Tuesday, October 14, 2014

What Would C. S. Lewis Say Today? An Essay

If I have my etymology right, an "essay" means "an attempt," "a try" at some bigger theme. So, since C. S. Lewis's birthday is coming up on November 29th, I'm trying to write an Op-Ed piece that someone might publish. Here's that "essay" in its current form. I'd love to know what you think.

C. S. Lewis died 51 years ago this month, and this leads to a question: Why do his book sell more today than when he was alive? Why has this man almost achieved sainthood in the eyes of many? Why? Because “St. Clive” had significant crises that he resolved thorough his writing—and the resolution of these crises speaks to millions of readers. As a friend—who is also a religion book editor—once quipped, “Christians love Lewis because he does the thinker for them!” Not completely true, but not entirely off-based either. Yes, this Oxford-trained intellectual became well known for his rational defense of Christian faith—so well regarded and read that his Mere Christianity is well into the hundreds of millions of copies sold. On the other hand, Lewis doesn’t ultimately give us answers—he invites our response. And so we as his readers learn to engage our questions, grasp Lewis’s resolutions and ponder our own answers.
I, perhaps foolishly, make two conclusions for Lewis would tell us. If Lewis were asked to speak today, I'm sure he’d repeat the contention that scientific materialism provides an argument for many against faith. Put simply, many atheists use science to argue that all there is the material world. Lewis replied that materialism is self-defeating, and that we need to look beyond this world, and that such a life brings incredible joy. As he intoned over the airwaves of the BBC in the early ‘40s, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”  This is how he leads us to resolve the crisis of atheism—that it does not satisfy. Of course, this might evoke the ire of “New Atheists,” old atheists, or those who like reading them. But it might also lead those who find that atheism, old or new, has brought them to a crisis of dissatisfaction to a new resolution.

Now to my second assertion: if Time magazine was right to call him today’s “hottest theologian,” what else does Lewis say to us today? Lewis would tell us we have to engage the imagination, not simply our reasoning. If anything, this is what cognitive science tells us—we hardly ever rationally reflect without also simultaneously feeling. And culturally, this is particularly important. Consider this: What are the influencing factors in our country? What I see are these grand stories that we read in novels and watch in movies. (Super heroes will be with us forever.) St. Clive was more than willing to engage imagination with the truth of Christian life. I could put it this way: if we imagine that imagine that God exists, what would the world? That's what Lewis is fiction and even just analogies he peppered throughout his writings did. What would Lewis say today? With fourth Chronicles of Narnia in production, maybe St. Clive is still speaking…

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Excerpt: C. S. Lewis on Science and the Problems of the "Machine"

A slightly modified excerpt from my new book...

C. S. Lewis had criticisms of a certain scientific outlook and the inherent connection, historically, between the rise of science and the search for magic. He concluded that both arose as means to control nature and to make it what human beings want.

[W]e see at once that [Sir Francis] Bacon and the magicians have the closest possible affinity. Both seek knowledge for the sake of power (in Bacon’s words, as ‘spouse for fruit’ not a ‘courtesan for pleasure’), both move in a grandiose dream of days when Man shall have been raised to the performance of “all things possible.”[i]
Lewis believed, along with the medieval mindset, that the goal of human life is to conform to nature. When, in contrast, we seek to use science or nature to bend it to our will and to make it in our image, then we raise enormous problems and we deceive ourselves.

As a result, Lewis lamented the growth of the Machine, of the technological progress that distanced us from nature. This, in fact, represents one more sub-crisis, that of living in a technological world that has distanced us from true and good human values and thus from nature. The reader of Lewis’s fiction finds this exemplified in N.I.C.E., the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments, from That Hideous Strength (a depiction I find telling but somewhat overwrought). A better example can be found in one of his most notable poems, “The Future of Forestry,” where Lewis describes a world that has forgotten the beauty of the forest and thus of nature in its headlong pursuit of technological advances such as roadways. (I am reminded of the work of Lewis’s friend and fellow Inkling, Tolkien, who placed in the hands of Saruman, the evil wizard, the destruction of the forests for the sake of production.)

How will the legend of the age of treesFeel, when the last tree falls in England?When the concrete spreads and the town conquersThe country’s heart . . .[ii]
All these problems derive from scientific materialism, the assertion that this world is all there is and that science has demonstrated this fact. Lewis looked toward a re-enchantment of the world through myth and story to bring us to a place where we can find joy.

[i]. C. S. Lewis, Poetry and Prose in the Sixteenth Century, The Oxford History of English Literature Series (Oxford: Clarenden, 2002), 13–14.
[ii]. C. S. Lewis, Poems (New York: Mariner Books, 2002), 61.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Angle of Approach: C. S. Lewis

A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. . . . God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy

Here's how I begin my new book on C. S. Lewis and his crises...

