Thursday, October 30, 2008

My Apologies (not my apologetic!)

Sorry dear readers, but I am out of country. I will continue next week. Thank you for your patience.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

C.S. Lewis and Changing the Plausibility Structure

Two areas of apologetic activity by C.S. Lewis are little known any more, yet they occupied a great deal of his time. The first is live debating. Every week, he met with what was called the Socratic Club at Oxford and debated atheists. He writes of exhausting the phonebooks looking for atheists to debate because after awhile they did not wish to come. Well, to be honest, who would? With his baritone voice, quick wit and mastery of literature and philosophy, Lewis was a formidable opponent by any measure. But, like Francis Schaeffer who engaged in thousands of evangelistic conversations with students, Lewis demonstrated in the debates that Christianity was not to be simply blown off, but had to be seriously engaged by anyone who styled themselves as an honest thinker.

I really believe that debate and engagement is an area that has not been adequately explored in Canada, especially on university campuses. While there has been some, usually sponsored by Inter Varsity, there is room for much more aggressive action here. The results might not be immediately apparent, but in the long run, it would enable Christians to engage the pretensions of atheism in a direct way once again.

The other area not fully appreciated is his professional writing as a scholar of medieval and renaissance literature. Works such as his magisterial study of allegory (The Allegory of Love) and his study of Paradise Lost are consciously written as a Christian, but marvelously meet all the criteria to be taken with absolute seriousness by the scholarly community. Two things come to mind in how he used his scholarly writings as an apologetic tool.

First, he sought, as always, to build the Christian worldview. As an example, in his book The Discarded Image he portrays the worldview of the medieval times and how that affected its literature. As he discusses this, the contrasts with the worldview of the twentieth century become painfully obvious.

At the same time, he loves to debunk cultural lies in these writings. I might add that in common use one might say “debunk myths,” only that use of the term “myth” would probably be offensive to him. For example, in several places he refutes the concept that people in the first century and afterwards considered the world to be flat. And on it went. He truly believed that Satan had embedded many lies into cultural discourse to make it difficult for the truth of Christianity to be perceived. In truth, what Lewis was doing in this part of his project was trying to re-do the plausibility structure of which Newbigin speaks. He was not content to simply work within the twentieth century plausibility structure, he wanted to change it. Thus, in a number of places, he calls for Christians in every profession to remember that they are Christians when they write, whether they are scientists or professors in the humanities. He earnestly felt this would do more in the long run than any other effort.

This, of course, leaves us to ask if his challenge has been taken up. There is now a flowering of evangelicals in academia. I myself have not, and am not able, to peruse their writings, or even to sample them. But in my own small way, I would echo Lewis’ call to write consciously as Christians, for in this way, slowly, you contribute to a paradigm shift in the cultural understanding of plausibility.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Imagination -- Opening a Door to The Holy

The power of the imagination as a pathway for God was something C. S. Lewis would testify to from first- hand experience. Before he was a Christian he purchased a paperback copy of George MacDonald’s Phantastes and, in his words, experienced holiness. What he meant was not sanctity in the sense of moral goodness, but holiness as spoken of by Otto in The Idea of the Holy. Otto spoke of holiness as that sense that we have of something absolutely OTHER. The awareness that there is something, or Someone, behind the world as we ordinarily experience it. From that moment when Lewis had this experience he began to travel a road that led him finally to Christ.

Soon after his conversion Lewis forayed into imaginative writing with the allegory The Pilgrim’s Regress. Personally I love this book, partly because it is a veiled autobiography of Lewis’ spiritual-intellectual journey up to that point, and partly because it contains so many barbed critiques of the English intellectual landscape of the 1930’s, barbs that still have not lost their edge.

Regress was imaginative, but the best was yet to come. From 1938 on through the mid-fifties Lewis blew the doors off beginning with Out of the Silent Planet and moving on in rapid succession to both Perelandra and The Screwtape Letters. Screwtape put Lewis on the cover of Time Magazine and brought him international readership and fame. And yet The Chronicles of Narnia still lay ahead.

What needs to be considered is that all of this was part of his intentional work as an apologist. He believed that there are certain archetypes in the universe and that these form the foundation of our thinking. These archetypes find their expressions in myths. (It should be noted that Lewis claimed to be an expert in myth, and he did not believe that the Gospels were myth.) Thus, myth could carry truth about God to a person who might even be hostile to the truth on another intellectual level. And one of the results might be that the reader will have an experience of The Holy as he himself had had when he read Phantastes. It is worthwhile to mention here that his fellow member of The Inklings, J. R. R. Tolkien, agreed with this approach.

