The Anglicanism of C.S. Lewis

In a recent article here at Ad Fontes, the historian Mark Noll reflects on the earliest American responses to the work of C.S. Lewis. Prior to the publication of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Mere Christianity, in 1950 and 1952 respectively, Lewis did not experience the worldwide fame that he would later enjoy. However, many of Lewis’s most important works were published prior to these, including his Ransom Trilogy (1938, 1943, 1945), The Problem of Pain (1940), The Screwtape Letters (1942), and Miracles (1947), and these works received some attention from American readers.

It is noteworthy that initial appreciative responses for Lewis’s work chiefly came from Catholics, as did most of the closer engagement with his writing. While American evangelical Protestants would later arguably become Lewis’s most fervent fanbase, when first released, Lewis’s earlier works did not receive much attention from them; several of the responses they did receive were more wary in character.

Noll’s article came at an opportune moment for me, as I had just been reflecting on Lewis’s work, its appeal, and its reception, especially in America. Before Noll’s article was published, Kat Coffin, a C.S. Lewis scholar, had remarked upon the significance that many progressive writers ascribed to Lewis in their movement away from fundamentalism.[1] Her observation prompted me to think about the sheer breadth of appreciation for C.S. Lewis and the importance that he has had for many people in making key transitions in their thinking and affiliation. The most notable of these transitions have been from unbelief to Christian faith. Yet, for many others, Lewis has been a key figure in their movements away from fundamentalism and/or evangelicalism.

C.S. Lewis’s work has remarkably wide appeal: he is appreciatively read by Christians and non-Christians, children and adults, men and women, scholars and laypeople, Protestants and Catholics, conservatives and liberals, people on the left and the right, by people across the world, and by such a range of readers for most of a century. You can certainly find people who dislike him and his work. Some people love some of his works, while strongly disliking others. His appeal is neither universal nor total. Nevertheless, its breadth remains notable, and it is worth trying to account for it.

I imagine this appeal is broader than it would have been in the current era, where faster media and increased travel have altered the relationship between writers and their readers. Especially for his American audience, Lewis was overwhelmingly a writer of books. A book is usually written at least a year or more before the average reader picks it up, and the reader generally reads it in some degree of privacy or solitude. Words in books are not ‘live’ and ‘active’ to the degree that the spoken word, or words on social media are. The ‘author’ that is encountered in reading a book can also be much more abstracted from the personality, identity, affiliations, and broader opinions of the writer. The experience of reading a book also enables the reader to step back from the immediacy of their social worlds and contexts and to entertain ideas from without them. This becomes much harder when the writer is encountered as a living speaker and actor (J.K. Rowling might be a good example to consider here). If Lewis had been a frequent visitor to America (he never went to America), a figure on conference circuits, a frequent voice in podcasts, and a personality on social media, I am sure that the reception of his work would have differed in many respects.

Putting such matters of media to one side, it seems to me that Lewis’s appeal has much to do with the fact that he had a rich imagination, a curious and brilliant mind, a generous and catholic spirit, a delight in, expansive attention to, and receptivity to reality, and a capacious conceptual and cultural world. While he had his firm convictions, he was not narrow-minded or -spirited. He was open to and had an appetite for the world and truth. He manifested the catholicity and magnanimity of one with a confident grasp on truth and reality, avoiding a fortress mentality, tribalism, or the incuriosity of the ideologue.

There is a sort of sapiential and cosmopolitan character to Lewis’s posture, a practice of receptive attention to and irenic engagement with a wide variety of voices and aspects of reality. As a result, one does not need to hold to a particular ideology, belong to a particular tribal camp or denomination, or hold a particular set of dogmas to find things to enjoy or appreciate in Lewis. Indeed, in works like Mere Christianity, Lewis was careful to accent those things that Christians of various denominations hold in common, rather than those things that distinguished his class or tribe. Lewis wrote and spoke as a man of strong convictions and as one with occasionally sharp differences with others, yet not as a sectarian, partisan, or an ideologue.

