|Magdalene College, where Lewis taught at Cambridge|
My periodization in this book—sometimes as simple as divisions by decades—is admittedly overly neat transition. I do not subscribe to some Hegelian Zeitgeist, which would render this project an attempt to discern a particular “spirit” in each age, voila!out comes the right intellectual history. Still, the historical periods I propose are not entirely arbitrary, and many (pre- and post-Darwin) are standard designations. Nevertheless, I have to admit I use them lightly, with the purpose of creating a positive theoria, which at its root means a way "to see"... more clearly, I hope.
In his 1954 inaugural lecture at Cambridge University, C. S. Lewis summarized expertly the perils of making history too neat. He begins by citing G. M. Trevelyan,
As a great Cambridge historian has said, “Unlike dates, periods are not facts. They are retrospective conceptions that we form about past events, useful to focus discussions, but very often leading historical thoughts astray.” The actual temporal process, as we meet it in our lives (and we meet it, in a strict sense, nowhere else) has no divisions, except perhaps those “blessed barriers between day and day,” our sleeps. Change is never complete, and change never ceases. Nothing is ever quite finished with; it may always begin over again…. And nothing is quite new; it was always somehow anticipated or prepared for. A seamless, formless continuity-in-mutability is the mode of our life. But unhappily we cannot as historians dispense with periods. (They Asked For a Paper [Geoffrey Bles, 1962], 10-11, citing Tevelyan, English Social History , 92.)And Lewis adds a few sentences later, “There is nothing in history that quite corresponds to a coastline or a watershed in geography.”
Ah, if history were just more clear! And though I'm not an historian—and the book I'm writing about science and religion in America is not, strictly speaking, a book of history—in creating this historical sketch, I have to make divisions as useful heuristic devices.
To step back for a moment, Why do we love to make things neat and tidy, whether it's our lives, our schedules, or the writing of history? Hebrews 4:13 says "Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight," which means, among other things, that God certainly has all reality in view and, as far as I can tell, doesn't really need historical periods to make sense of reality. And so often we'd like to pretend we're like God by showing how well we comprehend the sequence of events. That's human, to be sure, but perhaps also often a flawed project.