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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Everyone Wants A Piece of C.S. Lewis

Posted by jlwile on July 15, 2011

C.S. Lewis is one of the greatest Christian apologists of the twentieth century. From the ripe old age of 15, he considered himself an atheist, even though he was raised in a Christian home. However, the works of George MacDonald and arguments with his friend J. R. R. Tolkien were central to his becoming a theist at the age of 31 and then a Christian at the age of 33. Because he was converted from atheism to Christianity, he has been called “the apostle to the skeptics.”1

To give you an idea of how important his works have been to Christianity, one of his books (Mere Christianity) was voted best book of the twentieth century by Christianity Today in April of 2000. It’s not surprising, then, that people want to imply that he agrees with their point of view. After all, if one of the greatest apologists of the twentieth century agrees with you, that’s got to mean something, right?

Unfortunately, this often leads to people mischaracterizing C.S Lewis’s views. Since he wrote an enormous amount of material, it is easy to twist his words to make it sound like he believed a great many things. I have read quite a lot of his work, not so much because I am a fan of his writing, but because he is such an important voice in modern Christianity. Because of this, I get a bit offended when quotes from his work are taken out of context in order to imply that he believed something he clearly didn’t believe. I have run across two instances of this recently, from two distinctly different groups, and it bothered me both times.

The first instance I ran across comes from a theistic evolutionist at Biologos. In what is supposed to be a “comprehensive study” of Lewis’s views on intelligent design and evolution, author Michael L. Peterson quotes Lewis as saying:

Perhaps a modern man can understand the Christian idea [of transformation] best if he takes it in connection with Evolution. Everyone now knows…that man has evolved from lower types of life.

This quote makes it sound like Lewis firmly believes that man evolved from lower types of life. However, that’s not what Lewis wrote. Here is the entire quote:2

Perhaps a modern man can understand the Christian idea best if he takes it in connection with Evolution. Everyone now knows about Evolution (though, of course, some educated people disbelieve it): everyone has been told that man has evolved from lower types of life.

Obviously, this passage says something quite different from what Peterson wants you to believe. It doesn’t at all imply that Lewis believes man evolved from lower types of life. It doesn’t even imply that Lewis thinks everyone else does. In fact, he specifically says that he knows there are some educated people who don’t believe in it. So Lewis was making a much more tentative statement about man evolving from lower forms of life than what Peterson wants you to think he was making. It is unfortunate that Peterson quotes Lewis out of context, simply to make it look like Lewis agrees with him.

Unfortunately, it is not only a theistic evolutionist who quotes Lewis out of context. A young-earth creationist did it as well. In an article entitled “C.S. Lewis: creationist and anti-evolutionist” at Creation Ministries International, author Jerry Bergman wants to make you think that Lewis started out as a theistic evolutionist, but as he investigated the matter further, he became a strong anti-evolutionist. To bolster his case, he pulls some quotes from Mere Christianity to show that Lewis was opposed to naturalism. That is certainly true. Throughout his career, Lewis opposed the idea that the natural laws and time alone could produce the wonder that we see in creation.

However, that doesn’t mean he was opposed to evolution. Lewis was certainly opposed to naturalistic evolution, but not necessarily theistic evolution. There is a big difference. You can believe in evolution but believe that God pushed it along to accomplish His ends. That definitely is not naturalistic evolution, but it is also not anti-evolution.

So how does Bergman get the idea that Lewis was an anti-evolutionist? Essentially, he does so by quoting one of Lewis’s finest essays, “The Funeral of a Great Myth” way, way, way out of context. Here is what Bergman says:

Lewis stressed that the doctrine of evolution is “certainly a hypothesis”, adding that he has concluded “the doctrine of Evolution as held by practicing biologists is…a less satisfactory hypothesis than was hoped fifty years ago.”

