What if you could ask C. S. Lewis his thoughts on some of the most difficult questions of life? If you could, the result would be Dr. Alister McGrath’s provocative and perceptive book, If I Had Lunch with C. S. Lewis. Best-selling author, prominent academic, and sought-after speaker, Dr. McGrath sees C. S. Lewis as the perfect conversation companion for the persistent meaning-of-life questions everyone asks.What makes Lewis a good dialogue partner is that his mind traveled through a wide and varied terrain: from atheism of his early life to his conversion later in life; from his rational skepticism to his appreciation of value of human desires and imagination; from his role as a Christian apologist during World War II to his growth as a celebrated author of classic children’s literature. The questions Lewis pondered persist today: Does life have meaning? Does God exist? Can reason and imagination be reconciled? Why does God allow suffering?Let McGrath be your insightful guide to an intriguing conversation with Lewis about the ultimate questions.
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About the Author
Alister McGrath, one of the world’s leading Christian theologians, is Professor of Theology, Ministry, and Education at King’s College London, and head of its Center for Theology, Religion, and Culture. Before moving to King’s College, he was Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University and is currently Senior Research Fellow at Harris Manchester at Oxford. Author of C. S. Lewis—A Life, McGrath has a deep knowledge of Christian theology, history, and literature that allows him to interpret Lewis against a broad backdrop, presenting a fascinating portrait of the development of Lewis’s mind and his impact on Western culture.
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If I Had Lunch with C. S. Lewis
Exploring the Ideas of C. S. Lewis on the Meaning of Life
By Alister McGrath, Jonathan Schindler
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2014 Alister McGrath
All rights reserved.
THE GRAND PANORAMA
C. S. Lewis on the Meaning of Life
* * *
I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else. —C. S. LEWIS, "is THEOLOGY POETRY?"
It's easy to imagine arriving at our first lunch with Lewis with questions buzzing through our heads, not knowing quite what to ask first. But perhaps the first thing Lewis might emphasize is that meaning matters.
Maybe Lewis would have thumped the lunch table to emphasize his point, causing the crockery to shudder. We might be taken aback. Weren't we the ones meant to be asking the questions? Yet Lewis is challenging us! Perhaps that's because he realized how important it is to sort this out as a first order of business. We all need to build our lives on something that is stable, solid, and secure. And until we find this foundation, we can't really begin to live properly. To use a distinction that Lewis teased out in Mere Christianity, there's a big difference between just existing and really living.
So why does meaning matter?
Human beings are meaning-seeking creatures. Deep down within all of us is a longing to work out what life is all about and what we're meant to be doing. Whether it's the university student wondering what to major in or the Christian seeking God's will or the armchair philosopher contemplating his or her purpose in the world, most of us want a reliable foundation for our lives and are asking questions that relate to it. Why am I alive? What is this life about? What is at life's core? What is my relationship to the physical world and the others around me? Is there a God, and what difference does it make?
We all need a lens through which to look at reality and make sense of it. Otherwise we are overwhelmed by it. The poet T. S. Eliot made this point in one of his poems, "Burnt Norton" (1935). Humanity, he remarked, "cannot bear very much reality." We need a way of focussing it or weaving its threads together to disclose a pattern. Otherwise everything looks chaotic—blurred, out of focus, and meaningless.
The French atheist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who shaped the thinking of many bright young things in the 1960s, saw life as pointless: "Here we sit, all of us, eating and drinking to preserve our precious existence and really there is nothing, nothing, absolutely no reason for existing." Yet it's hard to live in a meaningless world. What's the point?
Realising that there is meaning and purpose in life keeps us going in times of perplexity and difficulty. This point was underscored by Viktor Frankl, whose experiences in Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War showed the importance of discerning meaning in traumatic situations. Frankl realised that someone's chance of survival depended on a will to live, which in turn depended on being able to find meaning and purpose in hopeless situations. Those who coped best with apparently hopeless situations were those with "frameworks of meaning." These allowed them to make sense of their experiences.
