Theology, Science, Dreaming and Waking


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I am a great fan of C.S. Lewis. Not that I agree with everything he has written, I love his genius and insight that is marked by a truly Renaissance journey through all of the great classical literature, philosophy and rational, scientific discourse. He approaches Christianity from the opposite shore and provides a view that most churchgoers would never otherwise get.

I recently read his short essay (Is Theology Poetry?) that is published with the Weight of Glory and other addresses by Harper One. In classic Lewis style, he starts off with a very obscure, nuanced question (that few, if anyone, would even think to explore) and, from the seeming pedantry and narrow beginning, he opens up the discourse about half way through into a sweeping view of an eternal truth that is absolutely breathtaking.

Lewis explores in this piece the “poetry” of Christianity in comparison to pagan religions and science. Of the “Scientific Outlook” (or “rational myth”), Lewis suggests it is “one of the finest myths which human imagination has produced yet.” From the “austere prelude” of “the infinite void, and matter restlessly moving to bring forth it knows not what” to “the millionth millionth chance” (“tragic irony”) when “the conditions at one point of space and time bubble up into tiny fermentation which is the beginning of life.” Although everything seems to be against infant life, “life somehow ins through”. “With infinite suffering, against all but insuperable obstacles, it spreads, it breeds, it complicates itself, from the amoeba up to the plant, up to the reptile, up to the mammal”… . to “a little naked, shivering, cowering creature, shuffling not yet erect, promising nothing, the product of another millionth millionth chance.”

Lewis eloquently follows this scientific myth to the ascension of Man to his throne, practicing virtue, growing in wisdom, happy; except that “silently, unceasingly, out of all reach of human power, Nature, the old enemy, has been steadily gnawing away. The sun will cool – all suns will cool – the whole universe will run down. Life (every form of life) will be banished, without hope of return, from every inch of infinite space. All ends in nothingness, and ‘universal darkness covers all.’”

Lewis waxes eloquently about this “scientific myth” because he was once taken by it and still saw the beauty of it. He says, “I can speak from experience, for I, who believe less than half of what of what it tells me about the past, and less than nothing of what it tells about the future, am deeply moved when I contemplate it.” In fact, Lewis finds more poetical value in the scientific myth than in theology

I start where the narrow fissure begins to open up:

“The picture so often painted of Christians huddling together on an ever narrower strip of beach while the incoming tide of “Science” mounts higher and higher corresponds to nothing in my own experience.” [As an aside, C.S. Lewis was a rational materialist (atheist) for many years from a teenager through his twenties, but he could not reconcile the Darwinians cosmological view (that life randomly sprang from lifelessness) with the science he knew, reason and philosophical thought.] Lewis continues…., “that grand [scientific] myth I asked you to admire a few minutes ago is not for me a hostile novelty breaking in on my traditional beliefs. On the contrary, that cosmology is where I started from.”

This is the beauty of Lewis for the believer. He approaches Christianity from outside the Church. He came to the Promised Land through the austere perspective of rationalistic, materialistic science and philosophy and the hedonistic pantheism of classical Greek, Roman and Norse literature. The reasons Lewis abandoned the idolatrous and atheistic are a treasure that infuses his writing.

Of science, he states: “Deepening distrust and final abandonment of it long preceded my conversion to Christianity. Long before I believed Theology to be true I had already decided that the popular scientific picture at any rate was false. One absolutely central inconsistency ruins it…. The whole picture professes to depend on inferences from observed facts. Unless inference is valid, the whole picture disappears. Unless we can be sure that reality in the remotest nebula obeys the thought laws of the human scientist here and now in his laboratory – in other words, unless Reason is an absolute – all is in ruins.”

And here is the weak point of rationalistic, materialistic science: “Yet those who ask me to believe this world picture also ask me to believe that Reason is simply the unforeseen and unintended by-product of mindless matter at one stage of its endless and aimless becoming. Here is a flat contradiction. They ask me at the moment to accept a conclusion and to discredit the only testimony on which that conclusion can be based. The difficulty is a fatal one; and the fact that when you put it to many scientists, far from having an answer, they seem not even to understand what the difficulty is, assures me that I have not found a mare’s nest but detected a radical disease in their whole mode of thought from the very beginning. The man who has once understood the situation is compelled henceforth to regard the scientific cosmology as being, in principle, a myth; though no doubt a great many true particulars have been worked into it.”

Lewis goes on to point out with citation to authorities of the time that evolution is accepted as a cosmology for no reason other than the authorities have already concluded that creation is not credible. He rightly calls this an “a priori metaphysical prejudice” designed “to keep out God. Lewis goes into some particulars why evolution, as a cosmological base, is irrational and unsustainable concluding, “I left that ship not at the call of poetry [referring to the “poetry” of religion] but because I thought it could not keep afloat.” From there is it is a hop, skip and jump for Lewis to go from idealism to Theism, to the claims of Christ for which there is “no middle position”: “Either He was a lunatic, or God. And He was not a lunatic.”

And this is where his genius enters in. Going back over the science and theology as myth exercise to sum it up as follows:

“When I accept Theology I may find some difficulties, at this point or that, in harmonizing it with some particular truths which are embedded in the mythical cosmology derived from science. But I can get it in, or allow for, science as a whole. Granted Reason is prior to matter and that the light of that primal Reason illuminates finite minds, I can understand how men should come, by observation and inference, to know a lot about the universe they live in. If, on the other hand, I swallow the scientific cosmology as a whole, then not only can I not fit in Christianity, but I cannot even fit in science. If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance then the sound of the wind in the trees.”

Lewis is ready for the finale, the great crescendo, and he has set it up beautifully and concisely. He has taken the popular opinion that religion is an anthropomorphic fiction, the product of man’s imagination, and turned it on its head to show that science (or at least the cosmology that scientists tend to buy into) is the dream and Christianity is the reality. I have skipped over a great deal, including the comparison and contrast to pagan religions, to focus on the contrast to scientific rationalism, in modern times has been used to attempt to relegate Christianity, and all religion, to the dusty museum.

Of this “final test”, Lewis concludes: “This is how I distinguish dreaming and waking. When I am awake I can, in some degree, account for and study my dreams. The dragon that pursued me last night can be fitted into my waking world. I know there are such things as dreams; I know that I had eaten an indigestible dinner; I know that a man of my reading might be expected to dream of dragons. But while in the nightmare, I could not have fitted in my waking experience. The waking world is judged more real because it can thus contain the dreaming world; the dreaming world is judged less real because it cannot contain the waking one. For the same reason I am certain that in passing from the scientific points of view to the theological, I have passed from dream to waking. Christian theology can fit in science, art, morality, and sub-Christian religions. The scientific point of view cannot fit in any of those things, not even science itself. I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun as risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

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One Comment on “Theology, Science, Dreaming and Waking”


  1. […] Lewis hit on this point a generation ago when he spoke of the “Scientific Myth” in one of the pieces reproduced in the Weight of Glory and other addresses. The statement […]

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