Dispelling Myths about C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis once wrote an essay titled, The Funeral of a Great Myth, in it he eulogizes the religion of evolutionism. In the same spirit, I have often thought it would be good to bury a host of myths about C. S. Lewis as well.

As to Lewis myths, it is my contention that authors, working under the strain of a publishing deadlines, sometimes produce shoddy research and make some unfortunate claims. Surely these things could only be the result of the pressure of deadlines; nobody would ever intentionally write something without checking the facts first. Would they?

Once a myth comes to print, others content themselves to citing the these secondary works without checking the facts for themselves. The errors proliferate. Do it three times, and the general public considers it an established fact. Right? So it is with C. S. Lewis lore, there are a constellation of myths that seem to prevail. This is a brief attempt to set one such myth aright.

Some have made the unfortunate claim that Lewis sought to focus on fiction only after an embarrassing encounter in a debate with the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe at the Oxford Socratic Club, February 2nd, 1948.

This falsehood comes from sources one would expect to be more reliable; people like: Humphrey Carpenter in The Inklings; Lewis’s friend George Sayer in his biography Jack; and A. N. Wilson in C. S. Lewis: A Biography.

In his biography of Lewis, Sayer observes that, “the debate had been a humiliating experience, but perhaps it was ultimately good for him. In the past he had been far too proud of his logical ability. Now, he was humbled.” Later, Sayer reports, “‘I can never write another book of that sort,’ [Lewis] said to me of Miracles. And he never did.”

Carpenter writes, “Lewis had learnt his lesson: for after this he wrote no further books of Christian Apologetics for ten years.” The apologetic book Carpenter has in mind is Reflections on the Psalms – “it was notably quieter in tone and did not attempt any further intellectual proofs of theism or Christianity.”

Wilson, in his biography of Lewis, uncritically, repeats the error and intimates no less than five times that it was the Anscombe debate that brought an end to Lewis’s life as an apologist.

Those who make this claim say that Lewis lost the debate because he lacked sufficient philosophical depth, relative to contemporary discussions in philosophy, and therefore could no longer be taken seriously as a Christian apologist. His methods were limited and archaic, critics assert. Furthermore, some have suggested that Lewis’s interest in fiction following this debate signaled a kind of retreat to ground where arguments could be neither pressed nor challenged. In point of fact, the evidence suggests that the Anscombe debate had a lesser effect on Lewis’s work as an apologist than has been supposed.

Anscombe’s own recollection is very different than what has been reported. She published the paper she read at the Oxford Socratic Club in her own Collected Papers. It is a matter of public record and anyone wanting to know the truth of the matter can read her paper and also her recollections of the meeting. It is not the intent of this blog entry to develop the intricacies of the Anscombe-Lewis debate; I am simply concerned to argue that whatever the content of the debate or Lewis’s response to Anscombe, there is not sufficient grounds to claim that the debate signaled either the end of Lewis’s apologetic work, or a retreat to fiction. Even so, a brief summary of the issues involved might be helpful for the reader.

Lewis writes in the first edition of Miracles, that, “We may in fact state it as a rule that no thought is valid if it can be fully explained as the result of irrational causes” (p. 27).

Anscombe, a Christian, also had her doubts about the Naturalist’s assumptions; nevertheless, she questioned the strength of Lewis’s argument at this point. She summarizes her own position, “I do not think that there is sufficiently good reason for maintaining the ‘Naturalist’ hypothesis about human behaviour and thought. But someone who does maintain it cannot be refuted as you [Lewis] try to refute him, by saying it is inconsistent to maintain it and to believe that human reasoning is valid and that human reasoning sometimes produces human opinion.”

Lewis concedes the point, and later writes in response to Anscombe, “I admit that valid was a bad word for what I meant; veridical (or verific or veriferous) would have been better.” Lewis made adjustments to the chapter thirteen years later in the second edition published in 1960 as a Fontana Paperback. The delay hardly supports the idea that Lewis was deeply concerned about the matter. Also, the fact that he worked on a later edition of Miracles does not support the idea that he thought his contribution to Christian apologetics was complete.