Consequently, Lewis can display some of the distinctive features of the Christian faith and imagination in an overwhelmingly positive form, and with scintillating wit and fluid prose. Evangelicals rightly recognize in Lewis’s work many of those things that they hold dearest. However, in Lewis these things appear with colour and warmth and largely apart from the sort of defensive dogmatism, sectarian combativeness, or ideological incuriosity that so often frames them elsewhere.

While he could be polemical on occasion, Lewis was generally a highly irenic writer. Although he spoke directly against various errors of his day, his work is overwhelmingly constructive and, even when he challenges others, he is more corrective than combative in his tone. His work was driven by a positive impulse, rather than by reaction. For this reason, even when he is correcting errors, his work isn’t characterised by tribal spirit and antagonism. He wrote to persuade and win his reader over.

To those in settings driven by a culture war spirit, for instance, this can be refreshing. Lewis sees and addresses many of the same evils, yet with little of the rancour, resentment, bitterness, viciousness, fixation, or reactivity that can so often develop within such contexts. While many with something of that spirit appreciate Lewis and even try to accommodate Lewis to it, others learn a better way from him.

The spirit of Lewis has led a great many people out of fundamentalism for this and other reasons. Fundamentalism’s legalist tendencies, its definition through opposition, its tribalism and sectarianism, its tendency to narrow-mindedness, and its insularity all stand in contrast to the spirit of Lewis. Many have picked up on the spirit and manner in which Lewis held his convictions and, even though they might diverge from him on his more idiosyncratic beliefs, have learned how to hold their beliefs differently. So many of these people have followed Lewis into contexts that breathe that different spirit. Lewis has enabled them to make this transition without simply rejecting wholesale and reacting and defining themselves against those contexts from which they came.

For others, however, in discovering how different Lewis was in his beliefs and practice from the fundamentalism in which they grew up, they have proceeded to undertake a more radical reassessment and thoroughgoing rejection or deconstruction of their upbringing (Brad East remarks upon the marked contrast and seeming incompatibility between Lewis and his American evangelical audience). Some such persons have ended up reacting against their old contexts and have fallen into positions that are not clearly any less narrow, sectarian, and ideological than those they left behind.

It seems to me much of the strength of Lewis comes from the fact that he closely attends to, delights in, and thinks and acts into a wider natural, social, and cultural world, a world he wants to share in with people of many different backgrounds, identities, beliefs, and times. His writing invites you into deeper appreciation of and attention to the world in which you already live, rather than calling you into a peculiar ideological, cultural, and social frame. He does, of course, write from a particular world, into which he invites you to be welcome: a distinctly British mid-century Oxonian scholarly world, which is also the world of its own cultural references to earlier worlds; he of course also encourages you to find those aspects of reality that that world shares in common with your own—for example, the experience of sensucht, of friendship, of reading.

This contrasts with fundamentalism and also with much evangelicalism. For various reasons, many of them unwitting or unchosen and some unavoidable, these movements have retreated from much of the public square, civic life, the academy, wider cultural projects, and the broader church into the siloed safety of their own ‘subaltern counterpublics’. They have offered legalistic ideological, cultural, and lifestyle package deals to their adherents. Their epistemology has become sectarian, cutting them off from thoughtful and reciprocal engagement with divergent and opposing voices, both within and without the church. They have developed peculiar subcultural identities. They have withdrawn from and encouraged suspicion and antagonism towards public institutions. They have subdivided and sorted into their own increasingly niche circles of affiliation and cultural consumption. Their capacity to communicate with and to understand people outside of their circles has atrophied. They have developed their own forms of identity politics.

Lewis and other voices like him can reveal the contingency and hence contestability of much of the sociocultural packaging that accompanies many evangelical and fundamentalist beliefs. This is both exhilarating and threatening. While fundamentalism might present its posture to be a simple matter of orthodoxy, the posture of figures such as Lewis reveal that fundamentalism is largely sociological and cultural in character and that it does not naturally follow from the Christian doctrines it rightfully upholds. Fundamentalism is one way of making an edifice of certain Christian convictions one’s home, but there are radically different ways of inhabiting much the same edifice.

