Wesley Kort’s C. S. Lewis Then and Now is extraordinarily puzzling. It contains many fresh and valuable insights about Lewis, but my overall response is to wonder why Kort would choose to enlist Lewis in a project of cultural restoration that seems thoroughly alien to Lewis’ whole body of work. Again and again Kort downplays, or explains away, those features of Lewis’ thought that have endeared him to his evangelical and conservative Catholic fans; he works fervently to make Lewis’ “mere Christianity” something less robust and (in Lewis’ word) “pungent” than seems at all fair. All this in an admirable cause, in that Kort rightly wishes to claim that Lewis is important and valuable to Christians—and indeed many non–Christians who are concerned with the current direction of “literary culture.” But it simply will not do to enlist Lewis in the armies of either Matthew Arnold or Richard Rorty, and that is ultimately what Kort tries to do.
The fresh insights of this book and its puzzlements both stem from Kort’s determination to “retrieve” Lewis from the relatively small number of enthusiasts who, in Kort’s view, dominate our picture of Lewis: his work’s “appeal remains concentrated in the homes, offices, and institutions of conservative Protestant Americans, academic and lay.” For Kort, “It would be unfortunate if that limited concentration continued.” He repeatedly warns that Lewis cannot properly be enlisted in certain theological causes, especially three: those that emphasize the rootedness of Christianity in communities of the faithful (Kort mentions George Lindbeck, though perhaps Stanley Hauerwas would be a more appropriate figure); Barthian thought, with its rejection of natural theology and therefore of a major role for culture in shaping the Christian life; and evangelicalism.
What all three groups have in common, as Kort construes them, is the tendency to “set apart,” to see Christianity as in some way opposed to other faiths, practices, and beliefs; or, to put it in another way, the tendency to emphasize what is specific to Christianity, what distinguishes it from other ways of thinking. Kort says that Lewis cannot be enlisted in the evangelical cause because evangelicalism means cultural separatism, but this is to ignore the crucial fact that evangelicalism as a movement arose in response to and as a counter to the separatism of fundamentalism. Indeed, Lewis is so revered by evangelicals precisely because he so wonderfully embodies a non–separatist, culturally engaged Christianity.
Kort, by contrast, wants to think of Christianity in terms of relation, mediation, connection—Christianity as that which brings together, and, centrally, brings people together. Through much of the book I thought Kort was saying that Christianity enables us to get along, but I discovered at the end that that would be to grant Christianity a larger role than Kort allows. In any case, if you deny Lewis to the three groups whose separatism Kort criticizes, and if you assume that Lewis is not a Catholic, what’s left?
It’s not easy for me to answer that question, though if I were forced to offer a label analogous to the ones Kort uses, I would probably say “mid–twentieth–century Protestant liberalism.” But such labels have limited usefulness, so we would do better to look more closely at the key concepts that govern Kort’s interpretation of Lewis. Three terms recur throughout this book, and together they go a long way towards describing Kort’s project. The first term is “relation”: for Kort, what culture and religion both do, when functioning properly, is to “relate people adequately to reality” (presumably this includes God) and to each other. The second key term is “mediation,” and it describes the means by which culture in particular performs its great task: “The role of culture [is] as a mediator between religious beliefs and the entities and events of ordinary experience.” Religion of course also mediates between human beings and the Divine. Kort’s third key term is actually a phrase: “a Christian account of the world.” For him, this seems to be primarily what Christianity does: it provides an “account” of how things and people are, or should be, related to each other.
About those elements of Lewis’ work that consort with these three themes, Kort has interesting and new things to say. For instance, in what is perhaps the best chapter in the book, titled “Houses,” Kort demonstrates that the large, rambling, complex houses in Lewis’ writings (as represented in his fiction, and, as metaphors, in his apologetic writings) serve to create a powerful image of our culture as a diverse and yet coherent place in which to dwell. More generally, Kort is strong on those elements of Lewis’ thought that rely on what Lewis (with his fondness for medieval formulations) would have called the “rational virtues,” because these elements do not require the invocation of any specifically Christian doctrines. (Kort wishes to avoid these, for reasons I will later explain.) Thus, in a chapter on “Reenchantment,” Kort explores with real force and sensitivity the ways in which Lewis’ work repeatedly ex plores the dangers faced by people who have accepted “the disenchantment of the world” (as Max Weber famously called it) and who are therefore vulnerable to the promises of “false enchanters.” Lewis’ diagnosis of this vulnerability does not require him to invoke any uniquely Christian beliefs, because such a critique can be conducted in more general moral and psychological terms. With Lewis the moralist Kort is often at home.
But not always; and at heart, perhaps, not at all. In his treatment of The Abolition of Man, for instance, Kort expresses discomfort with Lewis’ insistence on the universality and self–consistency of natural law, or what he calls the Tao—perhaps because this seems to exclude those who would disagree with the Tao, which indeed it does. As Lewis writes, “An open mind about the foundation either of Theoretical or of Practical Reason is idiocy. If a man’s mind is open on these things, let his mouth at least be shut. He can say nothing to the purpose. Outside the Tao there is no ground for criticizing the Tao or anything else.” But Kort seizes on the one brief passage where Lewis admits that the Tao can change over time and from culture to culture, though only in the sense of internally coherent development.
