In analyzing John Beversluis’s revision of C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion, I think some things have to be clarified, it is important to understand what the book claims to do. To do this we have to distinguish four different types of responses to Lewis:
1) Hagiographical supporters. These are writers who read Lewis and say, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, “Well, that about wraps it up for atheism” (or whatever else Lewis happens to be attacking). Richard Purtill and Peter Kreeft certainly sound like this sometimes.
2) Sensible supporters. Sensible supporters hold that Lewis’s apologetics are far from flawless or that a few Lewis quotes are hardly sufficient to demolish whole philosophical traditions. Sensible supporters realize there may be rough edges to sand off and ever errors to correct. However, with proper philosophical development, Lewis’s arguments have real positive apologetic force. Obviously, this is where I would put myself, along with Steve Lovell and Thomas Talbott.
3) Loyal opponents. Loyal opponents think Lewis is an honest, serious, and competent thinker. However, they also maintain that in the final analysis Lewis’s arguments are unsuccessful. Erik Wielenberg falls into this category, as does Beversluis, in spite of some passages in the first edition that might have suggested to some that he belongs in the fourth category below.
4) Hostile critics. These are people who think Lewis is not only wrong, but either stupid, ignorant, insane or wicked, someone who deserves to be laughed off the intellectual stage. S. T. Joshi would be an example of one of these, and in spite of some patronizing praise, would A. N. Wilson.
Beversluis’s central claim is that Lewis’s apologetics are entirely unsuccessful, and that his popularity as an apologist is the result primarily of rhetoric rather than intellectual substance. Assessing this claim is going to be more difficult than it looks. The reason is that a criticism directed again a popular apologist from an earlier generation has involves issues you don’t have when you are dealing with a trained philosopher working in the contemporary analytic tradition. The reason that this is so is that the terminology, the style of argumentation, form a set of common expectations by which we judge each other in contemporary philosophy. But even in dealing with our philosophical predecessors, not all errors in argument are created equal. For example, as I discuss in my book, David Hume’s famous “Of Miracles” employs a mathematical probability theory that no one today would take seriously and which leads to absurd consequences. Whether that results in his argument being judged an “abject failure,” as John Earman suggests that it does, or whether some less severe estimation is in order, is a matter for further argumentation. Could a present-day admirer of Hume, armed with an up-to-date Bayesian probability theory, get the kind of result that Hume was aiming at? I, like Earman, would say no, but to establish such a claim would take more than pointing out the errors in Hume’s mathematical probability theory.
Christian philosopher Thomas V. Morris, in his review in
Faith and Philosophy, makes this claim concerning Beversluis’s first edition:
My main philosophical criticism of this book is that Beversluis seldom comes anywhere near digging deep enough to really appreciate a line of thought suggested by Lewis. All too often he gives a facile, fairly superficial reconstruction of a line of argument, and after subjecting it to some critical questioning, declares it bankrupt and moves on. What is so disappointing to the reader who is trained in philosophy is that in most such instances a few minutes of reflective thought suffice to see that there are very interesting considerations to be marshalled in the direction Lewis was heading, considerations altogether neglected by [Beversluis].
It is a mistake to expect Lewis to have arguments sufficiently polished to pass muster in present-day philosophical journals. Lewis, of course, simplifies them for general consumption. The real question is whether they provide legitimate insights that can be developed into good philosophical arguments. If someone is tempted to think that Lewis can do all of our thinking for us, then it is worthwhile to be reminded that there are things the skeptic can say back. However, this is hardly sufficient to establish a verdict of abject failure against C. S. Lewis.
An example of this would be Lewis’s claim that quantum-mechanical indeterminism is a “threat” to naturalism. Clearly, this is not a claim that I would want to defend. Nevertheless, when we look at Lewis’s overall argument against naturalism, we find that amending naturalism to include quantum-mechanical indeterminism will not get around the difficulty that Lewis is posing for naturalism in the argument from reason. Getting a better, more adequate definition for naturalism, one that leaves Lewis’s central insights essentially in place, is an easy task for a trained philosopher who is a sensible supporter such as myself. So yes, a criticism can be lodged against Lewis, but the criticism isn’t terribly far-reaching.
My own efforts with respect to the argument from reason have been along these lines, attempting, in Morris’s words to draw those “interesting considerations to be marshaled in the direction Lewis was heading.” To get a verdict of abject failure you need to show that there is nothing apologetically fruitful in those considerations. As you might expect, I don’t think that either edition of Beversluis’s book, or Wielenberg’s book for that matter, achieves that goal.
The other danger here, of course, would be to attribute more credit than he deserves in developing the idea, when the actual nuts and bolts of the argument are developed by subsequent people. But, at least with respect to the AFR, I still judge that Lewis's contribution is substantial enough that to justify the title of my book. But you may disagree, of course.