The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C. S. Lewis

The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C. S. Lewis


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With contributions from a number of well-known evangelical leaders, this book explores the life, work, and theology of one of the most prominent Christians of the twentieth century: C. S. Lewis.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781433544989
Publisher: Crossway
Publication date: 09/30/2014
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

John Piper (DTheol, University of Munich) is the founder and teacher of desiringGod.organd the chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. He served for thirty-three years as the senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is the author of more than fifty books, including Desiring God;Don’t Waste Your Life;This Momentary Marriage;A Peculiar Glory;andReading the Bible Supernaturally.

David Mathis serves as the executive editor at, pastor at Cities Church, and adjunct professor at Bethlehem College & Seminary. He writes regularly at, and he and his wife, Megan, have four children.

Randy Alcorn (MA, Multnomah University) is the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries and a New York Times best-selling author of over fifty books. His books have sold over nine million copies and been translated into nearly seventy languages. Alcorn resides in Gresham, Oregon, with his wife, Nanci. They have two married daughters and five grandsons.

Philip Graham Ryken (DPhil, University of Oxford) is the eighth president of Wheaton College. He preached at Philadelphia’s Tenth Presbyterian Church from 1995 until his appointment at Wheaton in 2010. Ryken has published more than 50 books, including When Trouble Comes and expository commentaries on Exodus, Ecclesiastes, and Jeremiah. He serves as a board member for the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, the Lausanne Movement, and the National Association of Evangelicals.

Kevin Vanhoozer (PhD, Cambridge University) is research professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is the author of several books andserves on the editorial board of the International Journal of Systematic Theology and the Journal of Theological Interpretation.

Douglas Wilson (MA, University of Idaho) is a pastor, a popular speaker, and the author of numerous books. He helped to found Logos School in Moscow, Idaho, and is currently a senior fellow of theology at New St. Andrews College. He blogs regularly at

Read an Excerpt



How His Paths to Christ Shaped His Life and Ministry


For those of you who may wonder why we would devote a book to a mere mortal like C. S. Lewis, let's begin with an accolade from Peter Kreeft from a book chapter titled, "The Romantic Rationalist: Lewis the Man."

Once upon a dreary era, when the world of ... specialization had nearly made obsolete all universal geniuses, romantic poets, Platonic idealists, rhetorical craftsmen, and even orthodox Christians, there appeared a man (almost as if from another world, one of the worlds of his own fiction: was he a man or something more like elf or Angel?) who was all of these things as amateur, as well as probably the world's foremost authority in his professional province, Medieval and Renaissance English literature. Before his death in 1963 he found time to produce some first-quality works of literary history, literary criticism, theology, philosophy, autobiography, biblical studies, historical philology, fantasy, science fiction, letters, poems, sermons, formal and informal essays, a historical novel, a spiritual diary, religious allegory, short stories, and children's novels. Clive Staples Lewis was not a man: he was a world.

Those are the kinds of accolades you read again and again. Which means there must have been something extraordinary about the man. Indeed, we believe there was. And in this fiftieth year since his death, it seemed to many of us that a book like this would be a small expression of our thankfulness to God for him, and our admiration of him, and our desire that his gifts to the world be preserved and spread.

Childhood and Schooling

The various authors in this book draw out facts of Lewis's life that are relevant to their concern, but let me give you a three-minute summary of his life so that some of the hard facts are before us. Lewis loved hard facts. The kind you want under your house when the rains come down and the floods come up.

Lewis was born in 1898 in Belfast, Ireland. His mother died when he was nine years old, and his father never remarried. Between the death of his mother in August 1908 and the autumn of 1914, Lewis attended four different boarding schools. Then for two and a half years, he studied with William Kirkpatrick, whom he called the Great Knock. And there his emerging atheism was confirmed, and his reasoning powers were refined in an extraordinary way. Lewis said, "If ever a man came near to being a purely logical entity that man was Kirk." He described himself later as a seventeen-year-old rationalist.

Becoming the Voice

But just as his rationalism was at its peak, he stumbled onto George MacDonald's fantasy novel Phantastes. "That night," he said, "my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized." Something had broken in — a "new quality," a "bright shadow," he called it. The romantic impulse of his childhood was again awake. Only now it seemed real, and holy.

At eighteen, he took his place at Oxford University, but before he could begin his studies, he entered the army, and in February of 1918 he was wounded in France and returned to England to recover. He resumed his studies in Oxford in January 1919 and over the next six years took three first-class honors in classics, humanities, and English literature. He became a teaching fellow in October 1925 at the age of twenty-six.

