Thursday, December 29, 2011

(Much) More on the Way to Heaven and Hell

The Second Coming of Christ
(Note: This is the final in a series of posts on heaven and hell, or probably better, the "final things," for which theologians use the term, eschatology.)


Few have offered a more gripping introduction to the theme of the Second Coming than the poet, W.B. Yeats (no friend to orthodox Christianity) in his 1921 poem of the same name:

TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.




The Bible offers language no less world-ending, world-transforming, and world-beginning event. It first foretells and then promises Christ’s Second Coming. The Hebrew Scriptures provide the backdrop for his return. Jesus employed a key Old Testament concept, the Son of Man (here the traditional and literal rendering of ben adam) to describe the event of his return. In the Book of Daniel, the setting is Israel’s captivity under the oppressive thumb of Babylon following the destruction of the prized city of Jerusalem in 586 BC. Daniel has visions of four kingdoms—Babylonian, Median, Persian, Greek—represented by a lion, a bear, a four-headed winged leopard, and a ten-horned dragon-like beast. Then comes the establishment of a fifth, eternal kingdom. Jewish tradition interprets this final kingdom as the Messiah’s. (By the way, “Messiah” and “Christ” represent the same meaning in Hebrew and Greek respectively. Both mean literally “the anointed.”) Christian biblical scholars, with an eye toward God’s coming as a human being in Christ, highlight that animals symbolized the previous kingdoms and that here the kingdom comes in a human form as the Son of Man.

As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like the Son of Man
      Coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
      And was presented before him.
To him was given dominion
      And glory and kingship,
That all peoples, nations, and languages
      Should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
      That shall not pass away,
And his kingship is one
      That shall never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14)






Jesus reshapes this figure of the Son of Man and thus refashions expectations for Messiah (a crucial sticking point in Jewish-Christian dialogue). Instead of one advent as a politically dominant liberator, the Messiah appears twice. He comes in the meekness of a baby and returns as the righteous and powerful Savior and Judge. The first time arrives with the opportunity to turn our lives around, “Repent, and believe in the good news!” (Mark 1:15). On the second time, the opportunity for repentance has passed. In Matthew 24 (told in parallel in Mark 13 and Luke 21), Jesus looks toward the end of history. He foresees that signs and particularly suffering will proceed the end when the Son of Man will appear to gather the elect.

Immediately after the suffering of those days
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from heaven,
and the powers of heaven will be shaken.
Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. (Matthew 24:29-31).

But Jesus quickly adds, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven nor the Son, but only the Father” (24:36).
            
In Matthew 25, Jesus follows this prediction with three parables. One concerns ten bridesmaids, only half of whom prepared for the customary arrival of the bridegroom. The second describes three recipients of various amounts of money or “talents,” a huge sum in the first century. The boss gives them five million dollars, two and half million, and half a million (in today’s terms). He then encourages them to invest. Finally, a shepherd separates the righteous “sheep” from the unrighteous “goats” based on their good deeds toward society’s outcasts. Though each has its unique features, the similarities speak most clearly. All depict a separation of two types of response—bold investing vs. fearful inactivity, attentive preparation vs. lazy indolence, unselfconscious compassion vs. inattentive hard-heartedness. Each parable encourages action in light of a cataclysmic moment. All describe some period of delay during which we wait and work. All three parables remind us to be ready and awake. (A single Greek word, gregoreo, stands behind this combination, and since it represents the root of my first name, I could not pass up the opportunity to mention it.)
            
Jesus does not command an emotion, but a healthy expectation that transforms everything we do. C. S. Lewis explains it this way:
We cannot always be excited. We can, perhaps, train ourselves to ask more and more often how the thing which we are saying or doing (or failing to do) at each moment will look when the irresistible light streams in upon it; that light which is so different from the light of this world—and yet, even now, we know just enough of it to take it into account.
This call to be “gregoreo” encourages neither unreasonable excitement nor fearful paralysis. Instead it calls us to act today because we live under the promise of fulfillment. The parables all lead to greater rewards: attending a joyous wedding, receiving more money, “entering into the joy of your master.”
            
I imagine an analogy. I have seen many promising artists wait for their break in New York City. You are a starving young jazz pianist. Every day you practice, hoping to be discovered. Most of your hours are filled with waiting tables in order to pay the bills so that you can audition. And, even after years of hard work, nothing’s happening. On a random Tuesday morning, you are in a church sanctuary, working through your standard practice regime, engaging your gift and passion for the piano. Unceremoniously, a stranger walks in. He listens attentively, but without interruption. When you are finished, you are greeted with applause and these words, “Hi, I’m Wynton Marsalis,  and I need a pianist for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Are you free?”

Monday, December 26, 2011

(Even) More on the Way to Heaven and Hell

The Resurrection of the Body
A few years back, I saw a skit on Saturday Night Live in which a couple of cynical, chatty, and flip urbane New Yorkers interview contemporary personalities. In one segment, these interviewers questioned the guy who displays “John 3:16” at football games as a witness to the Gospel. Why does he do it? He responded clearly, “So that others may believe in Jesus Christ and have eternal life.” After this stark reply, one interviewer queried the other:

            “Do you believe we’ll live forever?”
            “I hope not in this body!”


They both exploded in catty laughter, either masking deeper anxiety or revealing a shocking shallowness. In any event, that was the end of the conversation! A topic like everlasting life treated with such mocking! The problem for them was—with sagging jaw lines and increasing flab—do we really want this body to take us into eternity? Obviously they misread the intention of eternal life. The Christian church does not teach that we will live forever in this earthly body. What then do the Christians mean by the doctrine of the resurrection of the body?
            
