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University Battles

When assessing C. S. Lewis' role as a defender of the faith, one area stands out for the lack of attention it has received. With the exception of Walter Hoope's fine essay, "Oxford's Bonny Fighter,"[i] one is hard pressed to find anything else of article length written on the subject of the Oxford University Socratic Club. This is difficult to account for, because with the exception of his published work, no other activity that Lewis engaged in has proven more beneficial and far-reaching in its influence on Christianity than his participation in the Socratic Club. More often than not, when the subject of C. S. Lewis and the Oxford University Socratic Club is raised, the conversation turns to Lewis' encounter with Catholic philosopher, G. E. M. Anscombe. On the one hand, this is not surprising, given that many believed that Lewis was so thoroughly trounced that February 2 evening in 1948 that he never fully recovered, either from the personal humiliation he is thought to have suffered or from the loss of confidence in his abilities as a defender of the Christian faith. Yet the inordinate amount of attention given to this one meeting has tended to distort not only Lewis' encounter with Miss Anscombe, but also his presence and role in the Socratic Club.

For thirteen years running, from 1942 to 1954, C. S. Lewis presided as the Club's president. Meetings were held every Monday evening during each of the three academic terms, and unless he was ill or had some other engagement which he was unable to get out of, he was there. As a University Club, the Socratic was a phenomenon. Meetings were routinely left with standing room only. During the years Lewis presided as president, the Socratic entertained some of the most influential atheists of the day, along with the weighty arguments they brought against Christianity. As the Socratic's point man, Lewis was relied upon to represent the Christian position and to argue its case against the opposition. Lewis accepted this role willingly. His one aim was to create and maintain an atmosphere in which faith could thrive. To do this he used the Socratic arena as a means of challenging the prevailing intellectual prejudices against the Christian faith.

In view of the more than two hundred meetings of the Socratic Club which took place during Lewis's presidency, no more than a limited reassessment of its purpose and influence is aimed at here. In what follows, therefore, I intend, first, to demonstrate the inadequacy of evaluating Lewis and the Socratic enterprise through exclusive consideration of any single meeting by looking at the Club's overall purpose and impact, and second, to reassess within this larger context, Lewis's importance as a defender of the faith in the Socratic arena. In order to do this we must begin by looking at the Club's founding and original vision.

1. The Founding of the Socratic Club

One afternoon towards the end of 1941 during a tea party for newly matriculated freshmen at Oxford University, Monica Shorten, a student at Somerville College (one of the five women's colleges in Oxford), complained to Miss Stella Aldwinckle, a staff member of the Oxford pastorates, that no one seemed ready to seriously discuss the deeper questions raised by agnostics and atheists. "The sermons and the religious clubs just take the real difficulties as solved--things like the existence of God, the divinity of Christ and so on." Miss Aldwinckle asked the young woman whether there were others who felt like her. "Yes, Plenty!" She replied. "Plenty of agnostics and atheists."[ii]

Miss Aldwinckle had just joined the Oxford pastoral staff, a position which was designed to provide students with spiritual guidance. Having struggled herself with similar questions, she suggested that they set up a meeting in the college and that Miss Shorten bring these agnostics and atheists along to ask questions. A notice, described by Miss Aldwinckle as "lurid" and full of "blobs of ink," went out on Somerville notice-boards, inviting "all atheists, agnostics, and those disillusioned about religion or think they are," to meet at the East Junior Commons Room to discuss the matter. In spite of the ghastly notice, the meeting was well attended. " I went a few days later as a Daniel to a den of lions," Miss Aldwinckle recalled, "expecting to be torn limb from limb." But as it turned out the entire affair proved quite civil. Many good and thoughtful questions were raised. Everyone was interested and wanted to know if they could meet again and bring their boyfriends. It was agreed that they would, and at the next meeting it was standing room only. People squeezed together and floods of good questions again poured forth. It was decided that what was needed was an open forum for the discussion of the intellectual difficulties connected with religion in general and with Christianity in particular. This was the Socratic Club in embryo.[iii]

The next order of business was to decide on a president. Obviously not just any one would do. Miss Aldwinckle recognized that the success of the entire enterprise hung on this decision. She entertained the idea of Dorothy L. Sayers, but decided against it because Sayers lived in London. However, Miss Aldwinckle had recently heard of a don at the University who was an outspoken Christian, but had been an atheist for many years. He taught English Language and Literature at Magdalen College. This was our man, she thought, and immediately wrote Mr. C. S. Lewis to ask him whether he would honor them by becoming president.[iv] Lewis promptly responded. "Dear Miss Aldwinckle, This club is long overdue. Come to coffee on Tuesday evening in my rooms to discuss plans."[v] By the beginning of the next term, January of 1942, the University Socratic Club had been granted official approval and was up and running.

2. The Making of a Socratic President

Now I must digress a moment to look a bit more closely at Miss Aldwinckle's choice of a president. At first glance, it may not at all be obvious why she should have chosen a teacher of English language and literature to lead such an undertaking. But C. S. Lewis was not your typical English don.

