them reconsider.

The truth is that Lewis is read and accepted primarily by believers, however, not skeptics. Thus, his focus on establishing a rational basis for Christianity allows believers to imagine that they, too, believe for rational reasons. Lewis criticized church leaders for trying to accommodate Christianity to the modern, scientific world but in effect that is what Lewis was doing as well: constructing rationalizations of traditional beliefs in place of traditional faith.

It is Lewis’ efforts to present Christianity, and orthodox Christianity at that, as a reasonable, rational belief system backed by the evidence that seem to help make him most attractive today. The modern era has been imbued since the Enlightenment with the values of science, reason and rationality. Irrational faith is denied or denigrated, so such arguments carry little weight with people anymore. The person who makes belief seem rational, though, is praised as a new prophet

John Beversluis writes:

    “Sections devoted to biography read like hagiography. We seldom encounter a mere fact about Lewis; accounts of his behavior, attitudes, and personal relationships are instead reported in the wide-eyed manner of the impressionable disciple. To describe him as a wonderful friend is a lamentable understatement; we must be assured that no one ever was a better friend. To praise him as brilliant in debate is entirely too lukewarm a compliment; we are told that C. S. Lewis could have matched wits with any man who ever lived. To endorse him as a Christian apologist of the first rank is altogether inadequate; his apocalyptic Vision of Christianity must be likened to that of St. John on the Isle of Patmos. After a while, one longs for patches of sunlight to dispel the reverential haze. One tires of enduring these excesses and of having to plow through equally ecstatic testimonials in book after book.”

Even one of Lewis’ most sympathetic biographers, A.N. Wilson, writes that Lewis “has become in the quarter-century since he died something very like a saint in the minds of conservative-minded believers.” At the same time, though, you won’t find professional theologians and sophisticated apologists citing C.S. Lewis or relying on his arguments in their own efforts.

Theology builds upon the insights and accomplishments of those who have come before, but Lewis doesn’t even appear to function as a minor plank in anyone’s platform. This combination of general popularity and professional dismissal is very curious — either the average believer knows something which the professionals have missed, or Lewis isn’t the apologist he is popularly believed to be.

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