I am writing this book for one primary purpose. This is not a biography of C. S. Lewis, a critical denunciation of his theology, nor a piece of hagiography. Instead I am addressing the question of why Lewis remains so popular, selling more books today than when he died in 1963, and why, after decades of reading his work, he still speaks to me. Here’s my answer: Lewis’s voice still resonates because his crises and their resolutions in his work reflect our own crises and guide us toward resolution.

Though not writing a biography, I will begin by telling the story of Lewis’s life through the troubles and complexities that shaped him. I will then pursue his thought through his writings—which is what he’s best known for—and the way his books, articles, and published addresses offer us access to his wisdom. I approach it this way because Lewis’s crises informed his writing, and they give it the power that still resonates today for his readers.

Friday, September 19, 2014

A Brief, Fragmentary Post (Or Maybe Riposte) From and On C. S. Lewis

Continuing in my series of blogs with excerpts from my new book on C. S. Lewis. This one is a bit of a fragment...

C. S. Lewis once remarked that the contemporary atheists of his day made him embarrassed for atheism, especially as he remembered his beloved tutor, William “Kirk” Kirkpatrick. “The anonymous donor who now sends me anti-God magazines hopes, no
WWCS? What Would Clive Say?
doubt, to hurt the Christian in me; he really hurts the ex-Atheist. I am ashamed that my old mates (which matters much more) Kirk’s old mates should have sunk to what they are now.” (Surprised by Joy, 139). 

Would this atheist turned apologist have some rejoinders for the atheism we find today? I think I know where he’d begin. 

In Lewis’s primary works (particularly from the ‘40s), I have discerned a four-part apologetic structure. First of all, in order to even begin steps toward belief, we have to see that there is more to the world than just material stuff. Lewis argues that naturalism or materialism, which is the idea that there is just brute matter, is self-defeating because rational thinking is impossible if we are pure materialists. Secondly, having established that there is more than nature, Lewis proceeded to something more personal or existential—by which I mean ideas that relate to our existence. Human beings seek something that this world cannot satisfy, which points to a God beyond this world. (Lewis established what he called the numinous and later identified with his own quest for joy.) Next, if there is something more than this world has to offer, Lewis moved toward the argument that, like the laws of nature, there exists a law or rule about right and wrong (or the law of nature). It is perceived in the conscience of all human beings and points to the God who created that law within us. Put another way, joy and beauty are tied to morality. Finally, his argument becomes specifically Christian: Jesus Christ is, not only the fulfillment of human myths, but also of our human quest for joy and moral truth. Lewis argues that Jesus must be one of three options: liar, Lord, or lunatic. Lewis concludes that the only reasonable answer is that he is Lord.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Why I Like C.S. Lewis's Writings

The new book, C. S. Lewis and the Crisis of a Christian, is about to drop into the hands of the waiting world (I obviously say that tongue in cheek), and that occasion brought to mind one of the characteristics of Lewis's writings that make his books land--that make them speak to us. Here's an excerpt from chapter 7.

C. S. Lewis always maintained a healthy and sustained understanding of life as it is lived by all human beings: marked by disappointment and depression, suffering and trials, as well as the prospect of death, which we can all see and which none of us will escape. I suspect his setting in life—his teaching at two secular universities, Oxford and Cambridge—kept him mindful of those that never walked inside Magdalen College’s chapel or read the pages of the King James Bible as a devotional practice.

Here was a man who relished a good walk, a pint of beer with his friends, and reading exceptional books. Here was a man who also described personal crises not limited to believers in Christ, like sorrow over the death of a friend in battle and disappointment over never achieving recognition as a poet. Indeed, the Bible itself recognizes the destiny of all humankind and its sorrows: “Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). For this reason, I continue to turn to Lewis because, frankly, I’m not always drawn to people that display their spirituality too boldly in their writing or who seem to think that all of life consists of praying, reading Scripture, and singing hymns. Writers who resonate with me acknowledge the mundane things of life, like filling the car with gas; having keys copied at the hardware store; and buying butter, flour, and orange juice at the grocery store. They also acknowledge the hard things in life, like watching your children grow up, realizing your time on earth is also passing, seeing parents age and die, or grasping that dreams you once held will never come to pass.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Few More Reflections on SinC

I spent three and half years working on Scientists in Congregations (or SinC), and after it was over, I naturally wondered if it made any difference. Was there anything that would continue? And does it matter?