Now, Lewis is extraordinarily careful with his discriminations on this matter. Moreover, he ends his book with several pages of quotations from the world’s great religious and moral traditions to show that they all speak with a single voice on key moral issues. Such unanimity even leads Lewis to speculate that there has only been a single “civilization” in the whole of human history. But from all this Kort is led to claim that Lewis’ view of morality allows more or less equal room for change and continuity—that for Lewis “the Tao, that is, the specifically moral content of culture, changes,” and further, that “values endure, but they are not eternal.” Leaving aside a variety of questions—for instance, whether Lewis would accept the redescription of what he calls “the Natural Law” as merely “the specifically moral content of human culture”—one could simply point out that to describe Lewis’ views in this way is to run directly counter to the entire and explicitly stated purpose of The Abolition of Man.
One may find oneself asking why, exactly, Kort would want to work so hard to enlist Lewis in a project so at odds with some of Lewis’ most deeply held ideals and convictions. A clear answer to that question finally comes in the book’s conclusion. There Kort notes the manifold social problems stemming from, or at least associated with, the fact that “American life is now marked by greater and more sharply defined cultural diversity than ever before,” and notes that our problems “seem to overwhelm the moral imagination and its capacity to propose more equitable and spiritually enhancing possibilities.” (What these “possibilities” might be Kort does not spell out, though he does link them with a concern for “social justice.”) What awaits Americans, in Kort’s view, is a great task of “cultural reconstruction” that we can best approach by taking a “Lewis–like” attitude towards our problems. By “Lewis–like” Kort means, to put it simply, an emphasis on what we have in common, rather than what separates us: mere Americanism, as it were.
Kort’s key assumption, then, is that if Lewis, as a Christian layman writing about his faith, emphasizes the beliefs that all (or most) Christians share, an American cultural critic is therefore “Lewis–like” if he or she emphasizes the beliefs that most Americans share. The assumption strikes me as highly dubious on several levels. I am not sure that a Christian layman’s explanation or defense of his religious beliefs is really very similar to a cultural critic’s concern to strengthen social unity in America. I am not sure that beliefs about God have the same form, structure, or import as beliefs about what makes for a healthy political culture. And I see no reason to think that Lewis’ emphasis on mere Christianity—to which he felt called, but did not think every Christian to be called—would have led him to take a similar attitude towards the proper role of a subject of the British crown.
In the end, then, Kort’s appropriation of Lewis is so strained that almost all of the substantive content of Lewis’ writings has to be left behind. There are few references to God in this book, almost none to Jesus Christ, and only a handful of the key doctrines and practices of the Christian faith receive any mention at all. This seems to be intentional on Kort’s part, for in his conclusion, he imagines the project of “cultural reconstruction” going pretty far before Christians allow themselves the luxury of talking about anything distinctively Christian: “When that culture has begun to restore our humanity, Christians can then turn to the large task of giving a more specifically Christian account of the world and recommending it to their nonreligious neighbors as coherent and revealing.”
For Kort, even being theologically reticent in this way—to the point of vaporousness—is “Lewis–like.” At the outset of his book Kort dismisses the “theological content” of Lewis’ work as being far less “arresting and useful” than Lewis’ ability to help shape “a context or ground for talking about religion and morality effectively and truthfully”—certainly an arguable claim, though I do not quite agree with it. But Kort goes too far when he claims that Lewis himself did not think the theological content of his work very important, since “by his own admission” it is “rather standard and minimal.”
Certainly Lewis would have agreed that his theology was “standard”—he often disavowed any theological originality, and this indeed is the point of his appropriation of Richard Baxter’s phrase “mere Christianity.” But minimal? Hardly. Lewis contends that this “plain, central” Christian faith, when examined closely and historically, “turns out to be no insipid interdenominational transparency, but something positive, self–consistent, and inexhaustible.” How that description can be reconciled with Kort’s “minimal” beats me.
It is therefore hard, for me at least, to imagine Lewis having much sympathy for Kort’s explicitly non–Christian project of cultural reconstruction. Lewis certainly believed in the anima naturaliter Christiana (the person who has a “natural” Christian spirit)—indeed, in his fiction he created just such characters (Emeth, from The Last Battle, and especially Psyche, from Till We Have Faces)—but it is clear that he believed such persons to be exceptional, and did not expect any human culture, even the very best, to have the power to “restore our humanity.” If he did believe that culture has such power, it becomes hard to explain why he would write that “it is when I turn to Christ, when I give myself up to his personality, that I first begin to have a personality of my own” (emphasis added). It is still harder to explain why he would say that “I think we can still believe culture to be innocent after we have read the New Testament; I cannot see that we are encouraged to think it important.”
For Lewis, Christianity offers something far more comprehensive, powerful, and personally demanding than “an account of the world”—the sort of thing that a culture might offer. As he puts it quite simply in The Four Loves, “We were made for God,” and the mere existence of his large and varied set of writings devoted to the exposition of this conviction is sufficient to indicate that he would have seen little value in waiting until, by our own earnest efforts, we had undone much of the damage of the Fall before talking publicly about the God for whom we were made.
One can quote many other passages from Lewis that would set him clearly in opposition to this pragmatic project of social renewal, in which Christianity seems to be but a possible instrument, and even then only at a fairly late stage of the scheme. To this Kort might well reply that he has shown, by his quotations, references, and analyses, that Lewis offers us far more than his evangelical and conservative Catholic adherents have made out. And this is true; but it is not helpful to replace one limiting picture of Lewis with another one that is thoroughly reductive. It turns out that, if (as Kort argues) Lewis is a more comprehensive mind than his typical supporters think, he is, equally, more comprehensive than Kort is able to show. Just after George Sayer’s first meeting with Lewis—who was his tutor at Oxford—he bumped into one Professor Tolkien. Tolkien told Sayer, “You’ll never get to the bottom of him.” It seems to me that none of us has managed that trick, even now.
Alan Jacobs is Professor of English at Wheaton College.