The Apostle Paul concerns himself throughout his writings with the persistent question of suffering (a form of theodicy). Why must God’s people suffer when we are following God’s will for us in Jesus Christ? Romans 8:18-25 provides the most extensive responses. He begins by expanding the scope to the entire creation, “the universe” in contemporary terms. (Paul uses creation three times in verses 19, 20, and 21.) The people of God groan, with all non-human creation, because our destinies have been wrapped together. But suffering does not have the final word. A cry arises in us as a sign of something more. We hope for glory. For Paul, our hope does not represent vain presumption, but secure expectation. That long-expected, glorious day will also dry all tears.
            
What does Paul say specifically about the new creation? He affirms that there will be glory (verses 18 and 21)—a word for the divine Presence in fullness, in this case unveiled in Christ’s final coming. Paul looks to freedom (verse 21) from decay—that the fallenness of the world will cease. And so we look forward with hope (verses 24-25), which is the theological virtue that corresponds to God’s future, to the final triumph of the cosmic comedy. Finally, God’s Spirit represents the first payment of this new creation (verse 23)—there will be the fullness of joy of which we now only know in part.
            
Paul contemplates the resurrection of the body most extensively in 1 Corinthians 15:35-44. Paul, as many after him, struggles with an apt analogy for resurrection. His conclusion offers profound hope. Eugene Peterson’s fresh contemporary paraphrase, The Message, gives it directness:
Some skeptic is sure to ask, “Show me how resurrection works. Give me a diagram; draw me a picture. What does this ‘resurrection body’ look like?” If you look at this question closely, you’ll realize how absurd it is. There are no diagrams for this kind of thing. We do have a parallel experience in gardening. You plant a “dead” seed; soon there is a flourishing plant. There is no visual likeness between seed and plant. You could never guess what a tomato would look like by looking at a tomato seed. What we plant in the soil and what grows out of it don’t look anything alike. The dead body what we bury in the ground and the resurrection body that comes from it will be dramatically different. 
You will notice that the variety of bodies is stunning. Just as there are different kinds of seeds, there are different kinds of bodies—humans, animals, birds, fish—each unprecedented in its form. You get a hint at the diversity of resurrection glory by looking at the diversity of bodies not only on earth but in the skies—sun, moon, stars—all varieties of beauty and brightness. And we’re looking at pre-resurrection “seeds”—who can imagine what the resurrection “plants” will be like!      
This image of planting a dead seed and raising a live plant is a mere sketch at best, but perhaps it will help in approaching the mystery of the resurrection body—but only in you keep in  mind that when we’re raised, we’re raised for good, alive forever! The corpse that’s planted is no beauty, but when it’s raised, it’s glorious. Put in the ground weak, it comes up powerful. The seed sown is natural; the seed grown is supernatural—same seed, same body, but what a difference from when it goes down in physical mortality to when it is raised up in spiritual immortality!

            Certainly, every detail about our resurrection is not fully laid out. Paul is trying to understand and express the depths of the God. At several other places—in 1 Corinthians 2:9-10, for example—he simply admits the limits of his understanding:

But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
Nor human heart conceived,
What God has prepared for those who love him”—
These things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything even the depths of God.

Overall, Paul sketches the great promises, but leaves the details open.
            
But as a pastor, I know that church members remain unsatisfied with only generalities. In fact, when I have taught this material in adult education classes, the specifics captivate the students. Once I presented the idea that the immortality of the soul was not a truly Christian teaching, but a loan from Plato who taught that the body was mortal and decaying and the soul inherently immortal. Once we died, Plato asserted, we thankfully freed ourselves from the shackles of the body. I countered that Hebrew thought conceives of human beings as a unity of body and soul. The class was not pleased to hear this denial of our soul’s immortality. They did not want to taste death. (It reminded me of Woody Allen’s quip, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through art. I want to achieve it by not dying.”) I had to moderate my point by saying, when we are raised, it is God who does the work, not because of something intrinsic to our nature.
            
And then I have also been asked the practical questions: What exactly will be the nature of my resurrected body? Will my father recognize me in heaven? On other hand, can I cremate my grandmother? What will my disabled child look like? From the sketch presented so far, the critical element in our resurrected bodies as the New Testament understand it, is not our flesh and bones. It is our concrete selves. Generally, Eastern religious traditions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, describe a state in which our individuality disappears. Buddha talked about the transition from one life to the next (remember we keep migrating from one body to the next in Eastern thought) as a flame being passed from one candle to another. Alternatively, we become a drop of water in the ocean of Being. Instead the Christian faith believes that God will raise us as concrete individuals, who altogether comprise God’s people. Ultimately, because it is God’s work, we can cremate or bury because our resurrection does not depend on flesh and bones. (Specifically, how else can we understand God’s promise of a perfected, whole body in the resurrection for a victim of a violent dismemberment?) Our resurrected bodies will be us, but freed from the defects inherent in a fallen world.
            
We will recognize one another in heaven. Who and what we are on earth represents the concrete self that God created. The body-soul unity that now comprises us will dissolve at death, but our individuality—the “pattern of information” is another metaphor—will be instantly recreated at death into the resurrected body. The English writer, Susan Howatch—who made her own headlines by funding a chair at Oxford in science and theology—describes this doctrine in her novel, The Wonder Worker. She presents a dialogue on the bodily resurrection between a confused agnostic, Alice, and an Anglican priest, Nicholas Darrow, using the contemporary analogy of information. Alice’s aunt has just been cremated.