It is hard to measure the impact of these imaginative works on the minds and hearts of millions of readers. Certainly they have reached a mass audience through film that either Lewis or Tolkien would have found hard to believe. But, do they point people to Christ?

To answer that question we have to go back to the train platform where Lewis first picked up Phantastes. He never claimed that it pointed him to Christ. What he claimed was that it unexpectedly opened up his mind to a new dimension of reality, and that once his mind was thus opened he could not resist the gradual intrusion of a presence who brought to him the greatest surprise of his life – joy.

Since the time of Lewis and Tolkien there has been a profusion of fantasy/imaginative writing in pop culture. Some of it has been quite good. Some of it carries a Christian worldview. And, some, like the Philip Pullman trilogy, promotes atheism. In Canada, and in the world, we await the rise of more writers who will effectively carry on the groundbreaking work of Lewis and Tolkien, writers who will tell stories that open the door of the mind and heart to The Holy.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Complete Apologist

I have been invited to introduce Ravi Zacharias when he gives a lecture on apologetics at Tyndale University in Toronto in 2010. I am honored to do this. From time to time Ravi graciously recalls conversations that we have had together about C. S. Lewis. They began when we sat together once on an airplane and I commented how wherever I went, when I spoke on evangelism or apologetics, almost inevitably someone would come up to me afterwards and testify about how they had come to Christ by reading C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.
I would call C. S. Lewis the complete apologist. In his day he practiced apologetics in every way that it could be done. He not only saw it as an intellectual activity, but as spiritual warfare. Furthermore, when I say he practiced apologetics in every way it could be done, I mean that not only did he practiced the defense of the faith on a wide intellectual front, also he opened up a new area of apologetics when he ventured into addressing the foundational structures of thinking which psychologist Carl Jung was labeling as myth. And more, he also aggressively used more than one way of delivering his apologetic to the marketplace rather than to the limited academy. In this he moved beyond apologetics as pre-evangelism to evangelism itself. And, in so doing he clearly understood that he was conducting spiritual warfare.
My own debt to Lewis cannot be overstated. Simply put, my ministry career has been one of protracted reading of most of what he has written.
In previous blogs I have noted that key evangelical apologists have followed the path of logical refutation of atheistic assaults on Christianity with variations on theistic arguments. In spite of the claim that post-modern thought rejects this line of defense, I have pointed out that the current aggressive atheistic arguments that have reached a mass audience follow the classic line from Hume to the present and that the response by current apologists are well done and well deserved.
Certainly C. S. Lewis considered himself part of this company. He wrote a number of carefully thought out apologetic essays and two closely argued books, Miracles and The Problem of Pain. In a previous blog I mentioned Alvin Plantiga’s argument against naturalism published in the summer 2008 issue of Books and Culture. Of interest is that he says that he is building on the argument which C. S. Lewis put forward in Miracles.
These two show Lewis’ instinct for the issues of the day, day here meaning the entire 20th century and at least the beginning of the 21st. Why is there pain? Why do people suffer? Could not an infinite God who also loves have made it so that we all lived happily? And, attached to the last question is the denial of the possibility of God, who by definition is outside the natural system. Lewis takes these questions on directly. In Miracles and PofP Lewis aggressively asserts that the presence of pain is not something that is incompatible with the existence of God and that Hume made serious errors in asserting that God could not at once be outside the natural system but act within it.
Personally I think these are wonderful books. I have read each a number of times and each time I have been encouraged and strengthened. Further, they are works that do not allow a person to think of Christianity in an off-handed manner, as something that may be contemplated outside of oneself, but point the reader toward encounter. This is especially so in the final chapter of Pain where Lewis opens the discussion of heaven, a discussion carried forward imaginatively in both Perelandra and The Great Divorce. To be honest, I do not know of a single writer who has written about heaven with the power that Lewis has. To read all of his writings on that fair land is to be filled with longing, or, as he might put it, to recognize the longing that fills our every waking moment.
However, back to my conversation with Ravi Zacharias, I have never had anyone tell me that they came to Christ because they read either Miracles or The Problem of Pain. Instead they tell me that they came to Christ because they read Mere Christianity.
Mere Christianity is the next step in understanding Lewis as the complete apologist. It is a compellation of addresses given over the BBC during World War II. One can almost hear air raid sirens in the background as one reads thinly veiled attacks on the world view of the Nazi’s. However it is so much more than a morale booster, even though apparently that is what some at BBC originally had in mind. It is a straightforward presentation of Christianity.
Here Newbigin comes back to mind. Lewis does not feel that somehow he should get people to “accept Jesus” and then, down the road, teach them the basics of Christian doctrine. Rather, he teaches doctrine, and then from within the doctrine the listener/reader is expected to see the whole truth and how she personally is part of that truth.
Most of us are familiar with this work. It begins with what is known as the moral argument for the existence of God. I feel that this is a very powerful argument and attempts to overcome it by arguing that “we can be good without God” because morality can be explained with evolution are in fact answered by Lewis and the answers resonate with many. Lewis moves on into Christian morality, with a discussion of such things as marriage, sin, forgiveness, incarnation and the Trinity, to mention a few. One of my favorite quotes is as follows:
Very well then, atheism is too simple. And I will tell you another view that is also too simple. It is the view I call Christianity-and-water, the view which simply says there is a good God in Heaven and everything is all right—leaving out all the difficult and terrible doctrines about sin and hell and the devil, and the redemption. Both of these are boys’ philosophies. (Mere Christianity, Chapter 2, 1st paragraph)
It is, he is saying, the very complexity of Christianity, and Christianity’s willingness to face the hard reality of life that commends it. And all of this is aimed at the cabdriver, the mother, and the young teen ready to leave for basic training, as they quietly sat by the radio in the evening. No one really knows how many thousands have turned to Christ because of this one work.
And yet, he did not stop here. He pushed out into totally uncharted territory for apologetics; he pushed out into the sea of imagination.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Defending the Factuality of the Resurrection

