Alister McGrath, “If I Had Lunch with C.S. Lewis”

The author of this book also wrote a recent (and excellent) biography of C.S. Lewis, which I note briefly on this blogsite here.  (It’s of interest that in this later book’s suggested further reading, he lists — as the three “best biographies” of Lewis — his own and those by Alan Jacobs and George Sayer.)  This book is structured around eight topics that the author thinks would be rewarding to discuss with Lewis: the meaning of life, friendship, Narnia and the importance of stories, Aslan and the Christian life, the art of apologetics, education, the problem of pain, and hope and heaven.  I have to say that I had hoped for more discussion of the food and beverages consumed at each lunch, with discussion of Lewis buttering bread and which beer he ordered.  I’m half-kidding, and even though these summaries of Lewis’s thoughts in these eight areas have little to do with the title’s conceit of what he might say at lunch, they are no less valuable for that.

Let me share a couple of specific passages.  First, since my church (along with, I think, many other nondenominational evangelical churches) stresses “small groups” that meet weekly as a key part of its structure, I noted this (52-53):  “It is no wonder that so many successful churches encourage small groups to meet and discuss things that concern them.  Lewis himself gave and received this kind of support.”

Second, there’s a longer passage that I liked (94-96, footnotes omitted) on the limits of doctrine:

     Lewis’s second concern was with theologians who reduced Jesus Christ to neat little doctrinal formulas.  Lewis didn’t have problems with theological statements about Jesus Christ — for example, the traditional creedal declaration that he is “true God.”  What he was worried about was that these formulas might become substitutes for the living reality of Jesus Christ.


     Lewis needs to be heard here.  Much Christian thinking about Jesus Christ has been influenced by what scholars call the “Enlightenment project” — a rationalist approach to faith and theology originating primarily in the eighteenth century.  One leading theme of this rationalist culture of the eighteenth century was its attempt to master the world by reducing it to theory.  Enlightenment rationalism encouraged the idea that reality be reduced to something that reason could master — in other words, theories.  As a result, both God and Jesus Christ were often reduced to what human reason could manage.  Both God and Christ came to be trapped within rationalist cages, like majestic tigers imprisoned and unable to show themselves for what they really were.

     Lewis protests against this trend, not least in relation to the core realities of the Christian faith.  Perhaps Lewis’s conversion experience, in which he realised that God was drawing close to him, encouraged him to rejected impoverished ideas of God.  For Lewis, theory was determined and limited by reality.  For many modernists, however, reality was determined and limited by theory.  One of Lewis’s most distinctive themes concerns the secondary nature of Christian doctrines.  These, he argues, are “translations into our concepts and ideas of that [which] God has already expressed in a language more adequate” — namely, the “grand narrative” of the Christian faith itself.

     Thus Lewis argues that “the theories are not themselves the thing you are asked to accept.”  Theories are only intermediaries for an encounter with reality, offering partial and reduced rather than total and comprehensive accounts of what they depict.  These second-order levels of engagement with reality may be neat, crisp, and admirably logical.  Yet they fall short of what true Christianity is all about — an encounter with the living God, something that can never be accommodated without radical imaginative loss.  A God that is reduced to what reason can cope with is not a God that can be worshipped.

     So there’s a sense in which Lewis is telling us that there are limits to our understanding of Jesus Christ.  It’s too easy to imprison Jesus Christ within a theological cage, taming him and mastering him.  Lewis reminds us that Christ masters us, and that part of our discipleship of the mind is to expand our intellectual vision and range so that we can appreciate him more fully.

I’ve noted from time to time elsewhere on this website that some doctrinal points are very hard to resolve with our puny minds and limited information, and we’re better off making decisions in a way that doesn’t hinge on their resolution.  Similarly, I don’t think that its failure to answer all questions to our complete satisfaction is a reason to reject the basic tenets of our belief (call them mere Christianity).  It would be as if, because physics didn’t answer for me now all the questions that I think physics should be able to answer,  I announced that I just wouldn’t believe in physics.  I think we can recognize these limits on our claims and abilities to understand God without becoming antirational mystics.