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Posted by on Aug 1, 2016 | 11 comments

C.S. Lewis, Roman Catholicism, and Bad Apologetics

cslewis-pipe-1After giving his talk, the venerable old Dominican friar came and sat near me, sipped his beer, and began to ask me questions about myself. Before long, it became clear to him that I was not Catholic but Anglican. As seems almost inevitable among intelligent Catholics, the discovery that I am an intelligent Protestant with high church leanings led to the question, “But why aren’t you Catholic?” Among some (my girlfriend on our first date, for example) this is a genuine question. For others, it’s more a reaction of incredulity—it seems that some believe that any intelligent thinking person will through a process of simple syllogistic logic arrive at an understanding of the superiority of Catholicism and convert.

Which brings us to C.S. Lewis, because the venerable old Dominican brought him up as an admirable Christian thinker. And, reflecting the attitude I experience towards myself, he expressed his puzzlement at how such a great thinker (certainly greater than I am, I hasten to add) could have remained Protestant.

The answer he gave was that Lewis was simply prejudiced by being a northern Irish Protestant.

The idea that C.S. Lewis is obviously so Catholic that it’s a puzzle as to why he didn’t actually become Catholic is something I’ve seen before. It’s not an unreasonable question since Lewis was himself converted in part by his very Catholic friend J.R.R. Tolkien.

Yet, a large part of this surprise in Catholic readers at Lewis not being Catholic comes not from that biographical detail but from the many ways they see their own doctrine reflected in him. And, almost always I see the answer given that the reason he didn’t become Catholic was because he was an Ulsterman.

Part of the problem here is the way in which Catholics often stereotype Protestants: Protestants are some mixture of Luther and modern fundamentalism—they are unanimously and solely defined by sola fide, sola scriptura, sola gratia, completely non-sacramental, and probably a bit anti-intellectual. When this is what you think all Protestants are, then of course Lewis would look highly Catholic. Yet, much of what looks Catholic in Lewis is strongly part of Anglican patrimony going back at least to the Oxford Movement and often back High Churchman like Richard Hooker and the Caroline Divines. Anglicans aren’t Baptists, and the fact that Lewis doesn’t look like a Baptist doesn’t mean he’s a shoe-in for being Roman Catholic.

More troubling, though, is the implication that because Lewis looks Catholic in many ways the only possible reason he wasn’t Catholic was that he was a bigot. Lewis was a far from perfect individual so there’s no reason cultural bigotry would have been impossible for him, but it’s also an accusation that makes it easy to write off Lewis and ignore what he might actually have been saying.

Throughout his career Lewis stressed that he was not a theologian, that he was presenting an apologetic for Christianity to a culture that was moving away from that faith. What Lewis set about to defend was “mere Christianity.” It was not that Lewis believed one could be a mere Christian, he held it to be important to be part of a Church denomination, but he did believe that this ecumenical identity was the most important thing to be said about Christianity. It was what made Christianity a plausible world story, not the particular claims of a given church. If Lewis made reference among his friends to the fact that he couldn’t become Catholic because he was an Ulsterman, might this not have more to do with his commitment to mere Christianity and the way this contrasted with the extreme sectarianism he saw in the Roman Catholic Church in his native Ireland than mere prejudice? This seems a more plausible explanation given that he was a man who had many Catholic friends and many more Catholics with whom he corresponded.

So why does this matter? Lewis’s “mere Christianity” might not be a viable vision of ecclesiology on historical doctrinal grounds, but it is a very reasonable vision of the church and one which has gained a lot of traction in the Protestant world since Lewis proposed it. Yet, many Catholics would rather write off Lewis’s actual understanding of the world than engage it. It’s more comfortable for them to think that their views are so obvious and secure that any thinking person should obviously become Catholic. Yet, the realities of how we come to belief are far more complicated than that, and the reality is that while there is one true story of the world, many plausible stories can be told and it isn’t a simple thing to decide between them which one is that true story. We all come with a mixture of reason, experience, and imagination by which we wrestle with this question. Those who assume it is otherwise approach evangelism and apologetics with an attitude that does nothing but bolster the self-assurance of those on the inside and utterly fails to reach those who are supposedly being reached. They assume that a brilliant man like Lewis obviously would have been Catholic if he’d just been clear eyed like them, and so they fail to present a case for Christianity that actually compels. This is a lesson not just for Catholics, but for all of us who seek to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the world. Moreover, it is a lesson C.S. Lewis knew well—he is known as a reasonable apologist, but he himself never sought to appeal to mere cold reason, but rather to the whole of the human spirit, and that is why his works stand the test of time while so many others fall to the wayside.

