by Sam Buntz
As someone obsessed with religion — and a grad student studying it — I regularly attempt to read not only the sublime summits of religious achievement — like The Gospels or the Tao Te Ching — but the roughly contemporary, practical, meat-and-potatoes-sort of religious apologia. Most of the Christian intellectuals I know hold up two writers, in particular, as great defenders of the faith: C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. To provide an example of something they wouldn’t recommend, you can look to Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, which operates at a significantly lower and more “accessible” level of discourse. It’s not the sort of book that an intellectual would recommend to a non-Christian friend, despite its apparently world-wide appeal at our current moment. Now, of these two writers, Lewis is by far the most popular. American Evangelicals hold him up as a sort of Latter Day St. Paul — a tall order that I’m not sure Lewis, despite his great intelligence and wisdom, can quite fill. He is the go-to guy for orthodoxy — a straightforward, smart but unostentatious, apologist. You can extract a simple but comprehensive kind of Christianity from his books, without needing to crack a Bible or a collection of papal encyclicals for supplementation. In fact, using Lewis as a practical spiritual guide, you don’t really need to read the Bible or wade through the writings of Catholic Church Doctors, Gnostic gospels, and Calvinist theologians if you don’t want to (unless you really rather badly want to understand Christianity, regardless of what good old time-tested orthodoxy — or our modern idea of it — has had to say). Chesterton, on the other hand, is a sight more brilliant than Lewis.
Despite the fact that Lewis is better-known, it seems to me and to certain of the Christians with whom I associate, that Chesterton is the real thinking-person’s guide to Christianity. What I love about Chesterton is how idiosyncratic his version of orthodoxy actually is — he does not offer a defense of orthodoxy that any other Christian would ever have thought of (Lewis, on the other hand, does). But Chesterton seems to me to be less popular. I put this down to the fact that for many Christians the personality and individual genius of an author is somewhat irrelevant — the Gospels would be no less true if Jesus’ personality did not shine out so vibrantly from them (although it does.) I remember that Kierkegaard said that all anyone really needed to know was that God once incarnated as a man and, from that basis, someone would’ve figured out all the rest, eventually (the rest being The Sermon on the Mount and other bits and pieces of Christianity similar to it, I’d imagine?) The question for them is not whether the literature manifests genius but whether it manifests truth (but not any of your so-called poetic truth, thanks). These are two different things. You do not need to be a genius to demonstrate the basic facts of addition and subtraction, and people, craving simplicity, make similar demands for simple truth from the Bible, often ignoring its literary merits (which are, in my view, among the most profoundly important of its religious and spiritual merits, despite the fact that many pious puritans have often warned of the dangerously irrelevant nature of reading the Bible for aesthetic pleasure). Lewis meets those demands for truth — for all the answers — well enough in Mere Christianity, but manages to rise to a rather higher literary level in The Screwtape Letters. (Rick Warren forth-rightly and ham-fistedly hammers out answers for everything, giving you more than enough ammunition to thoroughly catechize a second-grader in American fundamentalist Christianity.) But I do, at the end of the day, like Lewis.
Chesterton, however, is consistently alive with genius. He opens his classic tractate, Orthodoxy, with a discussion of insanity and its relation to reason, religion, and the imagination — which, on its own, divorced from the other splendors of the book, would stand as a timeless essay in its own right. In short, he argues that it is not an excess of imagination that causes madness — imagination being the quality with which the religious are so often accused of being over-charged — but an excess of reason. He beautifully observes: “Poetry is sane because it floats easily on an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and make it finite.” This is not to disparage reason — what serious Catholic would ever dare to? (as Chesterton’s detective-priest, Father Brown, once asked, rhetorically) — but to put it in its place. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters is not brilliant in terms of its argument, as Chesterton’s book incessantly is, but it provides consistently illuminating moral wisdom. For example, Lewis’s apprentice devil, Wormwood, seeks to seduce his “patient” (a young Christian convert) to damnation, causing him to always ask himself whether he’s being good when he should simply be doing good and to never think to ask himself whether he’s behaving wickedly when he’s behaving wickedly. He demonstrates how thought hinders good on the one hand, and how on the other, its absence breeds evil. There’s a real psychological insight in this simple moral point and it shows that Lewis’ accomplishment is greater than that of merely managing to be religious (a charge which non-Christian critics have — pungently — brought against him.) He manages to transcend the charge of merely preaching to the choir, though not so well or so frequently as Chesterton does (as I think Lewis himself would admit — after all, it was Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man that aided Lewis’s conversion).
