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C. S. Lewis and the Christian Worldview, by Michael L. Peterson

by
26 June 2020

John Saxbee considers the philosophy behind C. S. Lewis’s works

IN 1947, Time magazine called him “one of the most influential spokespersons for Christianity in the English speaking world”. More than 50 years later, in 2000, he was recognised by Christianity Today as the most influential Christian author of the 20th century — and he continues to feature as one of Amazon’s bestselling authors.

So Michael Peterson introduces the subject of this exemplary intellectual biography. C. S. Lewis is likely to feature on the bookshelves of most Church Times readers — Narnia, Screwtape, and Malcolm may well be familiar names. But his fantasy fiction and popular theology was inspired and informed by a philosophical journey that led from atheism to his embrace of orthodox Christianity. As he himself put it, “imagination is the organ of meaning,” but “reason is the natural organ of truth.”

Lewis, however, was not systematic in his articulation of the philosophy informing his progression towards Christianity’s world-view. So here Peterson seeks to provide just such a systematic treatment and does so with what might be described as typical Lewisian accessibility.

This is literary/philosophical “biography” because Lewis’s varied and voluminous publications can be understood only in the light of his personal story. Peterson deftly negotiates the balance between biography illuminating Lewis’s intellectual odyssey, and explaining it away.

Peterson defines a world-view as “a comprehensive and coherent set of beliefs about the deepest matters — the nature of reality, humanity, morality and meaning”. From his student days onwards, Lewis was in search of a world-view that could accommodate his commitment to reason, imagination, experience, and day-to-day existence. Atheism, idealism, and theism all played a part in propelling the progress of his thought until, as “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all of England”, he gave in to the explanatory claims of Christianity.

He acknowledged an intense lifelong desire for something beyond this world, and this “argument from desire”, coupled with arguments from morality and reason, is carefully explained before Peterson turns to specific philosophical challenges to religious faith, and Christianity’s distinctive doctrinal affirmations.

Everett collection/AlamyC. S. Lewis, c. early 1960s

The relationship between science and religion, what it means to be human, and the problem of pain are addressed by Lewis in ways that are robustly logical, as well as scrupulously honest. Trinity, incarnation, salvation, prayer, providence, and life after death are defended against familiar philosophical challenges with characteristic appeal to both reason and imagination.

In his treatment of these topics, Peterson constantly emphasises Lewis’s reliance on probability, or “inference to the best explanation”, as the basis for assent to an orthodox Christian world-view. For many believers, there is no substitute for certainty, but for Lewis probability provided sufficient explanatory grounds for a profession of “mere” (i.e. pure) Christianity.

The definite article in the book’s title is problematic. Peterson is adamant that this is not essentially about Lewis’s personal Christian world-view, but about his discovery of the Christian world-view. But is there such a thing? For Lewis, the credal tenets of orthodox Christianity convey such a definitive world-view, albeit mediated through a variety of denominational manifestations. Whether this does justice to the development of Christianity’s world-view over 2000 years is debatable.

That said, to have Lewis’s personal and particular Christian world-view expounded and explained so clearly and persuasively is an impressive achievement.

 

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

 

C. S. Lewis and the Christian Worldview 
Michael L. Peterson 
OUP £19.99
(978-0-19-020111-1)
Church Times Bookshop £18

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