A Man for All Time: C.S. Lewis: Speaking to Our Culture Today

Dr. Peter Kreeft

Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. He is an alumnus of Calvin College (AB 1959) and Fordham University (MA 1961, Ph.D., 1965). He taught at Villanova University from 1962-1965, and has been at Boston College since 1965. He is the author of numerous books (over forty and counting) including: C.S. Lewis for the Third Millennium, Fundamentals of the Faith, Between Heaven and Hell, Back to Virtue, and Three Approaches to Abortion. In addition to Socrates Meets Sartre, Kreeft's recent books (Ignatius Press) include You Can Understand the Bible and The God Who Loves You.

As author and Boston College philosopher professor Peter Kreeft will quickly tell you, his primary credential for commenting on C.S. Lewis "is that I love him." In addition to more than 40 other published works, Kreeft has written prolifically on the well-known Lewis, including C.S. Lewis: A Critical Essay, The Shadowlands of C.S. Lewis: The Man Behind the Movie and Heaven, the Heart’s Deepest Longing.

Vision magazine, a publication of The King's College in New York City, asked Dr. Kreeft to explore his personal attraction to Lewis as well as what the 20th century author has to say to our 21st century culture.

What was your first introduction to and reaction to the writings of C.S. Lewis?

I first discovered Lewis in 1957 at Calvin College, when my roommate credited him with preserving his Christian faith when he was going through serious doubts. The first Lewis book I read was The Problem of Pain, and I remember three reactions to it: (1) this man is the most intelligent writer I have ever read; (2) he is utterly honest in facing the most difficult intellectual problem every Christian must face—the "problem of evil"; and (3) it is very clear to me that this author’s mind is very clear but that mine is not.

I did not understand it all on first reading but knew that second and third readings would be both required and rewarding, as they were. Since then, I can say that no extra-biblical writer has shaped and strengthened my own faith and understanding more than Lewis.

Why has Lewis’ Mere Christianity become a classic?

Whenever someone asks me for one book that explains Christianity and the reasons for believing it, I always mention this book first. Why?

Perhaps its strength is in Lewis himself, who paradoxically comes through the book to you precisely by not trying to. This book is not about Lewis’ faith but about the Faith. Yet Lewis’ honesty, humility, transparency and objectivity come through impressively, like a clear window opening onto a spectacular view.

When you first enter a beach house with a great picture window over the sea, you are overwhelmed with the sea, not the window. But as you settle into the house, you realize that the best thing about it is the window, and you are grateful for it.

Other writers have clear windows, too, but most modern ones open up into alleys or streets or tangles of cancerous consciousness. When I first read Mere Christianity I did not realize its greatness. This is stuff I know already, I thought. But I didn’t— not really, not clearly.

If there is a genius in Lewis, what do you think it is?

Lewis’ genius is precisely this: his humility, his self-forgetfulness before truth. Mere Christianity is consistently Christocentric, like Pope John Paul II and the new Catechism he authorized; and that is the source of its power, and theirs, and the explanation of the remarkable ecumenical understanding and cooperation we have seen in the last half century.

For "mere" Christianity does not mean minimal, but maximal, Christianity. The older meaning of "mere" is "pure," like a mountain lake. The Christian tree has grown many branches, but "mere" Christians—whether in the Catholic or Orthodox or evangelical or Anglican or fundamentalist or "main line Protestant" branches—look back to the trunk rather than away from it out into the leaves, even when they argue for their own branch.

Or, to vary the metaphor, a "mere" Christian is one who keeps his eyes on the Conductor, however messy the orchestra, rather than on the other instruments, or even on his own or (worst of all) on himself.

As it was for Lewis, why is it so difficult for intellectuals and those of the cultural elite to believe in Jesus Christ?

Faith demands humility and submission and trust in an Other, in the One who has the key not only to the world but also to yourself. Intellectuals resist faith longer because they can: Where ordinary people are helpless before the Light, intellectuals are clever enough to spin webs of darkness around their minds and hide in them. That’s why only Ph.D.s believe any of the 100 most absurd ideas in the world (such as Absolute Relativism, or the Objective Truth of Subjectivism, or the Meaningfulness of Meaninglessness and the Meaninglessness of Meaning, which is the best definition of Deconstructionism I know.)

