Why C.S. Lewis Is as Influential as Ever


Napa Institute 7/31/2015
First Covenant Church 5/3/2015

C.S. Lewis died on the same day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The news of Kennedy’s death swamped what would otherwise have been a major story on the death of one of the most influential men of his time—C.S. Lewis. 50 years later, Lewis is today arguably far more influential than Kennedy.

Lewis’s books have been translated into more than 40 languages and have sold millions of copies. The seven books that make up The Chronicles of Narnia, first published more than 60 years ago, have sold the most—estimated at 150 million copies—and have been popularized on stage, TV, radio, and the movies.

Since 2001, Mere Christianity has sold 3 million copies and The Screwtape Letters 2 million copies. It is estimated that annual sales of Lewis’s books range as high as 6 million copies. In all there are 110 authored or edited books by Lewis and about 300 books that discuss him and his work, with additional new ones published every year, many as bestsellers. The combined box office sales for the three Narnia films so far total $1.5 billion, and the film series is the 24th highest grossing of all time. A 4th film, based on The Silver Chair is now in production.

Until the Harry Potter series, the seven volumes of Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia book series were the most influential children’s books in the world, voted so by successive polls of parents, librarians and teachers, and by their sales. And the Potter books haven’t cut into Narnia’s market. Indeed, they’ve greatly expanded it as sales of the Narniad have increased by 20% during this time.

Today, there are also over 300 C.S. Lewis Societies around the world, and a C.S. Lewis College is in the works in Massachusetts.

For me, Lewis provides a clear articulation of what it means to be a Christian in today’s modern world. For Lewis, Christianity was something that captured the mind, fired the imagination, and filled the heart. And becoming a Christian changed the way he viewed the world and the people in it.

1. Lewis showed that reason is the anchor of faith. By presenting a defense of the Christian faith that appealed to reason, Lewis removed obstacles to faith that most people in our world face today. By restoring reason to its rightful place, Lewis showed how Christianity could appeal to those earnestly seeking answers to the great questions of life.
As Lewis noted, “Christ never meant that we were to remain children in intelligence . . . He wants a child’s heart, but a grown up’s head.”
2. Lewis punctured the pomposity and the pretension of modern elite intellectuals. For example, Lewis revealed that you cannot trust your own reason if we are solely the product of random-chance evolution. Lewis tied faith and reason together in which Christianity is both faithful and rational.
3. Lewis noted that “Reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.”
The concept of story or narrative was crucial for Lewis. He showed that Christian imagination could expand our sense of what’s possible. Christian imagination could re-enchant a world that has been disenchanted by the limited possibilities of modernism and scientism. He showed that speaking about God in non-religious terms is vital, making the truths of Christianity fresh and novel.
4. Lewis restored a Christian vision of humanity—the eternal destiny of every human being. As a result, he fought against the dehumanizing aspects of modern culture.

Lewis spent most of his career as a medieval and renaissance scholar at Oxford University in England. Then, as today, being an avowed Christian in academia—or, indeed in the public eye at all—was not a good way to advance one’s career, and he was accordingly denied the English equivalent of a tenured position at Oxford for 20 years, despite the fact that his books were bestsellers and his lectures consistently drew standing-room-only crowds. He eventually moved to Cambridge University when it offered him a tenured position.

Today, few people are aware that Lewis was a medieval and renaissance scholar. Beyond Narnia, Lewis is best known as a Christian apologist. But he certainly didn’t set out to be. In fact, from his teenage years until his thirties he was an avowed atheist, and his greatest wish had been to be a poet.

As a young child, Lewis was tutored at home by his mother, including in French and Latin. Her death when he was nine had a devastating effect on him, and may well have planted the seed of his atheism. He prayed for his mother’s recovery from cancer and his prayers were not answered as he desired. This “problem of pain”—if God is good and all powerful, why do bad things happen to good people—may be the root of more people turning away from belief than any other.

Lewis’s father reacted to his beloved wife’s death by drawing into himself, and Lewis and his older brother were essentially left bereft. Following a disastrous time at a brutal boarding school in England, Lewis’s father moved him into the home of a private tutor, William Kirkpatrick, known as “The Great Knock,” who Lewis characterized as “a hard, satirical atheist who taught me to think.”

Lewis was thus set on a path of strict, rationalistic atheism. He came to believe in the meaninglessness of life and that we need to build our lives on the basis of “unyielding despair.” Lewis’s way of stating it was, “Nearly all I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real, I thought grim and meaningless”. In his imagination, he loved to read about truth, goodness, and beauty, but in his reason he held to a rather dark view of life. This tension between reason and imagination continued to increase.

