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The Monsignor and the Don | An Interview with Fr. Milton Walsh, author of Second Friends: C.S. Lewis and Ronald Knox in Conversation | Carl E. Olson | June 30, 2008

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Fr. Milton Walsh is a priest of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. He wrote his dissertation on Ronald Knox and is the author of Ronald Knox As Apologist: Wit, Laughter, and the Popish Creed, an enlightening tour of the writings and thought of one of the most elegant and witty apologists of the past century. His new book, Second Friends: C.S. Lewis and Ronald Knox in Conversation, combines his knowledge of Knox with his many years of reading and researching the works and life of another English author and apologist, C.S. Lewis.

Ignatius Insight: How did the idea for this book come about? What did you set out to accomplish in having Knox and Lewis converse, as it were?

Fr. Milton Walsh: Back in 1982, I was sent to Rome to complete doctoral studies. My Archbishop believed I had an ability to write clearly, and he wanted me to devote myself to some aspect of apologetics. (Need I say that this was hardly a fashionable topic at the time?) I had been reading Chesterton, Newman, Knox and Lewis since my high school days, and my original idea was to produce a comparison of Knox and Lewis. However, I was under a time constraint, so my director suggested I limit my research to Ronald Knox. While in Rome I was privileged to meet Walter Hooper, Lewis's literary secretary. We had some enjoyable conversations about our two heroes, and the idea of writing about C. S. Lewis and Ronald Knox never left me. I even considered the idea of writing an imaginary dialogue between them, based on their writings. Upon reflection, I felt that this approach would seem artificial—and besides, their own expressions are far superior to anything I could imagine them saying.

I had several motivations for presenting a conversation between Lewis and Knox. They were both imaginative and profound Christian authors, whose testimony is so helpful to believers today. I also hoped that connecting Knox with Lewis would introduce him to a wider audience. Ronald Knox was a very popular writer throughout the first half the 20th century, but then he practically disappeared. Lewis, on the other hand, has only grown in popularity since his death. I think that many readers who enjoy Lewis—including non-Catholics—will find Knox an interesting author. Finally, this "conversation" gave me an opportunity to approach the question of C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church from a different angle.

Ignatius Insight: In additional to being contemporaries (Knox having been ten years old than Lewis), what are some of the important similarities between the lives and work of the two men?

Fr. Walsh: Although Lewis and Knox ended up in different places as regards religious affiliation, they had a great deal in common. Their families embodied a strongly Evangelical expression of Anglicanism, but both men took a decidedly Catholic direction in their maturity. They were both very logical thinkers, but with a great appreciation for the power of imagination and the place of the heart in religious discourse. They were very much at home in the academic world of their day, but neither considered himself a professional theologian. Rather, they were evangelists who sought to express their faith in an engaging and thoughtful way to the general public.

As I delved into their writings more deeply, I was frequently surprised to find them making the same arguments, and at times even employing the same images. (In fact, I found myself wondering at times: "Did he steal this idea from the other guy?" ... and I would rather playfully put the question in terms of what biblical scholars have to say about the "Synoptic Problem": did Matthew borrow from Mark, or vice-versa. Knowing the reserve with which both Lewis and Knox viewed the assertions of "higher critics", it was enjoyable to imagine their own writings being explained in this way!) In fact, I think much of their similarity of thought and expression can be explained by their common cultural and educational formation.

Ignatius Insight: What are some of the key differences between Knox's life and thought and that of Lewis?

Fr. Walsh: Much could be said about this, but I would primarily address myself to two differences: their spiritual journey and their profession. As regards the first, each man underwent a profound conversion. However, in the case of Lewis this was an experience of faith lost and found; he went through a long period of atheism. For Knox, the conversion was from one expression of Christianity (Anglicanism) to another (Roman Catholicism). In retrospect, Knox believed that his profession of the Catholic faith marked the mature expression of what he had always believed. Lewis, on the other hand, experienced two dramatic shifts in his life—from a notional sense of Christian faith to atheism, and then from atheism to a passionate commitment to Christian faith.

