CS Lewis still provides a great read and he has been an important figure in my own journey of working out my faith. But I cringe a little when, as repeatedly happens, Christian people hear I’m into philosophy and science and such and they recommend I read the author of the Narnia books.
I’ve been reading some of his works for quite a while and they’re great, with plenty of insights into the poverty of a purely secular life – but they’re not the only thing out there if you’re looking for a critically engaged faith. (There’s perhaps a similar deal with Francis Schaeffer, but I struggle to think of other Christian thinkers who people in the pews would tend to know. For the rest of the post, I’ll refer to Lewis, as representative and chief of a possibly larger tribe; I’m open to being convinced anyway.)
I’m curious about what causes the phenomenon which I clumsily christen “you’re a Christian into thinking? Oh well (it’s a pity you can’t play the guitar); but quick, you better read CS Lewis!” The Church is not noted for being fast and trendy and up to date, but that’s not the whole story. I don’t have any evidence for the claim, but I suspect CS Lewis has been popular for a long time i.e. the Church hasn’t only just discovered him; and more fundamentally, that previous generations, who were more likely to read books and keep up to date with the world of literature, were better acquainted with a few defenders of the faith who were not long-dead at the time.
I’m not advocating the sin of chronological snobbery and I know that new and shiny stuff often soon enough hits the trash pile, but in my opinion, people really need to know that God is alive in the academy today and He’s worth taking as seriously as He ever was. That’s good news, but news which may be hard to hear above the dance/trance/pop/punk/thrashmetal-indie sounds of popular Christian culture and Christianity-lite ®. I have suggested the Church is slow in some respects, but it’s fast in others – making bad copies of non-religious pop culture arguably being one of our special skills.
If I sound bitter it’s only because, as much as I love the vibrancy of many of our churches, it’s not always well-rooted; and I hate to see people wander away from faith when they hit the combined power of big questions and the pressure of a society convinced that Christianity is irrelevant to things which really matter. Imagine if, in a society that slips away from literature, science and reason, the Church one again championed the life of the mind? Joining the rest in their slide is a short-term solution.
Of course, readers of this blog, whether Christian, atheist, subscriber to New Age confusion or whatever, are unlikely to be the culprits regarding ignorance of modern Christian thought and apologetics – but if you want, even you, the humble blog reader, can take the next step and help raise the level of conversation in our churches. I’ll give more suggestions as we go on, but an easy start would be to buy a young adult (or even one of those oft-neglected older adults) a copy of Tim Keller’s “The Reason for God”. Work out how to convince the youth leader in your church to spend some of their small budget on getting older teens a copy, perhaps instead of upgrading the smoke or coffee machine. If you are a preacher, mention that book in sermons; or if you dare, talk about a book like “To Change the World” by James Davison Hunter, published by OUP (I hope to write a post on this one soon) or one of the many well-argued evangelical tomes that gets pumped out every year, to sadly leave this nation completely unchanged as the New Zealand Church does not read.
I’ll say it again – I am a big fan of CS Lewis. It took me a while to realise how long ago he actually wrote, as I’m a bit slow and his defences of Christianity and critiques of its opponents are so often so spot-on. If I had more money and it was a live option, I’d pay a lot to have him revivified and do a lecturing stint. Yet, 40, 50 + years is a long time and things have definitely shifted. Some cultural aspects remain, but others have changed. My amateur assessment of the intellectual history of the West in the past few decades is that a combination of postmodernism, loss of faith in aspects of the Enlightenment project and dedicated Christian scholars who have chipped away at atheistic arguments and resurrected academic apologetics and natural theology have left the doors of tertiary institutions and those who reside therein considerably more open to Christian faith than might be expected. At the time of Lewis, secularism was on the up in the academy, though evangelicalism was booming on the ground; since then, the secularisation thesis has become far less plausible as religion has held its ground and the general expectation for the future seems one of an uneasy pluralism. Perhaps it’s something like the situation of the early Christian church – given the growth that occurred then, one can only hope.
I’m also a fan of Oxford University; I’d give at least one tooth to study there, so I appreciate that the fact Lewis was a Professor at that place carries some weight. But, he was a Professor of English, quite a while ago. That didn’t limit him much; it was before the popularity of post-modernism and literary critical theory, he got his initial training in philosophy and went on to run the meetings of the “Socratic Club”, which involved engagement with many of the top thinkers of the time – but it was also before the recent burgeoning of the philosophy of religion and Christian philosophy more generally. As such, of greater interest to me is the fact that there are a number of quality Christian thinkers currently or far more recently employed at that institution. I think particularly of John Lennox – Professor of mathematics and Fellow in the philosophy of science – who has three earned doctorates; the distinguished philosopher of science as well as religion, Richard Swinburne; historian of science Peter Harrison; philosophers and theologians researching and debating the nature of God like Alister McGrath, Brian Leftow, Keith Ward and Markus Bockmuehl. Others newer on the scene, like rising star evolutionary biologist Andrew Parker, philosopher Tim Mawson and physicist Ard Louis are heavily involved in the conversation between faith and reason.
Despite my bold cynical claim (which I hope will elicit a response of some kind) in the sentence about reading and our lack thereof, you may yet realise that even little young New Zealand has a number of Christian people who spend a fair amount of time thinking about Christian stuff in a way that hasn’t shut the door to the outside world. Some of the readers of this blog may have heard of a guy called Matt Flannagan. If you’re a thinking Christian or looking for depth, feel free to get in touch and interact with this blog and perhaps Thinking Matters too, for starters.
I don’t have the answers, but I love the questions and have some idea of who to ask. ‘Loving God with your mind’ isn’t an elitist agenda – it’s part of what Christians are called to do and it’s good clean fun too. If you’re really into it, you can even carefully read what opponents of Christianity are saying – from the beginning of the incorporation of the Christian community, it’s been hard work, but we’ve been listening to what others are saying and responding truthfully with the reasons why we continue to trust in Jesus.
As an aside, if you’ve got through the collected works of CS Lewis, try his Australian cousin (not literally) David Lewis – being an atheist he didn’t write much about religion, but his paper “Do We Believe in Penal Substitution?” is a classic that manages to be cited by both sides of the debate. Anyway, regardless of whether you want to spend your evenings with Richard Dawkins, Stephen Law or whoever, let it all spill out in conversation – and God knows, people may even be interested to find out with you whether this life thing has a purpose and a Purposer behind it.