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Monday, October 09, 2006

Reason, Lewis, and the faith

Screwtape, an evil demon who is the uncle and mentor to another demon named "Wormwood" writes to him the following advice on how to deal with Wormwood's human "patient," i.e. how to keep him away from God, the Kingdom, and Church:

Are you not being a triffel naive? It sounds as if you suppose that argument was the way to keep him out of the enemies clutches. That might have been so if he had lived a few centuries earlier. At that time humans pretty well knew when a thing was proved and when it was not. And if it was proved they really believed it. They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as a result of the chain of reasoning. But what with the weekly press and other such weapons we've largely altered that. Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn't think of doctrines as primarily true or false but as "academic" or "practical" "outworn" or "contemporary," "conventional" or "ruthless," jargon, not argument is your best allie in keeping him away from the church...The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle on to the enemies own ground...By the very act of arguing you awake the patient's reason, and once it is awakened who can foresee the result. Even if a particular train of thought can be twisted so as to end in our favor, you will find that you have been strengthening in your patient the fateal habit of attending to universal things and withdrawing his attention from the stream of immediate sense experiences. Your business is to fix his attention on the stream. Teach him to call it "real life" and don't let him ask what he means by "real."....
[From chapter 1 of The Screwtape Letters]

There are a lot of interesting things in the above quote by Lewis, but one thing that strikes me is the statement that people do not connect thinking with doing, or at least they do not do so anymore: "Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head."

Now, if that was true in Lewis' day 70 years or so ago, then it is all the more true these days. In fact, it is no longer even a revelation to say so. It is the fashion these days to kind of pick and chose which beliefs to accept from a religion or philosophy and which ones are not so desirable. The illustration of the food buffet-line is often used. We go through and pick what we want and leave what we don't want. I think it is for this reason that religions today, in an attempt to take advantage of our consumer oriented culture, put their best food forward and emphasize the best of their beliefs. With Christianity, of course, we've got a lot going for us. In my opinion, we are the best deal out there!

But I digress...this quote of Lewis' also brings up the question of evangelism and apologetics: Do we make an appeal to people's reason? Or do we seek other ground, since our culture is suspicious of reason? If reason is not in fashion these days, do we let it slide and appeal to other things: community, personal healing, etc.???

In this post-modern era many are Christians critical of reason. On the other hand there are many Christians who believe that reason still rules the roost. And so the debate goes on.

For Lewis it is evident that he believes that reason is a positive appeal. The "very act of argument" is the playing field of the Christian faith. This is so much the case, says Lewis here, that even if a particular argument does not convince the unbeliever it still moves their mind on to "universal things" rather than "the stream of immediate sense experiences." So, in this sense, even when a Christian fails to convince a non-believer there is still a victory because the mind and heart have been turned to spiritual thoughts and away from the temporality of this world.

Although I have gone back and forth in my mind about the use of reason and argument and its affectiveness, I've never completely abandoned it. I think that in some way human beings are rational beings. We seem to have been born with an internal sense that things should make sense. That things ought to be coherent. The fact that things are not coherent and do not always make sense is no major rap against reason. At least I don't think so. It simply means that reason is limited and subject to frustration.

Even more so, to discover that things do not make sense is not even new to post-modern thought. In some ways it seems to be a re-discovery of an ancient theme. One of the major gripes of Qohelet (the voice of the book of Ecclesiastes) is that things should make more sense than they do: the good should be happy, the evil people should live bad lives, and people should get what they deserve. Things ought to be a certain way, but often they are not.

Perhaps Lewis is on to something and we need, in this culture of anti-reason, to imploy the use of the argument. After all, the human being is a whole person, and to deny the rational side of personhood seems to be as dangerous as to elevate reason higher than it was meant to be.


Dawn said...

My favorite CS Lewis!

Jonathan Erdman said...

The guy is a genius! He's almost too smart!

I'm listening to the Screwtape Letters right now, and it is amazing the insights that Lewis has...I haven't listened to this since I was a kid - it is about time that I get back around to it...