Newbigin’s third point is also worthy of consideration. It is the attempt, as he puts it, “to neutralize any affirmation of the truth.” It is the contention, almost accepted as a truism in our day, “that the truth is much greater than any one person or any one religious tradition can grasp.” Thus, when this is accepted the exclusive claim of Jesus Christ, and of the gospel, can be immediately discounted, for even if it is accepted as truth the gospel may only be a segment of a much larger truth.
Clearly it is this assumption of the post-modern world that creates the possibility and the plausibility of the “pluralist society.” And, every single person who is seriously seeking to communicate the gospel in Canada today is aware that this assumption is a foundation of the contemporary Canadian worldview.
Newbigin takes some time to dismantle the credibility of this assumption, and does it masterfully by showing that the claim to relativity requires a claim to actually know full reality. The question we have to face is this: how does one speak when a commitment to relativism is part of the plausibility structure of the person to whom one is speaking?
Newbigin’s answer is to stand with the unbelieving neighbor and look at events which the believer sees as communicating God’s actions and will, and to ask the unbelieving neighbor: “stand here with me and see if you don’t see the same pattern as I do.” As an example he calls our attention to the liberal theological interpretation of the resurrection as found in the last century. In an attempt to make the resurrection story “acceptable to contemporary thought” it was explained as something that was generated by the pre-existing faith of the disciples. In other words, nineteenth century liberalism said that the disciples so believed in Jesus, that after he died they interpreted their belief by means of the story of the resurrection. This, Newbigin brilliantly points out, is the exact opposite of what the Gospel writers present. They present disciples snared in unbelief who are brought to belief by the reality of the resurrection.
I would only add here that in relating the story to audiences the disciples also squarely faced the challenge that they were delusional, that they were mistaken, had only seen a vision or an apparition, that they had lied and actually moved the body, or that Jesus was not really dead and had merely recovered after swooning. In short, every objection to the veracity of the resurrection account from either a Hebrew or Greco/Roman perspective was answered. Thus they recognized that it was incumbent upon them as witnesses to establish by means of all accepted criteria that the resurrection was a fact.
So, my first conclusion is that I agree with Newbigin that “we have no reason to be frightened” by the fact that relativism is part of the plausibility structure of our day. Relativism cannot stand up logically. However, that is not enough in itself, for the concept of relativism has power in spite of the fact that it is snared in a logical fallacy.
I believe that the old apologetic practices of proofs and evidences as they arise from the biblical narrative must still be used. If they are not then we will be perceived as offering a story that only gives a perspective on a greater truth. Instead we must make it clear that the narrative of the resurrection is the core narrative that explains and gives coherence to all of history, including the personal history of my unbelieving neighbor.
Having said that I must further make it clear what I am not saying. I am not saying that giving the proofs and evidences for the resurrection constitute in any way the whole work of apologetics and/or evangelism. Instead, I am saying that before we invite our neighbor to stand and look at the narratives of God’s saving actions and to consider that the Bible brings a new way of understanding and interpreting life, we must be ready to defend the reality of that perspective by defending the factuality of the narrative, i.e., the factuality of the resurrection.