(CMCSL-2) – Lewis Had a Serious Crisis of Faith After Losing a Debate to Anscombe

This is part of an occasional series exploring questionable claims about the life or writings of C.S. Lewis.  For a list of the topics either already explored or planned to be examined you can visit the introduction to this series.    


Anscombe Debate Loss

There’s no denying that C.S. Lewis’ most original work in the 1950’s was with fiction. The impact of his seven Narnia stories are, in fact, what Lewis is primarily known for today. Few recall that Mere Christianity was published during the same period (although it features previous released content) and also that the novel Till We Have Faces came out the same year as The Last Battle. Because Lewis wrote so many fictional works in the 1950’s one wonders why he devoted more books to this genre than any other. If you believe some accounts it just had to be because of something that occurred in early 1948. However, one needs to be careful when explaining why he wrote more fictional works than material directly defending the Christian faith.

Consider for a moment the classic, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” Imagine seeing a chicken crossing the road, how would you explain such an action? Is it because the chicken merely wanted to get to the other side? What if you saw a chicken already on the other side and that chicken was eating something? Surely the reason this chicken is there is because of wanting to eat! In fact, if just after finishing the meal, you go over and talk to the chicken and are told how hungry he was, then it’s an open and shut case, right? Not exactly. What if the chicken didn’t know there was food on the other side and happen to cross the road at the right spot and it was an added bonus that something tasty was there?

Miracles (1947 maybe GREEN)Let’s return to reasons why Lewis had more fictional works published in the 1950’s. On February 2, 1948 Lewis suffered defeat at a debate held at the Oxford Socratic Club (a group he was President of). Elizabeth Anscombe (who was not yet 30 at the time) questioned a specific aspect in the book Miracles: A Preliminary Study. The title had just been released in May, 1947 and Lewis (49 at the time of the debate) was on the cover of Time magazine four months after the book was published. Lewis was at the height of his fame as an apologist for the Christian faith. So much so at the time, that a book was soon released entitled C.S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptics (it came out in 1949).

Thus, there has to be some big reason Lewis didn’t continue focusing on defending Christianity. He must have had a serious crisis of faith after losing the debate with Anscombe, right?! However, just like there could be more than one explanation as to why the chicken crossed the road, there is more to consider when explaining why Lewis didn’t defend the faith like he had in the 1940’s.

In 2012, a reprint that collected all five volumes of Socratic Digest became available and so it is easy to have a clear picture of what happen in 1948 at the Socratic Club. Anscombe actually presented a paper (provided in full in the Digest) and Lewis responded to it and the two of them discussed the issue (only briefly summarized in the Digest), then an open discussion occurred before the end of the meeting. Two points to consider from this is 1. It was not a debate, like the average person thinks of, that is, most think of a debate in terms of what is seen between candidates for a political office; 2. No one was declared a winner in this official report in the Socratic Digest. Thus, it’s debatable as to who won. However, it is clear that Elizabeth Anscombe did match wits with Lewis very well in a way rarely seen. Saying that each person in that situation did equally well sounds like a cop out, but it is the best way to characterize it.

There are several articles, online and in print, that have covered this topic from a variety of angles. Some go into detail about the content from that night and others present details about shorter works by Lewis that were primarily published after his death. A few are listed at the end of this post. So, I’m not going to focus on those details here. Instead, I will explore details related to just the books Lewis published before the 1948 encounter with Anscombe and after it, up until he released a revised version of Miracles in May, 1960.

mere-christianity-alt-cover.jpgIf you just consider the works published by Lewis during that timeframe (that is, not consider his articles that were written, or talks given that were later published after he died) you find there were eight fictional books, three academic titles and six related more directly to Christian topics. Of those religious books, two were collections of shorter works and only one or two of the articles out of the twelve total essays from them could be consider defending the faith like Lewis did on the radio in the 1940’s. Two other titles, Reflections on the Psalms and The Four Loves is more about understanding the faith and not defending it. Another was his autobiography (Surprised By Joy) and the final, Mere Christianity collected three previously released books and only had a new introduction aimed at those already a Christian. So, when you consider these facts doesn’t it seem I just did the opposite of supporting my point?

