thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Sheer Narnia

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The age of enlightenment

I used to like CS Lewis’s Narnia books. The only one I remember reading when I was a child myself was Prince Caspian. But we read and re-read all the Narnia books to our son when he was of an age. They are lovely books to read aloud. (At least the first few are. They seemed to start running out of steam somewhere around The Silver Chair.)

I knew about CS Lewis’s Christianity, but hadn’t got round to any of his ‘non-fiction’ until quite recently. (I’ll explain the quote marks later.) Then various comments to this blog have recommended both Miracles and Mere Christianity. I have just put Mere Christianity down.

Hard to know where to start. Mere Christianity started life as a series of BBC radio talks broadcast between 1942 and 1944. In October 2006 Christianity Today voted it number 3 in their ‘Top 50 Books That Have Shaped Evangelicals’. The blurb at the front of the fiftieth anniversary edition describes CS Lewis as ‘one of the intellectual giants of the twentieth century’. Then Kathleen Norris in her Foreword to the same edition says the book

…does not consist of academic philosophical musings. Rather it is a work of oral literature, addressed to people at war.

This implies the two are mutually exclusive. But they don’t have to be. Something could be both academic philosophy and oral literature. More importantly, in order for Mere Christianity to do the job Lewis intended it to do, the groundwork at least needs to work as philosophy – in the sense that the arguments need to be sound:

Ever since I became a Christian I have thought that the best, perhaps the only service I could do for my unbelieving neighbours was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times. [CS Lewis: Preface to Mere Christianity]

This reads like an intention to convince his readers that religion in general and Christianity in particular make some kind of sense.

Statue of CS Lewis in Belfast

Statue of CS Lewis in Belfast

He also claims to be in pursuit of the ‘facts’ and ‘real truths’: I am trying to find out truth, he says at the beginning of Chapter 3: THE REALITY OF THE LAW. Yet despite its formal structure the book as a whole seems to start with the answer and then works back to the question. This is not necessarily a bad thing if the reasoning is sound. But the relentless unreason of Mere Christianity builds into what at times feels like a deliberate insult to the intelligence.

CS Lewis was a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and then Cambridge Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English. It would be reasonable to expect above-average thinking skills. Yet he insists on sending up a smoke-screen of faux-naïveté on matters of religion – which is after all what the book claims to be about:

…It is an old story and if you want to go into it you will no doubt consult people who have more authority to talk about it than I have…

…I am only a layman…

…I do not know enough…

Lewis can certainly write. But he talks down to his audience – addressing them almost as children who might struggle with the profundity of what he is saying. His tone can be disingenuous:

I hope you will not misunderstand what I am going to say. I am not preaching, and Heaven knows I do not pretend to be better than anyone else…

The reader has no particular reason to think he’s claiming to be better than anyone else, but preaching is exactly what he is doing.

He bases his apologia for Christianity on a particular approach to moral philosophy which gives the concept of Natural Law a lot of work to do. But instead of just facing up to the familiar and uncontroversial distinction between prescriptive and descriptive laws so he can get it out of the way, he insists on going all round the houses:

…When you say that falling stones always obey the law of gravitation, is not this much the same as saying that the law only means ‘what stones always do’? You do not really think that when a stone is let go, it suddenly remembers that it is under orders to fall to the ground… etc.

St Augustine reading the Epistle of St Paul

St Augustine reading the Epistle of St Paul

In the same chapter he gives a superficial treatment of utilitarianism and social contract theory. But he doesn’t mention them by name, only as what ‘Some people say’. In a later chapter he mentions a ‘famous Christian’ who

… long ago told us that when he was a young man he prayed constantly for chastity; but years later he realised that while his lips had been saying, ‘Oh Lord make me chaste,’ his heart had been secretly adding, ‘But please don’t do it just yet.’

Any particular reason for not mentioning St Augustine by name?

These might seem petty gripes if the main drift of the book was convincing, but it is not. It is stuffed so full of logical fallacies and false analogies that the overall effect is yet another Narnia fiction masquerading as fact.

To be continued.

© Chris Lawrence 2010.

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Written by Chris Lawrence

16 October 2010 at 9:50 am

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