Lewis was born into a Protestant home in Belfast, Ireland in 1898. His exposure to Christianity during his childhood had little influence upon him intellectually. By the time he entered Oxford University in 1917 he was a confirmed rational atheist. After finishing a degree in "Greats" (i.e. classics and philosophy), Lewis continued on for a second degree in English Language and Literature. During this period of time, his atheistic assumptions increasingly came under attack by much of what he read. Especially alarming was Lewis' realization that writers like George MacDonald, George Herbert and G. K. Chesterton, who were avowedly Christian in their orientation, proved far more interesting and sensible than their "enlightened" counterparts. But a more important and sustained challenge to Lewis' Atheist assumptions came from a fellow student and friend, Owen Barfield. Barfield's success became evident, when in 1929, Lewis renounced his atheism and confessed a belief in God. Two years later he would take the final step and express faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God.[vi]

But Lewis' pilgrimage through intellectual atheism to Christianity was not the only asset he brought to the presidency. His training, temper and conviction were a natural fit for the kind of intellectual rigour and butting of heads the Socratic model assumed. Lewis' preparation for this role began at Malvern College, the school he attended in 1913. Harry Wakelyn Smith, or "Smewgy" as the students called him, was Malvern's Classics Master, and it was under his tutelage that Lewis said his first real training in thinking as a method of intellectual endeavor really began. "He could enchant but he could also analyze," recalled Lewis. "An idiom or a textual crux, once expounded by Smewgy, became clear as day. He made us feel that the schola's demand for accuracy was not merely pedantic, still less an arbitrary moral discipline, but rather a niceness, a delicacy, to lack which argued "˜a gross and swainish disposition.'"[vii]

In September of the next year, Lewis found himself in Bookham, Surrey, under the instruction of yet another formative influence, William T. Kirkpatrick. For the following two and a half years Lewis was tutored by the "Great Knock," as he affectionately called Kirkpatrick. "If ever a man came near to being a purely logical entity, that man was Kirk," said Lewis. Kirkpatrick was an Ulster Scot who had turned atheist. As a teacher, he was a born Socratic, querying his pupils with probing questions until he had elicited a clear expression of the truth or facts under discussion. His "ruthless dialectic" came as naturally to him as did walking, and he applied it across the board. Under his mentoring, Lewis mastered the art of refutation and developed a passion for precise terms.[viii] All the time he was at Bookham,

The most casual remark was taken as a summons to disputation. The loud cry of "˜Stop!' was flung in to arrest a torrent of verbiage which could not be endured a moment longer;...The hastier and quieter "˜Excuse!' ushered in a correction or distinction merely parenthetical and betokened that, thus set right, your remark might still, without absurdity, be allowed to reach completion. The most encouraging of all was, "˜I hear you.' This meant that your remark was significant and only required refutation; it had risen to the dignity of error.[ix]

In the school of the Great Knock, Lewis the pupil began to put on "intellectual muscle," eventually becoming a skilled dialectician who could hold his own before his master. It was a great day, Lewis recalled, "when the man who had so long been engaged in exposing my vagueness at last cautioned me against the dangers of excessive subtlety."[x]

The next stage in Lewis' training as an apologist and disputant came during his days as a student at Oxford University. The trainer on this occasion was friend and fellow classmate, Owen Barfield. With Barfield, Lewis entered what might be called a bootcamp for civil disputation. Of Barfield Lewis said, he was both my alter ego in that he shared all my most secret delights, but also was my antiself, "he shares [my] interests,..., but he...approached them all at a different angle... . It is as if he spoke your language but mispronounced it... . When you set out to correct his heresies, you [found] that he foresooth [had] decided to correct yours! And then you go at it, at it hammer and tongs, far into the night, night after night."[xi]>

Barfield's conversion to Anthroposophy (theistic in its orientation but not Christian) marked the beginning of what Lewis referred to as the "˜Great War.' Lewis' atheism now came under skilled assault, and his comment about their disagreements is telling: "It was never, thank God, a quarrel, though it could have become one in a moment if he had used to me anything like the violence I allowed myself to was an almost incessant disputation, sometimes by letter and sometimes face to face, which lasted for years."[xii] Barfield modeled the virtue of argumentation that is ruled by civility, and in the process further honed and refined Lewis' dialectical skills.

Out of the Great War with Barfield came one of the great turning points in Lewis' intellectual life, one that would shape him as an apologist. Lewis speaks of a prevailing assumption which he later was to dub "chronological snobbery," that is, the "uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited." Chronological snobbery, which by this time had become one of the central tenets of Lewis' intellectual makeup, was used to make Christianity irrelevant. As the result of one of Barfield's counterattacks, this supposition was destroyed forever. Neither the uncritical dismissal of premises nor the complacent acceptance of contemporary assumptions was any longer admissible. Concerning the former, Lewis realized, "you must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood." Regarding the latter, Lewis passed on to the realization that our own age was also a period, like all periods before it, and that it had its own characteristic illusions. Such illusions, he began to perceive, are often to be found "in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them."[xiii]

A most startling and unforgettable encounter Lewis had about this time reinforced the lesson. During the early part of the 20th century, it had become routine within the academy to reject the historicity, that is to say the historical reliability, of the Gospel accounts. It was an assumption that for many had become an indubitable fact. Early in 1926, Lewis recounted, "the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good. "˜Rum thing,' he went on. "˜All that stuff of Fraze's about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once.'" Here was a rather interesting anomaly, both because of who the person was, and because he defied protocol and actually investigated a matter that among his circle of colleagues was a dead issue. Lewis was stunned. "If he, the cynic of cynics, the toughest of the toughs, were not--as I would still have put it--'safe,' where could I turn? Was there then no escape?"[xiv] What Lewis had bumped up against was an important bit of chronological snobbery put to the test, and it hadn't faired too well.

