After a debate with a philosopher in 1948, did C. S. Lewis abandon his Christian faith?
Some C. S. Lewis scholars have popularized the idea that Lewis had a serious personal crisis after a debate with Elizabeth Anscombe, a Roman Catholic philosopher, at the Oxford Socratic Club on February 2, 1948. Anscombe, it is claimed, so demolished Lewis’s argument regarding naturalism and the possibility of human reason that Lewis abandoned apologetics (a branch of theology devoted to defending Christianity) and turned to children’s literature for the rest of his career.1
Some C. S. Lewis biographies—such as those by George Sayer and A. N. Wilson—advance this view. Sayer portrays the debate as a “humiliating experience” in which Lewis recognized his argument had been “demolished,” causing him to realize he was no longer capable of writing apologetics works.2
Wilson goes much further, claiming that Lewis was in “a state of near-despair” after the encounter, comparing him to “a little boy who was . . . degraded and shaken.”3 According to Wilson, Lewis not only turned away from apologetics from this time on, but actually rejected his prior apologetics works: “Though [Miracles] and the argumentative works which precede it—The Problem of Pain, Mere Christianity—remain so vastly popular in the Christian world, and continue to sell in Christian book shops, [Lewis] came to feel that their method and manner were spurious.”4
It’s worth exploring this characterization of the Lewis–Anscombe debate. After all, if Lewis himself rejected his apologetics works, then obviously we shouldn’t take them very seriously. But did Lewis really have such a mid-career crisis of faith? What actually happened on that night in February 1948?
“Shaken and Degraded”?
In the first place, the extent to which Lewis was personally bothered by the debate has been greatly blown out of proportion—especially by Wilson. A fuller and more balanced treatment of the event is provided by accounts such as Alan Jacobs’s The Narnian.
As Jacobs demonstrates, all that the evidence suggests is that there was an earnest discussion in which Anscombe revealed some weaknesses in Lewis’s argument, which he later revised to her satisfaction. While some friends (such as Derek Brewer) spoke of Lewis being “disturbed” by the incident, others (such as Humphrey Havard) recollected no such feelings on Lewis’s part. Most importantly, none of them claimed that Lewis had a crisis of faith or rejected his earlier works.5
Anscombe herself recalled the evening as follows:
The meeting of the Socratic Club at which I read my paper has been described by several of [Lewis’s] friends as a horrible and shocking experience which upset him very much. . . . My own recollection is that it was an occasion of sober discussion of certain quite definite criticisms, which Lewis’s rethinking and rewriting showed he thought was accurate. I am inclined to construe the odd accounts of the matter by some of his friends—who seem not to have been interested in the actual arguments of the subject-matter—as an interesting example of the phenomenon called projection.6
If Anscombe regarded the more restrained reaction of certain friends of Lewis as “odd” projections, I wonder what she would make of more extreme accounts like Wilson’s narrative. It has a strong rhetorical effect, but it seems to be supported more by hype than fact.
A “Turn” from Apologetics?
There is, however, a more basic problem involved in the Sayer–Wilson thesis: it doesn’t square with the facts and sequence of Lewis’s writing career.
Lewis clearly continued to do apologetics work after 1948. For proof of this, just take a quick glance at the contents and original publication dates of the essays in God in the Dock. Some examples include his 1952 article “Is Theism Important?”; his 1955 “On Obstinacy of Belief”; his 1958 “Rejoinder to Dr. Pittenger”; and his 1959 “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism.”7
In addition to these shorter works, Lewis also published a revised edition of Miracles in 1960. Significantly, this edition contained an expanded version of the very argument critiqued by Anscombe—which Anscombe herself recognized to have more adequately met her initial objections.
This fact is difficult to account for in terms of Wilson’s narrative. If Lewis had really been shaken into abandoning apologetics, would he then republish the very argument that shook his confidence?
Furthermore, the whole idea of a “turn” from apologetics to children’s literature feels a bit strained. Lewis always had a love for children’s literature, and he had already begun several children’s stories by 1948 (though thus far none had come to fruition). And the picture that would eventually lead him to write the Narnia books—a faun walking through a snowy wood at night—had been on his mind since his teen years.
Moreover, his literary output had already been extremely diverse. His works included not only apologetics books but poetry, science fiction, short stories, literary criticism, social criticism, allegory, and The Great Divorce (which seems to fall into its own category). That he would publish in another new genre is hardly shocking. Nor is it the last time he would do so.8
A Mechanical View of Literary Production
In general, efforts to correlate the Lewis–Anscombe debate and the Narnia stories have a heavy risk of artificiality. The sense that one needs to find an external cause in Lewis’s life for the Narnia books suffers from a somewhat mechanical view of literary production. Even the more sympathetic Lewis scholar Michael Ward, in critiquing the Anscombe legend, seems to feel a need to find some other apparent cause for Lewis’s “turn” to children’s literature.
Ward suggests in his book Planet Narnia that while Lewis did not abandon apologetics after 1948, the Narnia books nevertheless were written in response to his encounter with Anscombe. Specifically, Ward postulates that Lewis intended to illustrate his point (that human reason is inconsistent with naturalism) through the medium of children’s literature because he had failed to do so through abstract philosophical argument.9
But I argue that this view still attaches too much significance to the Lewis–Anscombe debate. There is no need to find some external cause for Lewis writing children’s literature. Anyone who enjoys writing stories (or poems or music) knows that artistic motivation is often internal, spontaneous, and impossible to correlate with particular external events in life. The imagination itself provides the occasion—especially for someone with as powerful an imagination as Lewis had.
C. S. Lewis wrote the Narnia books because he was C. S. Lewis and because it came into in his head and his heart to do so. Saying more than that is unlikely to be helpful. In fact, if we decide that we need external causation for literary productions, we would need to ask what events in the lives of Lewis’s biographers prompted them to write their own books. Indeed, we would spend more time searching for these answers than enjoying the original literature.