[New lecture--June 2, 2011]

I have an Inkling

From Kierkegaard to C.S. Lewis

Finding common ground where there is no common ground

From the times of the French Revolution onward, Christian apologists began to face a target audience that was becoming, more and more quickly, just as hostile to Christianity as Roman pagans had been.  But there was a major difference.  The early Christian apologists could easily enough find at least some common ground with those who differed from them.  In attempting to win Jews, there was the scripture.  In attempting to win gentiles, there was the philosophy of Plato as potentially common ground.  In general, Christian ethical concerns matched closely the ideas of the Stoics: and here, too, Christian apologists could find common ground.

Through the long course of apologetic history, defenders of Christianity had been able to adapt to shifting philosophical assumptions.  One could argue for Christianity from a Platonist perspective, from an Aristotelian perspective, or from Lockean empiricist assumptions.

But how can Christians find common ground with philosophers whose basic assumption is that the Christian world view is false?  How can one argue for Christianity—at least Biblical Christianity--from a Kantian or Hegelian perspective which views the world (essentially) as a creation of our own minds?  And how do you find common ground with a Dewey who rejects, not just Christian principles, but the whole of the Western philosophical tradition?  How do you find common ground with a Comte or a Marx who base the whole of their teaching on the assumption that there is nothing real beyond the material world?  How do you find common ground with a Sartre whose basic assumption is that there is no god, and that, consequently, there are no objective moral standards? 

And how do you argue for Christianity when, more and more, the rules of academic life deliberately exclude Christian ideas, when Christianity no longer gets its fair chance in the great marketplace of ideas, when, in fact, the marketplace of ideas has become such a closed shop that only one or two brands of ideas can even be offered anymore?  How do you argue for an idea to people whose minds are closed, who don’t even want to consider your ideas?

The ghettoization of traditional apologetics

Certainly one can still try the traditional apologetic approach, and there are many modern apologetic works that follow in the steps of Eusebius of Caesarea, Thomas Aquinas, and so on.  Paul Little’s books (e.g., Know Why You Believe) follow this approach and there are a host of others: Frank Morrison’s Who Moved the Stone?, Lee Strobel’s Case for Christ, Josh MacDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict just a few of the more successful books written along these lines.

But such books never seem to manage to make it into the Great Conversation—part of an often obscure side conversation.  None of them will ever achieve the status of Augustine’s City of God, Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles or Pascal’s Pensees: no “books for the ages” here.

The writers associated with L’Abri Fellowship tried their best to break into the mainstream conversation with books like Francis Schaeffer’s Escape from Reason, Oz Guiness’ Dust of Death, and Frankie Schaeffer’s Bad News for Modern Man. A lot of intellectual trappings and lots of direct comment on intellectual trends of the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s, but all this proved a flash in the pan—and Frankie Schaeffer barely survived the L’Abri experience with his own faith intact. His recent books (e.g., Crazy for God) are, for the most part, savage attacks on mainstream evangelical Christians.  Again, no books for the ages.

Many fine (and very serious) Christian scholars have tried more formal apologetic works, some of them very impressive, e.g., Bernard Ramm’s Protestant Christian Evidences. But such works don’t get out of the Christian ghetto—and many of them seem content to remain there anyway.  I can’t imagine anyone outside Reformed circles being interested in Cornelius Van Til’s Defense of the Faith. And since, for Reformed theologians, only the elect are going to be saved anyway, why write for anyone else?

There are one or two “traditional” Christian writers who make it into the mainstream of the Great Conversation, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example.  But Bonhoeffer earned his place, not just through fine books, but because he was implicated in a plot against Hitler and ended up dying in a Nazi prison.

So is there anyway (short of dying in the fight against Hitler) that a Christian writer can break out of the ghetto and fight for a fair hearing for his faith in the great marketplace of ideas?  Is there any way of getting people to listen to a message they don’t want to hear?

Well, of course: Jesus himself showed exactly how it was done.  When people don’t want to hear the message directly, you speak in parables: filling their unreceptive minds with memorable images, enigmatic messages, and truths that, presented directly they would reject, but that, presented indirectly reach all the way to the heart.

Speaking to them in parables: Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

Of all the writers we’ve talked about, the Danish thinker Soren Kierkegaard is the most difficult to approach in the systematic method I’ve tried to adopt in this course—because Kierkegaard simply isn’t a systematic writer.  He presents his ideas through a series of pseudonymous writers: Johannes Climachus, Victor Eremeta, Anti-Climachus: which of their voices is Kierkegaard’s own?  Are any of them his own?  Kierkegaard himself describes his greatest work, Either/Or (Aut-Aut) as like a Chinese puzzle box, a work that can’t be easily unraveled.

