Surprised by Jack: C.S. Lewis on Mere Christianity, the Bible, and Evolutionary Science
David Williams responds to The Magician’s Twin by John West and the Discovery Institute, arguing that Lewis was a complicated thinker whose views are hard to line up with a single science-faith camp.
David Williams begins this series by noting that C.S. Lewis is held in such high esteem by American evangelicals that we often overlook the fact that his actual views did not entirely conform to popular evangelical paradigms, and cautions that we must be very careful when trying to enlist Lewis as an ally in contemporary debates about science and faith. An earlier version of this essay more directly addressed The Magician’s Twin, a collection on Lewis edited by John West, but the issues raised by that volume deserve a more sustained critique than was allowed in an essay whose main focus is discussing Lewis’ stated views on the Scripture, Adam and the Fall, and on evolution. We and Williams hope to engage with the arguments of West and his fellow authors more extensively in the future.
“All reality is iconoclastic.”1 When C.S. Lewis—or ‘Jack’ as his friends called him—penned that line in 1961, he was writing about God’s proclivity for repeatedly smashing our inevitably half-baked notions about Him. But much the same can be said for what reality does to our own cultural icons as well. And, if nothing else, Lewis himself has become a cultural icon for many American evangelicals, identified by many as the 20th century’s Christian intellectual par excellence.
With his compelling personal story of becoming England’s “most reluctant convert,” his towering intellect, and his inimitable eloquence, American evangelicals’ lionization of Lewis is certainly understandable.2 But when we attempt to lionize people we often ironically end up taming them, paring their claws so that our heroes and our preconceptions can safely cohabitate in our imaginations. But Lewis is no safer a lion than Aslan, and he will not go quietly into our tidy evangelical boxes. To be frank, American Evangelicalism’s infatuation with Lewis is in many respects somewhat odd. For here is a pathologically populist movement with a penchant for Big Tent Revivalism, an obsession with liturgical innovation, a deep-seated suspicion of ecclesiastical tradition, and a raw nerve about the doctrine of justification, falling head-over-heels for a tweed-jacketed, Anglo-Catholic Oxford don—a curmudgeonly liturgical traditionalist who was fuzzy on the atonement, a believer in purgatory, and, as we shall see, whose views on Scripture, Genesis, and evolution position him well outside of American Evangelicalism’s standard theological paradigms. All of that is to say that Lewis was not “just like us”—any of us—and if we would do him justice, we must be prepared to be surprised by Jack.
In what follows, I would like to look at three areas relevant to faith and science discussions where Lewis’s stated views might be surprising for his American Evangelical admirers—namely, his views on Scripture generally and Genesis in particular, his views on Adam and the doctrine of the Fall, and his views on evolutionary science and the myth of ‘Evolutionism.’
Reflections on the Scriptures: Lewis on the Bible, Myth, & Fact
Lewis derived his theological understanding of the Bible from his reading of Scripture, his intimate knowledge of the Church Fathers and the Medieval Doctors, and also from his awareness of modern biblical scholarship. While Lewis was regularly critical of Modernist biblical scholarship’s naturalistic dismissal of the miraculous, its pedantry, literary tin-ear, and over-eagerness to conflate Jesus’ story with the stories of pagan mythologies (he had precious little patience for Rudolf Bultmann, for instance ), he was not at all given to the knee-jerk reactionary Fundamentalism which has held so much sway in American Evangelical culture. In fact, Lewis incorporated many of the more well-supported conclusions of modern biblical criticism into his theology of Scripture, not least critical opinions about the historicity of much of the Old Testament. In good Anglican fashion, Lewis creatively drew upon the deep resources of the Church’s grand Tradition in order to think through the contemporary problems posed by modern critical scholarship. Here I wish to focus on three features of Lewis’s theological conception of Scripture—his understanding of the Bible as being incarnational and sacramental in character, and Christotelic in focus—before turning to his theological reading of Genesis 1-3.4
Inspiration and Incarnation
According to Lewis, the Bible is both a vessel of the divine Word and also a profoundly human collection of documents. In his longest, most substantive piece on Scripture, chapter XI of Reflections on the Psalms, Lewis frames a thoroughly incarnational understanding of the Bible:
The human qualities of the raw materials show through. Naïvety, error, contradiction, even (as in the cursing Psalms) wickedness are not removed. The total result is not “the Word of God” in the sense that every passage, in itself, gives impeccable science or history. It carries the Word of God; and we (under grace, with attention to tradition and to interpreters wiser than ourselves, and with the use of such intelligence and learning as we may have) receive that word from it not by using it as an encyclopedia or an encyclical but by steeping ourselves in its tone or temper and so learning its overall message.5
Lewis’s reference to “[the] human qualities” of the Bible’s “raw materials” is suggestive. As Peter Enns puts it in his book Inspiration & Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, the Incarnation of the Son and the inspiration of Scripture are “analogous.”6 Lewis clearly agrees. He goes on in the chapter to articulate a theology of Scripture precisely in incarnational terms:
For we are taught that the Incarnation itself proceeded “not by the conversion of the godhead into flesh, but by taking of (the) manhood into God”; in it human life becomes the vehicle of Divine life. If the Scriptures proceed not by conversion of God’s word into literature but by taking up of a literature to be the vehicle of God’s word, this is not anomalous.7
According to Lewis, the means whereby God gives us Scripture is not by faxing us transcripts of inner-Trinitarian dialogue direct from Heaven, but rather, on analogy with the Incarnation, by taking up very human literature and utilizing it to communicate His Divine life to us.
