What About Lewis and Chesterton?

by Rick Shrader

This means open war between men, in which everyone is obliged to take sides, either with the dogmatists or with the skeptics, because anyone who imagines he can stay neutral is a skeptic par excellence.  This neutrality is the essence of their clique. Anyone who is not against them is their staunch supporter, and that is where their advantage appears. They are not even for themselves; they are neutral, suspending judgment on everything, including themselves.

Blaise Pascal1


In connection with our book reviews concerning the Evangelicals and Catholics Together accord, I think I should explain why I like these two authors, one an Anglican and the other a Catholic, even though I disagree with ECT. Both (as well as Catholics such as Blaise Pascal and Evangelicals such as Francis Schaeffer) are referred to by Charles Colson in his defense of the ECT document as examples of an Evangelical and a Catholic who would have agreed with and signed this accord.2 I wouldn’t be so sure that either man would have agreed with ECT, it being easy to speak for men posthumously. Even if they would have I could still read them and enjoy them.   Both in his book that is reviewed this month and in his book The Body, Colson argues that real thinkers (and there is no doubt that Lewis and Chesterton were) would not quibble over technical issues of theology and did, in fact, keep themselves above such matters.  This is because, Colson believes, they had a broad view of what constitutes salvation and were concerned only with the broad issues of evangelism.  It may be true that they avoided defining salvation, but is that because they had a broad view or because they had a narrow view which they seldom tried to delineate to their type of readers? After all, they were thinkers who would not have embraced a faith without understanding what it was saying.

Colson writes, ”The new cooperation is possible because of what C.S. Lewis called ”Mere Christianity” — the essential elements of Christianity upheld by all theological traditions.”3 As a reader of Lewis, I am not convinced that Lewis would be pleased with this summary. In the same preface Lewis writes, ”So far as I know, these were my only motives, and I should be very glad if people would not draw fanciful inferences from my silence on certain disputed matters.

“All this is said simply in order to make clear what kind of book I was trying to write; not in the least to conceal or evade responsibility for my own beliefs.”4 The better definition of the term ”Mere Christianity” should be taken from The Screwtape Letters where Lewis defines it as the opposite of ”Christianity And.”5 That is, ”Mere Christianity” is not Christianity with no definitive explanation of personal faith, but Christianity without the added baggage of what we humans always want to put on it. Perhaps that is why Lewis, a former atheist, did not become a Catholic!   So why do we read men such as Lewis and Chesterton? Do we really have to embrace the Anglican or Catholic faith to appreciate or learn good things from them? Must we say that if they speak truth, they are saved? Isn’t Colson arguing for the very thing Christians have never wanted i.e. that we can’t learn from anyone else unless we are convinced they are truly born again? Lewis and Chesterton have both taught me much about God and this world. If there have been true Christians within the Anglican and Catholic churches, I think they were good candidates. But that would be in spite of those churches, not because of them!

Even if they were not true believers, why can’t I learn some truth from them if it does not contradict the Bible? This in light of the fact that they were speaking of general things that do not constitute salvation but were written to point men toward salvation? Lewis and Chesterton taught us not to get caught in Colson’s trap.

1. Blaise Pascal, Pensees (London: Penguin Books, 1966) 63-64.
2. Charles Colson, Richard Neuhaus, Editors, Evangelicals & Catholics Together: Toward A Common Mission (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1995) chapter 1.
3. Colson and Neuhaus, p. 34.
4. C.S. Lewis Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1960) 7-8.
5. C.S. Lewis The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.