A witty and yet profound Christian apologist

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Christian apologetics, form the Greek word apologia (“in defense of”), is that discipline which offers rational and systematic arguments for the truths of Christian faith based on sound philosophical and rhetorical principles. One of the leading Christian apologists in the 20th century was Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963).

C.S. Lewis, known to his friends and family as Jack, was born in Belfast on Nov. 29, 1898.  Educated at Oxford, he went on to teach English and medieval literature there and at Cambridge during his adult life.

Beginning in 1933, Lewis met weekly with a friendly and diverse troupe of authors and philosophers in both Lewis’ home and a local watering hole, The Eagle and Child Pub, affectionately called The Bird and Baby. The group, which dubbed themselves “The Inklings,” included noted thinkers J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield and Jack’s elder brother Warnie. During the informal but regular gatherings over drinks and tobacco, Lewis and the others exchanged literary, metaphysical and historical ideas, debating issues as varied as the reason for the existence of evil (known in theological terms as “theodicy”) and the importance of fantasy in literature. Unfinished passages from their works were read aloud and critiqued. Famed classics such as the “The Lord of the Rings,” “Out of the Silent Planet” and “All Hallows’ Eve” all had their origins in the sessions.

Lewis has been widely appreciated for his unique and whimsical style in dealing with heady and serious material. The depth with which he discusses matters of faith, temptation, sorrow and doubt almost leaps off the page. However, the humor, clarity and approachability of his writing is buttressed by a truly learned and expansive mind. Thus, students and scholars alike have been drawn to him for generations.

It would be impossible to treat here with any justice his innumerable contributions to contemporary Christian thought. His works “Mere Christianity,” “God in the Dock,” “The Problem of Pain,” “Surprised by Joy” and “The Great Divorce” are all justifiably recognized as classics. “The Four Loves” is believed to have influenced Pope Benedict XVI’s discussion of agape and eros in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est.

“The Chronicles of Narnia,” recently made into a series of blockbuster films, provide masterful allegorical representations of essential Christian teachings. “Till We Have Faces” and “The Pilgrim’s Regress” explore philosophical questions in protagonist-driven and illuminating myths. The incisive and probing honesty of “A Grief Observed” has helped innumerable people through the loss of a loved one.

The genius of Lewis’ thought manifested itself to me once again when I recently reread one his most enduring and fascinating pieces, “The Screwtape Letters,” in an admittedly enjoyable attempt at “research” for this column. Citing in the opening epigraph the devil’s hatred of being mocked, Lewis structures the book as a series of letters from an elder demon, Screwtape, to his young nephew, Wormwood, instructing the fledgling graduate of Tempter’s College on how best to ensnare human beings. In such an effort at “diabolical ventriloquism,” Lewis is able to explore the reality and dangers of sin and concupiscence in a completely novel way. Through such a playful but deeply meaningful reversal of vantage points, the book is able to articulate significant theological truths about the eternally confounding and confusing Enemy (God), the human subject, and the loving relationship between the two.

Professor Peter Kreeft of Boston College, a best-selling author and expert on Lewis, has modeled his approach to apologetics after him in books such as “Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Beyond Death Between John F. Kennedy, C.S. Lewis, and Aldous Huxley” and a series of Socratic dialogues between the philosopher and Jesus, Machiavelli, Marx and Sartre. Kreeft claims when someone inquirers about Christianity to him he sends them first to the Gospels and then to C.S. Lewis.

The following anecdote originally published in an interview with Kreeft from Jedd Medifind of the Los Angeles Lay Catholic Mission in October 2003 sums up the significance of Lewis’ work nicely:

“After the best conference I ever attended, with two serious theologians [each] from the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Evangelical, and mainline Protestant churches staying all week and talking about their differences and agreements, in a frank and candid but irenic and listening way, everybody constantly and naturally referring to things C.S. Lewis wrote about this and that. Father Joe Fessio got up at the closing session and proposed that we issue a joint statement of agreement and say that what unites us all, despite our serious differences, is Scripture, the first six ecumenical councils, and the collected words of C.S. Lewis. Everyone cheered.”

Lewis’s witticism and profound reflections on the Christian life are of immense value in molding the minds of thoughtful adolescents, teaching them to think critically and ponder life’s philosophical and religious issues, as well as having the capacity to deepen the spiritual life of even the most mature and sophisticated believer. His work, although rather contemporary, reflects a timeless wrestling with perennial existential questions, and should continue to enlighten minds for years to come.

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is a Ph.D. candidate in systematic theology at Fordham University.