The Hard Knock at the Door of Christianity

While reforming my faith, accepting Christ, against the “hard knock” of agnosticism, humanism, and atheism, I noticed a perilous, parallel philosophical journey taken by C.S. Lewis in response to his own battle with his Christian walk. Lewis constantly retained an admiring endearment to his teacher, W. T. Kirkpatrick, or as Lewis calls him, “The Great Knock.”

Like Lewis, I also admired my atheistic and agnostic philosophers and teachers during my higher education, for their logical rationality and their pervasive intellect.

Like Lewis, I also read such atheistic thinkers like Bertrand Russell (A Free Man’s Worship; Why I am not a Christian), Paul Kurtz (A Humanist Manifesto), Kai Nelson (Ethics without God), Sigmund Freud (The Future of an Illusion), Karl Marx (Das Kapitel), Friedrich Nietzche (Human, All too Human), and B.F. Skinner (Beyond Freedom and Dignity). I even attended a debate at The University of Texas, Austin, between atheist Madeline O’Hare and a Unitarian minister. I was influenced by my philosophy professors, Dr. Robert Solomon’s existential humanism and Richard M. Owsley’s existential phenomenology (I called him, “The Wise Owl of Minerva”).

In my literary background, I studied postmodern deconstruction with Dr. Victor Vitanza at The University of Texas at Arlington. From my journey of past darkness into the present light of Jesus Christ, I realize now that these educational experiences and personal encounters made me stronger in defending the Christian faith.

The development of an apologetic against agnosticism and atheism is the purpose of this study, based upon the friendship relationship between W.T. Kirkpatrick and C.S. Lewis. A.N. Wilson, in C.S. Lewis: A Biography, calls W.T. Kirkpatrick, “a valued teacher and friend” to Lewis (171). C.S. Lewis calls W.T. Kirkpatrick, “a hard, satirical atheist who taught me to think” (Miracles 69). Baylor University professor, Robert C. Wood, captures this philosophical method of Lewis: “From his early tutelage under the atheist rationalist, W.T. Kirkpatrick, Lewis had learned to relish dialectic, the cut and thrust of intellectual repartee”(“Conflict and Convergence on Fundamental Values” Renascence).

In Surprised by Joy, Lewis writes, “My debt to him [Kirkpatrick] is very great, my reverence to this day undiminished” (148). In their personal, Platonic relationship, Lewis writes, “Here was a man who thought not about you but about what you said” (Surprised by Joy 137). In Surprised by Joy, reflecting Kirkpatrick’s influence, Lewis writes, “I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating a world” (115).

Another inspirational author, G.K. Chesterton, also influenced C.S. Lewis’ agnostic journey: “The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man” (Everlasting Man).

From this model of a Platonic, intellectual relationship between friends, an apologetic, based upon relational, fideist, evidential, presuppositional, and cumulative approaches, will be established for defending the Christian faith against agnosticism and atheism experienced by C.S. Lewis in his life and works.

The outcome demonstrates even God can work in mysterious ways through atheism in order to strengthen the Christian faith, so, as Jesus reminds us, “Listen! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and have dinner with him, and he with Me” (Revelation 3:20). Otherwise, the consequences of not believing are detrimental: “Then you will stand outside and knock on the door, saying, ‘Lord, open up for us!’ He will answer you, ‘I don’t know you or where you’re from’” (Luke 13:25).

C.S. Lewis wavered in his Christian faith several times, hardening his heart and mind toward God. As a child, the death of his mother affected him severely. Again, as a young adult, Lewis buried God in the battlefield, waging his own battle for and against God. Lewis himself said, “The early loss of my mother, great unhappiness at school, and the shadow of the last war and presently the experience of it, had given me a very pessimistic view of existence. My atheism was based on it” (The Question of God: School Days. PBS).

Finally, as an older man, Lewis was stricken by the death of his wife, Joy Davidman, and reconstituted his faith in God after a period of confusing despair. However, all these psycho-biographical and psycho-historical experiences also made Lewis into a stronger man of faith. As a child, he “put away childish things;” as a young adult, he dedicated himself on the battlefield to the “glory of God;” and as an older, mature Christian, after “many trials and tribulations,” he was drawn closer (what Lewis calls sehnsucht) to God through his “mere Christianity.” Thus, all the road before him, his journey, was not only a personal growth in Christianity, but also an apologetic model for defending the faith against agnosticism and atheism, for himself, but also for others.