Six years later, in 1931, he professed faith in Jesus Christ and was settled in the conviction that Christianity is true. Within ten years he had become the "voice of faith" for the nation of England during the Second World War, and his broadcast talks in 1941–1942 "achieved classic status."

Lewis in Full Flower

He was now in the full flower of his creative and apologetic productivity. In his prime, he was probably the world's leading authority on medieval English literature and, according to one of his adversaries, "the best read man of his generation." But he was vastly more. Books of many kinds were rolling out: The Pilgrim's Regress; The Allegory of Love; The Screwtape Letters; Perelandra. Then in 1950 began the Chronicles of Narnia. All these titles were of different genres and showed the amazing versatility of Lewis as a writer and thinker and imaginative visionary.

He appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1947. Then, after thirty years at Oxford, he took a professorship in Medieval and Renaissance English at the University of Cambridge in 1955. The next year, at the age of fifty-seven, he married Joy Davidman. And just short of their fourth anniversary, she died of cancer, and three and a half years later — two weeks short of his sixty-fifth birthday, on November 22, 1963 — Lewis followed her in death.

A Life of Pointing

Lewis is more popular as an author today than at any time during his life. The Chronicles of Narnia alone have gone on to sell over 100 million copies in forty languages. One of the reasons for this appeal, I am going to argue, is that Lewis is a romantic rationalist to an exceptionally high and healthy degree.

My thesis is that his romanticism and his rationalism were the paths on which he came to Christ, and they are the paths on which he lived his life and did his work. They shaped him into a teacher and writer with extraordinary gifts for logic and likening. And with these gifts, he spent his life pointing people beyond the world to the meaning of the world, Jesus Christ.

The Romantic

So we will look first at his romanticism, and then at his rationality, and finally at the way they came together to lead him to Christ and to confirm the worldview where all of us are romantic rationalists in our truest humanity.

In August 1932, Lewis sat down and in fourteen days wrote his first novel, less than a year after professing faith in Christ. The Pilgrim's Regress is a two-hundred-page allegory of his own pilgrimage to faith in Christ. The subtitle goes like this: "An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason, and Romanticism." So he is defending being a romantic, a rationalist, and a Christian.

Romanticism Means Joy

But ten years later, when the third edition of the book appeared, he added a ten-page preface to apologize for obscurity and to explain what he means by being a romantic. He said, "The cause for obscurity was the (unintentionally) 'private' meaning I then gave to the word 'Romanticism.'" The word, as he used it, he said, described "the experience which is central in this book."

What I meant by "Romanticism" ... and what I would still be taken to mean on the title page of this book — was ... a particular recurrent experience which dominated my childhood and adolescence and which I hastily called "Romantic" because inanimate nature and marvelous literature were among the things that evoked it.

When we examine his description of the experience he refers to, it turns out to be identical with what ten years later in his autobiography he calls "Joy."

The experience [of romanticism] is one of intense longing. It is distinguished from other longings by two things. In the first place, though the sense of want is acute and even painful, yet the mere wanting is felt to be somehow a delight. ... This hunger is better than any other fullness; this poverty better than all other wealth.

There is a peculiar mystery about the object of this Desire. Inexperienced people (and inattention leaves some inexperienced all their lives) suppose, when they feel it, that they know what they are desiring. [Some past event, some perilous ocean, some erotic suggestion, some beautiful meadow, some distant planet, some great achievement, some quest or great knowledge, etc.] ...

But every one of these impressions is wrong. The sole merit I claim for this book is that it is written by one who has proved them all to be wrong. There is no room for vanity in the claim: I know them to be wrong not by intelligence but by experience. ... For I have myself been deluded by every one of these false answers in turn, and have contemplated each of them earnestly enough to discover the cheat.

If a man diligently followed this desire, pursuing the false objects until their falsity appeared and then resolutely abandoning them, he must come out at last into the clear knowledge that the human soul was made to enjoy some object that is never fully given — nay, cannot even be imagined as given — in our present mode of subjective and spatiotemporal existence.

The Dialectic of Desire

Lewis called this experience a kind of lived ontological proof of God — or at least of something beyond the created world. "The dialectic of Desire," he said, "faithfully followed, would ... force you not to propound, but to live through, a sort of ontological proof."

Later, when he wrote Mere Christianity, he would state it most famously: "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world."

