C.S. Lewis, Religious Knowledge, and Belief


  • Repeated readings of Lewis’s religious essays reveal an overuse of metaphorical language employed as often to avoid discursive clarity as to inspire
  • Lewis’s treatises for ordinary Christians often fail to consider serious debates by theologians and philosophers on the issues he raises, which sometimes allows a too-easy dismissal of difficulties with the positions Lewis defends.
  • On the other hand, Lewis deftly investigates vital issues that all believers, especially Christians, have to think through, among them enlightening observations on the Trinity.
  • Lewis is also one of the very few religious apologists who acknowledge the deficiencies of belief as compared to knowledge.
  • Lewis’s treatment of Occam’s Razor is particularly astute.
  • Lewis’s theology is not systematic but is instead Platonic, which tempts him to see intimations as knowledge, but even if he marks the knowledge/belief frontier with more certainty than is warranted, Lewis is still that rare apologist who recognizes that border at all.

Every decade or so, I take another crack at C.S. Lewis. The very act of doing so confirms what experience and observation indicate: we are all at different places in what is often called a “faith journey.” I have written in this space of my doubts about the uses of figurative language in religious claims (see “The Problem of Metaphor in Religion”), so I question the image of a common road with some in the vanguard and others at the rear, but I certainly acknowledge that some seem much more comfortable with their progress toward whatever destination they envision by whatever means they travel than I. My recent readings of Lewis’s Mere Christianity and Miracles have stimulated me to reexamine my progress.

My last stab at these works produced feelings of admiration for Lewis’s deft use of metaphor combined with frustration over his vagueness and neoplatonism. Just when I hoped he would be most direct, he launches another clever analogy to illuminate the unknowable or perhaps to know the unilluminated. My sense of metaphor in poetics is that one should control not only the points of similarity but also crucial differences between the things compared. But Lewis seems satisfied to offer the metaphor without any further discursive explanation, and I found that immensely frustrating as I tried to supply the points of comparison and contrast from his intimations.

This round of reading produced a somewhat different effect. Though still an admirer of his inventiveness and timing in the use of metaphor, I found myself increasingly suspicious that Lewis was manipulating the reader as well as the metaphor, advancing only those points of comparison that made his point while minimizing or ignoring those that might dispute it. For instance, I was attracted to the famous comparison of our moral identities to individual ships in a fleet. The libertarian view would be that the entirety of your moral obligation is to avoid crashing your ship into mine, but Lewis reminds us that we have a prior moral duty to keep our own ship in order and that we must also steer to arrive at the fleet’s destination. Now this three-part view of moral duty happens to coincide precisely with my own sense of virtue ethics, the moral system I admire (see A Virtue Ethics Primer”). We must know our destination, our final cause. We must also keep our own ship in Bristol fashion by developing the habits that lead to good character, and we must keep from crashing into others as we maneuver in community toward a complete human life. The analogy to a fleet works for me as does the tripartite set of moral duties the analogy proposes. I am predisposed to accept the metaphor. And that is what sets off my alarms. For the metaphor never establishes that our moral situation is actually analogous to ships in a fleet, nor that we all steer toward the same goal. Without establishing these elements as morally requisite, how can the metaphor succeed? Certainly, libertarians would not accept its framing. It only persuades those who have already bought into its premises.

This happened so often that I was forced to question either Lewis’s integrity or his competence: his integrity because I suspect he knows the counterarguments in some cases and refuses to acknowledge them as substantive or his competence if he so mingles his beliefs with his knowledge that he cannot manage to disentangle them (see Knowledge, Trust, and Belief”).

In some instances, I found myself deeply suspicious of his methods, such as in early chapters of Miracles when he makes the argument from design that might have been offered by William Paley or other Enlightenment thinkers. Now it is fine to make that argument today, so long as you acknowledge the damage done to it by the contingent determinists during the last century, and Lewis in other contexts in this book acknowledges that damage. To leave out counterarguments because they are inconvenient to your own case is unpardonable; Lewis is guilty of that charge frequently.

