A few years ago, when the bestselling author and New York Times columnist David Brooks found himself undone by a recent divorce, he began to contemplate a move spiritually and it became public. According to The New Yorker, “He received, by his own estimation, three hundred gifts of spiritual books, ‘only one hundred of which were different copies of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity.’”
Undoubtedly this was about ninety-nine copies too many, but the friends and acquaintances were on to something. Lewis remains a potent force for instigating conversion. (It worked for me as a first-year student at Berkeley.) I have heard in countless lectures about Christian thought leaders who read “St. Clive” (my nickname—his full name is Clive Staples Lewis) and his enduring influence. I would say, with pardonable overstatement (I hope), that just about every Christian academic I know has read Lewis and been changed.
Lewis, Collins, and Öberg
But let me limit that comment above to thought leaders in faith and science. Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health, repeatedly cites Lewis as the reason he became a Christian in medical school at age 27. Alister McGrath has written several biographies of St. Clive and his enduring impact.
And most recently, Karin Öberg, Professor of Astronomy at Harvard University and a founding board member of the Society for Catholic Scientists. In a recent interview with BioLogos (a faith-science ministry founded by Collins), she commented that, after finishing her undergraduate studies at Caltech and beginning her Ph.D. in Leiden, “The next book I ordered was Mere Christianity, which is a dangerous book to read if you are trying to stay agnostic, especially if you’re primed, as I was . . . Being well-primed, I got through about half the book before acknowledging that I believed what C.S. Lewis believed.”
“Believed what C. S. Lewis believed”—let that sink in for a moment as I note a few resources and before I offer two takeaways.
- The most important book for Lewis’s impact is Mere Christianity.
- Alister McGrath’s most approachable biography on Lewis.
- Tim Keller and John Piper discuss the ongoing influence of C.S. Lewis.
- Karin Öberg’s interview with Biologos.
- Francis Collins finds faith via Lewis (video, Part 1 and Part 2).
- More about Lewis’ impact on Francis Collins.
- My book discusses how Lewis’s insights relate to mainstream science.
What Would Lewis Say About E.T.?
Next week I will return to Lewis’s profound insights—and even contemporary contributions—and to the discussion of whether extraterrestrial life might threaten our core Christian doctrines. In this installment, I’d like to address more broadly, Why Lewis? Why does he have this enduring impact on Christian thought leaders? And especially, since St. Clive wasn’t particularly gifted in science (he was terrible at math), how has he affected leading Christians in the sciences?
Two things: First of all, Lewis knew that science is not anti-God. There may be scientists who use their work to deny God, but in Lewis’s view, that’s philosophical, not scientific. In his witty book, The Screwtape Letters, an imagined set of letters from a senior devil (Screwtape) to his junior tempter (Wormwood), Lewis sets this in the first letter: “Keep pressing home on him the ordinariness of things. Above all, do not attempt to use science (I mean, the real sciences) as a defence against Christianity. They will positively encourage him to think about realities he can’t touch and see. There have been sad cases among the modern physicists . . . best of all is to let him read no science but to give him a grand general idea that he knows it all and that everything he happens to have picked up in casual talk and reading is ‘the results of modern investigation.’ Do remember you are there to fuddle him. From the way some of you young fiends talk, anyone would suppose it was our job to teach!”
If a devil’s job is to tempt and not to teach, that’s the opposite of God’s work in Christ.
Lewis’s second contribution is to offer a capacious Christian vision. He believed that knowing God through Jesus Christ didn’t restrict our vision, but expanded it immensely. “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.” I’ve heard this quotation from both the great New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, as well as McGrath, for a summary of how St. Clive affected them. In fact, it adorns the plaque in the Poet’s Corner in London’s Westminster Abbey, which commemorates Lewis’s literary contributions alongside William Wordsworth, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, and many others.
Pro-science with a confidence in the power of gospel—that’s a powerful duo we can learn from C. S. Lewis as we seek to integrate mere Christianity with science.
Indeed, it appears, many have already.