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One C. S. Lewis Writing I Relate To

When I became an evangelical Christian in high school, my first introduction to “apologetics” was through the works of C. S. Lewis.  Apologetics involves establishing reasoned ways to “defend the faith” against intellectual attack and to “demonstrate” the superiority of the faith, intellectually, for inquiring minds, in order to convince people.   C. S. Lewis was many things: a brilliant scholar of early modern English at both Oxford and Cambridge (many people don’t know he wrote serious academic scholarship, e.g., on seventeenth-century English); an author of enormously popular children books (Chronicles of Narnia); and a Christian apologist (e.g., Mere Christianity; The Problem of Pain).

In evangelical circles at the time – and still today, in places – Lewis was/is revered almost as a demi-god, or at least an angel, if not the fourth member of the Trinity.  Not so much in other circles.  In graduate school, when I told my Oxford-trained philosophy professor (who was also a Christian theologian) that I was interested in C. S. Lewis, he grimaced and said with some considerable force, “He’s a complete amateur.”  I thought, “What the hell are *you* talking about???”  How can you possibly call him an amateur?  He’s one of the greatest thinkers in the modern world!   And who are you???

It’s true, this professor was in fact the most astute I knew.  And he was professionally trained as a philosopher.  I later came to realize that C. S. Lewis was not.  And that in fact (well, it’s a fact in my mind), my professor was right.

Lewis was indeed brilliant.  He was massively …

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  1. Avatar
    mwbaugh  November 8, 2019

    That is very raw and lovely. I have the same reservations about Lewis and also love him.

  2. Avatar
    AstaKask  November 8, 2019

    What do you think of the theory that Judas Iscariot was cursed by God and became the first vampire? That’s why he’s sensitive to silver (the silver coins), the cross (betraying Jesus), and daylight (the light of God).

  3. Avatar
    LesBarrett  November 9, 2019

    I think that most of the pain we experience is caused by ourselves. There is also the seemingly unavoidable pain that appears to be a part of our existence which makes me want to question God. It is hard to accept why God could not create life without pain. It seems easier to accept that in an existence not created by God, pain makes more sense. Because pain affects us directly, I tend to think that I should be qualified to judge it as unnecessary and within my very ability to judge. Of course that is probably not true, no more true than my actual ability to judge the validity of the Big Bang Theory. I make do with the belief and hope that pain is ultimately a temporary phenomenon which will accompany the existence of life for preferably not the entire journey. The last two lines of the poem represent to me a kind of submissive humility that recognizes that one who really wants to know only the truth is not purporting the burden of thinking for God or, (additionally for me considering also the possibility that there is no God,) declaring that existence could be possible without pain.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 10, 2019

      Yes, I’d say a lot of my own harships are self-inflicted. But not the worse ones. And I certainly don’t think most of the pain in the world is like the small-time stuff I ahve to deal with….

  4. Avatar
    webattorney  November 10, 2019

    I view C.S. Lewis as someone who was so smart in diverse fields that his cursory endeavor in one of those fields was better than most people’s entire lives’ devotions. Again, in my opinion, all his children books don’t stack up against JRR Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, from which he got ideas (or copied, dare I say?) of his own children books.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 11, 2019

      I completely agree: Tolkien is amazing (well, after the Hobbit). But I wouldn’t say Lewis got his ideas from him. They were very good friends and working at the same time, no?

  5. Avatar
    webattorney  November 10, 2019

    He must have written this poem after he met and experienced the pain of losing a loved one (that American widowed woman). That movie with Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger was interesting.

  6. Avatar
    abuladeen  November 10, 2019

    I’ve maintained an interest in C.S. Lewis as a philosopher since my college graduation with a Bachelor of Philosophy degree in philosophy, and my years as a J.B. Duke Fellow in philosophy at Duke University. His book The Abolition of Man and his essay “The Poison of Subjectivism” are among works that I’ve returned to frequently over the past decades.

    Lewis’s triple firsts at Oxford included Greats, the study of philosophy and ancient history. His tutor in philosophy was the distinguished moral philosopher E.F. Carritt. Lewis served as a tutor in philosophy during the 1924 academic year during Carritt’s study leave. So he meets reasonable criteria as a professional philosopher.

    More importantly, he encountered a number of major figures in philosophy during his career, many at the Oxford Socratic Club over which he presided for 12 years. He famously debated G.E.M. Anscombe about his thesis that naturalism is self-refuting. Ms. Anscombe seems to have gotten the better of Lewis that night, but her comments afterward show nothing but respect for his abilities as a thinker and debater. There are widely respected professional philosophers today who continue to defend versions of Lewis’s argument against naturalism.

