The Decline and Fall of C. S. Lewis
C. S. Lewis in 1958
In assessing C. S. Lewis’s achievement as a Christian apologist, the key is chronology. He is, of course, best known for his writings of the 1940s, and it is as the author of such celebrated books as The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, Surprised by Joy, The Problem of Pain, and Miracles that he is revered (and even idolized) by many readers. But these early books are neither the whole nor even the most important part of the story. There is another more disconcerting side to the C. S. Lewis phenomenon—namely, the increasingly darker legacy of his later years. If we ignore or minimize it, we will be left with a very one-sided and highly misleading picture of Lewis the apologist.
There is, of course, no denying the fact that, so far as the prospect for Christian apologetics is concerned, the Lewis of the 1940s looked like a promising figure. In these early books, he leaps from the page as the twentieth-century’s foremost defender of the faith—“the Apostle to the Skeptics”—confronting his unbelieving or lukewarm contemporaries with the “case for Christianity.” Seldom has an apologist succeeded so completely in conveying the impression that reason is on the side of faith and that it is not the believer but the unbeliever for whom philosophical analysis poses problems. No issue is too difficult, no opponent too formidable. His effortless brilliance and confident finality suggest that it is the intellectuals who have made simple things obscure and that it is time to call a halt to these proceedings. “If the real theologians had done their job,” he ruefully observed, “there would have been no place for me.” But they had not and so there is.
Here is the popularizer of Christianity at work—the unpretentious and no nonsense everyman’s theologian. The tone is informal, the manner relaxed, the approach chatty. The most momentous issues are tackled in an engagingly “Let’s-see-if-we-can-make-sense-of-this” way. Lewis proceeds with the confidence of an experienced guide, thoroughly familiar with the terrain. His arguments have an economy and an apparent cogency that seem to go straight to the heart of the matter. He is “not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of the evidence is against it.” But surely it does not, and if we are willing to think clearly and hard, we can establish a great deal “on our own steam.”
In these early writings, Lewis presents three arguments that, he thinks, make the existence of God “overwhelmingly probable”: the Argument from Desire (Sehnsucht), according to which God is the ultimate object of human desire; the Moral Argument, according to which God is the power behind the moral law who guarantees the objectivity of moral judgments; and the Argument from Reason, according to which God is the cosmic mind that guarantees the validity of logical inference.
In addition to providing positive arguments for the existence of God and the rationality of Christian belief, Lewis was a vigorous polemicist who loved an argument and was happy to take on all comers, dispose of their objections, and put the embarrassed opposition to flight. He has heard it all before. Opposing positions are not only false but ludicrous and crumble like sandcastles at the slightest nudge: atheism is “too simple,” naturalism is “self-contradictory,” materialism is “a philosophy for the nursery,” to say nothing of ethical relativism, which reduces moral judgments about right and wrong to “mere subjective preference like a fondness for pancakes or a dislike for spam,” or theological liberalism, whose denial that Jesus was God logically commits its exponents to believing that he was a lunatic “on the same level with the man who says he is a poached egg.”
Clearly, this is the stuff of which legends are made. And at first glance, it seems like a dazzling performance by a philosophical virtuoso at the height of his powers.
But a closer look dispels this initial impression. Although Lewis’s arguments for the existence of God have been largely ignored by professional philosophers, a few have subjected them to rigorous criticism, and all but his most die-hard followers agree that they do not emerge unscathed and that a great deal of fine-tuning is necessary to make them serious contenders.
There are other problems. Lewis’s arguments against opposing positions are often based on serious misunderstandings and caricatures. Surely the inductive method of science is not based on the principle that “if you make the same guess often enough, it ceases to be a guess and becomes a Scientific Fact.” Nor are anthropologists usefully defined as debunkers of morality who travel to “backward villages” to collect the “odd stories” that “country people” tell. Ethical subjectivists do not regard moral judgments as expressive of mere subjective preference, naturalists do not reduce human reasoning to an involuntary irrational response, and theological liberals are not logically compelled to say that Jesus was a lunatic. In short, Lewis’s favorite polemical targets are often nothing more than straw men.
Many will dispute these contentions. But if we view Lewis’s writings chronologically, such protests are beside the point. Whatever readers may think of his arguments, Lewis himself came to have serious doubts about them.
Later books such as The Four Loves, Reflections on the Psalms, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, and The World’s Last Night and Other Essays bear witness to the remarkable change that had come over Lewis and provide a much needed corrective to his earlier image. The ambitious scope and extrovert manner of the old days is replaced by a smaller-scaled, piecemeal approach, and a noticeable absence of the old triumphalistic tone. The buoyant confidence had gradually given way—first to a subdued and cautious tentativeness and, toward the end, agonized and exploratory groping. By his twilight years, the transformation was so complete that he is all but unrecognizable—hardly the sort of writer to be lionized as “the Apostle to the Skeptics.”
