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Reflections on a Master Apologist After 60 Years
by N. T. Wright
I once found myself working closely, in a cathedral fundraising campaign, with a local millionaire. He was a self-made man. When I met him he was in his 60s, at the top of his game as a businessman, and was chairing our Board of Trustees. To me, coming from the academic world, he was a nightmare to work with.
He never thought in (what seemed to me) straight lines; he would leap from one conversation to another; he would suddenly break into a discussion and ask what seemed a totally unrelated question. But after a while I learned to say to myself: Well, it must work, or he wouldn’t be where he is. And that was right. We raised the money. We probably wouldn’t have done it if I’d been running the Trust my own way.
A Great Debt
I have something of the same feeling on re-reading C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. I owe Lewis a great debt. In my late teens and early twenties I read everything of his I could get my hands on, and read some of his paperbacks and essays several times over. There are sentences, and some whole passages, I know pretty much by heart.
Millions around the world have been introduced to, and nurtured within, the Christian faith through his work where their own preachers and teachers were not giving them what they needed. That was certainly true of me.
My Oxford tutors looked down their noses if you so much as mentioned him in a tutorial. This was, we may suppose, mere jealousy: He sold and they didn’t. It may also have been the frustration of the professional who, busy about his footnotes, sees the amateur effortlessly sailing past to the winning post.
And partly it may have been the sense that the Christianity offered by Lewis both was and wasn’t the “mere” thing he made it out to be. There is a definite spin to it. One of the puzzles, indeed, is the way in which Lewis has been lionized by Evangelicals when he clearly didn’t believe in several classic Evangelical shibboleths. He was wary of penal substitution, not bothered by infallibility or inerrancy, and decidedly dodgy on justification by faith (though who am I to talk, considering what some in America say about me?).
But above all, like my businessman friend, it worked; a lot of people have become Christians through reading Lewis and, though, like me, they may have gone on to think things through in ways he didn’t, they retain, like me, a massive and glorious indebtedness. All that now follows stands under that rubric.
A Real Humility
Part of the reason for the appeal of Mere Christianity is of course that—like virtually everything Lewis wrote—it remains a splendid read. Lewis is feisty and lyrical, funny and moving, full of brilliant images, similes, and extended metaphors.
Even when they don’t work as well as they might (he regularly uses maths, or “sums” as he calls it, as an illustration, and I found myself wondering whether theology and maths are really the same sort of thing), they take our minds darting to and fro, leaping over hedges and ditches, constantly glimpsing the countryside from new angles and with the fresh air of intelligent argument in our lungs.
Reading someone like this, you want to believe him—a dangerous position, perhaps. He takes us, as it were, into his confidence, drawing us aside gently by the arm and whispering, “You and I aren’t concerned with things like that. . . .” We are flattered to be his companions on the way, to know (because he tells us) that this isn’t simply a “religious jaw” (remarkable how dated that language sounds, and yet how easily today’s reader skips over it) and that we who think like this are actually in the know while some—including some clergy, because Lewis isn’t above a quick jibe in that direction—are missing out.
And when he tells us that we shouldn’t be taken in by “soft soap,” or that we can “cut all that out,” we find it exciting, like the piano pupil whose teacher tells her it’s time to graduate from blues to Bach (or conceivably, as one hearer of this paper suggested, the other way around). Now, we feel, we’re growing up, we’re getting to the real thing.
There’s a good reason why we allow Lewis to lead us on. There is a real, not a pretend, humility about his “only-a-simple-layman” stance. For some of the time, as I shall suggest, he is a professional pretending to be an amateur; for much of the time, he’s a gifted amateur putting some of the professionals to shame; sometimes he’s an amateur straightforwardly getting things wrong (and note what he says about paying attention to Freud when he’s on his professional topic but not when he’s writing as an amateur!).
But he constantly says, “If this doesn’t help, go on to the next bit, which may,” and he seems really to mean it. In particular, when he’s talking about the struggles and strains of trying to live as a Christian, we know we are listening to someone who has been struggling and straining.