He might also be charged with some degree of incompetence, though, particularly when he attempts a straightforward philosophical presentation. For instance, his sustained attempt to prove human reasoning is supernatural in Miracles is tortured and unconvincing, not only to a postmodernist of our own century but to any modernist familiar with the empiricist philosophers. I hadn’t heard of the famous debate with Elizabeth Anscombe that rattled Lewis into revising this section of the book, but his revision is not convincing. His argument, often made by religionists, is a difficult one to sustain against the assault of empiricists, even more so in light of advancements in evolutionary biology. No doubt we can understand why it is still made today, just as the argument from motion is till made today as it was by Aquinas despite advances in cosmology. I am still uncertain about appraising as deceptive or inept Lewis’s efforts in classifying human reasoning. If he didn’t know better, he should have. Even if the counterarguments failed to move him, he owed it to his readers to acknowledge them. I am disappointed that he had to resort to this kind of sleight of hand to prompt faith (see “Tao and the Myth of Religious Return).

I should quickly add that I found much to admire in these works as well. One of my objections to Christianity is the mystery of the Trinity, an issue so central to its dogma that it is a wonder to me that most Christians pass it off so easily. I have always found the heresy of Arianism much more convincing than the Nicene Creed. The shamrock metaphor is ludicrously inadequate and reduces what should be a serious metaphysical problem to a child’s level. But Lewis develops what I see as a tantalizing metaphor in Mere Christianity that has given me much to think over. I will summarize it briefly, but you really should read it for yourself if the issue interests you. It is clearly based on Edwin Abbot’s Flatland. A one-dimensional creature would only be capable of seeing points. A two-dimensional creature could be expected to see more: lines joining to form a figure, say a square. A three-dimensional viewer would comprehend yet more complexity: say six squares joined to produce a cube. It is a characteristic of the more complex to comprehend the limits of the less, so a two-dimensional figure could understand both points and lines, but not a cube, for the joining of six squares into a third dimension would be incomprehensible to a flatlander. We who could comprehend a third dimension can understand points, squares, and cubes, but not something forming a four-dimensional figure, say one of multiple cubes extended beyond three dimensions. Lewis proposes something analogous for the Trinity. The three persons of God would be not merely personal but trans-personal, a unity that we could not comprehend any more than a Flatlander could comprehend a cube. Those three persons would be connected in ways that transcend our modes of understanding so as to form a single being, just as six squares are joined to form a single cube or four lines joined to form a single square. To the one-dimensional being, the square would be the mystery as would the cube to a two-dimensional one. Yet the cube contains both lines and squares. The larger thing comprehends the smaller and can enter into its world, but the smaller can never comprehend the larger. Lewis makes much of this recurrent pattern in other parts of his works, adapting Aristotle’s hierarchy of being to claim that humans can use their instincts to understand animals, but since animals lack human reasoning, they cannot understand us, and so on. God can enter into our mode of being but exists in a mode we cannot approach. His relation with the other two persons of the Trinity is beyond our knowing just as our reasoning is beyond the powers of our pets or a cube beyond the imagining of a Flatlander. While this argument does nothing to resolve the mystery, it respects our intelligence enough to tease out tantalizing theological implications. I admire Lewis for pushing human reasoning to its limits in an effort to understand the Trinity and also for following Pascal’s advice in recognizing that knowledge’s last act is to know that limit. We must engage belief at that point.

