Archive for the ‘ The Christian Spirit ’ Category

Something in Us Which Is Not Temporal

Sheldon Vanauken was an American who went to Oxford in the early 1950s to study literature. He considered himself an agnostic. Although C. S. Lewis was not one of his tutors, he happened to read Lewis’s Space Trilogy—Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. Sensing in Lewis someone he might approach with his religious questions, he began sending him letters.

Explaining that he had “embarked” on a “voyage that would someday lead me to God,” he was writing to find out if Lewis, who had already “linked certainty with Christianity,” might be able to give him “a hint of how it’s to be done.”

He continued, “Having felt the aesthetic and historical appeal of Christianity, having begun to study it, I have come to awareness of the strength and ‘possibleness’ of the Christian answer. I should like to believe it. I want to know God—if he is knowable. But I cannot pray with any conviction that Someone hears. I can’t believe.”

His deepest question was how to believe, out of all the religions in the world, that just one could be true. Perhaps, he reasoned, because he lived in a ‘“real world’ of red buses and nylon stockings and atomic bombs” and had never seen an angel or heard the voice of God, that it cannot be easy to connect with Him.

Why write to Lewis? “Somehow you, in this very same world, with the same data as I, are more meaningful to me than the bishops of the faithful past. You accomplished the leap from agnosticism to faith: how?”

One might not ordinarily expect an extremely busy Oxford don to reply to a total stranger, yet Lewis saw an opportunity to aid someone’s honest quest for truth.

He began by questioning the assumption that everyone really wanted Christianity to be true. Certainly Hitler and Stalin never wished to submit to an eternal standard established by God, and most people don’t want a deity acting as judge over their actions, he asserted. They would instead, in their very heart of hearts, want to tell God to stay away from what they considered their private business.

Lewis shared that this was his own reaction early in his life, a reaction against the idea that Someone transcendent would have the right to tell him what to do.

Lewis’s thoughtful letter encouraged Vanauken to write again that same month. He wished that God would not require so much to believe; why not instead be “as clear as a sunrise or a rock or a baby’s cry?” He agreed with Lewis’s assertion that most men, not only Hitler and Stalin, “would be horrified at discovering a Master from whom nothing could be withheld. . . . Indeed, there is nothing in Christianity which is so repugnant to me as humility—the bent knee.”

He would perhaps be willing to be humbled if he knew it meant that death was not a leap into “nothingness,” and that it would mean “Materialism was Error as well as ugliness,” and “above all, that the good and the beautiful would survive.” Lewis, in response, maintained that there could be no demonstrative proof of Christianity in the same sense as a mathematical proof. He then aimed at Vanauken’s concepts of ugliness and beauty:

You say the materialist universe is “ugly.” I wonder how you discovered that! If you are really a product of a materialistic universe, how is it you don’t feel at home there?

Do fish complain of the sea for being wet? Or if they did, would that fact itself not strongly suggest that they had not always been, or wd. not always be, purely aquatic creatures?

Notice how we are perpetually surprised at Time. (“How time flies! Fancy John being grown-up & married! I can hardly believe it!”)

In heaven’s name, why? Unless, indeed, there is something in us which is not temporal.

Vanauken, through his correspondence with Lewis, became a Christian. Before he left Oxford and returned to America, he and Lewis met often face-to-face and an enduring friendship was established. “No man,” he wrote later, “ever did so much to shape my mind, quite aside from Christianity, which of course shaped my whole life. I have never loved a man more.”

Learning to Love Learning

There are a number of different critiques of the state of American education. Some are most concerned about the lack of discipline in the schools. Others decry the dumbing down of the standards. They point to the decline in scores on standardized tests such as the SAT. A lot of that decline has been hidden by the trick of “centering” the scores. For instance, a 1200 on the SAT today means a whole lot less than it meant in 1963.

Then there’s the grade inflation technique, powered in many instances by adherence to self-esteem philosophy. We wouldn’t want our students to feel bad about their lack of knowledge. We need to understand, however, that eliminating the idea of failure also undercuts success. How do you measure the latter when the former is not allowed? All of this has led to a dumbed-down society.

The problem is deeper, though. It has to do with the desire to learn. Most students, at least in my personal experience, have never developed a love of learning. This malady has multiple causes: broken families, uninspired teachers, an educational bureaucracy more concerned about its perpetual existence than the good of students [this includes the teachers’ unions], and loss of purpose in teaching. When we dismiss the Biblical worldview, we no longer have a reason to learn beyond the mundane desire to make a living. We become earthbound creatures with no vision of the heavenly.