This isn’t theory; like The Screwtape Letters and similar works, this is a direct report from the Front Line. (While we’re on that subject, I don’t myself find the frequent references to the Second World War intrusive or off-putting. You would have to be quite an extreme pacifist to object to the regular military imagery, which, quite apart from its immediate appeal to his first audience, does have quite strong biblical resonance.)
Faith & Truth
There are two constant powerful refrains throughout Mere Christianity. First, faith matters more than feelings; faithfulness to the high and hard standards of Christian behavior matters more than doing what you feel like at the time. Lewis was swimming against a strong tide of popular romantic existentialism, a tide running even more strongly in our own day.
He was not, of course, opposed to feelings; but he knew, and it comes as a relief to our generation to be reminded, that if you go with the flow of feelings you will be inconsistent, unfaithful, lacking in all integrity. To realize that we don’t have to float out to sea on that strong tide, but that we can and must swim against it, is challenging but also liberating.
Second, you can understand falsehood from the standpoint of truth but not the other way around, just as someone who knows light can understand darkness but not vice versa: Thus you can understand sexual perversion once you know the norm; “good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either”; “virtue brings light; indulgence brings fog.” (Incidentally, I don’t know whether it’s Lewis or his republishers, but I am puzzled that such a great writer should have been so indiscriminate and seemingly muddled with his use of the colon and semi-colon.)
So to the four different sections of the book. I rate the third (“Christian Behaviour”) as the finest; the first and last (“Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe” with its moral argument for God, and “Beyond Personality,” the closing pieces on the Trinity and on regeneration) as fascinating though in some ways problematic; and the second (“What Christians Believe”) as, worryingly, the most deeply flawed.
Even there, however, I remind myself that my millionaire friend knew some tricks I didn’t, and they worked. I also remember the apparent fact that from a scientific point of view there is no way a bumblebee should be able to fly, because its wings can’t support its body, but bees succeed not only in flying but in bringing home the honey. And if you conclude that Lewis is like the bee, and I am merely like the puzzled scientist who says it can’t be done that way, so be it.
The third part of the book, titled “Christian Behaviour,” is the most professional, and there is a reason for that. As well as teaching English literature, Lewis had at one stage taught philosophy. He knew his way round the classic discussions of the virtues and vices and how they operate. He also submitted himself to regular, serious spiritual direction, and as well as knowing the intellectual framework of behavior, both classical and Christian, he was deeply alert to the nuances of motivation and action, able to articulate moods and behavior patterns that for most people, in his day and ours, remain a mystery.
I suspect that one of the great appeals of his book, then and now, is that it gives one a grammar of everyday morality, enabling one to understand and speak a highly useful and indeed mellifluous language most of us didn’t know existed. Some of his moral discussions are small classics.
He is superb on generosity. He sticks a small but sharp pin into the system of usury on which the entire modern world is based. He is fascinating and fresh on sex (though of course even more deeply unfashionable today than then); and his reflections on marriage, despite his bachelor disclaimers, are worth pondering deeply (especially his final comments about it being important for the man to be in charge of what he calls the couple’s “foreign policy”).
He is clear and challenging on forgiveness, spot on in his analysis of pride and its centrality, and shrewd and helpful on the fact that charity is not an emotion but a determination to act in a particular way, and that to our surprise we find that when, without any feeling of love towards someone, we act as if we loved them, we discover that the feelings bubble up unbidden, so that we end by feeling in reality what before we had merely determined to do.
At this point, of course, we come up against Lewis’s implied soteriology, and I suspect that others have challenged him on this point. Several times he insists, effectively, on the priority of grace: We can’t save ourselves, but God does it, takes the initiative, rescues those who couldn’t rescue themselves. But equally often he speaks as though it’s really a matter, as with Aristotle, of our becoming good by gradually learning to do good things, and with Jesus coming alongside, and indeed inside, to help us as we do so. Salvation, and behavior, are caught by infection, by our being in Christ and his being in us.