Frankl argued that if we can't make sense of events and situations, we are unable to cope with reality. He quoted from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: the person "who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how." We need a mental map of reality that allows us to position ourselves, helping us to find our way along the road of life. We need a lens which brings into focus the fundamental questions about human nature, the world, and God.
Recent studies of trauma have emphasized the importance of sustaining a "sense of coherence" as a means of coping with seemingly senseless or irrational events, particularly those which involve suffering. In other words, those who cope best are those who can see beneath the surface of an apparently random and pointless world and grasp the deeper structure of reality. The great Harvard psychologist William James pointed out many years ago that this is what religious faith is all about. According to James, we need to have "faith in the existence of an unseen order of some kind in which the riddles of the natural order may be found and explained."
Of course, some would argue that any quest for meaning is simply misguided. There is nothing to find, so there is no point in looking. Richard Dawkins, who modestly declares himself to be the world's most famous and respected atheist, insists that the universe has "no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference." We may invent meaning to console ourselves, but there is no "bigger picture." It's all a delusion, something we have made up.
I took that view myself in my late teens. I thought people who believed in God were mad, bad, or sad. I was better than that! Atheism was an act of rebellion, an assertion of my right to believe whatever I liked. Admittedly, it was a little dull. But who cared about that? It may have been austere to the point of being dreary, but it was right! The fact that it did nothing for me was proof that I had adopted it because of its truth, not its attractiveness or relevance. Yet a tiny voice within me whispered, Are things really that simple? What if there is more to life than this?
Lewis did not help me break free from this dull and lifeless worldview. Yet as I began to read Lewis from about 1974 on, he did help me in one very important way. Lewis enabled me to name what I had found wrong with atheism. He helped me to put a jumble of insights and intuitions into words. And as I struggled to find my feet and my bearings in the Christian world, he quickly became my unofficial mentor. I had never met him, yet his words and wisdom became—and have remained—important to me. I would love to have had lunch with Lewis, not so much to bombard him with questions, but simply to thank him for helping me grow in my faith.
It's time to bring C. S. Lewis into the conversation. Lewis was an atheist as a young man, yet he gradually realised that atheism was intellectually vulnerable and existentially unsatisfying. Let's find out why. Let's imagine that we're having lunch with Lewis, and one of us asks him how he came to find meaning in life—or, specifically for him, how he became a Christian. What might he say?
Lewis's Doubts about His "Glib and Shallow Rationalism"
Lewis was a convinced atheist by the age of sixteen. He was quite clear that religion had been explained away by the leading scholars of the 1910s. All the best scholarship of the day had shown that religion was just a primitive human instinct. This scholarship seemed to say, "We've grown up now and don't need this." Nobody could take belief in God seriously anymore.
His views were hardened by the suffering and violence he witnessed while serving in the trenches in the First World War. Lewis had trained in an officer-cadet battalion in Oxford during the summer of 1917, before being commissioned as an officer in the Somerset Light Infantry and posted to northern France. The suffering and destruction he saw around him convinced him of the pointlessness of life and the nonexistence of God.
Lewis's experiences during the First World War made him angry with God—even though he believed that there was no God to be angry with. Like so many disillusioned and cynical young men, Lewis wanted someone to hate, someone to blame for the ills of the world. And, like so many before and after him, Lewis blamed God for everything. How dare God create him without his permission! But his atheism did not provide him with a "framework of meaning" that made any sense of the devastation and anguish caused by the war. And he had to face up to the awkward fact that, if there was no God, blame for the war's horrors had to be laid firmly on human beings. Lewis seems to have gradually realised that the violence and brutality of the war raised troubling questions about a godless humanism as much as it did about Christianity. His "grim and deadly" atheism did not make much sense of Lewis's wartime trauma, let alone help him to cope with it.
