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.”
Lewis was captivated by the rational, scientific myth, 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.” Though reality seemed stacked against that infant life, “life somehow wins through”. Lewis continues, “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 the tale of the scientific myth to the ascension of Man onto a 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 the scientific myth because he was once taken by it and still saw the beauty of it to the end of his life. He says, “I can speak from experience, for I, who believe less than half 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, but this is where the narrow fissure Lewis begins with begins to open up into a cosmic expanse:
“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 late twenties, but Lewis could not reconcile the Darwinian view (that life randomly sprang from lifelessness) with science, reason and philosophical thought even as an atheist.]
“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. Like the astronaut with a stunning view of earth from the perspective of outer space, Lewis provides us a perspective of Christian faith from an atheist looking in.
Of science and the Darwinian theory science embraced, 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. (This is still true today.) 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 it’s 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.”
Now, 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 prefer) 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 of scientific rationalism to Christian faith, which in modern times has been used to attempt to relegate Christianity, and all religion, to the dusty museum shelves.
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.”
Lewis makes the point that science cannot even account for itself because “minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, [and therefore, if that be true] those minds should have [no] more significance then the sound of the wind in the trees.” Darwin came close to this same conclusion, but he failed to take it far enough. Darwin commented in a letter to William Graham, dated July 3, 1881, as follows:
you have expressed my inward conviction, though far more vividly and clearly than I could have done, that the Universe is not the result of chance. But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?
Darwin doubted his inward conviction, but Darwin trusted his own ability to reason implicitly. One has to wonder why he would trust his intellect any more than his inward conviction. His intellect, like his inward conviction, after all, “developed from the mind of lower animals”. Would any one trust in the intellect of a monkey’s mind, if there is any intellect in such a mind?