The work of C.S. Lewis is not lost on Church historians. Dr. Diana Butler Bass, a student of George Marsden and prominent columnist, author, and American church historian, turns to Lewis and some of his friends as an answer to the 20th-century crisis of faith. In considering “Christian Spirituality in Europe and North America since 1700”–a vast and diverse topic–Diana Butler Bass and Joseph Stewart-Sicking survey the critical questions of modern and postmodern Euro-American Christianity. Instead of thinking in terms of “secular” and either “religious” or “post-religious”–or, recently, “post-secular”–they think in terms of “de-tradionalization,” arguing that Christian spirituality has adapted through each of the periods of modern history, creating an even grander vision for Christian transformation.
In terms spiritual practice, they divide the modern and postmodern eras into these ideas:
- Where is God? (1700-1820, Mysticism, Enlightenment, Awakening, Revolution, Deism)
- God with Us (1820-1915, Romanticism, the Oxford Movement, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Liberalism, Psychology)
- Is God? (1915-1980, Lewis and the Inklings, Social Transformation of Dorothy Day and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mysticism, Howard Thurman, Thomas Merton, Dissatisfaction with Modernity)
- God is … Maybe (1980-Present, Postmodernism, Integralist Theology, Global Christianity, Recovery of History, Rethinking Tradition, Rowan Williams, Matthew Fox, Stanley Hauerwas, Focus on Christian Praxis)
For the authors, C.S. Lewis and the Inklings are part of a recovery of Christian spirituality in that generation. This recovery is not merely the intellectual certainty of faith in a diversifying modern world, but is the choice to live in the tension of modern doubt as if God does exist. Though apologists and public intellectuals, people like Bonhoeffer, Day, Thurman, Merton, and Lewis responded to the modern condition not just with Christian words but with Christian practice.
Here is an excerpt on Lewis and the Inklings. While Dorothy Sayers was never an official Inkling, I do include her and Madeleine L’Engle as honourary Inklings–a link we see here in this brief selection.
Perhaps no other writer better captures the essence of late modernity than the Anglican C.S. Lewis (1898–1963) whose essays placed “God in the dock,” thus pitting the Christian faith against all secular ideologies. Lewis, a skeptical and agnostic Oxford don, embraced Christianity after a lengthy philosophical struggle over claims to Jesus’s divinity. His work, especially Mere Christianity, breathed new life into the venerable practice of Christian apologetics. He popularized proofs for God based on evidence, logic, intellectual rigor, and poetics.
Joining Lewis in this academic and artistic defense of Christianity were J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, and Charles Williams,, a group of English writers collectively known as the Inklings. Not mystics, they best exemplify a strain of spirituality of the mind as they tackled the defense of Christian faith against painful questions raised by modern worldviews and, at the height of their careers, the violence of fascism and war. Lewis and his associates drew stark contrasts in essays, plays, poetry, and novels between good and evil, depicting the world in a tragically heroic struggle between God and the Devil. God, Lewis assured, would always win, but victory would only come through faithful courage, lively orthodoxy, and supernatural assistance. However difficult the trials of faith, Lewis insisted that Christianity was a life of joy that offered the seeking soul spiritual assurance through an embrace of truth.
The power of Lewis’s artistic apologetics is evident in its extraordinary continued popularity. Arguably, the Inklings, especially Lewis and Tolkien, have influenced more people across the globe with the Christian message than anyone else in the twentieth century. And their tradition of poetic apologetics was carried on by other writers such as the British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge and the American Madeleine L’Engle.
Diana Butler Bass and Joseph Stewart-Sicking, “Christian Spirituality in Europe and North America since 1700,” pp. 139-155 in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality (ed. Arthur Holder; Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005).