The Piercing Longing

So the essence of his romanticism is Lewis's experience of the world that repeatedly awakened in him a sense that there is always more than this created world — something other, something beyond the natural world. At first, he thought the stabbing desire and longing was what he really wanted. But after his conversion, he wrote, "I now know that the experience, considered as a state of my own mind, had never had the kind of importance I once gave it. It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer."

And this other and outer — this more — was wonderful even before he knew that what he was longing for was God. And now that he was a Christian, the piercing longing did not go away just because he knew who it was: "I believe," he said, "... that the old stab, the old bittersweet, has come to me as often and as sharply since my conversion as at any time of my life."

The Central Story of His Life

Alan Jacobs says, "Nothing was closer to the core of his being than this experience." Clyde Kilby says, "In one way or other it hovers over nearly every one of his books." And Lewis himself says, "In a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else."

And when you read his repeated descriptions of this experience of romanticism or Joy in Surprised by Joy and The Pilgrim's Regress and The Problem of Pain and The Weight of Glory, you realize Lewis doesn't see this as a quirk of his personality but as a trait of humanness. All of us are romantics in this sense. Devin Brown says that Lewis's "use of the inclusive you in these passages ... makes it clear that Lewis believes this is a longing we have all felt. ... You might say this is the central story of everyone's life."

Our Hidden Desire for Heaven

For example, in The Problem of Pain, Lewis makes the case that even people who think they have never desired heaven don't see things clearly:

There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven, but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else ... tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if ... there ever came an echo that did not die away, but swelled into the sound itself — you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say, "here at last is the thing I was made for."

So Lewis saw in his own experience of romanticism the universally human experience. We are all romantics. All of us experience from time to time — some more than others, and some more intensely than others — a longing this world cannot satisfy, a sense that there must be more.

The Rationalist

We turn now to Lewis's rationalism. And, as with the term romanticism, I mean something different from some of its common philosophical uses. All I mean is his profound devotion to being rational — to the principle that there is true rationality and that it is rooted in absolute Reason.

Remember that the subtitle of The Pilgrim's Regress is An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason, and Romanticism. We've seen what he meant by romanticism. Now what was his defense of reason?

Logic Leading beyond Nature

The simplest way to get at the heart of Lewis's rationality is to say he believed in the law of noncontradiction, and he believed that where this law was abandoned, not only was truth imperiled but romanticism and Joy were imperiled as well. The law of noncontradiction is simply that contradictory statements cannot both be true at the same time and in the same way.

Lewis saw logic as a real expression of ultimate reality. The laws of logic are not human conventions created differently from culture to culture. They are rooted in the way God is. And these laws of logic make true knowledge of reality possible. "I conclude then," he writes, "that logic is a real insight into the way in which real things have to exist. In other words, the laws of thought are also the laws of things: of things in the remotest space and the remotest time."

Two Paths to One Place

This commitment to the basic laws of logic, or rationality, led Lewis on the philosophical path to the same Christ that he had found on the path of romanticism or Joy. He put it like this: "This lived dialectic [of my romanticism], and the merely argued dialectic of my philosophical progress, seem to have converged on one goal," namely, the reality of theism, and Christianity, and Christ as the Savior of the world.

On the romantic path, Lewis was led again and again to look beyond nature for ultimate reality — finally to God in Christ — because his desires could not be explained as a product of this world. Now how did that same thing happen by the use of his reason?

He looked at the philosophical, scientific cosmology emerging in the modern world and found it self-contradictory.

If I swallow the scientific cosmology as a whole (that excludes a rational, personal God), then not only can I not fit in Christianity, but I cannot even fit in science. If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees. And this is to me the final test.

In other words, modern people construct a worldview that treats their thoughts as equivalent to wind in the trees. And then they call these thoughts true. Lewis said that's a contradiction. Atheistic man uses his mind to create a worldview that nullifies the use of his mind.

The Abolition of Man

This is what Lewis meant by the title of his book The Abolition of Man. If there is no God as the foundation of logic (as with the law of noncontradiction) and the foundation of value judgments (such as for justice and beauty), then man is abolished. His mind is no more than the rustling of leaves, and his value judgments are no more than ripples on a pond.

The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao [the absoluteness of first principles — and ultimately against God] is a rebellion of the branches against the tree: if the rebels could succeed they would find that they had destroyed themselves.