At least in this example, Lewis seems to recognize that, but it now seems to me he surrenders too early in many other knotty religious issues. This would be no problem for a more mystical author who wishes to draw the border between belief and knowledge at some starting point in our effort to think about the divine, seeing every rational interrogation as being as futile as our efforts to grasp the concept of the Trinity and thus engaging in a silent, prayerful awe in response to divine mystery.  I respect that kind of humility and think it an admirable approach to the divine mysteries. My preference for pushing reason to its limits strikes me as a superior act of devotion, but part of that effort must be to distinguish between reason’s provenance and the hubris of belief-as-knowledge. In such cases, reason is muddied and diminished by an excess of credulity and ambiguity, often shrouded in the loftiest language to obscure its vacuity. This characterizes Lewis’s recourse to metaphor when the going gets tough. We comprehend only half of the comparison and so must make an imaginative leap to draw its points of similarity and difference. Reason must bow to the ineffable in humble silence in the presence of the divine.

That limit being clearly acknowledged, the trick is always to find the sweet spot. This novel conception of the Trinity seems to appeal to a certain kind of mind, one interested in the geometric puzzles of Flatland or the implications of relativity on space-time. These connections in themselves are tantalizing. Here we have three similarly intricate depictions of interconnected dimensions: one drawn from geometry, another from theoretical physics, and a third from ancient religious dogma. All three present explanatory models that strain credulity and then reorient it to a larger and different conception of reality beyond the limits of knowing. Lewis seems aware of this disquieting feature inherent in his understanding of Christianity. Again and again, he begins to make what I think is a potentially powerful argument for Christian belief, though I have not seen him make it systematically: Christianity is disruptive and cathartic and integrative. It surprises us, unsettles us, and confounds us. Then it reassembles our understanding in ways we could never have predicted. Its complexity and unexpectedness remake us rather than build on our prior expectations. His oft-repeated comment that this kind of disorientation is just what one would expect of the interface where the divine touches the natural (the more complex comprehends and includes the less) is a refreshing intellectual jolt in recent religious apologetics. It makes me regret that Lewis was, by his own admission, “a very poor Thomist,” for confronting the enormity of the divine was something Aquinas did very well, though in his embrace of authority, he too exceeded proper warrants for his knowledge claims (see The Fragility of Religious Authority). I wonder if his influence might have steered Lewis away from his Romantic immersion in the ideal and his Victorian self-satisfaction (see The Victorian Rift) As late as 1954, in accepting the chair of Medieval and Renaissance literature at Cambridge, Lewis referred to himself as a dinosaur and the last of his breed. His writing, as well as that of his co-religionist Tolkein, is rife with the formalized Romantic ideals characteristic of late Victorians.

Even though tainted by this kind of convention though, Lewis’s Christianity is the very antonym of the saccharine sponginess pitched by so many popular religious apologists and is in its way even more rigorous than the work of thinkers like Alvin Plantinga, who seems to consider private belief as defensible correspondence knowledge because he finds it non-contradictory. In essence, Lewis warns us against embracing the obvious comforts of an all-accepting God and guardian angels and many mansions in the sky. If it seems easy, simple, and attractive, he admonishes, you’ve got it wrong. If you embrace religious belief because of Pascal’s Wager or some other pragmatic, feel-good advantage, you’ve really got it wrong, and your love of comfort will continue to blind you to the errors in your thinking. It’s not true because you believe it, he warns us. Rather the other way round.

Because I find the search for anomaly so essential to any sincere pursuit of a real knowledge of reality, I find this attitude toward belief to be very attractive. This is not to say that Lewis is entirely immune to the comforts of belief in his thinking. Indeed, he all too frequently glosses over inconvenient objections or structures his propositions so as to push his reader to his desired conclusions. His failures are backlit by his careful language, perhaps more so than one might notice in a less gifted apologist. He is a believer, with all the temptations to premature closure that word entails. After all, its etymology reminds us that to believe is also to hold dear, and no less an authority than Plato reminds us to avoid falling in love with our own opinions. I mention that because Lewis respects authority in general and Plato in particular, not because I do. I acknowledge that it is insufficient to practice rigor in the search for anomalies only some of the time when building our schemas of knowledge and belief, but even that record is admirable when dealing with contemporary Christian apologetics. It certainly is rare in the realm of religious thinking in general, where conclusions often precede premises.

