Lewis & the Public Square (Part 1)

CSL FoundationI’ve finished the first draft of my paper for the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s conference next month. The assigned topic for the Academic Roundtable is “Faith, Freedom, and the Public Square.” Participants can come at this topic in any way they choose. I chose to address the distinct difference historically between the terms “liberty of conscience” and “pluralism,” noting the first one rests on the belief that there is absolute truth to be found, while the second offers a basis of relativism.

After the historical section of my paper, I turn to how Lewis viewed the Christian’s responsibility to speak out for truth publicly. What follows is an excerpt.

One might be excused for thinking that C. S. Lewis avoided anything political, since he stated rather consistently that he abhorred politics. A tongue-in-cheek letter he received from an American organization that called itself The Society for the Prevention of Progress brought a tongue-in-cheek response from Lewis, as he told them,

While feeling that I was born a member of your Society, I am nevertheless honoured to receive the outward seal of membership. I shall hope by continued orthodoxy and the unremitting practice of Reaction, Obstruction, and Stagnation to give you no reason for repenting your favour.

Comments like that would tend to paint him as a reluctant combatant in the civil realm.

That would be an inaccurate assessment. While it is true that he despised the petty politics of his nation, he was always a staunch defender of truth in the public sphere, whether dealing with theological issues or more practical matters of governing. Why write the kinds of books he did if not for the purpose of influencing the society of his day? The Abolition of Man and its fiction counterpart, That Hideous Strength, are only two examples of his attempt to warn people of the dangers of scientism applied to education and government.

Oxford Socratic ClubLewis’s tenure as president of the Oxford Socratic Club shows his willingness to openly debate matters with those who were not Christians. He noted the importance, in a university, of Christians breaking out of their shells and interacting with those of different beliefs. Lewis never argued for a kind of pluralistic neutrality in those debates. He was forthright in how they should be conducted: “We never claimed to be impartial. But argument is. It has a life of its own. No man can tell where it will go. We expose ourselves, and the weakest of our party, to your fire no less than you are exposed to ours.”

He also knew that the Christian message had to be communicated in every way possible. One does that, he noted, by attacking “the enemy’s line of communication.” He followed this thought with one of his more famous quotes:

C. S. Lewis 1What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects—with their Christianity latent. . . . It is not the books written in direct defence of Materialism that make the modern man a materialist; it is the materialistic assumptions in all the other books. In the same way, it is not books on Christianity that will really trouble him. But he would be troubled if, whenever he wanted a cheap popular introduction to some science, the best work on the market was always by a Christian.

Then came an appeal to put one’s theology into the vernacular in order to truly communicate the message to an unbelieving audience. “I have come to the conviction,” he concluded, “that if you cannot translate your thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts were confused.”

That’s an introduction to the Lewis portion of my paper. I’ll add to it next Saturday.