C. S. Lewis & the Conversion of the West
The Value of C. S. Lewis for the Christian Mission Today
by William J. Abraham
C. S. Lewis was one of the two internationally famous theologians which Ireland has produced in its long embrace of the Christian tradition. The other was John Scotus Erigena. I find Lewis an intriguing figure as I seek to come to terms with what it means to engage in evangelism in our contemporary Western culture. Even a cursory reading of Lewis reveals a network of proposals which deserve the closest attention. In fact, it is a great pity that those interested in the conversion or evangelization1 of the West have paid next to no attention to Lewis and what he has to say to us. I can think of at least two reasons why this is the case. First, those interested in evangelism have tended to restrict evangelism either to proclamation or to numerical church growth. In both cases the help that Lewis can tender has been totally shut out as irrelevant. Lewis is seen either as a useful pre-evangelist in his role of apologist, or he is construed as a kind of valuable intellectual nursemaid who can help retain converts once they have accepted the good news, committed themselves to Christ, and joined the church.
Secondly, those interested in Lewis have tended to be so consumed with the Lewis phenomena—its origins, its associates, its intrinsic content and value—that they have rarely explored the great potential Lewis represents in the field of evangelism. Lewis has in fact both formally and materially much to say to it and I hope that someday someone will take up this subject and give it the extended treatment it deserves.
I think there are two hands in evangelism, one where we reach out to share, the other where we reach out to receive. With the one hand we reach out to declare with a passion and flair the good news of the arrival of God’s kingdom in Jesus Christ. With the other hand we reach out with intelligence and love to receive those who respond to the gospel, seeking as best we can to ground them in the fullness of God’s rule on earth. Elsewhere I have spelled out the grammar and practical content of this vision of evangelism.2
Here I intend to consider how we should construe the West that we are seeking to convert. I perceive the modern world as thoroughly fragmented and chaotic. In fact, to speak of a single modern world is an oxymoron. Our Western world is a world of ghettos bound together by airline traffic, democratic capitalism, T-shirts, and the ideology of pluralism. Whatever it is we hold in common, what strikes me are the differences that confront us in the particularities of our subcultures. Even to speak of our culture as “postmodern,” whatever its value for certain purposes, is a risk, for such talk posits a monolithic generalization which is deeply distorting in the field of evangelism. If we look at our culture as a whole, we are confronted by a discord of voices, of worldviews, of moral traditions, of lifestyles, and of inner informal logics which cannot be flattened out into a comprehensive theoretical analysis—whether intellectual, economic, or sociological.
Interestingly, this situation leads automatically to the first lesson Lewis has to teach us about evangelism. Our first task is to acknowledge the vagaries and diversity of our culture. To be sure, Lewis was well aware of the global trends of highbrow culture. He had no hesitation in making generalizations about the cultural elites he knew. Yet, this was tempered by a refreshing realism about our culture. Nowhere is this more aptly stated than in his essay, “Revival or Decay.”3 Lewis there pokes fun at the headmaster who reveled in optimistic generalizations about religion in the West. Lewis aptly ruminates on the “approaches” to “religion” he has actually met.
We can capture the main point here by simply suggesting that we are back in the position of the church of the first three centuries. Christians live in a world that is radically pluralistic and fragmented. For the most part the age of Christendom is gone, and we must now happily acknowledge our marginal, minority, and even sectarian status in the conflict of ideas and ideologies.
The second lesson Lewis has to teach us lies openly in the neighborhood of the first. It is this: in seeking to convert the West we must take our bearings concerning the content of the gospel not from our culture but from the great eternal verities of the gospel itself. To take the negative side of this, we might say that to take our bearings from our culture as presently constituted is to commit suicide. It would mean allowing the gospel to become the mirror of a set of contradictory alternatives which would willy-nilly entail its fragmentation and dissolution. This does not mean that we be insensitive to the particularities of our subcultures; much less does it mean that we become uninformed or ahistorical in our thinking about our culture. It simply requires us to be ruthlessly honest about the consequences of modernity. Its fragmentation may provide an opportunity for evangelization which may surprise us, but it would not have surprised Lewis. This has already happened in Anglo-American philosophy. Witness the extraordinary spectacle of a minority of significant, contemporary philosophers who got enough distance from Christianity in their training to treat it as an amazing surprise in the welter of alternatives available. Likewise, in certain circles it is possible for distinguished scholars in various fields to give apologetic lectures on behalf of Christianity precisely because it is allowed equal time alongside, say Marxism, radical feminism, deconstructionism, Dianic witchcraft, and the like.
