For C.S. Lewis, Deo Gratias!

For C.S. Lewis, Deo Gratias! November 26, 2012

Patheos invited religious bloggers to share stories about people we’re thankful for who’ve supported us in our faith.  Technically, they asked us to do this for Thanksgiving, but as I was late to the faith, it’s thematically appropriate that I be late to the prompt as well.

I turned out to be embarrassingly easy to snare.

When I was coming out of Commons (the big dining hall on campus), Yale Students for Christ were tabling outside, and they’d put up a sign reading FREE BOOKS.  I was over by the table rifling though titles, before I’d even noticed which group was sponsoring the giveaway.  Most of the books I picked up looked to insipid to hang on to (a person used to do some bad things, but then they (a) noticed bad things were bad and (b) had some warm feelings, so now Christianity!), but I paused over Mere Christianity.

As scifi and fantasy-mad as I am, I don’t love Lewis’s fiction.  I had three unpleasant epiphanies about Narnia on successive rereadings:

  1. Hey, these are about Christianity!
  2. Goodness the treatment of non-whites is terrible!
  3. There is almost no plot in Prince Caspian!  (Seriously, go back and check).

But I’d heard enough people cite him approvingly, and I couldn’t really walk away from FREE BOOKS empty-handed, so I scooped it up and tossed it in my bag.  This was the year of swapping apologetics with my then-boyfriend, so it wasn’t too long before I took Mere Christianity out to read.  The book is adapted from a series of radio broadcasts Lewis did on theology, and the first few sections were laying out an explanation of objective morality, and dealing with a few common objections.  This was pretty well timed.

Click the picture to read the whole adventure at Dresden Codak

I was spending at least as much time arguing with my debate friends about objective morality as with my then-boyfriend about Catholicism.  (And everyone had a tendency to gang up on me).  When I read Lewis’s discussion of the natural law written on the heart of man, I was reading my own thoughts, expressed more simply and comprehensibly than I had managed.

The best moments in reading are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things — that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours. [From The History Boys]

Reading Lewis felt like communion, even if I had a tendency to translate his writing into math analogies on the fly.  Around this period, I was reading and enjoying Chesterton, too, but, although I found his ideas provocative and surprising, they never triggered the same kind of startle that Lewis kept provoking (and Chesterton describes well in Orthodoxy):

I have often had a fancy for writing a romance about an English yachtsman who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas… There will probably be a general impression that the man who landed (armed to the teeth and talking by signs) to plant the British flag on that barbaric temple which turned out to be the Pavilion at Brighton, felt rather a fool. I am not here concerned to deny that he looked a fool. But if you imagine that he felt a fool, or at any rate that the sense of folly was his sole or his dominant emotion, then you have not studied with sufficient delicacy the rich romantic nature of the hero of this tale. His mistake was really a most enviable mistake; and he knew it, if he was the man I take him for. What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again? What could be better than to have all the fun of discovering South Africa without the disgusting necessity of landing there? What could be more glorious than to brace one’s self up to discover New South Wales and then realize, with a gush of happy tears, that it was really old South Wales.

Long before I felt in any danger of conversion, I was using Lewis’s apologetics to explicate my own beliefs on this blog.  Mere Christianity for why I turned from deontology to virtue ethics,  The Great Divorce indicted my pride, and The Weight of Glory curbed some of my ascetic tendencies.   By the time I saw Freud’s Last Session (a two-person play that imagines a dialogue between Freud and Lewis), I was frustrated with Freud’s tactics in the argument, and longed for a turn in the ring myself.

Perhaps we didn’t share quite enough for Aumann’s Agreement Theorem to hold, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that one good, undergraduate-style, pizza-and-fighting-til-dawn conversation with Lewis would either convert me or leave me feeling like I’d done my due diligence and could walk away from this hypothesis.  Worrying about Lewis and other similar to me converts like Alisdair MacIntyre was the reason I came up with my time-travelling convert thought experiment, and tried to figure out what I was waiting to hear to settle the question.

In the end, C.S. Lewis was what made Christianity a non-euclidean theology for me – conceivably true, but not necessarily (or even likely to be) correct.  Feser helped fill in the gaps, and, although I never got my argument with Lewis, I also ended up Surprised by Joy.

P.S. I had a bit of ecumenical envy when I realized that C.S. Lewis’s feast day in the Episcopal church (Nov 22) fell on Thanksgiving exactly this year.

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  • grok87

    “Hey, these are about Christianity!
    Goodness the treatment of non-whites is terrible!
    There is almost no plot in Prince Caspian! (Seriously, go back and check).”

    Very funny.
    I loved the Chronicles of Narnia when I was younger, but now I find many of them off-putting. Whereas the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings have grown in importance to me over time. No-one could accuse LOTR of not having plot, and it is less overtly about Christianity (Tolkien HATED allegory) although Christianity permeates the books in my view- Tolkien was of course a Catholic. But of course LOTR also treats non-whites fairly politically incorrectly. Lewis and Tolkien were in the same writers/book club (called the Inklings) and shared many ideas back and forth (e.g. walking trees in both)
    Tolkien’s letters are interesting to read- they talk about his Catholicism a lot, and also, in the earlier ones about CS Lewis and Lewis’ brother Warnie.

    • If there was a plot in Hobbit, I missed it…
      I think Narnia and LOTR are comparing apples and wheat bread. They aren’t even attempting to be the same thing, and it’s the fault of our desire to categorize that they often get lumped together.
      Oh, Caspian has a plot–there’s just a lot of backstory expressed. Lucy becomes stronger in her faith, we see the growth of Edmund from LWW, it’s Peter and Susan’s last time in Narnia, Caspian has to do what he’s meant to do, instead of relying on other people doing it.

      • grok87

        @Emily, I think there’s definitely a plot in the Hobbit. Lot’s of stuff happens. It’s out of the frying pan and into the fire all day long in that book, or as Tolkien puts it:
        “Escaping goblins to be caught by wolves!” he said, and it became a proverb, though we now say ‘out of the frying-pan into the fire’ in the same sort of uncomfortable situations.”

        I don’t think there is enough plot in the Hobbit for 3 movies though, which is apparently what Peter Jackson is planning to do. It’s only a 300 page book after all…

        • Ink

          He’s working in a lot of the Lost Tales. Not sure how well it’ll work.

        • Yeah, there is DEFINITELY not a plot that goes for three movies, which makes me totally uninterested in this one.
          I agree, there are “episodes of action”, but action does not a good plot make…no offense to the males here, but I can see why every 11 year old in my 6th grade class LOVED it. It’s very, um, guy. (Yes, I know, girls like it, but this girl read it as definitely appealing more to males. Where is my Eowyn, I ask? ) )

      • “If there was a plot in Hobbit, I missed it…” Um…quest? personal growth? learning to face one’s fears? stretching out of one’s comfort zone? There are so many I don’t know where to start. If you missed them, I can only conclude that you were wilfully not looking.

        • Those aren’t plots. Those are themes.

          • True, but that’s just proof plots are overrated. Faust or Brothers Karamazov don’t have much plot either.