First, a definition of some terms would help the reader grasp Lewis’ spiritual struggle. According to Anthony C. Thiselton, in A Concise Encyclopedia of the Philosophy of Religion, “Atheism denotes the denial of the existence of God, to be distinguished from Agnosticism, the belief that to know whether or not God exists is impossible”(18). Although many proclaim Lewis as an atheist at times in his life, I believe, from a Protestant perspective, he maintained his faith and matured in his Christianity. However, periods of agnosticism haunted him. It is my contention that Lewis never lost his faith, but grew stronger through his tests and trials of his faith. His faith was shaken emotionally based upon a fideist apologetic belief in God, but he never believed in a purely evidentialist claim for God’s existence, and ultimately, never gives up his classical, rational apologetic approach for understanding his faith.

At least five distinct approaches to apologetics have guided most seekers:

1) The Classical Method/ Presuppositional method utilizes deductive logic and philosophical rationalism for constructive argumentation, examining and disclosing premises and presuppositions. Thus, reason justifies faith.

2) Evidentialist Apologetics emphasizes empirical evidence, verification with science, archeology, factual history, etc.

3) Reformed Apologetics offers a regenerative spirit, based upon biblical standards, theological doctrines of predestination, Christianity versus false science.

4) Fideist Apologetics calls us to obey the Truth of a personal theology, with faith beyond science, revelation beyond history, based upon inspiration and experience.

5) Cumulative Case Method insists all methods are utilized to achieve the Truth, including classical arguments: theism; personal experience and moral behavior (Fideist); the role of the Holy Spirit in revealed truth (Reformed); evidence for beliefs (Evidentialism) .

Lewis, as a “reluctant convert,” probably became a cumulative case apologist, searching for the existence of God in his life. At times, Lewis would even turn to mysticism as a phase for his agnostic inquiry, but this phase could not last for the master apologist. According to David C. Downing, “Ultimately, the contemporary trend in world mysticism must be found wanting, both for its logical inconsistencies and for its empty promise of gnōsis without kenōsis, the gaining of knowledge without the losing of self” (Mysticism in C.S. Lewis, 148). Ultimately, Lewis gains both the knowledge of being a Christian and the losing of the old creature, becoming the new creature in Christ.

How exactly did W.T. Kirpatrick’s atheism influence Lewis? Why did atheists, like Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, Russell, reject God eventually, while Lewis accepted the Lord? For example, Sigmund Freud was interested in God’s existence before he wrote Future of an Illusion, and he asked his best friend, Oskar Pfister, a Lutheran minister, who this God, Jesus, was. Pfister did not want to discuss Jesus with Freud, but was more concerned with psychological programs in the Church. The difference in Lewis was his intellectual approach combined with his personal relationships.

Friendship models, like W.T. Kirkpatrick and Owen Barfield, influenced his intrigue with atheism, while other models, like G.K. Chesterton and J.R. Tolkien, inspired his Christianity. For example, Owen Barfield attempted to derive a philosophy based upon anthropos or human nature alone (The Case for Anthroposophy. The Barfield Reader 151). Let us examine the life and teaching style of W.T. Kirpatrick as it influenced C.S. Lewis.

William T. Kirkpatrick (1848-1921), a retired headmaster of Lurgan College, Northern Ireland, served as Lewis’s tutor during the years 1914-1917. He was a friend of Lewis’ father, Albert Lewis, who had himself been tutored by Kirkpatrick from 1877-1879. When Jack Lewis went to boarding school, he failed miserably, and returned to individualized tutoring, living with Kirkpatrick. Oddly enough, as predestined knowledge by a Presbyterian, Kirkpatrick told Lewis’ father, “You may make a writer or a scholar out of him, but you’ll not make anything else” (Surprised by Joy 183).

Kirkpatrick used the Socratic method of teaching, making Lewis think through every experience: “If Jack would look outdoors and comment that it was a nice day, Kirkpatrick would vigorously call out “Stop!” and require Jack to define a nice day and explain his reasons for labeling this particular day a nice one”(Reader’s Encyclopedia 229). This logical positivist approach, applying philosophy and linguistics, allowed Lewis to enter into a dialectical dialogue with his teacher, whom he called a “purely logical entity,” “a Rationalist of the old, high and dry, nineteenth-century type” (Surprised by Joy 139), a style Lewis utilized, as well as wrote about himself in Surprised by Joy; as the skeptical, rationalistic MacPhee in That Hideous Strength; and as Professor Kirke claims, “What are these schools teaching nowadays!” in The Chronicles of Narnia. Professor Kirke in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, is perhaps patterned after Kirkpatrick (Sammons, Guide through Narnia 89).

Like Lewis, Kirkpatrick was an eccentric, who wore his best clothes gardening on Sundays than for weekday gardening, rebelling against his strict, traditional Presbyterian upbringing. Kirkpatrick not only insisted that Lewis learn French, German, Italian, Greek, and Latin on his own, but would read original literary selections in the original language, such as Medea and Dante’s Divine Comedy. Thus, Kirkpatrick framed Lewis’ whole career and interests as a medieval scholar, linguist, and rational philosopher. Even though he admired the intellectual abilities of Kirkpatrick, the atheistic worldview served as a foil, a dialectical counterargument, for Lewis as he struggled with his own faith: “From him [Kirkpatrick] I learned something about the honor of the intellect and the shame of voluntary inconsistency” (Surprised by Joy 173).