We do not, however, take our bearings from such considerations. Our second task is to relearn the language of faith, to steep ourselves in the creeds, to dig deep in the commonalities of the Christian tradition, and to learn again the gospel of the kingdom embedded in the scriptural record. This is the place to start as evangelists; and to these fountains we must return again and again with open hearts, self-critical minds, and bended knees. Lewis grasped and lived out this admonition with characteristic thoroughness and flair.Our third task is to express the faith boldly in way accessible to the common people. Lewis expresses this with an interesting practical suggestion in a letter addressed publicly to W. Normal Pittenger:
Typically, Lewis exaggerates a little here, but is it asking too much to expect the evangelist to translate everything the gospel says into vulgar English? For over two centuries revivalists of one sort or another have used this technique, with results thoroughly mixed in character. Nevertheless, Lewis’s approach to Christian apologetics should not be limited to his literary or homiletical works. Today, the Western world needs another Charles Wesley to help us sing the gospel with enthusiasm. I am currently experimenting in this domain by working with two Dutch country and western singers who have set Wesley’s poetry and hymns to the rhythms suitable for autoharp, banjo, and guitar. What a surprise it would be if Wesley’s genius could be recovered in this thoroughly unlikely fashion! Lewis might not approve of the music, but I think he would respect the intention, and even the results. From the interview with Dr. Stephen Olford in the Wade collection at Wheaton, we know that Lewis was sufficiently in tune with revival meetings to share his own testimony. Christians must find a way to enter the popular culture with the gospel without capitulating to the culture’s narrowness or its norms. In Wesley’s terms, we must consent to be more vile; in Lewis’s terms, more vulgar. In doing so we shall be emulating the kenosis of our Lord and Savior.
Thus far I have highlighted three principles which should inform our evangelistic strategies. We need to acknowledge the radical discontinuities in our culture, we need to be faithful to the gospel, and we need to risk translating the faith into the vernacular. I would now like to turn to another question which involves two issues that are likely to be sharply disputed. The general question is, How far can Lewis help us in the field of pre-evangelism? The two ancillary issues are how far Lewis can really help us in the field of apologetics, and what help can be garnered from Lewis’s notion of “mere Christianity.”
For many, apologetics has been Lewis’s strongest suit, but in more recent times this assumption has been subject to stringent analysis. For example, John Beversluis has argued that after the stunning defeat by Anscombe in the famous Oxford debate at the Socratic club, Lewis in fact abandoned serious apologetic work, turning to fiction as a better way to open up the faith to unbelievers.6 And, A. N. Wilson in his biography of Lewis suggests that even if Lewis did not abandon apologetics, he really should have done so. Wilson sees Lewis as an intellectual bully whose arguments are shallow and insensitive. In contrast, Wilson is very laudatory in his appreciation of Lewis’s own literary creations.
A second case against Lewis as an apologist has been made because of recent developments in epistemology. In the last twenty years philosophers like Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff have made compelling cases against any evidentalist defense of the rationality of religious belief. It would be fair to say that with the crumbling of most forms of Enlightenment foundationalism, Christian theists find themselves in a radically different position from that prevalent a century ago. In our situation the use of narrative, allegory, drama, fantasy, poetry and the like may prove extremely important in the articulation of the Christian faith and in opening up the heart and mind to the depth and simplicity of the gospel. Hence Lewis’s heart may prove more lasting than his head at this point.
But I am reluctant to limit Lewis’s role in the field of apologetics to his heart. There is nothing inherent in Reformed epistemology that would prevent Lewis from performing a useful service as an intellectual apologist. Indeed, Plantinga and his many friends are happy that arguments be deployed to defend Christianity. Their objection is not directed to the use of argument but to the status of argument in the cognitive scheme of things. They are keen to insist that argument is not essential to the rationality of Christian faith. Moreover, good sense and diplomatic strategy surely suggest that Christians not play off the one side of Lewis against the other. There is surely a place in evangelism both for narrative and for argument. Each has its proper place.