“We might have expected, we may think we should have preferred, an unrefracted light giving us ultimate truth in systematic form—something we could have tabulated and memorised and relied on like the multiplication table.”8 But God has instead deigned to give us a very human book, just as He deigned to send us a fully human Savior. Lewis makes this point most poignantly in his Introduction to J.B. Phillips’s Letters to Young Churches where he writes:
The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field-preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preached in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other. The Incarnation is in that sense an irreverent doctrine: Christianity, in that sense, an incurably irreverent religion. When we expect that it should have come before the World in all the beauty that we now feel in the Authorised Version we are as wide of the mark as the Jews were in expecting that the Messiah would come as a great earthly King.9
For Lewis, God’s work in the inspiration of Scripture not only communicates but also emulates God’s humble, self-effacing work in the Incarnation. If the heart of Christianity, “an incurably irreverent religion,” should be the Incarnation, “an irreverent doctrine,” then it ought to come as no surprise that that doctrine should be most fundamentally communicated via an irreverent book.
A corollary of Lewis’ incarnational and sacramental view of Scripture is that when it comes to studying the Scriptures we must be prepared to be surprised. Lewis warns against “the Fundamentalist’s” procedure of attempting to frame our ideas of Scripture a priori, deducing parameters for what the Scriptures can and cannot be from our preconceptions about God. Lewis thinks such an approach to be a nonstarter:
[There] is one argument which we should beware of using…: God must have done what is best, this is best, therefore God has done this. For we are mortals and do not know what is best for us, and it is dangerous to prescribe what God must have done–especially when we cannot, for the life of us, see that He has after all done it.10
Instead, says Lewis, we should take a humble, a posteriori approach, looking and seeing just what kind of book it is that God has actually given us before making grand doctrinal declarations. “To a human mind,” Lewis recognizes, an incarnational Bible “seems, no doubt, an untidy and leaky vehicle.”11 But it appears that this is what God has given us, and we must trust that God knows what He is doing. As Lewis says, “Since this is what God has done, this, we must conclude, was best.”12
Myth Became Fact
For Lewis, the Word is also like the sacrament. Just as ordinary water, bread, and wine are taken up into and become conduits for and communicators of the Divine life that we so desperately need, so, also, all-too-ordinary human writings are taken up into and become conduits for and communicators of the Divine life and word. In Lewis’s view, we must receive the Divine word by approaching Scripture in a sacramental manner. We “receive that word,” as Lewis says, again, “not by using [Scripture] as an encyclopedia or an encyclical but by steeping ourselves in its tone or temper and so learning its overall message.”13 For Lewis, at least when it comes to the Old Testament, receiving the Word means more than simply paying critical attention to the surface meaning of the text, the sensus literalis. Instead, we must press beyond the surface to the sensus plenior, to the “second sense” of the Old Testament, namely, Christ Himself. “It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God,” Lewis once wrote in a private letter. “The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to Him.”14 While such Christological sensus plenior interpretation may have fallen out of favor with many Protestants (to say nothing of thoroughgoing Modernist historical-critics), Lewis believes that “[we] are committed to it in principle by Our Lord Himself.”15 Citing Jesus’ words to His disciples on the road to Emmaus, Lewis argues that Christ “accepted—indeed He claimed to be—the second meaning of Scripture.” Citing a litany of Dominical sayings and New Testament texts, Lewis is clear that Christ is mysteriously the true spiritual center, climax, coherence, sum, and substance of the Old Testament Scriptures.16
Lewis stands in good company in thinking along these lines. The “good teachers” from which Lewis learned this hermeneutic are undoubtedly Aquinas, Bernard of Clairveaux, Augustine, Origen, and Irenaeus, not to mention the Apostles and Christ Himself. In short, Lewis is standing within the mainstream tradition of pre-Reformation theological interpretation. But Lewis is not simply striking a traditionalist posture. Like a scribe trained for the Kingdom, he is prepared to bring forth treasures new and old. By positioning himself within the grand tradition of pre-modern theological interpretation, Lewis frees himself to follow his highly-attuned modern literary-critical instincts regarding the historicity of much of the Old Testament while simultaneously upholding both a robust belief in the historicity of the Incarnation and a vital theological hermeneutic. He writes:
The earliest stratum of the Old Testament contains many truths in a form which I take to be legendary, or even mythical—hanging in the clouds, but gradually the truth condenses, becomes more and more historical. From things like Noah’s Ark or the sun standing still upon Ajalon, you come down to the court memoirs of King David. Finally you reach the New Testament and history reigns supreme, and the Truth is incarnate. And “incarnate” here is more than a metaphor. It is not an accidental resemblance that what, from the point of view of being, is stated in the form “God became Man,” should involve, from the point of view of human knowledge, the statement “Myth became Fact.”17
He sets up the above paragraph by saying, “[The Christian story] is like watching something come gradually into focus; first it hangs in the clouds of myth and ritual, vast and vague, then it condenses, grows hard and in a sense small, as a historical event in first century Palestine.”18 Apart from the Incarnation, then, much of the Old Testament would be but “myth,” “ritual,” and “legend.” These elements of the Old Testament only become tangible historical “Fact,” for Lewis, in the person and work of Christ.
