Interview on C.S. Lewis
A Conversation with Peter Kreeft
by Jedd Medifind
Peter Kreeft, C.S. Lewis scholar, spoke at the C.S. Lewis Summer Institute at the University of San Diego in June of 2003. Jedd Medifind corresponded by mail with Kreeft after the conference.
Four full decades after his passing, the legacy and influence of C.S. Lewis burn bright as ever. If anything, the vintage of stories and ideas produced by the Oxford and Cambridge don has only come to be more valued, more read, quoted, and discussed by pastors, priests, scholars, laypersons, and skeptics alike.
Although Lewis was an Anglican, his work stirs the hearts and minds of individuals across the span of Christian traditions. From the Chronicles of Narnia to The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity, Lewis' writings continue to find wide welcome among stodgy Mainliners, ebullient Charismatics, devout Catholics, and tradition-loving Orthodox alike.
Dr. Peter Kreeft, a professor at Boston University, a writer in his own right, and a noted scholar on C.S. Lewis, recently shared his thoughts on the persistent relevance of Lewis' life and thought.
What first piqued your interest in C.S. Lewis?
What first piqued your interest in Chopin? In sunsets? In astronomy? In Audrey Hepburn? The question does not need to be asked by anyone who has answered it. The thing itself, the object, Lewis's mind and spirit, the truths and goodnesses and beauties in his writings, rather than any psychological, individual, "felt need" on my part or any sociological relevance or fashionableness on the part of the society or culture I came out of.
My college roommate credited Lewis, especially Mere Christianity, with saving his faith. When I tried it, it was like Augustine's first reading of the Bible: "Oh, I know all that; that's too easy for me." Like the Bible, and like a human face, the book is deceptively simple on its surface but inexhaustible in its depths. Once we have grown some depths of maturity and overcome superficiality and superciliousness and adolescent arrogance, we love it. It's the second book I mention, after the Gospels, when people ask me what to read to understand Christianity.
The Problem of Pain was actually the first Lewis book I read, as a college freshman. I didn't understand it all the first time, but I did understand that the reason I didn't understand had nothing to do with Lewis, but only with me. Here was the clearest, most direct, honest, intelligent, reasonable answer I had ever seen (and almost 50 years later it remains that!) to the most difficult problem in the world.
What gives Lewis' writings their remarkable staying power? Is there something Lewis offers that modern Christian thinkers lack?
The question has two parts: what does Lewis have and what do most modern Christian writers lack?
My answer is that my own question gets it wrong. It's what Lewis lacks and modern writers have that makes the difference. Most Christian writers today want to be up to date, relevant, speaking to their generation, useful, etc. They want to be creative and original. And they end up saying the same things and going out of date very quickly. Lewis just tells the truth as he sees it, and ends up being original. He is totally uninterested in "marketing," in intellectual economics. He does what Thoreau advises: "Read not the Times, read the eternities." Chesterton says if you marry the spirit of the times you will soon become a widower. If you seek and find and communicate "the permanent things," you are permanently relevant.
There are also personal qualities in Lewis that make him one of the greatest Christian writers: his intelligence, of course, and his imagination; but also his utter honesty and openness and objectivity and love of being. He doesn't have ingrown eyeballs.
What allows Lewis' work to transcend many of the traditional Protestant-Catholic barriers?
Two things: one a fault, the other a virtue. The fault is that that is the only subject Lewis didn't want to talk about, even with his friends, much less in public -- the differences between the churches, especially the differences between the Church of England and the Church of Rome. He addressed issues within his own church and demolished Modernism, which infected (and still infects) all the churches. But he refused to deal with 1517 (or 1054, for that matter.)
Why? Both Christopher Derrick, Lewis's student, and Joseph Pearce, Lewis's biographer, give the same answer: he was born in Belfast and knew his prejudices sat deep.
But he [generally avoided this question] for two good reasons. This is true even if the above constitutes a bad reason. For we must take him at his word in Mere Christianity when he says that the reason why he does not address the issues between the churches are these: first, he is not a professional theologian but an amateur whose "expertise" is in the "basics." Second, that he thought God wanted him to address the "basics" because most Christian writers were not doing so; they were fighting on the flanks while the center was going undefended.
He also made very clear, in the preface to Mere Christianity, that "mere Christianity" is not an alternative to any church, nor itself a church. It is like a hall, from which different specific doors lead out, and only beyond those doors, only in the concrete churches, is there food and fire and bed.
Yet, he says, "mere Christianity" is no mere abstraction, no lowest common denominator (or "highest common factor," as they say in England), but a person: Christ Himself. And that is why in each church there is a fundamental controversy between those who affirm and obey and believe that Person totally and those who want to revise, update, nuance, relativize, psychologize, or otherwise water down His strong meat. And this controversy is far more important than the admittedly important controversies between the churches. Whether Jesus really rose from the dead and is literally alive and active now has got to be more important than sola scriptura or the Immaculate Conception. Whether there is one savior or 260 million is more important than whether there are two sacraments or seven.