How is this to be explained? Idle speculation aside, two contributing factors can be cited: one with reasonable certainty, the other incontrovertibly.
First, over the years Lewis had more than his share of critics. Some objected to his going public so aggressively about his religion, to the “popular” and “evangelistic” character of his books, and the facility and speed with which he produced them. But others were more substantive, and a few had a lasting impact. One merits specific mention. In 1948, a young British philosopher by the name of G. E. M. Anscombe read a paper to the Oxford Socratic Club in which she presented a devastating critique of Lewis’s recently published book Miracles, subjecting his argument against naturalism to powerful criticism and contending that his alleged proof for theism—the argument from reason—was fallacious. Lewis responded, and an exchange followed. Although hardcore loyalists disagree, the consensus of those present was that Anscombe had won the debate hands down and that a conclusive blow had been dealt to one of Lewis’s most fundamental arguments. Lewis concurred. He was not only “deeply disturbed,” “miserable,” and “in very low spirits” after the encounter but continued to describe it “with real horror.” “She obliterated me as an apologist,” he reportedly confessed. One biographer went so far as to claim that this bitter experience marked the turning point in Lewis’s career, that he had “learnt his lesson” and published no more books on Christian apologetics.
The second way of accounting for Lewis’s dramatic change of heart involves such intimately personal matters that they can only be discussed with a certain reticence. Had not Lewis immortalized them in one of his last books, they could not with propriety be discussed at all.
I have already called attention to the fact that, with his earlier apologetic books behind him, Lewis’s later writings took on a different character. However, if there were any single problem that preoccupied (and finally haunted) him, it was the problem of contrary evidence—evidence that casts doubt on Christianity and calls Christian belief into question.
Lewis’s growing worries about contrary evidence were apparent in his 1955 essay “On Obstinacy in Belief.” His basic question was: At what point does it become irrational for a Christian to continue to hold beliefs that are not only unsupported by the evidence but contradicted by it? Although he had wrestled with this question in The Problem of Pain, the arguments of that book—chiefly the free will defense—are conspicuously absent. So is the earlier strategy of Mere Christianity, in which religious doubts were traced to “mere moods” and religious doubters banished to the ranks of those who “dither to and fro” with their beliefs dependent “on the weather and the state of their digestion.” The later Lewis is no longer amused but uncommonly sober, on the defensive, and willing to make previously unheard of concessions. It is no longer atheism but his own previous position that is “too simple.” The honest inquirer must now candidly acknowledge that the evidence for theism is, at best, “mixed” and that “considerable ingenuity” is required if the believer’s position is even to be “rendered tolerable.” The “philosophies for the nursery” have proved to be more troublesome and resilient than anyone would have ever guessed. Throughout the essay, it is noteworthy how far Lewis has retreated.
But the worst was still to come. A few years later, Lewis was plunged into sorrow and overtaken by religious doubts of such paralyzing magnitude that he experienced a crisis of faith. What prompted it?
Traumatic Turning Point
In 1956 at the age of fifty-eight, Lewis, a lifelong bachelor, married the American writer Joy Davidman. It had been clear from the beginning that she was suffering from terminal bone cancer and that her days were numbered, but their hopes had been revived by an astonishing event that Lewis described as “the closest thing to a miracle that he had ever seen.” His wife’s condition unexpectedly began to improve. She progressed from being bedridden to getting around in a wheelchair to walking with a cane. And the person who had taken the X-rays marveled that her bones were “as solid as rock.” Lewis’s heartfelt expression of gratitude can be found in his essay “The Efficacy of Prayer.” A holiday to Greece was arranged, one of her lifelong dreams and a trip that provided Lewis with “the last great days of perfect happiness.” The essay on the efficacy of prayer appeared in 1959. Less than a year later, Joy Davidman Lewis was dead—a victim of the very cancer they thought had been miraculously cured. And Lewis’s faith came crashing down “like a house of cards.” As a “safety valve against total collapse,” he wrote A Grief Observed.
There is no case for Christianity in this book. Gone are the clever arguments, the seductive analogies, and the reassuring witticisms. Gone, too, is the already ebbing confidence of the essay on obstinacy. What remains is a lonely and grief-stricken widower jotting down his thoughts and second thoughts in occasional notebooks.
A Grief Observed is not a book about grief. It is a raw and unfiltered expression of grief. It is the case history of a bereavement, a book of many moods. Above all, it is a searchingly honest and unflinching book. No one—whether friend or foe—who has penetrated Lewis to the bedrock ignores or trivializes A Grief Observed’s disturbing revelations. First, there is undisguised grief in this book. Lewis had no patience with “pious jaw” about “God’s way being the best way” and recoiled from “all that stuff” about reunions “on that other shore.” His wife had died, and he mourns for her. But there are also doubt and rage in this book. Seldom has a religious writer so relentlessly refused to pull his punches. Others have undergone similar experiences but few have dared to contradict Psalm 46 as Lewis did when he bitterly demanded to know why God is “so very absent in time of trouble.” This little book is a remarkable document in which a morally outraged believer fearlessly storms the heavens for an answer to the problem of suffering.