          • How can PLOT be overrated? Plot is how things happen in the story. Without plot, you have no action. There’s plot in the Brothers K, there’s plot in Faust–Faust wants X, sells his soul to the devil–stuff then happens. That’s plot. There’s a connecting line throughout all the events in the story. Same with Brothers K. To me, Hobbit is just super episodic.

          • Ink

            Brothers K is totally episodic, but differently so. Instead of “let’s do this! now let’s do that!” like a clunky improv scene, it’s “oh let’s follow Alyosha for a bit. Okay now let’s go see how Dmitri’s doing! Oh and here’s Ivan’s discourse on human suffering. Oh no Fr Zosima is finally dead (FORESHADOWING FORESHADOWING FORESHADOWING) aaand we’ll follow Dmitri again and oh gosh that manipulative whore Grushenka.” Brothers K is the soap opera to The Hobbit’s Saturday morning cartoon.

        • Yes, but the four brothers’ lives ARE the plot of Brothers K. For example: Les Miz is VERY “episodic”, but the stream that takes you through is the evolution of Jean Valjean. Stories, of course, have episodes. That’s what moves the story forward. But with The Hobbit, I don’t find the plot, such as it is, all that awesome. There’s nothing wrong with simple plot, if you make it interesting. That’s the crux of my argument: I don’t find Hobbit all that interesting.

    • I agree that Tolkien ages better than Lewis. Lewis is on an ideological campaign. Some of the Narnia books are simply enjoyable children’s stories (e.g. The Horse and His Boy or Prince Caspian), but usually they’re trying to make a not-so-subtle point about Christian living. This is all fine and pedagogically effective, but because the characters and situations are contrived for this purpose, they lack a more general usefulness or humanity. Lewis works off of stereotypes and adapts them to fit his narrative needs. Tolkien on the other hand works from total unknowns and then lets them reveal themselves progressively through the narrative. The one stereotype he consistently takes advantage of, in fact, is the eccentricity of the Bagginses’ Took ancestry. There is a lot of eccentricity in Tolkien, and a dearth of it in Lewis, and while we might feel more comfortable and familiar with, e.g. a Mrs. Dimble or a Peter Pevensie than we would with a Meriadoc Brandybuck or a Turin, it’s difficult to deny that the latter have more personality than the former. I’ve pretty much stopped rereading Lewis (except for That Hideous Strength), but I’m still astonished whenever I reread Lord of the Rings. There’s always more to appreciate.

      • grok87

        I agree. And what gets me more and more is the beauty of the language. Here’s one of my favorites:

        “I would gladly learn how this creeping Smeagol became possessed of the Thing of which we speak, and how he lost it, but I will not trouble you now. If ever beyond hope you return to the lands of the living and we re-tell our tales, sitting by a wall in the sun, laughing at old grief, you shall tell me then. Until that time, or some other time beyond the vision of the Seeing-stones of Númenor, farewell! ”

        Thanks for the tip on That Hideous Strength- I’ll give it a re-read perhaps. Did you know CS Lewis modeled the Ransom character in Out of the Silent Planet on Tolkien…

    • Ted Seeber

      They are, after all, Children’s novels, written for White Anglo Saxon Protestants.

      Though I do find it interesting that the only true convert in any of them (Edmund being at best a revert, and Susan apostatic) was the *colored* (Calorman) soldier in The Last Battle, so I don’t think it was *entirely* racist so much as culturalist (Tash is overtly an Islamic picture of Allah, Aslan is a Christian picture of Christ).

      • They’re not “children’s novels”, because Lewis didn’t believe in “children’s stories.” He said that a story should be just as good to 10 year olds as it is to adults, or it’s not a good story to begin with.

        Also, They WERE NOT meant to be Christian allegories. Lewis said this explicitly many, many times. He said if they are called anything, they should be called “suppositions”.

    • Custador

      The Inklings used to write in the Lamb and FLag, next door to my wife’s college at Oxford. You can pick up a lot of history there. For example: Tolkien really hated CS Lewis. He was one of those obnoxious converts who attempted to evangelise at every opportunity; he was not popular with the rest of the Inklings at all, for that reason.

      Back on topic: Lewis’ philosophy is simplistic at best. There are many excellent rebuttals of his apologetics; he was enthusiastic but woefully naive. A bit like Leah, actually. I can see why she likes him. Some of what he wrote is just painful: The lunatic, liar or lord statement stands out as the all-time most ridiculous false dichotomy (trichotomy?) in the history of failing to think your statements through.

  • grok87

    “I found his ideas projocative”- this is a typo right? I wasn’t sure as your vocabulary is usually quite a bit above mine!

  • Have you read Lewis’ Space Trilogy? I admit I kind of loathe Narnia (save The Magician’s Nephew), but the Space Trilogy – although itself obviously Christian in its way – is far less off-putting to me for some reason.

    • leahlibresco

      I didn’t love those either. Some of the best stuff in it is better expressed in his “Inner Ring” essay.

    • I do love the Space Trilogy–Jane in the last book is wonderfully written. The space travel ideas in the first one make me laugh. Ah, to imagine space travel before it was accomplished…

    • Custador

      Really? Anybody ever actually made it past Prelandria? Wow. It’s one of the three books I’ve ever picked up and failed to finish (the other two being “Swallows and Amazons”, and the incessant dirge of misery that is “Tis”).

  • Laurel

    Have you read “The Screwtape Letters”? It and “The Great Divorce” opened my eyes to all the ways we deceive ourselves into thinking we’re better than we are. In “The Great Divorce” I absolutely loved the idea of the earth in heaven being so much more substantive than the illusory “ghosts”, whom we take for reality. That concept alone explained so much that I thought might be true but couldn’t put into words. Mere Christianity brought me to fully reasoned faith. Have you read “The Screwtape Letters” and what did you think of it?

  • Joe

    “The best moments in reading are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things — that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

    The above quote reminds me of “The Screwtape Letters”. When I tried to read it I was going through a very difficult time in my life and it made me extremely paranoid. It might be interesting to psychology students
    christian or otherwise. Is it piracy to read it for free online?

  • ARM

    Of course everybody is right about the deficiencies of Narnia (although I loved them as a kid anyway) but what about “Till We Have Faces”? There Lewis lets the story speak for itself, and it’s a very good book – maybe even a great one.

    • g

      Yesyesyes. TWHF is really very good. Though I have a feeling that liking it is correlated with liking Perelandra (= Voyage to Venus), which Leah evidently didn’t.

    • I’ll chime in to second (third?) this comment – Till We Have Faces is by far my favorite Lewis book. One of those stories that I love to read and find myself avoiding all at the same time. Connects with me in a way that was and is extremely difficult to express verbally or even written.

      • I have deep love for this novel. I think it would make a great movie or play. It connects me, also, on a visceral level. The unrequited love the Queen has for Barda is part of it.

  • Kevin

    Sed contra:

    When I read The Horse and his Boy as a child I thought Calormen was much, much cooler than anything in Narnia proper.

