Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Science of Christmas Future

An estimated 62% of our country will attend Christmas services this month, and right at the center of the message they’ll hear are angels singing about Jesus, the fulfillment of ancient prophecies, and a baby born to a young virgin. For many who want to believe—or at least be inspired by the Christmas story—it’s hard to accept these decidedly strange teachings in an increasingly technological and scientific world. That’s especially the case if you’re part of the 30% of 18-30 year olds in our country that list “None” when presented with the question, “What religion are you?” 
      Having just finished teaching a college course on science and religion, certain related questions fascinate me. Can my students still believe today? And, if they do, what accommodations will be made for their faith and vice versa? 

    There are some challenging statistics. According the noted researchers Christian Smith and Kyle Longest, 70% of 18-23 year olds “agree” or “strongly agree” that the teachings of religion and science conflict. In addition, a complementary study by David Kinnaman found that one of the six top reasons that the infamous 30% of young adults have left the church is that the latter is seen as “antiscience.”
      Congregations are going to have to engage science and its insights. There is a science to Christmas’s future.
      I’m currently working on a research project where I analyze these and other surveys and interview young adults (18-30 years old) on how they formed their ideas about religion and science and how these attitudes change. So, over cappuccinos and chai at Starbucks, or across the desk in my office, or lounging at the student center, I talked with students one-on-one.
      Partly this research arises from a personal interest in figuring out where this interaction is headed. If religion and science are going to be with us for a while (and there’s no indication that either is going away), then minimally we’ve got to find a way for them to coexist. And who is going to lead this discussion? Put another way, who’s going to attend Christmas services (or not) in 20 years? It’s emerging adults. Or not.
      On how to relate religion and science people usually fall something into three categories: warfare (religion and science will never agree), independence (they are two different ways to look at the world that ought to go separate ways), and integration (they need to make a difference to each other.)
      The result of my study of young adults? Along with Longest and Smith, some students are hardcore adherents to what’s known in my business as the “warfare thesis.” As one student, Elaine, commented, “I think that science and religion will always be in conflict because science and religion will never be able to agree, and there are such contradicting views.” But most emerging adults I’ve interviewed, however, aren’t themselves convinced religion and science are incompatible. Instead, they’ve heard about the conflict between the two (maybe they caught Bill Nye and Ken Ham on TV or Richard Dawkins on YouTube), but individually, they are quite interested in coming to a d├ętente and not fighting a war of attrition.
      The second view, independence, is a quite reasonable response to a pluralistic and contentious world in which emerging adults are fatigued by rancor. My study indicates that students take this approach when they’re not really sure what they believe. And that’s a fairly large category.
      Finally, young adults endorse and integration of science and religion. Some recommend exploration or a creative choosing of components from each. The Buddhist-Christian-Wiccan. The hardcore biochemistry student who can’t deny that he prayed and the request was granted, but he’s not sure if it’s not simply coincidence. And continues to pray. That sort of thing.
      But many want to integrate science with reasonably standard beliefs, and some follow thought leaders like the 20th century Oxford intellectual C.S. Lewis, who knew that belief in God allowed for—even necessitated—an ability to work around laws that God himself created. In this sense, miracles like virginal conceptions and fulfilled prophecies do not, in fact, break the laws of nature. The more certain we know these law, Lewis argued, “the more clearly we know that if new factors have been introduced the results will vary accordingly.” What we don’t know if a supernatural power might not be this new factor. Nonetheless, Lewis also warned a group of Anglican priests, that Christianity must be careful about using science glibly, “Science twisted in the interests of apologetics would be a sin and a folly.” In any event, an increasing number of young adults remain such a God, or any supernatural power, exists. And that brings me to a prediction.

      If I were to predict a future based on these studies and others, I would say that the boundary between science and religion is by no means fixed and that this conversation will go on for some time. It seems then, for the short term, most Americans will go to Christmas services. The future of Christmas may depend on if they will be able to take their science with them.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Power of C. S. Lewis's Imagination

While speaking several times about C. S. Lewis recently, I’ve been asked the question of why he’s so popular. One answer seems to keep coming to mind: that Lewis doesn’t ultimately give us answers—he invites our response. And he often does that through an act of imagination.
      How? His genius imagination invites us as readers to engage our questions, grasp Lewis’s resolutions and ponder our own answers. 