Despite his best intentions to be a strict atheist, the things he liked best to read, and the people he liked best to be with kept turning out to be Christian. At the age of 16, waiting for a train, he bought a copy of the book, Phantastes by the Scottish writer and former Presbyterian minister George MacDonald, in the train bookshop. Its deeply Christian themes resonated with him, and he later said of the book, “That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me, not unnaturally, took longer. I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying Phantastes.”

He similarly loved G.K. Chesterton’s books: “In reading Chesterton, as in reading [George] MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere... God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.”

At Oxford, his greatest friend was J.R.R. Tolkien, and one night, after walking and talking with Tolkien and another friend until 3 in the morning, Lewis finally came to accept Christ and Christianity at the age of 33.

At 17, Lewis had written to his best friend, “I believe in no religion. There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint Christianity is not even the best.” Fifteen years later, he wrote to the same friend, “Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’. . . namely, the actual incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection.”

Lewis called himself the most “dejected and reluctant convert” in all England.

He clearly became the most influential. And certainly the fact that he was such a disciplined thinker and had spent so many years working through the case against Christianity to finally reason himself into knowing it to be true provided him the basis from which to communicate those arguments to the world.

And Lewis has had a profound impact on the world. But again, what accounts for this influence, which continues to grow?

The 20th century has been described as the century of modernism: the development of the narrative that under the centuries of belief in Christianity, humanity had lived in a “dark ages” of pre-science and superstition—the so-called “flat earth” era. This modernist narrative claims that the “Enlightenment” of the 17th and 18th century represented the triumph of secular science over superstition, ushering in a new era of progress and reason. Further, the belief in undirected evolution replaced that of a purposeful, Creator-God.

As a medieval and renaissance scholar, Lewis knew that the university, science, and reason had been products of Christianity, including producing the primary medieval astronomy textbook, “Sphere.” As the sociologist Rodney Stark discusses in his books The Victory of Reason and How the West Won, early and medieval Christianity displaced paganism and its widespread slavery, infanticide, repression of women, disregard for the suffering, and a world of chaos and superstition—ushering in Western Civilization in which the sacred and secular were unified, producing a theopolitical worldview of hope, joy, liberty, justice, and purpose from the loving Grace of God that enabled them to discover the objective, natural-law principles of ethics, science, and theology. The result created a bountiful culture of art and literature plus an immense human flourishing from individual liberty, personal responsibility, free-market entrepreneurship, civic virtue, limited government, and the rule of law.

Lewis was alarmed by his first-hand witnessing of the results of modernism, including the development of the total state and total war, in which man became simply a cog in the galactic wheel. The themes of both his and Tolkien’s writings reflect their directly seeing the growth of totalitarianism and the subjugation of the individual to the collective and the almighty state.

Lewis wrote his book The Abolition of Man in response to his seeing the rise of moral relativism and utilitarianism—“The ends justifies the means”—and it and his novelized treatment of the same themes in his book That Hideous Strength, are if anything more relevant today than when he wrote them.

In The Abolition of Man, Lewis presented the case for the existence of a natural moral law known by all. He called it the Tao—the “way” or the “path” (not to be confused with the Chinese philosophy, Taoism). This natural moral code cannot be escaped; it is the source from which all moral judgments come. Its fundamental truths—maxims like good should be done and evil avoided, that caring for others is a good thing, that dying for a righteous cause is a noble thing—are known independently of experience. They are grasped in the same way that we know that 2 + 2 = 4. As Lewis noted:

“If a man will go into a library and spend a few days with the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics he will soon discover the massive unanimity of the practical reason of man. From the Babylonian Hymn to Samos, from the Laws of Manu, the Book of the Dead, the Analects [of Confucius], the Stoics, the Plantonists, from Australian aborigines . . . he will collect the same triumphantly monotonous denunciations of oppression, murder, treachery and falsehood, the same injunctions of kindness to the aged, the young, and the weak, of almsgiving and impartiality and honesty. He may be a little surprised (I certainly was) to find that precepts of mercy are more frequent than precepts of justice; but he will no longer doubt that there is such a thing as the law of nature.”

Lewis thus rejected the idea that only those who were Christian could understand or be moral because the natural law is fundamental to human existence and serves as the basis for human choice. He noted that if only Christians could grasp the natural law or understand morality, then there would be an irresolvable dilemma in which no one could be persuaded of morality who was not already Christian—and hence that no one could ever become Christian.