Upon renouncing his historical snobbishness, Lewis found his defenses against Christianity alarmingly depleted. Intellectual prejudices that had securely insulated him from the momentous claims of the Christian faith now failed him. It was a moment he was never to forget. Having learned the lesson well, it was to become one of his most formidable weapons in defense of the Christian faith.

Furthermore, by the end of 1941, when Lewis was asked to become the first president of this newly formed University Club, he had already published several books and articles in defense of Christianity and others written from a Christian point of view. Among these, were The Pilgrim's RegressOut of the Silent PlanetThe Problem of Pain and the Screwtape Letters. By this time Lewis had also completed a series of highly successful radio talks on Christianity, which later became part of his book Mere Christianity.

Lewis was then, by nature and training a naturally Socratic soul. The inspiration of Smewgy, and the rigorous intellectual fencing experienced with Kirkpatrick and Barfield, prepared Lewis for the role he would be called upon to fill in the Socratic. Consequently, when Miss Aldwinckle scanned the intellectual terrain of Oxford, she found no Christian quite so outspoken or experienced in the defense of the Christian faith as the English don from Magdalan.

3. The Intellectual Challenge and the Socratic Agenda

The Socratic Club was established for the express purpose of answering the intellectual challenge to belief in the tenets of the Christian faith. The atmosphere of Oxford before the war years was marked by skepticism and disillusionment. Many of the University's faculty taught that there was no such thing as truth in the ultimate sense. The advent of war only contributed to the already growing sense of intellectual despair that was gripping much of the University. Yet there were those who did not want to give in to the prevailing skepticism. And as Monica Shorten and her friends had shown, it was not only seeking and questioning Christians who wanted honest answers to their questions; unbelieving agnostics were equally interested to see if Christianity could successfully challenge the prevailing anti-Christian ideas.[xv] These were students, Miss Aldwinckle said, who believed that existence had some significance, and were prepared to contend with it till it yielded its secret. They persisted in asking ultimate questions because they were convinced that skepticism was inadequate. But the Christian faith they had experienced in conventional settings, hypocritical Christians, bad sermons and ineffective Scripture lessons had proved less relevant. It was primarily for such "ruthless realists" as these that the Socratic existed.[xvi]

The challenge, as Lewis and Miss Aldwinckle saw it, was to help these young realists to find their way spiritually. In order to do this, they would have to challenge the various intellectual prejudices arrayed against Christianity by demonstrating the integrity of the Christian's belief system. And to do this effectively they would need highly qualified participants. So they turned to the Who's Who and scoured it to find Christian and non-Christian speakers who were specialists in their respective fields of study. As Lewis put it, they sought out "intelligent atheists who had the leisure or zeal to come and propagate their creed."[xvii] Both Lewis and Aldwinckle were convinced of the truth of Christianity and they were ready and willing to test its metal in the Socratic arena before all comers.

The reason for Lewis' own willingness to accept the position of president is stated in his Preface to the first Socratic Digest. Socrates, Lewis comments, had exhorted men to "follow the argument wherever it led them." As he envisioned it, the Socratic Club was created to apply this principle to one particular subject--the pros and cons of the Christian Religion. In the process, he hoped that it would be shown that Christianity was far more rational and sensible than many had been led to believe. Lewis' observations at this point are critical for a proper understanding of the purpose and vision of the Socratic Club and for Lewis' role as its president.

It is a little remarkable that, to the best of my knowledge, no society had ever before been formed for such a purpose. There had been plenty of organisations that were explicitly Christian,..., and there had been plenty of others, scientific or political, which were if not explicitly, yet profoundly anti-Christian in outlook..., but an arena specially devoted to the conflict between Christian and unbeliever was a novelty. Its value from a merely cultural point of view is very great. In any fairly large and talkative community such as a university, there is always the danger that those who think alike should gravitate together into coteries where they will henceforth encounter opposition only in the emasculated form of rumour that the outsiders say thus and thus. The absent are easily refuted, complacent dogmatism thrives, and differences of opinion are embittered by group hostility. Each group hears not the best, but the worst, that the other groups can say.[xviii]

One of the things Lewis had in mind, that went unchallenged under the cultural conditions he described, was that prevailing premise of modern intellectual inquiry, "chronological snobbery." The Socratic arena was a place where this assumption could be properly challenged. In the Socratic, he continued, "a man could get the case for Christianity without all the paraphernalia of pietism and the case against it without the irrelevant sansculottisme of our common anti-God weeklies."[xix]

Having said this, however, Lewis went on to emphasize two further critical points: first, the partisan nature of the enterprise; and secondly, the intellectual honesty of the Socratic arena.

