Wednesday, November 3, 2010
Reflective Reviews: John Beversluis' "C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion," Part 1
I first heard of John Beversluis via John Loftus, who had recommended his material on his own blog. I found a rather intemperate remarks by Beversluis on such matters as textual criticism, and determined that his work would warrant a review at a later date.
That date has now arrived as the Ticker offers the first in a series called Reflective Reviews, in which I interact with, comment on, and as required, rebut material from current books of interest in apologetics. Our subject for the first Reflective Review will be Beversluis’ C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion. (Hereafter, CSRR.)
Beversluis is a professor of philosophy at Butler University, and by his own confession, an apostate from Christianity. Appropriate to that, this book has had two editions – one by a Christian publisher, one by an atheist publisher. There are a few chapters of CSRR we will discuss, although we will also skip many that are outside my scope of knowledge.
Preface and Introduction
In addressing this portion of CSRR, I should begin with some reflections on my own perceptions of Lewis, which offer a rather strong dichotomy, even as Beversluis does.
On the one hand, I cannot help but feel a deep kinship with Lewis, not just as an apologist, but as someone who evidently shared the same unique (and unusual) personality profile (see here). Even on the surface, one can see plenty of similarities between Lewis and I otherwise. He had his creative side with the Narnia series and his sci-fi trilogy; I have mine with the Annals of Hearthstone. He was, as Beversluis indicates, forthright in his opinions; obviously, I am as well.
These and other things Beversluis notes as characteristics of Lewis – his forthright honesty, his practices of answering mail personally, his indications that one should believe based on evidence, his assumption of the role of a translator, his independence from authority – are quite typical on the INTJ. Even his disinclination to provide a “personal testimony” for the Billy Graham organization [26-7] fits in with this, as it does with me (though I have come up with further, more rational and contextual reasons for rejecting the practice than Lewis did). On the other hand, I long ago recognized that Lewis was, as Beversluis says, a popularizer. 
To that extent, I would regard him in the same vein as Josh McDowell, not someone who could be regarded as a “last word” on any argument. I would perhaps recommend Lewis’ works as food for thought for the reader, a place to get started, though these days I would prefer to recommend other authors instead. I would not use Lewis’ books as sources. And like McDowell, Lewis has unfortunately gotten a reputation as a “finisher” when he is not (though unlike McDowell, he would want to make it clear, I think, that he was not one). To that extent, I think Beversluis is aiming at a static target 10 feet in front of him with a Gatling gun. As I said of The Jury Is In some time ago, they’re not addressing the best arguments, and they need to do so. Beversluis claims that “even when Lewis’s arguments are formulated more rigourously…they still fail”  but after seeing his comments on things like textual criticism, I have serious doubts that Beversluis would be able to distinguish what a “more rigorously formulated” argument would be in certain subject areas. However, to determine whether this is so will be one of the points of this Reflective Review.
In sum, however, I count myself neither an admirer nor a detractor of Lewis. He served a purpose in his time and place, but his apologetics works, in my view, reflect something from which we have rightly moved on.
The Basis of Critique
Beversluis indicates that a chief characteristic of Lewis is that his rhetoric is much stronger than his arguments, and that is what makes him seem more persuasive to readers. I can neither agree nor disagree. I consider myself immune to rhetoric; the selection from “The Weight of Glory” that Beversluis offers as an example , and which others, as he says, described as “the best sermon” they have ever heard or read, is the sort of thing that would have me rapidly scanning the text looking for the point, if not moving on entirely to something else. I suppose it could be said that the typical INTJ is like this -- fully capable of delivering acres of seasoned prose while not being able to stand it much from others. It is the “ham actor” quality in us that does this.
In any event, we will also be on the lookout for whether Beversluis is correct in his evaluation, at least in the chapters we will discuss.
Chapter One: Lewis as Christian Apologist
Lewis was an evidentialist apologist, of course. But to be quite frank, he was often outside his field of knowledge unawares. This was not entirely his fault. Many of the insights now available would have been unavailable to him in his time and place. Not surprisingly, then, some of the reputed faults of Christianity which Lewis acknowledged, and which Beversluis highlights (27), reflect this:
Lewis was particularly embarrassed by Jesus’ reputedly erroneous predictions of his own return. I might well have been too, had I not discovered the preterist alternative.
Lewis called the Gospels ”episodic, clumsily written,” and lacking “in all sense of climax.” Perhaps that is so as they are written in modern English; but that is for good reason. The Gospels were the product of an oral culture, and in that regard, as scholars like Shiner have shown, the Gospels are well suited to their tasks. All except perhaps Luke, initially, were intended to be presented to an audience that was largely illiterate. The “episodic” nature of the Gospels – which is also characteristic of Greco-Roman biography, a genre into which the Gospels fall – is a reflection of the oral nature of that social world. What Lewis finds clumsy in print was quite graceful when presented by mouth by a competent narrator. (For more on this, please see my material on oral tradition in Trusting the New Testament.)
Lewis answered the “pagan copycat” claims of his day by agreeing with them, in essence, and saying that God set out early signs of what would come via the pagans. This line of argument, however, is fruitless, and should be abandoned, as the alleged “anticipations” offer no real parallels. (See on this portions of Shattering the Christ Myth.)
Additionally, Lewis’ conceptions of “faith”  are quite anachronistic. There is no “Faith-B” in reality (“a religious state of mind”). “Faith –A” (“a settled intellectual assent”) comes closer to the real definition, but still fails to capture the essence of loyalty that pistis communicates. These flaws are one of the reasons I think Lewis has outlived a good chunk of his usefulness, even as a popularize. They would also be examples of things that there are more “rigorous formulations” of available, that a critic like Beversluis would be obliged to address if his critique veered into one more of Christianity than of simply Lewis himself.
Chapters 2-4 are about Lewis’ theistic proofs, and that subject is beyond my scope. In noting this, however, I am not saying that a more competent party might not be able to mount a more rigorous defense of Lewis’ basic arguments. I simply do not know.
We’ll return next time with a look at Chapter 5.