To understand Lewis, it helps to consider a certain form and vision of the Church of England and of a distinctive Anglican spirit. Lewis and his work grew in a sort of cultural soil that is much depleted now, even in those pockets where it is still partially encountered.

The Church of England is not a denomination in the sense that Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians (outside of Scotland, at least), and other such groups are. As a communion, it seeks to be non-sectarian—and, at its best, orthodox—and contains many types within it. While denominations can function like more defined clubs, where higher levels of theological and cultural alignment are expected, a non-denominational established church like the Church of England has much more of the givenness characteristic of a family.

Whereas clubs can readily split when opinions and visions diverge or people fall out, the same is not the case for a family. A family feels much more of a need to break differences down to size, to seek peace, to reconcile, and to speak across divides. There may be times in the life of a family when parties are alienated from each other, when one or more members are in serious sin, or when deep misunderstandings or tensions exist. In such situations the whole family suffers and does whatever they can to resolve the issues. While a club could divide without too much heartbreak, a family will typically regard such measures as much nearer to a last resort and will only adopt them when all other possibilities have been exhausted.

In such a family there may be an urgent need to protect some members from the bad influence of one or more of the members. A family that has not split is not necessarily a family in full communion within itself or where no internal lines have been drawn. Nor does the fact that a family does not part ways when one member is in sin imply that sin is ‘tolerated’ within it. Rather, such a family ideally does what it can to reform its life, to correct its erring members, and to establish healthy relationships.

For Christians who are accustomed to fundamentalism and denominationalism, this can seem entirely foreign, as can the sort of practice that it encourages. A couple of decades ago, John Frame wrote about the fissiparous character of the movement that followed men like J. Gresham Machen. Their fight against liberalism was succeeded by incessant controversies and divisions on a host of issues of theology, many of them arguably minutiae. When a denominational instinct takes hold, any difference can become the occasion for a bitter fight and a subsequent split. When the church has come to be regarded as if it were a sort of orthodoxy club, we should not be surprised that people do not approach their disagreements as if they were brothers and sisters, with the preservation, pursuit, or recovery of unity in the truth being of very high importance.

Writing within the non-denominational context of the Church of England, Lewis diligently sought to extend a non-denominational spirit even further. He ran much of the text of Mere Christianity by clergymen of different traditions, seeking their feedback; he wanted to ensure that it was as true an account of what Christians hold in common as possible. In the preface of Mere Christianity, he claims that he also made it clearer why Christians of different traditions should be reunited.

When thinking about reunion, it is not all or nothing: it admits of many degrees. It is about seeking to be as much in fellowship with each other as we can be in the truth, and seeking to extend the measure of truth that we share. Being in a denomination need not entail denominationalism, of course. Many people in denominations have a more catholic and non-denominationalist spirit and invest much effort in developing a breadth of charitable bonds beyond their denominations, classes, nations, tribes, and immediate theological traditions, while maintaining clarity concerning the truth.

The Church of England has tended to be perceived as the default Christianity for many in England. There is a givenness to it: it is not a choice or a more freighted alignment, as joining or belonging to a church of a particular denomination in the American religious ecosystem might be. There have certainly always been strong theological differences within the Church of England. However, the institution itself imposes a discipline of catholicity that challenges all parties within the church to seek ways to mitigate, speak across, and resolve those differences.

Such a church is not a ‘pure’ gathering of faithful persons. While denominationalism separates in order to form such groups, this is not the way that matters have usually been handled within the history of the people of God and the church. Under the Old Covenant, you could not simply opt out of the temple and synagogue system and form your own alternative (the division of the kingdom and Jeroboam’s establishment of idolatry in the northern kingdom of Israel might be seen as something akin to such an opting out). There was one system, which was generally corrupt in various regards, and it was necessary to remain in contact with it and to seek to reform it. There were occasions when righteous persons were expelled from the system, but they could not simply turn their back on it. Even the most critical of prophets, for example, rail at Israel: they do not turn away and start an alternate “reformed Israel” that was separate from the temple and main body of the people. If the temple was corrupt, it was the only temple, and its corruption continued to be our problem. It was not a problem borne by some other group.

