Tuesday, June 25, 2013

St. Clive in My Crisis

I can't remember if I posted this already, but this is a piece that didn't fully make it into the most recent draft of CS Lewis Through Crisis. Let me know what you think. I might try it as a stand alone article.

Admittedly, some have argued that C. S. Lewis made the resolution of crises too easy.

I remember when I was at Cal studying medieval literature, that I told another student I wanted to read Lewis. He opined (and I paraphrase), “Be careful—his analogies are very crafty and deceptive.” Apparently, his feeling was that Lewis resolved crises too quickly… and even maliciously, because Lewis might lead me to Christian faith. But the concern was overwrought: I was just reading his scholarly treatment of courtly love poetry Allegory of Love! (And by then I had already become a Christian so I had little to worry about those crafty, deceptive analogies.)
      Similarly, as I strolled through Bookshop Santa Cruz in July 2012, I found some staff recommendations and found one for Till We Have Faces, “If you enjoyed Lewis’ ‘The Lion (etc.)’ but found him a tad heavy-handed with the Christian allegory, you may want to check out this book, geared more subtly, and with perhaps more wisdom, toward adult readers. This is a re-telling of the Cupid and Psyche myth, but told from the viewpoint of the ‘ugly’ older sister. It is a profound tale about changing your mind about everything you think you know.”
      But not everyone agrees: Debra Winger, who played Lewis’s wife, Joy Davidman, in the film Shadowlands offered as an evaluation of Lewis: “He may make difficult questions accessible. I don’t think he makes answers ‘easy.’ I don’t think he answers questions. He discusses them.”
      And that is what I discovered as a freshman in high school. I discovered this once again one morning. In fact, one of the first things I noticed when I looked through the journals from my freshman year at Berkeley was how I wrestled with doubt. I doubted my functional atheism, which had worn thin.
      I had unearthed these journals in my garage one morning as I began the day with a vigorous workout on the stair machine. Sweaty and winded, I looked slightly left and spied non-descript cardboard data boxes. I pulled these down from the metal shelves to discover hand-written pages of revelations, often written in cursive, contained in spiral bound, fifty-nine cent notebooks that described the crisis of doubt and of the vicissitudes of a college freshman with their florid introspection (and excessive use of exclamation points). As I poured over these pages, I found the months between fall 1980 and spring 1981 in which my life had changed, when I suddenly seemed to wear unbelief uneasily. It was, as the philosophers call it, “an existential crisis.”
      As I began to have a crisis about my doubting God, C.S. Lewis accompanied me and eventually led me out to finding God.
      Not of course that Lewis was still alive and walking around Telegraph Avenue with me. He died just a year after I was born, lived in another country, never visited the United States, and in many ways, had nothing to do with a California kid starting college in fall 1980. (For example, I can never refer to him as “Jack,” as his friends did.) Moreover, it would even be self-centered to the point of narcissistic to say that Lewis had the same crises I had or that I’ve encountered since: Lewis grew up in a household of faith, namely the Church of Ireland, and after the death of his mother, when he was about fourteen, he abandoned Christian faith and did not return in earnest until his early thirties. He grew up at the end of the Victorian era, spent time in the trenches of WWI, lived through the bomb raids of World War II in London, and spent his last two decades (more or less) in England as it rebuilt following these two world wars. He died before the “Sixties Revolution” hit its stride. In other words, he inhabited a different world from me.
      And yet, I would still say that Clive Staples Lewis or “Jack” as he like to be called, helped me find God in Berkeley, California. Nursed on the casual secularism of the region now known as Silicon Valley, where, I’ve been told less than ten percent of its residents are found in a worship service on any given Sunday, I grew up not needing God. Instead I found satisfaction in perfect, temperate weather, comfortable surroundings, a secure and happy family, a life rounded out with sufficient personal achievements. This is happy secularism, Californian-style, to be distinguished from an Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Samuel Beckett-cultivated atheistic existentialist, where one drinks bitter French Roast, wearing peg leg jeans, and filling leather journals with reflections on Meaninglessness and the Abyss while atonal jazz plays in the background.
      I don’t remember specifically denying God’s existence exactly. God played no role in my life, and thus my term, “functional atheism.” I simply didn’t see it as relevant or useful. But when I got to Berkeley—postmodern, freewheeling Berkeley—I didn’t know what I was doing and why I was doing it. And that undid me.
      In Lewis I found a kindred spirit—one for whom faith was by no means self-evident nor devoid of serious reflection, a person who struggled with Jesus as a unique revelation of God, who took religious faith seriously with all his powers of thought, and who knew wisdom. I found in his writings a fluidity of style and of mind that slowly engaged and even entranced me as a fellow lover of books and a soon-to-be undergraduate in comparative literature. And there in the University of California, I also found a fellow seeker, who spent his life in a secular, world-class university, a place where Christianity, if treated at all, was passé, a vestige of western civilization that had long ago thrown off this infantile belief.