    Other philosophers of note whom Lewis debated include A.J. Ayer, Gilbert Ryle, Antony Flew, C.E.M. Joad, and Frederick Copleston.

    It’s an unfortunate tendency of our age to regard polymaths and generalists as “amateurs” (in the pejorative sense) in any particular discipline in which they engage. Add to that another unfortunate tendency, a prejudice against any academic who stoops to address a non-academic audience in his or her writing.

    Lewis is among the greatest of polymaths, generalists, and popular writers of the 20th century, and he and his work have often suffered diminished academic regard accordingly. I’m sure both that he was aware of the trade-off, and that he accepted it willingly and gracefully.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 11, 2019

      Thanks. My impression was that he had focused on ancient philosophy — which a number of us have done (Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Lucretius, Epitetus, etc.), without being actually trained in philosophy. So it looks like I’m wrong about that? (I also know lots of philosophers, and have enaged with them — same withe literary theorists; but I’m not trained in the field(s) ). But I’m happy to know better: did he actually study modern philosophy, or was it the ancients?

      • Avatar
        abuladeen  November 11, 2019

        I think you’re right: Lewis’s training at Oxford was primarily in ancient thought. He engaged in a substantial way with his philosophical contemporaries, including some of the rising generation of logical positivists and analytical philosophers, but he wasn’t one of them. Carritt and the university had enough confidence in his knowledge and abilities to appoint him to fill in as a tutor in philosophy for a year early on, but Lewis’s wide interests took him in other directions.

        When I was at Duke, I had to take ancient philosophy as part of the doctoral program. Ed Mahoney, the ancient and medieval guy in the department, certainly thought of himself as a professional philosopher. He used to get on me out of his (misguided!) impression that I had insufficient respect for ancient philosophy as real philosophy. That kind of sensitivity points to divisions in the typical Anglo-American philosophy department of the second half of the 20th century, with ancient philosophy toward one end of the spectrum and contemporary logic, epistemology, and metaphysics at the other end.

        I’m just not sure how well the values behind that spectrum hold up. Looking back on some of the endless silliness that took place in our metaphysics and epistemology seminars about finding necessary and sufficient criteria for something to count as something and the quest for the counter-example to knock it all down, I think the weight of the evidence leans heavily toward Plato, Aristotle, and their ancient compadres as the true practitioners of “real” philosophy.

        While Lewis’s career did make a brief stop in professional philosophy, it’s fine to call him an amateur in the original sense of the word, someone who engages in an activity out of love for it. But he wasn’t amateurish, as he’s sometimes portrayed. Anyone who stands up to Ms. Anscombe in public debate on a hardcore philosophical question (Is naturalism self-refuting?), whether he prevailed or not, deserves the respect of all philosophers, whether amateur or professional.

  7. Avatar
    hjmckee  November 11, 2019

    I took Allen’s Love class at PTS…scary smart indeed!

  8. Avatar
    rburos  November 14, 2019

    Reading through the comments I’m tempted to ask if you’ve seen Shadowlands. . .

    (Just a little tongue-and-cheek here, not wanting to sound too judgemental lol)

    • Bart
      Bart  November 15, 2019

      Yup, loved it. Just couldn’t recall it’s name at the moment.

  9. Avatar
    karlpov  November 22, 2019

    Pedantic note: “Out of the Silent Planet” was the first of the interplanetary trilogy, then “Perelandra”, then the book to which I think you were actually referring, “That Hideous Strength”. First one goes to Mars, second to Venus, third to the most bizarre world of all, British academia. Oh, and since “Shadowlands” came up, I’m going to mention the original television play with Josh Ackland (who looks more like Lewis, though Hopkins is certainly more handsome) and Claire Bloom. Joy Lewis, I think, was something like the Yoko Ono of the Inklings. Lewis loved her, but the rest found her hard to accept. She once said something like that she was too American, too female, too Jewish, and too smart for them to like her, and she may have been right.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 24, 2019

      Sorry — I meant That Hideous Strength, of course! Not a pedantic correction at all..

  10. Avatar
    joemccarron  December 17, 2019

    My views on CS Lewis are somewhat of the reverse of yours. As an undergrad I read his work and thought he is not defending any of his conclusions in a rigorous way! But as I got older and read more philosophy I realized his intuitions conclusions were correct and indeed time has looked favorably on them.

