Besides being a children’s author, essayist, fantasy writer, and literary critic, C.S. Lewis was also a Christian apologist. “Apologetics,” as the discipline is called, is the artistic science of logically defending belief. Lewis was doing apologetics on the BBC during WWII, explaining his faith in a series of talks that became Mere Christianity (1952). He wrote two other formal books of apologetics that form a sort of trilogy—The Problem of Pain (1940) and Miracles (1947; 1960)—as well as other books that were apologetic in nature, including The Screwtape Letters (1941), and his two conversion narratives: The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933) and Surprised by Joy (1955). Part of Lewis’ vocation, at least in his 30s and 40s, was to artfully and logically defend Christian faith.
While C.S. Lewis’ trilogy of apologetics books are well done, they have never been my favourite. I’ve always felt about apologetics much the way John Stackhouse felt, as he shares in his introduction to Humble Apologetics. He speaks of an apologist on a college campus who was able to win all the arguments but still lose the hearts of the listeners. A student commented after the event, “I don’t care if the son of a bitch is right, I still hate his guts” (xvi). I’ve never felt moved by intellectual arguments for God—and sometimes I’ve been turned off by them—and I’ve never met anyone converted purely by them.
In my conversation with Antony Flew’s There Is a God in 2012, however, I found that I was able to admit that a couple of the classic arguments for the existence of God have won me over. Still, I have the tendency to avoid apologetics works and stick what I (rightly or wrongly) feel is the good stuff: the fiction. To me, fiction tells far more truth and tells it far better than formal philosophy.
For this reason, I was tempted to skip over a chapter on apologetics in a book I was reading. Jocelyn Gibb’s 1965 Light on C.S. Lewis is one of the earliest books to look on Lewis’ life and work from a number of different angles. Made up of colleagues, friends, students, and early biographers, Light on C.S. Lewis includes a chapter called “The Christian Apologist” by Austin Farrer. Instead of a quick skim, as I intended, I was sucked in.
In this succinct little chapter, Farrer talks about Lewis’ apologetic project, going into great detail about The Problem of Pain. What really caught me, however, was his discussion about apologetics in general. Farrer describes what has been my frequent argument about apologetics:
“It is commonly said that if rational argument is so seldom the cause of conviction, philosophical apologists must largely be wasting their shot” (26).
That’s it precisely. If no one is won over by strictly logical argument, why bother?
But Farrer challenges this idea.
“The premise is true, but the conclusion does not follow. For though argument does not create conviction, the lack of it destroys belief…. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish” (26).
I think that is a profound truth. We make our spiritual and intellectual choices within some sort of context, and ongoing story of who we are in the world. Farrer emphasizes the need for a climate where faith is intellectually credible. This argument is a real challenge to my attitudes about apologetics; I think it is eminently true.
Farrer also helps me put a thought that I’ve had into words more elegant than my own. Even if we grant the value of the apologetics project—and the reality is that as a theology and philosophy prof, I am engaged in that discussion—I have some doubts that this generation can be won over by the project. I don’t think we have the ability to assess the arguments and choose well. Some individuals do, of course, but most of us are missing key educational and intellectual tools. I don’t mean just my students, who struggle to work through the arguments, but I feel it too. Mere Christianity came easily enough, but The Problem of Pain took multiple reads, and I’m still not certain I have Miracles completely.
Beyond resources, our generation may be one where faith, and, in particular, formal religion, is completely incredible. As I said once: Anselm’s ontological proof has to be wrong, even if it is right. If that’s the case, will the project of apologetics succeed? Farrer speaks to this.
“The day in which apologetic flourishes is the day of orthodoxy in discredit; an age full of people talked out of a faith in which they were reared…. Educated England provided a field for Lewis’ apologetic in the ‘thirties and ‘forties; America does so still [in the mid-1960s]…. Where the erosion of orthodoxy has gone beyond a certain point, other champions and different arms are called for. There can be no question of offering defences for positions which are simply unoccupied or of justifying ideas of which the sense has never dawned on the mind” (24-25).
Farrer captures why I do not assign C.S. Lewis’ apologetics works in many classes. While he truly was, in the years around WWII, a popular thinker who could speak in words the world around him understood, the culture has changed. We have rejected orthodox Christianity, but not because of intellectual argument. We have simply moved on. It isn’t just that Lewis’ works are now challenging to read (they are, for most students), but that they are nearly incomprehensible.
And, even more: the arguments for faith are nearly unbelievable to my generation.
I mean this seriously. As I am writing this I am about to walk into a class and try to demonstrate the classical proofs for God’s existence. The students, even though they are not philosophy majors, always respond with the class disputations of the proofs. It is a great discussion.
But even if I, in the character of Anselm of Canterbury or Thomas Aquinas or Alvin Plantinga, were to win the argument, I do not think there would be a flood of confessions. While the arguments may succeed, the belief itself is incredible to most.
So, why do I continue?
I am a teacher, for one. And incurably curious, so driven by the questions. The arguments are also an important part of a philosophical and theological curriculum. But I draw out these arguments because of what Farrer talked about: I believe that in these conversations we can create a conversation of consideration in a culture that would rush by the questions. I would like to contribute to an intellectually honest climate in our culture, where the warm bath of consumeristic identity or the heightened rhetoric of entrenched thought do not crowd out our consideration of these, the most important questions.