C. S. Lewis, Religious Knowledge, and Belief


Every decade or so, I take another crack at C.S. Lewis. The very act of doing so confirms what experience and observation indicate: we are all at different places in what is often called a “faith journey.” I have written in this space (on September 9th of this year) of my doubts about the uses of metaphor in religion, so I question the image of a common road with some in the vanguard and others at the rear, but I certainly acknowledge that some seem much more comfortable with their progress toward whatever destination they envision by whatever means they travel than I. My recent readings of Lewis’s Mere Christianity and Miracles have stimulated me to reexamine my progress.

My last stab at these works produced feelings of admiration for Lewis’s deft use of metaphor combined with frustration over his vagueness and neoplatonism. Just when I hoped he would be most direct, he launches another clever analogy to “illuminate the unknowable.” My sense of metaphor in poetics is that one should control not only the points of similarity but also crucial differences between the things compared. But Lewis seems satisfied to offer the metaphor without the  discursive explanation, and I found that immensely frustrating as I tried to supply the points of comparison and contrast from his intimations.

This round of reading produced a somewhat different effect. Though still an admirer of his inventiveness and timing in the use of metaphor, I found myself increasingly suspicious that Lewis was manipulating the reader as well as the metaphor, advancing only those points of comparison that made his point while minimizing or ignoring those that might dispute it. For instance, I was attracted to the famous comparison of our moral identities to individual ships in a fleet. The libertarian view would be that the entirety of your moral obligation is to avoid crashing your ship into mine, but Lewis reminds us that we have a prior moral duty to keep our own ship in order and that we must also steer to arrive at the fleet’s destination. Now this three-part view of moral duty happens to coincide precisely with my own sense of virtue ethics, the moral system I admire. We must know our destination, our final cause. We must also keep our own ship in Bristol fashion by developing the habits that lead to good character, and we must keep from crashing into others as we maneuver in community toward a complete human life. The analogy to a fleet works for me as does the tripartite set of moral duties the analogy proposes. I am predisposed to accept the metaphor. And that is what sets off my alarms. For the metaphor never establishes that our moral situation is actually analogous to ships in a fleet, nor that we all steer toward the same goal. Without establishing these elements as morally requisite, how can the metaphor succeed? Certainly, libertarians would not accept its framing. It only persuades those who have already bought into its premises.

This happened so often that I was forced to question either Lewis’s integrity or his competence. In some instances, I found myself deeply suspicious of his methods, such as in early chapters of Miracles when he makes the argument from design that might have been offered by William Paley or other Enlightenment thinkers. Now it is fine to make that argument today, so long as you acknowledge the damage done to it by the contingent determinists during the last century, and Lewis in other contexts in this book acknowledges that damage. To leave out counterarguments because they are inconvenient is unpardonable; Lewis is guilty of that charge frequently.

He might also be charged with some degree of incompetence, though, particularly when he attempts a straightforward philosophical presentation. For instance, his sustained attempt to prove human reasoning as supernatural in Miracles is tortured and unconvincing, not only to a postmodernist of our own century but to any modernist familiar with the empiricist philosophers. I hadn’t heard of the famous debate with Elizabeth Anscombe that rattled Lewis into revising this section of the book, but his revision is not convincing. His argument, often made by religionists, is a difficult one to sustain against the assault of naturalists—even more so in light of advancements in evolutionary biology– though we can understand why it is still made today, just as the argument from motion is till made today as it was by Aquinas despite advances in cosmology. I am still uncertain about appraising as deceptive or inept Lewis’s efforts in classifying human reasoning. If he didn’t know better, he should have. Even if the counterarguments failed to move him, he owed it to his readers to acknowledge them.

