SELF-INTERVIEW ON C. S. LEWIS

I’ve interviewed myself in these pages before.  The following are questions I came up with to ask a number of Lewis scholars when I was the editor of The Lamp-Post: The Journal of the Southern California C. S. Lewis Society.  So I thought I might as well ask myself too and see what I had to say.

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Tell us a little bit about who you are, what you do, and how C. S. Lewis fits into that.

I am a minister of the Gospel and missionary who makes his living by teaching English and Philosophy at a small Christian college. If it weren’t for Lewis, I doubt I would be a Christian today at all—so you can blame him for all of the above! He showed me that a Christian mind was possible, and no one has done more to form mine. Discerning readers can find Lewis in all of my books, but he shows up most explicitly in Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Nashville: Broadman, 2006) and Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012).

Lewis's house, The Kilns, Headington Quarry, Oxford
Lewis’s house, The Kilns, Headington Quarry, Oxford

What was your first C. S. Lewis book? How did you come to read it, and what impact did it have on you at the time?

My senior year in high school one of my friends said, “If you like Tolkien you should check out his friend C. S. Lewis.” So I went to the library and checked out the first Lewis book that fell into my hands: An Experiment in Criticism! I’ve never met anyone else for whom that was his first Lewis book. I was captivated by the combination of depth, clarity, and common sense that we find in all of Lewis’s books, and I was fortunate enough to recognize myself in Lewis’s portrait of the literary reader. I’ve been trying to follow his advice ever since.

You are going to spend a year marooned on a desert island. You can take one Lewis fiction book with you. Which one, and why?

Only one? That’s hard! And I suppose I can’t cheat and count the Chronicles of Narnia or The Space Trilogy as one book? O. K. Perelandra. It’s one of the most original secondary worlds ever created, and every detail of it is loaded with spiritual significance. Accepting what the Waves bring you rather than sleeping on the Fixed Land as a metaphor for the life of faith, for example, is a picture I cannot meditate on enough.

Approaching Malacandra
Approaching Malacandra

You are going to spend a year marooned on a desert island. You can take one Lewis non-fiction book with you. Which one, and why?

Miracles. It has more good philosophy, good theology, and good mythology all woven together into one rich whole than any other book I’ve ever read. The Argument from Reason is a devastating refutation of Naturalism, and The Grand Miracle doesn’t just defend the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ, but really shows it to be the heart of theology and of life and the fulfillment of all human longing.

What to your mind are Lewis’s greatest strengths and weaknesses as a Christian story teller?

Lewis is Tolkien’s equal in mythopoeic imagination. That sounds like a controversial claim, but it shouldn’t be. Lewis’s imagination was more original, but Tolkien’s more careful and consistent. There were dwarves, elves, and goblins (orcs) before Tolkien—but where was the Hross, the Pfiffltrigg, the Sorn, or the floating island? On the other hand, you will get glitches in Narnia (like where vegetables came from in the Long Winter) that don’t happen in Middle Earth. Lewis is a master of spiritual symbolism. The Stone Table portrays the atonement better than Mere Christianity explains it. On the other hand, he sometimes allowed himself speculations that go beyond the bounds of “mere Christianity,” such as Emeth’s inclusivist conversion. See my article “’For the Sake of the Story’: Doctrine and Discernment in Reading C. S. Lewis,” Modern Reformation 18:3 (May-June, 2009): 33-36.

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What to your mind are Lewis’s greatest strengths and weaknesses as a Christian evangelist?

He meets people where they are. He communicates Christian truth without watering it down but also without using Christian jargon. Most importantly, through his evocation of Joy and his positive portrait of the loving and lordly Aslan, he shows us why Christ is above all things to be desired. His only weakness is sometimes a little dithering on the vicarious substitutionary nature of the atonement—but he atones (ahem) for that by portraying it so potently in the Stone Table.

What to your mind are Lewis’s greatest strengths and weaknesses as a Christian apologist?