But there is something else in this book—the loss, if not of faith, then at least of a belief in faith’s rationality. Lewis did not cease to believe in God but found it difficult to continue to believe that he is good. What disquieted him most of all was not just his wife’s death but the circumstances that had led up to it: the false hopes, the “miraculous” cure, the sense of “having been toyed with.” Unlike the evils discussed in The Problem of Pain, those that had precipitated his crisis of faith were of a kind in which God seemed to be directly implicated: trickery, deceit, even cruelty.
Throughout his apologetic career, Lewis always insisted that God’s goodness must be understood in terms of our ordinary moral standards, i.e., God must be good “in our sense,” for only then will it be a goodness that we can recognize. Christianity, he assured his readers, does not require us to reverse our moral standards and resign ourselves to the fact that our “black” may be God’s “white.” Yet when in his hour of need Lewis applied these same moral standards to God, he found him wanting: “Sooner or later I must ask myself in plain language: What reason have we, except our own desperate wishes, to believe that God is, by any standard we can conceive, good? Doesn’t all the prima facie evidence suggest exactly the opposite?”
Thus, the Apostle to the Skeptics became a skeptic himself—if not about God’s existence, at least about his nature. A Grief Observed reveals many things about Lewis but none more important than that he was ultimately undone by the problem of contrary evidence and left with a deity of dubious moral character.
In the end, Lewis managed to extricate himself at least partially from his doubts. Having registered his protest against God, another possibility occurred to him. Perhaps his faith had been imaginary all along. If so, God could not allow him to labor under the delusion that it was true faith and had to knock Lewis’s house down to bring about this necessary realization. So God is good after all.
That, of course, is no solution. To exchange one view for another simply because it enables you to retain a belief that you want desperately to retain is a sure indication that rationality and the ordinary meanings of the terms good and bad have been sidestepped. Lewis did not justify his claim that God is good despite appearances to the contrary and then reaffirm his true and abiding faith. Instead, he conjured up out of thin air the statement, “My faith has been imaginary”—not as a true empirical description of himself, arrived at by introspection and reflection but as an ad hoc speculative hypothesis to be eagerly embraced because it alone enabled him to revive his wavering belief in God’s goodness. It allowed him to abandon the rational strategy that he had previously used to validate the Christian story and made him the apologetic phenomenon that he originally was.
But what if Lewis’s faith had been real all along? And what if his wife’s suffering and death was decisive contrary evidence that counted against his belief in a good god? A Grief Observed limpidly reveals that Lewis had arrived at precisely the sort of situation he had described as “intolerable” in the essay on obstinacy. However, having experienced the full impact of doubt, he was either unwilling or unable to follow the logic of his own position and draw the required conclusion. He had not only lost his wife. He had also lost his philosophical composure and the will to argue. Our last glimpse of him is that of a man whose commitment to divine goodness has outrun his comprehension of it. Lewis had launched his career by announcing that he was not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of the evidence is against it. Thus, by a stunningly unexpected stroke of irony, Lewis the apologist ultimately arrived at precisely this impasse. And to move beyond it, he felt compelled to confess publicly that his faith had been imaginary.
A Grief Observed has been described as Lewis’s “most harrowing” book. I agree. But it is harrowing in a much more unnerving sense than many readers seem to realize as they direct our attention to the “tentative assurances” toward which Lewis gradually moved. The Bantam Book edition describes it as “a masterpiece of rediscovered faith that will be a source of comfort and inspiration to anyone who has ever lost a loved one.” Although this estimate seems to have become the received opinion, it cannot survive scrutiny. True, by the conclusion of this riveting book a rediscovery of sorts has taken place. But 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. The rediscovered faith is not a more “tentative” version of the old faith; it is a new faith whose philosophical foundation is very different from that of the apologetic writings that preceded it.
After reading A Grief Observed, we can no longer read Lewis’s earlier apologetic books as we once read them. For we now know that he came to have grave doubts about many of the views that he had so confidently defended in those books—doubts out of which he could not find his way. This fact underscores Lewis’s personal inability to do what the evidence required: abandon the religion he had advocated when the evidence required him to do so. And that casts an eerie retrospective light over his entire career as an apologist. By his own admission and personal example, his version of Christian apologetics no longer elicits the assent of the rational person.
The Decline and Fall of C. S. Lewis In assessing C. S. Lewis’s achievement as a Christian apologist, the key is chronology. He is, of course, best known for his writings of the 1940s, and it is as the author of such celebrated books as The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, Surprised by Joy, The Problem of Pain, and Miracles that he …