I suspect that Lewis never really worked all this out; and I suspect, too, that the outsider looking in doesn’t need to, either. I know that’s heresy in some circles, but I think it’s important that we are justified by faith: not by believing in justification by faith, but by believing in Jesus Christ. Obviously a clear understanding of justification would help a great deal, but I don’t myself regard that as the first thing to explain to a potential convert. Sufficient to draw them to Jesus.
But does Lewis really do that? I’ll return to Part II in a moment; but first, some words about the final section, and then the first.
I find the final section of the book, “Beyond Personality: Or first steps in the doctrine of the Trinity,” brave and intelligent though not entirely convincing. To point out to those who say they “can’t believe in a personal God” that that’s all right, because God is in fact more than “personal,” is a bit of an intellectual coup. I’m not sure how convincing a skeptic would find it, but it opens up the discussion in new ways.
Lewis writes movingly in this part of the book about prayer and the Trinity, about being “prayed in” by the Spirit, prayed “with” by Jesus, and so coming to the Father. He opens up the landscape of what Christians mean by the word “God” in a way that must have been as strange and surprising to his contemporaries as it remains, alas, to ours.
In this last section Lewis does two things, one of which is an interesting attempt at a fresh proposal and the other of which shows, I think, some less-than-fully-integrated aspects of his own thought. First, I notice as a kind of running theme his attempt to steal the clothes of the evolutionists—who were, of course, as strident in his day as Richard Dawkins is in ours.
He is happy to affirm basic biological evolution, but then suggests that if the world, and the human race, have advanced in the way they have so far, we are maybe due now for a different kind of advance, a new step in which evolution itself will evolve, producing a new human race, a new kind of human being, but by a new type of step. Lewis is here, of course, stealing not only Darwin’s clothes, but Nietzsche’s, and he is well aware of that.
I did wonder how dangerous a position it was to take, but he disarms potential objections by making his New Humans not a powerful race of the species Übermensch, but actual children of God, those who have caught the “good infection” from being with Jesus Christ and who are thereby changed from being toy tin soldiers into actual warriors, from mere creatures to newly begotten sons like the Son himself.
This is where he locates his powerful and moving (and of course biblical) material about dying and rising with Christ, a major theme here and in several of his other works. I don’t know that anyone else has either advanced this synthesis of regeneration and a kind of second-order evolutionism, but it remains evocative and suggestive.
Second, however, I find Lewis frustratingly fuzzy on heaven and immortality. He clearly believes in the bodily resurrection and the essential materiality of the ultimate future world, but—quite apart from the astonishing fact that in talking about Jesus he never in this book mentions his Resurrection—he persistently refers to “Heaven” in ways that go, to my mind, far too far towards Plato.
He frequently draws back from this, insisting for instance on the importance of sacraments because God made the material world and likes it, but I’m not sure he has fully integrated his positive view of the material creation into his assumed view of heaven. He tells us that if we aim at heaven we’ll get earth thrown in, and this is not only true but appealing; but he never indicates how this works out, never engages with the New Testament’s picture of the new heavens and new earth which ultimately make sense of the whole thing.
Thus he can say, in a moving but I think deeply misleading passage, that “the anaesthetic fog which we call ‘nature’ or ‘the real world’ [will] fade away”; I regard this as a substantial hostage to Platonic fortune. This problem emerges particularly in his repeated insistence that all human beings have an immortal soul, which is the “real” part of them, and which is to be one day either a creature of loathing and horror or one we might be tempted to worship.
I simply don’t think this is either biblical or helpful, and I fear that those who read Lewis will at this point have their traditional expectations of a kind of Christianity-and-Plato reinforced where they should have them undermined.
Right & Wrong as a Clue
So to the first section, where Lewis, as often elsewhere, uses a kind of the moral argument for the existence of God. We all know the moral law; and we all know we break it; and isn’t this odd? I think this is powerful and important, and indeed I paid homage to Lewis when I wrote Simply Christian by beginning with a similar, though not identical, argument about justice, and then extending it to the puzzles we find today about spirituality, relationships, and beauty.
