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C. S. Lewis: The Thinker

May 10, 2011

Guest Contributor, Danny Gabelman, offers this review of Chapters 6-10. Kevin Vanhoozer, “On Scripture,” 75-88; Paul S. Fiddes, “On theology,” 89-104; Charles Taliferro, “On Naturalism,” 105-118; Gilbert Meilaender, “On moral knowledge,” 119-131; Joseph P. Cassidy, “On discernment,” 132-145  from Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis, ed. Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 2010.

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The section titled ‘Thinker’ begins with Kevin Vanhoozer’s chapter ‘On Scripture’, which attempts to locate Lewis between fundamentalism and modern biblical criticism. Vanhoozer uses Lewis’ phrase that the Incarnation was ‘myth become fact’ to illustrate Lewis’ belief that both fundamentalism and modern biblical criticism misunderstood scripture. Fundamentalism abandons the mythic nature of scripture in preference for fact, whereas liberal criticism abandons the factual aspect of scripture and focuses on myth. Both display bad literary sensitivity and do not read the Bible with their whole being—heart, soul and mind—and thereby, they each miss vital elements of truth.

Chapter seven, ‘On Theology’ by Paul Fiddes, looks closely at Lewis’ Beyond Personality, the final and most theological part of Mere Christianity. Fiddes notes how Lewis’ theology is primarily conducted through the use of images and metaphors, and, provisional as these are, they nevertheless attempt to hold in tension significant theological truths. Fiddes is most impressed by Lewis’ image of a divine dance within the Trinity (what theologians like to call perichoresis), and he speculates that Lewis might be the first theologian to extend the image of heavenly dance (notably found in Denys) to God himself. Dance symbolizes participation and interaction, and in so doing it highlights the experiential aspect of theology. Other images that Fiddes dwells upon include statues coming to life (to depict how humans are transformed from creatures to sons), immersion and invasion (to describe how Jesus engages with his creation), and infection and injection (to illustrate how individuals enter into the divine life). Of all the images, Fiddes prefers dance, immersion and infection because, he argues, they accentuate the continuity of the natural and the supernatural and show how all reality is interpenetrated with the divine life whereas the other images (statues coming to life, invasion, and injection) open up a gap between nature and grace.

The next chapter, ‘On Naturalism’ by Charles Taliaferro, outlines two of Lewis’ arguments against naturalism—the argument from reason and the argument from morality—and discusses how Lewis relates to contemporary philosophical conversations. If the human mind is just a random arrangement of atoms—so the argument from reason goes—then reason, which told us that the mind is a random arrangement of atoms, is itself not trustworthy, and we have no way of knowing anything. The argument from morality, meanwhile, focuses on how morality seems to contain truth that transcends evolutionary biology. If ‘I ought’ means anything more than ‘I itch,’ then strict naturalism cannot be true (space does not permit an adequate exposition, but see Lewis’ The Abolition of Man). Taliaferro concludes that both of these arguments still have currency in philosophical debates and that Lewis’ general strategy in arguing against naturalism is to expand intellectual frameworks and show how much more complex and interesting reality actually is.

In chapter nine, Gilbert Meilaender writes ‘On Moral Knowledge’ describing Lewis’ understanding of the Tao (natural law or the moral code). According to Lewis, the Tao exists outside of individuals and society and is therefore universal—it is shared by all humanity. Lewis’ moral theory, says Meilaender, is Aristotelian in that morality is never a private matter but requires a process of moral education. This is not indoctrination but initiation for it is not individuals that are binding others to themselves but the Tao binding us to the moral inheritance of all humans. The Tao is a way of wisdom rather than a way of power; it sets limits in order to restrict the overweening desire for power. Meilaender concludes by extending Lewis’ thinking to the contemporary issues of biotechnology, saying that the Tao teaches us that how we live is more important than how long and that the lust to extend life indefinitely might not be morally justified.

The final chapter under review, ‘On Discernment’ by Joseph Cassidy, takes the form of a commentary on The Screwtape Letters and Letters to Malcom in order to show how Lewis compares to an Ignatian concept of spiritual discernment. According to Cassidy, Lewis’ emphasis on order, nature and duty causes him to be more general and universal than Ignatius. Lewis is more interested in portraying how a ‘mere Christian’ engages in prayer and spiritual exercises than in showing a specialist or practical manual of how to deal with higher-level contemplative issues. Lewis’ spirituality in these books remains intentionally amateurish and somewhat mundane—he is ever mindful that there is always irksome work to be done in this life.