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Kevin G.

I was born in Kenya and lived there for nearly four years. After returning to the states I moved to California, where I remained through to the end of college. I graduated from UCLA with a BA in philosophy in 2011, and recently completed a masters program in doctrinal theology in Vancouver, BC. I hope to eventually become a professor. I have an amazing family, incredible friends and a wonderful church community. Throughout my interests can be found an intense attraction to issues of human nature, be they in drawing people, philosophizing about human ethics or any number of other subjects. People fascinate me. My faith is, and always will be the central hub of my life, and more than just faith, my relationship to God and my place in His Kingdom.
  • Kevin, thanks for this fascinating post! Some very good and wise points made here.

    Have you seen Lewis’ own reasons he gave for not being Catholic? There was a fascinating exchange of letters between him and a man considering converting (who did, in the end, convert despite his exchange with Lewis). You can find it here:

    http://www.catholiceducation.org/en/religion-and-philosophy/apologetics/correspondence-between-c-s-lewis-and-h-lyman-stebbins.html

    • I have seen it, and it really just goes to show even more that however high church he may appear, his instincts were ultimately Protestant.

      • Leeanne Thomas

        Kevin, you seem to be drawing a distinction between being high church and being protestant. Could you elaborate?

      • With some potential quibbles about the modern vernacular liturgies, all Roman Catholics are what I would call “high church.” The same goes for the Eastern Orthodox.

        Some Protestants are high church. Others are not. This does not just concern form (formalized liturgical worship patterned on ancient tradition) but also doctrine (being sacramental, giving some authority to tradition and a magesterium of some sort, etc.)

        A lot of Catholics I encounter seem to think that all Protestants look like “low church” Protestants (fundamentalist baptists, free church evangelicals, and the like), so they see “high church” Protestants and wonder “why aren’t you Catholic?”

      • Leeanne Thomas

        I like the vagueness in “some authority to tradition” and “magisterium of some sort” 🙂 It’s why I pretty much see anything labelled as High Church to be Protestant, and why I was confused with Lewis appearing to be High Church but ultimately Protestant (I don’t know of any Roman Catholics who use this term to describe themselves). With appeals to Lewis as a brilliant, theologically informed Protestant, I have some sympathies and some questions. I sympathize because I have many Protestant friends who I consider to be very intelligent (yourself among them!). But I also wonder whether the tenableness of Anglicanism or a High Church should be placed on the shoulders of someone like Lewis. Do you think Lewis would still be Anglican were he alive today? I think of his arguments where he talks about how to introduce women priests would turn Christianity into a different religion, which ended up being the breaking point in the 80’s for a number of devoted Anglicans who had been close to Lewis. I don’t ask you any of these things to put you on the hot seat, just as a very happy Catholic who likes to try to share the happiness 🙂

      • I’m glad to hear you’re very happy as a Catholic!

        I think you’re right in one sense about “high church” being a Protestant term, in the sense that were there no “low church” Protestant churches, the label wouldn’t be necessary, but it seems to apply to what Catholicism is.

        As for “some sort of magesterium” etc. being vague… I don’t intend it to be, I just mean that it can take different forms (i.e. it’s episcopal in the Anglican Church, but presbyterian in the… Presbyterian church, but it’s still a magesterium). People don’t necessarily follow, of course, but that’s very true of Roman Catholics as well (look at the rates of contraceptive use, for example).

        I’m also not sure the vagueness is bad. Yes, we’ll get things wrong, we’ll mess up, things will fall apart and die, but the Holy Spirit will always renew and guide. For every flagging, corrupt monastic order in the ages before Protestantism there was a renewal that helped revitalize Christianity. I’m not sure that what I see outside of Roman Catholicism is that different. There are things that draw me to Roman Catholicism, but the fear of “Oh no, there’s vagueness” is definitely not one of them. A fear of vagueness and uncertainty, to me, seems driven in many cases more by the fear of losing the control that certainty gives than anything else. But we don’t need control because God is in control and we can trust him. I don’t, of course, speak to your own situation. I know you fell in love with Roman Catholicism genuinely and you you’re happy in it.