I have a “truism” I share in class that goes like this: “Ignorance can be corrected, but apathy makes learning impossible.” I was sadly amused recently when one of our culture’s iconic comic strips captured the spirit of apathy perfectly:

One of my goals as a professor is to help students develop that essential love of learning. Christians should have it naturally. After all, who created the mind? Who gave us the ability to reason? If God went to all that trouble to make people who aren’t simply marionettes, shouldn’t we explore the grand design He established? Some of my favorites Scriptures along this line come from the book of Proverbs:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction. . . . The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.

Fear—reverence—of God is the starting point for all knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. If we have that reverence, it opens the door to a wide field of knowledge, a proper grasp of the significance of that knowledge [understanding], and the application of that knowledge to one’s life [wisdom]. What better rationale could ever be provided for developing a love of learning?

Most education in America ignores God. By doing so, it robs the individual of any solid basis for wanting to learn. Only by restoring reverence for God in our education will we have any hope of restoring education itself.

Feel-Good Beliefs vs. Dying to Self

“Christianity asserts that every individual human being is going to live forever, and this must be either true or false,” C. S. Lewis states in Mere Christianity. “Now there are a good many things which would not be worth bothering about if I were going to live only seventy years,” he continues, but concludes, “but which I had better bother about very seriously if I am going to live forever.”

The problem is that most people don’t want to think that seriously about things that matter. When it comes to the most important part of life—the issue of eternity—they would like to fall back on the various “feel-good” beliefs: “I’m not any worse than that person”; “The good I’ve done will outweigh the bad”; “A God of mercy surely wouldn’t send anyone to hell.”

The list may be endless.

Lewis would have none of that fuzzy, baseless thinking:

A vague religion—all about feeling God in nature, and so on—is so attractive. It is all thrills and no work; like watching the waves from the beach.

But you will not get to Newfoundland by studying the Atlantic, and you will not get eternal life by simply feeling the presence of God in flowers or music.

People avoid the hard issues: the presence of sin in one’s life; the guilt that accompanies it; the nagging sense that no matter what one does to push away that guilt, nothing is sufficient.

We want an easy, accountability-free existence. But that’s not reality. It wasn’t easy for Jesus to empty Himself of his Godhead and live as a man. There was nothing easy about what He suffered on our behalf. He had to go through the portals of death (physical) and a crucial moment on the cross when He was, for the first time ever, separated from the Father.

He had to die in order to be resurrected and give us the hope of eternity with God. There’s a principle here that applies to us; Lewis explains it succinctly in his “Membership” essay:

A rejection, or in Scripture’s strong language, a crucifixion of the natural self is the passport to everlasting life. Nothing that has not died will be resurrected.

There’s no getting around it: we must die to our self-centeredness. We hate the idea, but once we do it, we realize that’s where true life resides. As Lewis so poignantly puts it in “The Weight of Glory,”

We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

It’s time to stop being ignorant children.

Hell Cannot Veto Heaven

One of my favorite C. S. Lewis books is The Great Divorce. This fanciful account of a busload of occupants of hell getting an opportunity to visit heaven allows Lewis, through conversations between the passengers from hell and heavenly denizens, to discuss all the objections to the faith raised by those who reject it.

In one such discussion, Lewis deals with those who say it’s unfair that those who enter into eternal bliss should be so happy when the rest have to endure eternal torment. In the words of one of his characters, he provides this rejoinder:

What some people say on earth is that the final loss of one soul gives the lie to all the joy of those who are saved. . . .

That sounds very merciful: but see what lurks behind it. . . .

The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven.

Although we will mourn for those who selfishly chose to follow their own path rather than God’s, that cannot diminish the utter joy of living in the very presence of the Lord. Those who are hellbound have no grounds to demand we be miserable. They have made their choices; we have made ours. In one very real sense, God sends no one to hell. Here’s how Lewis expresses it, again in The Great Divorce:

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”

All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.

It all comes down to our choice. We have no one to blame but ourselves if we live a life apart from Him. And that earthly choice will go with us into eternity.