Anscombe indicates that she was not fully satisfied with the changes, but she believed them an improvement over his earlier edition and thought they were signs of Lewis’s “honesty and seriousness.” It is also useful to note that after the debate with Anscombe, Lewis stayed on as President of the Socratic Club for several years engaging in proclamational apologetics in a rigorous academic environment. He did not resign his presidency until he left to take a professorial chair at Cambridge University.

Further investigation will reveal fault in the claim that Lewis did no more serious work in Christian apologetics after the debate. Anyone able to count and also consider publication dates of his essays and books will discover evidence contrary to the claims of Carpenter, Sayer, and Wilson. Lewis actually published no fewer than thirty-four essays in Christian apologetics after the debate. The 1960 book The World’s Last Night, a collection of published essays which Lewis himself gathered from various periodicals. Every essay in the book (seven in all) was written after the Anscombe debate. It represents a book of Christian apologetics, intentionally made available by Lewis, and discrediting the suggestion that the debate signaled the end of his apologetic endeavors. Two books of essays in apologetics were gathered and edited by Walter Hooper after Lewis’s death. A survey of the dates when the individual essays were published is also revealing. In God in the Dock, twenty-nine of the essays were published before the debate, while twenty of the essays were published afterwards.

The title essay in God in the Dock, written shortly after the debate, was originally titled, “Difficulties in Presenting the Christian Faith to Modern Unbelievers”, and first appeared in Lumen Vitae, Vol. III. September 1948, pp. 421-426. In this essay, Lewis is instructing others on the fine points of engaging in apologetic work with unbelievers, and it is hardly the kind of thing one would expect from someone devastated in debate and questioning his suitability as an apologist. In Christian Reflections, fourteen essays are included; of these, seven were originally published after the Anscombe debate.

All told, from these three collections, nearly fifty percent of the essays in Christian apologetics came after February 2nd, 1948. It seems that the Anscombe debate could hardly be grounds for proving that Lewis’s interest in fiction was increased by his failure as an apologist. If this analysis is correct, what might his reasons have been for writing fiction? That’s another question for another article.

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Jerry was born and raised in Southern California. He grew up in a Christian family but did not become a Christian until his freshman year at Whittier College. He was deeply influenced by the ministries of Campus Crusade for Christ and Granada Heights Friends Church in La Mirada, California. Jerry’s sister Kathy introduced him to the writings of C. S. Lewis while he was still an undergraduate. Upon graduation from college he selected Lewis as an author who would take him to other authors and has made of him a life study. The concept that graduation from college is “Commencement” has meant that only a foundation for learning is established through formal education after which one commences his/her liberal arts education.

He pastored three different churches over twenty-three years. Nineteen of those years were invested in student ministry, and for four years he served as a senior pastor. While pastoring he taught courses in Philosophy and on C. S. Lewis for ten years at the College of Du Page in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. He has served on the Adjunct Faculty at Biola University since 1991, teaching courses on Lewis. He has been teaching at Wheaton College since 1996.

Jerry has lectured or preached in 14 countries: Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, England, France, Ireland, Mexico, Romania, Slovakia, Sudan, Switzerland, Uganda, Ukraine. He has also lectured or preached in 19 States: California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin. Jerry has traveled to 31 countries and 3 continents.

Notes

– CARPENTER, Humphrey. 1979. The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Their Friends. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, pp. 216-7
– SAYER, Jack, pp. 186-7;
– WILSON, Biography, pp. 211, 213, 214-5, 218, 220, 225.
– SAYER, Jack, p. 187.
– CARPENTER, Inklings, p. 217.
– WILSON, Biography, pp. 214-215, 218, 220, 225, 236.
– ANSCOMBE, G. E. M. 1981. The Collected Papers of G. E. M. Anscombe, Volume Two. Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. See the Introduction. pp. ix-x. Also see Chapter 21, “A Reply to Mr. C. S. Lewis’s Argument that ‘Naturalism’ is Self-Refuting”, where the paper Anscombe presented to the Socratic Club is reproduced.
– Anscombe, The Collected Papers of G. E. M. Anscombe. Vol. II. p. 231.
– Ibid. p. 231.
– Ibid. p. x. For a fair treatment of the matter, attention should be given to Christopher Mitchell’s article on the Anscombe-Lewis debate in Seven: An Anglo-American Literary Review. Vol. 14, 1997.

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