In a way, what Kierkegaard has adopted is the most appropriate format for challenging the systematic methods of men like Kant and Kierkegaard’s most immediate target, Hegel.  Kierkegaard’s idiosyncratic, personal, subjective style is a deliberate challenge to the impersonal “objectivity” of the dominant strain of German philosophy.

But Kierkegaard’s great strength is that although he seems to wander aimlessly, never coming right to the point, never making complete sense—much of what he says is simply unforgettable.  There are his stories:


It happened that a fire broke out backstage at a theater. The clown came out to inform the public. They thought it was just a jest and applauded. He repeated his warning, they shouted even louder. So I think the world will come to an end amid general applause from all the wits, who believe that it is a joke.

And then there are the hundreds of eminently quotable lines (from the Goodreads internet site:

"The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays."

"Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards."

"People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use."


"Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced."

"Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom."

"The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly."

"Once you label me you negate me."

"I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations — one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it — you will regret both."

"In addition to my other numerous acquaintances, I have one more intimate confidant. . . . My depression is the most faithful mistress I have known- no wonder, then, that I return the love."

"There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn't true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true."

"What is a poet? An unhappy man who hides deep anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so formed that when the sigh and cry pass through them, it sounds like lovely music.... And people flock around the poet and say: 'Sing again soon' - that is, 'May new sufferings torment your soul but your lips be fashioned as before, for the cry would only frighten us, but the music, that is blissful."

There is simply nothing in Kant or Hegel to compare with this kind of thing.

But what really makes Kierkegaard effective as an apologist is his ongoing account of his struggles with God.  This is, perhaps, most clear in his Fear and Trembling.  Fear and Trembling is a long meditation on the story of Abraham and Isaac.  Kierkegaard talks about how troubling he finds the story, of the tremendous difficulty of what God asks Abraham to do, of the almost impossible expectation that Abraham not only make the sacrifice of his beloved son but that he has to, in a way, deceive both Sarah and Isaac—and that he has to adopt an attitude toward the whole thing that Kierkegaard would find impossible, even if he could force himself to do such a deed.

But notice: we get caught up in Kierkegaard’s struggle against God.  We find ourselves sympathizing with Kierkegaard, sharing his struggles, finding companionship in our own struggles with God.

Struggling with God?  Yes—that’s right.  It is almost impossible to read Kierkegaard without starting to struggle with God.  But if you are struggling with God, why then—why then God must be real, and, not only real, but personal, not at all the abstract, distant God of the philosophers. 

Kierkegaard invites us to a wrestling match, and, if we accept the challenge, we might find ourselves like Jacob wrestling with the angel: transformed as a result of the struggle.  And here, certainly, is potential common ground for the Christian and the unbeliever.  Even those who don’t think of themselves as wrestling with God are wrestling with life, and can, at least at that point, identify with Kierkegaard and his own struggles.

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Dostoyevsky!


Now if the parable style is the only thing that really works for modern apologetics, what one wants is a master story teller, and, in some ways the most effective of all the 19th century apologists wasn’t an apologist of theologian at all, but one of the greatest novelists of all time, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Dostoyevsky is the great novelist of sin and redemption, a novelist who explores the evils of the human heart and suggests what might be done to remedy those evils.

Typical of Dostoyevsky’s approach, a short story I ask my History 122 students to read, "The Dream of Ridiculous Man."  In this story, the nameless narrator describes a transforming event in his life--a dream.  But a dream that came about in a rather odd way. Before the dream, he had a meaningless, unhappy life--so meaningless and unhappy he wanted to kill himself.  But he couldn't bring himself even to do that: he has no motivation at all for anything.  But one day, he sees a star and decides: today's the day, the day I kill myself.  Why?  No reason at all. Dostoyevsky implies hear that much of what we do is simply illogical.

What stops the Ridiculous Man from committing suicide immediately is a chance event, a little girl crying out about her mommy.  He doesn't help her--but it bothers him that he doesn't.  We should this be?  If he's going to be dead, what difference does it make whether he helps her or not?  He decides he can't kill himself until he figures this one out.  And while thinking it over, he falls asleep--and dreams.

