Making Doctrine Dance
DOROTHY L. SAYERS once described G. K. Chesterton as a kind of “Christian liberator” who blew into the church “gusts of fresh air, in which the dead leaves of doctrine danced with all the energy and indecorum of Our Lady’s Tumbler.” Sayers’s comment comes very near the mark in capturing the role C. S. Lewis has played since Chesterton’s death in 1936. Like Chesterton before him, to the English-speaking church Lewis has been nothing less than a Christian liberator.
As early as 1942, C. S. Lewis was already a bestselling author. In 1947, he was heralded as “one of the most influential spokesmen for Christianity in the English-speaking world” by Time magazine, which featured his picture on the front cover. “With erudition, good humor and skill,” the Time article proclaimed, “Lewis is writing about religion for a generation of religion-hungry readers brought up on a diet of ‘scientific’ jargon and Freudian clichés. … [He] is one of a growing band of heretics among modern intellectuals: an intellectual who believes in God … not a mild and vague belief, for he accepts ‘all the articles of the Christian faith.’”
The article attributed much of Lewis’s remarkable success to his “talent for putting old—fashioned truths into a modern idiom” and giving “a strictly unorthodox presentation of strict orthodoxy.” Three years earlier, The Times Literary Supplement had already suggested something similar: “Mr. Lewis has a quite unique power of making Theology attractive, exciting and (one might almost say) an uproariously fascinating quest.”
But Lewis, like Chesterton, made the dead leaves of doctrine dance in a way that went against British social and academic convention. It was generally accepted that one’s religious orientation should remain a private matter. Lewis’s determination to take his Christian faith public with the aim of converting others was simply unacceptable, and to many downright indecent. His work in theology and apologetics, which appealed to vast audiences outside the university, defied academic protocol and created a great amount of ill feeling. According to his former student Harry Blamires, Lewis was acutely sensitive to the fact and once told him, “You don’t know how I'm hated.”
Lewis was clearly uncomfortable with the publicity his success brought. As early as 1941, responding to a comment made by Dom Bede Griffiths concerning his growing public persona, he acknowledged the growing tension within himself: “As for retiring into ‘private life,’ while feeling very strongly the evil of publicity, I don’t see how one can. God is my witness I don’t look for engagements.”
Despite this tension, Lewis chose to go against the social and academic conventions of the day because of his understanding of the gospel mandate, the eternal value of every human soul, and the spiritual state of British society.
"The work is urgent”
Lewis was acutely aware that the biblical mandate to evangelize had particular implications for his own life and career. He had received the best education the British university system could offer. He held an academic post at arguably the most prestigious English university of his day. He was highly skilled in the art of debate and possessed unusual literary gifts. As a Christian, he knew that he was under orders to bring these things into the service of Christ and his church.
Moreover, he did not believe he had the option of thinking that such work was the sole task of professional theologians or clergy. He was as equally yoked to the gospel as they and, therefore, was obliged to do what he could for the evangelization of Britain. “The work is urgent,” he declared, “for men perish around us.”
Much of Lewis’s sense of urgency was due to the spiritual state of Britain. By the middle of the 20th century, Christianity had been so successfully assimilated into the whole fabric of English social and intellectual society that what was left, he observed, was not Christianity at all but a vague “spirituality and theism” supported by a firmly established moral code. This situation was rooted in 19th-century anti-clerical and anti-theistic forces that tended to reduce the Christian faith to what Lewis described as “mere ‘religion'—'morality tinged with emotion,’ ‘what a man does with his solitude,’ ‘the religion of all good men.’”
Consequently, pupils in the current school system were learning neither the content of nor the case for Christianity. The younger generation was “never told what the Christians say and never heard any arguments in defense of it.” The reason for the prevailing agnosticism or indifference among those of this generation was therefore not so much an antipathy towards Christianity as a lack of instruction.
The apologist’s task
If this was the case, then there was reason to hope that the ignorance and incredulity of the students (as well as people in general) could be removed. To accomplish this, Lewis suggested, we must begin by clearly defining what the Christian faith is—that is, the “faith preached by the Apostles, attested by the Martyrs, embodied in the Creeds, expounded by the Fathers"—and then give a reasonable exposition and defense of it. He added that while each of us holds many opinions which we believe to be true and consistent with Christianity, it is not the business of the apologist to defend them. “We are defending Christianity; not ‘my religion.’ When we mention our personal opinions we must always make quite clear the difference between them and the Faith itself.”
With these points in mind, Lewis’s job, as he understood it, was plain. First, he had to break down people’s intellectual prejudices against Christianity. This meant showing them the fallacies in their objections to belief in such a way as to make faith in Christianity intellectually plausible.
