Written by Jacek Bacz. This essay appears in the latest issue of the Review. If you like this kind of thing, subscribe today!
Bacz is a Polish-Canadian engineer and academic with a life-long interest in theology. He is the author of By Reason Alone: Assembling the Great Puzzle (published by Justin Press, Ottawa, in 2010) and of Przez rozum do wiary (published in Poland by WAM, Kraków, in 2012). For more information see www.byreasonalone.com.
A most unoriginal thing one could write these days is a tribute to C. S. Lewis. To say that the man was a genius is utter cliché. To call him one of the most influential Christian writers of the 20th century is only to come to terms with the facts. To say that he laid the foundation for modern apologetics is to state the obvious, though Chesterton fans might take offence. To praise his knowledge of literature, philosophy, theology, mythology, English/Latin/Greek poetry, literary criticism, antiquity and philosophy of science, or to admire his literary style, power of logical presentation, phenomenal memory, fertile imagination and sheer command of good Christian doctrine is to do him no favour, for he deserves it.
I want to stay off the beaten track. Rather than restating the obvious I will take a personal look at Lewis. A personal account need not be suspect just because it is personal. It might actually be true and even original. I know it because that is one of the things I have learned from Lewis.
Believers and atheists have different brains, or so we are told. If that is right, then my brain is Christian and this I owe to Lewis. Lewis gave me a well-ordered Christian mind, and in a short time too, for he can be terribly efficient. Although his output is vast and diversified, his works of popular theology are very reasonable in size: perhaps a hundred-something pages each, in pocketbook format—far from intimidating. What I like to call “Lewis’s Pentateuch” includes The Problem of Pain, Miracles, Mere Christianity, The Abolition of Man and The Screwtape Letters. In a remarkable way, these five little books cover the most important issues one faces when trying to figure out one’s worldview, and they can all be absorbed in a matter of weeks.
And yet, reading Lewis requires training. A reader unaccustomed to his style will do well to pace himself and catch an appropriate rhythm. Sometimes, to genuinely profit from the reading, one will have to return to the same chapters or books again. With Lewis, every paragraph is full of meaning; the argument flows logically and smoothly; lines, even words, cannot be skipped with impunity. Such disciplined reading of popular literature may not be a habit for some, but the rewards for the mind are enormous. As a result of reading Lewis, three things might happen: one will form a well-ordered Christian mind and live happily ever after; one will begin to intuit what it might be like to have a well-ordered Christian mind—and go on searching; one will start to understand people who actually have a Christian mind. This is good news for readers. If you do not read, however, only God can help you.
I first encountered Lewis’ work thirty years ago. I was a fresh Catholic revert, struggling to make sense out of everything. Years later, I recorded some aspects of that struggle in By Reason Alone (Justin Press, 2010). The first book by Lewis I ever held in my hands was Miracles. It had a lasting effect on my mind: I rediscovered a sense of the supernatural that has never left me since and that has become a hallmark of my thinking.
Every single Lewis book has helped me recover some treasure that had been lost: a sense of personal sin and knowledge of original sin (The Problem of Pain), an understanding of grace (Mere Christianity), an awareness of universal morality (The Abolition of Man), the importance of spiritual struggle (The Screwtape Letters). Lewis has helped me redeem these treasures and, in the process, he has taught me a good deal of philosophy and theology. This was an excellent bargain, but it is not for the knowledge I acquired that I am most indebted to Lewis: knowledge can be assimilated from many different sources. Rather, C. S. Lewis showed me how to think and how to write.
In one of his essays, Lewis makes an astonishing observation about originality, which became a source of encouragement for me when I started writing. Not only did he state the principle, but he put it into practice. I saw that it worked; the challenge was to stay faithful to it. “Do not aim at originality,” he said, “just tell the truth.” Tell it as you see it and originality will come as a by-product: what people call original will naturally transpire from your work. A lot of hardship could perhaps be spared if his advice was taken seriously. The principle of “first and second things” is at work here. First things must be given priority, says Lewis, or they will never be achieved. If you aim at second things, like originality, not only will you not achieve your goal, but you will forsake the first thing too: you will make yourself unable to tell the truth.
