Many people know of C.S. Lewis through his Narnia stories. Many Christians also know him as an apologist, whose own journey from atheism to Christianity informed his defence of the faith on radio and in person as well as in numerous writings. Not so many know him as a contributor to the development of English literature studies through his academic career at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and perhaps still fewer know of his alternative science fiction trilogy, starting with Out of the Silent Planet (1938). Lewis has left a rich legacy that is appreciated by Christians and non-Christians in diverse ways. Today I’d like to relate one way in which I’ve benefitted from that legacy in my own academic work, and encourage you to do the same.

Some years ago I gathered a small group of Christian thinkers interested in ecology and conservation to look at how the so-called ecosystem services framework might be critiqued and enriched. At some point during the exciting journey of discussions, seminars and journal articles that has ensued, someone asked me if I’d read The Abolition of Man. I hadn’t. When I eventually did, I found Lewis at his most penetrating and profound, exploring the dynamics of subjectivism in three lectures from 1943 that are published as one of his shortest books. If we take the aphorism “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” as all there is to say about beauty, and extend this approach to every area of judgment from logic to morality, we will eventually lose the very freedom that seems to motivate the initial sentiment. Lewis’ argument remains prophetic nearly eighty years later, as a riposte to what is sometimes called expressive individualism (see my colleague Mark Roques’ blog post here). For our working group on ecosystem services, this helped clarify the proposal we’d started to lay out for a pluralistic evaluation framework for policymakers and businesses. This proposal, outlined in our latest journal article, seeks a kind of middle way in the longstanding tension between democracy and expertise that is perhaps more relevant now than ever. The good is to be found in a negotiation between subjective views and objective structure. We hope that Lewis would approve!

I’ve found a second benefit from all this in my teaching. At the University of Winchester I convene a course called ‘The Values of Nature’ in which I set a text each week for students to read, write about and then discuss in class – exploring questions about the meanings of ‘value’, ‘values’, ‘nature’, ‘wildness’, and the like. And for the final session of the course I set The Abolition of Man. So wide-ranging is this 30-page work that it touches on most of the issues raised in our 12-week course – while Lewis’ writing is so rich and allusive that it challenges the most able students [1].

C.S. Lewis himself did not work alone. Last week Alicia described her participation in a recreation of a meeting of the Inklings, that informal circle of writers in which Lewis associated with J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Owen Barfield. At FiSch, we believe that scholarly circles like this can be really beneficial for academic work in all kinds of disciplines. Could you start a working group, or a scholarly circle, in an area of importance to you? The Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology in Cambridge has a number of ‘research hubs’ – see if there is one that you could join, or if not, why not approach Craig Bartholomew, KLC’s Director, to discuss setting one up? (It was, in fact, a member of a KLC hub who pointed me to The Abolition of Man.)

One more thing, in closing… I’ve taken the title for this post from a TFN day conference coming up on 5 November, in which we’ll be looking at the vision of C.S. Lewis for our own time. Trevin Wax, an influential North American writer and speaker, will be travelling up from his temporary accommodation at The Kilns, Lewis’ former home in Oxford, to share his insights into Lewis’ wisdom for today. Here is a way you can easily join a conversation with fellow-believers that will surely sow fresh ideas and nurture seedlings of innovation. Do join us, either in person in Leeds, or online, by registering here!


[1] Some fail to engage with it, it must be said – and I suspect I’m more lenient towards superficiality than Lewis was.

Richard Gunton
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Richard Gunton

Richard is the Director of Faith-in-Scholarship at Thinking Faith Network. He also teaches statistics at the University of Winchester. His current passions include Reformational philosophy, history of sciences, ordination (the statistical sort), and wildlife gardening. He worships, and occasionally preaches, at St Mary's Church in Portchester. [Views expressed here are his own.]


Mark Roques · October 17, 2022 at 12:10 pm

Great article Richard. To add to this it’s helpful to point out that both emotivism (Ayer) in the UK and existentialism (Sartre) in France bolstered this morally bankrupt mindset you mention. Did Lewis engage with Ayer and Sartre? I’d love to know.

    Richard Gunton · October 24, 2022 at 11:09 am

    Thank, Mark. As far as I know, Lewis didn’t directly engage in writing with any contemporary thinkers (do you know any exceptions?). In The Abolition of Man, he refers to “The Green Book” by “Gaius and Titius” in order to preserve the anonymity of the work that he is so thoroughly criticizing. (Wikipedia tells us what the book is believed to have been, and in this case its authors are largely forgotten!)

    This really looks to me like a principled strategy on Lewis’ part. Let’s discuss it with Trevin on 5 November!

Teaching and learning in Narnia » Thinking Faith Network · October 31, 2022 at 10:00 am

[…] Last week’s post by Richard described the inspiration found in C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man for a fresh research direction. As a companion piece, and in the spirit of the upcoming TFN event which seeks to learn from Lewis, I want to reflect on the vocation which took up much of his academic life: teaching. […]

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