Thankfully, there were several ways that SinC extended its reach beyond the grant period. 96% of our congregations confirmed that they would continue with religion and science ministries. And so it became part of the public face and outreach strategy. For example, I can’t help but recall the Facebook outreach of GC Science at Grace Chapel in Massachusetts, long-term bastion of evangelicalism combined with powerhouse scientists from nearby institutions like MIT and Harvard. Their goal? To have a larger presence than the leading atheists’ Facebook pages. In a couple of years, they expanded an outreach through Facebook into the hundreds of thousands. Specifically, GC Science today has over
535,000 “likes.” (Not to be overly obvious, but a "like" is a very powerful thing on Facebook because whenever GC Science posts, it goes to the Facebook newsfeed of over half million people.) All this adds up to technology in the service of science—somehow that seems right. 

I can’t help ending without a final thought for the ongoing importance of integrating science and faith. Sarah attended one of Bidwell Presbyterian's religion and science conference. After hearing me talk on how Genesis and evolutionary biology can work together, she rushed forward with great enthusiasm and posed a question that still rings in my ears, "Why don't I hear more of this in the pulpit?" As a twenty-something, Sarah's represents demographic in which 30% of her friends have left the church and checked the box “None” in response to the question “What religious affiliation are you?” When asked further, one of the top reasons for these “Nones” is the church’s lack of engagement with science. As a result, most (like 70%) see science clashing with belief. 

I just finished a very careful, scholarly article on “Beliefs About Religion and Science Among Emerging Young Adults in the United States,” by the eminently qualified team of Kyle Longest and Christian Smith. They offered this sobering conclusion, “The most definitive overall trend is that emerging adults tend to believe religion and science conflict, that the two are not compatible.” (For this reason, I'm now engaged in a companion grant project—Science for Emerging, Young Adults—that analyzes attitudes on faith and science among 18-30 year olds and what creates change.) If the church seeks a vibrant future, it must engage science. Indeed, for there to be a future Christian church that can connect with science, it seems to me this topic can’t wait

Friday, September 12, 2014

A Few Reflections on Scientists in Congregations

Just a few months ago, I wrapped up my work as co-director of a three and half year, $2 million grant project, Scientists in Congregations (or SinC). This project funded 37 congregations with over 6,000 members in 25 states (and two other countries) to create programs that catalyzed the engagement of science and faith. 

Time offers the opportunity to reflect. So I've started to meditate on what I've learned. Here's the beginning of those thoughts...

Where did SinC discover an impasse or gaps in understanding science? The facts of science can be daunting. Celebrated MIT historian of science Thomas Kuhn noted 50 years ago that part of being involved in science is to learn its dominant paradigms and procedures. And those are complicated. So few outside of the community “get it.” And conversely, most scientists are neither taught, nor rewarded to communicate to the wider public.

And the reverse is true: few churches asked scientists to reveal their discoveries. SinC also had some discoveries about the task before us, and here I cite the noted Rice sociologist, Elaine Ecklund from Sciencevs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think

Dispelling stereotypes of atheists, reaching out to the spiritual-but-not-religious scientists, and mentoring and involving scientists within faith communities would mean that leaders within houses of worship would need to do a better job of integrating science and scientists within congregational life.
And I repeat: "integrating science and scientists within congregational life" since most scientists don’t feel all that integrated. Fascinating to me were the scientists who declared that the SinC project let them “come out of the closet” (their words). I mean, when over half of church youth are destined for a science-related field and only 1% of youth ministries offer one science-related topic per year, it’s no wonder that becoming a scientist as a churchgoer sometimes seems as supported as starting a career as pawn shop owner. One solution would be for the church to invite scientists to tell us more about their discoveries of this glorious world that God has created.

I’m reminded of my brilliant pastor-theologian colleague at First Presbyterian Church in Boulder Colorado, Carl Hofmann, who pastors in a town that has more PhDs (I’m told) per capita than anywhere else in the country. That presumably means more doctorates in science. We put together a dinner with their planning team in beautiful downtown Boulder nestled just below stunning mountains (but I’m beginning to digress), and the scientists kept telling us, “This feels so confirming to everything I do as a Christian.”

And so it does. And so it should. It would to Nicholas Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, and James Clerk Maxwell. And to John Calvin too, who wrote of insights from authors outside the Biblical texts, 
If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God.
I also discovered that few parishioners had a means of interpreting the Bible as instructive as Calvin’s—one that integrates truth from other fields effectively. The idea that Scripture may not ever be intended, or read through the centuries, as a scientific text—but instead one that radiates profounder meaning—escapes many parishioners. So the people in the pews either leave aside the text as irrelevant or reject science as antithetical to faith. 

SinC worked to provide something beyond these two dismal options. And I'm glad to say it did--it has to be a primary reason that 96% of our congregations told us they would continue programs in science and faith after their grant money ran out.