His unique combination of wide learning, no-nonsense clarity, elegant language, and apt analogy remains as the standard to which Christian apologists should all aspire and the example they should seek to emulate. In himself he has no real weaknesses as an apologist, but the passage of time has caused some of his arguments to need updating. It will not now be quite so easy to maintain, for example, that in the midst of the Moral Argument no one is going to say, “To hell with your standard,” as Lewis could assume of his audience when he wrote Mere Christianity in the 1940’s. The argument is still valid, but the change in the assumptions of the audience will require more work from us now to get to the same place.

The desk where Lewis wrote his books out by hand
The desk where Lewis wrote his books out by hand

What to your mind are Lewis’s greatest strengths and weaknesses as a Christian thinker?

There are great rational minds good at analysis; there are great imaginative minds good at synthesis. There is no other mind I know of that combined both of those virtues so strongly, or meshed them so seamlessly into one unified whole. It is the combination that makes Lewis so valuable—indeed, I would argue, the most important Christian intellectual of the Twentieth Century. Lewis employed this uniquely gifted mind in the service of Christ and of mere Christianity. Nevertheless, his lack of formal training in theology sometimes caused him to be led astray. He had never encountered an intelligent and nuanced presentation of the doctrine of the plenary verbal inspiration of Scripture, for example, so he dismisses it as “Fundamentalism,” which is misleading.

Which Lewis book (or essay) do you think has been or become sadly neglected and which you would like to see more people read?

One essay I don’t see quoted as often as it deserves to be is “The Poison of Subjectivism” (Christian Reflections 72-81).

Lewis at work
Lewis at work

Which Lewis book (or essay) has had the greatest influence on your own thinking?

I would have to give a three-way tie to Miracles, The Abolition of Man, and “Meditation in a Toolshed.” Miracles I discussed above (I took it to the Desert Island). The Abolition of Man may be the most incisive and profound refutation of Reductionism ever written—I devote a whole chapter in Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Nashville: Broadman, 2006) to explaining why that is so important. And for a mere essay to make this list? You should go read it, and you will immediately see why!

You have been given the power to ensure that your readers will truly “get” one Lewis idea, understand it, digest it, and forevermore incorporate it into their thinking. Which idea is it?

Aslan is not a tame lion—but he’s good, I tell you!

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For more of Dr. Williams’ thoughts on Lewis, click on the Lantern Hollow e-store.  Inklings of Reality shows Lewis’s influence, and Reflections from Plato’s Cave has four chapters dealing with aspects of Lewis’s thought.

If you are interested in the case for God or more on the Christian world view, check out Dr. Williams' book REFLECTIONS FROM PLATO'S CAVE in the Lantern Hollow E-store.
If you are interested in the case for God or more on the Christian world view, check out Dr. Williams’ book REFLECTIONS FROM PLATO’S CAVE in the Lantern Hollow E-store.
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POSTMODERN “THEORY” SELF-DECONSTRUCTS

POSTMODERN “THEORY” SELF-DECONSTRUCTS

(With a Little Help from an Old Western Scholar)

 NOTE:  The following dialog is based on a debate I actually had with a Post-Modernist friend who will remain nameless.  I say this so you will know that the antagonist is not a straw man constructed by me but an actual Post-Modernist.  Other than giving myself the last word (because I can—Foucalt is not completely wrong), I have not appreciably altered the dialog.  This is the kind of discussion I actually have from time to time.  

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One “Old Western Scholar”: C. S. Lewis

SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS:  How is it that thinkers like Jaques Derrida have become such venerated gurus in graduate English programs?  Derrida couldn’t have written an intelligible sentence if his life had depended on it.  He makes banal, juvenile relativism sound profound by cloaking it in jargon.  And he did not even take his own ideas seriously: He proclaimed the “death of the author” in books that had his name on the spine!  I can’t see why he deserves any respect at all. 

POST MODERNICUS: I think you fail to understand how a scholar like Derrida asserts what he asserts. The message of his texts is not just what is written, but also how it is written. The reason his books are complex is because, were he to simply and clearly assert the point he wanted to make, he would destroy his own point.

SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: Exactly. Though I think he does it quite effectively either way.

POST MODERNICUS: Besides, jargon dependence is not necessarily a sign of unclear thinking. Sometimes, you’re trying to say something that simply cannot be said using ordinary language. Do you demand that physicists use ordinary language? Then why demand it of philosophers?

SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: Technical language and jargon are not the same thing. The former exists for the sake of efficiency, the latter to obscure the fact that the content is non-existent, muddy, or fatuous.  What was Derrida saying except that we can’t say anything?  The only way to hide the fact that it is sheer self-contradictory nonsense is to hide its emptiness under jargon.

POST MODERNICUS: But there is a difference between the nonsense that a poor freshman writer might hand in and the nonsense of a thinker like Derrida (or an author like James Joyce) puts out.

SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: Yes, there is a difference. Derrida’s obscurity was intentional, and the freshman’s is not. Which simply means that Derrida had less excuse.

The man himself.
Another “Old Western Scholar”: J. R. R. Tolkien

POST MODERNICUS: But Derridean nonsense is nonsense that makes sense — it expresses meaning in the fact that it is nonsense.  It demonstrates the emptiness of logocentricity by its very being. For example, there are at least three good ways to interpret Derrida’s book Spurs. Why? Not because he is incapable of writing clearly, but because the book is meant to express the notion that a text can have more than one viable interpretation.

SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: Of course a text that is deliberately written to be incomprehensible and indeterminate can mean anything. What does this prove?  How does it show that any text can mean anything?   How does it advance knowledge or understanding? It’s just a silly game, and a rather tedious and tiresome one at that. Why dignify it by calling it scholarship or philosophy? I still have been shown no compelling reason to do so. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, “I am so dense, the things that Critics see / Are obstinately invisible to me.”

POST MODERNICUS: Do you not agree with Derrida that we cannot have a God’s-eye view of the world?

SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: No. I don’t.  Contrary to Derrida, a God’s-eye view does exist. God has it, and he has shared at least parts of it with us. He did so definitively in Christ and Scripture, but also in Reason and Conscience. Again, it depends what you mean by “God’s-eye view.” When God contemplates the fact that 2 + 2 = 4, or the Law of Non-Contradiction (as in C. S. Lewis’s book Miracles), or the Law of Decent Behaviour (from Mere Christianity), he no doubt sees many more ramifications of these truths than I do. But we are contemplating the same thing; their content is no different for Him than it is for me. And, because these are things founded in his Mind, they are Reality, just as hard and unyielding as the bullet-like raindrops of Lewis’s The Great Divorce.

POST MODERNICUS: If truth comes only from Christ and scripture, do atheists then have no true beliefs?

SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: I never said “only.” Christ and Scripture are in my view the authoritative and trustworthy guides to Truth, but Scripture is not exhaustive of Truth. As Lewis said, “when the Bible tells you to feed the hungry, it doesn’t give you lessons in cookery.” Even Derrida has some true beliefs, though he does his best to suppress them.

POST MODERNICUS: I have no view of truth. I think I sometimes say true things, and that God knows all true things, but I don’t know what truth is. And neither, I would claim, does anyone else.

SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: Are these statements true? How do you know? If the last two are true, then you cannot know that they are. But, then, if you are not asserting that they are true, this discussion becomes impossible, a game too trivial to be played—like reading Derrida!

POST MODERNICUS: And what do you and Lewis mean by “reason is the organ which perceives truth”? You mean we just “see” what is true?”

Pit
The pit into which the self-referential intellect inevitably falls.

SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: Sometimes, as with First Principles. People who try to deny them can do so only by affirming them in spite of themselves. You either see this or you don’t. Once you have seen it, it is forever after self-evident and undeniable.  And the only way it can be denied is through a kind of really despicable intellectual dishonesty.

POST MODERNICUS: That doesn’t seem right. Honest and intelligent people often differ about just what the truth is. So there must be more to it than that.