Those who founded it do not for one moment pretend to be neutral. It was the Christians who constructed the arena and issued the challenge. It will therefore always be possible for the lower (the less Athenian) type of unbeliever to regard the whole thing as a cunningly--or not even so very cunningly--disguised form of propaganda... . But when all is said and done, the answer to any such suspicion lies deeper. It is not here that the honesty of the Socratic comes in. We never claimed to be impartial. But argument is. It has a life of its own. No man can tell where it will go. We expose ourselves, and the weakest of our party, to your fire no less than you are exposed to ours... . The arena is common to both parties and cannot finally be cheated.[xx]

The Socratic Club was deliberately designed to be an arena where Christian and non-Christian could intellectually lock horns in an atmosphere that was fearless and unyielding in argumentation, yet ruled by civility.

4. The Socratic Arena

The tendency has been to portray the Socratic Club as simply a platform for Lewis, one from which he could bully his opponents into submission while a host of devotees cheered him on to victory. One of the more extreme depictions of Lewis' Socratic persona illustrates this well.

[I]t was not always easy to find a tame atheist who was prepared to come along and be mauled in public debate; for on these occasions he reverted to type and became again the P'daytabird prosecuting an unlikely prisoner in the Belfast police courts. No one who witnessed these debates has ever suggested that Lewis played fair. He argued with tremendous vigour, and when he demolished his victims it was with evident relish.[xxi]

Such a portrayal of Lewis and the Socratic Club is, however, misleading. He was not the tormenting bully that is here portrayed. The spirit of triumphalism was never part of Lewis' or Miss Aldwinckle's agenda, although admittedly there was a great tendency among many of the students who attended to view it in such terms. According to John Wain, one of Lewis' pupils during the war years, Lewis had a permanent audience who "passionately wanted him to win."[xxii] In contrast to the perspective of the students, it is interesting to hear what Lewis wrote to his friend Dom Bede Griffiths in April of 1954, his last year as president. "At the Socratic the enemy often wipe the floor with us. Quous que domine?"[xxiii] Although Lewis believed that the Christian faith was superior to all rival faiths and ideologies, he never assumed that the Christian's particular defense and representation of it would necessarily always come out on top. In August, 1946, he confessed to Dorothy L. Sayers, "My own frequent uneasiness comes from another source--the fact that apologetic work is so dangerous to one's own faith. A doctrine never seems dimmer to me than when I have just successfully defended it."[xxiv] Austin Farrer, the distinguished theologian and a close personal friend of Lewis who attended and participated in the Socratic meetings, has, I believe, captured both the spirit of the Socratic Club and Lewis' leadership in his description of him as an apologist.

Lewis was an apologist from temper, from conviction, and from modesty. From temper, for he loved an argument. From conviction, being traditionally orthodox. From modesty, because he laid no claim either to the learning which would have made him a theologian or the grace which would have made him a spiritual guide. His writings certainly express a solid confidence; but it is the confidence that he can detect the fallacy of current objections to belief, and appreciate the superiority of orthodox tenets over rival positions; that he has some ability, besides, to make others see what he so clearly sees himself. These are modest claims, when compared with the pretension to look deeply into the things of God: a pretension he never advanced, even by implication, either on intellectual or spiritual grounds.[xxv]

But Lewis did love a good fight and was well known for his combative spirit. In relation to apologetics, he explained his passionate and forceful defense of the Christian faith in terms of Donne's maxim, ""˜The heresies that men leave are hated most.' The things I assert most vigorously," he stated, "are those that I resisted long and accepted late."[xxvi] In the intellectual arena of the weekly Socratic meeting, Lewis was both protagonist and antagonist. Students and colleagues alike looked almost exclusively to him to uphold the Christian position against those who came to challenge it. Rachel Trickett, who later became Principal of St. Hugh's College, was an undergraduate at the University during the years 1942 to 1945. She remembers Lewis as extremely lucid and forceful in lectures, though not particularly inspiring. However, she indicates that in the Socratic, all was changed. There he was the great gladiator who "we'd all flock to hear every week for his brilliant and dazzling encounters with atheists, psychical researchers, [and] people of different denominations." She recalls that Lewis seemed always to have just the right analogy for every situation, often leaving his opponents stunned.[xxvii] In the early years of the club's existence, Austin Farrer was occasionally called upon to be ready to fill in for Lewis in case he didn't show up. Farrer remembers going in fear and trembling, "certain to be caught out in debate and to let down the side." But then Lewis would show up, "snuffing the imminent battle and saying "˜Aha!' and all Farre's anxieties would roll away."[xxviii]

Visiting opponents typically viewed Lewis as a fearless and formidable opponent, yet equally "generous" in argument. He was admired for the intellectual rigor he brought to each topic and discussion, and was known both for his "courage" and "open-mindedness."[xxix] Often it was the chance to cross intellectual swords with him more than anything else, that attracted some of Britain's best non-Christian thinkers. One such opponent was the Irish writer and playwright Shaw Desmond. Desmond was a brilliant speaker. He lectured throughout Britain, Scandinavia and the United States and founded the International Institute for Psychical Research. Hearing of the Socratic Club, he wrote to Lewis in September of 1945 to ask if he might himself have the privilege of entering the arena with him. "I have heard that you are fearless and generous to those with whom you have the happiness to differ, and possibly you might be disposed to entertain angels unawares (as an Irishman I may be permitted to throw bouquets at myself and brickbats at the Other Fellow!)."[xxx] An invitation was indeed forthcoming.[xxxi]

