Wednesday, January 16, 2008

On Beversluis's New Edition

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 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The previous semester I had taken Hugh Chandler’s metaphysics class and we had already begun discussions of what later came to be known as Lewis’s argument from reason. At that time Beversluis’s book was published by a Christian publisher, Eerdmans, and two of the endorsements on the dust jacket were from leading Christian philosophers. On that basis, a reader might have come to expect Beversluis’s book to be a relatively friendly critique of Lewis’s apologetics, perhaps along the lines of Thomas V. Morris’s critical study of Francis Schaeffer’s apologetics. Morris showed that Schaeffer’s arguments were underdeveloped, admonished against excessive idolization of popular apologists, and made some recommendations as to how the Schaeffer’s arguments could be made stronger, though he also recommended that they be put to the service of more modest claims.

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.


Nullasalus said...

It's my impression that the value of CS Lewis isn't simply the arguments his books present, but the inspiration they give to readers to ponder and continue developing the thoughts Lewis starts with.

Bjørn Are said...

My main objection to the first edition was exactly that it was so extremely unhelpfull (which I to some degree also found Morris' book on Schaefer to be). I felt simply cheated.

Reading Lewis has to me been (like with Chesterton) since the late 70s more to get ideas and pointers in various interesting direction, than any final word. Though they both ofte have the ultimate quote;-)

A professional philosopher rather more vigorously than charitable attacking non philosophical works (talks and popular articles and books), and that on technical grounds, feels like someone discrediting college classes in History bacause they're not proper University level, lack footnotes and do not argue sufficiently for every conclusion.

I have the new edition, and find it somewhat better, still it does not seem quite "fair";-)

Hopefully more professional philosophers (like you), can continue to build on Lewis ideas and angles and ensure a fairer match...

JD Walters said...

I think that Lewis's book can be profitably read and criticized as philosophical works. That's the priviledge (and burden) of any work which lays out explicit arguments for a conclusion via analogy or what have you. And unless it leads to an intentional dumbing down of the arguments and analysis (which is something that CANNOT be said for Lewis), being popular doesn't really change that.

Victor Reppert said...

The rule for any thinker is "throw his ideas on the ground, kick them three times, and see if they stand up." This should apply to C. S. Lewis as well as to anyone else.

One objection I have to both Beversluis editions is that when he presents criticisms that one could make to what Lewis specifically says, he then doesn't distinguish between an objection that really strikes the heart of Lewis's argument, as opposed to an objection that can be easily corrected by, well, someone like me.

Anonymous said...

Let's take a break from Lewis and talk a little bit for a different topic, a good recreation. a question such as the following might entertain and inform us better:
whether you are a religious leader or else, what are the local and international issues of religion and of peace you are concerned about?

Victor Reppert said...

Dr. Beversluis has informed me that he did not intend a critique of Christian apologetics per se, but rather, draws the conclusion that the problem of evil is insoluble for Lewis given the fact that he accepts both a Platonist view of God's goodness as opposed to an Ockhamist one (that is, he maintains that God's goodness is continuous with the concept of goodness as applied to humans), and also accepts the falsifiability criterion. Given the fact that he holds these two positions, in the face of his wife's death, Beversluis says that he either must abandon his belief in God's goodness or else allow his concept of divine goodness to, as Flew would say, die the death of a thousand qualification and be rendered meaningless.

Nullasalus said...

Victor Reppert,

Could you explain that last comment in more detail? I have trouble seeing how the falsifiability criterion could be applied to any traditional view of God re: the problem of evil. My experience with that has only been with regards to scientific or less aggressive (as in, intentions of beings less than God) claims.

Frank Walton said...

Thank you for these reviews, Reppert. I noticed Beversluis' book and bought it. But your review is definitely helping me put things in perspective.

David Bergan said...

George MacDonald (Clive's "mentor") had a quote that Lewis could easily apply:

I do not say it is necessarily so, for I aim at no logical certainty. I aim at showing, rather than at proving, to my reader, by means of my sequences, the idea to which I am approaching. For if, once he beholds it, he cannot receive it (if it does not show itself to him to be true) there would be little use in trying to convince him by logic.

Lewis also does a great job of "showing" without necessarily "proving". This isn't to say that Lewis is wrong, it's just that he's going to establish the basics of the trilemma in a paragraph or two, rather than using a whole volume to consider every conceivable angle.

It's like a teacher telling you that the area of a disk is pi * r^2 and assigning a dozen exercises using that equation, without bothering his students with how complicated the proof actually is... or trying to explain the concept of an irrational pi.

Hans said...

'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”...'

God, of course, has subjective opinions.

The Bible records God as having a liking for the smell of roast meat.

Either the smell of roast meat is objectively pleasing, or God's opinions are as subjective as people who have a liking for pancakes or a dislike for spam.

But if God's opinions in one are are as subjective as people who have a liking for pancakes or a dislike for spam, where are the rigorous arguments showing that God's dislike of homosexuality is objectively correct?