    • Cous

      “‘Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek…And since then, O Kings and Ladies, I have been wandering to find him and my happiness is so great that it even weakens me like a wound. And this is the marvel of marvels, that he called me Beloved, me who am but as a dog–”
      “Eh? What’s that?” said one of the Dogs.
      “Sir,” said Emeth, “It is but a fashion of speech which we have in Calormen.”
      “Well, I can’t say it’s one I like very much,” said the Dog.
      “He doesn’t mean any harm,” said an older Dog. “After all, we call our puppies Boys when they don’t behave properly.”

  • M

    CS Lewis was the reason I became a kind of believer at the age of 13. I read the Narnia chronicles and began to pray to Aslan and to feel his presence in my head. I know that sounds stupid but I was a child at the time, please remember. Then I found out Aslan was a stand-in for God and started reading the bible and praying to the Christian god. I used to say the Lord’s prayer before bed, secretly, because my father is a dedicated atheist and anti-theist. It is, to date, the only kind of religious experience I ever had.

    The voice of God eventually faded and I became atheist again around a year later, when I starting questioning the things the voice was telling me and eventually realised that it didn’t have anymore answers than I did and was therefore probably the product of my own mind.

    It’s clear that Lewis is very good at producing works that have an emotional impact on other people. Not surprising that he’s still considered a great novelist and apologist.

  • grok87

    You may have stopped praying but God hasn’t stopped listening.

    Perhaps things might have worked out differently if you had found a Christian community? Perhaps you might try again at a church? Christianity isn’t meant to be an individualistic religion, the desert monks notwithstanding. As Matthew says, “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”
    Praying is like riding a bicycle, it will come back to you easily…
    I am praying for you.

  • Arizona Mike

    I read an old copy of “The Screwtape Letters” that my grandmother owned as a child, mostly because I was intrigued by the (rather scary) cover illustration. I enjoyed it, re-read it again as a young adult when I was old enough to appreciate Lewis’s insights into our shared human weaknesses (which, as Lewis said in the forward, he knew not from having seen them from a lofty moral height from having experienced them all.) I never read any of the Narnia books as a child other than “The Magician’s Nephew,” which I enjoyed.

    After becoming an agnostic as a young adult, I pretty much forgot about Lewis, although I was aware of his science fiction. I read an interview that Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest did with Lewis in one of their SF anthologies, and I was surprised how conversant he was in the genre. I found a free copy (as did Leah) of his treatise on educational relativism, “The Abolition of Man” on a free book shelf in college, and was surprised by how closely his thoughts paralleled my own, but took them much further to their logical conclusions. I knew that he had written books of straightforward Christian apologetics, and clearly remember thinking, “Lewis is dangerous. He could change some of my most dearly-held beliefs. Best to avoid him.” And so I did, only re-approaching him as I began my first tentative return to faith, when I again found how clear, articulate, and knowledgeable his arguments were.

    I suppose it would be an act of charity to leave my copies of Lewis’s books around on college campuses with little signs saying, “Free. Read me.”

    • Ted Seeber

      If you like the screwtape letters and happen to have a free Saturday morning and EWTN on your cable system, check out the Knights of St. Michael. It’s overtly a kids comedy variety show, part of the Faith Factory, but they have a segment on there that is extremely close to the Screwtape letters- updated for a 21st century audience and with a bit of the second Austin Powers thrown in (the little demon is obviously inspired by Mini Me).

  • Joseph Shaw

    Down here in South Africa we’ve learned that defining black people by the skin colour they are not (non-white) is simply an extension of the Apartheid racism we’re desperately trying to get rid of in a single generation. I just thought I’d mention that…

    Lewis is fantastic! Have you ever read any of his Sci-Fi stuff (his Space Trilogy), is it worth a read?

    Pax tecum 🙂

    • Joseph Shaw

      Okay…see that you’ve dealt with this question already. My apologies 🙂

  • Not to mention Lewis’ attitude towards women in the Narnia books!

    The Problem of Susan is such an obvious throwback to his Catholocism, I don’t know why it took me so long to realise the allegory in the books. Classic religious denigration of female sexuality. Susan likes lipstick, so she can’t come to ‘Narnia’ any more. Stay a naive little girl, Lucy – never grow up or question authority – and Aslan will always let you in!

    … I liked the series a lot better before I realised what it was actually trying to say. 🙁

    • Kohkis

      Catholicism does *not* hate sex or female sexualitty. How could it? The ability to bear and nurse new life is an amazing gift, and the church recognizes that. To be sure, the church does not approve of sleeping around, but that applies to both women and men, and the reason for it is not the hate of sex but appreciation of it. After all, you do not trample a flag: you should not misuse a gift from God.
      I seriously doubt Susan not going to Narnia had anything to do with lipstick. Peter also stops going: he has learned what he can from Narnia, and is then called to make a difference in the world. The same goes for Susan.

      • I hate to break this to you, but “The ability to bear and nurse new life” is not at all the same as “female sexuality.”

        • Mark

          Yeah, because we all know that sex has nothing to do with having children. You do know where babies come from, don’t you?

          • ACN

            *rereads Delphi’s comment*

            *can’t find the part where Delphi told us babies come from NOT sex*

            Human sexuality != human reproduction.

            By engaging in unprotected heterosexual intercourse with fertile partners, there is a good chance of reproduction. That DOES NOT MEAN that the human desire for sexual expression is a desire for reproduction. It can be. Sometimes it’s JUST sexual expression.

          • I didn’t say they were unrelated. I said they were not the same thing.

      • I can’t remember the exact quote from the book (as it’s been a while since I’ve read them), but lipstick was definitely mentioned. Also (I think) an interest in boys. The reasons for Susan were different from the reasons given for Peter.

        Also, I very much second Delphi’s comment.

        Google “the problem of Susan” and you’ll see that I’m far from the first or the only person to come across this issue…

        • Erick

          Lipstick was mentioned in there, but it’s not so much about the lipstick. Rather, it’s clearly mentioned that she had a change in her spiritual dimension.

          She had forgotten Narnia and dismissed it as a childhood game they used to play. She was described as silly in the sense that she had become vain and attached to material, worldly things.

        • yeah, not so much the lipstick as the haughty, full of herself, athiesm.

          • Weird, I never knew that Susan was an “athiest”. I wonder what one of those is?

    • Lewis was actually Anglican not Catholic. (Though according to Tolkien’s accusation that was for “Ulsterior motives”.)

    • deiseach

      Oh, boy. This one again (wasn’t it Philip Pullman who wrote a whole article on it?) Firstly, who is speaking? Jill, a young girl (younger than Susan, and still at the age when ‘boys are icky’ and climbing trees is a lot more appealing than being told “You can’t do that, you’ll tear your nice clothes”).

      Susan’s temptation is not the Flesh (out of the trilogy of the World, the Flesh and the Devil), it’s the World. Jill is expressing in the terms she can see clearest what being an ‘adult’ means (and didn’t we all think as children that “When I’m grown-up, I’ll stay up as late as I like” was what being an adult meant?)

