The Greater Context of a Quintessential Lewis Quote

Nearly everyone conversant with the writings of C. S. Lewis has heard this famous quote:

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.

It’s such a striking comment that it has found a permanent place on Lewis’s commemorative stone in Westminster’s Poets Corner.

That wonderful insight is the very last sentence of Lewis’s essay called “Is Theology Poetry?” found in the collection The Weight of Glory. For me, the insights leading up to that final great insight are just as striking.

In that essay, Lewis is carefully debunking the concept of what he calls “universal evolutionism,” which imagines that all things proceed “from small beginnings to great endings, from the rudimentary to the elaborate.”

It seems to be natural in our modern world, Lewis opines, to believe that “morality springs from savage taboos, adult sentiment from infantile sexual maladjustments, thought from instinct, mind from matter, organic from inorganic, cosmos from chaos.” Lewis refers to this as “perhaps the deepest habit of mind in the contemporary world.”

Habits, however, are not necessarily right. They are merely habits. Lewis offers a counter-argument in this manner:

It seems to me immensely unplausible, because it makes the general course of nature so very unlike those parts of nature we can observe. You remember the old puzzle as to whether the owl came from the egg or the egg from the owl. The modern acquiescence in universal evolutionism is a kind of optical illusion, produced by attending exclusively to the owl’s emergence from the egg.

Well, most people might say, what’s wrong with that? Didn’t the owl emerge from that egg? Lewis continues:

We are taught from childhood to notice how the perfect oak grows from the acorn and to forget that the acorn itself was dropped by a perfect oak.

We are reminded constantly that the adult human being was an embryo, never that the life of the embryo came from two adult human beings.

We love to notice that the express engine of today is the descendant of the “Rocket”; we do not equally remember that the “Rocket” springs not from some even more rudimentary engine, but from something much more perfect and complicated than itself—namely, a man of genius.

Conclusion? “The obviousness or naturalness which most people seem to find in the idea of emergent evolution thus seems to be a pure hallucination.”

Lewis then distinguishes science, which tells us a lot about the universe in which we live, from a scientific cosmology that tries to explain everything, even Christianity. That just doesn’t work for Lewis.

If . . . I swallow the scientific cosmology as a whole, then not only can I not fit in Christianity, but I cannot even fit in science. 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.

How does one trust one’s own thoughts if they are simply the result of that “meaningless flux of the atoms”?

Lewis then draws his essay to a close by comparing the dreaming world from the waking world.

The waking world is judged more real because it can thus contain the dreaming world; the dreaming world is judged less real because it cannot contain the waking one.

For the same reason I am certain that in passing from the scientific points of view to the theological, I have passed from dream to waking. Christian theology can fit in science, art, morality, and the sub-Christian religions. The scientific point of view cannot fit in any of these things, not even science itself.

And this then brings us back to where we started.

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.

Yes, those wonderful words can stand by themselves, but they take on even greater significance when we understand the greater context in which Lewis writes them.

Lewis & the Omnicompetent State (Part 1)

C. S. Lewis 13C. S. Lewis often protested that he had no interest in or taste for politics. What he really meant by that was the type of politics he imbibed growing up in a Belfast suburb, listening to his father discuss with friends the nature of the local and national politics of his Irish/English homeland. Was it the pettiness that turned him against political discussion or the boredom he suffered from those overheard conversations? Whatever the cause, he normally abhorred purely political discussions.

Yet there is a clear distinction that must be drawn between politics per se and the principles of governing a civil society. That second topic interested Lewis considerably, and he commented often, both in his published works and in letters, particularly to Americans, on the subject of government. He was quite direct in his statements on the tendency of civil government to take upon itself too much power over individuals’ lives.

Lewis’s 1937 novel, Out of the Silent Planet, is arguably his first foray into commentary on an elite that seeks to use science and government to attain absolute control over a society, but it’s not until the 1940s that he begins to stress that theme more frequently.

For instance, in his 1943 essay, “The Poison of Subjectivism,” he takes aim at a self-appointed societal leadership that wants to plan everyone’s lives minutely. “Many a popular ‘planner’ on a democratic platform, many a mild-eyed scientist in a democratic laboratory means, in the last resort, just what the Fascist means,” Lewis opined. “He believes that ‘good’ means whatever men are conditioned to approve. He believes that it is the function of him and his kind to condition men; to create consciences by eugenics, psychological manipulation of infants, state education and mass propaganda.”

