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C.S. Lewis and Twenty-First Century Christian Apologetics

Raymond J. Keating

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Raymond J. KeatingI write on a wide range of issues in my weekly newspaper column. Topics generally fall into areas like politics, economics, social issues and the culture. But what usually generate the greatest responses are columns on religion.

When writing about Christianity or from a Christian viewpoint, I certainly receive positive feedback that often can be quite moving. However, some of the most passionate reactions are negative. Indeed, introducing a Christian perspective into a secular newspaper often generates vehement attacks.

It seems that more people than ever before in this nation become aggravated when Christianity enters the public square. They prefer that faith remain behind closed church doors, or tucked away in books. Some are particularly hostile to any arguments daring to assert that truth exists, and can be found in Christianity. For example, when in a column I recently mentioned the "Great Commission" Jesus put forth -- "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." (Matthew 28:19-20) -- the relativists sent me outraged e-mail.

This is the cultural environment in which I heard a lecture given on October 16 in New York City which often seems like the capital of moral relativism. The speech was titled "C.S. Lewis and the Case for Apologetics." The event was co-hosted by the New York C.S. Lewis Society, celebrating its 35th anniversary, and Fordham University's Institute of Irish Studies. The speaker was Avery Cardinal Dulles, the well-known author and the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham.

Apologetics is not a word heard much in daily conversation. Christian apologetics refers to the defense and proof of the Christian faith.

Cardinal Dulles did a fine job in summarizing C.S. Lewis' basic apologetics. He noted that Lewis compared "Mere Christianity" to a hall, with different rooms off of it, but with all being housemates. Lewis, of course, was an Anglican, but did not defend Anglicanism specifically, so he became accessible to all Christians, according to Dulles.

The cardinal also outlined briefly Lewis' three favorite arguments for the existence of God. First, morality was inborn. Obligations came from God, with all of us subject to a higher law and being.

Second, Lewis put forth that reason refuted naturalism. Mankind makes judgments about truth and error, and is imbued with an order. And an affinity exists between mind and reality.

And the third argument from Lewis for the existence of God was design. We have a natural desire for union with God. God then must exist or such a near universal desire would be in vain.

Cardinal Dulles later spoke about Lewis recognizing the need for apologetics, the need to instruct and convert infidels. Lewis also was cautious of its limitations. He saw the task as gathering and presenting evidence that Christianity should be accepted. But Lewis also noted the importance of faith that total trust in God even in the face of grief or if the reasons are forgotten.

Dulles declared that Lewis probably ranks as the most successful apologist of the 20th century. He identified Lewis' great strengths in this endeavor as including the fact that he had been an atheist himself; that he was a fine debater and possessed a lively imagination; that he kept his arguments clear and simple; and that he avoided inter-Christian controversies.

The criticisms of Lewis mentioned by Dulles were over-simplification, and a lack of rigor for professional circles. Dulles also noted that Lewis had little to say about the role of God in our conversion, didn't talk much of the sacraments, and offered little sense of the church as a community. The cardinal said Lewis had an "individualistic and academic" quality to his faith. This was in stark contrast to Cardinal Dulles' own experience, which was rooted very much in the community aspects of Christianity. But Dulles made clear that any criticisms take nothing away from the great accomplishments of C.S. Lewis.

Much of what Lewis achieved as a Christian apologist was in the public square. And not just through books. Consider that his justifiably famous and respected book "Mere Christianity" was originally presented as a series of radio broadcasts on the BBC during World War II.

All listeners obviously did not agree with Lewis. However, such religious discussion and debate were accepted parts of public discourse. That's a striking contrast to today.

I asked Cardinal Dulles: What's the state of apologetics today? He noted that apologetics probably became too muscular and argumentative in 1930s to the 1950s, and that greater emphasis on grace and our cooperation was in order. But he was worried about the recent fall into relativism, and the idea that all faiths were equal and okay. However, without offering details, he mentioned that there were signs of revival, though largely outside academia.

Indeed, the good news is that book publishers, the Internet, various religious-based television and radio stations, advancements in video and audio technologies, and a wide array of Christian publications offer perhaps more avenues to put forth the arguments in defense of and for Christianity than ever before. At the same time, however, Christianity is being excluded from a variety of important arenas, including government and politics, much of academia, and secular newspapers and magazines.

But the biggest obstacle to a healthy Christian apologetics comes from within Christianity itself. On one side, too many leaders in Christianity -- particularly in mainline Protestant churches -- have been seduced by relativism. If all paths lead to God, especially for nice people, then what is the point of a rigorous defense of Christianity or the imperative to evangelize?

On the other end is the problem of faith based on feelings. Christian faith must be rooted deeply enough so that it does not fall prey to the inevitable and sometimes harsh changes in situations, moods and emotions that come in life. As Cardinal Dulles pointed out, and C.S. Lewis agreed, the desire for transcendence is found through introspection. If faith is all about feeling good, then what happens when we inevitably feel really bad?

The Christian Church needs to regain confidence in the fact that it offers the truth about God, salvation and eternal life. It has to revive an apologetics rooted in Holy Scripture, faith and reason. And then the church must once more fully engage the world. And that mission must be undertaken even at the risk of offending the moral relativists who are in academia, in the church or read daily newspapers.

We only need to look to the example set and lessons offered by C.S. Lewis. As Colin Duriez noted in "The C.S. Lewis Handbook," Lewis ventured into the public square with his radio broadcasts because he thought of England as being post-Christian at the time. Well, if Lewis thought that about Great Britain in the 1940s, what would he think about the United States at the dawn of the twenty-first century?

Raymond J. Keating is a columnist with Newsday.

Posted: 10/26/04

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