The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Niggle at Lewis

(Edited and Revised)
I want to qualify in two aspects my sincere admiration for Alister McGrath's excellent biography--they are not fundamental qualifications, but niggling afterthoughts regarding a book I admire (hence my Tolkien homage)

The first is that, while McGrath excels at presenting Lewis's thought (he's especially good on the Narnia books, the mythological resonance, and medieval roots of which he excavates in an illuminating way), his book lacks some of the compelling evocation of person and place of A.N. Wilson's C.S. Lewis: A Biography (1990). I'm not talking about matters that McGrath and Wilson disagree about; I mean that Wilson presents a more textured, rich, and full account of the relationships Lewis enjoyed with J.R.R. Tolkien, the Inklings, and, especially, Lewis's brother Warnie and Lewis's own wife, Helen Joy Davidman. It's a shame, because McGrath sheds additional light on many of these relationships--he's especially good with respect to Lewis's role as the "midwife" to Tolkien's great work, and does some useful detective work unearthing the path Lewis and Davidman took to the altar (particularly from her side, which is not often explored in Lewis biographies). But because McGrath focuses so heavily on the work, he spends much less time on the man, and the detail that can create immediacy is sometimes skimped. For this reason alone, I would recommend reading Wilson alongside McGrath--he excels in the various areas McGrath treats as secondary, and McGrath and he complement each other quite well.

The second niggle again involves the Wilson-McGrath comparison. It's this: in pages 249-259 of McGrath's book, he addresses the famous debate between Lewis and Elizabeth Anscombe in 1948, and the question of its role in leading Lewis to move from authoring Christian apologetics to a more mythic, imaginative approach to his depicting Christianity. As McGrath writes:
Some of Lewis's biographers, primarily A.N. Wilson, have seen this incident as signaling, perhaps even causing, a major shift in Lewis's outlook. Having been defeated in argument, they contend, Lewis lost confidence in the rational basis of his faith, and abandoned his role as a leading apologist. They claim that his shift to writing fictional works--such as the Chronicles of Narnia--reflects a growing realization that rational argument cannot support the Christian faith.

However, the substantial body of written evidence concerning this exchange points to a quite different conclusion. A chastised Lewis recognized the weakness of one specific argument he deployed (a little hastily, it must be said), and worked to improve it. . . Lewis appears to have been taken aback at having the weakness of his argument demonstrated so publicly, and expressed unease about the incident to some of his closer friends. Yet Lewis's embarrassment concerned the somewhat public nature of [Anscombe's] refinement [of Lewis's argument], not the intellectual process itself. The positive and beneficial outcome of Anscombe's intervention is clearly evident in the revised version of Lewis's argument.
(McGrath, pp. 253-254) (McGrath later points out that the revision was published in 1960, 12 years after the debate, so the notion that this was a routine intellectual exchange with a correction issuing in ordinary course is a bit strained to me.)

Now, with great respect, I think McGrath here is engaged in an exaggerated (with one exception, which I'll get to) and uncharitable reading of Wilson's account of the debate, which is, in fact, not very different from his own. Wilson does state that the "confrontation with Elizabeth Anscombe was to have no effect whatsoever on Lewis's popularity as a Christian writer. It was the greatest single factor which drove him into the form of literature for which he is today most popular: children's stories." (Wilson, 211). However, like McGrath, Wilson regards the issue dividing Anscombe and Lewis (he describes it somewhat differently, but they agree that in part the problem was that Lewis was not addressing his critique of modern philosophy with a shared frame of reference or even shared meanings of terms (Wilson, 212; McGrath, 253-254)) as not fundamental to Lewis's ultimate commitments. Wilson quotes Lewis as writing that "his argument for the existence of God had been demolished," but very quickly adds that "from a purely academic view, this hyperbole makes no sense." (Wilson, 213-214) He adds "[a]ll that had happened, humiliating as it had been at the time, was that Lewis had been shown to have no competence to debate with professional philosopher on her own terms." (Wilson, 214)

Wilson then ties the turn from apologetics to his "great conversation" (leading to Lewis's conversion) with Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, reaffirming their insight then that "make-beleive was really another way about talking about the reality of things [that] the brutal and cerebral way in which grown-ups tried to come to conclusions about the world was not the only way; [that] he could explore the way of [George MacDonald's] Phantastes." (Id.) Wilson writes that "Lewis never attempted to write another work of Christian apologetics after Miracles. Even though this book and the argumentative books which precede it--The Problem With Pain, Mere Christianity--remain so vastly popular. . . he came to feel that their method and manner were spurious. There must be another way further up and further in." (Wilson, 215)