I should quickly add that I found much to admire in these works as well. One of my objections to Christianity is the mystery of the Trinity, an issue so central to the dogma that it is a wonder to me that most Christians pass it off so easily. I have always found the heresy of Arianism much more believable than the Nicene Creed. The shamrock metaphor is ludicrously inadequate. But Lewis develops what I see as a tantalizing metaphor in Mere Christianity that has given me much to think over. I will summarize it briefly, but you really should read it for yourself if the issue interests you. It is clearly based on Edwin Abbot’s Flatland. A one-dimensional creature would only be capable of seeing lines. A two-dimensional creature could be expected to see more: lines joining to form a figure, say a square. A three-dimensional viewer would comprehend yet more complexity: say six squares joined to produce a cube. It is a characteristic of the more complex to comprehend the limits of the less, so we can understand squares and lines, but not something composed of multiple cubes forming a four-dimensional figure. Lewis proposes something analogous for the Trinity. The three persons of God would be not merely personal but trans-personal, a unity that we could not comprehend any more than a Flatlander could comprehend a cube. Those three persons would be connected in ways that transcend our modes of understanding so as to form a single being, just as six squares are joined to form a single cube or four lines joined to form a single square. To the one-dimensional being, the square would be the mystery as would the cube to a two-dimensional one. Yet the cube contains both lines and squares. The larger thing comprehends the smaller and can enter into it, but the smaller can never comprehend the larger. Lewis makes much of this recurrent pattern in other parts of the books, adapting Aristotle’s hierarchy of being to claim that humans can use their instincts to understand animals, but since animals lack human reasoning, they cannot understand us, and so on.  God can enter into our mode of being but exists in a mode we cannot approach. His relation with the other two persons of the Trinity is beyond our knowing just as our reasoning is beyond the powers of our pets or a cube beyond the imagining of a Flatlander. While this argument does nothing to resolve the mystery, it respects our intelligence while teasing out tantalizing theological implications. My admiration is tempered, though, by the same issues raised in my posting of October 2nd of this year. We comprehend only half of the comparison and so must make an imaginative leap to draw its points of similarity and difference. Lewis doesn’t do that.

Still, this novel conception of the Trinity seems to appeal to a certain kind of mind, one interested in the geometric puzzles of Flatland or the implications of relativity on space-time. These connections in themselves are tantalizing. Here we have three similarly intricate depictions of interconnected dimensions: one drawn from geometry, another from theoretical physics, and a third from ancient religious dogma. All three present explanatory models that strain credulity and then reorient it to a larger and different conception of reality. Lewis seems aware of this disquieting feature inherent in his understanding of Christianity.  Again and again, he begins to make what I think is a potentially powerful argument for Christian belief, though I have not seen him make it systematically: Christianity is disruptive and cathartic and integrative. It surprises us, unsettles us, and confounds us. Then it reassembles our virtual circles in ways we could never have predicted. Its complexity and unexpectedness remake us rather than build on our prior expectations. His oft-repeated comment that this kind of disorientation is just what one would expect of the interface where the divine touches the natural (the more complex comprehends and includes the less) is a refreshing intellectual jolt in recent religious apologetics. It makes me regret that Lewis was, by his own admission, “a very poor Thomist,” for confronting the enormity of the divine was something Aquinas did very well. I wonder if his influence might have steered Lewis away from his Romantic immersion in the ideal. Even without it, though, Lewis’s Christianity is the very antonym of the saccharine sponginess pitched by so many churchgoers. In essence, he warns us against embracing the obvious comforts of an all-accepting God and guardian angels and many mansions in the sky. If it seems easy, simple, and attractive, he admonishes, you’ve got it wrong. If you embrace religious belief because of Pascal’s Wager or some other pragmatic, feel-good advantage, you’ve really got it wrong, and your love of comfort will continue to blind you to the errors in your thinking. It’s not true because you believe it, he warns us. Rather the other way round.

Because I find the search for anomaly so essential to any sincere pursuit of the virtuous circle that is a real knowledge of reality, I find this attitude toward belief to be very attractive. This is not to say that Lewis is immune to the lure of the virtual circle. Indeed, he all too frequently glosses over inconvenient objections or structures his propositions so as to push his reader to his desired conclusions. His failures are backlit by his careful language, perhaps more so than one might notice in a less gifted apologist. He is a believer, with all the temptations to premature closure that word entails. After all, its etymology reminds us that to believe is also to hold dear, and no less an authority than Plato reminds us to avoid falling in love with our own opinions.   I acknowledge that it is insufficient to practice rigor in the search for anomalies only some of the time when building our virtual circles, but even that record is admirable when dealing with contemporary Christian apologetics. It certainly is rare in the realm of religious thinking in general, where conclusions often precede premises.

This thought brings me to one more conclusion my recent Lewis readings have produced, and it shows that religionists are not the only apologists going. Lewis uses the example of Ophelia in Hamlet to make what I think is a valuable observation about causation. He poses this question: why did she die in the play? The simplest answer is that she fell into a lake. Another answer is that Shakespeare killed her off in Act IV. So which is the right answer?

In its potent explanatory role, science celebrates the principle of Occam’s Razor to eliminate unnecessary complexity. The rule argues for the simplest explanation that takes all relevant factors into account. I cannot count the number of books and articles I have read about God-of-the-Gaps religious thinking. Since the Scientific Revolution, scientists have been gently prying God’s fingers from the mechanical controls of reality, repeatedly reminding us that natural events will suffice for this or that explanation of processes that once required divine intervention. As scientific disciplines expand their knowledge base, the need for God as an explanatory model recedes, until He only has a few things to do in the physical universe. He fills the gaps in our naturalistic explanatory models: creating the universe, the first organisms, and a few other tasks science hasn’t gotten around to resolving quite yet. The default position of the physicists, cosmologists, or evolutionary biologists seems to be that Occam’s Razor steers the disinterested judge toward disbelief rather than belief, for why add the unneeded presence of a divinity who presumably has very little work to do in the running of things? An idle God is an unnecessary God, or so the thinking goes.