But I’m not sure that Lewis’s point ultimately works as an argument. I think drawing attention to this kind of phenomenon alerts us to questions that should be asked, but not necessarily to a line of reasoning that will then automatically lead the thinker inexorably upwards, as Lewis tries to do, first to the affirmation of God and then to the affirmation of the Christian God.
The virtue of this first section, I think, lies not in the fact that it makes a convincing argument as such, but that it highlights features of human existence that are puzzling and interesting and point beyond themselves. Thus this first section performs its function, it seems to me, despite its actual intention.
Lewis was trying to argue step by step, but I think he succeeds in engaging and interesting people sufficiently to move them forwards despite the fact that the logic doesn’t quite work. I would be interested to hear what other apologists say about this.
What Christians Believe
The weakest part of the book, beyond doubt, is its heart: the treatment of God, and especially of Jesus, in the second section, “What Christians Believe.” He simply does not know that Jesus wasn’t born in A.D. 1, and I have already mentioned the astonishing absence of the Resurrection.
Why was this? Not because Lewis didn’t believe it, as his other writings show. Because he thought it was a bridge too far for the people he was addressing? Surely not: He leads them skillfully across several narrow bridges spanning deep and dangerous intellectual and moral ravines.
Can it be that, though he firmly accepted the bodily Resurrection as true, he simply hadn’t, at this stage at least, thought through the way in which, beginning with the New Testament, Easter isn’t just something that happened to Jesus, nor simply something that happens to us in both the present and the future, but something that gives focus to faith and color to all Christian living?
I am not sure, and remain genuinely puzzled. Perhaps he simply had to give some talks and decided too quickly and unreflectively on which topics to treat.
But of course the real problem is the argument for Jesus’ divinity. And this problem actually begins further back: There is virtually no mention, and certainly no treatment, of Israel and the Old Testament, and consequently no attempt to place Jesus in his historical or theological context. (One of the “Screwtape Letters” contains a scornful denunciation of all such attempts, and lays Lewis wide open to the charge of ignoring the historical context of the writings he is using—a charge that, in his own professional field, he would have regarded as serious.)
I am well aware that some in our day, too, see the historical context of Jesus as part of what you teach Christians later on rather than part of how you explain the gospel to outsiders. I think this is simply mistaken. Every step towards a de-Judaized Jesus is a step away from Scripture, away from Christian wisdom, and out into the world of . . . yes, Plato and the rest, which is of course where Lewis partly lived. If you don’t put Jesus in his proper context, you will inevitably put him in a different one, where he, his message, and his achievement will be considerably distorted.
This deficit shows particularly in Lewis’s treatment of incarnation. Famously, as in his well-known slogan, “Liar, Lunatic or Lord,” he argued that Jesus must have been bad or mad or God. This argument has worn well in some circles and extremely badly in others, and the others were not merely being cynical.
What Lewis totally failed to see—as have, of course, many scholars in the field—was that Judaism already had a strong incarnational principle, namely the Temple, and that the language used of Shekinah, Torah, Wisdom, Word, and Spirit in the Old Testament—the language, in other words, upon which the earliest Christians drew when they were exploring and expounding what we have called Christology—was a language designed, long before Jesus’ day, to explain how the one true God could be both transcendent over the world and living and active within it, particularly within Israel.
Lewis, at best, drastically short-circuits the argument. When Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven,” he is not claiming straightforwardly to be God, but to give people, out on the street, what they would normally get by going to the Temple.
As I’ve shown elsewhere, understanding Judaism’s incarnational principle doesn’t undermine the eventual claim, nor does it short-circuit it. It places it in its proper historical context and enables it to be at once nuanced into a proto-Trinitarian framework, employing and appropriately transcending the messianic category “son of God,” which simultaneously settles down into first-century Judaism and explodes beyond it. Lewis’s overconfident argument, by contrast, does the opposite: It doesn’t work as history, and it backfires dangerously when historical critics question his reading of the Gospels.
