Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Hazy Grace

Up to this point, C.S. Lewis has been ostensibly building an argument in favor of miracles, but at book's end he seems to have given up trying. Having made the case (or tried) for such events, Miracles's final chapters deal with the particular miracles of the Christian faith: the Virgin Birth, the various acts of Christ, and the Resurrection and Ascension. They are less justifications than elaborations, symbolic exegeses on their relevance to the Christian doctrine as a whole. Thus they are a philosophical Rorschach test: the Christian-minded will likely find the writing transcendent; the rest of us, a curiosity.

To the materialist, for instance, asking "whether Christ was able to do these things only because He was God or also because He was perfect man" is so much angels dancing on pinheads. One may as well ask if Jesus is terrific or awesome.

This isn't to say these chapters are entirely without insight. At one point Lewis appears to hold similar opinions on the magic world of imagination as Salman Rushdie:

If we are in fact spirits, not Nature's offspring, then there must be some point (probably the brain) at which created spirit even now can produce effects on matter not by manipulation or technics but simply by the wish to do so. If that is what you mean by Magic then Magic is a reality manifested every time you move your hand or think a thought.

Except Rushdie didn't need to resort to spirits and hokum to make his point.

The problem, as always, are his premises. Lewis has made plenty of assumptions throughout the book, but the ones here at the end are truly staggering. At one point (page 208) he makes an offhand remark about clothes being a result of The Fall, which assumes there was a "first family" of Adam and Eve who lived in a primordial garden and were tempted to eat a bad apple by a talking serpent. Lewis has not yet made quarrel with evolution and cosmology, and yet he here gives credence to an obviously fantastical creation myth. Is it real, or isn't it? How is "Human death, according to the Christians... a result of human sin" when every single organism that has ever lived has died? Did The Fall really happen, or not?

Factuality is in fact of little priority to Lewis, except when it isn't. At one point he leans on Jesus's quasi-historicity:

From a certain point of view Christ is 'the same sort of thing' as Adonis or Osiris (always, of course, waiving the fact that they lived nobody knows where or when, while He was executed by a Roman magistrate we know in a year which can be roughly dated).

Later on he waves away such concerns, arguing Christianity's explanatory power makes it right:

Whether the thing really happened is a historical question. But when you turn to history, you will not demand for it that kind and degree of evidence which you would rightly demand for something intrinsically improbable; only that kind and degree which you demand for something which, if accepted, illuminates and orders all other phenomena, explains both our laughter and our logic, our fear of the dead and our knowledge that it is somehow good to die, and which at one stroke covers what multitudes of separate theories will hardly cover for us if it is rejected.

This premium of all-encompassing explanatory power over actuality is not so surprising. The book all along has been a sustained argument against Naturalism and, implicitly, empiricism and inductive reasoning. Lewis says as much in an Epilogue that is positively rife with paranoia:

And when you turn from the New Testament to modern scholars, remember that you go among them as a sheep among wolves. Naturalistic assumptions, beggings of the question such as that which I noted on the first page of this book, will meet you on every side--even from the pens of clergymen....

In using the books of such people you must therefore be continually on guard. You must develop a nose like a bloodhound for those steps in the argument which depend not on historical and linguistic knowledge but on the concealed assumption that miracles are impossible, improbable, or improper. And this means that you must really re-educate yourself: must work hard and consistently to eradicate from your mind the whole type of thought in which we have all been brought up. It is the type of thought which, under various disguises, has been our adversary throughout this book.

I'm sure my own biases keep me from noticing Richard Dawkins's or Christopher Hitchens's less subtle blots of self-righteousness, but there is something deeply troubling about someone who so ferociously insists on eradicating a particular mode of thinking, particularly that--observation--which really is the basis of how we make sense of the world. The idea that the world and our senses and judgment are not to be trusted has all the hallmarks of a cult mindset.

It's a rather nasty ending to a book which up until then was calm and measured, if not convincing, though I suppose the faithful will find it a passionate defense of faith and piety. That's relativism, which Lewis abhors, but it's the best he'll get from me. I'll have some closing thoughts on Lewis in my next post.

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