SCHOLASTICUS VETUS OCCIDENTALIS: Yes, there is more to it, but not less.  I did not claim that all truth can be seen that clearly; only certain basic truths.  But they are enough to cut us off from total skepticism and to serve as a foundation for other truths. The fact that people disagree about those other truths does not keep even non-self-evident truths from being either true or knowable. Truth is determined by evidence and reason, not by opinion polls.

I think it ultimately boils down to a choice offered us by Milton’s Satan (the first Post-Modernist), who claimed that “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” He was claiming the right to create his own values, his own meaning, and his own view of truth in his own mind, because there is no objective reality, no Author, to which or whom he was willing to submit. Derrida is in my mind simply his most sophisticated and consistent disciple to date. Lewis was the great champion of the other choice: the mind, like everything else in the created world, is God’s place, and can therefore only find fulfillment when, instead of insisting on the right to create its own meaning/truth/values, it submits to His.*

Dante-Satan
Satan, the first Post Modernist, claims the mind is its own place, with predictable results.

The Satanic/Derridean way of seeing things increasingly dominates the intellectual landscape. But Lewis’s writings still incarnate the older view on almost every page. Lewis was wrong about one thing, though: he was not the last Dinosaur. I am but a tiny lizard to his T Rex, but at least I am here (and I am not alone). One of Flannery O’Connor’s characters is told, “People have quit doing that.” His response is my motto: “They ain’t quit doing it as long as I’m doing it.”

*See my article “’The Mind is its Own Place’: Satan’s Philosophy and the (Post)Modern Dilemma,” Proceedings of the Georgia Philological Association 2 (December 2007): 20-34.  A shorter, more popular version of the same material was published as “Devil Talk: Milton’s Post-Modern Satan and his Disciples,” Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity 21:7 (September, 2008): 24-27.  And the original article has been reprinted as a chapter in Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012).

To order Dr. Williams’ books, go to

 

https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.

 


Meditations with C. S. Lewis: Trusting the Images

When the purport of the images — what they say to our fear and hope and will and affections — seems to conflict with the theological abstractions, trust the purport of the images every time.[1]

C. S. Lewis’s friend Owen Barfield once wrote of him that “what he thought about everything was secretly present in what he said about anything.”  In the Lewis quote above, from Letters to Malcolm, we have a fine example of what Lewis thought about something that was at least secretly present, and often overtly present, in what he said about anything.

Lewis’s preference for images over abstractions, his deep satisfaction in image-rich language and distaste for image-deficient language, was something he described often in his writings.  For example, in Studies in Words Lewis discussed the word bitch at some length, noting that in his time bitch was already well along the journey from being a word freighted with a vivid picture – a canine picture – to being a mere epithet, divested of picture-content (that journey is now complete).  We can see this clearly when we contrast the word bitch with catty: the feline image still lives in the latter word in a way that the canine image that once lived in bitch resides there no longer.

But for Lewis the point wasn’t just an academic one; it had profound theological implications.  For example, in Chapter 11 of Miracles Lewis takes on apophatic theology – that is, a theology that seeks understanding of God only by describing what He is not – by telling a parable of mystical limpets and erudite limpets.[2]  The parable goes thus: one sage of a limpet “catches a glimpse of what Man is like,” and goes about reporting his vision to his limpet-disciples.  As he must, the limpet-sage uses “many negatives . . . Man has no shell, is not attached to a rock, is not surrounded by water.”  For the sage limpet and his disciples, these negatives safeguard what is actually a “positive and concrete” vision of man.  But later, erudite limpets, “who write histories of philosophy and give lectures on comparative religion,” with no such positive vision, glean only the negatives from the sage limpet’s words.  And so “they reject as crude, materialistic superstition any doctrine which would attribute to Man a definite shape, a structure, and organs.”