The strength of these chapters together is how they identify Lewis as a profound thinker who adapts well to the discourses of different disciplines and historical moments. Lewis’ ideas are still relevant today, and intellectuals from varied backgrounds can fruitfully engage with his work. My only slight criticism, however, is that this approach of extracting particular strands of Lewis’ thought and showing how it relates to contemporary conversations somewhat obscures or elides his contextuality and relationship to previous thinkers. Comparisons are made for example between Lewis and a wide variety of trendy theologians and philosophers (Moltmann, Barth, Pannenberg, Balthasar, Richard Rorty, to name just a few) but notably missing are connections to his immediate influences and forbearers (Austin Farrer, Tolkien, Chesterton, Charles Williams, Rudolf Otto, et al.).

Most conspicuously absent in a section devoted to Lewis as a theological and philosophical thinker is even a passing nod to George MacDonald, his self-professed ‘master.’ Vanhoozer, for instance, says that Lewis sounds ‘neo-orthodox’ when he says ‘it is Christ himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God’, and Vanhoozer hints that Lewis might have picked this up from Barth. More obviously, though, Lewis is drawing from MacDonald who seventy-five years before Barth says: ‘by the Word of God, I do not understand The Bible. The Bible is a Word of God, the chief of his written words, because it tells us of The Word, the Christ’ (Unspoken Sermons). Similar oversights of Lewis’ relationship to the past occur in most chapters.

Undoubtedly, there are many other academic works that point out these connections, and this book is doing something useful in moving discussion beyond source hunting. Yet there is also a danger in making Lewis look too idiosyncratic, original and able to anticipate so many contemporary concerns. In my opinion, Lewis’ gift was not primarily in being an innovational writer and thinker (though he was) but in being a humble, loving and careful reader who could lucidly amalgamate, simplify and present the ideas of others.

Nonetheless, these chapters are excellent introductions to key aspects of Lewis’ thought. They are clear and well-written, and they helpfully address most of Lewis’ non-fictional works. It is indeed impressive that Lewis can be found to be so enduringly insightful on such a range of intellectual and spiritual issues.

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Danny Gabelman is a PhD candidate in ITIA working on the fairytale levity of George MacDonald.  Originally from Colorado, Danny is marrying a beautiful English girl this summer and has plans to remain in the UK for the foreseeable future.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Cole Matson permalink
    May 10, 2011 10:12 am

    I think you’re spot-on with your critique re: the influence of Barth vs. MacDonald. When ‘source-hunting’ in Lewis, one should always rule out the influence of ‘old books’ before assuming the influence of new.

    Also, good point that Lewis saw himself as a translator, rather than as an innovator (which point he makes in his essay ‘Rejoinder to Dr Pittenger’). I think the only place he claims innovation is in ‘Transpositions’, actually.

  2. May 10, 2011 2:15 pm

    Indeed, Lewis knew well enough about contemporary theology, and the more I read him, the more impressed I am at his knowledge of contemporary literature as well. But when it comes down to real influences, the presence of old books is much stronger in Lewis’s thought.

    But tell me, Danny, do the chapters you reviewed make much reference to Lewis’s fiction at all? It seems to me that each of these topics, and especially the one on moral knowledge, should have direct bearing on all his fiction.

  3. Danny permalink
    May 10, 2011 4:39 pm

    Thank you both for your comments. Cole, your references what Lewis says on the subject are helpful. I wouldn’t have wanted the essays to be wholly about source hunting, but a few gestures in the direction of his significant influences would have provided a more rounded picture.
    Steve, the essays were also somewhat sparse on their references to his fiction, although the one on moral knowledge probably had the most. That essay mainly discusses ‘That Hideous Strength’ in connection to ‘Abolition of Man’ (since Lewis himself made the connection) but also briefly references ‘The Magicians Nephew’. Two of the essays make almost no mention of his fiction (On Scripture, On Naturalism) while the one ‘On Discernment’ sits in an odd liminal place since it reflects on Screwtape and Letters from Malcolm which are both quasi-fictional. On Theology has a handful of very brief sideways glances to Narnia and Perelandra. Overall, though, reflecting on his fiction was not a main concern in these chapters.

  4. May 10, 2011 9:37 pm

    Thanks for the additional information, Danny. That’s very helpful, and pretty consistent with what I found in the first few chapters. I suppose I find the slight treatment of the fiction disappointing for several reasons, not the least is the fact that students often turn to Cambridge Companions as starting points for research projects, and it’s helpful when authors make some direct links between an author’s major works. On the other hand, since the book is in the Religion series, I suppose the fiction seems like a secondary concern to many of the authors. My worry is that few of the authors really seem to see any of the fiction as contributing to Lewis’s arguments on any of these topics. (The chapter on violence is a case in point.) But I suspect that, like writers from John Milton to Wendell Berry, Lewis found that there were certain things that were best articulated in narrative rather than in direct argument.

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