The crux, here, is whether Lewis has any good arguments at all. If he does not, then that game is over, and we should turn to his narratives. In my judgment the game is far from over. The matter can best be expressed by noting that the deep logic of Lewis’s account of the rationality of the Christian belief has a distinguished pedigree both before and after him. Before him stand figures like John Wesley, Joseph Butler, John Henry Newman, and William Tennant; after him follow a whole crew of figures, most notably, Austin Farrer, Basil Mitchell, John Lucas, and Richard Swinburne. Lewis’s epistemological thought exists in a tradition in which rational adjudication depends on the assembling of cumulative case arguments rather than on strictly inductive or deductive arguments. Consequently, Lewis cannot be dismissed by the kind of psychological and reductionistic accounts deployed by Beversluis and Wilson.
Lewis presented at a popular and vulgar level what can, in fact, be argued at a thoroughly sophisticated level. At a popular level this is bound to appear as bullying, precisely because ancillary arguments or deeper presuppositions have to be set aside in order to get an opponent to see the force of a piece of evidence. In short, then, I think there is more intellectual horsepower in Lewis than he is currently allowed and it would be a grave mistake to set aside his usefulness and his challenge as passé.
Evangelists today will discover that their apologetics will not be adequate if they simply repeat Lewis or study what Lewis has achieved. As the founders of the C. S. Lewis Centre have recognized, we need to do now what Lewis did for his day and generation. Evangelists need to develop their own account of the various opponents faced today, and should develop their own arguments to articulate and defend the Christian faith. They must find their own voices and take into account the changed contexts and circumstances in which they are called to operate. Naturally, this applies both to the creation of appropriate fiction, fantasy, allegory, poetry, and to the development of apologetic literature. For the evangelist there is still considerable intellectual horsepower in Lewis’s work in apologetics.
The other question I want to take up has a very different focus and it cuts much more deeply into the Lewis agenda. You will recall that central to that agenda was a certain way of construing the heart and defining the essence of the Christian tradition. Lewis isolated a common core of Christian teaching which, following Baxter, he dubbed “mere Christianity.” This allowed Lewis to set aside what he considered to be peripheral or secondary matter, and it enabled him to concentrate on the big themes of the Christian tradition. It also, incidentally, gives us a way to distinguish what is peripheral and central about Christianity in Lewis’s thought. Hence, we should not confuse Lewis’s opinions about gender or his allegiance to Idealism or his particular political judgments with the heart of the Christian message. The questions we must face here are very radical. Is Lewis’s apologetic strategy satisfactory? Is there such an animal as “mere Christianity”? Is it a convenient invention on the part of Lewis? Is the notion even coherent?These issues have been raised of late by a scholar thoroughly sympathetic to Lewis, James Patrick. In his full-scale study of Lewis at Oxford, he puts the issue succinctly:
The matter is also forthrightly raised by Father John Randolph Willis. In the introduction to Pleasures Forevermore: The Theology of C. S. Lewis, Willis
Not surprisingly we already have a rejoinder to charges like these from Walter Hooper, who takes a conciliatory line in his response and concedes that Anglicanism is inadequate in that it does not possess a seat of doctrinal authority. Yet, Hooper is keen to insist on the generally Catholic character of Lewis’s piety, as well as Lewis’s potential openness to the “the spectacle of a Pope actually functioning as a head of Christendom.” However, he thinks that Lewis is entirely within his rights to articulate and defend “mere Christianity.” According to Hooper, Willis has made two mistakes, one of interpretation, the other of strategy. Regarding the interpretation of Lewis, Hooper believes that Willis has failed to interpret correctly the extremely limited purpose of Lewis’s move. Lewis merely wants to lay out what Christians hold in common and thus get folks interested and started on their journey. Regarding strategy, Hooper believes that Willis has failed to see the importance of a place from which to begin when dealing with the seeker or outsider. The place to begin is not with infallibility but with the common verities of the Christian tradition. This is precisely the strategy Lewis commends and uses.
My sympathies are entirely with Hooper in these matters. It seems to me that both Patrick and Willis are deeply mistaken both in matters of fact and logic. “Mere Christianity” is neither merely the doctrines held by the group who met in the Eagle and Child on Tuesdays, nor is it a vagabond without a home, nor is it the failed via media of the Anglican tradition, nor does it from a logical point of view collapse without foundations if it is not systematically integrated with pope, magisterium, and sacraments.