“But if Aunt’s now ashes, how can one talk of a resurrection of the body?”
      
“‘Body’ in that context is probably a code-word for the whole person. When we say ‘anybody’ or ‘everybody’ or ‘somebody’ we’re not talking about flesh and blood—we’re referring to the complex pattern of information which the medium of flesh and blood expresses.”
      
I struggled to wrap my mind around this. “So you’re saying that flesh and blood are more or less irrelevant?”
      
“No, not irrelevant. Our bodies have a big impact on our development as people—they constitute to the pattern of information, and in fact we wouldn’t be people without them. But once we’re no longer confined by space and time the flesh and blood become superfluous and the pattern can be downloaded elsewhere… Do you know anything about computers?”
      


“No.”
      
“Okay, forget that, think of Michelangelo instead. In the Sistine Chapel he expressed a vision by creating, through the medium of paint, patterns of colour. The paint is of vital importance but in the end it’s the pattern that matters and the pattern which can be reproduced in another medium such as a book or film.”

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

(A Bit More) On the Way to Heaven and Hell

The Last Judgment
Michelangelo's Last Judgement
Michelangelo Buanorroti began painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the age of thirty-five. It was 1510 and it would be seven years until Martin Luther’s nailed his Ninety-Five Theses nailed to the Wittenburg Cathedral door to initiate the Protestant Reformation. But from 1536 to 1541, as he labored on the fresco of The Last Judgment, Rome was feeling the impact of the Protestant revolt against its religious authority. In Michelangelo’s enduring artistic image of the Christ’s judging the world, Christ pronounces the fate of all humankind with awesome finality. The 314 figures clearly divide into two groups. One is raised into the glories of heaven with the Apostles and the Patriarchs. The other, the damned, cower in abject despair. In light of the religious controversies of the day, significantly one man is barely saved by hanging onto the rosary, a symbol of medieval Catholic devotion to the Virgin Mary. 


In addition, as the Princeton theologian, Daniel Migliore, comments, 
The martyrs of the faith who surround Christ seem to take satisfaction in the torment of the damned.
And there Michelangelo—surely one of the world’s greatest artists and intellectuals—reveals a base flaw. His view of the final judgment—and often ours as well—conflates a sincere devotion to God’s sovereignty with a touch of hate for our foes.
            
Jesus Christ is the antidote to these unhelpful notions. In him, we certainly meet our Judge. Yes, Christ will judge all people.  Yes, he will root out evil. But this Judge is also our Savior. I gained a valuable insight from Karl Barth on the nature of Christ’s judgment: the only God we know as Christians is the God who is for us, the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Or as Migliore writes, 
the very same Christ who was crucified and raised for us will also be our judge on the final day.
Snap Shot of Paul taken on my iPhone
Jesus walked on the streets and taught God’s grace. Jesus sat at table with his disciples, saying, “Take and eat. This is my body broken for you.” This judge gave himself for us. Paul says it best in the final verses of Romans 8 as he lifts his rhetoric to truly heavenly heights:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
And to put a coda on this: As I prepare for my class this spring on Rob Bell's Love Wins and the Bible, I realize this is one of Bell's major concerns as well--that somehow we never forget that "God is love" (1 John 4:8). Our vision of our final destiny must always keep in mind that we will meet at loving God. And to be timely, this is the Jesus we also meet at Christmas, "the Word who became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood' (as Eugene Peterson paraphrases John 1:14). 


And that brings me to my usual question, What do you think?


(A postscript: In March, I posted something on "Heaven and Hell" as I took in the controversy over Rob Bell's Love Wins. That post has dwarfed all my others in the number of hits it has received. As I noted, that post, as well as this one, is excerpted from the final chapter of my book, Creation and Last Things: At the Intersection of Theology and Science--I added the link to Amazon in case my publisher becomes a little uncomfortable with how much I'm putting into my blog.)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

More on the Way to Heaven and Hell

Earlier this year, I posted something on "Heaven and Hell" as I took in the controversy over Rob Bell's Love Wins. That post has dwarfed all my others in the number of hits it has received. As I noted, it's excerpted from the final chapter of my book, Creation and Last Things: At the Intersection of Theology and Science. (I added the link to Amazon in case my publisher becomes a little uncomfortable with how much I'm putting into my blog. Hey, I'll even add a picture of the book.) 


Even this week, that particular post was by far the most popular. So I thought I'd excerpt a few subsections that lead up to my comments on heaven and hell. I'd also be interested in any comments you have. They could be especially helpful as I prepare for a class in April and May on Rob Bell, Love Wins, and the Bible.



The Science of the End           

John Polkinghorne, the particle physicist and theologian, spoke to his assembled, attentive audience for the University of Edinburgh’s Gifford lectures in 1993-94. He reminded them that cosmologists do not only peer into the past. They also attempt to discern the future. On a cosmic scale, he noted, science tells the story of the end of the universe. Its history is a enormous tug-of-war between the expansive force of the Big Bang, driving the galaxies apart, and the contractive force of gravity, pulling them together. If expansion continues, the galaxies will continue to separate, and the universe will decay into low-grade radiation. Continued contraction will collapse the universe into a fiery, big crunch. These two effects are so evenly balanced that we cannot tell which will win.