The literature concerning the Great War and its aftermath emphasizes the physical and psychological damage it wreaked on soldiers at the time, and on their return home. The irrationality of the war called into question whether there was any meaning in the universe or in individual existence. Many students returning to study at Oxford after the war experienced considerable difficulty adjusting to normal life, which led to frequent nervous breakdowns.
Lewis himself hardly ever mentions the Great War. He seems to have "partitioned" or "compartmentalized" his life as a way of retaining his sanity. Literature—above all, poetry—became Lewis's firewall. It allowed him to keep the chaotic and meaningless external world at a safe distance and shielded him from the existential devastation it wreaked on others.
Lewis's continuing commitment to atheism in the 1920s was grounded in his belief that it was right, a "wholesome severity,"9 even though he admitted that it offered a "grim and meaningless" view of life. He took the view that atheism's intellectual rectitude trumped its emotional and existential inadequacy. Lewis did not regard atheism as liberating or exciting; he seems simply to have accepted it, without enthusiasm, as the thinking person's only intellectual option—a default position, without any particular virtues or graces.
Yet during the 1920s, Lewis reconsidered his attitude towards Christianity. The story of his return to the faith he had abandoned as a boy is described in great detail in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy. After wrestling with the clues concerning God that he found in human reason and experience, he eventually decided that intellectual honesty compelled him to believe and trust in God. He did not want to; he felt, however, that he had no choice.
In Surprised by Joy, Lewis tells us how he experienced the gradual approach of God. It was, he suggests, like a game of chess. Every move he made to defend himself was countered by a better move on God's part. His arguments against faith seemed increasingly inadequate and unconvincing. Finally, he felt he had no option but to give in and admit that God was God, becoming the "most dejected and reluctant convert in all England."
So what made Lewis change his mind? How did a hardened, dogmatic atheist become one of the greatest apologists for Christianity of the twentieth century and beyond? And what can we learn from this? Let's begin by looking at how Lewis's disenchantment with atheism began, and where it took him.
There are clear signs that Lewis began to become disenchanted with atheism in the early 1920s. For a start, it was imaginatively uninteresting. Lewis began to realize that atheism did not—and could not—satisfy the deepest longings of his heart or his intuition that there was more to life than what was seen on the surface. Lewis put it this way in a famous passage from Surprised by Joy:
On the one side, a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other, a glib and shallow rationalism. Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.
So what did Lewis mean by this? For a start, Lewis was putting into words his growing dissatisfaction with the simplistic account of things offered by atheism. His "glib and shallow rationalism" dismissed the deep questions of life, offering only superficial responses. Atheism was existentially insignificant, having nothing to say about the deepest questions of the human mind or the yearnings of the human heart. We can prove shallow, superficial, and unimportant things. But the things that really matter—the truths by which we live, whether they are political, moral, or religious—simply cannot be proved in this way.
Lewis began to realise that he had allowed himself to be trapped inside some kind of rationalist cage or prison. He had limited reality to what reason alone could prove. And as he came to realise, reason couldn't even prove its own trustworthiness. Why not? Because we would then be using reason to judge reason. Human reason would be both judge and defendant! As Lewis later put it, "Unless the measuring rod is independent of the things measured, we can do no measuring."
But what if there was something beyond the scope of human reason? And what if this greater world dropped hints of its existence into our own world? What if an archer from that greater world were to shoot arrows into ours, alerting us to its existence? Lewis began to think that the world around us and our own experiences were full of "clues" to the meaning of the universe.
Gradually, Lewis came to realize that these hints and clues pointed to a world beyond the frontiers of reason. We may hear snatches of its music in the quiet moments of life. Or sense its fragrance wafted towards us by a gentle breeze on a cool evening. Or hear stories of others who have discovered this land and are ready to share their adventures. All these "signals of transcendence"—to borrow a phrase from the American sociologist Peter Berger—help us to realize that there is more to existence than our everyday experience. As the great British apologist G. K. Chesterton (who was much admired by Lewis) pointed out long ago, the human imagination reaches beyond the limits of reason to find its true object. "Every true artist," he argued, feels "that he is touching transcendental truths; that his images are shadows of things seen through the veil."
