C.S. Lewis and the Power of Clear Thinking
What was it that made CS Lewis so brilliant? Sure, there was his once-in-a-generation mind, his charming British wit, and his fantastic imagination. Don’t forget his classic professorial tweed jackets. In Lewis on the Christian Life, Joe Rigney calls it the “guileless and self-forgetful enjoyment” that comes from reading his work. (I’m reading this now and highly recommend it.) There are few things more enjoyable than getting lost in Lewis. Whether it be his not-just-for-children’s stories, The Chronicles of Narnia, the story of his conversion in Surprised by Joy, the stalwart Mere Christianity, or the mind-bending Screwtape Letters, he’s one of few authors who can truly be called a treat to read.
Lewis’ framework is a lost piece of wisdom. One of the keys I’ve found for Lewis’ remarkable endurance and popularity is the way he organized his writing and thinking. He is exceptionally clear. Glenn Packiam tweeted this helpful outline of Lewis’ method a few weeks ago. Here’s an excellent framework for clear thinking. It’s a model for reasonable dialogue and an antidote to outrage.
First, define the terms.
It’s important to know what you’re talking about. Nearly every work begins with definitions. Let’s take his book Miracles as an example. After defining the scope and intention of the book, Lewis starts to define terms. A miracle is “an interference with Nature by supernatural power.” He goes on to define naturalists, supernaturalists, God, the total system, and more. Reading the first few chapters of Miracles or Mere Christianity is like watching a master craftsman ready his workspace, take out and sharpen his tools, and introduce you to the project at hand. This ensures that the rest of the argument lands. Part of the frustration in a lot of contemporary discourse, or the lack thereof, comes from talking past each other - one of the deadly consequences of unclear terms and unclear thinking.
Second, list the alternatives.
Lewis had an uncanny ability to think through things from other perspectives. Due probably to his own route to faith, he never forgot what it was like to wrestle and struggle and see things from the other side. Although he never conceded intellectual credence to falsehood, he always recognized the reasonableness of his dialogue partners. He committed himself to the most robust version of opposing arguments, laid them out clearly, and then began to argue. What we often see (and do) is the opposite. Argue first, understand later. Lewis gave the alternatives every opportunity, in good faith, and with all his might. This is what we’ve called steelmanning. Engage the best version of your opponents’ arguments.
Third, identify with the reasonableness of the objections.
Not every argument you disagree with is entirely wrong. Even in a chapter where he excoriates naturalism in Miracles, he still takes the time to carefully trace the worldview of those who hold that view and writes, “It is this impression that explains the contempt, and even disgust, felt by many people for the writings of modern Christians.” Most people genuinely believe what they’re arguing. See if you can understand why they believe it.
Fourth, present the rational and imaginative appeal of the Christian alternative.
This is the moment you wait for as you dig into Lewis. He reminds you again of how marvelous the Christian faith is, what a treasure we have in the Gospel, and what a joy it is to serve God. In the Weight of Glory, he writes, “Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak.” Then he goes on to show how much greater the Christian conception of glory is than anything the world has conceived on its own. The final piece of the argument is to tell a better story. Show the world settling for mud pies what a holiday at sea could be like!
When it comes to disagreement, we can all take after C.S. Lewis. Be clear. Set some definitions. Seek to understand those you disagree with and their arguments. They give everything you have to show the incomparable vision of the world we have in Christ.
Cole Feix is the founder of So We Speak and a regular writer. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.
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