The Apostle Paul put the same idea this way, “when Gentiles do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.” (Romans 2:14-15)

Modernism and “post-modernism” deny this truth—the fact that we all know in our hearts when something is “right” or “wrong”—and replace it with the theories of moral relativism: there’s no objective “good:” there’s just “what’s good for me” and “what’s good for you,” and neither is better than the other; and utilitarianism. On the former, Lewis pointed out that the person who claims there is no objective standard of good will be the loudest to cry when his seat is stolen on the bus. Crying “That’s unfair,” where does the concept of “Fairness” spring if there is no objective standard or morality?

As Lewis noted in critiquing the modern view that only a material, purposeless world exists:

“You cannot go on seeing through things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. . . . If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To see through all things is the same as not to see.”

For Lewis, science should be a quest for knowledge, and his concern was that in the modern era, science is too often used instead as a quest for power of some over others. Lewis did not dispute that science is an immensely important tool to understand the natural world, but his larger point is that science cannot tell us anything that is ultimately important regarding what choices we should make. In other words, Lewis shows that “what is” does not indicate “what ought” to be. Scientists on their own are not able to address moral ethics, and all social and political questions are exclusively questions of morality, rooted in the natural law, the Tao.

Lewis further viewed all those attempts to replicate the scientific method to analyze man as a strictly material/physical phenomenon as non-science or scientism:

“Let scientists tell us about science. But government involves questions about the good for man, and justice, and what things are worth having at what price; and on these a scientific training gives a man’s opinion no added value.”

As any student will quickly find in most high schools and colleges today, and is imbedded in much popular culture, the sciences have become dominated by a naturalist (or “modernist” or atheist or secular) worldview that assumes that the universe and life are purposeless and that mankind is simply a more complex, material version of all else in the natural world. In other words, an individual human being is viewed as no more and no less than a system of molecular processes determined by physical laws. Human beings are claimed to be simply machines in a galactic machine: “We are matter in motion.” In this system, all human endeavor and ideas are determined solely as the product of a mechanistic, causal process of physical events.

Contemporary naturalist writers such as evolutionary biologists Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and E. O. Wilson subscribe to a physicalism according to which only the material world exists. According to Dawkins:

“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

In examining this naturalist worldview, Lewis shows that material “facts” alone cannot provide any conclusion without some independent basis to evaluate such information. He claims that the analysis of any world requires the existence of people (including scientists) whose views are not mechanically determined by the world they are examining. Indeed, if our mental processes are simply bio-chemical events solely the product of Darwinian survival, we have no basis to know if our thoughts are true or not because there is no standard for truth other than survival (and how would we even know what survival itself meant?). Utilitarianism becomes the sole criterion for what we do, and there exists no objective Good or Evil.

Here, Lewis pointed out the naturalist’s determinist’s profound dilemma regarding the existence of individual consciousness and free will, including the naturalist’s very own inability to argue for naturalism or any proposition:

“Thus no thoroughgoing Naturalist believes in free will: free will would mean that human beings have the power of independent action, the power of doing something more or other than what was involved by the total series of events. And any such separate power or originating events is what the Naturalist denies. Spontaneity, originality, action ‘on its own,’ is a privilege reserved for ‘the whole show,’ which he calls Nature.”

Incidentally, naturalism as a creed is a very old one. A number of the pre-Socratic philosophers were probably the first to propose an early version of naturalism. Plato, Paramenides, and Aristotle discredited these pre-Socratic naturalists, however, and it was not until much later that the naturalist creed resurfaced in a major way in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from the work of David Hume, Auguste Comte, Henri de Saint-Simon, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, and others. With this worldview, Nietzsche logically proposed that man “is beyond good and evil,” and behaviorist-naturalist B. F. Skinner claimed that man is “beyond freedom and dignity.”

To underscore the basic problem in the strict materialist view, Lewis quoted the Marxist biologist J. B. S. Haldane:

“If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motion of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true . . . and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.”

But again, as Lewis has shown, to claim that individuals have no viewpoints is to present a thought that is possible only by having a point of view. In short, the denial of intentional states is hence incoherent.

What is critical to free will is each of us not being caused to do something by causes other than oneself. To have free will means it is up to me how I choose, and nothing determines my choice. Philosophers call this “agent causation.” Each individual as an agent is the cause of his or her actions. Each person’s decisions are differentiated from random events by being done by the agent himself or herself for reasons the agent has in mind.