The Importance of Our Intuitions
Alongside Lewis the cool-headed thinker we find a very different style of thinker—someone who was aware of the power of the human imagination and the implications of this power for our understanding of reality. Perhaps one of the most original aspects of Lewis's writing is his persistent and powerful appeal to the religious imagination. Lewis was aware of certain deep human emotions and intuitions that seemed to point to a rich and enriching dimension of our existence beyond time and space. There is, Lewis suggested, a deep and intense feeling of longing within human beings which no earthly object or experience can satisfy. Lewis named this sense "Joy," and argued that it pointed to God as its ultimate source and goal. God shoots "arrows of joy" into our hearts to awaken us from a simplistic atheism and lazy agnosticism, and to help us find our way home.
Lewis explored this further in a remarkable wartime sermon, preached at Oxford in June 1941, titled "The Weight of Glory." Lewis spoke of "a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy," "a desire, still wandering and uncertain of its object and still largely unable to see that object in the direction where it really lies." There is something self-defeating about human desire, he remarks, in that what is desired, when it is actually achieved, seems to leave that desire unsatisfied. Lewis illustrates this from the age-old quest for beauty. "The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing." Human desire, the deep and bittersweet longing for something that will satisfy us, points beyond finite objects and finite persons (who seem able to fulfill this desire yet eventually prove incapable of doing so). Our sense of desire points through these objects, and points persons towards their real goal and fulfillment in God.
Atheism had to dismiss such feelings and intuitions as deluded nonsense. For a while, Lewis went along with this. Then he realized that it was ridiculous. He was locked into a way of seeing things that prevented him from appreciating their true significance. Lewis began to trust his intuitions and explore where they led him. There was, he realized, a "Big Picture" that made sense of life. It was called Christianity.
A "Big Picture": Seeing Things in a New Way
In our lunchtime conversations, Lewis would be sure to drop in some wonderful statements we would take away and relish, turning them over in our minds to make sure we had fully appreciated their depth and brilliance. Here's one he might have thrown into the conversation: "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else."
Excerpted from If I Had Lunch with C. S. Lewis by Alister McGrath, Jonathan Schindler. Copyright © 2014 Alister McGrath. Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. The Grand Panorama: C. S. Lewis on the Meaning of Life, 1,
2. "Old Friends to Trust": C. S. Lewis on Friendship, 27,
3. A Story-Shaped World: C. S. Lewis on Narnia and the Importance of Stories, 55,
4. The Lord and the Lion: C. S. Lewis on Aslan and the Christian Life, 79,
5 .Talking about Faith: C. S. Lewis on the Art of Apologetics, 105,
6. A Love of Learning: C. S. Lewis on Education, 133,
7. Coping with Suffering: C. S. Lewis on the Problem of Pain, 159,
8. "Further Up and Further In": C. S. Lewis on Hope and Heaven, 185,
Appendix 1: For Further Reading, 211,
Appendix 2: Introducing Lewis, 219,
About the Author, 240,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I very much enjoyed this glimpse into C S Lewis life and thoughts. I highly recommend.
I have to confess – the only reason I picked up this book to read was because it was on the Tyndale Summer Reading list. But, I was pleasantly surprised. It has 8 chapters, each dealing with a different aspect of Lewis. I learned a number of things that I hadn’t known before. • Lewis was from Ireland • He was not only a good writer but also a good speaker • His mother died of cancer before he was 10 • He died only a few hours before JFK was assassinated • Most who knew him said the movie Shadowlands portrayed him as more somber than he really was. Very interesting book!