C.S. Lewis is known for his ability to reach wide audiences. Usually, trying to satisfy one group of readers alienates another. But Lewis succeeds in overcoming this paradox. How does he do it? He takes nothing for granted and makes no assumptions about the state of mind of his audience. I see his method as “addressing the believers as if they did not believe.” That creates a sufficiently large platform to which one can attend mentally while writing.
I have taken to heart Lewis’s exhortation to climb on the shoulders of the giants, but unlike Lewis, I have always felt called to acknowledge it, for I wanted my readers to have a road map for further study. Lewis almost never acknowledges his sources; however, with Lewis, that’s a sign of genius. Let me explain. It is certainly admissible not to quote sources in a popular, non-scholarly work. But there is more to it than that. When an author has internalized, analyzed, synthesized and recast ideas in such a way that he is hardly aware of the influences, we should properly speak of inspiration. I can relate to moments of being unable at times to tell the assimilated from the original in my own experience, limited as it may be. An excellent example of how this extends, marvellously, to an entire work is Hildebrand’s Transformation in Christ. It is all “inspired” in just such a way. And there is not a single footnote or quotation.
It has been a long time since my first encounter with Lewis. The initial fascination has now left me as I have broadened my interests and met new challenges. Yet spiritual friendship and gratitude remain. Lewis is the man who fully engaged my mind and set me up for the greatest adventure: an intellectual journey into the faith. And it all happened because, unsuspecting, I once purchased Miracles, a nice little booklet to help me pass time on some long, boring flight. Inscrutable indeed are the ways of the Spirit.
Lest it be imagined that C. S. Lewis enthusiasts need not think for themselves, let me quote an anecdote before closing. Lewis promoted “Mere Christianity”, a set of core Christian doctrines acceptable to most Christian confessions, and he firmly refused to take sides in controversies. In the mid-1940s, Lewis had a fan in America, H. Lyman Stebbins, who was a fellow Anglican (Episcopalian). The trouble started when, reading C. S. Lewis, Stebbins discovered the works of Frank Sheed. Sheed’s case for the Catholic Church strongly appealed to him and he wondered why Lewis was unable to see it, so he wrote to his mentor and asked for an explanation. Lewis came back with a very disappointing response, and his Episcopalian admirer soon joined the Catholic Church. Their fascinating correspondence can be found easily on the web. It might be the only case we know of when Lewis actually took sides, albeit privately, in an interfaith controversy—and lost the argument.
Lewis’s attitude towards the Catholic Church has been the subject of much debate and the jury is still out. It is not that Lewis examined the Catholic doctrine and found it wanting: rather, he did not truly engage it. He let sleeping dogs lie for reasons we can only speculate upon. Walter Hooper, Lewis’s secretary and guardian of his legacy, who later became a Catholic, had a chance to talk to John Paul II about Lewis. He heard the following words from the Pope: “C. S. Lewis knew what his apostolate was—and he did it!” That pretty much sums up the discussion.
Still, Lewis’s approach to apologetics may be objectionable to some Catholics on the grounds that it leaves parts of Catholic doctrine on the sidelines. Others may doubt Lewis’s intellectual prowess, since it failed to lead him to the fullness of the truth. Others still may wonder why they should read an Anglican when excellent Catholic authors are at hand. The obvious answer to these objections is that Lewis was a genius. I like to compare him to an extraordinary, slightly eccentric music master who, oddly enough, has no appreciation for composers whose names begin with C. The man has fabulous piano technique—but he does not teach Chopin or Corelli. Most students, however, do not worry much about “the C-thing”. They cannot master the piano without Chopin, and they know it. Thus, some practice the mazurkas after hours and find it easy to progress on their own; others make plans to move to another teacher eventually. But the reason why they all love their tutor, in spite of his dislike for “C-composers,” is that he has the precious gift of making them love music. And there is hardly a man in town who can match his skill.