McGrath rejects this contention as a claim that Lewis was "retreating into some kind of non rational fideism or reason-free fantasy as a result of this encounter." (McGrath 254) However, a few pages later, McGrath approvingly cites Basil Mitchell as saying that "Lewis came to believe that he was not sufficiently informed about contemporary philosophical debates--Anscombe was an expert on Wittgenstein--and decided this was now best left to experts. He would focus on what he knew best." (McGrath at 257-258) McGrath also points out that Lewis's correspondence reflects two themes regarding Lewis's belief that "his moment as an apologist had passed,' that is, "first, Lewis's feeling that new issues had arisen, which he was not best placed to engage and second, Lewis's belief that he had peaked in his abilities as an apologist." (McGrath, 258-259)

McGrath adds, "[t]here is no doubt that Anscombe helped Lewis to reach this conclusion," citing his recommendation of Anscombe as a his "top pick" as a speaker for the Socratic Club: "Having obliterated me as an Apologist, ought she not to succeed me?" (McGrath 259; emphasis in original) McGrath further writes:
It is striking how few of his writings of this later period of his life deal specifically with apologetic themes, if understood in terms of the explicit rational defense of the Christian faith. In a letter of September 1955, declining the invitation of the American evangelical leader Carl F.H. Henry (1913-2000) to write some apologetic pieces, Lewis explained that while he had done what he could "in the way of frontal attacks," he now felt "quite sure" those days were over. He now preferred more indirect approaches to apologetics, such as those which appealed to "fiction and symbol."
(McGrath, 259) McGrath concludes that "[i]f Anscombe raised doubts in Lewis's mind about his apologetic approach, these concerned its medium, rather than its content." (McGrath,260)

Thus far, there is very little difference between Wilson and McGrath in their depictions of the Socratic Club debate between Lewis and Anscombe. McGrath seems to be primarily to assume that Wilson (then an atheist) draws the deduction that Lewis's faith was revealed as non-rational or even irrational. With all respect to a superb thinker, I believe McGrath misreads Wilson mightily on this point. Both attribute Lewis's embarrassment to the revelation that he was not sufficiently skilled at philosophical dialectic to (in Wilson's terms) debate a professional philosopher on her own terms. McGrath downplays the extent of Lewis's feelings of humiliation (Wilson's quotes justify his statement, though, in my opinion, and even McGrath quotes Lewis as writing that Anscombe had "obliterated" him as an apologist).

So, what gives?

Two things, I think. First, McGrath believes--quite rightly, I think--that Lewis did not drift from a firm belief that (to borrow a phrase from the Cambridge Platonist Whichcote, "spiritual is most rational." I just don't believe that Wilson held the opposite view; rather, like McGrath himself, he concluded that Lewis lost confidence in his persuasive power as a logician using dialectic--remembering that (as McGrath agrees) Lewis's own conversion was not through argument but through an appeal to he imagination. Wilson sees a turn to Lewis's evocation of what ultimately drew him "further up and further in," his own feel for the sharp, insatiable longing he called Joy. Wilson repeatedly contrasts Lewis's best writing with the "police court solicitor" style of argumentation Lewis learned from his father; McGrath usefully contrasts near the end of his book the "somewhat superficial engagement with suffering in The Problem With Pain" with "the more mature, engaged, and above all wise account found in A Grief Observed." (McGrath at 345)

The more substantive disagreement is McGrath is leery--very much so--of Wilson's suggestion that Anscombe "all sorts of deeply seated fears in Lewis, not least his fear of women." (Wilson, 214) Wilson suggests that Lewis felt "cut down to size" like a little boy who "was being degraded and shaken by a figure who, in his imagination, took on witch-like dimensions," McGrath resists this. However, both Wilson and McGrath cite witnesses who described Anscombe as a "bully" (McGrath at 256, Wilson at 213) McGrath suggests that Lewis's lack of knowledge and inhibition by his own code of manners hindered his defense (which he nonetheless also declines to call a defeat). (McGrath at 256) He deplores Wilson's description of Lewis "being stung back into childhood by his defeat at the hands of Elizabeth Anscombe," let alone that it played a role in the incubation of Narnia. But I think he misconceives Wilson's meaning here; Wilson views this defeat (Lewis called it an obliteration; who am I to dispute him?) as leading Lewis to find a better mode of expression for his passionate faith in the truth, factual, emotional, and spiritual, of Christianity. I don't actually think that McGrath fundamentally disagrees with him on that.

He may, of course, be correct that Wilson has no proof for his suggestion that the White Witch in the Narnia books is modeled on Anscombe. But it is, as McGrath concedes, an amusing notion. It also has the advantage of being very Lewisian.

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