The meetings were typically held in college common-rooms and were always well attended.[xxxii] One of the most notable encounters pitted Lewis against Professor C. E. M. Joad. Joad was then head of the department of philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, and a popular radio broadcaster on the BBC's Brains Trust. Miss Aldwinckle described the meeting as the most memorable and amusing in the history of the Socratic. The meeting took place on the evening of January 24, 1944. It was scheduled to be held in the Senior Commons Room of St. Hilda's College, but due to the size of crowd, a second commons room was added. Soon, however, it became apparent that even this arrangement would not be adequate to accommodate everyone, so through the kindness of the bursar, they were allowed to move into the dining room, and even then there was left standing room only. Joad was an agnostic who had struggled with the problem of suffering and evil for some years, and had recently found Lewis' treatment of the issue in The Problem of Pain convincing. He was already moving in the direction of Christianity when he met Lewis that January evening, and his paper, "On Being Reviewed by Chri stians," was only moderately critical of the Christian faith. Even so, the atmosphere was combative, and the interchange electrifying.[xxxiii] Not long after, Professor Joad embraced Christianity. In his autobiographical work, The Recovery of Belief, Joad carefully traced the stages in the development of his beliefs from agnosticism to Christianity, noting along the way how important Lewis was in his pilgrimage to faith.[xxxiv]

Another celebrated meeting, and the one that has figured large in assessments of Lewis, came during the Hilary term of 1948. The guest speaker on this occasion was fellow Christian and Catholic philosopher, G. E. M. Anscombe. The previous year Lewis had published a work of apologetics entitled Miracles. In chapter three, "The Self-Contradiction of the Naturalist," he argued that Naturalism was self-refuting.[xxxv] Miss Anscombe, who was at the time a philosophy tutor at Somerville College, came prepared to refute Lewis' position.[xxxvi] Lewis' central premise was that the Naturalist's belief in the validity of reason is contradicted by one of the fundamental tenets of Naturalism, which is that all human thought is a product of irrational causes. If this is true, Lewis pointed out, then human thought itself is irrational and so too Naturalism. Although Anscombe stated that she did not think there was sufficient reason for believing the Naturalist "hypothesis about human behaviour and thought," she also maintained that someone who did could not be refuted by Lewis' argument because he mistakenly equated irrational causes with non-rational causes, and confused the concepts of causereason and explanation.[xxxvii] Although the audience that evening was divided in their opinion as to who got the better of who, it is often stated (as noted above) that the spirited philosophy tutor thoroughly demolished Lewis' entire premise. Such a portrayal, however, is a distortion not only of Lewis' encounter with Miss Anscombe, but also his own reaction to the outcome. While a full analysis of the debate cannot be undertaken here, a modest reappraisal of these two aspects of the meeting will shed some additional light on Lewis' role as a defender of the faith.

A couple of days after the Socratic meeting, Lewis dined with his friend and colleague, Hugo Dyson, and four of their pupils. Derek Brewer, one of the students, distinctly remembers that Lewis was greatly troubled by the outcome of the encounter and his sense of defeat cast a shadow over the entire dinner conversation.[xxxviii] George Sayer, a friend and biographer of Lewis, has given a similar account of Lewis' response to the outcome of his meeting with Anscombe. He recalls that not long after the debate, Lewis told him that Anscombe had destroyed his argument for the existence of God, and that he considered it a most serious matter.[xxxix] However, Miss Anscombe, who also dined with Lewis not long after the meeting, gives a conflicting account of Lewis' feelings. "The meeting of the Socratic Club at which I read my paper has been described by several of his friends as a horrible and shocking experience which upset him very much. Neither Dr. Havard (who had Lewis and me to dinner a few weeks later) nor Professor Jack Bennett remembered any such feelings on Lewis' part....I am inclined to construe the odd accounts of the matter by some of his an interesting example of the phenomena called "˜projection.'"[xl]

Anscombe's experience notwithstanding, it does not seem possible to reduce the perceptions of Brewer and Sayer to mere "˜projection.' Lewis was clearly troubled. But the question is over what? Saye's recollection of Lewis' struggle strikes to the heart of the matter. When Lewis told Sayer that his defeat was a serious matter, he said it was because in the minds of many people, "the disproof of an argument for the existence of God tended to be regarded as a disproof of the existence of God."[xli] At the center of Lewis' struggle, was a concern for the faith of the Christians he represented. He could live with the fact that he had been bested; but he continued to struggle with the implications his defeat may have had for the faith of others. In his essay on Lewis as apologist, Austin Farrer brings this point into sharper focus.

It is commonly said that if rational argument is so seldom the cause of conviction, philosophical apologists must largely be wasting their shot. The premise is true, but the conclusion does not follow. For though argument does not create conviction, the lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish. So the apologist who does nothing but defend may play a useful, though preparatory, part.[xlii]

Lewis was well aware of the truth of Farre's observation. More than two years after the debate with Anscombe, he was still wrestling with the issue. Writing to Miss Aldwinckle in June of 1950, he proposed a list of potential speakers for next term's Socratic Club. Number four on the list was Miss Anscombe. "I shd. press hard for no. 4," he said, "The lady is quite right to refute what she thinks bad theistic arguments, but does this not almost oblige her as a Christian to find good ones in their place: having obliterated me as an Apologist, ought she not to succeed me?"[xliii] I do not mean to imply that Lewis did not struggle with the reality that his argument had been found wanting in his encounter with Anscombe, for it is only reasonable to assume that he did. But the more profound and long-lasting concern was for the faith of others.

