Review of C S Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion

James Parker comments bluntly in the November Atlantic that ‘The average Christian—as if we needed reminding—makes a piss-poor apologist for his own faith. One might expect a doctrine as insolently extraordinary in its claims as Christianity to have produced some tip-top debaters, but oh dear…’ This teasing remark seems apt for the best-known Anglophone Christian apologist, C S Lewis, at least to anyone who has been unimpressed by the ‘lunatic, liar or Lord’ trilemma. In this engrossing book John Beversluis takes the trouble to analyze Lewis’s arguments in detail.

Beversluis gives an account of Lewis’s Christian apologetics over a wide range of books, especially Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, Surprised by Joy, and A Grief Observed. He begins with Lewis’s ‘argument from desire’ and what is wrong with it, including in Lewis’s own terms. Lewis’s ‘Joy’ is a desire for something unknown, a desire ‘which no natural happiness will satisfy’ (p. 41) and the pain of which is itself ‘more desirable than any satisfaction.’ It sounds familiar – in fact it sounds adolescent. I remember irritatingly vague yearnings on spring evenings when I was 16, myself – I even remember trying to figure out what the yearning was for. New York?, I would wonder, since I loved going there. But that didn’t seem to be it. Neither did anything else. I didn’t identify it with God, though, much less conclude that the existence of such a yearning entails the existence of something to satisfy it and that that something is God. Perhaps, one might think, Lewis’s was a completely different kind of feeling: more dignified, more elevated, more Wordsworthian. But Beversluis concludes that ‘the pursuit of Joy is a childish thing’ and Lewis’s complaint that he had tried everything and been disappointed ‘underscores its childishness.’ He asks whether Joy is really a salutary experience, ‘the prelude to a momentous discovery,’ and answers that people who are not susceptible to its promptings ‘are less prone to disparage such precious temporal goods as they are fortunate enough to enjoy as being poorer than some allegedly greater nontemporal good for which they are searching.’ (pp 68-9) He adds that claiming that reality does not meet one’s standards is not profundity, ‘it is adolescent disenchantment elevated to cosmic status,’ so perhaps not so different from my meaningless pubescent moods after all.

Beversluis then considers Lewis’s ‘Moral Argument for the existence of a Power behind the moral law,’ and in doing so points out that one of Lewis’s ‘serious weaknesses as a Christian apologist’ is a constant resort to the false dilemma. Over and over again Lewis tells readers that they are forced to choose between two views ‘that allegedly exhaust their alternatives, but almost invariably do not.’ In doing so he leans heavily on the scales: he presents one view as obviously sane and reasonable, and the other as an absurdity, ‘a preposterous straw man.’

After analyzing Lewis’s arguments for God and Christianity (and finding them unsuccessful) Beversluis devotes a chapter to Lewis’s portrayal of nonbelief and nonbelievers. Lewis’s arguments, he says, typically imply that opposing positions are so feeble that they can be demolished with a few sentences. His polemical passages have a characteristically jokey tone, a ‘palpable delight’ in setting up straw men and knocking them down, a ‘slightly superior air of dispelling nonsense and putting the embarrassed opposition to flight.’ (p 196)

The core of the book, as it is perhaps the core of Lewis’s thought and of contemporary Christianity, is the problem of evil, or as Lewis called it, the problem of pain, which Beversluis discusses at length in chapters 9 and 10, ‘The Problem of Evil’ and ‘C S Lewis’s Crisis of Faith.’

Whether one sees evil as a problem, Beversluis notes (p 291), depends on what one means by calling God good. Is the meaning of ‘good’ the same as ordinary usage, or not? This is the Euthyphro question: are pious things pious because they are loved by the gods or are they loved by the gods because they are pious? Christians influenced by Platonism take the second view. ‘Morality is not based on divine commands and prohibitions’ but on the real nature of good, God is good ‘in our sense.’ The other view Beversluis calls Ockhamism, because Ockham ‘set it forth very unflinchingly.’ This metaethical theory, theological voluntarism or divine command morality, holds that God’s will is free to command anything God pleases: ‘“right” does mean “whatever God commands” and “wrong” does mean “whatever God forbids”.’ (p 230) This is the Calvinist view, and also more compatible with the biblical God than the Platonist view is. There are a few people in the bible, like Job, who question god’s goodness from a moral point of view, but they are ‘glaring exceptions to the standing rule that God is to be obeyed no matter what – that is, no matter how flagrantly his commands violate moral rules including the Ten Commandments.’ (p. 291)

Lewis reconsidered his own views on this subject after his wife died and God seemed to him like a ‘Cosmic Sadist.’ The explanation he comes up with is that his faith had been a house of cards, an ‘imaginary faith playing with innocuous counters labelled “Illness,” “Pain,” “Death,” and “Loneliness”’ (p 282) and that God had known this. God had knocked down Lewis’s house of cards so that he would learn the truth about himself – which seems to mean that Lewis considered his wife a teaching tool for him, and God someone who uses some people to teach lessons to others, which, again, makes God seem less than ‘good in our sense.’ As Beversluis notes (p 284), ‘few who have grasped the nature of the rediscovered faith and the process by which it was rediscovered will regard it as a source of “comfort and inspiration”.’ A Grief Observed in fact reveals that Lewis’s faith was recovered at the price of leaving unanswered the very questions he began with. The answer he ends up with – the shift from the Cosmic Sadist to the Great Iconoclast – is a shift from the modified Platonist God to the view that things are good only because God says so.

Beversluis’s account of the complications and tensions of these views, and Lewis’s struggles with them, is compelling, and also sympathetic. Beversluis is critical of Lewis’s faults as an apologist, in particular of his constant resort to straw men and false dilemmas, but he also respects him.

One minor point is that there are numerous typos, which is especially unfortunate with such a closely-argued book. I don’t like to scold copy-editors, but – it’s unfortunate.

John Beversluis, C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion, Prometheus Books 2007.

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