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"The gospel according to C S Lewis" - an atheist review of Mere Apologetics
on 15 January 2012
`Mere Apologetics' is written with Alister McGrath's customary grace and charm. It's an interesting insight into the industry and psychology of Christian apologetics. I was struck, however, by the number of references to C. S. Lewis compared to Jesus. Jesus, astonishingly, doesn't appear in the index. There are a few references to him in the text but Lewis appears on nearly every page. It would not be too difficult to make the case that McGrath's preferred gospel is the gospel according to C. S. Lewis rather than the gospel according to Jesus. Jesus' `kingdom of God', arguably, is about the transformation of this life but McGrath's emphasis is on being translated from this world, which he compares to Plato's carceral cave, into a Narnian heaven of infinite truth, beauty and goodness. McGrath complains that the atheist vision of life is bleak but what could be bleaker than the Christian perception of human life as imprisonment in a cave of mere shadows? McGrath grumbles about the transience of life but for the atheist this is what gives life its special edge and savour. Christianity offers a cure but only for a psychological disease which it enthusiastically cultivates in its victims. It has to convince people they are sick in order to increase the appeal of its saving gnosis. Every apologetic work I have seen adopts this controlling strategy. Atheists, rather in the style of Jesus, prefer to say to people `You're well, you're OK'.
McGrath gets into a philosophical muddle when he argues that belief in God is like belief in justice, neither of which can be proved but both of which are reasonable. This is obviously wrong. God is not a mere abstract concept like justice. We know that justice has no ontological existence but it doesn't need to `exist' in this sense. But the ontological existence of God does need to be established in some sense for the Christian claim to have a relationship with him to be meaningful.
I agree that both atheism and Christianity are `grand narratives', neither of which can be conclusively proved. Both are `working hypotheses'. But it seems to me that the hiddenness of God is a severe difficulty for Christianity. The fact that God remains hidden, except for what McGrath discerns as `clues' to his existence, is what gives atheism its prima facie justification. McGrath's clues include the Big Bang, fine tuning, the rational intelligibility of the universe, the existence of objective moral values, the human experience of emptiness and yearning, the splendour of the natural world, and the transience of life. Each one of these demands extensive commentary but let me pick just one - the assertion that theism guarantees the `objectivity' of morality. This argument is refuted by the obvious cultural relativism of morality when comparing biblical culture and modern culture. The Bible has no particular problem with concubinage, stoning and slavery. Martin Luther had no problem with vicious anti-Semitism. John Calvin had no problem with setting light to heretics. Yet today's Christians would be horrified by all such practices. The `objectivity' of morality turns out to be a chimera.
Perhaps the saddest passage in McGrath's book is this: "We are not meant to be here. This is not our homeland. We really belong somewhere else". What a tragic, impoverished vision of human life, whether God-given or not. I'm not even sure it qualifies as Christianity. It sounds more like a version of Gnosticism.