This kind of an argument is convincing until one is reminded of Lewis’s Ophelia example. Certainly, the characters in Hamlet would never postulate what might seem to them an entirely unnecessary external presence pulling the strings, or in this case, breaking the branch that throws Ophelia into the lake. Wouldn’t Occam’s Razor forbid the entirely unnecessary complexity of an author arranging things from offstage? How could the characters in the glare of the footlights know they are merely one poetic reality existing within a much greater world, that the reality they know is merely one bit of something much more complex? Wouldn’t Occam’s Razor force exactly the opposite conclusion?

Now two points of analysis emerge from this analogy. First, the application of the Razor stipulates the simplest conclusion derived from relevant data. So applying the Razor to questions of divine presence would necessarily blind us to God’s existence so long as we define “relevant” in the materialist terms necessary for scientific inquiry. The metaphysical cannot be found in the physical. So long as the cast of Hamlet confine themselves to the stage, their blocking, and their lines, they are unlikely to see a larger reality either. For scientists to invoke Occam’s Razor to dismiss God is like a blind person claiming that touch is the greatest of the senses. Secondly, we see even in the natural world that simple explanations are rarely the correct ones. It wasn’t so long ago that physicists thought the atom to be the indivisible unit of matter, that astronomers thought all visible stars were in our own galaxy, and psychologists argued that behavior is molded by either heredity or environment. Our simplistic explanations fail or are folded into increasingly complex ones. Now this movement toward complexity in the sciences is fueled by the material anomalies that force simpler models to bow to more complex ones, so the observable relevant data force revision. The same process is eminently possible on a different scale. Just as Ophelia’s death might be explained by either a broken branch within the play or Shakespeare’s intent imposed from outside, Occam’s Razor provides no exclusion for a non-material explanatory model separate from but causally related to the material reality we all know. It all depends on what you count as relevant.

What I find curious is the complexity of religious explanatory models that function on a different plane from intricately complex natural ones yet which seem strangely parallel in their intricacy. What seems simple, say the interlocking functioning of the four physical forces that work from the subatomic to the galactic level, turns out to be not at all as separate or simple as we first supposed. This relatedness extends to the laws that govern the forces, which also seem simple in one sense—Newton’s inverse square law explained forces as seemingly discrete as tides and elliptical planetary orbits—and far more involved than we might have imagined as Einstein demonstrated. Aquinas saw faith as a sufficient substitute for theological knowledge so that the simplest mind as well as the most deeply subtle might still be challenged and capable of salvation. Lewis can be forgiven for his view that the human mind contains the germ of the divine. Certainly, no scientific explanation can reconcile our uncanny ability to explain material reality by the conceptual modes of mathematics. It is little wonder that Newton was said to have “read the mind of God.” Two oddities emerge from these examples. First, the notion of complexity buried in simplicity. The one-dimensional figure sees only the line, the two-dimensional the square, the three-dimensional the cube, and so on. That the book of reality has so many pages lying one atop the other is striking enough. That Hamlet may rest on the Principia would in the light of these things be not at all surprising. The second oddity is the ways in which these different domains may be connected to each other, so that physical reality’s nature suggests some fertile approach to moral theory or religious truth. We navigate these different regions with some confidence, not because we may use the same tools to explore them but because we infer their nature from the different domains we do know something of. The questions or doubts posed by one resonate in another, to be resolved using methodology appropriate to it. For instance, Lewis’s analogy of the causes of Ophelia’s death establishes a fitting dualism for causation in religion and science, but it also raises free will issues unresolvable by either and better suited to philosophical inquiry. It would have been nice for him to have delved into that issue, but here again Lewis ignores the limits of his metaphorical lessons.

After this round of reading Lewis, I still think him guilty of hubris. He claims knowledge of what he cannot know but only must believe to make sense of what he does know. Since belief is to our knowledge as shadows to the light, we should be especially cautious in applying our reason to the dim corners of reality, for what we see there is as much construction as discovery, and we tend to believe what we already hold dear.  Still, Lewis’s style delights and his passion inspires. Upon finishing his works, I discover myself a bit farther down my own spiritual road. Perhaps a decade hence upon my next perusal of Lewis, I shall discover more.


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