What, then, did Lewis think specifically about Genesis 1-3? Did he consider the opening chapters of Genesis to be myth, or history, or science, or what?
Ever since George Smith discovered and published the ancient Babylonian creation story, Enuma Elish, in 1876, theologians, biblical scholars and informed laypeople have been aware of the fact that the book of Genesis was not written in a literary or cultural vacuum. As other ancient Near Eastern creation stories have been brought to light we have come to know a lot more about the intellectual, cultural, theological, and literary milieu within which Genesis was written, giving us an unprecedented opportunity to assess just what sort of text Genesis is. Taking all of this new evidence onboard, the majority report among contemporary biblical scholars is that the ancient texts which Genesis chapters 1-3 resemble the most are ancient Near Eastern myths—an observation which suggests that that is probably the best way to read Genesis, as well. In fact, most mainstream biblical scholarship today would understand Genesis to be an Israelite revision or version of prior mythical creation stories.
This critical consensus had more or less already been settled within mainstream scholarship by Lewis’s day, and Lewis directly addresses these matters in chapter XI of Reflections on the Psalms. He begins by dispelling the misperception that he believes “that every sentence of the Old Testament has historical scientific truth.” On the contrary, says Lewis, “[This] I do not hold, any more than St. Jerome did when he said that Moses described Creation ‘after the manner of a popular poet’ (as we should say, mythically) or than Calvin did when he doubted whether the story of Job were history or fiction.”1
Lewis is doing two things here: First, he is staking out his own position as a critically informed interpreter of Scripture, and, second, pointing out precedents for his approach in the grand Christian Tradition, namely Saint Jerome and John Calvin. Lewis was too well read to fall into the all-too-common misconception that all Christians were wholesale biblical literalists before the dawn of the Modern era. Figurative readings are, in fact, well represented among the best of the Church’s historic interpretations of Genesis. Recognizing that fact, Lewis was perfectly happy to grant the emerging scholarly consensus about the genre and origins of Genesis. He writes, “I have therefore no difficulty in accepting, say, the view of those scholars who tell us that the account of Creation in Genesis is derived from earlier Semitic stories which were Pagan and mythical.”2 Lewis goes on to sketch his idea of how God could “take up” a clutch of Pagan myths, guiding their tellers and re-tellers over the generations so as to make the stories His own:
Stories do not reproduce their species like mice. They are told by men. Each re-teller either repeats exactly what his predecessor had told him or else changes it. He may change it unknowingly or deliberately. If he changes it deliberately, his invention, his sense of form, his ethics, his ideas of what is fit, or edifying, or merely interesting, all come in. If unknowingly, then his unconscious (which is so largely responsible for our forgettings) has been at work. Thus at every step in what is called–a little misleadingly–the “evolution” of a story, a man, all he is and all his attitudes, are involved. And no good work is done anywhere without aid from the Father of Lights. When a series of such re-tellings turns a creation story which at first had almost no religious or metaphysical significance into a story which achieves the idea of true Creation and of a transcendent Creator (as Genesis does), then nothing will make me believe that some of the re-tellers, or some one of them, has not been guided by God.3
Lewis’s belief that Genesis, as we presently have it, was fashioned out of an extended, divinely guided oral and written tradition of telling, modifying, and retelling “earlier Semitic stories which were Pagan and mythical” and that Genesis itself is “mythical” fits squarely within Lewis’s incarnational and sacramental understanding of Scripture. God “takes up,” as Lewis says, human literature, blessing, shaping, and sanctifying it for His own mysterious redemptive purposes. “Thus,” writes Lewis, “something originally merely natural–the kind of myth that is found among most nations–will have been raised by God above itself, qualified by Him and compelled by Him to serve purposes which of itself it would not have served.”4
It should be clear by now that for Lewis “myth” is not a bad word. It does not necessarily carry connotations of falsehood or contrivance or deception or muddle-headedness. Being a “myth” or a “folktale” does not, for Lewis, disqualify Genesis as the most sublime articulation of the doctrine of creation found anywhere. As he writes in chapter IV of his book Miracles:
No philosophical theory which I have yet come across is a radical improvement on the words of Genesis, that “In the beginning God made Heaven and Earth.” I say “radical” improvement, because the story in Genesis—as St. Jerome said long ago—is told in the manner “of a popular poet,” or as we should say, in the form of a folk tale. But if you compare it with the creation legends of other peoples—with all these delightful absurdities in which giants to be cut up and floods to be dried up are made to exist before creation—the depth and originality of this Hebrew folk tale will soon be apparent. The idea of creation in the rigorous sense of the word is there fully grasped.5
For Lewis, myth is a highly imaginative way of speaking about the world that can speak truth at least as well as history or science can—indeed can sometimes speak truths about which history and science must remain silent. For Lewis, “myth” hardly means false. Lewis had no trouble calling Genesis mythological, not because he had a low view of Genesis, but because he had a high view of mythology. In fact, says Lewis, “Even assuming (which I most constantly deny) that the doctrines of historic Christianity are merely mythical, it is the myth which is the vital and nourishing element in the whole concern.”6
Perhaps Lewis’ clearest exposition of his view of myth is to be found in his short piece, “Myth Became Fact,” which you can find in his book of essays, God in the Dock. Lewis argues that, far from being inevitably false, myth is uniquely able to articulate abstract truths in concrete terms. “In the enjoyment of a great myth,” he writes, “we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction.”7 In our usual experience, abstract truths and concrete experiences are quite opposed to one another:
Human intellect is incurably abstract. Pure mathematics is the type of successful thought. Yet the only realities we experience are concrete–this pain, this pleasure, this dog, this man. While we are loving the man, bearing the pain, enjoying the pleasure, we are not intellectually apprehending Pleasure, Pain, or Personality. When we begin to do so, on the other hand, the concrete realities sink to the level of mere instances or examples: we are no longer dealing with them, but with that which they exemplify. This is our dilemma–either to taste and not to know or to know and not to taste–or, more strictly, to lack one kind of knowledge because we are in an experience or to lack another kind because we are outside it.8
Abstract truths are not true in the same way that historical truths are. Two plus two did not equal four only once in a particular place and time. Two plus two equals four in all places and times. It is not a historical fact, but an abstract universal truth. But there are other abstract truths and concepts besides necessary logical and mathematical ones which similarly transcend space and time, like Personality, or Pain, or Justice, or the Human Condition. Truths such as these, according to Lewis, can often be better illuminated and communicated by means of mythology than they can by theoretical treatises.
Take, for instance, the phenomenon or concept of narcissism. We may describe narcissism in two basic ways, mythically or conceptually. The myth of Narcissus, classically set out by Ovid in book III of his Metamorphoses, is well known. A famously handsome hunter, Narcissus, is led by his enemy to a still pool of water where Narcissus catches sight of and falls deeply in love with his own reflection. Unable to pull himself away from the beautiful countenance looking longingly up at him from the pool, eventually there Narcissus dies. There is narcissism in a nutshell. Compare the myth of Narcissus, however, with the definition of narcissism found in Webster’s Dictionary:
1: egoism, egocentrism
2: love of or sexual desire for one’s own body
Now, clearly, if one were to propose the above dictionary definition as the meaning of the myth of Narcissus, there would be a way in which such a proposal would not be completely off-base. But, still, to flatten the myth into a dictionary definition is inevitably an impoverishment, and, clearly, if one wants to really get a handle on what narcissism is, the myth beats the dictionary, hands down. Lewis writes:
[When reading a myth you] are not looking for an abstract ‘meaning’ at all. If that was what you were doing the myth would be for you no true myth but a mere allegory. You were not knowing, but tasting; but what you were tasting turns out to be a universal principle. The moment we state this principle, we are admittedly back in the world of abstraction. It is only while receiving the myth as a story that you experience the principle concretely.9
To really taste abstract realities, one needs myths—not definitions, abstract theological accounts, or philosophical expositions.