Once again, however, let’s look at both quotes in their entirety. As far as the “certainly a hypothesis” quote goes, here is what Lewis actually wrote:3

To the biologist, Evolution is a hypothesis. It covers more of the facts than any other hypothesis at present on the market, and is therefore to be accepted unless, or until, some new supposal can be shown to cover still more facts with even fewer assumptions. At least, that is what I think most biologists would say. Professor D.M.S. Watson, it is true, would not go so far. According to him, “Evolution is accepted by zoologists not because it has been observed to occur or… can be proved by logically coherent evidence to be true, but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible.” (Watson, quoted in Nineteenth Century, April 1943, “Science and the BBC”.) This would mean that the sole ground for believing it is not empirical but metaphysical – the dogma of an amateur metaphysician who finds “special creation” incredible. But I do not think it has really come to that. Most biologists have a more robust belief in Evolution than Professor Watson. But it is certainly a hypothesis.

Bergman wants you to think that Lewis is using the phrase “certainly a hypothesis” to indicate that he doesn’t believe in evolution. However, notice what Lewis says about this hypothesis. He says that it is the best hypothesis going, at least from the point of view of a biologist. So far from saying that evolution is on a poor foundation scientifically, Lewis says that biologists think its the best explanation around.

The other quote Bergman gives is even more seriously ripped out of context. He wants you to think that Lewis believes evolution is a less satisfactory hypothesis than it was fifty years ago. However, that’s not at all what Lewis wrote. Once again, here is the full quote:4

I do not mean that the doctrine of Evolution as held by practising biologists is a Myth. It may be shown, by later biologists, to be a less satisfactory hypothesis than was hoped fifty years ago. But that does not amount to being a Myth. It is a genuine scientific hypothesis. But we must sharply distinguish between Evolution as a biological theorem and popular Evolutionism or Developmentalism which is certainly a Myth.

First of all, Lewis had no idea whether or not evolution was more or less valid than it was fifty years ago. He is simply saying that someone might demonstrate that at some later date! Second, notice what Lewis is saying here. He is specifically saying that biological evolution is not a myth. In fact, in this essay (“The Funeral of a Great Myth”), he takes great pains to say that he is not holding a funeral for biological evolution. Instead, he is holding a funeral for a popular idea that was inspired by biological evolution:5

But the Myth knows none of [biological evolution's] reticences. Having first turned what was a theory of change into a theory of improvement, it then makes this a cosmic theory. Not merely terrestrial organisms but everything is moving ‘upwards and onwards’. Reason has ‘evolved’ out of instinct, virtue out of complexes, poetry out of erotic howls and grunts, civilization out of savagery, the organic out of the inorganic, the solar system out of some sidereal soup or traffic block. And conversely, reason, virtue, art and civilization as we now know them are only the crude or embryonic beginnings of far better things–perhaps Deity itself–in the remote future.

So Lewis believed that while it was possible that terrestrial organisms might have evolved, he thought it was a myth that the same mechanism could explain how reason, virtue, poetry, civilization, etc. could have come about.

So what did Lewis really believe about evolution? Throughout most of his life, Lewis was definitely a theistic evolutionist, but not to the extent of the people at the Biologos foundation. First, he was not convinced that it was the absolute truth. He took the biologists’ word that evolution occurred, but he definitely thought that it might not be the final word on the matter. He also thought that God had to push it along. In addition, he did not think life could arise from non-life. He thought that at least the beginning of life had to be the result of a creative act from God. Finally, he believed that man’s central qualities (reason, virtue, artistic practices, etc.) were the direct result of God imparting His image to man. So his view of evolution was much more tentative and had a lot more direct involvement from God than the view that is promoted by the Biologos foundation.