            

William Stoeger, a world-class astronomer and staff scientist for the Vatican Observatory, has added a few possibilities for our earth’s demise in an article with the daunting title, “Scientific Accounts of Ultimate Catastrophes in Our Life-Bearing Universe.” They are destruction of earth by asteroids and comets, the decline of our sun, and the explosion of a nearby supernova. However it arrives, the destruction of life on earth remains certain.

            

But we come then to a significant problem for Christian faith. These endings hardly represent the glorious fulfillment of “a new heaven and a new earth” that Revelation 21:1 promises. But John Polkinghorne reminded his listeners in Edinburgh that 

Cosmic death and human death pose equivalent questions of what is God’s intention for his creation.
Only God offers hope. God’s new creation will be a transformation of the current order, no less surprising than our resurrection, initiated by Jesus’ resurrection at the first Easter.
            
How can Christians relate scientific cosmology and Christian eschatology? There is a comparable scientific phenomenon to God’s continual work in the world. Evolutionary science depicts the created order as constantly unfolding into ever-greater complexity. Quantum theory’s indeterminacy describes creation as irreducibly open-ended. I am reminded again of a jazz chart—the basic melody and chord structure are written out, but the actual song has elements of surprise or improvisation. The future depicted by scientific cosmology displays openness to creating “new things” (as in Isaiah 43:19) and thus to God’s continual action in the world.
            
On the other hand, science does not provide complete answers to the end of the world. It offers an ending only in the sense of how the physical system will probably run down. It does not, indeed cannot, speak of the end in the sense of a goal or direction. Science cannot—if it remains true to its own parameters—speak of forces outside of nature. Even with science in hand, theologians come to the question of whether Christ’s return relates directly to the destruction of the universe as a whole, of specifically the earth, or whether the end of this world is simply an act of God without natural precedent. Put bluntly, will Jesus return because an asteroid destroys the earth?
            
Regarding God’s action, science must therefore remain silent. At best, scientific study may lead us to the threshold but cannot open the door to God. Here we come to the limit of general revelation, of God’s disclosure through nature. Only in God’s revelation in Scripture can we find the new creation.


The Resurrection of Christ
Science describes only indirectly ways the world may end. The Bible, however, speaks clearly of God’s directing the final act of the cosmic drama. Three times Revelation (1:8, 21:6, 22:13) calls the Lord the “Alpha and Omega,” which represent the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. Nothing precedes nor slips away from God. God knows the entire history of creation. We can discern the script of this history through Scripture of both old and new creation.
            
The initiating act of the new creation is the resurrection of Jesus Christ on the first Easter, the third day after his death on a cross. And there, at the cross of Christ, one must begin. There we find the most heavily attested historical fact of Jesus’ life. Two historians, the Roman Tacitus, in about 110 AD and first-century Jewish chronicler, Josephus, clearly speak of Christ’s death on a cross. Besides the disciples had no reason to make it up. The cross represented a shameful, four-letter word in Latin, crux, since it signified a death reserved for political traitors and villains and never for Roman citizens. Cicero’s Orations denounced both the reality of the cross and its usage by polite Romans. Death on cross was “the most cruel and abominable form of punishment”, and the very word “should be foreign not only to the body of a Roman citizen, but to his thoughts, his eyes, his ears."
            
Here the science of medicine has much to say. A physician can describe death as painful, as excruciating (from the Latin, excruciatus, “out of the cross”). Death by crucifixion damaged no vital organs, and the crucified sufferers could no longer lift themselves and the weight of their body rested on their chest and did not allow them to breathe. Death usually came slowly through dehydration or asphyxiation.
            
Out of this shame and surprise—for no Jew could conceive that the Messiah would ever have died this death—a surprising testimony arose: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.” Paul wrote this earliest written record around 55AD in the First Letter to the Corinthians, saying that 500 others witnessed this appearance. In these appearances, Jesus’ resurrected body at times resembles ours, such as when he urges Thomas to touch his wounds (John 20:27). He also appears unlike a normal body when he disappears suddenly (Luke 24:31). This new creation is both similar and dissimilar from the old creation. To the degree that one finds correspondence to this world, science can offer insight. To the degree it speaks of a new creation, science has little to add.
            
The Resurrection of Christ restored the disciples’ faith and hope and sends them in a mission. It also vindicated Jesus as Messiah, turning the shame of the cross into God’s victory of death and sin. Finally, the Resurrection of Christ initiates the new creation. On that first Easter morning, as Jesus cracked open the tomb and burst forth, the crack of the new creation spread through the old creation and has not stopped since.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Augustine's Prayer in a Time of Darkness


Sometimes—or maybe often—the road ahead seems really difficult and dark. Our faith is tested, and we can't figure it all out. So our only recourse is prayer. I have found this prayer, from the 3rd and 4th century Christian theologian and pastor, Augustine of Hippos, immensely powerful and comforting:
God of our life, there are days when the burdens we carry chafe our shoulders and weigh us down; when the road seems dreary and endless, the skies gray and threatening; when our lives have no music in them, and our hearts are lonely, and our souls have lost their courage.  Flood the path with light, turn our eyes to where the skies are full of promise; turn our hearts to brave music; give us the sense of comradeship with heroes and saints of every age; and so quicken our spirits that we may be able to encourage the souls of all who journey with us on the road of life to your honor and glory.
Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

C. S. Lewis on the Value in Suffering

I'm working on a devotional for Lent, "Faith, Hope, and Love in a World of Hurt," which reflects on how God forms these three virtues in us when we suffer. I'm scouring great insights from Christian thinkers throughout the centuries. Here are two gems from St. Clive. The first is when the senior devil, Screwtape, writes to his junior tempter, Wormwood, about how to lead a human astray. The second is one of Lewis's most famous.


