Note: This is a longer and more conversational version of a review that was published this week in Literature and Theology, which you can find here (free, open access). For those of you who would like a short, tight review, click the link. For those who want a double-lengthed, wandering, and more detailed and critical response, read on! My approach is not as a professional philosopher, but as someone who teaches with some frequency in worldview studies and has a popular grasp of philosophy and Christian thought.
C.S. Lewis and the Christian Worldview. By Michael L Peterson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020, 240pp. ISBN: 978-0190201111. Hardback, £19.99.
If we think about C.S. Lewis’ impact in the public mind, I believe there are five main areas:
- For select scholars, Lewis has a lasting genius as a literary historian (The Allegory of Love and his 16th-century literature volume, in particular) or as a feisty, readable, and engaging–though perhaps wrong–literary critic in A Preface to Paradise Lost and some other pieces.
- For tens of millions of fans, he is the Narnian.
- For millions of readers, mostly though not wholly appreciative, he is an apologist, the author of Mere Christianity–perhaps the most important popular-level apologetics text of history.
- Though many in this group have their experience mediated by pastors and teachers, there are many who appreciate Lewis as a popular theologian in works like The Screwtape Letters, The Four Loves, and Letters to Malcolm (but, unfortunately, not so much The Great Divorce, where I believe the good stuff is).
- C.S. Lewis is also very important today for saying inspirational things on social media, most of which he never said.
There are the Lewis devotees, I know, and some hardcore class SciFi fans who appreciate his Ransom Cycle. But these are the main categories where most readers find themselves.
Intriguingly, box #3, Christian apologetics, is a philosophical tradition with a long history–going back to the early feisty days when Christian thinkers were trying to distinguish themselves between a strong Greco-Roman Jewish philosophical tradition and the dominant Pagan worldview. Beyond some articles, C.S. Lewis ultimately wrote 3 volumes in that tradition:
- The Problem of Pain (1941)
- Mere Christianity (1952; written 1942-44)
- Miracles: A Preliminary Study (1947; 1950)
I argue in my research that these books are better if we tilt our lens of reading them a bit, but they are read by most as apologetics books–and, I suspect, thus as philosophical texts. Lewis’ theodicy is quirky and incomplete in The Problem of Pain, but it is a theodicy–a defence of a providential God in a world that seems ill-designed and full of suffering. The apologetics aspect of Mere Christianity is primarily in the first half and really focussed only on a couple of arguments, but it has convinced many. And Miracles, Lewis’ most philosophical book and one tested and reforged in scholarly debate, has a philosophical air about it.
Yet, Lewis was not a trained philosopher in fluid, rigorous, weighty 20th-century tradition. He was a great debater with an exceptionally ardent and dynamic mind. Lewis received a first-class honours degree in philosophy at Oxford, and had tutored for a year his mentor’s stead before going to teach in English. He was unusually well-read, and for a good part of his life kept up a conversation with the dominant intellectual ideas that circulated around Oxford. But as a philosopher–even a popular one–Lewis rarely offers a systematic approach to a question. Perhaps only Miracles is close–and it does make a single epistemological clarification as well as a potential argument for the existence of God.
However, we must as the question that I begin my recent piece in Literature and Theology:
Can the philosophical statements scattered across the fiction and nonfiction of a non-specialist public intellectual be systematized into a coherent whole?
I have been curious about this question for awhile, and this is what American philosopher Michael L. Peterson attempts to do in his recent book C.S. Lewis and the Christian Worldview. I am not the only faithful reader of Lewis to doubt whether Lewis’ vast and diverse–but intentionally popular–project of Christian writing and speaking can be read as philosophically credible when looked at as a whole.
Peterson captures his project’s theoretical approach midway through the book:
“Our task … is to translate Lewis’s response using more contemporary categories and evaluate its effectiveness.” (111)
Ultimately, then, Peterson is taking Lewis’ philosophical statements diffused throughout lectures, essays, books of apologetics, and works of fiction. Then he aims to systematize them into a coherent philosophical whole, sometimes supplementing them with contemporary philosophical conversations and sometimes letting the arguments stand on their own. This is not a summary of Lewis’ work, but Peterson is attempting a work of “translation.” Though not perfect in its results, Peterson produces what I call in my piece a “primer on Lewis’ Christian philosophical thought that demonstrates” a consistency and comprehensiveness that some will find surprising.
Indeed, though I am a pretty capable and comprehensive reader of Lewis, I was impressed with Peterson’s systematization.
Peterson begins his philosophical study of this literary critic and novelist with a literary metaphor:
“Mind, morality, and longing for the transcendent were ‘inscriptions’ that Lewis sought for several decades to ‘interpret’ philosophically” (4).