Fascinating! Unique! Informative! And ultimately—engaging. I haven’t finished this book yet, but what I have read, I love. What an interesting legacy. Most of us know who C.S. Lewis was—an author, intellectual, and (most importantly) Christian. I’m enjoying every moment (okay, well, there’s a slow moment or two…but it’s easy enough to skim over those few places…) of learning about this man’s life. Alister McGrath celebrates the 50th anniversary of this eccentric, revered, and unforgettable author’s death in an informative and captivating biography. Kudos.
Very intriguing and interesting points.
I liked reading this book. It was entertaining and informative at the same time.
Provides a unique perspective on what it would be like to have a chat with one of the most influential people of our time.
Suppose you could have lunch with C. S. Lewis. Lunch could be weekly for eight weeks, as his eight week terms of tutor at Oxford and Cambridge. What questions would be asked about faith, morals, and suffering? The author has studied the works of Lewis for forty years and is Professor of Theology, Ministry, and Education. I plan to read more of Lewis and the author.
Lewis is one of my favorite authors. I've read many of his works and quite a few books about him, so the idea of having lunch with C.S. Lewis is very intriguing. I would love to sit down and ask him questions and ask him to expound on what he has written about in his works. Alister McGrath has sort of given us this opportunity in "If I had Lunch with C.S. Lewis." He has a taken a few of the more important topics that Lewis has written about and a couple of topics, like Narnia, that most people would want to ask Lewis about, and tried to explain them using Lewis's works and thoughts. McGrath does a great job of writing about what Lewis thought. There's no question in my mind that he has been able to distill Lewis's thoughts into this little book. McGrath is certainly an expert on Lewis. What I felt like was lacking, however, was more of Lewis's actual thoughts and excerpts from his writing. What I would expect in a book like this is more quotes and passages from Lewis, especially from his letters, to give us a better insight into his thoughts beyond his popular works. While McGrath certainly present good answers from Lewis's perspective, it didn't really feel like I was having lunch with C.S. Lewis. Instead, it felt like I was having lunch with a professor who knows a great deal about Lewis and his writing. That being said, I very much appreciated this book. McGrath does do a good job of presenting Lewis and offering a few snapshots of his life which help give better context for Lewis's thought. As someone who has read a lot of Lewis, this helped me put some of his thought into perspective. It is a nice little commentary on Lewis and would be great for someone who is ready to explore his works more deeply. While it was not exactly what I hoped that it would be, it was certainly a good book to read
In eight short chapters this book covers the main points about the life of one of the most famous Christian authors. In the first chapter on the meaning of life, Lewis’ World War I experiences made him angry with God if there was a God. But his deepest longings made him search for meaning to life. Atheism was shallow, simplistic and insignificant whereas Christianity made sense of life and gave a better explanation of desire and longing that are common human experiences, pointing us to faith that heaven exists. Lewis wrote about friendships saying they inspire us, give us support, share our joy, encourage us and provide a sounding board for personal matters. Lewis’ friends actually forced him to realize that atheism was incoherent. Lewis also had the Inklings, a circle of literary friends. The friendship of Tolkien and Lewis inspired both. Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings and Lewis wrote the Chronicles of Narnia. However, when Lewis became friends with Charles Williams and then married Joy Davidman without telling Tolkien, Tolkien felt replaced. All this and much more, including information about the books Lewis wrote, is discussed in this book to give you a understanding of one author whose books have given us so much joy and hope.
This was an informative yet fascinating and fun to read book. I enjoyed learning about C. S. Lewis and loved the insight into his books. I came away with a new way of looking at life and hoping McGrath will write more "If I Had Lunch with..." books.