Lewis compares atheistic cosmology to dreaming and Christian theology to being awake. When you are awake, you can explain wakefulness and dreaming. But when you are dreaming, you don't have the capacity to explain wakefulness. Similarly,

Christian theology can fit in science, art, morality, and the sub-Christian religions. The scientific point of view cannot fit in any of these things, not even science itself. 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.

From Reason to Christianity

Here's how he described the way these thoughts brought him on the path of reason to see Christianity as true:

On these grounds and others like them one is driven to think that whatever else may be true, the popular scientific cosmology at any rate is certainly not. ... Something like philosophical idealism or Theism must, at the very worst, be less untrue than that. And idealism turned out, when you took it seriously, to be disguised Theism. And once you accepted Theism you could not ignore the claims of Christ. And when you examine them it appeared to be that you could adopt no middle position. Either he was a lunatic or God. And he was not a lunatic.

So we have seen that both Lewis's romanticism and his rationalism brought him to Christ. His lifelong, recurrent experience of the in-breaking of a longing he could not explain by this world led beyond the world to God and finally to Christ. And his lifelong experience of reason and logic led him to see that truth and beauty and justice and science would have no validity at all if there were no transcendent God in whom they were all rooted.


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Table of Contents

Contributors 11

Introduction 13

Half a Century since C. S. Lewis David Mathis

1 C. S. Lewis, Romantic Rationalist 21

How His Paths to Christ Shaped His Life and Ministry John Piper

2 Inerrancy and the Patron Saint of Evangelicalism 39

C. S. Lewis on Holy Scripture Philip Ryken

3 Undragoned 65

C. S. Lewis on the Gift of Salvation Douglas Wilson

4 In Bright Shadow 81

C. S. Lewis on the Imagination for Theology and Discipleship Kevin Vanhoozer

5 C. S. Lewis on Heaven and the New Earth 105

God's Eternal Remedy to the Problem of Evil and Suffering Randy Alcorn

6 What God Made Is Good-and Must Be Sanctified 131

C. S. Lewis and St. Paul on the Use of Creation John Piper

Appendix 1 C. S. Lewis and the Doctrine of Hell Randy Alcorn 147

Appendix 2 A Conversation with the Contributors 155

Acknowledgments 177

General Index 180

Scripture Index 187

A Note on Resources: 191

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“A book that displays the impressive breadth of Lewis’s appeal across denominational boundaries and that helpfully highlights the continuing importance of his example as a Christian who could think both rationally and imaginatively. Altogether an interesting, lively, and thought-provoking read.”
Michael Ward, Fellow of Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford; author, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis

“For many of us, the writings of C. S. Lewis have been a helpful guide to the nooks and crannies of the Christian life. As noted by a number of the authors of this extremely helpful collection of essays, the rich coloring of all of Lewis’s work has been a tonic in the gray drabness of contemporary life. Although none of the authors would endorse every element of Lewis’s thinking, each is well aware that to neglect Lewis is to miss out on one of God’s surprising gifts in the twentieth century. A great introduction to and reflection on a remarkable Christian!”
Michael A. G. Haykin, Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

“Paints a well-rounded, sharply observed portrait that balances criticism with a deep love and appreciation for the works and witness of Lewis. The writers have all absorbed Lewis into their bones, and they invite us to do the same.”
Louis Markos, Professor of English and Scholar in Residence, Houston Baptist University; author, From Achilles to Christ and Literature: A Student’s Guide

“A warm-hearted, engaging and thoroughly thought-out appreciation of evangelicalism’s enormous debt to C. S. Lewis that also looks squarely at differences, real and imagined. With well-chosen and varied contributors, it presents a deep understanding and wide reading of Lewis and also reaches toward the secret of Lewis’s profound and health-giving influence on Christianity throughout the world.”
Colin Duriez,author, C. S. Lewis: A Biography of Friendship and Tolkien and C. S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship

“In order to explore the world that is Lewis, we need faithful guides, explorers who have charted his terrain, both the familiar and the back roads where few have dared to tread. The authors have not just looked at Lewis, as though he were some theological or literary curiosity. Instead, they’ve looked along Lewis, laboring to see with the freshness of his vision, and then draw us further up and further in so that we too come to see the real world, and God, and Christ, with new eyes.”
Joe Rigney, Assistant Professor of Theology and Literature, Bethlehem College and Seminary; author,The Things of EarthandLive Like a Narnian

“Lewis fans of all persuasions will enjoy this collection of essays. More than just a celebration of Lewis, the authors celebrate what Lewis celebrated and point to the one he pointed to. The authors don’t always agree with Lewis (itself a good and healthy thing), but they always understand and appreciate him and help us to do so as well. Most of all, in these essays they share Lewis’s ultimate goal—that of kindling and nurturing a desire for God.”
Devin Brown, author, A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C. S. Lewis

