The Worst of C.S. Lewis

Victor Reppert posted this quote from Lewis on his Dangerous Idea blog:

From C. S. Lewis’s essay “Christian Apologetics, ” found in God in the Dock

“I have sometimes told my audience that the only two things really worth considering are Christianity and Hinduism. (Islam is only the greatest of the Christian heresies, Buddhism only the greatest of the Hindu heresies. Real Paganism is dead. All that was best in Judaism and Platonism survives in Christianity.) There isn’t really, for an adult mind, this infinite variety of religions to consider. We may [reverently] divide religions, as we do soups, into ‘thick’ and ‘clear’. By Thick I mean those which have orgies and ecstasies and mysteries and local attachments: Africa is full of Thick religions. By Clear I mean those which are philosophical, ethical and universalizing: Stoicism, Buddhism, and the Ethical Church are Clear religions. Now if there is a true religion it must be both Thick and Clear: for the true God must have made both the child and the man, both the savage and the citizen, both the head and the belly. And the only two religions that fulfil this condition are Hinduism and Christianity. But Hinduism fulfils it imperfectly. The Clear religion of the Brahmin hermit in the jungle and the Thick religion of the neighbouring temple go on side by side. The Brahmin hermit doesn’t bother about the temple prostitution nor the worshipper in the temple about the hermit’s metaphysics. But Christianity really breaks down the middle wall of the partition. It takes a convert from central Africa and tells him to obey an enlightened universalist ethic: it takes a twentieth-century academic prig like me and tells me to go fasting to a Mystery, to drink the blood of the Lord. The savage convert has to be Clear: I have to be Thick. That is how one knows one has come to the real religion.”

I note that Dangerous Idea and other sites of intelligent Christian commentary often (still) take on the “new” (now not so new) atheists. Their complaints against the “Gnus” as Victor amusingly calls them, are various. However, among the themes are these: The new atheists make breathtaking, sweeping statements that blur distinctions, ignore nuance, gloss over technicalities, and, in general, bloviate broadly on the basis of unfair and, indeed, fatuous stereotypes. Now, such irresponsible propagandizing is surely censurable wherever it occurs. Right? After all, important issues need to be discussed carefully and with due attention to the complexities and subtleties that inevitably attend such matters. Right?

Well, not, apparently, if you are C.S. Lewis. In one paragraph, Lewis reduces the choice of religions to two, Christianity and Hinduism, and then neatly disposes of Hinduism. Wow! Such a feat must surely be either (a) the most brilliant piece of religious analysis ever written or (b) utter poop.  Rather than offer a dismissal even hastier that Lewis’s (although I think it would be much more justified in this case), I will just ask a few questions. Is it sensible to dismiss Islam as a Christian heresy? How would Lewis distinguish between a heresy and a distinct religious tradition?  What are his criteria? Likewise, was the Buddha just a Hindu heretic? Does that do justice to the teaching of the Buddha?  Does Christianity retain all that is best in Judaism? Does that mean that what is retained in Judaism but excluded from Christianity is just dross?  If so, then Christianity must be an improvement of Judaism, and not a Jewish heresy, while Islam is a Christian heresy, but not an improvement, right? Is Lewis right that there is a greater gap between sophisticated Hindu thought and ordinary Hindu practice and belief than there is between sophisticated Christian theology and ordinary Christian practice and belief?  Could the ordinary church-goer enlighten us about the double procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son, or the importance of the distinction between homoousion and homoiousion? Isn’t it revealing that the title of the work from which this quote comes is God in the Dock?” After, all, isn’t this one of the many places where Lewis is playing the role of a lawyer and using whatever rhetorical flourishes, oversimplifications, and biased statements that will promote his case?