Sunday, November 30, 2008

C.S. Lewis and the Road to Orthodoxy

Herman Middleton received his B.A. from Wheaton College in Illinois, and is the author the Orthodox classic, “Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit” – the lives and excerpts from the writings of contemporary Greek spiritual fathers. Middleton is completing his doctoral dissertation on C.S. Lewis and Orthodox Christianity.

What follows is an excerpt from a recent interview with Road to Emmaus: A Journal of Orthodox Faith and Culutre.

RTE: How did you decide on C. S. Lewis as the subject of your Greek dissertation?

HERMAN: Initially, I’d thought of two other dissertation topics, one dealing with St. Theodore the Studite on the source of authority in the Church, and the other on Fr. Sophrony Sakharov’s gnosiology (theory of knowledge), but I finally decided I wanted to do something that more than five or ten people in Greece would end up reading, something that would be useful and that I would enjoy working on afterwards.

At that point C.S. Lewis leapt to mind. Many people have come to Orthodoxy through Lewis, or at least credited him with help along the way. He is undoubtedly one of the most influential Christian writers of the 20th century, and there hadn’t been an in-depth study of him done from an Orthodox perspective. People don’t think of him as a theologian, but he’s had a greater influence than most 20th-century theologians who wrote more esoteric books that were read by far fewer people. I felt it was important that
Orthodox (especially Orthodox in the West) know what he wrote and where he was coming from.

Lewis was dealing with the modern world in a way that I haven’t seen many people attempt. He saw himself as an apologist to the modern sceptic. He dealt mostly with criticisms of Christianity, which he showed to be prejudices rather than logically reasoned arguments. He was at Oxford with, among others, some incredibly intelligent atheists who were attacking Christianity on many fronts, and he tried to provide a defense of Christianity in the face of modern scepticism. In the heat of that debate, he wasn’t always completely clear, and this was largely because he didn’t have the necessary dogmatic foundation.

In a way, that was just as well, because he belonged to a church that didn’t have a clear-cut tradition – Anglican tradition is very broad. But what kept him small -“o” orthodox to the Christian tradition was his faith, and his dedication to prayer and reading Scripture. His desire to understand Scripture was incredibly sincere. The fact that he hadn’t been trained theologically was actually a benefit because he didn’t come to the debate with preconceived notions; he wasn’t dedicated to a system of thought.

Most of Lewis’s arguments are focused on overcoming prejudice by addressing intellectual obstacles to faith. Lewis would say, “I’m not trying to dogmatize, I’m trying to create room for a healthy agnosticism.” Just as Christians often dogmatize, atheists also dogmatize their disbelief, and he tried to counter this by saying, “You say this, but you actually don’t have a foundation. This is just supposition.”

Nevertheless, although he says that Christianity can be defended intellectually, it wasn’t logical arguments that finally brought him to faith. He described himself as the most reluctant convert in England.

RTE: Yes, it was an experience of God that led him to Christianity, and his intellectual training that allowed him to articulate his belief. How close does his writing resonate with Orthodoxy?

HERMAN: For the most part, I find that he is very close to Orthodoxy, especially when he bases his writing on his own study of Scripture and his prayer life, which was that of a pious dedicated Christian who wanted to know the meaning of the Incarnation. Through this honest search, he came to many positions that the Orthodox Fathers hold as well. Lewis often focused on modern questions, particularly the relationship between Christianity and culture, something that modern Orthodox theologians haven’t really dealt with yet. He wrote wonderful essays on Christianity and culture and on ethical issues, and he foresaw the path modern science is taking. These are all things that Orthodox people can useand benefit from by reading him.

Read it all here.

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