Do you think Lewis was on to something other Protestants often miss?
What Lewis was onto was the fullness of the faith. He wanted it all. Mere Christianity led to more Christianity. This is a vague thing, a "tendency" rather than a doctrine; but Lewis thought of Christianity as something like art rather than something like science in this sense: science tries to purify its hypotheses and is minimalistic. [The method of science] assumes that any idea is guilty (false) until proven innocent (true). Art, on the other hand, glories in fullness and diversity and richness and universality ("catholic" with a small "c").
If the churches ever did reunite, it would have to be into something that was as sacramental and liturgical and authoritative as the Roman Catholic Church and as protesting against abuses and as much focused on the individual in his direct relationship with Christ as the Evangelicals, as charismatic as the Pentecostals, as missionary-minded as the old line mainline denominations, as focused on holiness as the Methodists or the Quakers, as committed to the social aspects of the Gospel as the social activists, as Biblical as the fundamentalists, as mystical as the Eastern Orthodox, etc. Some people have a nose for scandal, or garbage, or baloney; he had a nose for "Christianity-and-water."
Does Lewis have something Catholics need to hear as well?
Yes, he was onto something Catholics need to hear too: the parts of their tradition, i.e. the unbroken tradition of the single church which for a millennium was a single visible church and then for another half millennium was still a single church in every way except the papacy and the filioque. And that tradition contained every one of the ingredients listed above. I think he thought (and I certainly do) that God was not allowing the desired reunion of the churches until all of them had learned what they had forgotten. He did not live to see Vatican II, but he would have been immensely pleased by it, because its genius was to return to the sources, to interpret the Catholic Church's rich 2000 year history in light of Scripture and the early Church Fathers. If all the limbs of the tree began again by a return to the trunk, they would be united since there is only one trunk.
Which means, by definition, that insofar as Luther was right, Catholics have to learn, or relearn, from him. And insofar as the Pope is right, Protestants have to accept him. Of course that does not settle the substantive question of what they are right about, or even whether they are right about anything, and what they are wrong about, if anything.
All the churches, including the "trunk," the Catholic Church, repeatedly forget things and need reminders, sometimes from outside. Everything essential is already contained in the "Deposit of Faith," or Sacred Tradition, left by the apostles; the Church, marked by visible unity under Peter and his successors, is guaranteed infallibility to interpret this. The people "staffing" this sacred organization, however, are not only morally defective (that has always been so; even saints are sinners), and sometimes rather spectacularly so (e.g. the Borgia popes, which dwarfed the current priestly sex scandals), but they also forget (though never officially deny) some important theological dimensions, aspects, angles on one or more of the "mysteries" (dogmas) of the Faith. The Church herself has admitted as much.
The significant difference is that Catholics are assured that no matter how stupid her teachers are, their Church will correct them and the Magisterium will never fall into heresy, despite the fact that the Church is full of heretics. I don't believe any Protestant can make that claim.
If Lewis were alive today and could deliver one more radio address on BBC, can you speculate on what theme he might choose?
I'm sure of it. The last thing he ever wrote was an article for the Saturday Evening Post on the sexual revolution and pop psychology (which are allies), titled "We Have No 'Right to Happiness.'" Like Chesterton, he saw that this was the most radical revolution of all because it touched the very sources of life. It was a matter of practice and not just theory, and it would destroy both the first and most fundamental institution of society, the family, and the first and most fundamental precondition of all virtue, namely the principle of honesty, or truth, or light—that reason must control the passions rather than vice versa. Screwtape keeps coming back to that in The Screwtape Letters: dim the lights! In the forties, when that book was written, the main motive for light-dimming rationalization was social acceptance and "relevance." Once the Pill allowed the Sexual Revolution, a far stronger passion has dominated the world, producing things our ancestors did not even dream of, like the right of any woman to murder her own unborn son or daughter (abortion), and the right of any family to commit suicide (i.e. divorce).
Any final thoughts?
It's always dangerous to try to outguess God, but I suspect [the reason Lewis never chose to become a Catholic] has something to do with reunion. After the best conference I ever attended, with two serious theologians [each] from the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Evangelical, and mainline Protestant churches staying all week and talking about their differences and agreements, in a frank and candid but irenic and listening way, everybody constantly and naturally referring to things C.S. Lewis wrote about this and that. Father Joe Fessio got up at the closing session and proposed that we issue a joint statement of agreement and say that what unites us all, despite our serious differences, is scripture, the first six ecumenical councils, and the collected words of C.S. Lewis. Everyone cheered.
Let the cheers continue.