CS Lewis, christian, author, apologist and academic, died 50 years ago last week, and many assessments of his life and work have been made in commemoration.
I think he was, arguably, the most influential christian in the western world in the last century. And, definitely, he has been the most influential writer and teacher in my life.
That was then …..
I first embraced christian faith when I was about 17, in my first year at university. I don’t recall thinking too much about my reasons to believe until after I believed, but then I wanted, or perhaps needed, to base my beliefs on what I thought was rational truth.
So CS Lewis was the first, and most common, author I turned to. (The other two influential books I remember were Frank Morison’s Who Moved the Stone? and FF Bruce’s The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?) I read almost everything of Lewis’ I could get hold of, and a few made big impressions:
This is still a classic, and made an enormous impression on me. It starts with a popular version of the moral argument for the existence of God, and while it may not offer rigorous proof, it makes its case way better than any alternative. Lewis goes on from there with an impressive argument for Jesus being divine, which people criticise these days, but it was effective then for people who accepted the general historical truth of the gospels.
The Pilgrim’s Regress
This is his first, and probably most obscure book, but I loved it for its imagination. Where Bunyan’s pilgrims travelled through a landscape populated with people named after various sins and behaviours, Lewis has his two pilgrims exploring a country of philosophical states of mind.
I didn’t know much about many of the philosophical views, which had generally become obsolete, but I loved the concept (just as I loved Bunyan’s book), and the way it brought deep thoughts down to a story level.
This book too started with a popular version of a philosophical argument, the argument from reason. It was more challenging for my teenage brain, but I found the argument very convincing, and still do. I was more interested in his argument why naturalism was self contradictory, and less interested in the application to belief in miracles.
I read his Narnia books, which I hadn’t seen before, and his science fiction. In each case, I thought the last in the series was easily the best – The Last Battle made a skirmish between about 50 combatants into an epic end-of-the-world battle, while That Hideous Strength made modernity and the misuse of science realistically scary.
….. this is now.
It is fashionable, especially among atheists who prefer to discredit him rather than his arguments, to diminish CS Lewis’ legacy, but while I don’t read him so much now, I find a lot of what he said relevant and even ‘prophetic’.
Evolution and science
Most christians were still sceptical of evolution, but Lewis was quite happy to accept it. But he was highly critical of ‘scientism’, the self-contradictory view that science (in principle) answers all meaningful questions.
Old Testament history and myth
Based on his reading of ancient texts, Lewis concluded that the early books of the Old Testament contained a considerable amount of myth, albeit, he hastened to add, God’s myth. As the Bible’s story goes on, myth and historical fact are mixed as God’s story comes into focus, until we have the fully historical truth of the New Testament. I believe this profound understanding (found in the brilliant paper Is Theology Poetry?) can help us today to deal with some difficult aspects of the Old Testament.
New Testament history and criticism
Lewis was not a New Testament scholar, but he knew enough to be highly critical of the NT scholarship of his day. His paper Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism (later awfully renamed Fern Seeds and Elephants) takes apart some of the critical assumptions of NT study and shows them to be questionable at best, and vacuous at worst. Scholarship later came to some similar conclusions, via EP Sanders and other scholars, and his remaining arguments support christian faith built on a historical foundation.
In The Last Battle, one of the characters, Emeth, has lived a life worshiping a false God, yet still enters Narnian heaven because Aslan accepts his worship – not because Lewis believed all religions lead to God, but because God accepts all honest responses to the light each person is given.
Lewis believed strongly in the doctrine of the atonement, but unlike many modern US evangelicals who insist on the doctrine of the ‘penal substitutionary atonement’, he didn’t believe it was important which of several explanations of the atonement we hold. This fits well with teachings of Tony Campolo that several explanations of the atonement have been predominant throughout history, and of NT Wright, who argues that the New Testament evidence indicates all views of the atonement may be useful.
Give the man his due
Like I said, I think he is arguably the most influential western-world christian of the 20th century, and deservedly so. You may like to read Alister McGrath’s assessment.