February 9, 2009

"Mere Ecumenism": C.S. Lewis as a Model for Christian Apologetics

The following is an abstract of a paper I am currently working on.

“[Roman Catholics] keep on writing to tell me (like you) that it is a pity that ‘knowing so much I shd. be held back from knowing so much more!’”1 –C.S. Lewis

“Have the Presbyterians any truth? Yes. Have the Baptists, Methodists, etc., any truth? Yes. They all have a little truth mixed with error. We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up, or we shall not come out true ‘Mormons.’"2 –Joseph Smith, Jr.
The apologetic works by Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) have transcended denominational boundaries to reach an impressively diverse Christian audience. From the beginning of his apologetic career Lewis received letters from Catholics, Evangelicals, Presbyterians, Mormons and other Christians expressing regret (or wondering why on earth) he was Anglican. Journalist Richard Ostling mentioned the “extraordinary” interest in Lewis among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who seem to believe Lewis is “almost a crypto-Mormon.” According to Ostling, this “shows the extraordinary acceptability and the usefulness of C.S. Lewis, because of course most of what he says is perfectly acceptable to Mormons.”3 Lewis has been “perfectly acceptable” to more than the Latter-day Saints. What makes Lewis so attractive to so many? Moreover, is there more Lewis has to offer Latter-day Saints than providing an echo of some unique LDS beliefs?

Picking through Lewis’s fictional works to discover any “hidden” Christianity would be a laborious task, and perhaps one Lewis himself wouldn’t have much appreciated. To a Reverend writing from Wisconsin he explained “I can’t abide the idea that a man’s books shd. be ‘set in their biographical context’ and if I had some rare information about Shakespeare or Dante I’d throw it in the fire, tell no one, and re-read their works.”4 For the purposes of this paper, Lewis’s fiction will receive only peripheral attention. Instead, I will explore a collection of Lewis’s personal letters (compiled in three volumes filling nearly 4,000 pages)5 to formulate three approaches to the man behind the books.

First, how did Lewis’s personal thoughts and experiences on the path from atheism to Christianity contribute to his popular apologetic works? “You ask me my religious views,” an 18-year old Lewis responded to his lifelong friend Arthur. “You know, I think, that I believe in no religion. There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint Christianity is not even the best. All religions, that is, all mythologies to give them their proper name are merely man’s own invention…Superstition of course in every age has held the common people, but in every age the educated and thinking ones have stood outside it, though usually outwardly conceding to it for convenience.”6 Almost fifteen years later he confessed to Arthur, “How deep I am just now beginning to see: for I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ—in Christianity.”7 Conversion at age 31 left Lewis carrying memories of life as an unbeliever. He considered himself a “baby” in Christ, telling others he still had much to learn about his new faith and for the rest of his life referred to himself as an “amateur theologian.” In letters to friends and strangers of different religious stripes he demonstrated his special concern for the “virtuous heretic,” or “virtuous unbeliever.”8 He sought for and found ways to hope for those not converted to Christianity.

Second, Lewis's approach is a persuasive model of charitable understanding resulting in more respectful and ecumenical apologetic engagement. In surprising ways Lewis’s thought crosses paths with LDS beliefs regarding God’s concern for His entire creation. Consider his answer to the question “what happens to Jews who are still waiting for the Messiah?” He responded, “I think that every prayer which is sincerely made even to a false god…is accepted by the true God and that Christ saves many who do not think they know Him. For He is (dimly) present in the good side of the inferior teachers they follow.”9 For such statements Lewis has been labeled a “dangerous false teacher” by some Christians who believe Lewis is much too ecumenical.10 Compare his words to those of Brigham Young: "I do not believe for one moment that there has [ever] been a man or woman upon the face of the earth…who has not been enlightened, instructed, and taught by the revelations of Jesus Christ. 'What! the ignorant heathen?' Yes, every human being who has possessed a sane mind…No matter what the traditions of their fathers were, those who were honest before the Lord, and acted uprightly, according to the best knowledge they had, will have an opportunity to go into the kingdom of God."11 Lewis’s personal correspondence reveals a mixture of certainty and searching. In a review of his collected letters the Library Journal noted: “There is a sense that, though Lewis is presenting his true inner self, he is in no way attempting to force these truisms onto others but is merely looking for others to walk the road with, in sweet converse, both listening and sharing the deep secrets of souls.”12 The letters reveal his stumbling first steps at explaining Christianity, his initial desire to reach all Christians, the subsequent disappointment in realizing the impossibility of that goal, the way he dealt with critics of religion, and his distaste for religious contention. He throws in a few dirty jokes and curse words, as well.

The third aspect of the paper briefly discusses how Lewis has been understood and used by LDS General authorities versus LDS teachers and authors. The former tend to employ Lewis on general moral issues, many of the latter emphasize areas where Lewis appears to agree with distinct LDS beliefs. While it isn’t true that Lewis is the most quoted “non-Mormon” by LDS General Conference speakers, he’s near the top of the list. From the earliest known reference to Lewis in an LDS publication to his current popularity in LDS-owned Deseret Book stores, Ostling’s description of Lewis as a “crypto-Mormon” has some weight behind it, but I will address his charge that Lewis is often misused by Mormons. Lewis himself was cautious not to remake an author he admired  into his own image. “One of my objections to some ‘neo-scholastics’ is that they often pick out Thomist texts and string them together with little regard to their real position in Aquinas’ thought, thus producing an account…which really corresponds to nothing their master ever thought or could have thought.”13 Mormon writers should employ Lewis carefully and responsibly in favor of self-congratulatory selective proof-texting.

C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis Vol. II: Books, Broadcasts, and the War 1931-1949, ed. William Hooper, p. 670. Throughout Lewis’s letters he often employed shorthand for particular words; “shd.” for “should,” replaced in brackets.

History of the Church 5:517.

Ostling also claims Lewis “was aware of the LDS claims and totally rejected them,” an overstatement that will be discussed further. See Douglas LeBlanc, “Mere Mormonism: Journalist Richard Ostling explores LDS culture, theology, and fans of 'crypto-Mormon' C.S. Lewis,” Christianity Today, Feb. 7, 2000.

Collected Letters, vol. 2, p. 831.

The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis (3 vol.), ed. Walter Hooper.

C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, Oct. 12, 1916, Collected Letters, vol. 1, pp. 230-231.

Lewis to Greeves, Oct. 1, 1931, Collected Letters, vol. 1, p. 974.

See for example, Collected Letters, vol. 2, p. 135.

Collected Letters, vol. 3, p. 245.

David Cloud, “Beware of C.S. Lewis,” Fundamental Baptist Information Service, March 1, 2002.

Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 2:139.

See cslewis.com/books.aspx, accessed February 1, 2009.

Lewis to Dom Bede Griffiths, Sept. 14, 1936, Collected Letters, vol. 2, p. 205.


Kent White said...

The drought is over! A new post has come.

I've read lots of C.S. Lewis and I think he wrote a lot like James Talmage did. He is very accessible to the lay person even though his arguments probably only resound with the believer. Good beginning of a paper.

cinepro said...

Boy, I'm guessing Lewis would have loved this book:

The Restored Gospel According to C.S. Lewis

BHodges said...

Already familiar, cp. ;)

cinepro said...

I'm looking forward to these upcoming books in the series:

- Family Home Evening According to Freud
- Einstein and the Cosmology of the Book of Abraham
- Ghandi Was a Mormon

BHodges said...

haha I like how you ended the list with the bang.

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