      Some of the roots of this crisis of doubt went back three years further.
      It was sometime earlier, as a wishy-washy high school junior, functional atheist, that I picked up Mere Christianity, Lewis’s presentation and defense of Christianity (two tasks that almost always appeared together for him no matter what the subject). I had expressed a mild interest in Christianity, but felt reasonably self-assured that to believe implied that I needed to stop thinking. And it didn’t take the atheists to convince me that Christians weren’t intellectually engaged—it was the light-in-the-head church youth groups singing Jesus songs many didn’t believe (accompanied by hand-signals), which were totally mismatched with the message of denial, faith, and abandonment to God that I read in Jesus. Although, as a typical resident of what we now call “Silicon Valley,” I had few experiences in church, I had been brought along to a church junior high youth group. I left dismayed after a few weeks. The flippancy in belief was all I needed to not believe myself. It wasn’t really hypocrisy; it was the frivolity that turned me away.
      So when I began Mere Christianity, I was dumbfounded: Here a writer, a Christian at that, was somehow making the whole Christian faith reasonable. I mean, I had been taught that Christianity was anything but reasoned. The most reasonable author I had read to date was also a proponent of this severely unreasoned faith. Lewis taught me that Christian faith requires and sustains serious reflection, but is not ultimately somber. The content of faith is important, serious, but never frivolous “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.” In fact, faith and the experience of God lead to Joy. In this way, Lewis both presented, and later resolved, a crisis.
      And although I didn’t know who this Lewis guy was, nor what a truly world class mind he possessed, he made sense. It was so similar to a sentiment that Lewis himself would record—and which I read many years later—about his own reading, as a young college atheist, of the Catholic journalist G.K. Chesterton:
Then I read Chesterton’s Everlasting Man and for the first time saw the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense. Somehow I contrived not to be too badly shaken. You will remember that I already thought Chesterton the most sensible man alive “apart from his Christianity.” Now, I veritably believe, I thought—I didn’t of course say; words would have revealed the nonsense—that Christianity itself was very sensible “apart from its Christianity.”
Even in this citation, Lewis demonstrates that, though funny (e.g., the irony of attempting to believe Christianity is sensible “apart from its Christianity”), he was never frivolous. He knew that Christianity was something worth our lives. I was not only dumbfounded, but I was hooked—hooked in subtle way. Still, the whole message went underground for a couple of years, made subterranean by senioritis, falling in love, and moving to college at Berkeley.
      When I returned to look at the Christian gospel one more time in that freshman year with new eyes and redoubled vigor, it was Lewis’s writing—this self-described “dinosaur”—that made Christian belief seem fresh. To use William James’s memorable phrase, Christian faith emerged as a “live option.” What seemed relevant and distant before now became intensely personal. His Mere Christianity—with a subtext of his disenchantment with atheism and his conversion to Christianity—got under my skin with its reasoned and reasonable approach to Christian faith. Lewis took Christian faith seriously, but not morosely. As his friends would remind us, Lewis was a very funny man. As his former student, Alastair Fowler, once remarked, “Lewis seemed always on the verge of hilarity—between a chuckle and a roar.” But he knew that humor could also lead to trivializing important topics. In his famous imagined correspondence between a senior and a junior devil about how to tempt the human soul, The Screwtape Letters, he called this flippancy: “Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it.” Accordingly, his humor supported his exposition, but never dominated or diminished it.
      Christian faith, Lewis taught me could withstand serious intellectual engagement. In fact, as I interrogated other philosophers—the thought of French poststructuralist Michel Foucault was hot at Berkeley in those days—they actually didn’t stand up as well. And so I was being won over. And so I began to engage it. Or better God began to engage me. “I read in a periodical the other day that the fundamental thing is how we think of God. By God Himself it is not! How God thinks of us is no only more important, but infinitely more important.” And God, I was learning, apparently thought enough of me to send Christ and to take on this smart, but largely immature, eighteen year old and take his questions seriously. I was taken so seriously that I was being shaken.
      In sum, Lewis, as my mentor through crisis, led me to see that Christ’s uniqueness demands a response, but does not invalidate other truths; that Christian faith withstands and supports serious reasoning, but is never solemn or dour; and that Christianity leads to wisdom and much needed skill for a late adolescent and for a culture that’s still not fully emerged into adulthood. And this leads me to the reason for writing a book, C. S. Lewis Through Crisis: I believe he can do this and much more for this generation.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Week One, The Bible Journal (God's Story, Our Story), A Draft

I'm preparing a journal for Bidwell Presbyterian Church to journey through the storyline of the Bible in sixteen weeks. Here's a draft of the first week. Let me know what you think.