Sam L Carr said...

Nice post, really makes one think - reason... also enjoyed your comments at OST, helps very much in setting out the issues and focussing the discussion. I'll visit often so keep posting!

John Doyle said...

I agree that the failure to think rigorously through issues is endemic and prevents our approaching more closely to whatever truths might be available to us. And I think you're right in that people can be converted either toward or away from Christianity by devious and manipulative means.

I hesitate… and yet I must. I find C.S. Lewis to be a mean-spirited propagandist posing as a dispassionately reasonable man. Wormwood is trying to lead his “patient” away from God and toward materialism. Don’t argue for materialism, says Screwtape; use irrational means of persuasion like jargon and propaganda. “Don’t waste time trying to make him think materialism is true!” – the implication being that Christianity will win any rigorous argument about materialism. Lewis clearly means to imply that materialists haven’t really thought their position through, that they believe irrationally.

“Above all, do not attempt to use science (I mean, the real sciences) as a defence against Christianity. They will positively encourage him to think about realities he can’t touch or see.” The implication is that “real” sciences will lead the rational man to reject materialism in favor of Christianity. Lewis had some weird ideas about “real” science.” In The Abolition of Man he expresses great admiration for the science of Rudolph Steiner, the founder of theosophy and kind of a scientific crackpot – go check out his ideas on Wikipedia or elsewhere.

Lewis is Aristotelian by intellectual temperament, reasoning from first principles that are not subject to doubt. Those who do doubt the presuppositions thereby reveal themselves as morally corrupt. “From the way some of you young fiends talk, anyone would suppose it was our job to teach!” The smugness and contempt drips from every page.

And hello, Sam L Carr. I'm John Doyle at OST -- we've engaged in interesting discussions over there in the past. This time we're not on the same side, but there have been other days, and there will be other days to come...

ktismatics said...

Geez, I guess my comment on Lewis was just so outrageous there's nothing to be said -- kind of like talking to a crazy man. I once sent three long emails to an Anglican priest critiquing The Abolition of Man and heard absolutely nothing from him in reply.

Jonathan Erdman said...

John Doyle said:
...the implication being that Christianity will win any rigorous argument about materialism. Lewis clearly means to imply that materialists haven’t really thought their position through, that they believe irrationally.

My read of Lewis may differ a bit from yours...

The context of the Screwtape Letters is an Uncle tempter writing to his young nephew on the best way to keep humans away from "the enemy" (God) and eventually get them into "our father's house" (hell).

Now, I don't mean to patronize you by recounting the plot line that you obviously already know, but my point is simply to say that Lewis is crafting a scenario where the temptors are looking for the best way to keep humans from God. Hence, the advice of Uncle Screwtape will always be to guard against putting the human in situations where he or she may potentially reach out to God in spirit and in truth.

Lewis is not necessarily saying that the materialists or atheists do not have "rigorous arguments." Rather, on my reading, Lewis is simply saying that putting a human in a situation where he or she thinks rationally is more "dangerous" for the tempters because it opens humans up to ultimate issues. In short, deep thinking is shaky ground. Much better to keep a human on the temporal wave-length where he or she can focus on the senses.

Now, having said that, your real issue may simply be that you think Lewis a bit arrogant and pretentious. Perhaps he is. Or perhaps just rationally over-zealous. Either way I think it only illustrates that Lewis was a man of his time. Don't you read the same attitude in Bertrand Russell?

ktismatics said...

As a kind of outsider I find myself becoming overly contentious in order to open up certain possibilities. It seems that Lewis is universally admired within evangelicalism broadly construed. I have significant problems with Lewis -- not far off from objections most Christians would have to Sam Harris in The End of Faith (assuming any Christians ever read his book). In a way they're both high-class pamphleteers preaching to their respective choirs. I'll carry on with Screwtape for awhile and see if I can cut him a break. I'll report back later.

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