Secondly, their lives were taken up with two very different professions, although they both did many of the same things—public speaking, popular writing, broadcasting and so on. Lewis was an Oxford don, whose religious writings were carried out between commitments to tutoring and lecturing. Most of his closest friends were also academics. Oxford and Cambridge were always the backdrops; even though many of his confreres looked askance on Lewis's forays into popular religious thought, they recognized his expertise in his chosen field of medieval and renaissance literature. Knox was a priest, both as an Anglican and as a Catholic: for him, speaking and writing about Christ and the faith was at the heart of his vocation.

Ignatius Insight: How well did Knox and Lewis know each other? What did they think of each other?

Fr. Walsh: I could find only one written reference to their actually meeting. For many years they lived near one another in Oxford, and they had friends in common; it is certainly likely that their paths crossed from time to time. Of course, for several years Lewis was an atheist, so he would hardly have sought out the Catholic Chaplain; and Knox as Chaplain made a concerted effort to limit his work to serving Catholic undergraduates—for example, he directed inquiring non-Catholics to the Jesuits or Dominicans. One finds occasional references to the other's books in each man's writings, generally in terms of admiration. When Knox died, there was a subscription for a memorial to him at Trinity College, and Lewis was one of the sponsors.

Ignatius Insight: You state that ecclesiology was the "most tantalizing issue" in relation to Knox and Lewis. How so? And how might it have related to the very different views the two had of the Blessed Mother?

Fr. Walsh: For Ronald Knox, the decision to leave the Anglican Church—in which he was a highly-respected figure, who could well have risen to great prominence—was the pivotal event of his religious journey. It cost him a great deal, both personally and professionally. On the other hand, when C. S. Lewis recovered his Christian faith he was content to remain an Anglican. For him, Roman Catholicism was "exotic"; he considered it to be as sectarian as any small Protestant denomination. Although Lewis was willing to take on many issues in his writing and speaking, he sedulously avoided the question of Church membership. He had very close friends who were Catholic (as Knox had family members and friends who were devout Anglicans), so I think on a personal level each man would have respected the other man's conscience. But I imagine that Lewis might have been a bit ill at ease with such a prominent convert. It should also be noted that neither man carried the banner of a particular camp or movement within his respective communion—they strove to be (adapting a notable phrase of Lewis's), "merely Anglican" and "merely Catholic". They each also manifested great respect for the spiritual richness of the other's tradition.

Their different appreciations for the place of Mary in Christian life is probably one of the most obvious examples of where they would disagree. Along with the papacy, Catholic devotion to Our Lady is probably one of the most distinguishing indicators of the Catholic/Protestant polarity (this as much on the level of popular practice as on that of theological discourse). Even as an Anglican, Knox was devoted to the Blessed Mother. Once he became a Catholic, this devotion deepened, but paradoxically it became less emotional; perhaps he now felt "at home" in the Catholic world, and did not need to defend Catholic customs and ways of thought as he had been required to do as an Anglo-Catholic. The Roman Catholic religious landscape in England in the first half of the 20th century was woven of several strands: old time recusant families, large numbers of Irish immigrants, and converts from Protestantism. Some of these converts were in the line of Fr. Faber, rejoicing that they had recovered the continental expressions of Catholicism lost to England in the wake of the Reformation. Others, like Newman, sought to find an expression of Catholicism that would be faithful to Catholic beliefs, but embody them in a way congenial to the English temperament. All this is to say that even among Catholics there were some who rejoiced in effusive Marian devotions, and others who were more reserved. I think Knox was of this latter group, and he would have sympathized with Lewis's discomfort at some manifestations of Catholic piety.

Lewis for his part avoided talking about Mary even more than he did the Church. Although his Catholic friends assured him of the contrary, he always held that "Papists" (the word he always employed when speaking about Roman Catholics) worshipped Mary. Catholic scholars have pointed out that Lewis's silence on Mary is deafening—not only in regard to his religious writings, but also in terms of his work in his chosen field of medieval and renaissance literature. Imagine lecturing on medieval and renaissance art and never adverting to Mary!