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The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C. S. Lewis 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
michelemorin More than 1 year ago
Even though he died over fifty years ago; Even though he was an atheist during his early adult life; Even though, as a confirmed Anglican churchman, he never jumped onto the evangelical bandwagon, C.S. Lewis’s popularity as an author is greater today than at any time during his life. John Piper attributes this to his “utter commitment to both the life of the mind and the life of the heart,” and has compiled a comprehensive tribute to and analysis of Lewis’s contribution to the shaping of the evangelical mindset. Because he has partnered with four other Lewis scholars, each chapter of the book brings a fresh perspective on the life, theology and writing of “the patron saint of evangelicalism.” Philip Ryken on Inerrancy: If anyone ever has a beef against Lewis, it’s probably related to his doctrine of Scripture (unless they won’t read him at all because he smoked and drank alcohol). Ryken is clear on Lewis’s most important theological shortcoming: he “placed the inspiration of Scripture on a continuum with other forms of literary inspiration, thus downplaying to some degree the uniqueness of the Bible.” Add to this the fact that he “believed there were contradictions and probably errors in the Bible,” and that he “doubted or denied that certain parts of the Bible were historical,” and you have to wonder how C.S. Lewis has gained his rock star status among conservative evangelicals. Oddly enough, Lewis came into criticism from liberals of his day because he was committed to the veracity of the accounts of miracles in the Bible, specifically the resurrection of Jesus Christ. While I acknowledge the fact of his suborthodox stand on Scripture, Lewis’s story of Aslan’s charge to Jill Pole to remember the signs, to repeat them morning and night, to get them word-perfect so she would have them ready when needed is always my go-to story when I need a strong illustration of the importance of Scripture in the Christian life. Clearly, Lewis had a high view of Scripture and lived a better theology than he knew when it comes to the importance of biblical truth for discipleship. Douglas Wilson on Soteriology: The question in this chapter is: Was Lewis “reformed” in his understanding of God and salvation? Wilson comes down on a solid “probably” here, but, of more importance is his exploration of Lewis’s magnificent portrayal of the undragoning of Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, as well as his analysis of the masterful storytelling by which Lewis created a world where we see Truth more clearly for the unfamiliarity of the setting. Sarah Arthur has said many things well, and this is one: “When the front door of reason is locked and double-bolted against the gospel, . . . the back door of the imagination often stands wide open.” This is Lewis’s shining contribution to the conversation on salvation, and the fact that he did not claim to be a theologian at all seems to make the question of whether or not he was “reformed” a case of measuring a mile in ounces. Kevin Vanhoozer on Imagination: Laying the foundation of C.S. Lewis’s awakening to the truth of Christ through the baptism of his imagination, largely from the influence of George MacDonald’s writing, Vanhoozer makes a fascinating case for the role of imagination in discipleship and theology. As a disciple, Lewis was, in the words of one biographer, “the most thoroughly converted person he ever met.” As a theologian, he was a committed amateur who loved the map that theology provided for being “taken into the life of God.” He put reason (“the organ of truth”) and imagination (“the organ of meaning”) in their most useful relationship to one another through his use of story. His body of writing promoted a Biblical imagination, which, in Vanhoozer’s words, “sees reality as it truly is.” Randy Alcorn on Heaven: Better than Alcorn’s examination of the end of all things in the Revelation and his enlightening clarification of the term “new earth”; even better than his references to the Chronicles of Narnia — which paint the most compelling picture of the afterlife that I have ever read — is Randy’s own story of finding C.S. Lewis and thereby finding Christ. The account of his hunger for truth and its satiation is (for me) the most important part of this collection of essays. John Piper on the Use of Creation: “[God] likes matter. He invented it.” Beginning with this Lewis-truth, Piper urges his readers to join C.S. Lewis in enjoying all the good and enjoyable things that God has made and to do so with thanksgiving. When we do, it becomes an act of worship, for God has given to us Himself in all of creation. This is not Pantheism, nor is it true that a shriveled and ascetic approach to all that is good in this world is a higher holiness. The wisdom of C.S. Lewis is that Aslan (who is good, but certainly not safe) has given all the delights of His creation so that, by enjoying them, our eyes would turn to the Giver and our hearts would long to go “further up and further in” that we might know Him better.