My Educational Philosophy: A Summary

As part of my tenth-year anniversary of writing Pondering Principles, I share this one again that I first wrote back in 2010. I didn’t change even one word because I still believe everything I wrote here.

As a university professor, I think a lot about what I should do in the classroom. What is the proper way to teach? How much do I let my beliefs enter into the subject? One of the biggest problems in many universities is when the classroom is used primarily as an indoctrination center for leftist ideology and all the trendy movements: multiculturalism, radical feminism, environmentalism (anyone notice an “ism” problem here?).

The response of most conservatives has been to call for a neutral classroom where, supposedly, facts are presented without any particular slant. Let the facts speak for themselves; allow the students to come up with their own rationales for what they believe. To a point, there is some truth in that approach, in that every student eventually is going to decide for themselves what they believe. But how much can the professor offer to influence those students?

I have it easier in one sense than many professors who are Christians teaching in public universities. Since I teach in an evangelical setting, there are parameters for my teaching. It’s assumed by the students that I will honor Biblical doctrines. Yet the issue remains the same since not every Christian professor applies those doctrines to their subjects in the same way.

Here’s how I explain to my students the approach that I take. First, I don’t believe that it’s possible for anyone to be totally objective in teaching. I reject the idea that education can be value-neutral. What we believe will come across in some way. Therefore, we are all subjective: our life experiences, backgrounds, and beliefs systems go with us into everything we do. This is not wrong. This is inescapable. As a Christian, I want it to be inescapable.

The late Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer said it best, I believe, when he explained,

People have presuppositions, and they will live more consistently on the basis of these presuppositions than even they themselves may realize. By presuppositions we mean the basic way an individual looks at life, his basic world view, the grid through which he sees the world. Presuppositions rest upon that which a person considers to be the truth of what exists. People’s presuppositions lay a grid for all they bring forth into the external world. Their presuppositions also provide the basis for their values and therefore the basis for their decisions.

My presuppositions are Christian. It is then natural and right that I should share those presuppositions in all I teach. Knowledge cannot be separated into some tight compartment, isolated from a person’s basic worldview. I will interpret my subject area [history, in this case] in accordance with the grid through which I see the world. What I believe to be truth will impact both what and how I teach.

There is a difference, though, between being subjective and being biased. Bias is an attitude that never allows any new information. It approaches the world with a view that all things must be squeezed into a preset idea or interpretation. If facts don’t fit this prejudgment, they must be forced to fit. Any university professor who does this is not teaching; he or she is simply trying to create ideological clones.

Do I want my students to agree with my views? Yes. But I can’t force them to agree. I have to win them over by the logic of the facts I present. I have to show them how the facts fit into my interpretation, all the while staying open myself to new information that may modify what I teach.

For instance, in American history, as much as I would like to make all the Founders into evangelical Christians, to do so would be to set aside some facts and dishonestly disseminate false information. Now, I believe the founding of America was based on Biblical thinking, for the most part, but I cannot “make” Benjamin Franklin a Christian without violating my own conscience before God.

I always keep in mind this one thing: first, I am a Christian; second, I am a professor. My overriding concern has to be the one that Jesus left as a charge for all Christians when He said,

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.

So even when I teach history, my primary goal is to ensure that the study of history will lead my students into a stronger relationship with the One for whom all of life is to be lived. I’m in the process of making disciples. If I do anything that lessens their desire to know and love God, then I am a failure.

It’s an awesome responsibility, and one that I take seriously.

Two Errors: Privatizing & Collectivizing the Faith

“No Christian and, indeed, no historian could accept the epigram which defines religion as ‘what a man does with his solitude,” began C. S. Lewis in his “Membership” essay. “It was one of the Wesleys, I think, who said that the New Testament knows nothing of solitary religion.”

Why is that? “The Church is the Bride of Christ. We are members of one another.”

Lewis continues by pointing out that modern society tries its best to confine religious beliefs and practices to the private life, and what he said in this essay decades ago is even more true today. He then notes the paradoxical nature of the “exaltation of the individual in the religious field . . . when collectivism is ruthlessly defeating the individual in every other field.”

The society of Lewis’s day, as he describes it, tried to denigrate any time for the individual as it pushed the idea of collectivism.

There is a crowd of busybodies, self-appointed masters of ceremonies, whose life is devoted to destroying solitude wherever solitude exists. . . .