Together they lead to a quote from the 19th pastor and writer, George MacDonald, that might be a summation of Lewis's insights into the value of pain and suffering, 
The Son of God suffered unto death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might become like his.
So here are the two quotes from Lewis:

Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy's will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.
God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.
What do you think? Do those help, confuse, or do something else? 

Monday, December 05, 2011

C.S. Lewis on Why Naturalism is Self-defeating

(Note: This is a paper I'm presenting at the December meeting of the Chico Triad on Philosophy, Theology, and Science.)

Naturalism (or the almost synonymous position of materialism) represents the philosophical position that the natural world (or the material world respectively) is all there is without remainder. At one point in his key argument against naturalism, Miracles: A Preliminary Study, Lewis states his definition succinctly, “Some people believe that nothing exists except Nature. I call these people Naturalists.”[1] In accord with Lewis, I will generally use “naturalism” because that is C. S. Lewis’s preferred term, but sometimes I will employ “materialism” interchangeably. This philosophical position obviously presents problems for Christian faith as it points to the Source of all being beyond this material world. In this chapter, I will look at Lewis’s apologetic strategy of arguing that naturalism is self-defeating.
Whatever it is called, naturalism has again returned with renewed vigor, though not always improved insight. And with it, a combative anti-theism has arisen in our country. The prominent Harvard neuroscientist Stephen Pinker has laid down the gauntlet in this way:

The neuroscientific worldview—the idea that the mind is what the brain does—has kicked away one of the intuitive supports of religion. So even if you accepted all of the previous scientific challenges to religion—the Earth revolving around the sun, animals evolving, and so on—the immaterial soul was always one last thing that you could keep as being in the province of religion. With the advance of neuroscience, that idea has been challenged.[2]

It seems that materialism has won the day with scientists and that, according to many, it represents the crucial contemporary argument against religious faith. It represents a crucial component of the “New Atheism” that has resulted in millions of books being sold by the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett.
            In the conflict between Christian faith and naturalism, C. S. Lewis’s next apologetic argument, even if he formulated it most definitively almost seventy years ago, still takes hold. We have a contemporary culture that hears the siren cries of naturalism. Lewis, as he moved into theism and then Christian belief in the 1930s, continued to wonder about whether life ends and is simply annihilated. I too, having grown up for my first eighteen years without religious faith and now engaging in scientific literature that so often denies a reality beyond nature, I find myself tempted by unremitting naturalism. Nevertheless, Lewis’s argument that naturalism is self-defeating is powerful, and I cannot escape its force.

Oxford in the 1940s
Though it can be argued that idealism still maintained a foothold at Oxford in the 1940s,[3] Lewis nevertheless felt compelled to engage in dialectics against naturalism. For Lewis the big crises with naturalism first emerged in 1929, when he confessed adult faith in theism and then in 1931 when he looked specifically to Christ. No longer content simply to remain the rationalist—and thus materialist—he found that life had more to offer. In some ways, it could be argued that Lewis had a strong line of idealism running through his philosophical veins, at least in the sense described by his friend, the Oxford philosophical theologian, Austin Farrer:

Lewis was raised in the tradition of an idealist philosophy which hoped to establish the reality of the mental subject independently of, or anyhow in priority to, that of the bodily world.

Farrer does note that Lewis “moved some way from such positions,” primarily by concluding that idealism did not sufficiently take in the personal presence of the absolute in the Incarnation. He indeed calls this shift a move from “idealism,” by which he means that there is a transcendent Mind or Spirit, to full encounter with God. This God would never be contained solely by the interactions of the natural world.[4]
            Nonetheless, there was sufficient idealism in Lewis’s convictions to butt heads with the more materialist currents of his day. For example, in Oxford’s Socratic Society—where Lewis presented the two pieces (or at least parts thereof) I am analyzing—Lewis found he regularly had to impugn the arguments of Logical Positivists, who asserted that statements about a transcendent reality were meaningless. This represents a linguistic and philosophical complement to naturalism. As he wrote to his student, Dom Bede Griffiths on April 22, 1954,

Don’t imagine that the Logical Positivist Menace is over. To me it seems that the apologetic position has never in my life been worse than it is now. At the Socratic the enemy often wipe the floor with us. Quousque domine? [How long, O Lord?][5]

Lewis, who in many ways gloried in moving against the grain of the culture, readily argued for the irrationality of materialism. I use “irrationality” advisedly because Lewis argued that materialism did not allow for rationality and thus obviated truth as well. In materialism, things just are; they are neither true nor false. And I mean this literally—Lewis concluded that, if we take nature to be all that there is, there is no place for rational thought. That is why naturalism defeats itself. It cuts off the very branch on which it sits.
            As I mentioned above, we live in an age, remarkable similar to C.S. Lewis’s… at least in this regard. The intellectual culture of the 1940s, out of which the two prominent writings, first “Is Theology Poetry” and then Miracles: A Preliminary Study, I will analyze emerged, promoted the concept that matter was all that mattered.[6] For this reason, these two pieces are still pertinent.
            Certainly not all scientists today or in the early decades of the twentieth century, were of similar minds. Some, even within the naturalist and therefore atheistic camp, saw the problems inherent in arguing that “the mind is what the brain does.” The famous geneticist and evolutionary biologist, John Scott Haldane wrote this,

It seems to me immensely unlikely that mind is a mere by-product of matter. For if my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.[7]

It is noteworthy that Lewis takes up this citation directly in Miracles, probably to demonstrate that the self-defeating nature of unremitting naturalism arose not just from a theological conviction, but from a logical one as well.
            I now turn to Lewis’s specific encounters in the ‘40s with the naturalistic mindset of many scientists.