Looking at the Anscombe encounter from this angle, it is evident that in the Socratic arena Lewis self-consciously worked as an apologist for the educated layperson. On their behalf he labored to clear away the intellectual obstacles that unnecessarily impeded either the unbelieve's acceptance of Christianity or the Christian's growth in the faith. It was a labor he was committed to and one that continued to occupy him until his death in 1963.

The second aspect of the debate that concerns us here is its long-term impact on Lewis' work as an apologist. Was Lewis' confidence to defend the faith completely shaken by his encounter with Miss Anscombe, and did he believe his entire premise that naturalism is self-refuting had been shown to be invalid? There are at least four good reasons to think he did not. First, Lewis took the time to revise his argument in light of Anscombe's criticisms. The revised chapter, published in 1960 with the new title, "The Cardinal Difficulty of the Naturalist," replaced the last five pages of the original chapter with ten new pages.[xliv] Such an exercise would make little sense if Lewis thought his entire argument was fundamentally flawed.

Secondly, many observers did not come away from the meeting with the impression that Lewis' basic position was shown to be wrong. Among them was Miss Anscombe herself. In the introduction to the second volume of her collected works, she states that she believed that her criticisms of Lewis' first edition were still just, and that there remained elements within the second edition to which she took exception. However, she acknowledged a marked improvement in the overall argument of the revised chapter. Nowhere does she suggest that Lewis' entire premise was misguided.[xlv] Moreover, Professor Basil Mitchell, the distinguished University of Oxford philosopher who was present at the debate and succeeded Lewis as president of the Socratic Club in 1954, insists that there was no reason to believe that Lewis was shown to be "hopelessly wrong."[xlvi]

Thirdly, it is not true that Lewis ceased writing and lecturing in the field of apologetics after the debate. Two obvious examples are his ongoing involvement in the Socratic Club and his revision of chapter three of Miracles. However, the meeting was a turning point in his career as an apologist. For one thing, he never again attempted to take on the professional philosophers of the day. He told George Sayer, "I can never write another book of that sort," referring to Miracles.[xlvii] I believe Professor Mitchell has judged the impact of Lewis' meeting with Anscombe on this point correctly.

[T]here was no warrant for supposing that in the original debate Lewis had been shown to be just hopelessly wrong. It was rather that he was not equipped with the kind of philosophical techniques which were needed at that stage to cope with a highly professional performer like Elizabeth Anscombe. And so Lewis probably drew the correct inference and decided that he couldn't take on the professional philosophers at their own game...if he was,..., he would have to do a lot of homework. He had no particular aptitude for--and no particular interest in--the dominant philosophy of his day, and he could better spend his time doing other things that he was supremely good at.[xlviii]

Lewis continued to present the Christian faith as something worth believing in, but he engaged less in the overtly apologetic work which relied exclusively on the well-reasoned argument. Ten years after his encounter with Miss Anscombe, Lewis wrote, "Christians and their opponents again and again expect that some new discovery will either turn matters of faith into matters of knowledge or else reduce them to patent absurdities. But it has never happened."[xlix]

Lastly, a little known sequel to the debate suggests that Lewis had no reason to think his position was completely erroneous. Sometime in the 1960s, John Lucas, a philosophical colleague of Professor Mitchell's, conceived the idea of having a re-run of the Anscombe-Lewis encounter with himself taking up Lewis' side of the argument. Anscombe agreed, and on that occasion the general consensus, according to Professor Mitchell, seemed to be that Lucas successfully upheld Lewis' position.[l]

What remains to be emphasized is that Lewis' weekly presence in the Socratic arena was not dependent upon a triumphal outcome; as he remarked to his friend Dom Bede Griffiths, those who opposed the Christian faith often came out on top.[li] Nor was he there solely because of his love for disputation, though he certainly enjoyed the opportunity the Socratic arena afforded him to indulge this side of his temperament. Rather, the overriding reason he came week after week was his deep conviction of the truth and reasonableness of Christianity, and his desire to help others come to the same conviction.

5. The Socratic Legacy

At a time when many had begun to believe that Christianity was dying, if not already dead, as a plausible system of belief, the Socratic Club reasserted the intellectual vitality and integrity of the Christian faith. From its inception, the Socratic Club demonstrated to those who attended that, in spite of the intellectual hostility arrayed against Christianity, there were many who found the positions of atheists and agnostics inadequate and were willing to put the case against Christianity to the test. Week in and week out, Lewis and others showed that the Christian faith had not been rendered intellectually inferior by the "enlightened" thinking of the age.

