C. S. Lewis Observed

Peter Milward is an English Jesuit scholar who has lived and taught for many decades in Japan, though only a handful of his books, including studies of Shakespeare and Hopkins, are currently in print. Only recently did I discover Milward’s slim, and very readable monograph, A Challenge to C. S. Lewis (1995).

Milward attended Lewis’ lectures in the 1950s and briefly corresponded with the famous writer. Much of the work is devoted to a discussion of Lewis’ literary theories, rather than his theology per se. It should go without saying that a criticism of an author is not a condemnation. There is much that Milward admires about his subject.

Lewis’ worldview was sharply focused, Milward notes, but it was sometimes unduly narrow. Among other things he is persistently ahistorical. The British author was right, for example, to condemn the heresy of historicism (e.g., the “historical process” theories of Hegel, Carlyle or Novalis), but Milward thinks he goes too far. It is a flaw that skews his understanding of culture and literature as well.

For [Lewis] it is apparently a case of all or nothing. If we can’t know the full meaning of historical events, with a divine omniscience, we can know nothing but a few facts that come to our attention on the surface of history. Such a thorough-going scepticism, however is based not so such on Christian faith as on a pessimistic view of human reason….

According to this view

the universe, with the history of man, is a closed volume to the human mind; and God reveals his wisdom only in the Bible to men of faith. For other Christians, however, who belong more to the mainstream of Catholic orthodoxy, such as St. Augustine, Dante, and Chesterton, God reveals himself no less (by the light of reason) in the world of nature and the events of world history than (by the light of faith) in the words of holy scripture.

Concerning Lewis’ masterwork, Mere Christianity, Milward says

As for the basic issue between Catholics and Protestants, I believe it can’t be simply shelved, as Lewis was trying to shelve it, under the name of ”mere Christianity.”

I read that volume prior to my own conversion, and while it was helpful it was not nearly so decisive as his Space Trilogy which contained a wonderful allegory of the Christian view of the supernatural. Considered simply as a writer, I think Lewis is superior to G. K. Chesterton (the Catholic apologist with whom he is usually compared), though I would give more points to Chesterton’s grasp of metaphysics. I have difficulties with Lewis’ tangential theological speculations, as expressed in books like The Great Divorce. On that point, conservative Protestants and I might be in agreement.

Lewis remains an invaluable guide on morality and psychology from a Christian perspective. At the same time, Milward’s book is a helpful corrective to recent studies of the famous British writer. N.B. There is one chapter where Milward goes off on a tangent, indulging in typically modern English sentimentality about animal “feelings.” Lewis was perhaps spared such fancies having been raised in N. Ireland.

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