This thought brings me to one more conclusion my recent Lewis readings have produced, and it shows that religionists are not the only apologists going. Lewis uses the example of Ophelia in Hamlet to make what I think is a valuable observation about causation. He poses this question: why did she die in the play? The simplest answer is that she drowned herself. Another answer is that Shakespeare killed her off in Act IV. So which is the right answer?

In its potent explanatory role, science celebrates the principle of Occam’s Razor to eliminate unnecessary complexity. The rule argues for the simplest explanation that takes all relevant factors into account. I cannot count the number of books and articles I have read about God-of-the-Gaps religious thinking. Since the Scientific Revolution, scientists have been gently prying God’s fingers from the mechanical controls of reality, repeatedly reminding us that natural events will suffice for this or that explanation of processes that once required divine intervention. As scientific disciplines expand their knowledge base, the need for God as an explanatory model recedes, until He only has a few things to do in the physical universe. He fills the gaps in our naturalistic explanatory models: creating the universe, the first organisms, and a few other tasks science hasn’t gotten around to resolving quite yet. The default position of the physicists, cosmologists, or evolutionary biologists seems to be that Occam’s Razor steers the disinterested judge toward disbelief rather than belief, for why add the unneeded presence of a divinity who presumably has very little work to do in the running of things? An idle God is an unnecessary God, or so the thinking goes.

This kind of an argument is convincing until one is reminded of Lewis’s Ophelia example. Certainly, the characters in Hamlet would never postulate what might seem to them an entirely unnecessary external presence pulling the strings, or in this case, throwing Ophelia into the water. Wouldn’t Occam’s Razor forbid the entirely unnecessary complexity of an author arranging things from offstage? How could the characters in the glare of the footlights know they are merely one poetic reality presented as a fait accompli to a much greater world, that the reality they know is merely one bit of something much more complex? Wouldn’t the Razor force exactly the opposite conclusion?

Now two points of analysis emerge from this analogy. First, the application of the Razor stipulates the simplest conclusion derived from relevant data. So applying the Razor to questions of divine presence would necessarily blind us to God’s existence so long as we define “relevant” in the materialist terms necessary for scientific inquiry. The metaphysical cannot be found in the physical. The lesser thing cannot comprehend the greater. So long as the cast of Hamlet confine themselves to the stage, their blocking, and their lines, they are unlikely to see a larger reality either. For scientists to invoke Occam’s Razor to dismiss God is like a blind person claiming that touch is the greatest of the senses. What is surprising about their conclusion is that they think they can offer it at all, given their commitment to contingent determinism as the bedrock principle of scientific endeavor. The players in Hamlet might feel free on the stage, though we know them to be the puppets of the play’s director. The scientist who dismisses God’s involvement sees material reality as the puppetry of cause/effect relationships, yet like the players on the stage feels free to decide upon the truth of that contention in defiance of her own commitment. She refuses to see a sphere for God’s free activity within her own will and mind (see “Theology’s Cloud of Unknowing”). Occam’s Razor may explain human freedom as a neurological delusion, but it cannot dispose of our sense of that freedom so easily, nor can it convince even the most devoted empiricist that his own will is a simple product of outside forces.  Secondly, we see even in the natural world that simple explanations are rarely the correct ones. It wasn’t so long ago that physicists thought the atom to be the indivisible unit of matter, that astronomers thought all visible stars were in our own galaxy, and psychologists argued that behavior is molded by either heredity or environment. Our simplistic explanations fail or are folded into increasingly complex ones. Now this movement toward complexity in the sciences is fueled by the material anomalies that force simpler models to bow to more complex ones, so the observable relevant data force revision. The same process is eminently possible on a different scale. Just as Ophelia’s death might be explained by either a broken branch within the play or Shakespeare’s intent imposed from outside, Occam’s Razor provides no exclusion for a non-material explanatory model separate from but causally related to the material reality we all know. It all depends on what you count as relevant.