Peterson argues that Lewis was a realist in his philosophical outlook, rooted in ancient thought and yet forward-looking in his perspective. Lewis was a searcher for a total explanation of existence and found it in what he called “mere Christianity”–what most Christians in most times and places believe most of the time–and what Peterson peculiarly calls “classical consensual orthodoxy” (79).
In approach to philosophical questions, Peterson uses the term “abduction” to describe the way that Lewis engaged his search for truth and meaning. This was a new term to me, and Peterson draws it from a century-old exploration of the philosophical project.
Abduction is “inference to the best explanation,” and gave Lewis the intellectual space to engage in a
“comparative reasoning process regarding the explanatory power of different worldviews in regard to several important phenomena” (16).
Peterson walks through Lewis’ philosophical development in young adulthood, showing the reasonable strengths of each successive move in his path: from atheism to “the New Look” to cosmic dualism to idealism and pantheism and ultimately to an intellectual theism that sets the stage for his conversion to Christianity. Though there are stronger lengthy approaches (i.e., Norbert Feinendegen’s “The Philosopher’s Progress,” David Downing’s The Reluctant Convert, and Joel Heck’s From Atheism to Christianity), I found Peterson’s concise treatment of Lewis’ move from 1916-1930 particularly helpful, providing brief philosophical assessments along the way. Peterson demonstrates that, for example, idealism is a stronger critical framework than materialism because it accounted for more of the “data”—philosophical and empirical—that the universe provides. While Peterson does not explain whether “abductive reasoning” is instinctive to Lewis or a scholarly discovery, it is a helpful description of how Lewis assessed truth claims.
Following introductory matters, Peterson uses Adam Barkman’s study of terms Lewis uses for “transcendent desire” to structure chapter three on “Joy and the Meaning of Life.” While this survey is helpful, the question of whether Lewis contributed to an apologetic “Argument from Desire” is the most interesting as Peterson. Because we are hungry, Lewis argues, we know not that we will be fed, but that we live in a universe that was designed for us to find food. Likewise, because we are spiritually hungry, the universe is such that this hunger can be satisfied. Peterson explores Lewis’ basic argument and the scholarly discussion about the question. These early chapters are frustrating to me as they avoid the question of how one access truth to discern meaning–the discussion of epistemology and hermeneutics could be great in a scholar like Lewis who plays with the question throughout his writing–but each of the individual questions is discussed well.
Chapters four and five turn to the question of what it means to be a “self” and the moral law, which includes a critical discussion of Lewis’ “Argument from Reason” for the existence of God. In each of these and subsequent discussions, Peterson emphasizes how Lewis is a realist who uses a middle-way approach. Lewis is, ultimately, a moral realist, a critical realist, a scientific realist, and a theological realist–an observation that is one of Peterson’s most important in the text.
Thus, with this approach to realism, Lewis retains an entrenched insistence on human and divine personhood. At the centre of the discussion are discussions of human nature and the Incarnation (chapter six) and human selfhood in relation to a trinitarian God in relation to God’s self. There are inelegant moments, such as an overly long section on Scripture and the Historical Jesus, and an incomplete thought about being made in the “image of Aslan.” However, there are helpful distinctions in this discussion, such as a clarification of unfallen human nature and Lewis’ exalted anthropology, and an understanding of Incarnation in conversation with Athanasius that made me realize how much of Lewis’ thought beyond the incarnation is shaped by the way Athanasius thought about it. In particular, Lewis’ emphasis on personhood highlights the relational understanding of sin and his metaphor of the “Great Dance” of the Trinity.
Considering how much weight has been given to “Lord, Lunatic, Liar” trilemma–that, logically speaking, Jesus can only be a conman, or gravely deceived about himself, or who he said he was–it isn’t surprising that Peterson commits a large section to the idea. Astonishingly, the bibliography on this section is several years behind, and I always remain disappointed in these discussions, though I cannot precisely say why. His discussion on the “Lord, Lunatic, Liar” trilemma is, however, clear and coherent.
Given Peterson’s specialization as a philosopher of science and a philosopher of religion with a focus on theodicy, it is not surprising that the chapters on “Pain, Suffering, and Death” (eight) and “Science, Scientism, and Evolution” (nine) are among the most straightforward, concise, and compelling. Fortunately, Peterson avoids popular rabbit trails in theodicy-making and Intelligent Design debates. The chapters on “Salvation and Persons Outside the Faith” (ten) and “Prayer and Providence” (eleven) are weaker but still helpful in two ways.