Over the history of the Church, things have generally been much the same. Rather than cutting themselves off, faithful people have generally sought to remain in impure churches and bear faithful witness within them, ideally to reform and revive them. Such groups have typically sought to secure enclaves of faithfulness (typically specific churches and institutions that stand firm against a general declension), to develop ecclesiola in ecclesia (‘little churches within the church’) working for renewal, sodalities for the purpose of reform, and the like. The early Methodist movement is a good example of what such a vision can entail and John Wesley’s words against separation from the Church of England are instructive here:

[B]y such a Separation we should not only throw away the peculiar Glorying which GOD has given us, That we do and will suffer all Things for our Brethren’s Sake, tho’ the more we love them, the less we be loved: But should act in direct Contradiction to that very End, for which we believe GOD hath raised us up. The chief Design of his Providence in sending us out, is undoubtedly, To quicken our Brethren. And the first Message of all our Preachers is, to the lost Sheep of the Church of England. Now would it not be a flat Contradiction to this Design, To Separate from the Church?

It has indeed been objected, That ’till we do separate, we cannot be a compact, united Body.

IT is true, we cannot ’till then be a compact united Body, if you mean by that Expression, A Body distinct from all others. And we have no Desire so to be.

WE look upon ourselves, not as the Authors, or Ringleaders of a particular Sect or Party; (It is the farthest Thing from our Thoughts:) but as Messengers of GOD, to those who are Christians in Name, but Heathens in Heart and in Life, to call them back to that from which they are fallen, to real, genuine Christianity. We are therefore Debtors to all these, of whatever Opinion or Denomination: And are consequently to do all that in us lies, to please all, for their Good, to Edification.

We look upon the Methodists (so called) in general, not as any particular Party; (This would exceedingly obstruct the Grand design, for which we conceive GOD has raised them up) but as living Witnesses in, and to every Party, of that Christianity when we preach; which is hereby demonstrated to be a real Thing, and visibly held out to all the World.

WE look upon England as that Part of the World, and the Church as that Part of England, to which all we who are born and have been brought up therein, owe our first and chief Regard. We feel in ourselves a strong Storgh, a Kind of Natural Affection for our Country, which we apprehend Christianity was never designed either to root out or to impair. We have a more peculiar Concern for our Brethren, for that Part of our Countrymen, to whom we have been joined from our Youth up, by Ties of a Religious as well as a Civil Nature. True it is, that they are in general, without GOD in the World. So much the more do our Bowels yearn over them. They do lie in Darkness and the Shadow of Death. The more tender is our Compassion for them. And when we have the fullest Conviction of that complicated Wickedness which covers them as a Flood, then do we feel the most (and we desire to feel yet more) of that inexpressible Emotion, with which our blessed LORD beheld Jerusalem, and wept and lamented over it. Then are we the most willing to spend and to be spent for them, yea, to lay down our Lives for our Brethren.

Wesley also discusses the way that the spirit of controversy increasingly characterized those who adopted the route of division, driving out a spirit of love and true religion. To those accustomed to the way of denominationalism, the determination of someone like Wesley to remain in a deeply corrupt and unfaithful church can be dismissed as the toleration of evil. That could not be further from the truth!

Where faithful Christians have not effectively formed enclaves of faithfulness, communities and institutions that ground and form their members more deeply in the truth, and networks and agencies of reform, they can too easily capitulate and assimilate to the waves of unfaithfulness that surround them—a constant challenge for faithful Christians in a body like the Church of England and one area where a continued fraternal voice of caution from nonconformists, independents, and fundamentalist brethren is salutary. Often faithful Christians have been driven out of such bodies. In other situations, they may have felt unable to resist the cancerous spread of unfaithfulness in the general body without an emergency amputation. However, even when driven out, they can comport themselves without a denominational spirit, bearing a true and loving witness for the good of those who have expelled them and desirous of a reunion in the truth.

Lewis’s Mere Christianity vision is quite fitting to such a non-denominational context. It doesn’t major on the distinctives of a particular sect or denomination, but articulates an orthodox faith that resonates with Christians of many, with a warm and pacific spirit of catholicity that keeps first things first and does not accent the distinctives of sects.

