I have redated this post by a few days because I wanted people to notice that I put a correction on the comment line to one claim that I had made about the conclusion of Beversluis's argument.
23 years ago, John Beversluis’s book, C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion was published. I was then in my first year as a philosophy student at the
In the beginning of the book, it might seem as if that was what Beversluis was up to. But further reading dashed those expectations. The criticisms of each argument: the argument from desire, the moral argument, the “trilemma,” and the argument from reason, yielded a verdict of abject failure, with no suggestion that the arguments could be revised and strengthened. The tone at points was quite harsh, attributing blatant fallacies to Lewis, especially the fallacy of the straw man and the false dilemma. At some points expressions like “irresponsible writing” and “considerably worse than fuzzy” thinking were used. Though at other points Beversluis seemed to show at least some sympathy toward Lewis the man.
In the latter part of the book Beversluis made the case that Lewis had no adequate answer for the problem of evil, and that his own agonized response to his wife’s death in A Grief Observed constituted a repudiation of his previous apologetics and an abandonment not only of his previous views on pain and suffering, but also of rational religion itself. The conclusion of the book was not simply that Lewis had failed to successfully defend Christianity, but that his apologetic career showed that Christianity could not be rationally defended.
It should not be too surprising that persons well-disposed toward Lewis and his apologetics might be angered by a critique of this kind. Now, sharply worded criticism is part and parcel with the activity of philosophy and is to be expected. But some responses to Beversluis went considerably beyond criticism to actually impugning the Beversluis’s intellectual integrity. One response, by Richard Purtill, defended this claim:
My purpose in this paper is to convince the reader, by evidence and argument, that the general impression given by the television play, the books, and the article are not only false, but perniciously and culpably false. It is in fact part of the counter-attack against Lewis’s outstandingly successful defence of the rationality and probability of Christianity, and it is a particularly unfair and underhanded counter-attack, because it distorts Lewis’s work and exploits his personal tragedy. (Purtill, “Did C. S. Lewis Lose his Faith” in A Christian for all Christians, Hodder and Stoughton, 1990).
Further on in his essay, he explains Beversluis’s motivation in terms of envy at Lewis’s success as an apologist.
Now, there may be times when it is reasonable and sensible to make charges of this sort. However, if unless one is prepared and able to meet a very high standard of proof in defense of such claims, it is best to avoid making them. It doesn’t help Purtill’s cause at all that he entitled his essay “Did C. S. Lewis Lose his Faith,” a question that Beversluis answered quite firmly in the negative. Beversluis never said Lewis lost his faith, he said that in the course of his grief experience he decisively compromised his apologetic position; that after calling God a bunch of names for putting him through that the ordeal of grief he abandoned the objections, but also moved from what Beversluis calls a Platonist view of God to an Ockhamist view of God. That is a very different charge, one that can be criticized, (and I have criticized it myself), but one that Purtill never actually addresses.
It is valuable to remember that Lewis himself, after making a charge of misinterpretation against Dr. Pittenger, wrote:
"How many times does a man have to say something before he is safe from the accusation of having said exactly the opposite? (I am not for a moment imputing dishonesty to Dr. Pittenger; we all know too well how difficult it is to grasp or retain the substance of a book one finds antipathetic.)”
Lewis is more than sensible in refusing to charge his opponent with dishonesty even when he found himself to be egregiously misinterpreted, and in the absence of very strong evidence we should do likewise.
Any doubts I might have had about the honesty and seriousness of Beversluis’s work on Lewis was decisively smashed when I read his review of A. N. Wilson’s biography of Lewis. He protests against Wilson’s psychoanalyzing, claiming that many of his assertions are based on very poor evidence. But one paragraph stood out to me. In his book and in a related article published at the same time Beversluis quoted some people who claimed that Lewis essentially abandoned apologetics after the exchange with Elizabeth Anscombe, but in the review of Wilson, he takes that all back.
First, the Anscombe debate was by no means Lewis's first exposure to a professional philosopher: he lived among them all his adult life, read the Greats, and even taught philosophy. Second, it is simply untrue that the post-Anscombe Lewis abandoned Christian apologetics. In 1960 he published a second edition of Miracles in which he revised the third chapter and thereby replied to Anscombe. Third, most printed discussions of the debate, mine included, fail to mention that Anscombe herself complimented Lewis's revised argument on the grounds that it is deeper and far more serious than the original version. Finally, the myth that Lewis abandoned Christian apologetics overlooks several post-Anscombe articles, among them "Is Theism Important?" (1952)—a discussion of Christianity and theism which touches on philosophical proofs for God's existence—and "On Obstinacy of Belief"—in which Lewis defends the rationality of belief in God in the face of apparently contrary evidence (the issue in philosophical theology during the late 1950s and early 60s). It is rhetorically effective to announce that the post-Anscombe Lewis wrote no further books on Christian apologetics, but it is pure fiction. Even if it were true, what would this Argument from Abandoned Subjects prove? He wrote no further books on Paradise Lost or courtly love either.
(Beversluis, “Surprised by Freud” Christianity and Literature (1991).
I remember reading this passage when James Sire, the former editor of IVP, sent Beversluis’s paper to me. Ideologues and dishonest thinkers don’t take their claims back if they find them to be unsupported by evidence. They just don’t. Besides, what I have called the Anscombe Legend is a key dimension in the anti-C. S. Lewis playbook. It gets repeated over and over again until people actually think it’s true. Most recently, I found it in Philip Pullman’s anti-Lewis diatribes. No anti-Lewis ideologue could possibly abandon the Anscombe legend, but Beversluis did.
Now that Prometheus Books has published a second edition of Beversluis’s book, I can say that the spirit that engendered this change in the treatment of the Anscombe controversy can be found throughout his revised edition. He has called by own book “scrupulously fair,” a compliment that I am more than proud to receive. In his treatment of the argument from desire, he acknowledges a critic’s charge that Lewis’s argument could be developed as an inductive argument as well as a deductive argument, and considers the argument as an inductive argument. In his treatment of morality in the previous edition he considers it irresponsible that Lewis characterized ethical subjectivists as people for whom moral judgments are on a level with “a liking for pancakes or a dislike for spam” but in the revised edition he admits that Russell said almost the same thing in describing his own view. His treatment of the “Lord or Lunatic” argument takes critics into consideration. He once again criticizes the Anscombe Legend, though he defends Anscombe’s arguments against Lewis. In his treatment of the problem of pain he withdraws the charge, made in the prior edition, that Lewis started with a Platonist view and then retreated to a position that “differs only semantically from Ockhamism.” The new edition is a fresh, serious effort that deserves fair attention by Lewis’s admirers. It’s must reading for anyone interested in Lewis’s apologetics.
Now I am not going to say, with John Loftus, that Beversluis has provided an overwhelming blow against Lewis’s apologetics. Beversluis thinks that the apparent strength of Lewis’s apologetics is mostly in the rhetoric, and I do not. He thinks a case against the rationality of the Christian faith can be developed on the basis of Lewis's life and writings, and I do not. Unlike him, I think that we can follow what I have called Lewis’s “outstanding philosophical instincts” and find and develop good arguments, although I would not vouch for the technical adequacy of those arguments as Lewis presents them. We “sensible supporters” of C. S. Lewis have work to do, too. But I think that I have shown with my book, and Beversluis with his, that the merits and demerits of Lewis’s apologetics can be discussed with courtesy and without recourse to ad hominems.