What I find curious is the complexity of religious explanatory models that function on a different plane from intricately complex natural ones yet which seem strangely parallel in their intricacy. What seems simple, say the interlocking functioning of the four physical forces that work from the subatomic to the galactic level, turns out to be not at all as separate or simple as we first supposed. This relatedness extends to the laws that govern the forces, which also seem simple in one sense—Newton’s inverse square law explained forces as seemingly discrete as tides and elliptical planetary orbits—and far more involved than we might have imagined as Einstein demonstrated. Aquinas saw faith as a sufficient substitute for theological knowledge so that the simplest mind as well as the most deeply subtle might still be challenged and capable of salvation. With this in mind, it seems reasonable that Lewis thought that the human mind contains the germ of the divine. Certainly, no scientific explanation can reconcile our uncanny ability to explain material reality by the conceptual modes of mathematics. It is little wonder that Newton was said to have “read the mind of God.”

Two oddities emerge from these examples. First, the notion of complexity buried in simplicity. The one-dimensional figure sees only the point, the two-dimensional the square, the three-dimensional the cube, and so on. That the book of reality has so many pages lying one atop the other is striking enough. That the meaning of Hamlet might enlarge that of the Principia is a tantalizing promise of reality’s unity. The second oddity is the ways in which these different domains may be connected to each other, so that physical reality’s nature suggests some fertile approach to moral theory or religious truth. We navigate these different regions with some confidence, not because we may use the same tools to explore them but because we infer their nature from the different domains we do know something of. The questions or doubts posed by one resonate in another, to be resolved using methodology appropriate to it. For instance, Lewis’s analogy of the causes of Ophelia’s death establishes a fitting dualism for causation in religion and science, but it also raises free will issues insoluble by either and better suited to philosophical inquiry (see “The Determinism Problem). It would have been interesting to see how Lewis might have delved into that issue.

In placing this discussion within the larger context of knowledge and belief, it strikes me that this kind of argument falls far below the requirements for justifiable knowledge (see “What Counts as Justification?). It is entirely speculative, using what I hope is a rational analysis of theoretical positions well beneath the level of warranted knowledge. It may be true if its premises are true, but they cannot be demonstrated and so must be accepted on faith. We enter the discussion from a level of commitment rather than from one of disinterested ratiocinative evaluation of the evidence. Thus, the conclusions we build upon it must be balanced on the tip of an inverted pyramid of desire. When we do that, we violate the requisite act of severance whose employment distinguishes knowledge from belief (see “The Act of Severance”). Nothing wrong with that position, so long as we acknowledge that we are discussing mere possibilities rather than knowledge derived from a preponderance of evidence. Such beliefs may be rationally permissible, meaning a reasonable stab in the dark that is coherent in itself and congruent with truth claims justified by a preponderance of the evidence. No contention open to knowledge should be accepted as merely permissible. If it can be warranted by reason and evidence, it ought to be. Why speculate on what you are holding behind your back when I can see it for myself? For many issues, though, no one can know the truth by a preponderance of the evidence, and then permissibility becomes, if you pardon the expression, a permissible warrant for belief. The argument presented above may even be better than permissible. It may be entailed by other knowledge, implied by what I know and yet still beyond what the evidence can warrant. Perhaps this argument rises to that slightly elevated level, or perhaps it falls victim to fallacies of reason or evidential lapses I don’t see. If so, it ought not be considered an entailed belief or even a permissible one. Knowing that would help me form a better one.

After this round of reading Lewis, I still think him guilty of hubris. He claims knowledge of what he cannot know but only must believe. Since belief is to our knowledge as shadows to the light, we should be especially cautious in applying our reason to the dim corners of reality, for what we see there is as much construction as discovery, and we tend to believe what we already hold dear. Still, Lewis’s style delights and his passion inspires. Upon finishing his works, I discover myself a bit farther down my own spiritual road. Perhaps a decade hence upon my next perusal of Lewis, I shall discover more.

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