Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Vastly Overrated C. S. Lewis: A Shallow and Sophomoric Thinker

C. S. Lewis, Christians tell us, is "the 20th century's most towering intellectual practitioner of the Christian faith". His thinking is "rich and deep". He is "amazingly influential" and his influence is "profound".

Well, bah to all that.

Lewis is vastly overrated. He was a shallow and sophomoric thinker. He knew virtually nothing about science. His children's books were twee crypto-Christian twaddle. (How old were you when you figured out that Aslan was Jesus? And how disappointed and misled did you feel?) His celebrated "trilemma" (not original with him) is so full of holes that a high-school student can spot the flaws. If this is the best that Christians can offer, the atheists win without even trying.

Recently I saw this passage of C. S. Lewis being extolled on a creationist web site:

In a way I quite understand why some people are put off by Theology. I remember once when I had been giving a talk to the R.A.F., an old, hard-bitten officer got up and said, `I've no use for all that stuff. But, mind you, I'm a religious man too. I know there's a God. I've felt Him out alone in the desert at night: the tremendous mystery. And that's just why I don't believe all your neat little dogmas and formulas about Him. To anyone who's met the real thing they all seem so petty and pedantic and unreal !'

Now in a sense I quite agreed with that man. I think he had probably had a real experience of God in the desert. And when he turned from that experience to the Christian creeds, I think he really was turning from something real to something less real. In the same way, if a man has once looked at the Atlantic from the beach, and then goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic, he also will be turning from something real to something less real: turning from real waves to a bit of coloured paper. But here comes the point. The map is admittedly only coloured paper, but there are two things you have to remember about it. In the first place, it is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. In that way it has behind it masses of experience just as real as the one you could have from the beach; only, while yours would be a single glimpse, the map fits all those different experiences together. In the second place, if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary. As long as you are content with walks on the beach, your own glimpses are far more fun than looking at a map. But the map is going to be more use than walks on the beach if you want to get to America.

Now, Theology is like the map. Merely learning and thinking about the Christian doctrines, if you stop there, is less real and less exciting than the sort of thing my friend got in the desert. Doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of map. But that map is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God-experiences compared with which any thrills or pious feelings you and I are likely to get on our own are very elementary and very confused. And secondly, if you want to get any further, you must use the map. You see, what happened to that man in the desert may have been real, and was certainly exciting, but nothing comes of it. It leads nowhere. There is nothing to do about it. In fact, that is just why a vague religion-all about feeling God in nature, and so on-is so attractive. It is all thrills and no work; like watching the waves from the beach. But you will not get to Newfoundland by studying the Atlantic that way, and you will not get eternal life by simply feeling the presence of God in flowers or music. Neither will you get anywhere by looking at maps without going to sea. Nor will you be very safe if you go to sea without a map.

Let's ignore all the hidden assumptions here and accept Lewis's analogy: theology is like a map. Well, then it is a very poor map indeed. If you compare two contemporary maps of the same place, you usually find lots of commonalities between them. Not so with theology -- even if you restrict yourself to Christian theology. Christians can't even agree if faith alone, or good works plus faith, are required for salvation! Remember that itsy-bitsy schism called the Reformation? Why wasn't Lewis a follower of Joseph Smith or Mary Baker Eddy or Ellen G. White? They had their own competing maps, after all.

Maps are supposed to render what is there, not what one imagines is there. It would be a poor map indeed if one went to visit the place mapped and found it did not exist. But this happens all the time with theology; even Mother Theresa strongly doubted her own theological map. But why? Wasn't it based on, as Lewis claims, "the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God"?

If theology really is a map, then it's more like a malfunctioning GPS. It's the kind of map that, if you follow it, takes you off the road and into the water. A really bad theology will fly your jet into buildings. Sometimes you'd be lucky just to survive.


Pseudonym said...

World Magazine isn't exactly the most unbiassed observer. It'd be like pointing to Bill Maher and saying "vaccines, atheists tell us, are crap".