Second, he had to prepare people’s minds and imaginations to receive the Christian vision. Lewis was thoroughly committed to using his academic position and training to nurture an intellectual and imaginative climate favorable to Christianity.
"If the intellectual climate is such that, when a man comes to the crisis at which he must either accept or reject Christ, his reason and imagination are not on the wrong side,” Lewis argued, “then his conflict will be fought out under favourable conditions. Those who help to produce and spread such a climate are therefore doing useful work: and yet no such great matter after all. Their share is a modest one; and it is always possible that nothing—nothing whatever—may come of it. That does not mean we should down tools.”
Lewis’s awareness of the useful part played by the apologist, coupled with his concern about the pervasive ignorance of Christianity within British society, compelled him to step forward and attempt to elucidate and defend the basic teachings of the Christian faith in the language of every day, something he later designated “mere” Christianity.
A forum for honest argument
Lewis’s statements concerning the purpose of the Oxford University Socratic Club, of which he was the president from 1942 to 1954, shed additional light on his involvement in the apologetic enterprise.
"In any fairly large and talkative community such as a university,” he explained, “there is always the danger that those who think alike should gravitate together into coteries where they will henceforth encounter opposition only in the emasculated form of rumour that the outsiders say thus and thus. The absent are easily refuted, complacent dogmatism thrives, and differences of opinion are embittered by group hostility. Each group hears not the best, but the worst, that the other groups can say.”
Lewis perceived that each side misunderstood the other’s position because the two sides never had a truly honest encounter with each other. He was convinced that, if Christianity was ever to confront successfully the contemporary intellectual forces arrayed against it, it would have to do so in an arena where argument itself was decisive.
Thus the Socratic Club was specifically designed to provide a university forum where the best minds of each opposing party could meet in honest disputation about the pros and cons of the Christian religion. The club’s name reflected the Socratic exhortation to “follow the argument wherever it led.”
Lewis envisioned the Socratic meeting as an arena where Christian and non-Christian could dispute the claims of Christianity, where the various intellectual prejudices against Christianity could be properly challenged, and where the integrity of the Christian’s belief system could be demonstrated. Accordingly, non-Christian speakers who were specialists in their fields of study were invited to come and “propagate their creed.”
Puddleglum vs. the positivists
Lewis did not limit the role of apologetics to the academic arena, however. A complete presentation and defense of what Christians believe must attempt to open not only an intellectual space favorable to Christian truth, but also an imaginative space. If a person’s encounter with Christ is to be fought out under friendly conditions, both reason and imagination need to be brought onto the side of Christianity.
Lewis did this supremely well in his fiction. Whether he was explicating the anatomy of temptation by means of one demon writing to another, exploring the nature of the separation between heaven and hell by having a bus load of denizens from hell take a day trip to heaven, or laying out the Christian cosmology through an interplanetary adventure that takes us from Mars to Venus and back to Earth, Lewis combined theological reflection with poetic imagination in order to draw his readers inside the Christian story.
One of the most memorable and apologetically significant examples of this comes in The Silver Chair. The Green Witch has just denied the existence of a world above ground, implying that the children’s ideas about Narnia are nothing more than imaginary projections of the things of Underworld, “mere” metaphors having no relation to what is real, and empirically unverifiable. Puddleglum, having broken the witch’s enchantment by stamping on her fire, launches a rebuttal. He observes that, if her world is the only real one, it is not worth living in. What is more, their so-called made-up world seems a “good deal more important” than her real world.
In the eloquent speech of a web-footed Marshwiggle, Lewis is challenging the underlying assumptions of the logical positivists who, like the Green Witch, claimed that nothing is true that cannot be proven by observable fact (and therefore that all statements pertaining to the supernatural are meaningless). Against this position, Lewis—through the mouth of Puddleglum—defends the validity of revelation (in this case a reality beyond what is empirically verifiable). Ultimately, he is claiming that the supernatural exists, that language can express its truth, and that imaginative literature is capable of depicting its reality.
Knowing the value the Christian faith places on the human soul, aware of the separation between faith and learning that had occurred during first half of the 20th century, and believing himself obligated to do what he could for the salvation of Britain, Lewis stepped forward in an attempt to close the gap between the learned community and the community of faith. At a time when many had ceased to believe that Christianity was a plausible picture of reality, Lewis reasserted its intellectual vitality and integrity. In doing so, he also reasserted Christians’ right to enter into the public arena against those who routinely denied them that place.
By a rare combination of theological reflection and poetic imagination, Lewis thus achieved the equally rare distinction of making theology “attractive, exciting and an uproariously fascinating quest,” causing once again the dead leaves of Christian doctrine to dance. CH
By Christopher Mitchell
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #88 in 2005]Christopher Mitchell is the director of the Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL.
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