    You say:

    “I think that on most issues of importance to me he is dead wrong, on everything from the question of where “morality” comes from (Hey! You can’t explain it without positing a moral creator who gave it to us! Uh, really???);, or about his opposition to critical biblical scholarship; or about the decline of “objectivity””

    He had many views about how belief in God is necessary for consistent belief in objectively real morality. Early on undergrads will hear of the Plato’s Euthyphro Dilemma and say he was wrong. And many atheists will try to argue there are “all sorts of ways” to preserve morality without God.

    But you seem to put weight in expert opinions so I wonder if you would agree this: If he was correct we should see a statistical correlation between expert philosophers who are atheists and a rejection of objective moral realism as compared with theistic philosophers. Likewise if he was wrong and rejecting God really has no impact on belief in objectively real morality we would not see a difference of views between theists and atheists who are professional philosophers on this issue.

    In other words at first glance you may be able to hold on to objective morality without God but as it turns out when you really think this through it ends up being quite difficult for the majority of atheist philosophers. Some try such as Russ Schafer-Landau. But by and large CS Lewis was correct. When you do away with God objective morality is likely going down as well. The data is proving Lewis correct.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 18, 2019

      Yes, I don’t think there is such a thing as “objective” morality. It is all in how we *relate* to other people and things, so that it is relational and dependent on a huge number of circumstances, not set in stone.

      • Avatar
        joemccarron  December 18, 2019

        Objective realists can agree that morality is relational and dependent on circumstances. What separates the moral relativist from the objective realist in the philosophical/metaethical sense is that the objective realist would think that for any given action (including all the circumstances surrounding it) that action’s morality is an objective fact which wont change based on the view of a person or a group.

        So it is an “objectively real” fact that the earth orbits the sun. The truth of this is not dependent on any person or group’s view of the matter.

        Similarly if taking grain from a starving Ukrainian during the holodomor was wrong it was wrong, regardless of whether any person or group thought it was wrong. At least if you are an objective realist about morality.

        Relativists don’t think morality has objective facts like that. For them immorality is defined by a certain person’s or group’s view of the matter. In other words we make up what is good and evil it is not an objective fact.

        I did a short blog where I try to outline the basic metaethical positions as defined in the field of philosophy.


        I talk about how relativism /subjectivism is different than just considering the circumstance or mental state of a person here:

        If you would rather be introduced to the basic distinctions by a professional philosopher I highly recommend Russ Shafer-Landau’s “Whatever Happened to Good and Evil?”. This is the most accessible book I know that introduces the field of metaethics. Metaethics touches on many philosophical issues and the terminology is often ambiguous. So even an introductory book like “Metaethics an introduction” by Andrew Fischer may be a slow and unproductive read without a professor to help. But after reading “Whatever Happened to Good and Evil?” the topics should be more familiar and accessible. It can take some time but I think learning about metaethics has been one of the most rewarding and enlightening fields of study I have engaged in.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 19, 2019

          Yes, I know full well it’s a complicated field. My view in the very hopelessly brief statement is that there are no “objective” criteria that can be used to evaluate every conceivable human action in every conceivable context into the binary of “right” or “wrong.”

          • Avatar
            joemccarron  January 17, 2020

            It is fairly complicated with quite a few concepts that can be ambiguous. But to understand what CS Lewis is saying you have to clearly understand some of the concepts. The issue is not whether we can take the same criteria and apply them to different situations and contexts. The issue is whether the same exact circumstances and contexts can yield contradictory rulings on morality.

            I think a good way to think of objective versus relativist in morality is to compare it to foods. I don’t like cilantro. My wife does. So we can be talking about the same exact leaf of cilantro and she can say it is good.. I would say it is not good. Now as a relativist about tastes in food I would say we can both be making a true statement. If I were an objectivist about taste in food then I would say one of us must be wrong because the exact same leaf of cilantro can’t be good and not good. But I think whether something tastes good or bad is up to the person doing the judging/tasting. Even if it is the exact same piece of food.

            But I am not a relativist about morality. So if you take the same exact action with all the surrounding circumstances and context I think the action is either moral or it is not moral.

            In taste in food I think you can correctly have different rulings for the exact same food. For morality I don’t think that is correct. Something is not moral/immoral because I believe it is or because I hold a certain view of it. My views of the issue do not define whether it is good or bad as it does with taste in food. Relativists disagree. They essentially think that our views define what is good.

            They think the morality of something is dependent on the mind of the person doing the judging.

            Losing real morality in this way causes all sorts of problems for common sense views of morality. For example moral progress and real justice become illusory. For me dispensing with notions of real justice did not seem rational. So I held on to the view of real morality.

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