So, what follows from this for our understanding of what Lewis means when he says that Genesis 1-3 is myth? Two things are clear: First, Lewis is not using the word “myth” as a loose term of opprobrium, connoting falsehood or silliness or any such thing. Rather, he means by “myth” a very specific literary genre, which he takes to be the genre of the stories of Orpheus and Eurydice, of Narcissus and the pool, of Icarus and Daedalus, and also of Adam and Eve. He comes to this conclusion primarily on literary grounds, reading the texts in their contexts and on their own terms. When he takes that same literary critical approach to the rest of Scripture, he finds not a book of nothing but mythology, but a book packed with a kaleidoscopic variety of genres: epics, chronicles, psalms, proverbs, hymns, poems, apocalyptic visions, Greco-Roman biographies, histories, epistles, and more. Moreover, Lewis makes it quite clear that Christianity, mere Christianity, depends ultimately on the miracle of the Incarnation, which Lewis takes to be the fundamental Fact at the core of human history. So there is no reason whatsoever to think that if Lewis takes Genesis to be myth, he is on a slippery slope towards taking the whole Bible to be myth as well. That’s a silly argument and people need to stop making it, whether they agree with Lewis or not. As Lewis would be quick to point out, to make a “slippery slope” argument is to commit an informal logical fallacy, in any case.
It is clear, too, that for Lewis good myths put us in touch with abstract reality in a way that neither abstract definitions nor historical anecdotes can. Good myths really do illuminate and convey realities and are, in that sense, true, even if that which they narrate never occurred in space and time; that which they narrate is not fact, per se. Myths are true not if (and only if) what they narrate happened, but if they make vivid intangible, unempirical realities. The truth of Genesis chapters 1 and 2-3, then, lies not with their historicity or scientific accuracy, but with their ability to help us to taste the bittersweet human condition as both akin to and estranged from God and to see the world as it is, as God’s good handiwork and cosmic cathedral. So, then, for Lewis, one need not assess or defend the historicity of these stories, but only to receive them as they are and to taste and see that the Word of God is, indeed, good.
My sense is that many American Evangelical admirers of Lewis would be surprised by Lewis’ overall theology of Scripture, to say nothing of the ways in which Lewis’s ideas about Scripture anticipate the proposals of current controversial scholars like Peter Enns and Kenton Sparks. Regardless, it would be a mistake to think that Lewis had simply capitulated to the Spirit of the Age or to Darwin here. He hadn’t. Lewis had too much backbone for that. Lewis was a professor of literature, a man trained in the reading, understanding, and appreciation of texts, and his literary instincts, given the available evidence, led him to the conclusion that Genesis was myth. Meanwhile, his theological instincts led him to the conclusion that that was perfectly fine. He knew that figurative readings of Genesis were well represented in the grand tradition of the Church and took the deliverances of modern biblical scholarship to be not a betrayal but a refinement of that tradition.
In his lengthiest treatment of the Christian doctrine of the Fall—the fifth chapter of his book The Problem of Pain—Lewis makes it quite clear that he takes the Eden story, as he takes the first chapter of Genesis, to be sacred “mythology.” It is worthy of reverence, contemplation, theological reflection, even, in a sense, belief, but is not, in his estimation, strictly historical. Genesis 2-3 narrates deep truths about the human condition but not necessarily historical facts about the first humans:
The story in Genesis is a story (full of the deepest suggestion) about a magic apple of knowledge; but in the developed doctrine [of the Fall] the inherent magic apple has quite dropped out of sight, and the story is simply one of disobedience. I have the deepest respect even for Pagan myths, still more for myths in Holy Scripture. I therefore do not doubt that the version which emphasises the magic apple, and brings together the trees of life and knowledge, contains a deeper and subtler truth than the version which makes the apple simply and solely a pledge of obedience. But I assume that the Holy Spirit would not have allowed the latter to grow up in the Church and win the assent of great doctors unless it also was true and useful so far as it went. It is this version which I am going to discuss, because, though I suspect the primitive version to be far more profound, I know that I, at any rate, cannot penetrate its profundities.1
Whatever its theological profundities, though, Lewis is clear that Genesis 2-3 is probably not a straightforward narrative of historical events. “What exactly happened when Man fell, we do not know,” he later writes. “We have no idea in what particular act, or series of acts, the self-contradictory, impossible wish [to be our own masters] found expression. For all I can see, it might have concerned the literal eating of a fruit, but the question is of no consequence.”2
What, then, is of consequence for Lewis, we might ask? The real story of the Fall, says Lewis, is not the surface narrative about “the magic apple,” but rather what he refers to as “the developed doctrine” of the Fall, namely the doctrine of humankind’s depraved condition:
According to [the doctrine of the Fall], man is now a horror to God and to himself and a creature ill-adapted to the universe not because God made him so but because he has made himself so by the abuse of his free will. To my mind this is the sole function of the doctrine.3
The “sole function of the doctrine” for Lewis is to name the human condition for what it is, namely, shot through with corruption. Or, as Lewis put it in A Preface to “Paradise Lost,” “The Fall is simply and solely Disobedience—doing what you have been told not to do: and it results from Pride—from being too big for your boots, forgetting your place, thinking that you are God.” You might call this the “Mere Depravity” view of the Fall.