This understanding of free will has relevance to the case of God Himself. Jesus, being divine, could not sin. Therefore, there was no possibility of His yielding to Satan’s temptations in the wilderness. Yet he resisted sin freely because nothing external to Him determined His choices. Jesus could not have chosen to sin, but he freely resisted sin. Again, God cannot choose to do evil, yet He freely does the Good because nothing outside Him determines Him to do so. He is His own agent. We in effect reflect this reality, having been created in His image.

Lewis understood that science arose because of the Christian theistic beliefs of the original scientists: “Men became scientific because they expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator. . . . Try to make Nature absolute and you find that her uniformity is not even probable.”

In this regard, science rests upon the dualism of a material and immaterial, natural and supernatural, physical and metaphysical reality. To deny the metaphysical basis for science is to make science itself unintelligible and impossible. Naturalism (along with its consequent scientism and collectivism) is an erroneous and self-contradictory view that not only fails, but breeds untruths that have led historically to repeated human folly and unspeakable horrors.

Lewis clearly laid out the danger of the modern view of man as merely a creature to be molded and socially engineered by a “scientific” elite:

“Either we are rational spirit obliged for ever to obey the absolute values of the Tao, or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasures of masters who must, by hypothesis, have no motive but their own ‘natural’ impulses.”

That is, our rulers, as mere men and women, must by definition also be responding solely to survival instinct—so what makes us think their decision-making will be “good”—which according to the naturalist does not, after all, exist as an objective standard?

Lewis continues:

“Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery. . . . The process which, if not checked, will abolish Man goes on apace among Communists and Democrats no less than among Fascists. The methods may (at first) differ in brutality. But many a mild-eyed scientist ..., many a popular dramatist, many an amateur philosopher in our midst, means in the long run just the same as the Nazi rulers of Germany.”

And throughout the modern era, this rule by man vs. the Tao, has spread across every civilization—not just those we think of as totalitarian. Lewis’s observations are even more true today with:

“. . . vast curtailments of liberty, and we have grown, though grumblingly, accustomed to our chains. . . . Our intellectuals have surrendered first to the slave-philosophy of Hegel, then to Marx. . . . As a result, classical political theory, with its Stoic, Christian, and juristic key-conceptions (natural law, the value of the individual, the rights of man), has died. The modern State exists not to protect our rights but to do us good or make us good—anyway, to do something to us or to make us something. Hence the new name ‘leaders’ for those who were once ‘rulers.’ We are less their subjects than their wards, pupils, or domestic animals. There is nothing left of which we can say to them, ‘Mind your own business.’ Our whole lives are their business.”

Throughout Lewis’s books, he defended the rights and sanctity of individuals against tyranny not just because he opposed evil but because he considered life in freedom—including both social and economic freedom—to be essential:

“I believe a man is happier, and happy in a richer way, if he had ‘the freeborn mind.’ But I doubt whether he can have this without economic independence, which the new society is abolishing. For economic independence allows an education not controlled by Government; and in adult life it is the man who needs, and asks, nothing of Government who can criticize its acts and snap his fingers at its ideology. ... Who will talk like that when the State is everyone’s schoolmaster and employer?”

And the danger of this, of course, is again that governments consist solely of humans:

“Man is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.”

By showing throughout his work that the Tao is known and held universally—with Christianity providing the highest and purest view of God’s Truth—Lewis makes the powerful case that we are therefore inescapably God’s creation. The argument that we are subject only to the forces of a godless nature—undirected, obeying only a survival instinct—utterly fails to account for our innate concepts of good, ought, right, and wrong. And unless we want to live in a world of unchecked government power, a world in which only “Might makes right,” it is imperative that we learn from great thinkers like Lewis, who see and paint so clearly the implications of the dangerous ideas around us—in the media, in academia, in popular culture, and in the political realm. By doing so we build upon the truths Christ taught, grounding ourselves in the knowledge of how we should live in our modern world, and how we should regard and treat one another.

In Lewis’s book series The Chronicles of Narnia, the land of Narnia is held in place by the sacred Deep Magic (or natural law), and to transgress this moral code is to do evil. Toward the end of the first book in the series, The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe, the children Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy assume their thrones as kings and queens of Narnia. Lewis describes how they govern during the Golden Age of Narnia and their most important accomplishments: “And they made good laws and kept the peace . . . and liberated young dwarfs and young satyrs from being sent to school and generally stopped busybodies and interferers and encouraged ordinary people who wanted to live and let live.

David J. Theroux is the Founder, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Independent Institute and Publisher of The Independent Review: A Journal of Political Economy.