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From the preface by Walter Hooper to God in the Dock, a collection of essays and letters by C.S. Lewis

(to view a footnote, click its number)



Dr. Johnson, speaking of an eighteenth-century theologian, remarked that he "tended to unsettle every thing, and yet settle nothing."1 I wonder what the robust Doctor would make of our age: an age in which one sees in most bookshops and Sunday papers the controversial--and, oftentimes, apostate--works of clergy who "unsettle" every article of the Faith they are ordained and paid to uphold. It is, partly because of this, a pleasure for me to offer as an antidote this new book by C.S. Lewis.

I say "new" because, though these essays and letters were written over a period of twenty-four years, almost all are published in book-form for the first. Considering how rapidly theological fashions change, it might be expected that these pieces would already be old stuff. There are, however, I expect, others like myself who are more concerned with whether a book is true than whether it was written last week. I believe that Lewis's refusal to compromise, neck or nothing, Heaven or Hell, does not for one moment detract from their relevance to the basic problems which still assail us.

Because of my desire to read everything that Lewis wrote, I undertook the long but happy task of "excavating" his contributions to ephemeral publications. Now, at last, my years of searching libraries and reading faded newsprint are over. But, more important, I anticipate that the majority of them will have never been seen by most readers, and I hope they will derive as much satisfaction as I do from having them firmly stitched between two boards.

Since these new Lewisania have been culled from such a wide variety of sources, they make, as might be expected, a very mixed bag. I do not apologize for this because so much of their interest lies in the many different angles from which we are able to view the Christian religion. Lewis never received a penny for most of them. Some of the essays were written simply because he felt the topic badly needed ventilating and the healthy position defending; others at the request of a newspaper or periodical; there are other pieces, such as the ones from The Socratic Digest, which we composed for the purpose of defending the Faith against the attacks of agnostics and atheists.

Because Lewis knew how to adapt his material to suit the audience he was writing for, the essays differ both in length and in emphasis. Nevertheless, all share a particular seriousness. Not "gloominess," for they sparkle with wit and common sense; but "seriousness" because of the high stakes which Lewis believed were involved in being a man--a possible son of God or a possible candidate for hell.
During his years as an agnostic, Lewis wanted to know the answers to such questions as why God allows pain, why Christianity--out of all other religions--was held to be the true one, why and if miracles actually happen. As a result, he quite naturally anticipated the questions other men ask. After his conversion in 1931, Lewis, who seldom refused an invitation to speak or write about the Faith, found himself moving in very different circles. He preached to and argued with fellow dons, industrial workers, members of the Royal Air Force, and university students. It was partly due to this varied experience that he came to see why the professional theologians could not make Christianity understandable to most people. As a result, he set himself the task of "translating" the Gospel into language which men use and understand. He believed that if you found it difficult to answer such questions from men of different trades it was probably because "You haven't really thought it out; not to the end; not to the 'absolute ruddy end'."2

There were many Christians in Oxford in the early 1940s who, like Lewis, felt that both the pros and the cons of the Christian religion should be discussed openly. This led to the foundation of the Socratic Club in 1941. Lewis was the obvious person for the presidency, a position he held until he went to Cambridge in 1954. Meetings were (and still are) held every Monday evening in Term. One Monday a Christian would read a paper, to be answered by an unbeliever, and the following Monday an agnostic or atheist would read a paper which was, in turn, answered by a Christian. Lewis had always relished "rational opposition," and the Socratic Club served as the perfect arena for testing the strengths and weaknesses of his apologetics. One example of the kind of paper he read at the Socratic is "Religion without Dogma?" which he wrote as a reply to Professor H.H. Price's paper on "The Grounds of Modern Agnosticism."

It was difficult for the most able unbeliever to contend with Lewis's formidable logic and immense learning in the Socratic Club. On the other hand, we find him, in his articles in The Coventry Evening Telegraph and popular magazines, adapting his language and logic to less educated people. Pieces such as "Religion and Science" and "The Trouble with 'X'", with the lucidity and apt analogies, have unmasked many popular fallacies about the supposed opposition between religion and science, and have led many people to understand what Christianity is about.
Regardless of one's education, it is impossible to decided whether Christianity is true or false if you do not know what it is about. And, just as there were many who were totally ignorant of Christianity when Lewis began to write, so there are many today who do not know what the real issue is. It is foolish to pretend. The recent flood of autobiographical explanations why such and such a bishop or parson cannot accept the Christian Faith has, I expect driven many people into deeper ignorance and also (perhaps) into the despairing belief that it could not be understood however hard one tried.

For Lewis, who believed that to be born meant either an eventual surrender to God or an everlasting divorce from Him, this was a serious matter. One day he and I were speculating as to what would happen if a group of friendly and inquisitive Martians suddenly appeared in the middle of Oxford and asked (those who did not flee) what Christianity is. We wondered how many people, apart from voicing their prejudices about the church, could supply them with much in the way of accurate information. On the whole, we doubted whether the Martians would take back to their world much that is worth having. On the other hand, "there is nothing," Lewis argued, "in the nature of the younger generation which incapacitates them for receiving Christianity." But, as he goes on to say, "no generation can bequeath to its successors what it has not got."3

What it has not got. The question as to why it has not got it is, obviously, too complex for me to answer. Nevertheless, having been a college chaplain for five years, I can see that much of the ignorance today is rightly attributed by Lewis to "the liberal writers who are continually accommodating and whittling down the truth of the Gospel."4 And what Lewis would most emphatically not do is "whittle down".