Throughout The Problem of Pain Lewis displays a remarkable degree of comfort with evolutionary theory, not least evolutionary accounts of human origins. A corollary of Lewis’s acceptance of evolutionary theory, of course, is that death pre-existed humanity. Lewis grasps this nettle in chapter IX of the book when he writes,
The origin of animal suffering could be traced, by earlier generations, to the Fall of man—the whole world was infected by the uncreated rebellion of Adam. This is now impossible, for we have good reason to believe that animals existed long before men. Carnivorousness, with all that it entails, is older than humanity.5
Here is not the place to go into Lewis’s postulation that Satan was responsible for animal predation. We need only note that he makes this suggestion precisely in order to show how a broadly Darwinian picture of natural history may be compatible with a broadly Christian view of the world. For some, severing the link between the Fall of man and death’s entry into the world, is anathema. But given Lewis’ mere depravity view of the Fall, this evolutionary understanding of natural history creates no real problem for Christian faith.
Moreover, for Lewis the evolutionary picture of the ascent of humankind presents no real objection to the Christian doctrine of the Fall, either:
Many people think that this proposition [that we are fallen creatures] has been proved false by modern science. “We now know,” it is said, “that so far from having fallen out of a primeval state of virtue and happiness, men have slowly risen from brutality and savagery.” There seems to me to be a complete confusion here…. If by saying that man rose from brutality you mean simply that man is physically descended from animals, I have no objection. But it does not follow that the further back you go the more brutal–in the sense of wicked or wretched–you will find man to be.6
Lewis goes on to note that the categories of virtue and vice simply do not apply to the animal kingdom–and therefore not to our pre-human ancestors either–because animals as such are not moral agents. Moreover, Prehistoric man is not to be presumed to be altogether reprobate simply on account of using only rudimentary tools, hunting and gathering, and the like. Primitivity ought not to be confused with sinfulness he argues. Thus, for Lewis, the discoveries of modern paleontology and archaeology can tell us nothing about when or whether our ancestors fell from a state of innocence, and so we are free to accept, as Lewis seems to have, man’s physical descent from animals without giving up the Christian doctrine of the Fall.
While Lewis may not have publicly argued for the historicity of Adam and Eve, his private opinions might have been another matter. In his recent essay “Darwin in the Dock,” John G. West has argued that, regardless of what he said in print, Lewis privately “embraced the literal existence of Adam and Eve.”7 West chiefly bases his argument for Lewis’s private belief in a literal Adam and Eve on an anecdote involving one of Lewis’ Oxford colleagues, Helen Gardner, recounted in A.N. Wilson’s C.S. Lewis: A Biography.8 Upon being asked at a dinner party whom he would most like to meet after death, Lewis replied, “Oh, I have no difficulty in deciding…. I want to meet Adam.” Gardner, it is reported, replied by saying that “if there really were, historically, someone whom we could name as ‘the first man’, he would be a Neanderthal ape-like figure, whose conversation she could not conceive of finding interesting.”9 Lewis, we are told, gruffly responded, “I see we have a Darwinian in our midst” and never invited Gardner to dinner again.10
West takes this tense little interaction between Lewis and Gardner to indicate that Lewis’ belief in a literal historical Adam and Eve. However, it should be noted that such a conclusion seems somewhat overhasty in light of what Lewis says in The Problem of Pain, where he articulates a view rather similar to what Gardner said that evening:
I do not doubt that if the Paradisal man could now appear among us, we should regard him as an utter savage, a creature to be exploited or, at best, patronised. Only one or two, and those the holiest among us, would glance a second time at the naked, shaggy-bearded, slow spoken creature: but they, after a few minutes, would fall at his feet.11
Given that Lewis actually believed what he wrote here, the difference between Lewis and Gardner seems not to have been either the question of “whether man is physically descended from animals” (which, as we have seen, Lewis was willing to grant) or the question of whether Paradisal man would be a “naked, shaggy-bearded, slow spoken creature,” a “Neanderthal ape-like figure.” Rather they differed over whether “Paradisal man,” as Lewis puts it, would have been someone, however primitive, to be revered, or whether, as Gardner seemed to believe, a mere brute. Taking Lewis’ written statements at face-value, it would appear that his irritation with Gardner owed less to her acceptance of evolution than it did to her dismissive presumption that our forebears were but dull savages.
