Did trees evolve from apes? An odd question, to be sure, but one humorously posed by C.S. Lewis in a letter to his father.
While this column does discuss the theory of evolution, it’s not doctrinaire. So, whatever your opinion of Darwin’s notions, read on, and you may enjoy a pleasant surprise.
C.S. Lewis, the brilliant Christian apologist was not an ironclad “evangelical” in the American sense of the word. Here in the U.S., that typically requires adherence to a handful of doctrines, usually including the affirmation of the infallibility of the Scriptural autographs and of the creation of humanity in the persons of our first parents, Adam and Eve.
As important as these matters are, very few Christians would deem them salvific, in the sense that people holding less “vigorous” views on these issues will be excluded from heaven.
C.S. Lewis was one of those who focused on the core of the Christian faith, rather than secondary doctrines. He referred to this as “mere Christianity,” and it was based on a trusting relationship with God through the Person of Jesus, God present with us in the Incarnate Word.
As for doctrines per se, like all good defenders of the faith, C.S. Lewis preferred not to get bogged down with secondary matters. This is consistent with the spirit of Paul’s advice to the young pastor, Timothy.
Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. . . . Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone . . . (2 Timothy 2:14, 23-24).
Lewis’ 1927 Evolutionary Conversation
In March of 1927, C.S. Lewis wrote one of his eclectic letters to his father in Northern Ireland. As usual, he commented on his father’s previous correspondence and shared about his current health and activities. While his relationship with his father grew strained after his mother’s untimely death while he was still a child, Lewis’ letters to his father exude familial respect framed in the context of early twentieth century British sensibilities.
That said, Lewis was always eager to share curious or silly experiences he knew would amuse his solicitor father. He takes a humorous approach, for instance, to advising his father to consult a more skilled doctor to diagnose an ailment, rather than suffering with the incomplete work of the physician he has always known, he will simply be “offer[ing] up several months of pain as a sacrifice on the altar of an old acquaintance.”
At the same time, he acknowledges his personal inclination toward doing the same, stating that “if I lived at home [I] would continue to use Gillespie all my life.” Gillespie, it turns out, ran a taxi service long favored by the family despite his bumpy transportation. “I have never regretted Gillespie and his hexagonal wheel,” Lewis shares.
He returns to his argument, however, by saying his father’s health demands the attention of a competent physician rather than relying on past ties. He concludes with an illustration based on his own brother. “Hang it all, even you wouldn’t suggest that because I’ve known Warnie a long time I ought to trust him as an interpreter on a holiday in Spain.”
C.S. Lewis proceeds to share with his father current events at Magdalen College (“we are putting up a new building”) and a recent nightmare (“it was the sense of being on the moon . . . the complete desolateness, which gave the extraordinary effect”).
The letter includes other fascinating elements, but it is time now to consider the reference to evolution.
An Absurd Age
I absolutely love the way C.S. Lewis invites us to experience the following moment. His story is so vivid, it still lives a century after the described events transpired.
We live in the most absurd age. I met a girl the other day who had been teaching in an infant school (boys and girls up to the age of six) where the infants are taught the theory of Evolution. Or rather the Headmistress’s version of it.
Simple people like ourselves had an idea that Darwin said that life developed from simple organisms up to the higher plants and animals, finally to the monkey group, and from the monkey group to man.
The infants however seem to be taught that ‘in the beginning was the Ape’ from whom all other life developed – including such dainties as the Brontosaurus and the Iguanodon.
Whether the plants were supposed to be descendants of the ape I didn’t gather. And then people talk about the credulity of the middle ages! À propos of this can you tell me who said ‘Before you begin these studies, I should warn you that you need much more faith in science than in theology.’ It was Huxley or Clifford or one of the nineteenth century scientists, I think.
Another good remark I read long ago in one of E. Nesbitt’s fairy tales –‘Grown ups know that children can believe almost anything: that’s why they tell you that the earth is round and smooth like an orange when you can see perfectly well for yourself that it’s flat and lumpy.’
Ironically, immediately after this, Lewis introduces his next subject with the words: “Almost the only interesting thing that has happened to me lately was a visit from a young German.” You see, I wasn’t misleading you when I said his letters are filled with fascinating material.
One must assume that times have changed, and that English children are no longer being taught such simplistic distortions of actual theories. But that’s not the theme of this current post. Rather, I wish to show how wonderfully entertaining a simple family letter can be – especially when it comes from the pen of C.S. Lewis.