First, Peterson describes a spectrum of models of salvation, from universalism and pluralism on one side to exclusivism on the other. Mediating these positions is Lewis’ own approach that Peterson calls “inclusivism,” which holds that Christian faith has the most complete understanding of divine reality, but there is both truth in other faiths and honest seekers among the religions of the world. Though the semantics might be debated, the spectrum is helpful and Peterson’s careful defence of Lewis’ position shows “a picture of God who is infinitely just and infinitely loving, rejecting no person for lack of knowledge and desiring to give his own divine life to as many persons as possible” (149). A return at this point, however, to the deeply Christological centre of chapter 6 would clarify our understanding of the particularism within Lewis’ inclusivism.
Second, while the chapter on “Prayer and Providence” is interesting given the intellectual problems it involves, this study of Letters to Malcolm and other short texts lacks the weight of the rest of the volume and could be strengthened by situating it within Peterson’s definition of “worldviews.” Where does “praxis” fit in worldview studies? His argument that “Lewis sees honest, authentic relationship as the foundation—and the chief goal—of prayer” (151) is a clear and simple summary of the position. Lewis follows a Thomistic approach to argue that there is no essential contradiction between divine and human will, though Lewis admits that he can never answer the essential conflict between two important kinds of prayer: the “thy will be done” prayer and the persistent prayer of specific and deep need.
The most interesting section of the chapter on prayer is fundamental to the character of God:
“Our thinking about prayer inevitably rests on philosophical assumptions about God’s attributes and purposes in relation to human choice and action” (158).
In particular, Peterson offers his only substantial challenge to Lewis’ philosophical understanding on the subject of God and time. Lewis, who followed Boethius in understanding God as existing in an “unbounded Now,” is able to avoid mental befuddlements about prayer and God’s linear capacity to answer prayer, as well as the question of human freedom and divine knowledge. Peterson argues that “divine timelessness” is incompatible with the “divine dance” of the Trinity, discussed in ch. 7. The Godhead’s mutuality of love and response must be sequential, and in incarnation occurs in space and time, so God is thereby not timeless. The critique of Lewis is refreshing because Lewis is so seldom challenged “from within” as it were, except sometimes from Reformed perspectives. Moreover, one of my deepest concerns about the book is the lack of ultimate assessment of the systematic nature of Lewis’ philosophical models. So I’m glad that Peterson challenges Lewis on his idea of time and God’s character. Peterson concludes this section in a way that summarizes his approach:
“we are encountering here the fact that Lewis was not always systematic in constructing his worldview, leaving us to organize and prioritize its various elements. But his unsystematic approach does not cancel the need to identify the central elements of his worldview and present them as a coherent whole, a presentation that will fail with timelessness in the mix.” (160)
I agree that Lewis was not always–or even often–systematic, though I have always admired his generally logical mind. Honestly, I wished Peterson punched back more; the weakest part of the book is how few of these disagreements exist. However, I’m not certain that Peterson is right in his critique. Although Lewis is perhaps open to criticism at this point, it is not clear that Lewis is arguing that God does not experience time at all, but that with regard to creation, all time and space exists in a single experience—including God’s own creative activity, answers to prayer, special revelation, and incarnation. Lewis was not advocating “simple foreknowledge,” but limiting mental fallacies with regard to prayer and human freedom. I quote my conclusion in this matter from the published review:
“An analogy to the Athanasian concept of Incarnation is helpful, so that the timeless God takes time up into God’s self, rather than entering time.”
The text concludes with less power than its best bits. While Peterson falsely describes The Great Divorce as an allegory, his study of “Heaven, Hell, and the Trajectory of Finite Personality” in ch. 12 is helpful. In particular, the language of “trajectory” combined with the critical moment of theological self-confrontation in The Great Divorce is key to Lewis’ thought. Peterson’s confusion of genre also highlights an argumentative problem about his logic of using fantastic fiction to establish theological facticity—particularly since Lewis’ own preface warns again factual curiosity about the afterlife arising from the reading of his dream story.
I wish that Peterson had not missed some of the key texts in the field. For example, Peterson studies Lewis as a Christian realist but leaves out John G. Stackhouse‘s treatment of Lewis as a Christian realist (Making the Best of It). Likewise, Peterson considers Lewis’ idea of longing-Joy-Sehnsucht as central to his thought, but leaves out the foundational
analysis on the topic, Corbin Scott Carnell’s Bright Shadow of Reality. Pressing in, Peterson’s section on disordered love is precisely prefigured in Gilbert Meilaender’s 1978 study, The Taste for the Other—a philosophical study on C.S. Lewis that is puzzlingly absent from Peterson’s study. Peterson is correct about the prison of self-choice and ends his study in precisely the right focus to understand Lewis’ thought:
“The idea of a “false self” is found throughout Lewis’s writings, along with its corollary: that we must die to our false self in order to truly live” (171).
That he calls this escape “moving toward God” is telling of his own religious perspective, but his treatment of the logic of purgatory, heaven, and hell in Lewis’ thought is sound.