And as he dreams, he gets some surprises.  The first: he dreams that he has shot himself not in the head, as he intended, but in the heart. Dostoyevsky suggests to us that our real problems are heart problems, not head problems.  Then another surprise: he's still aware of things. Suicide didn't end it all.  And this annoys him--he wanted annihilation, to cease to be, for everything to cease to be: but it doesn't work that way.  And then a pleasant surprise: he is taken to another world, where he is happy: where everyone is happy. Why?  Because of advanced technology?  No--simply because everyone loves one another.  That, says Dostoyevsky would be a truly wonderful world.

But next comes the typical Dostoyevsky twist: the Ridiculous Man ends up corrupting this marvelous new world.  He talks of the way in which the tiny bit of evil he introduces leads to a whole chain of complications: lies lead to sensuality, jealousy, cruelty, bloodshed, disunity among people, estrangement of animals and people, and, ultimately a world filled with despair, misery, and death. 

This should sound familiar because it's the basic sequence of events in the early chapters of Genesis.  Notice that what Dostoyevsky has done has got us looking at the Genesis story, the story of the fall of man, with fresh eyes, in a way we have to pay attention to it more closely. And, as a result, we end up looking more closely at the solution, the redemption message.

At the end of the story, the Ridiculous Man wakes with an answer to the problems of life: an answer 2000 years old: love others as you love yourself. 

Like Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky uses as his common ground our struggles with life, our attempts to find meaning and purpose in a world that is often cruel and seems to care about us not one bit. If the reader begins to identify with the struggles of his characters (and that’s pretty easy), it’s a natural to follow them also to the next step, to the redemption and hope made possible by love.

Continuing the conversation: Unamuno and Chesterton:

Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky pioneered the way in which modern Christian writers still have a chance of becoming more than footnotes to the Great Conversation.  Through essays, parables, and stories there’s still a chance of steering the conversation back to the great themes of Christian tradition: faith, love, hope, sin, salvation, repentance, redemption, heaven, and hell.

Among the Christian writers who adopted the parable/story apologetic style successfully were the Basque writer Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936) and the English essayist G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936).  Now I should probably take time to say a lot more about both of these men, and especially Chesterton.  Many scholars think Chesterton’s Orthodoxy was the best defense of Christianity written in the 20th century.  One of my UC Davis advisors disagreed.  He said Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man was the best defense of Christianity written in the 20th century.  Chesterton is wonderful essayist and story teller. His Father Brown detective stories are lots of fun.  And, like Kierkegaard, he is an immensely quotable writer:

The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.

But unlike Kierkegaard, Chesterton is invariable cheerful and often funny. Wikipedia quotes a typical Chesterton anecdote:

When The Times invited several eminent authors to write essays on the theme "What's Wrong with the World?" Chesterton's contribution took the form of a letter:

Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely yours, G. K. Chesterton

An important Christian doctrine here, of course: we are fallen creatures, we are going mess things up.

More Chesterton quotes (from the Goodreads internet site):

"Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten."

"Just going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than standing in your garage makes you a car."

"Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese."

"Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity."

"The way to love anything is to realize that it may be lost."

"I am not absentminded. It is the presence of mind that makes me unaware of everything else."

"The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him."

Wonderful stuff—and it’s no wonder that Chesterton ended up playing an exceptionally important role in the Great Conversation.  Particularly important, Chesterton inspired (and in some cases was instrumental in converting) a whole generation of Christian writers including those who made up a group that called itself the Inklings.

Hanging onto what's precious: Tolkien and the Inklings

The Inklings were an informal literary society that met at Oxford during the 1930’s and 1940’s.  There were many committed Christians in the group, but there were unbelievers also.  The members shared there writings and thoughts with one another, Tolkien, for instance, reading portions of his Lord of the Rings trilogy to the group long before the work was actually published.  Great conversations that helped lead to some exceptionally important contributions to the Great Conversation.

If asked to name the great apologists of the 20th century, I doubt most people would think of Tolkien right away—naturally enough, because the success of Tolkien’s approach was that it was never overtly apologetic in nature.  Tolkien claimed that what he wrote wasn’t allegory, and that he didn’t even particularly like allegory.  Well, yes: he doesn’t write allegory. But his view of the world is permeated by a Christian understanding of life, and, particularly, a Christian understanding of the struggle between good and evil—not just the external struggle, but the internal struggle that even the best of us faith.

Once again, we have a Christian writer inviting us to a great wrestling match, and while God isn’t mentioned directly, The Lord of the Rings trilogy again and again confronts us with reality of spiritual struggle and the deadly seriousness consequences if we succumb.

