Saturday, April 4, 2009

One more Christian

I know the biographer A. N. Wilson primarily because I read parts of his biography of C. S. Lewis for one of my theses; he has also written biographies on John Milton, Leo Tolstoy, Hilaire Belloc, and Jesus. Additionally he wrote the book God's Funeral: The Decline of Faith in Western Civilization. Wilson was raised Christian, but abandoned it as an adult and became a high-profile atheist.

In his Lewis biography, Wilson interpreted everything through the lens of Freudianism by finding psychological causes (rather than rational reasons) for Lewis's Christian beliefs and his attempts to defend them rationally. Right off the bat, I find such speculations about Lewis's motivations extraordinarily tone-deaf. In the first place, it commits the Bulverism fallacy (aka the circumstantial ad hominem fallacy), which gets its name from Lewis's famous essay of the same name. In the second place, another of Lewis's most famous essays is "Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism" (alternatively titled "Fern-seed and Elephants") in which he makes the point that reviewers of his own writings and those of his friends have often tried to reconstruct their motives. According to Lewis, such attempts were universally incorrect; he could not recall a single accurate statement. For biographers of Lewis to make such attempts themselves in light of Lewis's explicit claim that "the results are either always, or else nearly always, wrong," either demonstrates that they were unfamiliar with this essay or that they chose to ignore it.

The issue I was researching was the Argument from Reason (AFR) and Lewis's debate with Elizabeth Anscombe, who challenged the AFR on Wittgensteinian grounds. Lewis was unfamiliar with the "new" philosophy of Wittgenstein, and so his immediate response was somewhat weak. Wilson suggests that Lewis was so humiliated by his debate with Anscombe that he abandoned writing apologetics. Others have claimed this as well, such as Humphrey Carpenter in The Inklings. The problem with this claim is that it's demonstrably false; Lewis did write apologetics in the decade after the Anscombe debate, including rewriting his main presentation of the AFR in the third chapter of Miracles. Anscombe subsequently praised it and him, although she still disagreed.

Wilson, however, went a step further, suggesting absurdly that Lewis retreated into writing children's literature (the Chronicles of Narnia), because children, at least, wouldn't be able to dispute him intellectually. Wilson even suggested that the Emerald Witch in The Silver Chair is based on Anscombe. This despite the fact that Anscombe was herself a Christian. He found Puddleglum's response to the Emerald Witch's enchantment as constituting Lewis's statement to continue believing even after having one of his main arguments refuted.

"One word. All you've been saying is quite right, I shouldn't wonder. I'm a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won't deny any of what you said. But there's one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things -- trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play-world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we're leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for the Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that's a small loss if the world's as dull a place as you say."

My point in bringing this up is that Wilson has re-converted to Christianity. I'm very happy for him, and am glad to count him as a Christian brother. The New Statesman has his account of his path back to God, although the full story is only available in the print edition. They also have an interview with him, which includes the following question and answer:

What's the worst thing about being faithless?

The worst thing about being faithless? When I thought I was an atheist I would listen to the music of Bach and realize that his perception of life was deeper, wiser, more rounded than my own. Ditto when I read the lives of great men and women who were religious.

Reading Northrop Frye and Blake made me realize that their world-view (above all their ability to see the world in mythological terms) is so much more INTERESTING than some of the alternative ways of looking at life.

I found this interesting, because it sounds an awful lot like Puddleglum's response to the Emerald Witch.

Update (14 Apr): Here's another article by Wilson condemning secularism as the "religion of hatred." He briefly, but positively mentions C. S. Lewis, and towards the end states, "Materialist atheism says we are just a collection of chemicals. It has no answer whatsoever to the question of how we should be capable of love or heroism or poetry if we are simply animated pieces of meat." This sounds similar to the AFR, insofar as it claims that some common aspect of human experience is inexplicable in an atheistic worldview. It brings to mind (at least my mind) something Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed regarding his wife's death:

If H. ‘is not,’ then she never was. I mistook a cloud of atoms for a person. There aren’t, and never were, any people. Death only reveals the vacuity that was always there. What we call the living are simply those who have not yet been unmasked. All equally bankrupt, but some not yet declared.

But this must be nonsense; vacuity revealed to whom? Bankruptcy declared to whom? To other boxes of fireworks or clouds of atoms. I will never believe -- more strictly I can’t believe -- that one set of physical events could be, or make, a mistake about other sets.


Wes said...

That's wonderful! Thank you for some good news again


Victor Reppert said...

John Beversluis, the arch-critic of Lewis's apologetics, has plenty of objections to Wilson's biography.