Lewis wrote a letter to Owen Barfield (January 18, 1927) about his battle for God:

I was thinking about imagination and intellect and the unholy muddle I am in about them at present: undigested scraps of anthroposophy and psychoanalysis jostling with orthodox idealism over a background of good old Kirkian rationalism. Lord what a mess! And all the time (with me) there’s the danger of falling back into most childish superstitions, or of running into dogmatic materialism to escape them. (Diary C.S. Lewis xi)

This dogmatic materialism or atheism was identified with the “Kirkian rationalism” of W.T. Kirkpatrick, and his “childish superstitions” concerned his belief in magic, mysticism, and pseudo-mythology. For C.S. Lewis, Christianity won the battle over atheistic materialism, mysticism, and magic since Christianity was the “real” myth, based on reality after he demythologized all his other beliefs. Lewis had developed an apologetic against atheism.

What should a Lewis apologetic against atheism look like? Several apologists have offered formal apologetic arguments against atheism. If we apply what C.S. Lewis learned from W.T. Kirkpatrick in his own journey against agnosticism and atheism, we can apply the following precepts:

– “He never attacked religion in my presence” (Surprised by Joy 140).

– “Here was a man who thought not about you but about what you said” (Surprised by Joy 137).

– “My debt to him is very great, my reverence to this day undiminished” (Surprised by Joy 148).

– “He was a hard, satirical atheist and the man who taught me to think” (Miracles 69).

Thus, an apologetic against the atheist should consist of the following principles:

1. Never attack the atheist’s ideas, but demonstrate the atheist has a religion also since “a-theism means a humanist stand against God. (Only a fool says in his heart there is no God (Ps.1:4).)

2. Never attack the personality of the atheist, but be ready to interpret and analyze what the atheist is saying or claiming. (Love the sinner, but hate the sin.)

3. Have reverence for the atheist who is one of God’s children, but does not yet know the Father. Be willing to learn from the atheist his or her experiences and problems as a human being. (Even while you were still a sinner, Christ died for you.)

4. Let the Holy Spirit soften the heart and ears of the hardened atheist. You can plant the mustard seed in order to let the atheist think about God.

By all means, do not grow weary and give up defending the faith. As an atheist, Kirkpatrick was described by a student as one whose “pistol never missed fire; but he gave you the impression that, if it did, you would be knocked down by the butt-end” (Collected Letters I-3). The Lewis family loved W.T. Kirkpatrick, in spite of his atheistic humanism, even until his death on March 22, 1921 (Collected Letters I-1005). In conclusion, the biblical principle of apologetics still is the best classical definition of how to do Lewisian apologetics when respectfully encountering a “hard knock” from the atheist:

Do not fear what they fear or be disturbed, but set apart the Messiah as Lord in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. However, do this with gentleness and respect, keeping your conscience clear, so that when you are accused, those who denounce your Christian life will be put to shame. (1 Peter 3:14-16)

It is a shame that W.T. Kirkpatrick was such an influence on C.S. Lewis by his teaching style and intellectual abilities, but the “hard knock,” Kirk, never answered the knock at the door, opening his heart, mind, and soul to the Lord: “’Lord, open up for us!’ He will answer you, ‘I don’t know you or where you’re from’” (Luke 13:25).
Instead, Kirkpatrick was influenced by the depressed philosophies of Bertrand Russell’s Free Man’s Worship and of Schopenhauer’s World as Will. However, we do know the faith of C.S. Lewis and from whence he came — out of the darkened despair of the shadowlands of atheism, into the light of the Lord.

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Harvey E. Solganick, Ph.D. in Humanities, Philosophy, and Rhetoric, The University of Texas at Arlington, currently is a professor of Humanities at The College at Southwestern, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is author of Our Holy God and the Sinfulness of Man and a member of the C.S. Lewis and Inkling Society.

Works Cited
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– Solganick, Harvey. Theories, Translations, and Truths: Freud’s Search for the Soul. Dissertation. Arlington, TX: The Unversity of Texas, 1998.

– Stone, Elaine Murray. The Question of God: School Days. PBS documentary. 2005. (4 November 2005).

– Thiselton, Anthony C. A Concise Encyclopedia of the Philosophy of Religion. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic Books, 2002.

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– Wood, Robert C. “Conflict and Convergence on Fundamental Matters in C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.” (15 October 2005) published in Renascence.

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