      Now, both Lewis and myself come from the days before ‘tweens’ and making jewellery, bikinis and cosmetics for pre-pubescent girls were all perfectly normal, so for Jill – as far as she can see – what Susan’s eagerness to be part of the adult world looks like is “Now she can wear adult stuff- things like nylons, and putting on lipstick, and going to parties where they stand around talking and drinking out of funny glasses instead of having cake and ice-cream”. The equivalent for a boy would have been his first pair of long trousers.

      Susan is vulnerable precisely because the appeal is to being seen as a grown-up, and to put behind her ‘childish things’ – things like believing in talking animals and ‘that game we used to play as kids’. The same temptation that Mark Studdock faces in “That Hideous Strength”, when he is being coaxed and cajoled and reeled in to the ‘inner circles’ of N.I.C.E. through the academic politics of his college; the same temptation faced by St. Peter when the servant girl said to him, as he stood warming his hands by the fire, “Hey, you’ve got a Galilean accent – aren’t you one of those guys? Do you know this prisoner?”

      “After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them, for your accent gives you away.” Then he began to call down curses on himself and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!”

      There’s nothing to say that Susan will never come to Narnia again; just that right now she is still alive and has not been killed in the same train crash as her siblings. And how is not dying a painful and tragic death a punishment, exactly? And what does it say about us that the first thing our minds leap to in contemporary culture is that nylons + lipstick = sex?

      • deiseach

        What is said in “The Last Battle”:

        “Sir,” said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. “If I have read the chronicle aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?”

        “My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”

        “Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, `What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.'”

        “Oh Susan!” said Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”

        “Grown-up, indeed,” said the Lady Polly. “I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”

        Jill is eleven or so, Polly is sixty. Sure, Lewis didn’t want little girls to grow up at all! And he was totally against having any kind of fun, as we may see from this scene in “Prince Caspian” where Bacchus and his maenads are in a procession with the Pevensies and Aslan and the talking animals and mythological creatures, reclaiming Narnia from the Telmarines:

        “Everyone in the streets fled before their faces. The first house they came to was a school: a girls’ school, where lot of Narnian girls, with their hair done very tight and ugly tight collars round their necks and thick tickly stockings on their legs, were having a history lesson. The sort of “History” that was taught in Narnia under Miraz’s rule was duller than the truest history you ever read and less true than the most exciting adventure story.

        “If you don’t attend, Gwendolen,” said the mistress, and stop looking out of the window, I shall have to give you an order-mark.”

        “But please, Miss Prizzle – ” began Gwendolen.

        “Did you hear what I said, Gwendolen?” asked Miss Prizzle.

        “But please, Miss Prizzle,” said Gwendolen, “there’s a LION!”

        “Take two order-marks for talking nonsense,” said Miss Prizzle. “And now – ” A roar interrupted her. Ivy came curling in at the windows of the classroom. The walls became a mass of shimmering green, and leafy branches arched overhead where the ceiling had been. Miss Prizzle found she was standing on grass in a forest glade. She clutched at her desk to steady herself, and found that the desk was a rose-bush. Wild people such as she had never even imagined were crowding round her. Then she saw the Lion, screamed and fled, and with her fled her class, who were mostly dumpy, prim little girls with fat legs. Gwendolen hesitated.

        “You’ll stay with us, sweetheart?” said Aslan.

        “Oh, may I? Thank you, thank you,” said Gwendolen. Instantly she joined hands with two of the Maenads, who whirled her round in a merry dance and helped her take off some of the unnecessary and uncomfortable clothes that she was wearing.

        Wherever they went in the little town of Beruna it was the same. Most of the people fled, a few joined them. When they left the town they were a larger and a merrier company.”

    • jenesaispas

      I can’t believe you saw it like this (how things can be misinterpreted!). This probably isn’t a remotely convincing defense but Father Christmas does give Susan a bow and arrow and not say… a sewing kit.

      • That’s the thing with literature… how do you know that YOUR interpretation is the correct one?

    • You are forgetting the story. Susan grows up to be vain and petty, and in her vanity, she who was once a Queen in Narnia pretends the land never existed, and pretends to forget about it.

      That is why she is no longer counted as a friend of Narnia. It is the reason any Christian who turns apostate does: because she abandons her first love for the tricks and toys of the world.

      Lipstick, which was a relative new invention in the day when Lewis wrote, and was rarely if ever used by Middle Class women, is a perfect symbol of that vanity and shallowness, because it only paints a surface feature of a woman’s face red, imitating the flush of passion she does not feel.

      It is odd indeed to hear our Church blamed for denigrating women, since she (I mean the Church, the bride of Christ) happens to be the only reason women are treated with equality and respect anywhere in the world, anywhere in history.

      Leaf carefully through the pages Hindu and Chinese chronicles, or the classics of Greece and Rome, or what is known of the Egyptians, Babylonians, Aztecs, or the works of other civilizations and tribes. There is not a word, not a whisper, of the thought that Woman is a divine help meet for man, taken from his side and hence of his substance, equal partner of his joys and woes, for whom he forsakes family and in whom he finds his name and purpose in life. There have been queens and goddesses in every culture, but only one where divorce and polygamy were outlawed.

  • jenesaispas

    This is really weird, I was just looking for a quote from Narnia, gave up, decided to see what was happening over here… and saw this! I like Narnia (most of it I suppose) so *humph!*

    One day I’m going to sit down and read Lewis’s complete works, I think I’ll go in the order they’re published…

    PS: the first photo just belongs on My Daguerreotype Boyfriend 😉

  • Sue Sims

    Brought up in a secular Jewish household, I read Narnia as a child and realised that Aslan ‘was’ Jesus straight away, but it didn’t bother me one way or the other. When I went to secondary school (in England, when one’s 11), I found ‘Screwtape’ in the school library and borrowed it under the impression it was another Narnia book. It converted me to belief in God on the spot. (Catholicism came later.)

    And while I’d agree that LOTR is a greater book than the Narnia sequence (by an order of magnitude), and I love it hugely, I don’t think Tolkien has brought as many people to know our Lord as Lewis has. If we must compare, that is.

    Deiseach – loved your comments.

    • deiseach

      Thanks, Sue. I often see the “nylons and lipstick” line trotted out, but they always leave out the bit about “and invitations”, which makes it clear that it’s Susan’s notion of what being an adult means is what is at fault, and that it’s worldiness (not adulthood or sexuality) that is the root of her temptation.

      She’s somewhere between 18 and 21 (I can’t estimate her exact age) so she’s a young woman out in the world who is eager to be accepted by her smart new friends, and going around talking about religion is not the way fashionable young women should behave in that milieu. Even maintaining quite seriously that you went to another world in your childhood or have met talking animals is going to have you treated as psychologically disturbed and needing mental treatment.

