What We Believe
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The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis by Jason M. Baxter

William Edgar

The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis: How Great Books Shaped a Great Mind, by Jason M. Baxter. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Academic, 2022, 166 pages, $22.00, paper.

We do not realize how infected we are by the Enlightenment worldview until we are confronted with something so alienated from it; we either recoil or become, perhaps, over fascinated by its counter-cultural offerings.

You may have thought everything possible had been written about C. S. Lewis. But there is still more in the till. Baxter’s unique study shows how Lewis rejected modern positivism in favor of a more ancient mentality. There are three Lewises: the Christian apologist (think of Mere Christianity or Miracles), the mythmaker (think of his fantasies), and Lewis the medievalist. This third Lewis is the least well-known and yet arguably the most important. He spent most of his working hours studying ancient texts and etymologies. His interests ranged from relatively well-known authors to obscure ones: Boethius to Macrobius to Chrétien de Troyes, Calcidius, Milton, and especially Dante.

Lewis was a conservative, but not in a cranky way. He was nostalgic, but not in a naïve way. If you have read the masterful An Experiment in Criticism or The Abolition of Man, you will encounter a man with a special burden to combat modern subjectivism with a sense that art objects have intrinsic value and are not primarily conduits for human feelings. Lewis’s worldview centers on one notion: the universe reveals a very real numinous. This expression is not from Kant but from Rudolf Otto, the great German theologian who wrote on The Idea of the Holy, a text which claims that all people are longing for the mysterium tremendum. Although shrouded in mystery, the numinous is not inaccessible but simply inexhaustible.

For Lewis this means a given text or a work of art ought to be valued for itself and not for its capacity to incite a feeling, or even a particular message. The art object belongs to a world in which the supernatural (an expression Lewis did not care for) transpires into our world. For Lewis “the medieval universe was not just a system of exploded scientific beliefs, but the natural icon of transposition” (22). This may surprise certain contemporary readers who find in his fantasies a not-so-subtle pedagogical statement of a message. As curious as it may sound to us, he thought of his writings, including the fantasies, as explorations into language and, of course, other worlds, but not sermons. In a memorable statement, he declared that Christian authors ought to have blood in their veins, not ink.

One of many illustrations of this principle is the medieval cathedral. A somewhat obscure observer from the fourteenth century, Jean de Jandin, wrote that Notre Dame Cathedral was “terrible,” meaning that it inspired wonder and awe. Its architecture is “saturated,” meaning that it is pregnant with beauty and significance (33). Abbot Suger, who is credited with the creation of the Gothic style, wrote of the sensory overload of the elements of his buildings, their diversity centering in the unity of a divine encounter (34).

Baxter’s book indeed resembles the cathedral (the mobile comes to mind), with its many components united in the service of one basic theme: the defense of a worldview fated to disappear. What has replaced it is mechanization. Curiously (perhaps), Lewis despised the newspaper and the automobile. These represented efficiency, quantification, and all the idols of modernity. In ways reminiscent of Jacques Ellul, Lewis eschewed the idol of efficacy. The so-called scientific revolution introduced a new period of ignorance (63). Science is an “evil enchantment” covering up the wonder of the world (69–85). Like Wendell Berry, Lewis believed the heart of the battle was in language (70).

Does his view make Lewis a Luddite? Not really, for he accepted the reality of living in our world. Yet he lived in constant tension with its pretensions. Like his friend J. R. R. Tolkien, Lewis saw the world as a sacrament. But it was not an unidentifiable mess. We do not need to be over-fascinated by the anti-Enlightenment view to perceive its limits.

As a Huguenot Protestant, I flinch at parts of this view. Lewis was an Anglican, which he recognized as part of the Protestant heritage. Yet, I must take seriously the objections to Lewis held by the greatest apologist of the twentieth century, the fiercely Protestant Cornelius Van Til. Van Til has written persuasively that Lewis is weak on the sovereignty of God and the sinfulness of man.[1] He compares him to Thomas Aquinas, with his frail view of divine election. I tremble to suggest this, but I believe Van Til has missed something of the genius of C. S. Lewis. He has missed Lewis’s critique of modernity. Further, is there nothing in common between Lewis’s sacramentalism and Van Til’s doctrine of analogy? Is there nothing in common between Otto’s mysterium tremendum and Van Til’s insistence on the incomprehensibility of God? I offer these as items for discussion.

Baxter has articulately presented one of the greatest intellectuals of the twentieth century at his scholarly best. Lewis’s rejection of the modern paideia and his articulation of an alternate view are deeply edifying and even moving. Such a book leads us to put into question our unthinking allegiance to the Enlightenment vision. But it does far more: it opens our eyes to sense the presence of the Lord in unsuspecting places.

Two minor quibbles: (1) The subtitle is not quite right. It is not so much “great books” as medieval texts that shaped Lewis’s mind. Certainly a few of the other classics are mentioned, but this is a volume about Lewis’s encounters with the medieval mind, not great books. (2) The cover. I hesitate to do this. But why cannot Christians accept a degree of abstraction? The picture is a young man sitting in a chair, reading a book, with scores of books “raining” on him from above. Some are suspended on vines. Two great lions are pictured in the lower corners. Sorry, but it doesn’t work. It comes across as a piece of pedagogical literalism the artist feels needs to be depicted, and then ornamented. Just the opposite of C. S. Lewis’s aesthetics.

[1] See [https://presupp101.wordpress.com/2012/08/23/the-theology-of-c-s-lewis-by-cornelius-van-til/].

William Edgar is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and emeritus professor of apologetics and ethics Westminster Theological Seminary, Glenside, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, June–July 2022.

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Ordained Servant: June 2022

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