Wednesday, May 07, 2014

C. S. Lewis, Jesus Christ, and Science (Some Notes)

I’ve been thinking about C. S. Lewis and science recently, and this week I’m teaching my Lewis class and exploring his famous September 1931 discussion with J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson where he realized that Jesus is the “true myth.” This conversation moved Lewis from life as a broad theist to a confessional Christian. It also affected his writing and the way he presented a defense of specifically Christian faith—that is to say, the faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. 
As I’ve written in other posts, there were three specific arguments that Lewis made against the dominant scientific thought of his day: the self-defeating character of materialism, the desire for something beyond this world as a pointer to God, and the law of right and wrong in human beings that indicates the existence of a moral God. These three led to his famous argument that appears in Mere Christianity: the “trilemma”—that Jesus is liar, lunatic, or Lord.
So now to Lewis and science: Can this be seen as a “scientific” argument? Or perhaps better, is this a dialogue with science? So far as I can discern, this latter question divides into two. Because Lewis is effectively asking us to make an historical judgment about the character of Jesus of Nazareth, it can be phrased this way: Can science comment on history? Secondly, is it scientific to think about such an ultimate category as God’s identity being determined by one event (albeit an event of thirty plus years of Jesus’s life)?
I’ll start with the second question. Generally, science deals with the general laws, and so to reason scientifically would be not to think that something as ultimate as God could be discerned through a particular historical event. And that word “historical” in my last sentence pretty much answers the first question: certainly there are forms of science, like archeology, that can make judgments on historical events, but at the end of the day, the “science” we usually mean—natural, and sometimes behavioral, sciences—are structurally different than the science of history. (And now I’m using “science” to mean mainly “academic discipline.”)
For that reason, I’d conclude (at least for the moment) that Lewis sought not to contradict good science with his trilemma, but he moves beyond the bounds of what we usually call scientific thought.

But then again, should science (at least, the natural sciences) be the arbiter of every truth? Lewis, we can be sure, would have responded with a quite confident No. And that thought might lead to another, later post…


Michael F said...

I might go so far as to suggest that Lewis' trilemma is post-historical. By this I mean it isn't a historical argument, but rather a philosophical argument that assumes a particular historical judgment. The trilemma presupposes certain historical affirmations of the canonical gospels, as well as a particular hermeneutics. Lewis is arguing that in light of those presuppositions, the argument follows that Jesus cannot be "merely a good man." Thus, his argument does depend on "good history," and can be made irrelevant if those presuppositions are rejected.

Greg Cootsona said...

You philosophers! I do think the trilemma presupposes a good deal of reliance on the verity of the canonical gospels. I also agree that Lewis's big issue (in current parlance) is with the "Jesus is a good moral teacher." It seems to me what you're doing is saying that sound historical record is the general principle by which Lewis is making his deductions about Jesus's identity. And thus it's a philosophical point. Could we rather say that he's arguing for a particular philosophy of history? Or maybe I'm just trying to split the difference.