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Doubt and the Apologist


Doubt” is to a Christian apologist what “choke” is to a professional athlete and “block” to a best-selling novelist. You expect Michael Jordan to score with seconds on the clock and Tom Clancy to write as deadlines approach. And C.S. Lewis should radiate unflinching certainty against rational attacks on Christianity. But life does not always conform to the ideal. If choking is commonplace in athletes, and writer’s block freezes untold authors, are apologists immune to doubt?

A case in point involved C.S. Lewis’ activity in the Oxford Socratic Club. Established with Lewis’ encouragement in 1941, the Socratic boasted of being Oxford’s second largest student organization during the forties. Upwards of 80 enthusiastic undergraduates crowded together from 8:15–10:30 Monday evenings. Their purpose? Unabashedly intellectual—to debate the pros and cons of Christianity.

The format called for an opening attack or defense of Christian belief—the problem of evil, arguments for the existence of God, or Christ’s claims of deity—followed by rebuttal. In “Founding of the Oxford Socratic Club,” Lewis articulated the society’s raison d’etre: obey Socrates’ exhortation to “follow the argument wherever it led them.” Lewis and his friends believed that while participants harbored prejudices, arguments did not. Honest debates thrived on argument which, being impartial, had a life of its own.

Lewis’ participation in weekly presentations highlighted the evening. His mere presence guaranteed that intellectual doubt would diminish and orthodox Christian belief would prevail. As president of the club, Lewis had the honor of first response to the invited guest—he was David, fully armed with logic and wit, to slay an unsuspecting Goliath. A master of repartee, Lewis engaged in lively debate with some of the most famous critics of Christianity. To the enormous delight of his followers, Lewis unstintingly defended even the most difficult doctrines, then launched effective counterattacks against opposing views.

But on February 2, 1948, Lewis met his match, perhaps more. And not in atheist or agnostic garb. Elizabeth Anscombe, a Catholic philosopher, attacked major points in Lewis’ argument in chapter 3 of Miracles, “The Self-Contradiction of the Naturalist.” Anscombe and Lewis shared many characteristics both in mind and personality which admirably suited them to public debate. Both loved mental battle if not verbal swaggering, essential qualities to survive in the Socratic forum.

The evening became legendary as the most exciting and dramatic of the Socratic’s twelve-year history. Supporters of both sides claimed victory including (according to selective reports) both combatants. But Lewis scholars now differ radically in their assessment of the debate and its affect on Lewis. Several of his associates, describing his and their spirits in gloomy detail, claimed that Lewis admitted defeat and became very depressed. A pupil confided to his diary that Lewis’ usual graphic imagery “was all of the fog of war, the retreat of infantry thrown back under heavy attack.” George Sayer said that Lewis conceded he was “proved wrong, that his argument for the existence of God had been demolished.” Hugo Dyson, a member of Lewis’ small group of friends, the Inklings, said shortly afterward, “Very well … now he had lost everything and was come to the foot of the cross.”

Other accounts are much less dramatic. Lewis claimed to Walter Hooper, his secretary, that he had not been defeated, though Hooper added that Lewis revised the chapter in Miracles for the 1960 Fontana edition. Richard Purtill said that Lewis may have been “nonplused at the vigor of her attack and its source, since as a Catholic she might have been expected to be an ally.” Interestingly, Anscombe herself supports the contention in her Collected Papers published 35 years later. Playing down the affair, she recounted the proceedings as a “sober discussion” of philosophical issues which resulted in Lewis’ reworking the chapter. As for friends’ rather exaggerated accounts of Lewis’ low spirits (which Anscombe labeled “odd”), she characterized their remarks “as an interesting example of the phenomenon called ‘projection.’ “

Since post mortem accounts differ, it is almost impossible to ascertain exactly Lewis’ state of mind or seeds of doubt immediately after the events. At a minimum he altered his argument to account for Anscombe’s criticisms. Whether or how strongly his faith faltered is somewhat open to question.

Fortunately, Lewis commented on unusual mental states apologists can anticipate in the line of duty. Accounts of the debate’s repercussions approximate what he discussed in “Founding of the Oxford Socratic Club” as occupational hazards to defending Christianity. Because apologists are more than rational beings, and because no one knows with absolute certainty where ideas will lead, apologetic discourse involves more than a systematic argument. Apology also entails risk. All who defend faith open themselves to opponents’ fire. But risk extends beyond enduring retaliatory attacks. “Worse still,” he tellingly admits, “we expose ourselves to the recoil from our own shots: for if I may trust my personal experience, no doctrine is, for the moment, dimmer to the eye of faith than that which a man has just successfully defended.”

In another classic essay, “Christian Apologetics,” Lewis further probed potential backwash of contending for the faith. Nothing is so dangerous to one’s faith than the apologist’s arena especially when one successfully defends the faith! Doubt and pride, strange companions, pry their way into the psyche. In the moment of victory, the apologist is tempted to believe that Christianity’s validity rested upon the apologist: “It [the Christian faith] seems no stronger than that weak pillar [the apologist].”

Then Lewis turns abruptly pastoral. Defenders take their lives as well as their arguments into battle. Apologists’ only sure defense consists in “falling back continually from the web of our own arguments, as from intellectual counters, into the Reality—from Christian apologetics into Christ himself.” Lewis then concludes with a plea: “That also is why we need one another’s continual help—oremus pro invicem [Let us pray for each other].”

Here, as in many other instances, Lewis displays a delicate balance between objective and subjective elements. Faith and doubt evidence both mental and emotional components. He expressed in poetic form the same idea in “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer”:

From all my lame defeats and oh! much more
From all the victories that I seemed to score;
From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf
At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;
From all my proofs of Thy divinity,
Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.

Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust, instead
Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.
From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee
O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.
Lord of the narrow gate and the needle’s eye,
Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.

Apologists are no different from others who live under effects from the Fall. Athletes choke, writers suffer from blocks, and apologists doubt. C.S. Lewis admitted his frailty and warned others lest they not understand.


First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.