Having said that, on one hand I've never understood the C.S. Lewis hagiography thing. On the other hand, it's unfortunate that Lewis was defined by his apologetics (something he may not have disapproved of, admittedly) and Narnia. Dymer and Till We Have Faces are much better (and grown-up!) works.

MNb said...

I read the first book of the Narnia series and actually didn't figure out myself that Arslan was Jesus. Reason: I didn't care. I thought all the characters flat and uninteresting compared to both Tolkien's and Rowling's characters. Moreover I thought the story incoherent and pointless.
That was before I learned that Lewis' was considered a great apologist.

Curt Cameron said...

A few years ago I heard an interview with Francis Collins, who credited Lewis's book Mere Christianity with showing him why Christianity is true. So I figured I owed it to myself to read it, and I downloaded the audiobook.

Holy cow, was it a piece of crap. I felt embarrassed for him for making these poor arguments, but knew that he wasn't embarrassed for himself. It's the same feeling I used to get watching Andy Kaufman.

I kept thinking things like "oh no, he seems like he's building up to saying X, but surely he's not actually going to say X, is he? OMG! He said X! WTF was he thinking? And how can anybody think this is persuasive?"

As I recall, the first third of the book was an argument that God exists based on shared morality, the second third was an argument that Jesus was God based on his trilemma, and the last third was about how a Christian should behave.

I stuck out the first two-thirds, but in the last third I just couldn't bear any more.

Obsidian said...

C.S. Lewis is pretty awesome.
His analogy is pretty good. You just need to get a good map and engage in theological study.

An analogy might be ethics.
People disagree all the time abotu which ethical system is right , but that doesn't mean there's not a moral way to treat your fellow man and ethics can't provide a map for ethical behavior.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

How do you decide which map is "good"?

How do you know that the maps of Joseph Smith and Mary Baker Eddy and Ellen G. White are not good?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Oh, and since you think C. S. Lewis is "pretty awesome", how about sharing what you think his most profound insight is.

So far everything I've read of his "philosophy" is either unsupported twaddle, obviously wrong, or trivial.

John said...

I have to thank CS Lewis' Narnia books for unmooring my childhood faith and my eventual atheism.

I read the series when I was seven or eight. I twigged to the Aslan/Jesus connection pretty quickly. But in my mind, Narnia was fantasy. Not Real. Therefore, Jesus was also fantasy. Not Real.

Dan said...

I'd amend the Lewis map analogy to limit it to maps of imaginary places, like the kind you find in fantasy novels. Sure, you can have a debate about which maps are better, make more sense, have more artistic merit, etc. But in the end, the map doesn't correspond to reality - it's made up.

CDP said...

I haven't read any of C. S. Lewis's books and do not defend his irrational beliefs, but I am in some sympathy with one sentiment in the passage that Prof. Shallit reproduces, namely, "[m]erely learning and thinking about the Christian doctrines, if you stop there, is less real and less exciting than the sort of thing my friend got in the desert." This concern is only as legitimate as the Christian doctrines in question, and our aspirations should not simply be "reality and excitement." Nevertheless, motivating people toward effective action is a real concern in practical ethics. As a case in point, lots of students read Peter Singer's argument from "The Life You Can Save," basically, that spending money on personal luxuries when a $400 donation to UNICEF or OXFAM will on average save one human life is tantamount to refusing to save a child drowning in a lake because you will ruin your expensive clothes. Many, perhaps most, of those students are struck and moved by the analogy, but almost none act on it. Similarly, plenty of people "learn and think about" all sorts of injustices -- war, plutocracy, etc. -- but don't do any of the hard work of organizing to oppose them.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Many, perhaps most, of those students are struck and moved by the analogy, but almost none act on it.

And why do you think that is? Richard Alexander ("Darwinism and Human Affairs") has a convincing answer. But that is because Alexander is a deep thinker and C. S. Lewis is not.