Lewis, was a good man, and a wise man,
but wrong, terribly wrong, in regard to the respective places he gave to science and religion. I would say even that Lewis was too much a Christian, at least from the time of his own conversion in 1929, and his being too much a Christian, a believer, led him to see
not the old world in which he grew up, but rather the new world of modern science which he saw taking shape around him, and in particular the uni/multiverse described by the cosmologists, while spectacular, —as a horribly, terribly empty, boundless space where God’s presence was not to be felt. (see “The Empty Universe” in Lewis’ occasional writings, Present Concerns.)
Had Lewis never had a conversion, had he remained an atheist he might have then “believed” in the new world of science and have seen therein more truth and beauty than was to be found in the old world of his youth, and he might have used his own exceptional rhetorical skills to describe that new world, the world of the founding fathers of science, of Galileo, Newton, and Albert Einstein, the world of many of his own friends probably at Oxford and Cambridge.
For then he might have, much as did Carl Sagan and the countless others, whose works were describing in great, beautiful detail the new, the uni/multiverse out there as well as the earth’s no less beautiful and extraordinary evolutionary history. The works of these men, scientists, writers, and writer scientists, are the fitting and proper replacements for the beautiful, imaginative but no longer relevant works of the Middle Ages, those no less significant works at the time of which Lewis himself never wanted to let go. Lewis somehow, for whatever reason, remained in the past. This was at once his greatness, but also his great failure, the failure not to see what was coming if religion was not put in its proper place.
But there is much to be said in his favor, for in many regards Lewis was a great man. As has been often said Lewis was the classicists’ classicist. A celebrity in his own right. I, a mostly nobody, really am without a soap box of my own on which to stand and say even a single word about him, let alone a critical word. So allow me here to at least acknowledge Lewis’ many and real accomplishments. I take the following from, The Official Website of C.S.Lewis:
Clive Staples Lewis (1898–1963) was one of the intellectual giants of the twentieth century and arguably one of the most influential writers of his day. He was a Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Oxford University until 1954, when he was unanimously elected to the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University, a position he held until his retirement.
Lewis wrote more than thirty books, allowing him to reach a vast audience, and his works continue to attract thousands of new readers every year. C. S. Lewis’s most distinguished and popular accomplishments include Mere Christianity, Out of the Silent Planet, The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, and the universally acknowledged classics in The Chronicles of Narnia. To date, the Narnia books have sold over 100 million copies and been transformed into three major motion pictures.
My own skepticism, my criticism of Lewis and others like him, I would with greater legitimacy direct to the largest group of Christians in America, the Evangelicals, for whom, although I don’t know this, Lewis is probably a hero. It does seem that to some extent the views of the Evangelicals, now some fifty years after the death of Lewis, are changing. Although probably not yet do they recognize, what Lewis himself always refused to admit, or at least acknowledge, the harm that their “mere Christianity” might be doing to the country and the world.
Anyway here’s what they, or at least one of them, is saying: for they do not speak with just one voice. But not yet are they speaking about the really thrilling discoveries of science, of the size and the origin of the cosmos, of the evolutionary history of birds and mammals, of the origin of us, of all the still great mysteries of science that the men and women of science are bringing to our attention, the quantum theory that no one understands, dark matter, dark energy, gravitational waves…
We evangelicals must accept that our beliefs are now in conflict with the mainstream culture. We cannot change ancient doctrines to adapt to the currents of the day. But we can, and must, adapt the way we hold our beliefs — with grace and humility instead of superior hostility. The core evangelical belief is that love and forgiveness are freely available to all who trust in Jesus Christ. This is the “good news” from which the evangelical name originates (“evangelion” is a Greek word meaning “glad tidings” or “good news”). Instead of offering hope, many evangelicals have claimed the role of moral gatekeeper, judge and jury. If we continue in that posture, we will continue to invite opposition and obscure the “good news” we are called to proclaim.
But my “present concern,” one of them anyway, is something else. It goes back to the words of Jeff Schweitzer in my previous post, “As we witness yet again the brutal and bloody consequences of religious intolerance in the form of ISIS, we have a majority of Republicans pining for a Christian America. Proponents of converting the United States into a theocracy do not see the terrible parallel between religious excess in the Middle East and here at home, but they would not because blindness to reason is the inevitable consequence of religious zealotry.”
Science and religion are not at all the same, and history tells us clearly, although Lewis didn’t see it, nor Billy Graham, nor the millions of evangelical Christians since then and now, that science has better answers than religion to the questions that concern us the most, the three questions of Paul Gauguin, for example, D’ou Venons Nous, Que Sommes Nous, et Où Allons Nous. And if you put these three together you have much the same question that Art Buchwald, when he was about to die and eating yet another icecream Sunday, asked– “What’s It All About, Alfie?”
I’ve come to my own conclusion that science has more to say about this than religion. While religion has only belief science has the truth to be obtained from careful observation and measurement. What would you rather have, while building a house, or doing anything else? Isn’t the answer obvious? Reason not belief is what we should rely on.
Our greatest problem, right now, today, is that a majority of Americans are still turning to religion, totally unlike the Founding Fathers themselves as Schweitzer makes clear in his article. Our leaders for the most part, rather than turning to science for answers, are still looking for far out answers, in the Bible, the Koran, probably in the sacred books of the Eastern religions as well, not to mention astrology and fortune telling. One result of this being that many of our citizens, many of our people are being condemned because of something that was written thousands of years ago in a now mostly irrelevant and ancient text. Our leaders are not turning to reason, perhaps man’s greatest natural gift, but to feelings, emotions, opinions, and in the worst instances, bigotry and ideology for answers.
The result is that many, not without good reason, including Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens (the three plus one atheists) see religion, not science, as the greatest existential threat not only to our country, but to the world, to civilization itself. Would that CS Lewis, for all that he did see, that was just and right, had seen this coming. He might have helped to change the way that true believers believed, and thereby grow our hope for the future.