Moreover, besides the issue of intent and strategy identified by Hooper, there are two other considerations which support these contentions. The first is Lewis’s own clear account of the concept of mere Christianity, an idea important enough to be quoted at length. It occurs in a striking passage in “On the Reading of Old Books.”
In this passage Lewis refutes the claim that “mere Christianity” is merely the historically relative opinions of Anglicans or the men in the Eagle and Child. Lewis was drawn to his notion precisely because it was none of these. On the contrary, it was to be found in the old books, in the classics of the faith. Furthermore, it is not a homeless or vagabond body of material. Its strength is that it can fit into several homes without fuss and tension. It is not a vagabond but a movable feast which Christians of varying and even conflicting traditions can share with delight and integrity. In this role it should not be asked to achieve more than it intended, for its purposes and usefulness are modestly circumscribed. Finally, it does not collapse, as Willis believes it must, because it does not belong essentially to some doctrine of infallibility, whether Roman Catholic or Evangelical in content. Indeed, the quest to base “mere Christianity” or the eternal verities of the faith upon some doctrine of infallibility is deeply misguided. It betrays a lack of understanding of the scope and nature of “mere Christianity.” It assumes that “mere Christianity” needs to be based on some deeper religious dogma of infallibility, say of scripture (the Protestant move) or Church (the Roman Catholic move). It implies that “mere Christianity” needs a deep religious foundation. However, the critical point to note about “mere Christianity” is that its content is the foundation and basis of the Christian faith. To look for something more basic or more foundational is to play a Cartesian game which is certainly not obligatory and may well be strategically misguided. Of course, this does not in itself prevent anyone from believing in some doctrine of infallibility. All sorts of doctrines can be added, and they can even be added as equally foundational. However, there is nothing in logic which makes these other additional doctrines essential to the deployment or coherence of the idea of “mere Christianity.” Moreover, there is nothing in Lewis which would preclude one from attempting to ground the content of “mere Christianity” in something else. If we are to ground it in something else—a task long embraced by the tradition of natural theology—we will be required to engage in work of the highest order in the field of epistemology. The question of the usefulness of Lewis’s “mere Christianity” will not be resolved by some kind of doctrine of infallibility. As I suggested above, Lewis himself was no mean intellect in this domain, even though he did not continue his work as a philosopher after switching to the field of literature. Lewis’s concept of “mere Christianity” should have a place in the ministry of evangelism.
However we work through the significance of Lewis for evangelism, we must always remember that conversion involves some kind of consent which is not under our control. Conversion always involves the secret action of the Holy Spirit in our culture and in our hearts. Lewis was well aware of this. What he may not have sufficiently stressed, however, at least in his formal essays, was the necessity and concurrence of the action of grace. Grace is vital to conversion, because it means that prayer and fasting are as critical in evangelism as some grand scheme of preaching or apologetics. An understanding of grace also means that we need to relax and release all our work into the hands of God.
Another serious problem we face in evangelism lies not in our culture or the decay of Western civilization or the supposed loss of the Permanent Things. It lies in ourselves and in our churches. We simply do not possess the theological base and heritage out of which evangelism can emerge naturally and joyfully. In our culture is the flotsam and jetsam of the classical Christian heritage dismantled and scattered like leaves off a tree. The good news is that while our churches only fitfully own and possess Christianity, it lies there at hand to be embraced and celebrated. We do not need a new Kant to make it intellectually feasible. We do not need a new Schleiermacher or Bultmann to repair and reconstruct it. Christianity lies there awaiting to be repossessed in our old books, hymns, and liturgies. In them is all the basic ontology and metaphysics we need.10 Here is all the cleansing water we require. Here is all the bread and wine we can swallow. Here are enough spiritual exercises to equip us for war. Here is enough mystery to baffle and absorb us. Here are adequate spiritual gifts to keep us at work in the service of our God. It was part of the genius of Lewis to see this legacy and to make it live again when so many had given up hope or gone after soft and deceptive alternatives. Lewis laid hold of the Permanent Things, the enduring ingredients of the faith, without which we die and by which we live.