There are other less than perfect points, including a couple of examples where Peterson’s admirable brevity leads to reductive definitions, including “postmodernism” as a version of anti-realism” (5) and a definition of “total depravity” than not all Calvinists could support (97-8). Typically, though, he is on the whole generous and careful in examples.
However, one of my main critiques about definitions is one that is at the core of Peterson’s approach. I write in the review:
it remains puzzling to me in such a precise book that the definition of “worldview” is reduced to “a comprehensive and coherent set of beliefs about the deepest matters” (4), leaving out symbolic and praxeological elements
These elements of symbol and religious practice are critical to many in worldview studies, so it is strange Peterson simply doesn’t address them. Plus, Peterson decides without discussion the question of whether one’s worldview is presuppositional or consciously constructed–such a key question in the field. Even in Peterson’s own narrow definition and the way he chooses to approach the material, we are missing really key philosophical questions that I want answered, such as a survey of Lewis’ literary theory and the question of the degree to which we can access truth and meaning with relation to the meaningful world that Lewis claims exists (i.e., questions of epistemology and hermeneutics). Other Christian philosophical points, such as relations of the sexes (critical to human identity) and how God can be known (revelation), though covered in other approaches to the material may be lacking evidence for Peterson or may be deemed too large to cover briefly. Some of the leaner points are covered by other authors, such as the role of myth in Lewis’ worldview (see Charlie Starr’s newer study, The Faun’s Bookshelf), but no rationale for these excisions is given.
On the whole, however, C.S. Lewis and the Christian Worldview is a tight, sharp introduction to C.S. Lewis’ philosophical thought. It fits between a more systematic volume, like folks referenced above and the work of Adam Barkman, and individual studies like those of Victor Reppert, John G. Stackhouse, Michael D. Aeschliman, Gilbert Meilaender, and various collections edited by people like David J. Baggett, Gary R. Habermas, Jerry L. Walls, and Gregory Bassham—or, in opposition, studies like that of John Beversluis. For all its limitations–and in some senses, because of his narrow range of study–Peterson’s volume does what no other text does: it takes Lewis’ philosophical statements from across a diverse corpus and organizes them into a single, clearly articulated primer. As such, there are some key takeaways for me:
- Peterson shows that Lewis is largely in the tradition of “mere Christianity”
- Lewis’ thinking is remarkably consistent and coherent, though people who take up his arguments can often give them a full philosophical form
- If I were to spend time re-assessing Lewis’ project of Christian thought, I would approach it from a different perspective, that of the thinkers that have framed his approach, in particular: Plato, St. Paul, Augustine, Boethius, Thomas Aquinas, perhaps Julian of Norwich, and certainly Athanasius
- I would want, then, to relate those approaches to the two elements that really “pop” in Peterson’s assessment of Lewis: the framework of “realism” and Lewis’ “middle-way” approach (I admit that the latter I have developed from Peterson, while he focusses more on various kinds of “realism”)
I think readers of Lewis with some facility for reading philosophy will find this book useful, but I suspect it will be far more helpful to Christian thinkers (and other-than-Christian thinkers with imagination) in their development of a coherent intellectual framework for their faith.
They should have published this “extended” version; it’s excellent. Very thorough and insightful.
Thanks Rob! They were generous giving me 1000 words–very high for an academic book review. Here, at A Pilgrim in Narnia, the editor lets me go as long as I want!
I think one of the reasons that Lewis was so successful as a Christian writer was his lack of systematic theology, which I’ve always thought of as rather dry. It seems to me that he started from a human perspective (why is there pain? for example) and tried to give a Christian answer to that question.
I also find the Lord / lunatic / liar trilemma completely unsatisfactory: there’s a fourth possibility, that the authors of the gospels were putting words in his mouth, or misunderstanding what he actually said.
Yes, that’s the obvious 4th option. Of course, as I think you have a sense, the oral/aural communities of the time would have had to be satisfied by what was said in the gospels. Public events, public reception. And Lewis under-emphasized the Jewish context, which I think heightens the challenge or invitation from Jesus and the Gospels. There is a volume that tackles these questions. I have mostly found it helpful as a way of clarifying our thinking, or for those who have worked out one side of the historical question.
I find your comment on “systematic theology” helpful, having been one who has read many of these dry tomes. I like the word “systemic” though, that Lewis had ideas that tumbled out relatively logically and imagistically from certain starting points. I also think that Lewis said things in ways that made people look at their beliefs or anti-beliefs in a fresh way.
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The sort of theology I like is the sort that starts from a specific context. Philosophy leaves me cold because quite often it’s removed from any context and is very abstract. Systems thinking is good, and I think Lewis often thought in a systemic way.
Systematic thinking seems to want to make a tidy coherent system with no loose ends, but reality isn’t like that.
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