      Lewis deals with the male version of this in Mark Studdock, who is just as eager as Susan to be taken seriously by his professional peers and his new circle of friends, and who throws over old friends and old views as easily when it comes to being accepted. But very few seem to have read the Space Trilogy as compared with the Narnia books. That’s why I have little to no patience with the “Susan lost her faith when she discovered sex” version; no, Susan – like many of us – was vaguely ashamed of being a hick, being old-fashioned, being behind the times with regard to all the cool kids when she went away to college (or entered into society), and she was all too eager to relegate her memories of Narnia to ‘that game we all played when we were kids’.

      • There’s a fantastic take on “the problem of Susan” here. Very sympathetic and believable.

        • That story is AMAZING. Thank you for the link!

        • JohnE_o

          Indeed, yes, thank you for that link!

      • I guess the pro-Catholic interpretation only makes sense when one considers ‘worldliness’ to be a bad thing.

        As an atheist, I don’t see anything inherently ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ about the world, and for one to be rejected for living in that world and growing up to be interested in adult things, well… it seems silly and judgemental. Of course, I also believe that Eve was the heroine of the Bible and that Pandora did well to open the box, so…

        • deiseach

          There’s different kinds of worldliness. Susan – if we take what Jill and Polly say – is interested in the celebrity reality tv show, “OK!” magazine interview, what is Paris Hilton’s latest perfume and where can I buy it, should I try the Kim Kardashian diet, what is this year’s colour and hem length type of worldliness, the type that says “If you have uncool friends or uncool opinions, ditch them to fit in.”

        • R.C.


          Allow me to second deiseach’s remark: One must make a distinction between worldliness and worldliness.

          Keep in mind that Christianity is vehemently not gnostic — in the sense of those gnostic worldviews that were floating about in the 1st-4th centuries, I mean. In those, “the world” was often identified with matter and bodily existence, which were rejected as intrinsically evil. Marcion and Valentinus and all that rot.

          Christianity denies that the created order is evil; Christianity vehemently says, “No, no, bodies are very good, matter is very good. Evil is not self-existent, but is always a parasitic misuse or corruption of some good thing. Matter is good, life is good, food is good, drink is good, maleness is good, femaleness is good, sex is good, childhood is good, adulthood is good, people are good. But all of these things can be abused. Be careful not to abuse them, because they’re worth too much to be misused in that way.”

          So you get guys like St. Francis of Assisi and St. John of the Cross, who are in one sense very “worldly”: They love each plant and animal and person and bug in the world, extravagantly. When they reject these things (like possessions or marriage) by, say, embracing poverty or being celibate, they don’t do so with an attitude of calling these things bad. They say, “These things are so very, very good, that it’s fitting for such treasures to be put on the altar and sacrificed to God, who, hard tho’ it may be to imagine, is even better.”

          Sex, for example, is a sort of Catholic holy act: It is the consummation of the sacrament of marriage in the same way that eating the body and blood of Christ is the consummation of the perpetual thanksgiving offering (“todah” in Hebrew, “eucharist” in Greek) of the New Covenant. But for precisely that reason, “no-strings-attached hook-up sex” is frowned upon: That’s like spilling your drink and using the canvas of the Mona Lisa to mop it up; it’s like needing a vehicle to haul pinestraw on a dirt road, and opting to use a Ferrari. Using sex in a degraded or neglectful way is a sacrilege. If you want to while away an hour with a friend, go bowling! That’s what bowling is for; that’s about where bowling fits in the scheme of things. But using sex for that purpose is like wanting to snake your toilet to clean out a clog, and grabbing, since it happened to lay easily at hand, a scepter from the crown jewels of England.

          Anyhow, the criticism of Susan is not that she’s interested in boys or appreciating her own maturation into adulthood. It’s that she’s desperate to ape the sexual and social characteristics of the “in crowd” so as to achieve the power and safety of membership in that crowd. If she decides to sleep with one of these boys in her current state of mind, it won’t be because she’s decided, in an outpouring of generosity and altruism, to dedicate her life to being his most faithful ally through thick and thin and being the mother of his children. No, it’ll be because sleeping with him would keep her in the popular set, or prove that she’s pretty enough for him to want her more than other girls. She’d be using him.

          Nothing wrong with interest in the opposite sex: But she’s not interested in THEM, but the power or security that attention from them will grant her. Nothing wrong with having the good opinion of others: But she’ll sell out relationships with family and friends and (apparently) a supernatural contact with God in order to be thought cool by a really shallow set of social climbers. Nothing wrong with being pretty: But relying on a very shallow kind of prettiness as the basis of one’s self-worth is sad and petty (and it won’t last!).

          In short, Susan’s worldliness is a misuse of certain good things in the world — things which are in themselves perfectly good when not misused. It’s like marrying for money instead of for love and family-building. It’s like going to church to get political and business connections instead of to worship God. It’s like living to eat instead of eating to live.

          That’s what Lewis is criticizing.

          • I don’t often read long comments but R.C., this was very well put. well done indeed.

  • Josh Lyman

    It makes sense that you would have like Lewis. His conversion was as mystical, and evidence-free as yours.

    • Ted Seeber

      Only if you deny the evidence of experience and *ALL* the logic of Catholicism.

      But then again, why should I suspect that you wouldn’t have as narrow a definition of the word evidence as most atheists seem to have “that data which supports my personal prejudices”?

      • Alan

        Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. Logic of Catholicism, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, that’s a good one, ha, ha, ha… oh wait, are you being serious?

        • Read Saint Thomas Aquinas, my unlettered and parochial friend. Then compare him to Ingersoll, or Thomas Paine, or Marx, or Ayn Rand, and you will see who is the more strictly logical.

      • Ohtobide

        I am not sure whether you are talking here about the conversion of Leah Libresco or that of C.S.Lewis. If it is C.S.Lewis I would like to point out that Lewis was NEVER a Catholic and he did not like or trust the Catholic church.

    • leahlibresco

      You’re breaking my heart, scolding me with that username.

      • ACN

        This back and forth amused me 🙂

        • leahlibresco

          At least it isn’t CJ. I still want to be her when I grow up.

          • Ah, CJ. I wanted to be Josh’s asst., whose name I’m forgetting…can’t believe I’m forgetting it…..
            My second “real” job was being Sam and Toby. Not as much fun as on TWW.

      • Josh Lyman

        When you joined an organisation that fights against my human rights, you did more than break my heart.

        • Without encouraging a pointless flame war can I ask which rights exactly and why those rights are inherent to your humanity such that the rest of us should support them?

      • R.C.

        What username? I’m missing something….

        • ACN

          Josh Lyman is the deputy chief-of-staff, and one of the main characters on the West Wing.

          • R.C.

            Ah. Thanks. Never saw that show.

            We ditched cable back in 2001 when Comcast came and bought out the small-town cable company we’d loved so much, and have never looked back, relying on Netflix’s free-streaming options, and Hulu, and a Roku box for whatever we want.

            It’s amazing how much of your life you get back by watching TV only when it occurs to you to go looking for something that you were interested in, and not watching “whatever happens to be on right now.” Not to mention ditching commercials, of which I’ve seen very few in the last decade.

            Of course, all the hours I got back immediately got absorbed by reading (and commenting on) blogs. Oh well.