A summary of Lewis' life and work, not a conversational lunch Alister McGrath’s latest book, If I Had Lunch with C. S. Lewis, engages what Lewis believed about the big picture of life with the aim to help the reader answer some of life’s big questions personally. The idea behind the book is simple: what would it be like to have a series of lunches with C. S. Lewis? What would it be like to engage him in discussion? To pick his brain? Unfortunately, it is in this aspect of the work that McGrath fails. McGrath summarizes Lewis, paraphrases Lewis, and, on occasion, actually quotes Lewis. But McGrath does not allow us to engage Lewis – to hear what he says on the topics at hand. On the one hand, this makes perfect sense – McGrath is summarizing the cannon of Lewis’ thought and trying to distill the ideas for us in one book. On the other hand, the result is not what McGrath promises his readers in the foreword. As an overview of Lewis’ thought in the eight areas covered, McGrath does a good job. As someone who has read Lewis extensively (but not entirely) I was able to recognize much of what McGrath said as a paraphrase of Lewis. Reading the paraphrase, though, is not as dynamic or persuasive as reading what Lewis actually said. McGrath relies extensively on italics for emphasizing Lewis’ points so the reader doesn’t miss what is being said. Lewis is able to make those points with the use of merely words. One of Lewis’ strengths was being able to take deep complicated thoughts and explain them using ordinary language, or imaginatively describe a complex idea making it understandable. McGrath lacks that knack and occasionally slips into academic language. McGrath frequently submits his own words to explain Lewis, instead of allowing Lewis to speak for himself – when he does allow Lewis to speak , it is frequently in the form of two famous quotes, and while these are wonderful quotes to use, they are, unfortunately, overused by McGrath in this book. For people who are not familiar with Lewis and want an overview of who he is and what he believed, this book provides a good springboard, but for those who already dove into Lewis and are familiar with him and his works, this book adds little. It is a daunting task to effectively summarize someone who has written as extensively as Lewis, and McGrath does that job well, but he fails to provide the “lunch with Lewis” quality. In that vein we can imagine Lewis sitting across the table, but hardly ever speaking while McGrath does all the talking for him! Many times as I read this book I would recognize Lewis behind McGrath’s words, and I wanted to say to McGrath: Why are you talking? Lewis explains his point! Use his words – they are more winsome and memorable than yours. Be my guide, pull Lewis’ words out of his books and bring them here conversationally so I can experience what it might be like if I had lunch with C. S. Lewis.
Awesome. This is one of those insightful books which will draw me to read it again. McGrath offers well-documented quotes by C.S. Lewis and references to other works to illustrate how Lewis hypothetically would have answered several questions. Excellent points are touched on, with lists of materials to read to follow up and round out the concepts. It is balanced, upbeat, nicely laid out, well-written, and thought-provoking. It definitely inspires me to read several of Lewis’s books, and to re-read several others.
Would that I Could have Lunch with CS Lewis Having grown up on the tales of Clive Staples (CS) Lewis and having become something of a minor theologian in my adulthood, just the title of this book had me hooked. From the first page right through to the last, I'm pleased to say it did not disappoint. If I Had Lunch with CS Lewis takes the reader on a fascinating journey as it explores Lewis's life and the hardships he faced, what this led him to surmise about religion and what life really means, and, of course, how this ultimately shaped his writings. This is the first and certainly will not the last of Dr. Alistair McGrath's books that I've read. However having studied Christian Theology I've been familiar with him and his opinions for some time. I think he may have been included in Reasoned Faith: Essays in Philosophical Theology in Honor of Norman Kretzmann... He provided a wonderful insight into Lewis's life, going much further than anything I'd read on the subject before, and tackled difficult questions on religion, life, and meaning in a very tactful manor. The book is well structured and has been divided into eight broad topics making it easy to read. Each of these topics cover vast amounts of information, however it's all relatively easy to digest seeing as its presented in a rather laid back manner. While I wouldn't call this book "light reading" its certainly not a chore to read either. McGrath writes so as to inform the reader of Lewis's life and opinions while still making the book entertaining. It's factual, but with a distinct fun side too. "So why does meaning matter?" McGrath asks in the book. Well, its a difficult question but between him and Lewis he seems to have the answer pretty much covered. Overall, I really enjoyed the book. It was insightful, entertaining, and factual = everything I want in a book.