In his later years, his private writings indicated that he was having misgivings about biological evolution, but it is not at all clear whether or not he ever gave up his theistic evolutionist view. What is clear is that he never became an anti-evolutionist! I think Gary B. Ferngren and Ronald L. Numbers sum it up best in their article, “C. S. Lewis on Creation and Evolution: The Acworth Letters, 1944-1960.” After reviewing the letters Lewis wrote to an anti-evolutionist named Bernard Acworth, Ferngren and Numbers say:

To what extent Lewis came in his later years to reject his earlier belief in theistic evolution is more difficult to ascertain. His Oxford colleague Dame Helen Gardner recalled a conversation with Lewis over dinner in which she suggested that Adam was probably a “Neanderthal ape-like figure,” to which Lewis coolly replied, “I see we have a Darwinian in our midst.” Nothing in his published writings suggests, however, that he gave up his long-held view that biological evolution was compatible with Christianity. Nevertheless, Lewis seems to have been favorably impressed upon reading Acworth’s unpublished attack on evolution. “I must confess,” he wrote on September 13, 1951, “it has shaken me.” Lewis’s later correspondence with Acworth suggests that he had begun a gradual shift away from his earlier unquestioning acceptance of evolution, but had stopped short of adopting Acworth’s antievolutionist stance.

If you’ve managed to slog through this long-winded essay, the “take home” message is this: Don’t believe it when someone shows you a few quotes and then says, “See – C.S. Lewis agrees with me!” The only way you will know what C.S. Lewis thought was to read his works for yourself.

REFERENCES

1. Will Vaus, Mere theology: a guide to the thought of C.S. Lewis, IVP Academic 2004, p. 19.
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2. Clive Staples Lewis, Mere Christianity: A Revised and Amplified Edition, With a New Introduction, of the Three Books, Broadcast Talks, Christian Behaviour, and Beyond Personality, HarperCollins 2001, p. 218.
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3. Clive Staples Lewis and Walter Hooper, Christian Reflections, William B. Eerdmans 1967, p. 83.
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4. Ibid
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5. Ibid, p. 86
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Comments

15 Responses to “Everyone Wants A Piece of C.S. Lewis”
  1. josiah says:

    The same could be said of anyone. People take quotes out of context from the works of just about everyone whose name is recognized, whether that is Clive Lewis, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, or even Jesus himself. Sometimes they are actually commenting on a completely different topic, or indeed proposing the exact opposite position.

    Moreover in many cases it isn’t even relevant what they believed. If Einstein said something about Relativity or the Photoelectric effect, then certainly perk your ears up. But as to whether he was a Christian, a Theist, or an Atheist, that is of little to no value in determining the truth.
    If Lewis said something about Christian theology or indeed about Medieval history then pay attention. But as the quotes here make clear his position was one of acknowledging superior knowledge by Biologists in this regard. The logical response then is to asses the views of Biologists rather than those of a man who listens to Biologists!

  2. robin says:

    I liked this article. I enjoy the challenge of completely agreeing with people on one issue, then coming face to face with opposition in another area. It makes life interesting :)

    @josiah: I disagree with your idea that we should only pay attention to a person’s ideas when it is in their ‘speciality’. The minds of Lewis, Darwin, and Einstein were parts of a whole. To remove their personal theories, questions and ideas about other things that were impacting their period of history is incomplete. You can take or leave their opinions, but you cannot act like they are unqualified to give them. Their way of asking questions and coming to conclusions about all things is as essential to their field of expertise as to the legacy each left behind.

  3. Dr. Wile -

    While you may be correct in your interpretation of Lewis, let me propose another possibility. Lewis was very adamant about the split between the scientific theory of evolution and the large-scale view of evolution. However, one must be clear on what he meant by the scientific theory. Sadly, Lewis wasn’t clear on what he meant. However, he lived during a time of transition to the modern synthesis, in which evolutionary theory moved from being focused on ancestors and phylogenies to a theory being focused on population genetics.

    Keep in mind that J. B. S. Haldane and C. S. Lewis read each others works, at least to some degree. Haldane was at the forefront of applying mathematical ideas to evolutionary theory in a population-genetic manner. What Lewis *may* have been doing is separating out the population genetics from the larger theory of evolution.

    Lewis is not clear where he draws the boundary, but I do think that it is a live possibility that Lewis is simply meaning “population genetics” when he is talking about the science of evolution, and just wants to be clear to his present audience (i.e. Haldane) that he doesn’t object to the reasonings about how populations change over time.

  4. Enelson says:

    Thanks a bunch for the essay. Very clarifying, especially the paragraph where you summarize Lewis’ beliefs.