This then plays out in Lewis’s treatment of the Cross, with Jesus as the “perfect penitent.” Lewis is right to stress that Christians are not committed to one single way of understanding the meaning of the Cross, and that as long as one somehow looks at the death of Jesus and understands it in terms of God’s love and forgiveness, that is sufficient to start with.
But his idea—that (a) God requires humans to be penitent, that (b) we can’t because of our pride, but that (c) Jesus does it in and for us—though ingenious, places in my view too high a value on repentance (vital though it of course is), implies again that soteriology is about God doing something in us rather than extra nos (though I think Lewis believed that as well, but he doesn’t expound it here), and minimizes all the other rich biblical language about the Cross, not least the Christus Victor theme.
This last is the more curious in that Lewis talks a lot more about the devil than one might expect in a book of apologetics. One might have supposed that, having introduced us to the devil before we’ve really even got our minds around God, still less Jesus, he would go on to speak of the Cross as, among other things, the defeat of the devil and the rescue of those in his grip. But he doesn’t.
In amongst his treatment of incarnation and Cross, we note, along with the astonishing omission of Easter, the complete absence of anything to do with Jesus’ announcement of God’s kingdom. This is less surprising, though still regrettable, because, to be frank, the Western church in the middle of the twentieth century simply didn’t understand what the kingdom of God in Jesus’ teaching was all about—again, at least in part, because of its relentless de-Judaizing of the whole story.
Some might say that this, too, is a topic to pick up in Christian instruction after conversion rather than in apologetics. I disagree, and I think the fruits of the omission show up elsewhere, where Lewis really has little or no concern for a social or cultural ethic, still less a political or ecological one. Omit one of the vital foundation stones and the building will lean over dangerously.
A Fine but Leaky Building
So to my conclusion. Lewis has indeed built a fine building with lots of splendid features, and many people have been properly and rightly attracted to buy up apartments in it and move in. Some parts of the building have remained in great shape, and are still well worth inhabiting. But I fear that those who move in to other parts will find that the foundations are indeed shaky, and that the roof leaks a bit.
Someone who converted to the Christian faith through reading Mere Christianity, and who never moved on or grew up theologically or historically, would be in a dangerous position when faced even with proper, non-skeptical historical investigation, let alone the regular improper, skeptical sort. Lewis didn’t give such a person sufficient grounding in who Jesus really was.
Similarly, I don’t know how his line of argument in the first part would stand up against the rigorous and relentless assault from the determined atheists of our own day. He was well used to arguing with their predecessors, of course, but I don’t think the first section would be seen in such circles as anything more than arm-waving about moral perceptions and dilemmas that today’s robust cynic would dismiss as atavistic fantasy.
And I do think he could have gone further in his understanding of the Christian hope, further towards the new creation, the new heaven and new earth, of which many of us gained our first inkling (important word!) through his writings, but which he never pulls together, and relates to Jesus and to Christian faith and life, in the way that he quite easily could have done.
Jesus Takes Over
But the bee flies, and gets the honey. Credit where credit is due. Lewis himself would have been the first to say that of course his book was neither perfect nor complete, and that what mattered was that, if it brought people into the company, and under the influence (or “infection”) of Jesus Christ, Jesus himself would happily take over—indeed, that Jesus had been operating through the process all along, albeit through the imperfect medium of the apologist.
And, as another imperfect apologist, I salute a great master, and can only hope that in sixty years’ time children yet unborn will say of me that, despite all my obvious and embarrassing failings, I too was used, in however small a way, to bring people under the influence and power, and to the love and kingdom, of the same Jesus Christ.
N. T. Wright is the Anglican Bishop of Durham, England, and the author of many scholarly and popular books, most recently Simply Christian, Evil and the Justice of God, and Paul: In Fresh Perspective. Readers will also find helpful his (unofficial) website, www.ntwrightpage.com.