The Making of the Old Testament

This section presents the variety of styles and voices in the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible). You will also be introduced to two key themes: the creation of the world and the fall of humankind, which set the stage for the story of the Bible and how God interacts with humankind. Because of its importance, there are a few more readings this week.

Psalm 119:105-112, Psalm 8, 104 (prayer)
These are psalms for each week that you can read daily as a way of beginning in prayer.

Genesis 1-4, 6-8, 11:1-9
Note the way that the Bible describes God’s creation of the world, first in a more cosmic way (Genesis 1), and then a more personal mode (Genesis 2). Then right away, Adam and Eve disobey God and are separated from him. What do you learn here about God’s good creation and the nature of human evil?

Leviticus 16-20
Skim this material to get a sense of ancient Israel’s law (Hebrew “Torah” also means “teaching” or “instruction”). What concerns are reflected in these chapters?

Proverbs 1, 8, 14-17
In the Proverbs we find wisdom or directions for skillful living. What do you see about how to live? What are some common themes?

Jeremiah 1, 2
Here we meet the prophet Jeremiah who began his ministry as a prophet around 627 BC. How does Jeremiah respond to his call to be a prophet? What resonates with your experience? What seems intimidating?

Song of Songs 1-4
In these chapters, we read poetry between two lovers. What is their love like? What do you think about this being in the Bible?

Overall Reflection: Of all these voices and styles of writing in the Old Testament, which are you drawn to? Which ones challenge you? What did you learn about God and about yourself?

Prayer: As I read your word, by your Spirit, open me to what you want to teach. May I know you. May I know myself (From St. Augustine)

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

C. S. Lewis's Four Interlocking Apologetic Arguments

I'm working on the first of four chapters on C. S. Lewis's apologetics. First I want to establish how they inter-relate. Let me know what you think of this introduction. Is it helpful?

Clive Staple Lewis represents, by many accounts, the most effective apologist in the twentieth century. If then, I describe Lewis as an apologist—which he was, and a very effective one at that—we may have to begin with the common definition, “someone who makes a reasoned defense of the Christian faith. ” This definition derives from the Greek word apologia, which signified a defense in a law court. The Greek word apologia appears in the New Testament in 1 Peter 3:15: “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you…” 

      When Lewis was asked by Ashley Sampson in 1939 to write a book on how to defend belief in Christianity in light of the existence of pain, Lewis felt obligated to lay out the groundwork for how a person comes to believe in God: first there is the sense of the “Numinous,” something beyond our material world, then a sense of morality, an “ought”; followed by an identification of the Numinous with this moral obligation; then finally a Jewish man who claimed to be one with this giver of the moral law. Two years later, the British Broadcasting Corporation’s commissioning editor James Welch, asked Lewis to deliver a series of radio talks on Christianity, which later appeared as Mere Christianity. In that latter presentation, steps two and three were compressed, so that morality and God became the introduction to his talks, and Lewis later presented a preliminary consideration that filled his book Miracles on how naturalism is self-defeating. These arguments fill his famous apologetic writings from the 1940s. Each responds in some way to crises Lewis had to work through—in fact, attacks he once made against Christian belief—and thus ones that his readers experience. As I was chatting about this book with an editor of a prominent book company, he quipped, “Lewis makes it easy for conservative Christians. He does their thinking for them.” It’s partly true, but not quite that simple. Nevertheless, the fact remains that what Lewis worked out remains a substantial edifice for theological defenses of faith.
      Therefore it’s worth summarizing. If one were to compile these major apologetic arguments systematically—building on his original scaffolding in The Problem of Pain—it would be four steps as follows:
1.   First, what Lewis added to The Problem of Pain: In order even to begin steps toward belief, we have to see that there is more to the world than just material stuff. He argues that naturalism or materialism (that there is just brute matter) is self-defeating because rational thinking is impossible if we are pure materialists. Miracles centrally presents this apologetic, but it is scattered throughout his writings, especially in the ‘40s with the papers he presented at the Oxford Socratic Society such as “Is Theology Poetry?”
2.     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. This argument appears in The Problem of Pain and in “The Weight of Glory.” It establishes what he early called the Numinous and later identified with his own quest for Joy.
3.     Having established that there is something more, he 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, or even natural law). It is perceived in the conscience of all human beings and points to the God created that law within us. Lewis developed this apologetic in his opening Broadcast Talks for BBC, which became the first section or “book” of Mere Christianity, as well as in his 1943 Riddell Lectures at the University of Durham that were published as The Abolition of Man. This is a crucial move because it establishes a particular character to what our sense of Joy points us. Or put another way, Joy or beauty are tied to morality.
4.     Finally, his argument becomes specifically Christian: Jesus Christ is fulfillment of human myths. In addition, he is either liar, Lord, or lunatic. The only reasonable answer is that he is Lord. This appears principally in Mere Christianity.
      These arguments can be separated, but they also inter-relate. In one sense then, Lewis provided four main masterful defenses of the Christian. This makes him an apologist. But there is more to the history of apologetics as a discipline, and certainly this characterization of apologist is inadequate for how Lewis practiced the craft. Here I add the more subtle definition presented by Earl Palmer, the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, whose love for Lewis kindled mine and whose lectures from the early ‘80s: “someone who presents the Christian faith fully aware of the arguments that are presented against it.” Palmer also added that an apologist must have two fluencies: a fluency in the Gospel, knowing what’s central and what’s peripheral and a fluency in culture, knowing the cultural norms and language into which this message is presented. Lewis was masterful at both, and I think Palmer’s description helps us see that Lewis was always seeking to persuade even when he was simply presenting the Christian faith (perhaps always trying to root out the atheism that still clung to him from his teens and twenties). This double fluency made Lewis a master apologist who resolved the crises of atheism for many readers and was thereby dubbed by Chad Walsh as “apostle to skeptics.”