Where does “mere Christianity” or its functional equivalent belong in the ministry of evangelism today? It does not quite belong in the forefront of the gospel. It is not the gospel. The gospel is Jesus Christ crucified and risen. The gospel is the story of the breaking in to the world of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. The gospel is the dawning of God’s new age in power and weakness, in mercy and judgment, in death and resurrection. The gospel is Jesus, and Him we proclaim in the power of the spirit. “Mere Christianity” is what we pass on when people respond initially to Christ and His gospel. In doing so we will be moving to reinstate the catechumenate of the early second-century church or its functional equivalents, we will be handing over the intellectual basics of our faith, and we will be engaging in the kind of Christian initiation which will present a serious alternative to the voices commonly heard in our culture.11
Let me illustrate. Recently, I drove from Maynooth outside Dublin to Belfast to visit my favorite uncle. He lives and breathes the Permanent Things naturally, even casually. We talked about his early Christian initiation. There was no talk of any dramatic religious experience; Irish Presbyterians can be shy on these matters. What was amazing was how he spent his Sundays while growing up in Northern Ireland. He got up, went to Sunday school, went home for tea, went back to church, and then went to an open-air meeting. Today, we look back in astonishment at such a schedule; we may even slightly despise it as cruel and impossible. However, the one thing this process did was to ground my uncle in the faith. It gave him time and space to lay hold of the Permanent Things. In my own case, I am eternally grateful for the hymns of Charles Wesley. When I came to Christ I was immersed in the hymns of the faith. In what many would regard as a cultural desert and a liturgical backwater, I was baptized in a sea of song and faith which Lewis brilliantly identifies and summarizes.
I do not know the full story of our culture and civilization, although I am profoundly skeptical of the varied analyses of diagnosis and prescription that preoccupy us. They often look too much like exercises in dialectical philosophy which are liable to impress only the uninformed. I do not know if a third great awakening is in the making; I do not know if we are destined to destruction and decay; I do not know if Islam will be the religion of the twenty-first century. Yet this I do know: if we fail to teach the basics of the faith, we will never withstand the ravages of the world, the flesh, and the devil. I cannot outline how this should be done,12 but I will insist that if we do not teach the faith in our churches as an essential element in our evangelism, we will languish, and we will deserve to.
We have churches and buildings all over the land. We have hosts of viable universities and educational institutions. We have publishing houses, and radio and T.V. stations. We have think-tanks, and conferences, and institutes, and agencies galore. We have a magnificent intellectual heritage behind us. We have historians and sociologists; we have scientists, poets, playwrights, prophets, English professors, and even a few theologians. We have saints, martyrs, priests, deacons, and evangelists in our midst. We have great novelists and fantasy writers and literary critics. And in and through these, we have the presence of the Almighty Father, the Only-Begotten Son, and the All-holy and life-giving Holy Spirit. What more can we ask? What more do we need?
1. In the title of this essay I am using conversion as a synonym for evangelism.
2. The Logic of Evangelism (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1989).
3. In C. S. Lewis, Undeceptions: Essays on Theology and Ethics (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1970), 207–10.
4. Ibid., 209.
5. Ibid., 283.
6. John Beversluis, C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1985).
7. James Patrick, The Magdalen Metaphysicals (Mercer, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1985), 132.
8. John Randolph Willis, Pleasures Forevermore: The Theology of C. S. Lewis (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1983), xx.
9. Undeceptions, 163–64.
10. This statement should not be taken to mean that there is no room in the Christian tradition for extended technical work in ontology and metaphysics.
11. I have argued this case in The Logic of Evangelism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1989).
12. I have sought in conjunction with a local church in Uvalde, Texas, to develop a modern course for catechumens.
This article was reprinted with permission from Permanent Things, edited by Andrew A. Tadie and Michael H. MacDonald. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995, pp.270–282.
From 1985 to 1995 William J. Abraham was McCreless Professor of Evangelism and Professor of Philosophy of Religion at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. In the fall of 1995 he was appointed Albert Cook Outler Professor of Wesley Studies at Perkins. In 1991 he wrote “The State of Christian Theology in North America” for the Enclycopedia Britannica’s Great Ideas Today. His books include The Divine Inspiration of Holy Scripture, Divine Revelation and the Limits of Historical Criticism, and The Logic of Evangelism. He currently serves on the editorial board of Interpretation.
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“C. S. Lewis & the Conversion of the West” first appeared in the March/April 1998 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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