Ignatius Insight: In your estimation, why did Lewis not become Catholic? How would Knox have viewed Lewis' position and logic in that regard?

Fr. Walsh: This was a question not infrequently put to Lewis himself, to his great annoyance. His Catholic friend J.R.R. Tolkien chalked it up to "Ulsterior Motives"—Lewis was so marked by his upbringing in northern Ireland that he could never overcome his early prejudices. There is something in this, to be sure, but Knox had a dose of anti-Romanism in his childhood, too, and he overcame it. I believe that the theological foundation for Lewis's decision to remain an Anglican is to be found in the writings of Richard Hooker. Hooker was the first great Anglican theologian, who articulated an understanding of Anglicanism as the embodiment of much good to be found in both Catholic and Protestant views. That was very much Lewis's perspective. He loved Dante, read Aquinas, and appreciated writers like St. Francis de Sales. He believed he could draw on this patrimony and still remain an Anglican. (This was true as well for other significant Christian authors, such as T. S. Eliot and Dorothy Sayers—and for Knox himself for many years.)

There is also the place of God's grace in all this. I was very surprised when I learned how relatively late in life Chesterton entered the Catholic Church [Editor's note: Chesterton was 48 when he became Catholic in 1922]. Before him, Newman had said, "My mind went to Rome long before I did." It is undeniable that throughout his life Lewis became increasingly "Catholic" in his Christianity. To start out as the grandson of a virulently anti-Catholic minister in Ireland and end up going to confession every month, praying for the dead, and referring to Holy Communion as "the Blessed Sacrament" represents quite a journey.

What would Knox make of Lewis's position? I think he would have great sympathy with him. His own brother remained an Anglican priest; many of his closest friends were not Catholic; and in his writings he shows a great sensitivity to how mysterious the process of conversion is. My hunch is that, if the thought of Lewis's religious position came into his mind (as it might have when reading his books), Knox would have recognized that Lewis was an astute man who was well aware of the arguments in favor of Catholicism; and that what he, Knox, could do for Lewis in this matter was simply to pray for him.

Ignatius Insight: What were some of the central historical and theological issues that played a role in Knox's decision to become Catholic?

Fr. Walsh: I would identify several. In his mid-teens Knox became aware of a more Catholic view of the world through the writings of R. H. Benson and Chesterton, and this appealed to his romantic side—the beauty of medieval Christianity, the excitement of the Oxford movement, and a more sacramental view of reality. As a young priest he struggled with the problem of authority in the Church: he found widely disparate and indeed contradictory teachings being presented in Anglicanism, and there did not seem to be any final authority to decide such matters. A great catalyst was the First World War: many of his young Anglo-Catholic friends were going to the trenches (and many of them died there), and the niceties of distinctions between "high church" and "low church" evaporated. The choices were "C of E" or "RC". All of this led him to reflect on the bigger picture: Did Christ intend to found a Church? Yes. Was this Church a visible community? Yes. Where was that visible community, whose history could be traced back twenty centuries, to be found? Knox became convinced that it was the community gathered around the successor of St. Peter.

Ignatius Insight: In what way was the theme of "longing" significant in the conversions of the two men? How did they relate it to imagination and myth?

Fr. Walsh: It was explicitly underscored by Lewis in his book Surprised by Joy: he came to see, like St. Augustine, that God has made us for Himself and our hearts are restless until they rest in Him. An important turning point in Lewis's conversion was a conversation with Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, in which they argued that Christianity was a myth, but uniquely it was also a myth that happened to be true. That is, like many great religions and ways of looking at the world it drew upon archetypal images and stories (myths)—but it also was historically true. In Jesus, "once upon a time" became "he was crucified under Pontius Pilate". Lewis was an incredibly imaginative person, and could express his Christian faith not only through compelling apologetical works, but also through science fiction and the Chronicles of Narnia.

