Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Great (C.S. Lewis) Story Never Ends

Book Review: Conversations With C.S. Lewis: Imaginative Discussions About Life, Christianity and God by Robert Valarde (InterVarsity Press, 2008)

As all Narnia fanatics know, the final paragraph of The Last Battle ends with the stirring assurance that the Pevensie children entered heaven and so "were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before." The Great Story of C.S. Lewis goes on as well with books pouring off the presses.
Robert Velarde, a former atheist, has written a wonderful book which is both high on content and imaginative in format (something the Master would appreciate). This is not just another book on C.S. Lewis. As Peter Kreeft notes in a blurb, the book is a combination of The Great Divorce, It's A Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol. It begins with a man (an atheist) in his thirties who is in the hospital with cancer and who wakes up after one treatment to find C.S. Lewis sitting in his hospital room. In each chapter, Lewis takes the young man to a formative episode of Lewis' life, each visit being a springboard to a conversation about an important Lewis spiritual/intellectual theme. In each case Lewis answers questions which cast doubt on the man's atheist position. But this is not a matter of the "good" Lewis tripping up the "bad" atheist but a matter of Lewis explaining how he became a Christian after concluding that atheism was irrational.
While the book deals with a range of issues (Doesn't science disprove Christianity? Wasn't Jesus just a man whom the Church made into a god? Isn't belief in God just a crutch for weak people?) it has an integrating theme which was the integrating theme of all of Lewis' work. This theme is the need for integrating rationality and imagination. As Allen Jacobs has made clear in his excellent biography of Lewis (The Narnian), during his atheist phase Lewis found himself in a terrible state in that all that was rationally certain was largely uninteresting to him and all that he really loved irrational and meaningless. Lewis' own conversion came when his rational side and his imaginative side were integrated. Ultimately, Lewis (and, I assume, Velarde) found that Truth could only be discerned by the united effort of both faculties. As Lewis says in one of the final conversations, intellect is incomplete without imagination. Here, it needs to be stressed, imagination does not mean (as it has come to mean in a vulgar consumer culture of entertainment) simply "making things up". When Dante wrote The Divine Comedy was he simply "making things up"? If he was his work would have become just another period piece for literary scholars to dissect. As Jacobs so conclusively shows in his book, the Narnia books are not just works of imagination because Lewis included in them pretty much everything he thought was important from ethics to religion to metaphysics. To put this in another key, for Lewis Christianity is not simply a theology but a reality and hence doctrine will always say less than liturgy; while we know about cosmology and evolution Genesis 1 still remains essential.
The first conversation is a good example of how the book works. In this conversation, Lewis and his atheist friend travel to visit William Kirkpatrick, referred to in Surprised by Joy as "The Great Knock". Kirkpatrick was Lewis' tutor for three years and prepared him to take the Oxford entrance examinations. He was a hyper-rational Scot and a devout atheist. Kirkpatrick's faith is in reason but Lewis asks what justifies such faith on materialist grounds. If human reason is simply an evolved survival mechanism the operations of which are determined by biology, why should we trust it to deliver truth? At best, one could only say that reason is what our current state of evolution and genetic determination allow us to believe to be true. As Lewis makes clear, a distinction needs to be made between evolution and evolutionism, the first indicating a theory of biological change and the latter indicating a metaphysical theory. Those who have read Lewis' book Miracles will be familiar with this argument. The point of this argument is this: Christianity offers a better account of the origin and reliability of reason than does naturalism. Lewis's atheist friend assumes that Christians shun reason when in fact it supports reason.
In another scene, we find Lewis and his friend on the front lines in France during World War I (where Lewis spent his nineteenth birthday). The senseless death, the stench and suffering raise the question of why God allows evil to exist. Lewis' question to his conversation partner is simply "How do we know this is evil?" In other words, where does our sense of evil come from? Why don't we simply accept evils as "the way things are"? On evolutionary grounds, certain threats to our existence might seem bad but why do we speak evil? For Lewis, we think this way because we have a conscience and this is a manifestation of the fact that we are creatures created in God's image. Without God, there is no evil there is only "the way things are". Lewis, of course, did not think that this response "solved" the "problem of evil" (he believed that only God could solve it). But there is something to the idea that the perception of evil implies some perception of its opposite.
Another interesting chapter is a journey to the BBC from Lewis delivered his Broadcast Talks which were eventually published in Mere Christianity. Here Lewis began with the idea that the common recognition of moral values demanded the notion that they came from outside of us. No one can remain a consistent moral relativist and expect anything but anarchy. For Lewis, the existence of trans-individual and trans-cultural moral values pointed to the existence of a moral Mind from when they came. Once again, this does not prove God's existence but Lewis thought that Christian could produce better arguments for moral laws than could naturalists.
One final conversation is worth mentioning. Lewis asks his atheist friend if his opposition to Christianity is completely rational. Lewis was, of course, speaking from personal experience in that during his atheist phase he rejected Christianity because it would mean that there was Someone who could interfere in his life. Is atheism founded more on a prideful autonomy than on rational supports? This was the conclusion to which Lewis himself eventually came.
In the end, we don't learn how the atheist friend turns out. What we do know is that his visits with Lewis have planted a seed, one which, hopefully, will bear fruit. Conversations With C.S. Lewis is both a good introduction to C.S. Lewis and good book to give to atheist or agnostic friends.


Blogger Robert Velarde said...

Thanks for the kind review. I wanted to make Conversations with C.S. Lewis a fun and informative read, but leave the fate of the atheist undetermined. My take is that such a major worldview shift - from atheism to Christian theism - is generally so significant that it takes awhile to happen, assuming it ever does.

I also wanted to highlight a civil and friendly conversation between a Christian and an atheist. These days with many hostile atheists and sometimes hostile Christians as well, we need to keep in mind the call to be gentle and respectful (1 Peter 3:15) even when we disagree with others.

Thanks again for the review.

September 2, 2008 at 11:23 AM  

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