Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Moral Law and Being Human

Every once in while I want to knock C.S. Lewis around. He's quoted everywhere. He is the "go-to" guy in Christian apologetics. He's consistently relied on, too consistently in my opinion, by authors with an evangelical, intellectual bent. They like to pull him off the bookshelf to give themselves some intellectual street cred.

There is even a new C.S. Lewis Bible being sold. I shook my head in wonder when I learned that. Someone is finally publicly acknowledging Lewis as the fourteenth apostle.

I get tired of him after a while.

I guess I shouldn't blame them, because so far evangelicals have not managed to produce anyone like a C.S. Lewis in the last 50-60 years. He's all that they have.

Even though I get tired of hearing Lewis speak from beyond the grave through his fan base, I think I understand the fascination with his work.

Lewis was not a theologian, or a scientist, or a biblical scholar. He was first and foremost a story-teller. His life revolved around literature; teaching it and writing it.

A good story always takes place within a bigger picture. Grand epics are epic because they are about more than the individual; they involve a stream of action in which the individual is only one moving part.

Lewis, especially in his fiction, is always working within that larger view. His science fiction series begins with the idea that there is more beyond Earth and that a general system is incorporated in each planet. Earth's particular details only make sense in the grand scheme of the solar system. In order to understand what happens on Earth, Lewis tells us about what happens elsewhere.

He uses the general to tell us about the specific...and he is exceptional at it.

As with most of us, though, Lewis' strength is also his biggest weakness. Because he is not bound to the details of theology or biblical interpretation, or even evolution, though there were probably fewer details about evolution for him to address in his era, he slides past many objections and problems that might interfere with his big picture.

Perhaps, that is why he so often turns to fiction to express his theology. In fiction, he has the ability to fully convey themes in new worlds without having to account for the sludge and drek of this world, or deal with the annoying details that detract from the grand epic.

In recreating portraits of the Divine, he sidesteps the conflicting pictures we had beforehand. He boils mythological themes into an essence that can infuse his works. When Aslan is creating Narnia, or leading the children in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, we are not tangled up in trying to understand how God can be both a lion and God, or whether he is part of a trinity, or whether the earthly Christ we think of should be assumed to be like Aslan. Instead, we simply feel the force of his portrayal and don't bother ourselves with details.

It is just a story, after all. In reality, it is not Lewis' fault that he doesn't address the complications of interpreting "biblical" doctrine, because that is not his aim. He is trying to evoke a response in his reader, an emotional and psychological recognition of his themes.

Lewis' argument from Moral Law is one such successful emotional and psychological evocation. It succeeds because Lewis doesn't attempt to promote belief in God based on scientific proofs, or technically philosophical arguments. He uses a general philosophical and logical approach to communicate his ideas, but that philosophy and logic is firmly embedded in human nature, in the universal urges that humans have, and in the intellectual/emotional longings that humans express.

We should believe in God because we have an innate sense of right and wrong, justice and injustice. We should believe in God because every desire we have has something which will satiate, every nook in our being has a corresponding piece that will fit into it. We should believe in God because it gives us the best understanding of why humans are the way they are.

Those are my general impressions of Lewis.

In many ways, Lewis' approach is probably the best one that Christians have. In a world in which humans are noticeably more dominant, more intelligent, and more adaptive than most of the species on the planet, looking to ourselves for the answers to our questions is the probably the only thing we can do.

To postulate being human without morality is to postulate being inhuman.

It is one of our defining characteristics. We don't always respect the Moral Law, or always willingly acquiesce to it, but it is undeniably there.

What does it mean in the context of evolution and theology?

It means that we live within a human conceptual world, bound on all sides by our humanity. We can't escape it, or go beyond it. At every point in which we think we have, we have only expanded our own humanness in a particular direction, perhaps widening the dome we live under, but still remaining contained within that conceptual dome. Outside of the dome, things fall apart. There may be all manner of things outside the dome, but they are outside of our realm of comprehension. All that we can do is try to make our dome larger every now and then.

Moral Law, God, and religious experience live within that dome.


JS Allen said...

As you correctly speculated in your previous post, Lewis was skeptical about evolution, since he was staunchly anti-materialist. Owen Barfield was a fellow inkling with Lewis, and had similar opinions -- I quoted Barfield on the topic in my recent "ride the leviathan" post.

In addition to his role as a literature expert, Lewis did make some modest contributions to philosophy, and a handful of current arguments in philosophy of religion are based on arguments he first made at the "socratic club". The "argument from reason" is still popular amongst anti-materialists, and touches on the whole evolution issue.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

You're killing me here. Lewis was my only teacher in the 70's and 80's, caught as I was between shallow popular evangelical and dead mainstream Christianities.

Yet I do see what you are saying. Collins makes two different types of argument, but I am not sure he sees the difference. And while Lewis did see the difference and even mentions it occasionally, he doesn't make the distinction anywhere near often enough. Not all rational arguments are the same. Trying to prove something - to show that one explanation is true and the others false, is very different from collecting evidence for something - trying to see what explanation is most likely. Lewis has a few spots where he argues proofs, logical exclusions, but more usually he is claiming that there can be no proof because assumptions (hidden or explicit) are needed to even begin. In those situations - the vast majority of real-life situations - we can only wonder "which of these suits of clothes seems to fit best on this person?"

Lewis makes much of the existence of the Moral Law, but more of our inability to keep it and our awareness of that. The first has a possible (though not remotely proven) explanation via evolutionary psychology. For the latter, such scientific-sounding solutions are even more of a stretch. Which doesn't stop those who reject all theistic explanations out of hand from gratefully believing them anyway.

Retriever said...

I love Lewis, but I also love this post. Evangelicals have made him into another Apostle and I am fed up. Perhaps because of the mediocrity and vulgarity of Christian storytellers and apologists since him? I still adore the Narnia books and Screwtape Letters, but am mortified to admit that I doze reading his more "serious" works. I like things like that metaphor of a bus journey to heaven and hell...they work for someone culturally English and repressed and scared/repressed/negative/whatever. I often wonder how culturally relevant he is to many people today? Don't get upset, AVI, we go to every Narnia movie, have all his books, but he is just a man, not a saint...

terri said...


I'm not trying to kill you, I swear. I think some of us are ready-made for Lewis. I remember several times when I first read him that I could hear my own voice inside my head,"Yes, that's exactly right!"

He articulates some concepts extremely well.

Mainly, I just think he has become someone who is relied upon so heavily and referred to with such authoritative ease by so many people that to disagree with him is near sacrilege. ;-)

My kids have actually been reading the Narnia stories, and I finally bought the whole collection from Costco, so I am not abandoning him. I have even requested The Great DIvorce through the library....because I wanted to read about repressed English people on a bus, as Retriever put it.

terri said...

JS Allen,

I don't know that he was anti-evolution. I don't think things had really come to a head one way or another during his time. I think he subscribed to the possibility of evolution, but only in a vague passing way. Though in one of his sci-fi books, Perelandra, he described mermaid-like animals/people and intimates, through the story, that at some point they might become sentient "people".

Lewis is definitely anti-materialist. That's actually where I usually find myself in disagreement with him, because although I don't know that I qualify as a staunch materialist....I definitely lean in that direction.