  • Chesterton can craft a sentence (and an argument) like nobody’s business. His only close competitors are Hilaire Belloc, whose introduction to Kai Lung’s Golden Hours is a masterpiece of seduction (convincing one that YOU MUST READ THIS NOW) and Dorothy Sayers.

  • Shelama

    The most curious thing I find about CSLewis is how an Oxford don came up with the “lord, liar, lunatic” trilemma. Whatever happened to Jesus, maybe, just being wrong? What ever happened to Jesus, maybe, personally never even saying anything attributed to him in the fourth gospel and never anywhere making any assertion or intimation that he was “Lord”?

    • John E_o

      There is a fourth ‘L’ that simplifies the trilemma:


      • R.C.

        Well, yeah, except that that option is fairly unsupportable, historically speaking. The dude existed.

        The four gospels (plus Acts) are demonstrably early. They have every evidence of having been written by (or being based on statements by) eyewitnesses who really thought they saw some mind-bending events, although they didn’t often know what to make of it or do about it. And John 6 shows the reaction of some folk who were clearly unprepared for some of the weird stuff coming out of this guy’s mouth.

        Yes, any Christian who’s paid attention has looked into the various debunkings offered by Ehrman and others before him; but in response, there are fisks of the debunkings (like those offered by Tim McGrew) and I find these rather more convincing.

        The most plausible conclusion (other than the Christian one) is that Jesus was a liar who gradually became a bit of a lunatic as his lies expanded. This allows him the benefit of a carefully-crafted con early-on, with a foundation that held for three years as he got progressively more convinced by his own press releases, such that he willingly died for it. Then you’d have some legendary elements added in after-the-fact as embellishments, which were somehow insufficient to draw protests from the eyewitnesses who knew better…or else their protests weren’t loud enough to appear in the historical record. You then have to cope with the problem of folks being martyred who either were eyewitnesses and knew better, or who weren’t eyewitnesses and still were sufficiently persuaded to go die for it. I judge the latter is the most likely option, inasmuch as human beings do that kind of thing.

        In short, a sufficiently muddled mix of liar and lunatic and some legendary add-ons is the best alternative to the Christian explanation. But none of the horns of the trilemma taken individually in isolation plausible on its own, and the idea that Jesus was an entirely legendary figure is, I think, the least supportable.

        • John E_o

          “Well, yeah, except that that option is fairly unsupportable, historically speaking. The dude existed.”

          I apologize for the lack of clarity in my writing that has led you to infer that I’m suggesting Jesus did not exist.

          A person can exist but still have legends created about them – George Washington and the Cherry Tree, for example.

    • R.C.


      The fourth gospel is very far from being the only one in which Jesus claims divinity.

      Just look at the title “Son of Man” that He adopted for Himself in Matthew’s gospel. That can be misunderstood by a modern audience, but for a bunch of 1st-century Jews it has Daniel 7 written all over it. It is a Messianic title, and the holder of it is expected to come “with the clouds of heaven”; people of “all nations and peoples of every language” are expected to “worship him.” (Daniel 7:13-14)

      Mark, being the shortest and written in a Roman literary style for a predominantly Greek/Roman audience, has the least of this, but the Semitic overtones still bring it out, as when Jesus calls Himself the “Lord of the Sabbath” in Mark 2, and tells a parable identifying Himself as somehow the “son” and “heir” of God in Mark 12.

      Luke’s infancy narrative sets up the claim to divinity pretty well when Elizabeth says that Mary is the mother of “my Lord.” Coming from a devout wife of a priest, this isn’t talking about Herod. And in Luke 21:14-15, we have: “But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.” Now, there are parallel passages in Matthew 10 and Mark 13, but in Matthew, it is “the Spirit of your Father” that gives them words to say, and in Mark it is “the Holy Spirit.” Scholars are quite confident that Luke was familiar with one or both of these earlier gospels; yet, Luke feels no embarrassment at depicting, in his own gospel, Jesus claiming the same omnipresence and supernatural power as the Holy Spirit, sufficient for Him to give people words to say in times of persecution, possibly for the whole rest of human history.

      And, of course, all the gospels agree that the guy went around forgiving sins, a behavioral point which C.S.Lewis raises as a claim to divinity: If you steal my wallet and I forgive you, fine. But if you steal my wallet and Jesus walks up and forgives you, it’s either outrageous cheek on Jesus’ part, or else He, for some reason, thinks that He was the person chiefly offended by your sin.

      And there are other examples; I’m just giving you a few off the top of my head, here.

      One should also, when interpretation is disputable, refer to contemporary, or nearly-contemporary, writings by folk within the same traditions to see how they interpreted the relevant writings. That means we go to the Didache, to Ignatius of Antioch, to Polycarp and his buddy Irenaeus, and to Clement of Rome. There was no question of Jesus’ divinity among these authors; and they knew the principals personally.

      So, no. If the sayings attributed to Jesus in any of the gospels are accurate, the guy was proclaiming himself to be somehow God, and God to somehow be His Father, all at the same time, and in the context of the fierce monotheism of Judaism.

      A mix of liar, lunatic, and legendary embellishment is far more plausible if you want to dodge the Christian conclusion. But if you assume the sayings in the gospels are relatively faithful to the historical person, then Jesus claimed (sometimes artfully, sometimes bluntly) to be God in all of them.

      • Shelama

        When Dan speaks in messianic terms he speaks of “one like the Son of man came…and came to the Ancient of Days.”

        The phrase is twice repeated in Revelation as: “one like unto the Son of man.”

        Re: Jesus and messiahs, who is the Son of Man? And then who is the “one like the Son of Man” or “like unto the Son of Man.”?

      • Shelama

        Oh, and yes, I agree…the gospels have a lot of words and claims coming out of the mouth of a person portrayed as Jesus of Nazareth.

        • JohnE_o

          What Shelama says.

          That’s the problem here – one group views the text as – well – Gospel Truth whereas another group is saying that some of that narrative might be the religious equivalent of fan fiction.

          • JohnE_o

            Matthew 27:50 – 53 for example

      • JohnE_o

        But if you assume the sayings in the gospels are relatively faithful to the historical person, then Jesus claimed (sometimes artfully, sometimes bluntly) to be God in all of them.

        I make no claim to be formally studied on this subject, but to me the introduction to the Gospel of John reads as if it were religious propaganda defending a very specific view of the relationship between the Historical Jesus and YHWH.

        It does not seem to me unreasonable that the authors of the various Gospels may have introduced sayings that supported their theologies into the narratives.

        • R.C.

          Oh, certainly they’re propagandizing, if you will.

          They clearly have opinions about What It All Meant and are anxious to either insert (if we assume they’re made-up), or to cite (if we assume they’re merely being reported), the sayings and doings of Jesus which support those opinions.

          But I think you miss the mark slightly by saying “theologies,” plural. That’s like saying that M.L.K. and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. are “persons,” plural. One can read alternative theological views into Matthew or Mark or Luke or John, but the theology that happens to fit best for each happens to be the same one for all…with the minor proviso that Trinitarian theology is a non-intuitive set of concepts, probably expressible only in an approximate way in any language, about which anyone who says “okay, got it” clearly hasn’t.

