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Posted October 26, 2004

Cardinal calls Lewis probably
'most successful' apologist of century

By Tracy Early
Catholic News Service

Cardinal Avery Dulles said in a lecture Oct. 16 that C.S. Lewis, an Anglican convert from atheism, became "probably the most successful Christian apologist of the 20th century."

Lewis' work was effective because he had "experienced the difficulties from within," and because he "handled profound problems in simple words," the cardinal said.

But he said the religious outlook expressed by Lewis had an "individualistic and academic quality" with "very little sense of church and the sacraments."

"In joining the church, he made a genuine and honest profession of faith, but did not experience it as his entry into a true community of faith," he said.

Cardinal Dulles, a Jesuit, said that "my own experience has been very different." Raised Presbyterian, he joined the Catholic Church as a young man after he went through a period of unbelief.

"In becoming a Catholic, I felt from the beginning that I was joining the communion of the saints," he said. "I found great joy at the sense of belonging to a body of believers that stretched across the face of the globe."

Cardinal Dulles delivered his lecture to a meeting of the New York C.S. Lewis Society, held at Fordham University's Lincoln Center campus in conjunction with the university's Institute of Irish Studies.

John McCarthy, a retired Fordham professor welcoming participants on behalf of the institute, said the connection with the society was appropriate because Lewis was born in Northern Ireland.

Lewis, who taught in England at Oxford University and then at Cambridge, wrote science fiction, poetry, scholarly works on English Renaissance literature and contributions in other fields, as well as his works in Christian apologetics.

"But he is best known today as an apologist," Cardinal Dulles said.

He noted that more than 40 years after Lewis' death, in 1963, "his works remain in print and are read by Protestants and Catholics with equal relish."

Lewis became an atheist as a young man because he thought "there was too much evil and suffering in the world for it to be the work of a loving and all-powerful God," Cardinal Dulles said.

Later, he said, Lewis argued that while there was no theoretical answer to the problem of evil its existence did not disprove God, and various considerations Lewis offered could "alleviate the problem of evil."

Some critics have said Lewis' concept of "mere Christianity," the title of one of his best-known books, ignored important issues such as those dividing Protestants from Catholics, the cardinal said.

But he said Lewis' concentration on "the common fund of doctrines and practices enshrined in Scripture and the early creeds" made his works appealing to Christians of very different outlooks "as well as to inquirers who are not yet Christians of any kind."

Academic critics said Lewis "oversimplified complex problems" and showed a lack of philosophical rigor in his arguments for the basic Christian beliefs, Cardinal Dulles said.

"But in reading the various criticisms I found myself coming to a firmer conviction that Lewis's positions were essentially correct," he said.

He said Lewis' favorite arguments for the existence of God were not the classical ones called ontological and cosmological but were "those from morality, from reason and from desire."

Lewis observed that all normal people have a sense of moral obligation, and argued that it could only come from God, Cardinal Dulles said.

Regarding reason, Cardinal Dulles said Lewis contended the "affinity between the mind and reality" could be explained only by "an aboriginal mind." But this argument "leaves further work to be done," he said.

Cardinal Dulles said Lewis also argued that "the natural desire for union with God" implied the existence of God because otherwise the desire "would be in vain," something Aristotle and the scholastics agreed was impossible for a natural desire.