Friday, June 14, 2013

A Short Rant about Our Obsession with Feelings

The slogan of contemporary America could be “if it feels right, do it.” Feelings—particularly the emotional rush of life—remain the final arbiter of truth and decision-making for our culture. And sadly that is true for those inside the church as well where I often hear distrust of “head knowledge” and an emphasis on the interior life, which in this case, usually means our emotions. I read this the other day: faith is “much deeper than intellectual agreement” with facts in that it “affects the desires of one’s heart.” With the way most of us define “heart” as a place where we feel emotion, that sounds a lot like feelings ought to reign supreme.
"Burning in the bosom"?
Certainly, it is the nature of American revivalism that we tend to want a “burning in the bosom” and the feeling of conversion. Too much of Christian spirituality implores us to introspect and see how “the Lord is working,” and “see whether you feel God’s joy.” There are some historical roots: early Puritans, who were anxious about whether God had elected them or not, worried about signs of salvation, about whether they felt God’s concerns, although this was never what John Calvin wanted with the doctrine of predestination. Or Martin Luther, who blurted out, “Say your prayers and know you’re elected.” Later, in our history, revivalism looked to the “warming of the heart” as signs of salvation—which are certainly elements of Christian belief—but often excluded rationality and obedience.  Contemporarily, our obsession with feeling good has us wandering around for giddiness.
      So this focus on feelings is not new to the Christian faith, and even as this country has become less Christianized, we are still obsessed with feelings. But we should know better. C. S. Lewis certainly did. He was convinced that our feelings often deceive, and true life begins when the rush of feelings lets off. As he wrote in a letter from 1950, 
Obedience is the key to all doors: feelings come (or don’t come) and go as God pleases. We can’t produce them at will and mustn’t try.
To be sure (and as the book I'm working on, CS Lewis in Crisis argues), Lewis was not given over simply to intellectual abstraction either. He believed that what we learn must affect our lives. In this way, he mirrors the biblical emphasis on the “heart” not as the arbiter of emotions, but as the center of action. So it’s neither feelings nor abstract cognition that matters. Eugene Peterson, when he paraphrases the Bible in The Messages gets it exactly right in his rendering of Galatians, 
Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives” (Galatians 5:25, italics are mine). 
Or as Lewis put in the mouth of the senior devil Screwtape in how to prevent spiritual growth:
The great thing is to prevent his doing anything. As long as he does not convert it into action, it does not matter how much he thinks about this new repentance.  Let the little brute wallow in it.  Let him, if he has any bent that way, write a book about it… Let him do anything but act.
All this has struck me as profoundly wise. Although I was struck by the rationality, as well as the imagination and emotion, in Lewis when I first read him as a teenager, these certainly weren’t the only element of his work that sustained me. In fact, as I’ve learned from him over the past thirty years, and as I’ve seen him work in the lives of my congregations, his wisdom has played a major role. Because wisdom speaks to the center of our lives--biblically speaking (not culturally speaking) "the heart"--wisdom leads to proper action. Being an eighteen year old, I needed a little wisdom, whether I felt like I needed it or not. (I’m thankful now that today, this age is deemed “emerging young adulthood.”) Thirty years later they still speak to me and to those I’ve nurtured, taught, and counseled as their pastor. Lewis’ wisdom helped me grasp the crisis inherent in the tyranny of feelings.