Assessing C. S. Lewis
by Wesley A. Kort
My interest in the works of C. S. Lewis was occasioned less by having read it than by the strongly divided opinions of it among his readers. I began teaching a course on Lewis at Duke University when a group of students asked me to. I had read enough of him to assure me that he warranted a course, and, since I have found it rare to find among undergraduates a strong interest in someone of scholarly and literary standing, I agreed. I was at the same time aware that Lewis had many detractors, some in my own department. I suspected at the outset that Lewis’s devotees and detractors were both responding primarily to the role of religion, particularly Christianity, in his work. Those in favor of him took his other, especially scholarly, interests as important primarily for enhancing the academic status of his writings on Christianity; while his detractors viewed whatever merits his scholarly and literary work had as vitiated by those same interests.
I arrived at two major conclusions about Lewis’s work. The first one concerns his method: It has three primary components. First, Lewis assumes an unusually positive position concerning human nature and culture. He thought that people had within them a natural capacity for moral living, and he incorporates in his work extended discussions that address moral wellbeing apart from religious bases. He did not, in other words, set up a primary distinction between moral/religious and immoral/non-religious people. His position on human, including modern culture, is similarly positive. An example is his refusal to agree with many of his literary and theological contemporaries that recent history, especially the two World Wars, warranted a radical indictment of modern culture and revealed that human relations are determined primarily by opposition and hostility.
A second methodological component in Lewis’s work is his cultural critique. Although he held a more positive opinion of modernity than did many of his contemporaries, he also mounted a sustained and pointed critique of it. This critique was based on his early disenchantment with what he calls ‘naturalism’ and what we tend to refer to as theoretical materialism, that is, the belief that whatever occurs or exists can causally be traced to matter and energy. He attacks this prominent belief or habit of mind in modern culture not only because of its inability to account adequately for persons and their relations but also because theoretical materialism is, he thought, damaging to personhood.
The third methodological component in his work can be traced to his long-standing indebtedness to idealism, first as an aspect of Romanticism and then as a philosophical option. The primary form that idealism takes in his work is the reality for him of principles that are manifested in and actualized by concrete beings and events, especially but not only human beings and their relations. His turn to religion generally and to Christianity particularly consisted primarily in his viewing them as providing principles, especially the creedal principles of Christianity. A major reason for his turn or return Christianity was that he thought it provided a more adequate and convincing alternative to theoretical materialism than did philosophical idealism.
My second major conclusion on Lewis is that he had, I think, a deep and continuing interest in personal identity theory. Of great importance for him are human-making characteristics and the means by which humans become persons. Justice in any account of the world and of our relations in and to it must include, even begin with, human capacities that include reason, desire, imagination, and agency. The way by which humans become persons, for Lewis, is in and through relationships with all things but especially with other persons and, finally, with God. Personhood is not achieved; it is received in and through the right relationships. While he pursues many other interests, it would be difficult to find one that is more pervasive and persistent in his work than his response to the long-standing and difficult question of personal identity. While many other topics of importance are treated in the chapters that examine individual works by Lewis, his interest in personal identity and the formation of personhood in and through relations keeps cropping up as a unifying thread.
I think that devotees of Lewis’s work should take into account more that he came or returned to religion and Christianity not in abstraction from but in close relation to his work. To follow Lewis, then, would not be skimming Christianity off the top of what led him to it. This means taking seriously his more positive estimation of human nature, culture, and the natural world than seems current among many contemporary Christians. It also would require a more focused, less wholesale, critique of modernity than they seem to deploy. And it would require less emphasis on Christian principles in abstraction and more on the challenge not only of their application to present circumstances but also their reinterpretation due to their applications. Detractors of Lewis, rather than dismissing him as a religious writer, should take more seriously his address to theoretical materialism and very important human matters, including personal identity and the problematic position in which persons try to understand who they are when they are expected to do so within limitations imposed by the dominant ideology of late modernity.
About the Author:
Wesley A. Kort is the author of Reading C. S. Lewis: A Commentary and Professor Emeritus of Religion at Duke University. He is the author of eleven books and many published essays that relate literary, cultural, and religious studies to one another.