Those who benefited the most were those who had been brought up Christian and were hoping for a reason to believe that Christianity was true.[lii] Although Rachel Trickett could remember little about the Social ists Club she attended as an Oxford undergraduate, she has retained vivid memories of the Socratic Club, and especially of Lewis. Nobody could escape his influence, she recalls. The effect he had on the young people was enormous. More than anything, it was the "kind of direct sincerity and immediacy in his approach to ethical, moral, as well as theological problems," she stated, that made the greatest impact. At the Socratic one was certain to get an up-to-date and relevant case for Christianity.[liii] His lucid and clear presentation of both sides of the argument helped them see and understand what he did, and to incorporate it into their thinking. This particular aspect of Lewis' influence is nicely illustrated by the experience of Lady Elizabeth Catherwood (daughter of renowned minister Martin Lloyd-Jones). Although she never attended a Socratic meeting (she attended the Christian Union which met at the same time as the Socratic Club), all of her friends did. When they would return, they would sit up, often until two in the morning, going through all the discussions. What she remembers most from those late night discussions, was Lewis' "way of thinking through a thing."[liv] By retracing the points of Lewis' argument, they began to detect the fallacies of current objections to belief. They also gained a new appreciation and understanding of Christianity's ability to answer the moral and theological problems that had before filled them with doubts.

By breaking down the intellectual prejudices to Christianity, Lewis freed many to reaffirm a faith they had lost confidence in, and for some he made faith in Christianity plausible for the first time. The importance of the Socratic enterprise was not in its ability to create faith, but to maintain an atmosphere where faith was possible, and where it could be rekindled, grow, even thrive. This is the Socratic legacy, and its benefits extended to Lewis' writing enterprise as well. Often the apologetics that go out under the cover of a book do so without having been tested, and sometimes go uncha llenged once in print. This was seldom the case with Lewis' works. Most of what he published in the way of apologetics found its way into the Socratic arena at some point, either after the fact or before. In the case of his argument against naturalism, he was found wanting, but Lewis used what he learned to revise and strengthen his position. The point is that although Lewis worked on a non-professional level in the field of apologetics, his arguments were frequently tested in ways that many of his professional colleagues never faced. For those who knew of Lewis' weekly encounter, his published work took on an added dimension of authenticity.[lv]

It is worth noting that the idea that Lewis only surrounded himself with inferiors, as the recent motion picture Shadowlands has conveyed, simply does not stand up to the facts. During his years as president of the Socratic Club, Lewis faced some of Christianity's most potent foes and was able to consistently demonstrate the plausibility of the Christian position. The legacy of the Socratic Club is ultimately the legacy of the apologetic enterprise, namely, the continuing existence of Christianity as a viable system of belief. As Austin Farrer reminds us, "what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned." Christianity continues to endure, in part, because of individuals like C. S. Lewis who have willingly entered into the wider intellectual arena, and with courage, followed the Christian argument wherever it led.


Aldwinckle, Stella. "Socrates Was A Realist," Socratic Digest, No. 1, June, 1943.

_________. Oral History Interview, conducted by Lyle W. Dorsett, Oxford, England, July 26, 1985, for the Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.

Anscombe, G. E. M. "A Reply to Mr. C.S. Lewis' Argument that "˜Naturalism' is Self-Refuting," Socratic Digest, No. 4.

_________. The Collected Philosophical Papers of G. E. M. Anscombe, Vol. 2, Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981.

Blamires, Harry. Oral History Interview, conducted by Lyle W. Dorsett, Wheaton, IL, October 23, 1983, for the Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.

Catherwood, Lady Elizabeth. Oral History Interview, conducted by Stephanie L. Feecke, Wheaton, IL, August 3, 1991, for the Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.

Carpenter, Humphrey. The Inklings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979.

Como, James, editor. C. S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table and Other Reminiscences. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1979.

Desmond, Shaw. Unpublished letter to Lewis, September 24, 1945, Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.

Farrer, Austin, "The Christian Apologist." In Light on C. S. Lewis. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1965.

Griffiths, Dom Bede. Oral History Interview, conducted by Lyle W. Dorsett, Wheaton, IL, August 26, 1983, for the Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.

Lewis, C. S. Letters of C. S. Lewis. Revised edition, edited by Walter Hooper. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1993.

_________. Miracles. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1952, and Glasgow: William Collins Sons, 1976.

_________. Preface, Socratic Digest, No. 1, June, 1943.

_________. Surprised By Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1984.

_________. Unpublished letter to Dom Bede Griffiths, April 24, 1954, Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.

_________. Unpublished letter to Stella Aldwinckle, June 6, 1950, Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.

_________. "Religion and Rocketry." In The World's Last Night and Other Essays. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1960.

Mitchell, Basil. "Reflections on C. S. Lewis, Apologetics, and the Moral Tradition, Basil Mitchell in Conversation with Andrew Walker." A Christian For All Christians: Essays in Honour of C. S. Lewis. Andrew Walker and James Patrick, editors. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1990.

Moynihan, Martin and Monica. Oral History Interview, conducted by Lyle W. Dorsett, Wimbledon, England, July 24, 1984, for the Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.

Olford, Stephen F. Oral History Interview, conducted by Lyle W. Dorsett, Wheaton, IL, November 7, 1983, for the Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.

Sayer, George. Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1994.

Trickett, Rachel. Oral History Interview, conducted by David Ll. Dodds, St. Hugh's College, Oxford, July 18, 1989, for the Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.

Wain, John. Sprightly Running. London: Macmillan, 1962.