The mainline in America is denominational in character, which is an important difference. Likewise, conservatives were in large measure driven from or vacated the US mainline, institutionalizing the modernist-fundamentalist division. This did not occur in the same way in England. In the English context, it was consequently easier to resist much of the modernist movement, without becoming overly defined by that resistance, becoming an inverse of the modernism you were opposing, or rewriting the tradition to make it fit the concerns of fundamentalism. The challenge of modernism could be responded to, rather than merely reacted against.

For instance, even among those holding very high views of Scripture against modernism, inerrancy was not as architectonic in biblical scholarship in conservative Church of England contexts and consequently doctrines of Scripture have often had a different centre of gravity, one more consistent with older doctrines of Scripture in the tradition. Even when there are important lines to hold, defining ourselves overmuch in terms of those lines can be dangerous. It is easy for orthodoxy under such circumstances unwittingly to assume unorthodox framing by defining itself as the inverse of dominant or especially threatening errors.

As one friend of mine has observed, fundamentalism, as a response to the very real threats of modernism, was akin to a program of lockdowns and attempted inoculations. It quarantined people from the plague of modernism by forming new ecclesial bodies, cut off from the broader conversation of the church and from mainline academic institutions. It sought to inoculate people through strawman portrayals of opposing views and the injection of radical suspicion of outsiders and intellectuals. Fundamentalism’s reactive and belligerent posture towards non-fundamentalists, its deep distrust, its divisive character, its common anti-intellectualism, and its caricaturing of opposition are all expressions of this underlying move. Non-fundamentalist conservative Anglicans exhibit a different possibility and one that may prove increasingly necessary as greater exposure to opposing voices in the modern media and intellectual environment leaves well-managed engagement the only real alternative to escalating tribalism.

As an established church, the Church of England has a recognized duty to the nation in ways that denominations do not. It is always already in the public square and must speak with candour, faithfulness, and love. The apologetic task has a distinctive character in such a context. The Church of England, as established, is ideally much better positioned to act with magnanimity and avoid a resentful spirit of underdog-ism. Apologetics can be much less instinctively defensive under such conditions and hopefully committed to a culture of persuasion.

Another key aspect of the Church of England is its close attachment to the universities, the consequent place of theology in the academy, and the greater exposure of theology to a range of intellectual interlocutors in the public conversation. This pushes the church into the work of rigorous theology, the task of public persuasion, cultural creation, and the careful articulation of ethics for the actually existing society. Oliver O’Donovan is another great exemplar of the sort of person that this can create.

The Church of England must minister across the breadth of English society, from having bishops in the House of Lords, chaplains in palaces and prisons, canon theologians connecting universities with churches, schools in parishes across the country, and all classes and backgrounds in its pews. Such a church must develop elite scholars and skilled popular communicators. It must be able to speak to the homeless person who walks in off the street, while also being able to hold its own with the greatest scholars in the land. It cannot be either populist or elitist, but it must cultivate excellence and enjoys many of the means to do so. It must be adept at operating in the full expanse of the big pond of English society and cannot simply retreat to its own sheltered world.

The Church of England, as an established church, is called to play the role of a chaplain. The role of the critical and countercultural prophet can easily be one that allows us to absolve ourselves of true responsibility, with a ‘morality’ chiefly manifest in the condemnation of others’ sins—persons who are generally not in our audience. The chaplain, however, does not have the same luxury of a purity that distancing and detachment allows. The chaplain needs actively to seek the good of the society to which he is joined. He must build bridges. And he must create and maintain the conditions in which he can speak and act as a faithful witness and be heard.

The position of the chaplain also highlights the duty of the Church to seek the good of its society and its various groups. When Christians have retreated from much public life and formed their own subaltern counterpublics, it is easy for Christians to start to think of themselves chiefly as if a constituency with its own sectional interests to be advanced against competitors. In such a situation, Christian leaders may be expected to be belligerent towards and to delegitimate other rival groups and agencies: their public task is supposedly chiefly that of representing Christians and their interests, rather than that of representing Christ in a way that serves the good interests of the people to whom they are ministering. People who are in the position of a chaplain can appear like traitors.