I make these observations because it seems to me, as someone who’s not exactly a Christian in an orthodox sense (though not particularly adverse to orthodoxy), that these are two of the more effective books at communicating to a non-Christian audience — they use arguments that don’t seem to be inevitably related to the Christian worldview, but are nevertheless found to be so, in the final estimate. Chesterton’s polemic against excessive reason and Lewis’s analysis of the psychology of good and evil seem to be capable of standing alone as worthwhile insights in their own right. But when you read the rest of the material in their respective books, these insights then seem to be necessary parts of the whole edifice — they are built into the structure of Christianity and are buffered and supported by all the other arguments and evidences surrounding them. One is cajoled, entertained, and (thankfully) infrequently bullied into accepting the necessity of Christian orthodoxy (if one should so choose). But there is an entirely different strand of Christian apology which only bullies, and rather ineffectively at that. This probably comprises the majority of Christian polemical literature published in the United States — though I can’t say that for certain, I would wager something substantial on it.
Last night, I briefly peeked into a book entitled A New Earth, An Old Deception. It is a rebuttal to a rather New Agey tract — and an extremely popular one — entitled “A New Earth,” by Eckhart Tolle, a spiritual teacher much touted by Oprah. I can’t say to what extent I agree with Mr. Tolle — but reading the arguments of his enemies made me more sympathetic to him than I probably would be naturally. There is a rather irrational tendency among American fundamentalists to try to use truths from the Bible to prove truths from the Bible, never stopping to consider that the truth of anything in the Bible is the very subject under debate. For instance, your average fundamentalist can point to prophecies from Isaiah to try to prove that Jesus Christ fulfilled those prophecies — but if one believes that the Gospels were written decades after the death of Jesus (as scholarship continually shows) it is only natural to believe that the Gospel writers took some creative license in allowing the figure of Jesus to conform a little more closely to Isaiah’s suffering servant than he would’ve in actuality. Chesterton and Lewis are both blissfully free of this tendency, and have absorbed the Bible well enough not to feel the need to persistently refer to it as though to a magical oracle (or, in terms of literary style, like some sort of nervous tick that never stops) endlessly and selectively dragging out quotations. A New Earth, An Old Deception can be wholly condemned for this particular literary and intellectual sin, as can a million other similar books (a fundamentalist relative once passed off Lee Strobel’s popular The Case for Christ to my allegedly heathenish family, and we likewise found it ridden with this particularly tendency. Its arguments tend to follow the same format as those presented by all the other too-easy versions of the faith. They make arguments like “Jesus Christ is ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ because John 14:6 says so”… and on and on.)
The first variety of Christian treatise is of interest to the person who is searching for the truth, for the meaning of life, and wants to engage in a fair and honest inquiry. Chesterton and Lewis manage to make a case — not a scientific case, but a psychological case that accounts for the nature of a human being and the kind of faith necessary to that nature. The other variety — and to some extent Lewis appeals here too — is mainly of use to people who are not interested in finding what reality is all about but who very much require a creed — any creed — to which to commit themselves. They are not engaged in a quest to get to the bottom of reality but to fix problems in their lives with massively absolute answers that furiously insist on their own veracity. ( Frankly, they would probably do a bit better with a Qur’an than a Bible, if that is truly their goal, since the Bible only provides such ferocious certainty to people who are hell-bent on finding it.) They aren’t interested in the truth of the ideas themselves exactly, though they certainly believe those ideas are true. But what is important for them is the fact that a Christian sense of purpose, like that presented by Rick Warren, can help them dig their way out of an existential hole without heavy intellectual labor. The difference is the difference between the question, “What is the meaning of life?” and the question, “What is the meaning of my life?” The latter quest is smaller in nature, and doesn’t involve deep thinking by any means — but it performs work psychologically (and, perhaps, spiritually) necessary for the person engaging in it.
But, of course, I think that Christians would do better to produce more of the first kind of literature and less of the second variety. People in desperate need of a fix, of security — by any means — will find it, somehow. But the quest to solve not only the meaning of my own, individual existence, but of existence itself is the more pressing venture, and it is the one that matters the most. Alas, this quest can only be aided by exceptional guides, be they Chesterton and Lewis, Blaise Pascal and St. Augustine, or Ramakrishna and J.D. Salinger. And to produce those guides, it seems to me, that American Christianity — and Christianity around the world — needs to regain some of the intellectual prestige it lost in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The religion requires someone like a new St. Augustine or (hopefully more like) the Islamic genius, Al-Ghazzali. Chesterton did not insist — as Lee Strobel insanely does — that Christianity makes sense in scientific terms. Nothing can make sense in anything but mathematical terms for scientific materialism (something with which I think any decent scientific materialist would agree). He does not, say, consult a Christian physician (as Lee Strobel does) to understand the reality of the Resurrection… from a medical perspective. (A New Earth, An Old Deception also attacks Tolle’s quasi-Zen awakening as a psychological malady no doubt induced by stress — whereas the Resurrection of Christ remains an unquestioned paragon of medical logic). Chesterton realizes that the eye Christianity used — and still uses, in certain cellars and underground hide-aways — to perceive reality was never that of a crude, materially-focused personality. It is not the physical, bodily eye, but the spiritual eye that affords the purest perspective, ever focused on that “immortal rose which Dante saw.”