Two types of naturalism
Ultimately, Lewis was a professor of literature and therefore a specialist in the humanities and not the sciences. Most of his arguments for faith in light of what he names “the Scientific Outlook” take place in philosophy or the arts. Yet, this may be a strength because many arguments against Christian faith are presented by scientists as scientific, but are really philosophical in character.
            Is there more than one form of naturalism? If so, are all forms of naturalism self-defeating? We arrive at a nexus where confusion can arise. Sometimes less scrupulous atheistic commentators may even use this misunderstanding as a rhetorical shell game, treating all naturalism as coterminous and concluding that God cannot exist in light of the advance of science. So I need to make a distinction. Science commits itself to methodological naturalism quite rightly. Science, at its core, commits to a method in which scientists look for the interactions, interrelations, and thus cause and effect in the natural world. For example, when scientists ask the question, “What is the boiling point of water?” they keep testing, hypothesizing, testing, and hypothesizing, until they find the natural causes for this effect. They conclude that, when water at sea level is heated to 100 Celsius, it begins to boil. No god or spirit is needed for that specific phenomenon of nature (other than a Creator God who put together nature itself, by I will return to that theme below). The methods of scientists become complicated in more elaborate theories—quantum theory comes to mind—but the basic commitment to find solely natural causes remains. This is proper methodological naturalism.
            The issue is when this method of looking solely for natural causes elides into philosophical naturalism—that all that exists is nature. Just because science cannot test or number something does not mean it does not exist. It is here—not as a field of study, but as an understanding of the world or as a sense-of-life, where science often intersects—or even collides with—theology. Many evolutionists use the theory of natural selection and conclude that the natural world of cause-and-effect is not guided, but evokes a mindless, “pitiless indifference,” to quote Richard Dawkins in Journey Out of Eden.[8] He sets this view against the purposeful creation by the hand of God. But, as Albert Einstein once quipped about scientists’ prediliction for numbering as an example of philosophical naturalism, “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.”
            And, though many scientists, and atheistic philosophers, casually link methodological naturalism with philosophical atheism, there is no sound reason to do so. Here a distinction is helpful. There is a fundamental difference the study of God and the study of the natural world based. Simply there is primary and secondary causation. God is the primary cause—God undergirds and establishes all being. As the great medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas taught, the nature of God as Creator is that being itself continually flows from God. That fact defines primary causation. God is the Cause that undergirds all other causes. Secondary causation is what human beings, and all other agents in the natural world, are given to do. Shakespeare created Hamlet and Ophelia—that is the nature of authorship. They would not exist without him, but within the story they have real interaction. They exist because Shakespeare, as it were, brought them into being. The analogy is not perfect because once the play is written, the real interactions between Hamlet and Ophelia are fixed in a way that ours as real secondary agents is not. Nonetheless, the central analogical point lies here: if Shakespeare were to have stopped writing Hamlet in the midst of its creation, the entire story would have ceased. And so too with God. God is the primary cause, but we are the real secondary causes. If God were to stop creating, we would no longer exist. At the same time, we can study the real interactions among secondary in their own right without direct reference to the first cause.

“Is Theology Poetry” on “the Scientific Outlook” and its contrast with science
I make these distinctions between primary and secondary causation and between these two types of naturalism because they are consistent with Lewis’s own. So I turn then to our first text at hand: “Is Theology Poetry?” really an oral presentation to the Oxford Socratic Club—from 1945.[9] It is a fascinating lecture—as Lewis is wont to create—not on science per se, or even strictly evolutionary science, but on the use of evolution to create a worldview, one that challenges orthodox Christian accounts of the world. To repeat: This atheistic challenge confuses methodological naturalism (tbe basis of evolution) with philosophical naturalism. Or, as it appears in this essay, Lewis distinguishes “science” (and “real science”) with “the Scientific Outlook.” When scientists grasp this distinction, no conflict between science and God need arise prematurely. Now there may be discoveries about creation and raise questions about the Creator, but science by its nature does not have the power and right to say that all that exists is what it studies. It is as if sculptors were to assert that painting does not exist because they have never touched paint.
            So Lewis held out great hope for science and faith. He held a positive assessment of science. Worth considering is what he puts in the mouth of the devil, Screwtape, in the first letter of the Screwtape Letters, the imagined correspondence between a senior devil and a junior devil, Wormwood, on how to tempt a human soul.

Above all, do not attempt to use science (I mean, the real sciences) as a defense against Christianity. They will positively encourage him to think about realities he can't touch and see. There have been sad cases among the modern physicists.[10]

Lewis’s argument here is that “real sciences” are philosophically anti-naturalistic, a point that finds agreement with the eminent physicist Sir John Polkinghorne; quantum physics now raises up things that we cannot see or touch. With the existence of quarks, no one can see them directly, but we have to infer their existence because they make sense of material reality: “Well, quarks are, in some sense, unseen realities. Nobody has ever isolated a single quark in the lab. So we believe in them not because we've, even with sophisticated instruments, so to speak, seen them, but because assuming that they're there makes sense of great swaths of physical experience.”[11]
            In another brief essay, “Dogma and the Universe,” Lewis makes another connection between modern physics and the defeat of “classical materialism,” that nature depends on its existence on something else.