Lewis was not the most enthusiastic churchgoer, but he was a faithful one, and thereby he illustrates the importance of the catholicity of the Church of England’s parochial ordering. Going to a local parish church, Lewis experienced the discipline of learning to love his neighbours and see them as brothers and sisters. Too many people are accustomed to treating the church as religious consumers, driving great distances in search of a church that offers a ‘community’ that fits their preferences and ticks their boxes, rather than working at forming a community with the actual Christians in their more immediate locality. Although this may not be an option for many, it is important that we are alert to the formative power of these differing experiences of church.

Lewis’s writing on church attendance reveals benefits of the parochial church over the consumer church in shaping key Christian virtues. The parochial church, unlike the consumer church, must accommodate people of many different temperaments, politics, classes, and backgrounds. At his local parish church, Lewis had to learn to see people of a very different class and educational background as his brothers and sisters. While many churches in a religious marketplace can purposefully target a particular constituency, sometimes even wilfully antagonizing others in order to do so, a parish church does not get to choose its constituency. Whatever the priest’s temperament, politics, or sensibilities, he has faithfully to present the gospel to the breadth of people within his church’s locality. This naturally encourages a more winsome approach, a disciplined practice of traversing differences in truth.

Lewis also evidently drank deeply of the distinctive spirit of Anglican humanism and the sort of ‘contemplative pragmatism’ that is articulated by such as Richard Hooker, a confident, reflective, and expansive sapiential posture towards the world. Lewis’s effusive description of Hooker’s thought in his English Literature in the Sixteenth-Century expresses some of the virtues he exemplified in his own.

Every system offers us a model of the universe; Hooker’s model has unsurpassed grace and majesty. From much that I have already said it might be inferred that the unconscious tendency of his mind was to secularise. There could be no deeper mistake. Few model universes are more filled—one might say, more drenched—with Deity than his. ‘All things that are of God’ (and only sin is not) ‘have God in them and he them in himself likewise’, yet ‘their substance and his wholly differeth’ (V.56.5). God is unspeakably transcendent; but also unspeakably immanent. It is this conviction which enables Hooker, with no anxiety, to resist any inaccurate claim that is made for revelation against reason, Grace against Nature, the spiritual against the secular. We must not honour even heavenly things with compliments that are not quite true: ‘though it seem an honour, it is an injury’ (II.8.7). All good things, reason as well as revelation, Nature as well as Grace, the commonwealth as well as the Church, are equally, though diversely, ‘of God’. If nature hath need of grace’, yet also ‘grace hath use of nature’ (III.8.6). Laws merely human, if they are good, have all been ‘copied out of the tables of that high everlasting law’ which God made, the Law of Nature (I.16.2). ‘The general and perpetual voice of men is as the sentence of God himself’, for it is taught by Nature whose ‘voice is but his instrument’ (I.8.3). ‘Divine testimony’ and ‘demonstrative reasoning’ are equally infallible (II.7.5). Certainly, the Christian revelation is ‘that principal truth in comparison whereof all other knowledge is vile’; but only in comparison. All kinds of knowledge, all good arts, sciences, and disciplines come from the Father of lights and are ‘as so many sparkles resembling the bright fountain from which they rise’ (III.8.9). We must not think that we glorify God only in our specifically religious actions. ‘We move, we sleep, we take the cup at the hand of our friend’ and glorify Him unconsciously, as inanimate objects do, for ‘every effect proceeding from the most concealed instincts of nature’ manifests His power (II.2.1). Not, of course, that our different modes of glorifying God are on a level…. But we must not so regard the highest in us as to forget that the lowest is still of God, nor so call some of our activities ‘religious’ as to make the rest profane…. We meet on all levels the divine wisdom shining through ‘the beautiful variety of all things’ in their ‘manifold and yet harmonious dissimilitude’.