Knox did not share Lewis's ability to write fantasy, but he certainly shared his conviction of the historical foundation of Christianity. Knox's own imaginative gift was the ability to link basic Christian beliefs to the ordinary experience of his readers. Most of his writing was done for sermons and conferences, and in these writings he frequently imitates Our Lord's teaching through parables—showing how profound spiritual truth can be discerned in the experiences of daily life.

Ignatius Insight: How did Knox and Lewis use fiction and story to explore both belief and skepticism?

Fr. Walsh: Lewis was, of course, a master at this. He once confided to a friend that it is amazing how much theology you can smuggle into a work of fiction. Although he could present cogent arguments for the Christian faith, I think he felt many people were allergic to religious writing, and that they could be reached through other avenues. Knox rarely used fiction for such purposes (although he did occasionally). For the most part he was addressing people who were already Catholic: his purpose was to deepen their understanding of, and love for, their faith.

Ignatius Insight: What are some lessons to be learned from Knox and Lewis about being a Christian, especially in a culture that is often antagonistic to Christian belief and practice?

Fr. Walsh: By way of introduction, I would recall something Chesterton said about his brother: "We always argued, but we never quarreled." Both Lewis and Knox knew how to argue in a way that respected the dignity and intelligence of their opponents. They presumed that the other party was interested in the truth, and they sought to give the most cogent argument for their beliefs. Because of their own personal struggles, each man had a great respect for the complexity of human beings, and this kept them from dismissing those who disagreed with them as simply stupid or benighted. They also had a delightful sense of humor, and this enabled them to address profound issues with a light touch. They took their subjects seriously, but not themselves.

Both Knox and Lewis exude a certain confidence in their writings; they are not defensive, and they are convinced that their basic purpose was to present the truth of the Christian faith, and let it speak for itself. I think in a culture that is marked by polarization and strident opposition they serve as good models for us. There is a lot of mud-slinging directed toward religion in general and the Church in particular, and the temptation is to scoop some of it up and throw it back. For the most part these two men avoided that temptation. Their basic approach, I think, is "The truth will out." We should share our faith with humility, respect and good will.

There is much more that can be said (read my book!), but finally I think Knox and Lewis are both great examples of an integrated life. Their intellectual skills, imaginative gifts, humor and insight are held together by their deep love for Jesus Christ and His Gospel. They were extraordinarily gifted men, and we can read their writings with admiration. But they both saw themselves as ordinary, because they realized that, while those gifts may distinguish them from many others, ultimately this did not matter. What mattered was God's love, and in this regard we are all equal. Their great abilities make them inspiring authors; but their sense of their own "ordinariness" makes them enjoyable company.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links:

IgnatiusInsight.com Author Page for Monsignor Ronald Knox
Monsignor Ronald Knox: Convert, Priest, Apologist | An Interview with Fr. Milton Walsh
Experience, Reason, and Authority in the Apologetics of Ronald Knox | Milton Walsh | From Ronald Knox As Apologist
The Four Marks of the Church | Ronald A. Knox
Review of The Belief of Catholics | Carl E. Olson
Ronald Knox, Apologist | Carl E. Olson
Review of The Belief of Catholics | Carl E. Olson
A Lesson Learned From Monsignor Ronald A. Knox | Carl E. Olson
Converts and Saints | An Interview with Joseph Pearce
Escape From Puritania | Joseph Pearce | An Excerpt from C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church
The Thought and Work of C. S. Lewis | Carl E. Olson
The Relevance and Challenge of C. S. Lewis | Mark Brumley
An Hour and a Lifetime with C.S. Lewis | An Interview with Dr. Thomas Howard
C.S. Lewis’s Case for Christianity | An Interview with Richard Purtill
Paganism and the Conversion of C.S. Lewis | Clotilde Morhan

Fr. Milton Walsh is a priest of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. He wrote his dissertation on Ronald Knox and is a longtime reader and researcher of the works of Ronald Knox and C.S. Lewis.

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