Wilson, A. N. C. S. Lewis, A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990.

[i] Como, At the Breakfast Table, 137-85.

[ii] Audio Interview with Stella Aldwinckle, 8. When speaking of agnostics, both Monica Shorten and Miss Aldwinckle have in mind Christians who in their confusion no longer know what to make of their faith, and non-Christians who do not know what to make of Christianity but are not opposed to trying.

[iii] Ibid., 8-9. An abbreviated version of this story appeared in the Socratic Digest, No. 1, 6.

[iv] Ibid., 9.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Surprised By Joy, passim.

[vii] Ibid., 110-12.

[viii] Ibid., 135, 137-39.

[ix] Ibid., 136.

[x] Ibid., 137.

[xi] Ibid., 199-200.

[xii] Ibid., 207.

[xiii] Ibid., 207-208.

[xiv] Ibid., 223-224.

[xv] The view of Oxford presented here was gathered from the following audio interviews: Harry Blamires, Lady Elizabeth Catherwood, Dom Bede Griffiths, Martin Moynihan, and Rachel Trickett, all of whom were students during this period. Additional insight was gathered from Wain, Sprightly Running, 98-157.

[xvi] Aldwinckle, "Socrates Was a Realist," 6-7.

[xvii] Socratic Digest, No. 1, 4.

[xviii] Socratic Digest, No. 1, 2-4.

[xix] Ibid., 4. "Sansculottisme" means militant extremism.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Wilson, C. S. Lewis, 182. "P'daytabird" was a nickname used by Jack and Warnie for their father who was a police court solicitor in Belfast.

[xxii] Wain, Sprightly Running, 141.

[xxiii] Unpublished letter.

[xxiv] Lewis, Letters of C. S. Lewis, 382.

[xxv] Farrer, "The Christian Apologist," 24.

[xxvi] Surprised By Joy, 213.

[xxvii] Oral History Interview with Rachel Trickett, 6.

[xxviii] Farrer, The Christian Apologist," 25.

[xxix] The picture of Lewis presented here was gathered from various testimonies and oral histories from both participants and members. See for example the Oral History Interviews at the Marion E. Wade Center with: Stella Aldwinckle, Harry Blamires, Lady Elizebeth Catherwood, Dom Bede Griffith, Martin Moynihan, Stephen Olford, Rachel Trickett.

[xxx] Unpublished letter.

[xxxi] Desmond spoke on two different occasions. On the first, January 28, 1946, his topic was "Religion in the Post-War World."

[xxxii] Oral History Interview with Aldwinckle, 10.

[xxxiii] Ibid., 25.

[xxxiv] Cf. Oral History Interview with Stephen Olford, 4-5.

[xxxv] By Naturalism is meant the doctrine that only nature exists, that nothing which exists has supernatural significance, and that scientific laws are adequate to account for all phenomena.

[xxxvi] Miss Anscombe went on to become Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University.

[xxxvii] Socratic Digest, No. 4, 7-11. Professor Anscombe's original paper is also included in her Collected Works, Vol. 2, 224-32.

[xxxviii] Carpenter, The Inklings, 217.

[xxxix] Sayer, Jack, 186.

[xl] Anscombe, Collected Papers, Vol. 2, x.

[xli] Sayer, Jack, 186.

[xlii] Farrer, Light on C. S. Lewis, 26.

[xliii] Unpublished Letter, June 12, 1950.

[xliv] The 1960 revised edition was published by William Collins Sons and issued as a Fontana Book. Macmillan (New York) published the revised chapter in their 1978 edition of Miracles.

[xlv] Anscombe, Collected Papers, Vol. 2, ix-x.

[xlvi] Christian For All Christians, 10.

[xlvii] Sayer, Jack, 187.

[xlviii] Christian For All Christians, 10-11.

[xlix] Lewis, World's Last Night, 92.

[l] Ibid., 9.

[li] Unpublished letter, April 22, 1954.

[lii] See, Christian For All Christians, 7f.

[liii] Oral History Interview with Rachel Trickett, 6-8.

[liv] Oral History Interview with Lady Catherwood, unnumbered. One of the students that Lady Catherwood mentions as benefiting from these discusssion was James I. Packer.

[lv] Specific examples of this can be found in: Oral History Interviews with Lady Catherwood; Harry Blamires, 18-19; Martin Moynihan, 23; Stephen Olford, 4-7; Rachel Trickett, 9. Basil Mitchell and Andrew Walker touch on this point as well in, Christian For All Christians, 14-18; and Anscombe displays this attitude as noted on page 9 above.

Christopher Mitchell

Christopher Mitchell, Theologian, (1951 – 2014) was the third director of the Marion E. Wade Center from 1994 to 2013, and the first holder of the Marion E. Wade Chair of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois. Mitchell was also the Consulting Editor for VII: An Anglo-American Literary Review (now VII: Journal of the Marion E. Wade Center). Prior to coming to Wheaton College he served as a missionary and pastor. He has published several articles including “C.S. Lewis and Authentic Discipleship,” Knowing and Doing (C.S. Lewis Institute, Spring 2011 Issue.) Mitchell received his M.A. from Wheaton College, and a Ph.D. from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, where his concentration was Historical Theology with a focus on Jonathan Edwards.


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