          (I think of that as a minor proviso inasmuch as we’re quite used to that experience by now even in the physical sciences what with quantum indeterminacy and 11th dimensions curled up into little balls. If getting down to the fundamentals of even mere physical reality produces mindbenders, we should probably expect the same of God.)

          Anyhow, one can assume that the sayings are “introduced” and that the other gospel authors collaborated and/or copied to ensure mutual compatibility of the theology implied by the introductions.

          Actually they don’t need to have directly collaborated so long as each author was aware of any writing which predated his own — which is quite likely — and fully understood its implied theology — less easy, but plausible if it’s an important part of the culture of Christian worship as that culture spread. (Which we know that it did, inasmuch as the Trinitarian view seems to have gotten quite early-on to Ethiopia, Gaul, Syria, Persia, and even the south of India.)

          This would be especially easy if there was, as early tradition indicates, a sketchier Aramaic original of the gospel of Matthew which predates all the four and provided the rough outline for the Synoptics: Translated more or less exactly for Matthew, truncated for Roman Audiences in Mark, and Extended Director’s Cut With The Marian Backstory for Luke.

          So the only difficulty with the “introduced” thesis (as opposed to the “reported”) thesis seems to be making sure that eyewitnesses didn’t pop up in various spots around Jerusalem and Galilee saying, “Hey, I was there, too, and Jesus didn’t say/do anything like that.” John reports a whole crowd of folks leaving after the “Bread of Life” discourse in John 6, so you’d think some of them would offer contradictory reports, which would then be trumpeted by the non-Messianic Jews like pre-conversion Paul.

          So, it’s a plausible thesis. I worry, though, that it’s an insufficiently discriminating approach: If you pretend for a moment that a particular interesting historical event isn’t known to be historical, find the ten most interesting quotes or deeds associated with it, and call them “introductions,” you’d be hard-pressed to prove otherwise. It happens all the time that a story gets better in the telling, but what prevents you from accidentally debunking even the ones that started out good? It happens that sometimes the truth is stranger, more moving, or even more entertaining, than fiction.

    • Whatever happened to Jesus, maybe, just being wrong? What ever happened to Jesus, maybe, personally never even saying anything attributed to him in the fourth gospel and never anywhere making any assertion or intimation that he was “Lord”?

      If you’re asking about C. S. Lewis himself, it’s pretty straightforward to answer — Lewis himself only brings up the trilemma in a very specific kind of context, namely, in which he is addressing the suggestion of someone who largely accepts at least a rough, basic version of the story in the Gospels and who claims that he thinks Jesus was just a good moral teacher. Lewis’s argument is that the evidence allowed by the first assumption, if we are not merely arbitrarily cutting and pasting, implies the trilemma. Generalized versions of it go beyond the kinds of contexts in which Lewis himself proposes.

      This is a common difficulty with dilemmas generally (and trilemmas are special cases of dilemmas): a dilemma that is a good argument in its own context can have another dilemma in a different context that looks almost identical but is a bad argument in that context. Because they always depend on two conditions: a domain or context to which they are relevant and a principle of division appropriate for that domain or context. Change one of these and the argument, however much it looks the same, is actually a different argument. (It’s also a common problem with arguments that get used in apologetics — for any position — since what is a good argument if certain things can be assumed often begins to be applied to cases in which the assumptions themselves are part of what is in dispute.)

    • Men who are just “wrong” do not make the kind of statements Christ in the gospel makes. That is a point of the argument. If a man claims to be older than Abraham, or to have the power to forgive sins, or that he will return in the clouds of glory on the world’s doomsday, he is claiming divine prerogatives, that is, he is claiming to be God.
      He cannot be just innocently mistaken on the point.
      Either he believes he is God and is not, in which case he is a lunatic; or knows he is not God while claiming he is, in which case he is a liar; or he believes he is God and is honest and correct when he makes that claim, in which case he is Lord.
      Logic allows no other option. If he is “wrong” and knows it, he is a liar; and if he is “wrong” and does not know it, given the extraordinary nature of his claim, he is a lunatic.

    • jason taylor

      In the case of Jesus not saying such things, then those who recorded him as saying so were liars or lunatics. Which makes little difference from our point of view.

  • Guy McClung

    and for each commenter here, Clive Staples L would say: you are splendor, Deo Gratias!, for each of you can see the beatific vision:

    ““There are no ordinary people” because “You have never talked to a mere mortal.” He says:

    It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you may talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit— immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”

  • I suppose for the morally convicted and the symbolically obsessed like the Leah Librescos of the world, a jaunty Oxford intellectual who was converted by means of aestheticism and a persistent belief in the enchanted world would be a convincing character. Lip service paid to the intellect seems good enough and then comes the emotive “surprise by joy” which is based on a feeling and a hunch that satisfies the cloudy tempests of Lewis’ frail ego. The social context and respectability of belief in a mainstream though heady religion like Anglicanism or Catholicism makes his choice of fairy tale obvious, as it does for our dear sister, Ms. Libresco.

    Had Mr. Lewis or Ms. Libresco grown up in Alexandria, Egypt or Dharamsala, India, I’m sure that the attendent spiritual awakening would have taken on a slightly different shade than a Merely Christian conversion. Thomas Merton points this out rather poignantly in Seven Storey Mountain when he tells of Mahanambrata Brahmachari’s exhortation to a young seeking Merton to investigate his own culture before seeking out others. Sage advice that many New Age spiritualists might take to heart.

    But at the end of the day, the empirical view is one that steps back and realizes how arbitrary it was that Libresco dated a Catholic, Lewis was chums with Tolkein, and Merton was enthralled by Jacques Maritain while Sita Ram Goel was taken with Sri Aurobindo, Benny Lévy with Emmanuel Levinas, and Muhammad Ali with Elijah Muhammad. See, empirically, we have to accept that the religious convert earnestly accepts her belief on the basis of culture, emotional attachment, and the accidents of birth rather than careful consideration of what the evidence shows. If it is as arbitrary as all that, then I think it wise to inquire carefully as to why C. S. Lewis speaks to the fan of fantasy as a meaningful evangelist while those from other cultures may find themselves attracted to preachers of a different sort.

    Could it be that religion is a human construct?


    • Adam G.

      Whereas 21st century Western positivist atheism is in NO WAY a belief set that is contingent on circumstances.

      • KG

        I don’t think anyone’s defending the claim that atheism is independent of circumstances. It’s just based on an empirical view of the circumstances, or at least a more empirical view than the worldview rooted in miraculous claims.

        • Adam G.

          If the argument that religious views depend on circumstances is meant to attack the truth of those religious views, then there is no principled argument why the view “views are untrue because dependent on circumstances” should not also be held untrue, because dependent on circumstances.

          • KG

            This whole “dependent on circumstances” fixation is really missing the point. If “circumstances” are defined broadly enough, then everything is dependent on them, which I think is also your point. So it’s a silly thing on which to focus.