      Lewis certainly learned the power of imagination as a seventeen year old. In February 1916—fifteen years before he became a Christian—Lewis first read George MacDonald’s, Phantastes, which “baptized his imagination” and impressed him with a deep sense of the “holy.” Ten years later, in 1926 Lewis read G. K. Chesterton, who led the still-atheistic Lewis to grasp “the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense.” Indeed, that is what Lewis wanted to do with his readers years later in his The Space Trilogy from the 1930s and The Chronicles of Narnia from the 1950s—to give his readers’ imagination the view of another world, even past the prejudices, the “stained glass and Sunday school associations” that bar readers from engaging Christ’s reality. Through the acts of imagination, “Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons?” Lewis asks. “I thought one could.”
      And Lewis’s imagination was so amazingly fertile and nimble. I’ve been reading The Magician’s Nephew from Narnia, and what strikes the reader—at least this reader—is how easily the ideas and narratives flowed for Lewis. Famously, this ease of writing frustrated his good friend (at the time) J. R. R. Tolkien, who fretted over every sentence and who left the narrative of Lord of the Rings for over a year dangling with Gandalf having plunged down the Mines of Moria, but not knowing what would come next.
      The argument in my book C. S. Lewis and theCrisis of a Christian is that Lewis’s life was really hard (for example, his mother’s death, two world wars, caring for an alcoholic brother, the death of his wife). But for him imagination was easy. He even spoke of the main character “Aslan bounding into” some fragmentary story ideas. And he let his imagination run with the Great Lion and see where it led. “I don’t know where the Lion came from or why He came. But once He was there He pulled the whole story together, and soon He pulled the six other Narnian stories after Hi.”
      And it’s not simply Aslan. Who of Lewis’s readers could forget Puddleglum or Lucy or Jadis or Ransom or the talking Beavers? We, I believe, are the better for that Lion and all those characters running through Lewis’s imagination and thus through ours.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

When Will a New “St. Clive” Arise?

I write this post as this Month of St. Clive is set to close. In other words, Clive Staples Lewis, patron saint for many an intellectual doubter, was born and died in November (116 and 51 years ago, respectively). 

At a presentation about my research and subsequent book on Lewis—and I extolled the virtues of his wise and winsome writing and was asked,
Why is Lewis still the one that people cite? When will a new Lewis arise?
The answer didn’t take long to formulate and still seems reasonably clear to me: That new St. Clive will have to have the intellectual goods, will have to care to translate his insights effectively, and will have to engage the imagination through story.
      First of all, a new Lewis will need to be brilliant—that’s the opening bid. He has to possess raw cerebral skills and cultural training. One of Lewis’s academic degrees at Oxford was Greats (or Literae Humaniores), the study of the best, the “greatest” of ancient philosophy and ancient history. As the Oxford scholar Alsadair McGrath points out, this program was the jewel in the crown of Oxford’s curriculum in the early 20th century, intended for its brightest lights to learn from the past as England sought to guide itself into the unknowns of a transitory century.
      Second, Lewis cared to communicate; he was a brilliant translator, which immediately presents a question of why. Why not simply stay in the fields of the academy instead of trying to write for a broader audience? I once asked well-known commentator on Lewis and founding member of the New York C. S. Lewis Society, Jim Como, about the reasons this brilliant academic didn’t just stay in the safe cocoon of Oxford University. He replied quite simply (and I paraphrase): “Because no one else was doing it, and Lewis saw it as his Christian duty.” Lewis stated this quite simply in his introduction to Mere Christianity:
Ever since I became a Christian I have thought that the best, perhaps the only, service I could do for my unbelieving neighbors was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.
This question hung around in my mind, and as I reflected further on this puzzle, I discerned another reason: Lewis simply believed that Christianity was true, and he was convinced that truth was worth arguing for.
      (By the way, he pined for others in this guide of sorts. As he wrote with palapable frustration:
People praise me as a ‘translator,’ but what I want is to be the founder of a school of ‘translation.’ I am nearly forty-seven. Where are my successors? Anyone can learn to do it if they wish...I feel I’m talking rather like a tutor – forgive me. But it is just a technique and I’m desperately anxious to see it widely learned.
Without others alongside, and sensing this critical need, he took up the task of translation and became the best-known Christian apologist of the twentieth century.)
      Third, Lewis engaged the imagination. The most enduring feature of Lewis’s legacy—and indeed that of his close friend, J.R.R. Tolkien—remains beautiful, enchanting narratives. As Lewis is put it, his imagination was “baptized” by reading George MacDonald long before he confessed faith in God or specifically in Christ. He sought to do the same.
Or put another way, if Time magazine was right to call him, not too many years ago, today’s “hottest theologian,” what else does Lewis say to us today? Lewis would tell us to engage the imagination, not simply our reasoning. St. Clive was more than willing to use fiction to present the truths of Christian life. (And, let it be said, this imagination produced the legendary Chronicles of Narnia fantasy series, which has sold about 120 million copies to date.) Here’s then a central feature of his acts of imagination: if we imagine that that God exists, what would the world look like? Or as he wrote in a 1962 letter,
Suppose there were a Narnian world and it, like ours, needed redemption. What kind of incarnation and Passion might Christ be supposed to undergo there?
That's what Lewis is fiction and even just analogies he peppered throughout his writings did. 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 factors today that have influence in our country? What I see are grand stories that we read in novels and watch in movies. (Indeed superheroes will be with us forever.)

Will new St. Clives arise? They’ll have to have the intellectual goods, an acumen for translation, and a fecund imagination. And what would Lewis say today? With fourth Chronicles of Narnia in production, maybe St. Clive is still speaking. But it would be great if he were joined by other voices.

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.