In one respect, as many Christians have noticed, contemporary science has recently come into life with Christian doctrine, and parted company with the classical forms of materialism. If anything emerges clearly from modern physics, it is that nature is not everlasting. The universe had a beginning, and will have an end.[12]

He does note, however, “We should not lean to heavily on this, for scientific theories change.”[13]
                        In his essay, Lewis takes up the question given to him: “Is theology poetry?” (This, of course, is also the title of the talk). He does not seem to enjoy the question as it stands before him, so he refines it to become whether theology is merely poetry. He, first of all, argues that theology is not just poetry—it is not really artful enough, nor is it as good as the poetry of 

The charge that Theology is mere poetry, if it means that Christians believe it because they find it, antecedently to belief, the most poetically attractive of all world pictures, thus seems to me unplausible in the extreme.[14]

            Lewis then analyzes the poetry of the Scientific Outlook presented by evolution (and especially H. G. Wells) as a philosophy of progress that gradually and painfully overcomes obstacles. What Lewis names the Scientific Outlook begins with a humble of inanimate matter that gradually becomes life. It gradually emerges as dinosaurs, who die out, replaced by Man, who is also destined to die. This great myth is finally “overwhelmed in ruin.”[15] It is a beautiful, tragic myth of Man fighting valiantly against the odds, but ultimately losing.
            The reason Lewis rejected the “Scientific Outlook” lies in the self-defeating nature of the two claims “we can think” and “nature is all there is.” Here we come to the key theme of this chapter: the Scientific Outlook asserts the truth and reasonableness of its claims without thereby providing a place for reason. Or as he put it:

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 than the sound of the wind in the trees.

The Scientific Outlook tries to fit in reason in an irrational—or maybe arational—world. Lewis concludes that this move is self-defeating.
                        As an alternative, Lewis discovered in his own life (around his conversions in 1929 and 1931) something he argues here: Belief in a Creator God who endows humanity with reason makes entirely more sense. The divine Logos creates human reason. The primary Cause ungirds all secondary causes. Lewis says that is why he does not believe in the “Scientific Outlook,” but instead believes in Christianity, which includes reason and science. As he closes the lecture, he writes,

Christian theology can fit in science, art, morality, and the sub-Christian religions. The scientific view [such as in H. G. Wells, and I would add, Pinker] cannot fit in any of these things, not even science itself. I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

Lewis believed that Christian theology gave grounds for reason and thus reasoning about what is true. Therefore it makes sense of science. Put another way, if science bets its existence on naturalism, then it will ultimately undermine itself.
            His more sustained argument can be found in the 1947 apologetic work, Miracles, a key chapter of which (chapter three) he revised for the 1960 edition, from which I will quote.

The argument in Miracles (1947, revised 1960)
Starting with Lewis’s arguments against naturalism, I turn to his most sustained, discussed, and debated presentation, the opening chapters of Miracles, particularly the third chapter, “The Cardinal Difficulty with Naturalism.” As I mentioned above, Lewis defines naturalism simply as the belief that nature is all there is, and he also provides a more extensive definition in Miracles: Naturalism is “the doctrine that only Nature—the whole interlocked system–exists. And if that were true, every thing and event would, if we knew enough, be explicable without remainder (no heel taps) as a necessary product of the system.”[16] He continues the essence of the argument he presented in “Is Theology Poetry?” (and elsewhere)—that in order for reason to exist there must be something greater or “above” (super in Latin) and thus there must be Supernature.
            Lewis presents his argument against naturalism to kick away a support for disbelieving in miracles. If there is nothing that supervenes over nature, then miracles are impossible. If there is, however, a Supernature, then it, or God, could act in ways contrary to the nexus of cause and effect in the natural world. That a central reason he argues against naturalism.
            Now Lewis’s argument against naturalism is reasonable simple. It starts with the premise that
(1)  Naturalism asserts that all that exists is part of the natural, or material world, of cause and effect.
(2)  Reason, being a part of all that is, must therefore be a component solely of the natural world.
(3)  Yet, in order for reason to discover truth, it cannot be solely based on natural, or material, cause and effect.
(4)  Therefore naturalists cannot fit reason into their system.
(5)  Consequently, naturalism is false.
            As a result of the well-known debate with the eminent Oxford philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe at the Socratic Club on February 2, 1948, Lewis conceded that Anscombe had pointed out flaws in his essential argument. He presented changes in the 1960 revision to Miracles, noting a key distinction between Cause-Effect and Ground-Consequent. She too, according to subsequent reflection, felt that he had admitted problems, noting his “honesty and seriousness” as a philosopher. She did not, however, conclude he destroyed, as later commentators would assert. A. N. Wilson, who, in his 1990s biography of Lewis, labored incessantly (and even cooked a few facts) to make Lewis look unworthy of serious attention repeats a somewhat tired argument that Lewis retreated from apologetics (such as Miracles) to children’s literature (i.e., Narnia) after this encounter. (Below I will note how Wilson’s mood changed significantly a few years ago.) He continues by asserting that Lewis even patterned the evil White Witch of Narnia, Jadis, after Anscombe. I find it difficult to take that sort of assertion seriously.[17]
            I have presented the critical elements of his revised presentation, not to engage them directly (others have done so effectively),[18] but to demonstrate more that Lewis more away from argument to story, from justification to signification. Or put another way, as Michael Ward does in Planet Narnia, Lewis moved from Contemplation to Enjoyment. This is a key distinction that Lewis makes in Surprised by Joy, which he picked up from Alexander. So in 1950, when he began the “Narniad” as it is called, he wanted to enjoy what reasoning implied (a first order experience), not contemplate reason, or think about thinking (a second-order experience).[19]
            The apologetic force of this argument remains surprisingly relevant for today’s anti-theistic—I have noted Pinker and Dawkins, but there are many others. I have found myself, as one committed to the glory of scientific insight along with my Christian faith, leaning on Lewis. He does not argue that one must conclude that naturalism is self-defeating, only that that it is very likely to be self-defeating. And I have not found a rejoinder, although many have been tried,[20] and the debate shows no signs of abating.[21] It is not exactly an argument for Christian faith, but as he concludes in “Is Theology Poetry?” he does offer that theism—specifically, the creation of the world by a rational Creator—offers the best ground for human reason. For this reason, Lewis brings together a rigorous reasoning alongside a robust faith in God as Creator.