Christ is the loving smile on the face of God. You can’t argue with "I love you" from the lips of Absolute Reality, so you have to argue against argument instead, or against reason, or against truth, or against absolutes, or against reality.

The question is answered best in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31: "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate….’"

When you wrote Between Heaven and Hell—an imaginary dialogue between John F. Kennedy, Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis, who all died on the same day in 1963—what were you trying to accomplish?

The book was born in a providential convergence of three factors:

(1) I had written an essay on theism, pantheism and humanism—the three most basic world views, the three most fundamental answers to the Biggest Questions: What is the nature of ultimate reality? What, deep down, am I? And, How can I attain union with ultimate reality, or attain the summum bonum—the greatest good, the ultimate end of life? But I thought it too abstract and logical to publish.

(2) 1 read that the young Lewis had written some Socratic dialogues but threw them away. I have always loved reading this literary form and wondered why more writers, especially philosophers, didn’t use it. So I had resolved to find out why this wasn’t done by trying to do it, and probably learning by my failure.

(3) I heard that not only JFK but Huxley, too, had died within an hour of Lewis. The thought popped into my head that this was a setup, a providential opportunity for a Socratic dialogue among three famous people who embodied precisely these three world views, as if God had arranged the timing like a musician.

In an age of tolerance and speech codes, in what ways has your approach to apologetics changed? How would Lewis have responded to these developments?

My approach to apologetics has never followed the current follies of secular academia. Those follies dispel so quickly, like fog, that it is a waste of our precious ration of time on this planet to bother with them. The deeper and more lasting obstacles to Christ’s kingdom have always been the perennial errors, both of doctrine and of life—like Gnosticism, materialism or pride. If anyone doubts this, let him read Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.

When new issues (like speeches against Christian speech but not against anti-Christian speech) arise and demand our attention, let that attention be that of a child with a fly swatter to a fly. Reveal them for the fleas they are by presenting the elephant instead. If we keep our eyes on Christ the Elephant, we will see the size of the fleas that attack him.

Between Heaven and Hell was written in 1982. Many Christian apologists argue that, today, American society has little interest in truth and in logical discussions. Instead, they argue, the key to engaging people in thoughts of life and faith involve addressing "how it affects me" and "my personal experience." What are your thoughts on that?

Current fashions in political correctness cannot change the human heart. Every human being’s heart cries out for two things: truth and love, knowledge and goodness, wisdom and compassion (Buddhists call them prajna and karuna—the two absolute values). Thus, neither can be ignored or compromised. We want to be loved and cared for, yes. But we don’t want to be petted, like dogs. We want to be taught, like sons and daughters.

When "objective truth" and "my personal experience" meet, we have conversion. When we have only the first, we have scholarship. When we have only the second, we have pop psychology.

Lewis had some patience with mere scholarship (it can be an honest means to an end) but none with the other thing, which he would surely have labeled an excuse for egotism.

Does it matter that Christians might never read any of Lewis’ works? If so, what would be lost?

I think there are three specific achievements of Lewis that have never been equaled. First, no one has ever written a better summary of Christian doctrine and morality for the modern mind than Mere Christianity.

Second, no one has written better children’s stories, much less better Christian children’s stories, than the Narnia books. And no one has ever successfully portrayed Jesus Christ as a literary character so as to evoke in the reader the same reactions—of awe and wonder and love—that He Himself evoked in His disciples; but Lewis did this impossible thing with the Narnia character Aslan.

And third, no one has written more clearly and powerfully about schnsucht—the mysterious longing for heaven, the anonymous love letter from God at the heart of every human heart.

Christian writers are like mountains. Even if you miss one of the greatest, you still have many left. But if you live on the accessible slopes of one of the greatest mountains, how foolish to ignore it. Lewis is accessible to us because of his proximity in time, place, language and culture. He is a gift, meant to be unwrapped.

©Vision magazine, The King's College, New York, NY. Used by permission.