  5. The general feeling I get from Lewis on this subject in all of his works is that of a man who trying to avoid being too dogmatic one way or the other on a subject which he did not consider to be his area of expertise. While I agree with you on his basic position, he tends to lean one way or the other in different essays and therefore is more open to misinterpretation by both sides. I think it is unfair to any author to quote them on a subject they themselves are not that dogmatic on to support your view.

  6. jlwile says:

    Josiah, I agree that the same could be said of anyone. I just happen to know Lewis’s writings fairly well, so I used him as an example.

    I will have to disagree with you when you say “If Einstein said something about Relativity or the Photoelectric effect, then certainly perk your ears up. But as to whether he was a Christian, a Theist, or an Atheist, that is of little to no value in determining the truth.” I think that anyone with a sharp mind is worth listening to on any subject. Now, of course, a sharp mind doesn’t guarantee that the person is right, so the sharp mind better produce some good reasoning or evidence to support his or her position. Now I agree that one should weigh Einstein’s views on physics more seriously than his views on theology. Nevertheless, I am sure that listening to Einstein on theology would be quite valuable, if nothing else, just to see how he deals with a subject in which he has not been formally trained.

  7. jlwile says:

    Thanks, Robin. You make an excellent point about the mind. Certainly, Einstein’s views on theology affected his view of physics.

  8. jlwile says:

    Jonathan, you make a very interesting point. I was aware that Haldane and Lewis read each other, but I didn’t think through how that might have affected Lewis’s view of evolution. Of course, as you say, Lewis never was clear about what he meant by the scientific theory of evolution. He just deferred to the biologists on the matter. Thus, I am not sure whether or not your idea can ever really be validated. It is an interesting one, however.

  9. jlwile says:

    Thanks, Enelson. Just be aware that my summary is how I read Lewis on evolution. Jonathan Bartlett has another view that is worth considering.

  10. jlwile says:

    That’s an excellent point, Mike. Lewis definitely didn’t think evolution was something upon which Christians should get “hung up.” Thus, he was not at all dogmatic about it. As a result, it is hard to use him to support any dogmatic view on evolution, either one that is dogmatically for (as is the case with the Biologos foundation) or one that is dogmatically against (as is the case with Creation Ministries International).

  11. josiah says:

    I’m not saying that it isn’t worthwhile examining Einstein’s position on a matter, nor that of any other intellectual giant. Indeed I agree with robin. It may help to understand both the workings of his mind and his other works.

    My point is summed up quite nicely in your own quote:
    “Now, of course, a sharp mind doesn’t guarantee that the person is right, so the sharp mind better produce some good reasoning or evidence to support his or her position.”

    If someone like Clive Staples Lewis produces only one reason (relevant to evolution) and that reason can be summed up as faith in a third party, his position doesn’t really add much to either side. On the other hand his views on (and arguments for) other points of theology have rather more weight even though his training isn’t in theology. The same could be said for many people including Sir Isaac Newton and Blaise Pascal. I don’t think it could be said of Einstein, because as far as I can tell he doesn’t say a lot about theology at all.

  12. jlwile says:

    Thanks for clarifying your position, Josiah.

  13. David says:

    Dr. Wile,

    This is one of my hot button topics! I too have seen quotes taken out of context or twisted to say something opposite to what an author intended.

    One variant on this practice is often seen in hymnals. Calvinists will change the lyrics written by an Arminian (or vice versa) just because they don’t fit the particular viewpoint of the hymnbook editors. This is dishonest and insulting to the lyricist. Either take the lyrics as-is or don’t use them at all (unless of course the lyricist is still alive and you obtain permission to change his lyrics).

    In the battle to promote one’s viewpoint, it is tempting to twist quotes out of context or make them appear to say something other than they actually do. However, believers are admonished not to do evil that good may come. This type of behavior is dishonest (sometimes unintentionally, but often not) and is therefore to be avoided.

  14. jlwile says:

    You are right, David. Answers in Genesis did that with Spurgeon’s sermons. It is sad when people sink to dishonesty to try to promote their own views.

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