A final thought
Perhaps the best closer for this chapter comes from the pen of A. N. Wilson, the brilliant, but cranky biographer of Lewis who remained, for decades, a committed, atheist. Just a few years ago, he changed his mind. In an April 2009 article in MailOnline, he wrote this,

Our bishops and theologians, frightened as they have been by the pounding of secularist guns, need that kind of bravery (like Sir Thomas More’s) more than ever. Sadly, they have all but accepted that only stupid people actually believe in Christianity, and that the few intelligent people left in the churches are there only for the music or believe it all in some symbolic or contorted way which, when examined, turns out not to be belief after all. As a matter of fact, I am sure the opposite is the case and that materialist atheism is not merely an arid creed, but totally irrational. Materialist atheism says we are just a collection of chemicals. It has no answer whatsoever to the question of how we should be capable of love or heroism or poetry if we are simply animated pieces of meat.

That seems in the mode of C. S. Lewis himself. But Lewis did not stop with simply impugning naturalism—a negative accomplishment—he also presented a positive argument for Jesus Christ. That is the subject of the next chapter.


[1] Miracles, 5. Note: This, and in some of the following citations, are incomplete. That will certainly be remedied in a final draft of this paper.
[2] Atoms & Eden: Conversations on Religion & Science, edited by Steve Paulsen (Oxford, 2010), 239.
[3] “The Philosophical Journey of C.S. Lewis,” Stanford Online Encyclopedia.
[4] Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life.
[5] The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, 1950-1963: Narnia, Cambridge and Joy, Volume III, ed. Walter Hooper (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007), 462
[6] Perhaps not surprisingly, as I picked up Orthodoxy, by Lewis’s great mentor, G. K. Chesterton, the latter contains an extended section on materialism
[7] Possible Worlds and Other Essays.
[8] Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, 132-33.
[9] Just to be clear: It was read on November 7, 1944 and published in The Socratic Digest in 1945.
[10] The Screwtape Letters, Letter I.
[11] May 29, 2008 National Public Radio interview with Krista Tippett. See http://being.publicradio.org/programs/quarks/transcript.shtml.
[12] “Dogma and the Universe,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, edited by Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 38-9.
[13] “Dogma and the Universe,” 39.
[14] The Weight of Glory, 78.
[15] The Weight of Glory, 81.
[16] Miracles, 12.
[17] C. S. Lewis: A Biography.
[18] Cf. Reppert’s book, C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea.
[19] Michael Ward, Planet Narnia, 218-20.
[20] Beversluis, The Rational Religion of C. S. Lewis.
[21] One prominent example is Daniel Dennett.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

The Mystery of the Incarnation


It’s the season of Advent.

I’ve been reading Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics I/2 on “Very God and Very Man,” and last night I experienced the profoundly theological Advent concert by Future of Forestry. Both Barth and Future of Forestry offer meditations on the event of Christmas, or more specifically, on the event of the Incarnation. 

The doctrine of the Incarnation of the Word has always fascinated me. C. S. Lewis dubbed it the “Grand Miracle,” and that’s precisely why it draws me—it’s the most radical claim made by the Christian Gospel. Contrast it, for example, with “love your neighbor,” which has profundity and amazing usefulness, which in its simplicity, challenges us not in theory, but in practice. Still, who really disagrees this command? Yes, there a few, but nothing like the reaction to this extraordinary—even offensive—claim that God, the one true God, became flesh. It has long been a scandal to the other monotheistic faiths of Judaism (who are still awaiting Messiah) and Islam (whose Dome of the Rock proclaims “Far be it removed from His transcendent majesty that He should have a son”). The claim is bold, unique, and offensive. It’s the sheer boldness of this claim that draws me and inspires me every Advent.

Indeed. That “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14) has been so challenging even Christian theologians have danced around, or muted, the clarity of the New Testament Greek that somehow the eternal Word became—that there is a change in God’s history, that somehow divine fullness, and therefore perfection, can include alteration, that somehow the eternal God wants to get down into the muck of human history in order to free us, and thus that the Word became flesh, became fallen human, concrete humanity—“Don’t get so close, I want like the contemplate Principle of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness, or meditate respectfully on the Laws of Physics, but I don't want this meddling God.”

Nonetheless, there it lies right at the center of our faith: “The Word became flesh and dwelled among us.” It is a good news that we often conclude is truly too good to be true, and one we all seemed to want to remove or soften. Yet if the doctrine falls, the Christian faith falls too. To repeat C. S. Lewis, it is the Grand Miracle. And I believe it is the very linchpin that steadies all things, including ourselves.