He believed that, regardless of the temporary fashions which our ideas about God and morality pass through, there is nothing which can make the Everlasting Gospel out of date ("All that is not eternal is eternally out of date").5 On the other hand, he believed that our methods of getting the truth across must often vary. Indeed, his own methods vary considerably: but he nowhere attempts to empty God out with the bath-water. For instance, we have from Lewis's pen straightforward apologetical works such as Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain, theological satires such as The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce, and (for lack of a better word) his "concealed" Christianity in the interplanetary novels and the Chronicles of Narnia.
Though Lewis's methods are not acceptable to liberal theologians (see, for example, his "Rejoinder to Dr. Pittenger"), he has probably got more orthodox Christianity into more heads than any religious writer since G.K. Chesterton. His graceful prose, his easy conversational style (almost all his books are written in the first person), his striking metaphors, and love of clarity are, no doubt, chiefly the result of his wide reading, his delight in writing, and his large share of mother wit. But they are more closely related than those who have read only his theological books might imagine to his abilities as a literary critic.

Beginning with his literary criticism and going on to his theological works, one will probably find that the process works the other way round as well. However, the point I particularly want to emphasize is this. Lewis believed that the proper work of a literary critic is to write about the merits and faults of a book, rather than to speculate about the genesis of the book or the author's private life. Though he had a high regard for textual criticism (and lectured on it at one time), he never overlooked the obvious in favour of the hypothetical. Similarly, in his theological works Lewis (who never claimed to be more than a layman writing for other laymen) does not offer ingenious guesses about whether, say, such and such a passage in one of the Gospels was supplied by the early Church long after that Gospel was written, but what the Gospels as we have them, do, in fact, say and mean.

The essays in this book which are more or less "straight" theology fall into two groups. The first contains those in which the primary topic is miracles. Lewis maintained that the Faith stripped of its supernatural elements could not conceivably be called Christianity. Because the miraculous is too toned down or hushed up today, I feel that his essays on the miraculous are particularly ripe for publication. Though most of what he says about miracles and the self-refutation of naturalists can be found in his full-length book on Miracles (London 1947; revised, 1960), I believe that the short essays here could have one advantage over the book. They might appeal to readers who have not the leisure to read, or who might get bogged down in, longer works.
The second category is hinted at in the title of this book. "The ancient man," Lewis wrote, "approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock."6 It would be ridiculous to suppose we can easily put man back in the dock. Lewis discusses how own methods for attempting this in the essay on "Christian Apologetics" (the only essay in this volume which has never been published in any form before). "In my experience," he says in this essay, "if one person begins from the sin that has been one's chief problem during the last week, one is very often surprised at the way this shaft goes home."7 Those who have read Screwtape will recall numerous instances in which he pinpoints those (seemingly) small sins which, if allowed to grow unchecked, in the end dominate man. As for the essays that follow, I should be surprised if those who read "The Trouble with 'X'" do not have the sensation (which I do) of seeing their reflection in a mirror.

Lewis struck me as the most thoroughly converted man I ever met. Christianity was never for him a separate department of life; not what he did with his solitude; "not even," as he says in one essay, "what God does with His solitude."8 His whole vision of life was such that the natural and the supernatural seemed inseparably combined. Because of this, I have included in this collection his numerous semi-theological essays on topics such as the proposed ordination of women and vivisection. There are also a number of essays such as "The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment" which could more properly be called ethical. Lastly, because of my concern that nothing be lost, I have added to the back of this book all Lewis's letters on theology and ethics that have appeared in newspapers and magazines.

The absence of moral values is so acutely felt today that it would seem a pity not to make public whatever help is available to our confused and spiritually-starved world. There may be contemporary writers who strike us as more humane, tender, "original" and up to date than Lewis. But, like the Three Little Pigs, we need, not straw, but firm brick houses. Those who are concerned about the cheap religion and shoddy values so typical of our times will be aware of our immediate need for the antidote which Lewis provides: his realism, his moral rectitude, his ability to see beyond the partial perspectives which limit so many existentialists.
It will be noticed that I have, in the footnotes, given the sources of many of the quotations including the biblical ones. This will, perhaps, seem pedantic to many readers. I may have been at fault, but I hope that there will be some who might be as grateful to have them as I was to find them. I have also provided in the footnotes translations of the more difficult Latin phrases. This book was prepared with American as well as English readers in mind, and I have included in my footnotes relevant information which is not, I believe, as generally know in the United States as it is here. In order that my notes may be easily distinguished from the author's, I have used * for Lewis's and Arabic numerals for mine. Those who compare the texts of the essays published here with their originals will discover, in a few instances, some minor changes. This is because I have Lewis's own published copies of some essays, and where he has made changes or corrections I have followed his emendations. I have also felt it my responsibility to correct obvious errors wherever I have found them.

Though these essays do not fall easily into neat sub-divisions, I have, nevertheless, felt that divisions of some sort would be helpful to the reader. I have, therefore, divided the essays into three parts, conscious while doing so that some of the essays would fit almost as well in one part as they would in another. Part I contains those essays which are clearly theological: Part II contains those which I term semi-theological: and Part III includes those in which the basic theme is ethics. Part IV is composed of Lewis's letters arranged in the chronological order in which they were published.

Footnotes


  1. James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, ed. George Birkbeck Hill (Oxford, 1887), vol. II, p. 124. (return to the text)

  2. P. 256. (return to the text)

  3. Pp. 115, 116. (return to the text)

  4. P. 260. (return to the text)

  5. C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (London, 1960), ch. vi, p. 156. (return to the text)

  6. P. 244. (return to the text)

  7. P. 96. (return to the text)

  8. P. 128. (return to the text)