            The point is that standards of evidence with regards to miraculous claims seem in many cases to be selectively relaxed to accomodate the prevailing social and cultural environment.

  • Shelama

    Intellectuals and theologians ruined Jesus and gave us Christianity instead. They’ve been doing it for 2000 years. They’re still doing it today.

  • Guy McClung

    Epiricismvsfaith: Draw a big cirlce and label it HUMAN KNOWLEDGE. Draw a small circle in the big circle and label it SCIENTIFICALLY PROVABLE KNOWLEDGE. Make the big circle much much bigger than the small circle. The “empirical view” cannot “step back…it cannot leave the small circle. And based on its dogmas, many small circle folks deny that the big circle exists.

    From COMMONWEAl, 2006:

    “John Haldane’s review of Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell is a gem (“Opiate of the Philosophers,” March 10). Haldane succinctly explains and exposes the defects of the view that religion is merely the result of evolution. Dennett espouses the “religion of science,” whose principal dogma is that only those propositions that can be verified by testing and experiment are true. This dogma is itself untestable–it is the opiate of those who worship at the laboratory bench, the altar of science.”

  • My, my! Dear Guy McClung, I do not doubt that there is knowledge that is accessible to ways of ascertainment other than the scientific method. Why, I can prove a mathematical theorem without making any observations whatsoever. That does not so much interest me and I view this kind of apologetics as largely a red herring.

    It is undeniable that religions make claims which are subject to empirical review. To that end, I ask you to consider whether you can evaluate the claim of primacy in religion in light of the evidence I presented. Do you deny that you are statistically more likely to be a convert to Christianity if you interact with a Christian culture and you are statistically more likely to be a convert to Islam if you interact with an Islamic culture? That would be an interesting claim, but I think that the evidence shows it to be incorrect.

    One might go further and say that this correlation has no implications beyond the foolhardy-ness of humanity. Everyone but you is in error, perhaps? You are the special recipient of the ONE TRUE FAITH? This is indeed a common argument among those with religion (though by no means universal).

    If this is what you believe then you are violating the Copernican Principle which is, ultimately, an empirical principle that argues that it is highly unlikely for you to be special and given a choice between the hypothesis that your viewpoint is privileged as opposed to the hypothesis that your viewpoint is somewhere in the middle of the distribution, the best explanation is the latter. That’s a principle of statistics, sampling, and prior bias and needs to be carefully considered, but I contend that I have made the case here that there is nothing particularly special about Catholicism as compared to the other examples I proffered. I look forward to your rejoinder and any further evidence you may have that this hypothesis of mine is incorrect.

    • Mitchell Porter

      Let’s take things up a notch. I agree that if you find that three major religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism) are respectively believed by just 1/3, 1/5, 1/7 of humanity, with a lot of internal sectarianism as well; and if you notice that choice of religion is mostly determined by family and by conquest; then at the very least, even if the One True Religion is among the religions of humanity, it’s not obvious which one it is. Do you have any positive normative advice about what to believe, given this factual and epistemic situation?

      • A good start would be to search for a religion that did not make claims which contradict empirical reality. For example, I would be rather skeptical of a religion that claimed that there existed an important human being who was born via parthenogenesis with a y chromosome. I submit that all religions have claims which suffer from similar types of empirical failures. We could entertain the Null Hypothesis that One True Faith does not exist, couldn’t we?

        • Mitchell Porter

          But that’s still negative advice – what not to believe. I was looking for what you think the nature of reality, human life, etc, might actually be.

          • One thing at a time. Reality is a rather large concept, but there are clearly aspects of it on which we can all agree. Physics is my favorite way to study reality. I don’t know why more people don’t study that.

            Human life, on the other hand, is probably best understood as two separate ideas. “Human” is one and “life” is the other. The study of life seems to be best captured by the study of biology. I’m not sure why more people who are interested in life aren’t investigating biology.

            But to be “human”, this is a question that seems to me to be severely compact and not at all amenable to universal proclamation. Certainly there is a species aspect to our existence, but there is also a means of communication, society, polity, aesthetic, and fashion to name a few. If you want to know what to believe in terms of “human” you need to start by defining what “human” is. As far as I can tell, there are a lot of good definitions out there, but I don’t think there is one that is particularly better than the others yet.

    • “One might go further and say that this correlation has no implications beyond the foolhardy-ness of humanity. Everyone but you is in error, perhaps? You are the special recipient of the ONE TRUE FAITH? This is indeed a common argument among those with religion (though by no means universal).”

      I assume if a time traveler dropped you at the feet of Pythagoras at the moment in time when he has discovered his famous theorem about the hypotenuse of a right triangle, but before he had told anyone else of the fascinating discovery, the argument, or, rather, the sneer, you give above is a sufficient reason to persuade him to dismiss the theorem? If not, why not?

      Since not all men on earth believe the world is round, or that the moonlandings took place, or that Elvis Presley is dead, on what grounds do you advance the standard that only those things which are universally believed of all men are true?

      Finally, please, if you have confidence in your argument, attack at the strongest point rather than the weakest. Instead of asking us, “if Christianity is true, why are there more Christian converts in Christendom than outside it?”, tell us why anyone anywhere converts to Christianity if he comes from outside a Christian culture, or from one hostile to it?

      Myself, I do not see the connection between the truth of a belief, the numbers of believers, or whether there are more converts than apostates at one time or another. The argument, or, rather, sneer, is based on one or several informal logical errors: ad hominem, ad populum ad novitatem et ad nauseam. For your reference, he is a handy list:

  • Jay

    “I couldn’t shake the feeling that one good, undergraduate-style, pizza-and-fighting-til-dawn conversation with Lewis would either convert me or leave me feeling like I’d done my due diligence and could walk away from this hypothesis.”

    For what it’s worth, I had a very similar reaction to Lewis. The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity were what kept my hope for a rational Christianity going when I first felt my faith start to slip, and the latter in particular is sometimes what I credit for my ultimate deconversion. Lewis does a powerful job of making “either-or” points — no in-betweens, no progressively comfortable “spiritual but not religious” identity, no moral therapeutic deism, etc. — and it’s what made me confident in the end that I had to reject the theist hypothesis entirely. So I do appreciate him for that, and think of him fondly.

  • E.H. Munro

    I was born two days late and have just gone on getting tardier since. So I’m excusing myself for being ten months late to comment, but I missed this piece when it was posted.

    I’m quite pleased to find someone else that came to Christianity in a path so similar to mine (though as a confession I was born Catholic, but had the good fortune to go through the adolescent atheism phase as an actual adolescent). I was mostly agnostic as the result of a college literature professor (Bible as Literature to be exact) who was a UU. But in my 20s I started reading Chesterton and Lewis’ non-fiction (I agree with you on Chronicles of Narnia, but I tend to be a bit more forgiving of the attitudes of imperial-era Britons like Lewis, Bram Stoker, John Buchan, et al).

    Where the path’s different is that for me it started with the empiricist/rationalist question, and once I landed on the side of rationalism I think the road back to catholicism was something of a foregone conclusion.