In that same essay, he critiques the qualities voters are beginning to look for in political leaders: vision, dynamism, and creativity. Instead, he urges that we turn from a government-created “good” and return to God’s absolutes. In doing so, we would then value more highly “virtue, knowledge, diligence, and skill.” He concludes, “Give me a man who will do a day’s work for a day’s pay, who will refuse bribes, who will not make up his facts, and who has learned his job.”

The preceding comments come from the paper I presented at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s retreat last weekend. For the next few Saturdays I’ll continue to share thoughts from that paper.

Lewis: Nature Is Our Sister, Not Our Source

NatureC. S. Lewis, in a number of his works, both books and essays, comments on the nature of Nature. Some people, he says, think that Nature is all there is, and that we simply spring out of this mechanistic, impersonal “thing.” Yet, as he reminds his readers continually, how can one even trust that conclusion if one’s own reasoning ability comes from this mechanistic, impersonal source? In an essay called “On Living in an Atomic Age,” he writes,

If Nature when fully known seems to teach us (that is, if the sciences teach us) that our own minds are chance arrangements of atoms, then there must have been some mistake; for if that were so, then the sciences themselves would be chance arrangements of atoms and we should have no reason for believing in them.

Why trust what science (both real and pseudo) tells us if there is no basis for trusting one’s own reasoning? After all, if there is no Intelligence behind our existence, what can we really know for sure? He continues,

There is only one way to avoid this deadlock. We must go back to a much earlier view. We must simply accept it that we are spirits, free and rational beings, at present inhabiting an irrational universe, and must draw the conclusion that we are not derived from it. We are strangers here. We come from somewhere else.

No matter how much “at home” we may think we are in the world around us, there is this nagging feeling, this sensation, that this is really quite temporary, and that our place in it is only a passing stage of what we call “life”:

C. S. Lewis 8Nature is not the only thing that exists. There is “another world,” and that is where we come from. And that explains why we do not feel at home here. A fish feels at home in the water. If we “belonged here” we should feel at home here. All that we say about “Nature red in tooth and claw,” about death and time and mutability, all our half-amused, half-bashful attitude to our own bodies, is quite inexplicable on the theory that we are simply natural creatures.

Even as he stated in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, and repeated in Mere Christianity, how, if there is nothing outside of Nature, can we have any idea of right and wrong? “If there is no straight line elsewhere,” Lewis notes, “how did we discover that Nature’s line is crooked?”

So what is the real nature of this Nature that surrounds us? He concludes,

What, then, is Nature, and how do we come to be imprisoned in a system so alien to us? Oddly enough, the question becomes much less sinister the moment one realizes that Nature is not all. Mistaken for our mother, she is terrifying and even abominable. But if she is only our sister—if she and we have a common Creator—if she is our sparring partner—then the situation is quite tolerable.

Nature is not our enemy; Nature is not our source of anything; Nature is merely the creation of God as much as we are. We are in this together.

Lewis: Logic the Cornerstone

Some people think that scientific knowledge is somehow better than other types of knowledge. While it’s true that the scientific method is important, we need to have the proper perspective. I think C. S. Lewis provides that in an address he gave during WWII that showed up later in a collection of his essays as “De Futilitate”:

C. S. Lewis 1The physical sciences, then, depend on the validity of logic just as much as metaphysics or mathematics. If popular thought feels “science” to be different from all other kinds of knowledge because science is experimentally verifiable, popular thought is mistaken.

Experimental verification is not a new kind of assurance coming in to supply the deficiencies of mere logic. We should therefore abandon the distinction between scientific and non-scientific thought.

The proper distinction is between logical and non-logical thought. I mean, the proper distinction for our present purpose: that purpose being to find whether there is any class of thoughts which has objective value, which is not merely a fact about how the human cortex behaves.

For that purpose we can make no distinction between science and other logical exercises of thought, for if logic is discredited science must go down with it.

I think this is important to grasp because sometimes those of us who are not in the narrowly defined field of science may be tempted to think our thought processes are somehow inferior to “pure science.” Not at all. If we become proficient in basic logic, we have the cornerstone for all understanding. In fact, those too focused on a narrow definition of science can often be tunnel-visioned, and cannot provide real answers for life.

So don’t feel inferior, but do everything you can to develop your powers of thought. The Christian faith is not an emotion; it begins with a reasoning that flows logically: man is sinful; sin destroys the relationship with God and others; God intervened in human history to provide a way to redeem those relationships; if we turn from sin and turn to Him, we can be restored.

Pure science can’t reveal that, and even pure science is dependent on clear, logical thinking.