The Benefit of the Doubt

A blog about Dialogue, Doubts, and Christian Faith ~Travis Dickinson~

CS Lewis and Believing in the Sun Rise

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C.S. Lewis once said:

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

Even though this is one of my all-time favorite C.S. Lewis quotes, I’m a bit embarrassed to say I’ve never looked closely at the context of the quote. It doesn’t come from any of his more popular works. Rather it comes as the closing line in an invited paper presented to the Oxford Socratic Club, entitled “Is Theology Poetry?”

This is a wonderful essay. We get in it a nod towards a number of arguments for which Lewis is famous. For example, he gives a version of his argument from reason and his trilemma, at least sort of (he only mentions lunatic or God). Having not chosen the title question himself, he, like a good philosopher, begins by clarifying the question. He takes the question to be asking:

Does Christian Theology owe its attraction to its power of arousing and satisfying our imaginations? Are those who believe it mistaking aesthetic enjoyment for intellectual assent, or assenting because they enjoy?

In other words, is Christianity such a compelling story that we assent primarily because of the story and the myth (in the technical sense) it affords? This is interesting because Lewis has inspired a generation of apologists to consider a person’s imagination and deep longings in doing apologetics. Today people are talking about “imaginative apologetics.” So if we’d expect anyone to say that it all turns on the imagination, it would be Lewis. But he doesn’t. In fact, he says as mere poetry or mere story, Christianity isn’t the top of his list of best stories. Moreover, the idea that people come to Christianity primarily because of its attractiveness is, for Lewis, completely far-fetched. He says:

The charge that Theology is mere poetry, if it means that Christians believe it because they find it, antecedently to belief, the most poetically attractive of all world pictures, thus seems to me unplausible in the extreme.

Instead, what sets this story as unique, for Lewis, is its historicity. It’s being grounded in evidence makes it like no other view in all the world. Now I don’t think Lewis would say the story is uninteresting or completely vapid. It’s a big story. It’s an even bigger idea (see my post Christianity is the biggest idea I know). But as a pure story, for Lewis, there are bigger and better.

But it is not just its historicity that leads us to embrace Christianity. Lewis goes on to identify the importance of the Christian worldview for making sense of the reality. At one point, with full Lewisian wit and charm, he says:

The picture so often painted of Christians huddling together on an ever narrower strip of beach while the incoming tide of “Science” mounts higher and higher corresponds to nothing in my own experience.

Now the reason Lewis wasn’t bothered by current science was that the naturalistic and scientistic worldview that reigned in his day and still is, in many ways, alive and well rules out Christianity, but it also rules out science itself. This is Lewis’s argument from reason. The gist of the argument is that there is a radical inconsistency in this naturalistic worldview. It holds reason in its highest regard and yet its ontology doesn’t allow for reason to exist. Lewis says:

If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees.

In fact, it seems that science and reason makes better sense on a Christian theistic picture. On the Christian view, we are not mere atoms in flux. We are embodied souls. Thus, we can make sense of mind (which has immaterial mental states like thoughts) over and above the brain (which only has physical states like biochemistry and neural activity). Now there may be other views in the philosophy of mind that can make sense of reason. However, if we are embodied souls, then we have a plausible framework for explaining mental reasoning. The Christian worldview also makes sense of such things like existence and fine tuning of the universe, moral and other objective value claims, consciousness, intrinsic human value, our sense of cosmic purpose, our fallenness and our deepest longings. Thus, we may believe in Christianity not just because we’ve had a direct encounter with the Trinitarian God, but also because it allows us to understand the world in which we live.

Thus, Lewis concludes:

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

 

 

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