If a really good home . . . existed today, it would be denounced as bourgeois and every engine of destruction would be levelled against it. And even where the planners fail and someone is left physically by himself, the wireless has seen to it that he will be . . . never less alone when alone.

We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and privacy, and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.

One wonders how much more Lewis would emphasize this if he were to witness what takes place in our day with the barrage of entertainment and social media drowning out genuine solitude and friendship. We think we are reclaiming both through social media platforms, but we may be fooling ourselves.

Both in Lewis’s day and in ours, the world “says to us aloud, ‘You may be religious when you are alone,'” yet “it adds under its breath, ‘and I will see to it that you never are alone.'”

Make Christianity a private affair and then banish all privacy is how Lewis explains that approach. Christians then fall into the trap of reacting against this “by simply transporting into our spiritual life that same collectivism which has already conquered our secular life.” He calls that “the enemy’s other stratagem.” Here’s what he means:

Like a good chess player, he is always trying to manoeuvre you into a position where you can save your castle only by losing your bishop.

In order to avoid the trap we must insist that though the private conception of Christianity is an error, it is a profoundly natural one and is clumsily attempting to guard a great truth.

Behind it is the obvious feeling that our modern collectivism is an outrage upon human nature and that from this, as from all other evils, God will be our shield and buckler.

So, we have a tendency to accept an error (collectivism) in our attempt to reject the privatization of our faith.

Collectivism is found primarily in politics. Lewis goes on to make this statement, one that I find quite appropriate to our current societal state:

A sick society must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much about his digestion; to ignore the subject may be fatal cowardice for the one as for the other. But if either comes to regard it as the natural food of the mind—if either forgets that we think of such things only in order to be able to think of something else—then what was undertaken for the sake of health has become itself a new and deadly disease.

We are a society immersed in politics. For many, it is the be-all and end-all of life. Any society in that state remains sick.

Christian faith should be our focus, not politics. Yet this faith cannot be either a private thing or a copy of secular collectivism. We lose if we go in either of those two directions. The true Body of Christ as explained in Scripture is of another nature entirely.

What is that nature? I’ll deal with that as I conclude Lewis’s thoughts in this essay in a future post.

About This Teaching Ministry

I don’t have a hard time trying to stay busy. Now I know some would question that; after all, as a university professor, I get the summers off, right? Well, I do appreciate the breather from the routine that I receive in the summers, so I agree—but only in part.

What have I done this summer? I’ve prepared for the five courses I will be teaching this fall at Southeastern University; I’ve worked on a new course I will be teaching in the spring on “Religion and the Presidents” (yes, I have to work that far ahead).

That’s all for my day job. In addition:

I’ve completed developing a class I will be teaching at my church on Wednesday evenings from September through December—that one is on C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis; I’ve attended two conferences, where I presented a paper at one (which required a lot of reading and preparation) and spoke at a church while attending the other.

I’ve also just agreed to begin teaching an adult class at my church on Sunday mornings, beginning in September.

Oh, and while teaching those five courses at SEU and teaching at my church, I’ll also be grading papers for about 30 high school students who are part of the Classical Conversations homeschool program.

Yes, I stay busy.

Keep in mind this is not a complaint. I love everything I do because it’s all wrapped up in the ministry God has given me.

In the midst of the coming fall semester, I already know, by about late October-early November, I will begin to feel overwhelmed. The temptation will be to start complaining (too much grading; too few students who really want to learn, etc.).

What I need to remember at that crucial time is that every day that I teach a class session, God have given me an opportunity to help direct the thoughts of the upcoming generation. More than that, He has given me the opportunity to demonstrate to them through my own life that God’s love reaches out to us all and that we need to respond to that love.

I’m in the same position as the apostle Paul (and all other Christians, frankly), as he reminds us in 2 Cor. 5:20:

Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

I’m not just a university professor. Most university professors are only doing a job. For me, it’s a ministry, a calling, a sober responsibility to hold out Truth to everyone who hears me.

I accept this ministry gladly. This year is my 30th year teaching at the university level. It’s been an interesting ride all those years, filled with both high points and very discouraging moments at times. Yet the calling has never been revoked.

The goal of my teaching has not changed:

To equip the saints for works of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, to equip the saints for works of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God, as we mature to the full measure of the stature of Christ.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed about by the waves and carried around by every wind of teaching and by the clever cunning of men in their deceitful scheming.

Pray for all those who have this ministry that we will be faithful to the calling.