Such a vision of reality is not ideological, nor a reality that is exclusively known by those with revelation. It is a full reality in which all are to be wakened to their part. It is a reality in which reason has its role and in which we can learn extensively from non-Christians.

Now, it should be evident that the Church of England is in a sorry state—my intent is definitely not to claim otherwise! I am not suggesting that anyone join it. Nor am I claiming that it has nothing to learn from or is categorically superior to others, American fundamentalists among them. Nevertheless, it is a tradition that holds remarkable possibilities and has specific virtues from which other Protestants could learn.

Many outside of it, without being blind to its faults, have drunk deeply of the best of its spirit and learned from some of its greatest minds. So many American evangelical leaders, for instance, have been formed in British universities and have brought something of the spirit of faithful Anglicanism that Lewis once exemplified back with them. Even many of those who were not, figures like Tim Keller, have looked to the UK to learn how to minister to a wider society.

Navigating the relationship between non-fundamentalist conservative Christians in the Church of England and American fundamentalists and evangelicals has long been complex. American fundamentalists and evangelicals have historically frequently looked to British conservative Christians for intellectual advocacy of the orthodoxy that they share. However, British conservative Christians, while feeling a genuine kinship with American conservative Christians, have non-fundamentalist instincts. They are not as tribal or antagonistically postured towards other groups, having a felt commitment to pursuing peace and truth in a wider church and society. Without the ‘lockdowns’ of fundamentalism, British conservative Christians have been much more open to the world of the academy, for instance. From the perspective of American fundamentalists, this openness can sometimes feel like a betrayal or as cynical approval-seeking, as British conservative Christians engage charitably with people American fundamentalists regard as their cultured despisers, disapprove of their politicized tribalism, and do not simply take their ‘side’. Class divisions that are also internal to American conservative churches can easily play out in and be projected onto this transatlantic relationship, with suspicion, chauvinism, resentment, and prejudice, inferiority and superiority complexes, at work on the various sides. While perceiving and addressing such failures of Christian love, chiefly within our own hearts, it is also essential that we recognize and reckon with the genuine issues of principle that are at stake.

C.S. Lewis is an example of the sort of exceptional character that the Church of England has produced and nurtured. Mindlessly uproot the flower of Lewis’s work from the soil within which it grew and it can rapidly wither. However, those lovers of Lewis who also consider that soil can benefit more from him, even when joining Lewis’s Church of England is not an option for them—or for any of us.

This article was originally a post at The Anchored Argosy Substack. It is republished here with permission and some light editing.

Alastair Roberts is a Teaching Fellow at The Davenant Institute. He also works for the Theopolis Institute and as an independent scholar. He is the co-author of Echoes of Exodus (Crossway 2018). He blogs at Alastair Adversaria.

  1. The term ‘fundamentalism’ is widely and loosely used, perhaps more often than not functioning as a lazy pejorative. While my use of the term picks up on the more specific historical sense, it primarily mostly relates to sociological features that came to be characteristic of much Christian fundamentalism, features that have led to a broader application of the term to other unrelated movements and groups. Alvin Plantinga famously dismissed the term as meaning little more than “stupid sumb*tch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine.” It is not difficult, however, to identify some of the more general things that people have in mind when speaking of positions as ‘fundamentalist’. Fundamentalist positions tend to operate within a closed and unquestioned system of ideas or beliefs. They cannot really entertain or receive alternative perspectives from without, and they struggle to speak beyond their systems or to deal with questions about them. Fundamentalists are intolerant of difference and are divisive, separatist, and sectarian in impulse. Fundamentalists tend towards forms of legalism, squeezing out prudence, wisdom, and deliberation, imposing demanding and narrow strictures upon behaviour. Fundamentalists tend to be reactionary, preoccupied with conflict with opposing groups, defining and forming themselves chiefly in terms of polarization, and resistant to consideration of common ground.
    While such a definition clearly identifies a spectrum of behaviours, and admits of many degrees, it should be clear that it names something real, that someone could easily be strongly conservative or on the right without being a fundamentalist (Plantinga’s ‘definition’ merely relates to common misuses), and that fundamentalism is to be found among many progressives and people on the left.


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