        As for whether Lewis would have been Anglican today… who can say? I mean, Lewis’s ideas at the time were a mixture of traditional catholic Christianity, his Irish Edwardian upbringing, and contemporary English society of the time. If he were alive today the influences on him would have been different, so his ideas about things like female ordination probably would have been different. If you dropped Lewis as he was into today’s culture, would he have been Anglican? Probably not, but I’m not sure that’s relevant to my point. Really, I wasn’t trying to say that Lewis proves the “tenableness” of Anglicanism on Lewis’s shoulders. His version of Anglicanism may very well not be a tenable version of Christianity, but it *was* his viewpoint. My point is that we should not assume that because there were things in Lewis that resemble Catholicism he obviously should have been Catholic and only could have been held back from that by cultural prejudice. He had is reasons. They were real reasons, even if they weren’t correct reasons. Until we recognize and respect the reasons for why people are where they are in their faith, we can’t begin to have real dialogue.

      • Leeanne Thomas

        I guess the point I was trying to make with Lewis is not that of a whole new Lewis being alive now, but of a Lewis who would have lived another 20 years into the 80’s. With Lewis’ own stark words on this kind of change, as well as many of the people he was closest to theologically becoming Catholic at this point, I think it’s worth considering. I bring this up again not to disregard him as a bigot or sexist for that matter (I probably thought these to be more the case when I was a protestant), but to engage with what constituted “mere” Christianity for him. I think this point of Lewis’ thought is often disregarded because it is far too easy within protestantism to define what “mere” Christianity is on one’s own terms, at least it was for me as a protestant. How much of tradition do we keep? how do we decide what to keep? who gets to decide? etc.

        For my own part, I have not always found the tradition convincing at first. I have often needed time with it to recognize the wisdom or truth that is being passed on (and honestly would have discarded many valuable things if it were not for a consistent living authority outside of myself). I think the danger in the protestant hermeneutic is that it’s really difficult to find this; I can see an appeal to high church, or broad church Christianity (two terms I have heard here) as something that may seem like a protestant solution to this problem, but it is hard to see how their magisterium is any greater than the individual either.

        I think you’re right that there can be a negative sort of desire for control in these things, though it’s actually sort of the opposite in becoming Catholic, in that I lost control completely to be the authority in the faith (which was really terrifying for me, but something I did in obedience to conscience). You’re also right that I fell in love with Catholicism and am very happy, though these also were things that came after the obedience part! But I think the vagueness part is actually something quite damaging to Christianity, as it’s hard to find anything within protestantism (or even just Anglicanism, where I was an ordinand before) where something is taught clearly, and it’s not any easier to identify what is a “move of the Holy Spirit.” At our most influential Anglican church in Oxford, where Lewis preached the Weight of Glory, the vicar is actually an avowed atheist (which is understood, like other recent moves, as a very progressive move of the Holy Spirit :)). To have vagueness stretching to even the most basic parts of the faith can only lead to Christianity losing all definability, and it’s hard to see this as ultimately doing anything but damage.

      • I can’t speak to what an older Lewis might have done given the changes we’ve undergone. Any conversion, though, would have meant a reordering of his beliefs. To convert to Catholicism would have been a real conversion, in other words, not merely an abandoning of prejudice.

        In terms of the dangers of vagueness – yeah, those are real dangers. Some individuals fall into them and become apostate. Sometimes whole churches do. I’m not convinced, though, that there’s some inevitable slide of the whole church into that kind of apostasy if we don’t have the right ecclesial structure. When corruption happens in the church, renewal comes along too. We don’t even have to be talking about Protestantism to see this. Before there was any split in the Western church there were many periods of increasing corruption that were countered by movements of renewal within the church. And today there are plenty of very corrupt Catholic clergy who continue to practice despite believing next to nothing the church teaches. It might not be as brazen as the atheist Anglican vicar, but it’s there.

        Again, there’s plenty I find compelling about Roman Catholicism. It’s possible I could convert one day. But, the argument from the dangers of the other options is not persuasive to me and I don’t think it ever will be.

      • Oooh. Let me know what you think.

  • Thank you! You certainly can so long as you link back here.