Rejecting the sage limpet’s positive images, and deriving an image-depleted abstraction from his negative ones, the erudite limpets impoverish both their theology and their spirituality exactly like the “de-mythologizers” of Christianity did — and still do.  As Lewis continued in the letter to Malcolm quoted above:

For our abstract thinking is itself a tissue of analogies: a continual modelling of spiritual reality in legal or chemical or mechanical terms.  Are these likely to be more adequate than the sensuous, organic, and personal images of scripture — light and darkness, river and well, seed and harvest, master and servant, hen and chickens, father and child?  The footprints of the Divine are more visible in that rich soil than across rocks or slag-heaps.  Hence what they call ‘de-mythologising’ Christianity can easily be re-mythologising it — and substituting a poorer mythology for a richer.[3]


[1] C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer 54 (1963).

[2] Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study 118-19 (Simon & Schuster 1996)(1947).

[3] Lewis, Letters to Malcolm 54-55.

Meditations with C. S. Lewis: A Layman’s Defense of the Argument from Reason

C. S. Lewis, best known as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, was also one of the most profound thinkers of twentieth century Christianity.  Along with J. R. R. Tolkien, he has inspired millions of people, include all of the authors at Lantern Hollow Press.  On Sundays we would like to take a moment to offer up a little Lewis for your consideration.

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Recently, I shared the above image from the Southern California C. S. Lewis Society on my Facebook page.  After a few hours, I noticed that several other friends had passed it along and so I looked at the reaction it got on their pages.  Some of them were quite…interesting:  “Lewis is an idiot because someone else says so and I read something different in a textbook.”  “Lewis’s argument isn’t wholly original.”  “It’s all based on the idea that rationality actually exists.”*    In almost all cases, people didn’t seem to be concerned as to whether or not his argument is actually true.**

Lewis’s most basic point is that if you are correct and there is no inherent rationality behind the universe, the burden of proof is on you to explain why anyone should believe a word you say–even yourself.  Naturalism is based on the idea that humanity is nothing more than a product of the total irrational system.  Naturalists look at the span of entire UNIVERSE, presume that it is thoroughly irrational, and then suddenly insist that humanity is the single apparent exception to this rule (themselves and their favorite philosophers in particular).  Why?  “Natural selection,” which they presume a priori is capable of producing said rationality.

Of course the response then becomes “Rationality originating from natural selection is based on observed evidence:  we exist, we think, and therefore it is proven.”  It is, however, indeed a priorinonsense to examine the results of an alleged process–one that has not been observed directly and is only inferred based on a complex system of interdependent assumptions–and then to state categorically in the face of all contrary evidence that your preferred answer is by default the necessary one.

And so we return to the very solid reality of Lewis’s argument:  If we are nothing more than chance plus time in a universe of nonsense, we have no logical grounds to claim that our thoughts are “rational” beyond blind faith.  Those who believe in God–note that Lewis did not say the Christian God at this point–have a consistent starting point from which to base their claim to reason.  Pure naturalists don’t, and they have never succeeded in crafting a significant response (that I’ve seen) that doesn’t violate the basic principles of their position.

Does this “prove” God’s existence?  Of course not; not by itself.  But Lewis didn’t try to base his entire proof for God on this one point, and he certainly never intended for this alone to prove the existence of the Christian god.  It does strongly suggest that there must be some larger, more significant Rationality to the universe that gives our lesser rationality meaning and makes it possible.  It is a step in a larger, deeper structure that lays a foundation for bigger things that some fear might lead to the reality of God.

Which is probably why his critics spend so much time and effort belittling this “disproven” philosopher.

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*This point doesn’t deserve special treatment.  If you actually want to put together a rational argument that rationality doesn’t exist, be quiet and twiddle your thumbs.  Don’t waste anyone’s time when you yourself don’t believe you have anything rational to say!

**I should also mention that the reactions of Facebook are not representative of the most difficult problems posed by critics of Lewis’s argument from reason.  Victor Reppert has examined the best they have to offer in his book C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea and he finds that the Lewis’s argument withstands the test.  It is well worth reading!