Not when you consider Lewis’ writings before the debate. Excluding his two books of poetry before he became a Christian, he wrote six fictional titles between 1933 and 1948, only two less than the span between the infamous debate and the revised edition of Miracles. Thus, he was already using fiction as a means to explore issues in an imaginative way. Those titles? In the early 1930’s Pilgrim’s Regress came out as Lewis’ first Christian work and it was a creative tell of his journey away from and back to the faith. Then before that decade was over Out of the Silent Planet was published, the first of three Science Fiction titles. It may be easy to forget that the other two books, The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce are also fiction, because of the lessons one can learn from them in the Christian walk.

abolition-of-man-from-arend-smildeLewis also composed four academic works and six non-fiction books on Christian topics prior to the 1948 showdown. However, one of them technically is more academic than Christian if you think about it. That title is The Abolition of Man, which was based on three lectures he gave in 1943. Thus, you can actually say that Lewis wrote more directly Christian-themed works after the encounter with Anscombe! His first work of non-fiction with a Christian-theme, The Problem of Pain, was actually the sixth title published after his conversion. Clearly it comes from an apologetic angle, as does the last during this period, which was Miracles. Between this time, the three slim books that were later collected as Mere Christianity were produced. One of them had a different title in the US and so some think there were four books; there wasn’t. But, there were four talks, the first two were combined in the initial publication (in the UK it was entitled Broadcast Talks and the US version was called The Case for Christianity).

So, considering what Lewis had published before 1948 and after it, up until the revised 1960 edition of Miracles, then it is without merit to suggest he had a serious crisis of faith and retreated to fictional writing. He was writing a lot of fiction before 1948 and the majority of Lewis’ apologetic work in the 1940’s were three brief volumes from his time on the radio (even considering he actually added content that was not broadcasted for two of those books). Even though the post-debate output had fewer apologetic works, he still dealt with Christian themes, hardly what one would do if their faith were so weakened.

Jack (Sayer bio)Some might object to reports that Lewis himself mourned the loss of the debate. In fact, one f the most respected biographies, Jack: A Life of C.S. Lewis by George Sayers (a friend of Lewis’) makes comments that would appear to support the notion that Lewis retreated to writing fiction because his abilities in defending the faith was so shaken. Sayers wrote, “Jack thought that he had been defeated, and he was still unhappy about the evening when he spoke to me about it during Easter vacation.” He even stated that Lewis said to him, “I can never write anoother book of that sort,” meaning Miracles of course. The period of time Sayers is referring to is less than eight weeks after the event (Easter was March 28th in 1948). But let’s remember a few things. Lewis had been at least equaled in the exchange with Anscombe, something that rarely happened, so that would be a defeat to Lewis! Also, consider the type of book Miracles is, it is the most philosophical of his work and thus very complex in many places. I remember when I first attempted to read it, which was by listening to the audio. I couldn’t follow everything! I had to read it in print before benefiting from hearing it. So, the target audience for Miracles is different than the average layperson who heard Lewis on BBC radio during wartime.

A couple of final points to consider are this: First, in a letter written to Stella Aldwinckle on June 12, 1950, Lewis suggested Anscombe as one of the speakers for the upcoming term of presenters for the Socratic Club. It would seem unusual for him to recommend her if he was so devastated from what happen in 1948. Second, as already stated, Lewis did revise the material that Anscombe criticized. However, he was in no rush to do so. Remember it took twelve years! Related to this is the fact that he revised it at all. If he believed he had nothing more to say on the topic, then why even do anything.


The next article to be posted is:

(CMCSL-3) Lewis and Mrs. Moore Were Secret Lovers


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Updated 6/10/2017

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