For all its seemingly “pagan” mythology, The Silmarillion likewise draws us in to consideration of Christian themes, and because Tolkien functions as a “subcreator,” he can speculate more freely on the angelic realm without running the risk of heresy.  Implied by the technique he adopt is a warning label: the fall of angels might have been something like this, and I’m really guessing here, so make allowances and don’t assume that anything I have to say is true outside of this little sub-created world I have made.

Two shorter Tolkien stories, “Smith of Wooten Major” and “Leaf by Niggle” (especially the latter) are good examples of just how effective Tolkien can be in using a parable-type approach for engaging a not-necessarily-Christian reader and drawing them in to a consideration of Christian themes.

Key to understanding what Tolkien is doing is a short essay he wrote titled “On Fairy Stories.”  Tolkien defends the fairy tale format as something appropriate, not to the nursery, but for adult readers—and, as all lovers of fantasy know, he is absolutely right.  But why is the fairy tale form so appropriate?  Tolkien points to a common feature of fairy stories: a twist at the end, what he calls a “eucatastrophe,” a great, surprising, but totally appropriate turn around for the better.  Tolkien insists that the eucatastrophe resonates with us because it corresponds to ultimate reality: the great eucatastrophe of the gospel message.

Now Tolkien always keeps his Christian message subtle: not out of trickery, but out of a sense of what’s appropriate.  But whether subtle or not, it’s effective, and I suspect Tolkien has led more people toward a Christian world-view than almost any other twentieth century writer—the one exception being a man he himself helped lead to Christ, C.S. Lewis.

There was once a man called Clive Staples Lewis—and he almost deserved it

Almost without a doubt, C.S. Lewis is the greatest Christian apologist of the 20th century.  An Oxford professor, like Tolkien, he had the respect of the academic community. And, also like Tolkien, he had the gift of being able to bring his idea to an audience well beyond the ivory towers.

Part of the reason for Lewis’ success as an apologist is his relatively late conversion to Christianity, not becoming a Christian until he was 32.  This meant that he had spent many of his adult years outside the Christian orbit.  He knew exactly how an educated unbeliever thought and how he/she might be reached for Christ.  He knew what kind of objection to Christianity they were likely to have—because he had had the same objections.

Lewis gave a series of radio talks on Christian topics which became the basis of his book Mere Christianity.  Starting from what he considers to a shared sense that there is such a thing as right and wrong, and a shared sense that, somehow, we always seem to manage to fall short of our own standards, Lewis builds up what, for many people, is a convincing argument: good reasons for starting along the road to Christian faith.  In books like Miracles and The Problem of Pain he effectively addresses concerns about aspects of Christianity he himself had struggled with before (and really after) conversion.  And in Surprised by Joy, he give an account of his own conversion, the kind of personal testimony that, often, is the very thing one might want to know about when considering whether or not to make the same commitment oneself.

Some of what Lewis has to say in these books (Mere Christianity in particular) had already been said—and sometimes better—by G.K. Chesterton, a writer who deeply influenced Lewis.  But there is something in Lewis style that makes his work exceptionally persuasive—an ability to cut through to the heart of a matter at hand, perhaps, or an exceptional ability to anticipate the readers thoughts and potential objections, or maybe it’s just an extraordinary clarity of thought.

But Lewis is perhaps even more effective when taking a different approach to apologetics: and no one really comes close to Lewis in the absolute mastery of the parable/story approach to apologetics.

There’s, first of all, The Screwtape Letters, a set of imagined letters from a senior devil, Screwtape, to the less experienced tempter, Wormwood, as the latter tries his best to keep a young man away from the gospel.  It’s a clever device: immediately engaging—and extraordinarily effective in pointing out exactly what obstacles the potential Christian convert is likely to fact and where the problems are really coming from.

Then there’s The Great Divorce, an extraordinarily effective description of the kind of obstacles that have to be overcome before we can end our love affair with hell and accept the joys of heaven. 

There’s the relatively unknown Till We Have Faces, Lewis’ retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth from the point of view of Orual—Psyche’s ugly sister, and, initially, a woman with what seems an undeniably just complaint against the gods. It’s the kind of work that, better than malt, “Does more than Milton can to justify God’s ways to man.”

And there’s Lewis’ Space Trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength, books that, in addition to being first rate stories show the dark side of the academic world and the products of our modern intellectual pursuits: the university as the new tower of Babel.

And, finally, Lewis gave us the Chronicles of Narnia, children’s books that many adult readers read over and over and over again—for many people, the best introduction to the real Narnia, and to the life that Lewis describes as the great book that has no end and which every chapter is better than the last—words many of us can’t read without tears in our eyes and a choking voice.  And just how many philosophers or theologians can bring us to that point?