Finally, it should be noted that Lewis was not even committed to the most basic element of a belief in a literal Adam and Eve, namely, that it was precisely two humans who fell and from whence our species came. He writes, “We do not know how many of these creatures God made, nor how long they continued in the Paradisal state. But sooner or later they fell.”12 Lewis’s mere depravity view of the Fall and his belief in the mythical character of the Eden story gave him some latitude on the question of whether the Fall consisted of a historic first human pair going wrong at an easily identifiable moment. For Lewis, it was apparently quite possible that whole tribes of “Paradisal” Prehistoric humans could have gone about their business for generations—hunting, gathering, singing around the campfire, rearing children, painting in caves—before the spiritual and scientifically undetectable catastrophe of “the Fall” occurred. In other words, if Lewis were presented with the recent genomic evidence which suggests that our species arose from an initial population of several thousand rather than only two, it is doubtful that it would have flustered him. It simply makes no difference to Lewis’s argument how or how many humans initially “fell.” All that matters for Lewis is that God made humans (perhaps via evolution, perhaps not) and that we humans have gone quite wrong–so wrong, in fact, that it is beyond our powers to repair ourselves. Mere Christianity, for Lewis, does not logically depend on the historicity of the Adam and Eve story, but on the doctrine of our mere depravity.
Mere Evolution: Lewis on Evolutionary Science versus the Myth of Evolutionism
For many American evangelicals it will come as a surprise to realize just how little Lewis thought was at stake in the scientific question of our biological origins. As we have seen, Lewis had no objection to the notion that “man is physically descended from animals.” Four years after admitting to being shaken by some of the writings from Bernard Acworth’s Evolution Protest Movement, Lewis could still write in a private letter, “I don’t mind whether God made man out of earth or whether ‘earth’ merely means ‘previous millennia of ancestral organisms.’ If the fossils make it probable that man’s physical ancestor’s ‘evolved,’ no matter.”1 So far as we can tell, Lewis never took the view that belief in mere Evolution, “Evolution in the strict sense,”2 “the Evolution of real biologists,” which he took to be “a genuine scientific hypothesis” and “a purely biological theorem”3 was necessarily at odds with a belief in mere Christianity.
Indeed, the final chapter of his classic book Mere Christianity, “The New Men,” assumes an evolutionary picture of life’s origins and development throughout.4 He writes,
Perhaps a modern man can understand the Christian idea best if he takes it in connection with Evolution. Everyone knows about Evolution…: everyone has been told that man has evolved from lower types of life.5
While Lewis acknowledges that “some educated people disbelieve [the theory of Evolution],” he gives no hint throughout the rest of the chapter that he is one of their number.6 In fact, throughout the rest of the chapter he seems to simply assume a broadly evolutionary picture of natural history (as he does in The Problem of Pain and elsewhere). So, for instance, he writes:
Thousands of centuries ago huge, very heavily armoured creatures were evolved.7
At the earlier stages living organisms have had either no choice or very little choice about taking the new step [of development]. Progress was, in the main, something that happened to them, not something that they did.
Century by century God has guided nature up to the point of producing creatures(humans) which can (if they will) be taken right out of nature, turned into “gods.”9
And he says much more in that vein. While it may be possible to read Lewis as invoking Evolution for purely illustrative purposes without actually believing in it, such a reading seems less than likely given his statements in this chapter and elsewhere. In fact, Lewis offers no hint anywhere in his public writings that he regards evolutionary theory as either untrue or conflicting with mere Christianity.
What Lewis did believe to conflict with Christian faith was what he called the great “Myth” of “Evolutionism” or “Developmentalism.” But this is not the same as evolutionary theory per se. “[We] must sharply distinguish between Evolution as a biological theorem and popular Evolutionism or Developmentalism which is certainly a Myth,” he writes in his essay “The Funeral of a Great Myth.”11 Lewis believed that the great myth of “Evolutionism” conflicted not only with the Christian faith, but with Reason itself, undercutting the grounds for believing in human rationality and, therefore, in any human rationale that could be offered for believing in Evolutionism in the first place. According to Lewis,Evolutionism’s chief premise, namely, Naturalism, invalidates human reasoning itself, amounting to “an argument which proved that no argument was sound—a proof that there are no such things as proofs—which is nonsense.”12 “All possible knowledge…depends on reasoning,” he writes in chapter III of Miracles.13 “We infer Evolution from fossils: we infer the existence of our own brains from what we find inside the skulls of other creatures like ourselves in the dissecting room.” All sciences, including evolutionary science, depend upon the validity of human inference for their own validity. “Unless human reasoning is valid no science can be true.”14 Naturalism, however, with its grand Myth of Evolutionism explains all of reality, including human reason, in terms of non-rational natural causes and effects, reducing all human reasoning to being no more than the accidental byproducts of chance, matter and time, and thereby undercutting the validity of reasoning itself.
