Writing and Thinking in the School of C. S. Lewis

In a previous post, I wrote about using the essays of C.S. Lewis to help college students learn to write well and think well at the same time. While writing and thinking seem to go hand in hand, they frequently do not. But why should that surprise us? Humans are perfectly capable of speaking without thinking. In fact, considering the human capacity for communication without any real reflection, it should surprise no one that the hardest part of teaching college students to write is getting them to shed their habitual mental blinders, look about themselves, and think a little.

C.S. Lewis is in a class of his own when it comes to reasoning by analogy, which makes his writing extremely attractive to a professor who is desperate to get students to think. In the final paragraphs of “Religion: Reality or Substitute,” Lewis turns his attention the relationship of faith, reason, and doubt. Lewis recognizes that doubt is not the enemy of faith but a part of human experience. He points out that humans are subject to fears, passions, and moods that threaten to overwhelm one’s faith. Clearly, Lewis is not a fideist, someone who sees an adversarial relationship between faith and reason. But almost every college student has been trained by our culture to see just such a conflict between faith and reason, so they are a bit bewildered by Lewis’s claim that “When we exhort people to Faith as a virtue, to the settled intention of continuing to believe certain things, we are not exhorting them to fight against reason.” Even if they agree with Lewis, they are not sure why.

In the past, I have asked students to take note of the analogies Lewis uses to make his case, and then write their own analogical account of faith, reason, and doubt. On this point, Lewis likens faith to the experience of learning to swim. The instructor tells the student that he will be safe in the water and the student listens to the reasons given, agrees with them, and agrees to proceed with the project of learning to swim. But once in the water, he feels a little differently. With nothing underfoot and nothing to hold onto, the new swimmer might seriously doubt his instructor. Regarding this experience, Lewis writes, “You will have no rational ground for disbelieving. It is your senses and your imagination that are going to attack belief. Here, as in the New Testament, the conflict is not between faith and reason but between faith and sight.”

When students are forced to imagine their own every-day analogy of a conflict between faith and sight, they are forced to step away from many of their bad writing habits. Instead of sitting down to write an essay and looking for lots smart-sounding but insubstantial nonsense, students are forced to think: when have I been tempted to doubt something I knew to be true? They begin to examine their own experience. They begin to examine their own reason. They begin to think twice about what they always believed about doubt.

Students might write about flying on airplanes. Reason tells us that they are less risky than driving in cars. But once you are inside a metal tube, going several hundred miles per hour, several thousand feet in the air, well, not only sight begins to rebel against reason, but the other sensations do as well. Or students might write about a relationship. That girlfriend who you know to be kind, thoughtful, beautiful, and self-giving might seem not to be “the one” after all when you are having a wretched day and she neglects to notice and actually says some pretty heartless things about whiners.

When students write an assignment like this, I am not interested in seeing academic-speak. I am interested in organized paragraphs and well-wrought sentences, as always, of course. But more than that, I am interested in guiding them to participate in Lewis’s reasoning, which, this case, is particularly important because he is connecting reason with faith. In many ways, students must be asked to reason because only by doing so will their faith be strengthened. Hopefully when they try to write their own analogy about faith, reason, and doubt, they will begin to understand how human reason, though fallen, is not the adversary of faith. As Lewis notes, faith needs reason and reason needs faith. But faith is a both a virtue and a gift, and our reason must be redeemed. Our culture is not accustomed to seeing faith and reason in such a light; hopefully, after following Lewis’s example of reasoning by analogy students gain not only greater writing skills but greater insight into themselves and their own doubts, not as the assertions of rationality but as the temptation to reject reason.

%d bloggers like this: