One of the latter is that, at the Oxford Socratic Society, where debate on theological topics transpired for several years and of which Lewis was president, Farrer comments that “nobody could put Lewis down” because he was such a fierce and effective debater. I’m sure it was meant as a general comment, but I couldn’t help but recall the famous, or infamous, encounter with the brilliant Oxford philosopher, and believing Catholic, Elizabeth Anscombe, in which Lewis was indeed “put down” in his arguments that naturalism is self-defeating. By most accounts he left the debate dejected, though it seems clear, not destroyed. As a result, Lewis revised his argument and continued his work. For her part, Anscombe, though not convinced, appreciated the seriousness with which Lewis took up the philosophical dialectics and revised his argument.
Despite the experience of defeat in the heat of debate, I for one am convinced that Lewis’s argument is decisive. But my mind moves elsewhere—to a reflection on what it meant for Lewis to be a consistent intellectual winner. Lewis was indeed exceedingly brilliant, and I wonder if this brilliance and debater’s acumen sometimes imperiled his soul. To defeat the opponent of Christian faith is not coterminous with promoting the cause of the Gospel. One can defeat by destroying. It is a reverse Pyrhic victory. The work of the apologist ultimately should lead to conversion. And for the opponent (to even use that word belies a certain mistaken starting point) to slink away in intellectual ignominy hardly serves that greater purpose.
Perhaps this is simply the dangers of apologetics. It is a danger that Lewis himself pondered... no, better, feared. His poem, “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer” contains these piercing lines of self-reflection:
From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf
At which, while angels weep, the audience laughs
Maybe that debate with Anscombe served therefore a more profound, providential purpose. It brought forth that critical Christian virtue—not invincibility, but humility.