However, if one allows, as Lewis apparently did, that God guided the evolution of humanity so as to make us reasonable creatures, then humanity’s descent from the animals in no way undermines the validity of human reasoning. By maintaining the distinction between Evolution as a scientific theory and Evolutionism as a popular Myth it becomes possible for one to be a full-blooded theistic evolutionist with both a robust belief in God and a robust belief in evolution. The distinction frees Christians to accept evolutionary science without knuckling under to reductionistic Scientism. Thus, in the very essay where Lewis most acerbically attacks Evolutionism, “The Funeral of a Great Myth,” Lewis also clearly allows for a form of theistic evolution. Lewis writes:
I am not in the least denying that organisms on this planet may have ‘evolved.’ But if we are to be guided by the analogy of Nature as we know her, it would be reasonable to suppose that this evolutionary process was the second half of a long pattern—that the crude beginnings of life on this planet have themselves been ‘dropped’ there by a full and perfect life.15
As Lewis makes clear in another piece, “Two Lectures,” the “full and perfect life” by which “this evolutionary process” was “dropped” exists outside of Nature, which is to say, exists outside of the purview of the natural sciences. “Is it not…reasonable to look outside Nature for the real Originator of the natural order?” he asks.16
Lewis, however, was no Deist. He clearly did not believe that the “crude beginnings of life” were simply “dropped” by God so that the “evolutionary process” would do what it would. Lewis seems to have thought that God at least superintended the evolution of humankind, particularly humanity’s cognitive capacities, in a rather hands-on manner:
For long centuries God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself. He gave it hands whose thumb could be applied to each of the fingers, and jaws and teeth and throat capable of articulation, and a brain sufficiently complex to execute all the material motions whereby rational thought is incarnated. The creature may have existed for ages in this state before it became man: it may even have been clever enough to make things which a modern archaeologist would accept as proof of its humanity. But it was only an animal because all its physical and psychical processes were directed to purely material and natural ends. Then, in the fullness of time, God caused to descend upon this organism, both on its psychology and physiology, a new kind of consciousness which could say “I” and “me,” which could look upon itself as an object, which knew God, which could make judgments of truth, beauty, and goodness, and which was so far above time that it could perceive time flowing past.17
Whether this picture of hands-on divine guidance is friendlier towards present day Intelligent Design theory or towards theistic evolution, a la BioLogos, will be a matter for debate. Lewis does not draw the distinctions that are customary in contemporary debates surrounding evolution—macro- versus micro-evolution, Evolution qua mere common descent versus Evolution qua wholly unguided, random process, and so on—making it difficult to say with certainty what he would say if he were here today. It seems likely, however, that Lewis would not have expected the natural sciences to be able to detect God’s supernatural guidance of man’s evolutionary path any more than he expected the modern archaeologist to be able detect the moment when our ancestors crossed the threshold from beast to man, and that likelihood might count as a strike against the ID movement’s claim on Lewis. In any case, Lewis plainly outlines a view that is quite compatible with the standard evolutionary picture of common descent and that hardly amounts to Scientistic reductionism. In short, Lewis made it quite clear in his writings that he believed that there is no real conflict between mere evolution and mere Christianity.
Surprised by Jack
Whatever Lewis may have believed in private, as a spokesperson for the faith, Lewis consistently allowed that mere Christianity was compatible with mere evolutionary science, and he even took the trouble to articulate his understanding of the Fall in such a way as to harmonize it with his belief in human evolution. While some recent writers have attempted to wield Lewis as weapon in intra-Evangelical debates around Evolution, to wield a thinker is, as Martin Buber says, to treat that thinker as an ‘It’ rather than as a ‘Thou,’ to treat him as an object to be used rather than as person with the right and capacity to defy our expectations.18 We evangelicals have become so accustomed to inserting quotable quotes from Lewis’s corpus into our sermons, books, power-point presentations, Facebook walls, and Twitter feeds that we drowsily pass over the surprising elements of his thought—the elements not easily reconciled with our clean-cut theological shibboleths—without even noticing. This is an intellectual habit ripe to be broken, and it is high time we allowed the real Jack to shatter the cultural icon—indeed, the mirror—we have made out of him. At this watershed moment in the history of the Church, when so much seems to threaten to upend the faith once delivered—whether scientific or archaeological discoveries, cultural trends, or newfangled philosophies—there is doubtless much that the greatest modern exponent of mere Christianity can teach us to help us navigate these troubled times. But it is only by opening ourselves to being surprised by Jack that we will be capable of actually learning something from him.
About the author
If you enjoyed this article, we recommend you check out the following resources:
N.T. Wright | The Point of Resurrection
Phil Vischer | Being Evangelical