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.

Teaching the Controversial Civil War Era

For the 6th time in my tenure at Southeastern, this fall I will be teaching my course on the Civil War Era. The topic is one of intense interest for many students, albeit one of continuing controversy. I do my best to deal fairly with those controversies—this is a part of American history that still lingers with us today.

It’s not merely a course that describes battles. Rather, it begins with a discussion of issues that led to the conflict: slavery and race relations and interpretation of the formation of the nation and the proper role of states’ rights.

At the start of the course, students are reading two books alternately. One is an excellent detailing of the furor over runaway slaves, the abolitionist movement, and the development of the Underground Railroad.

Ann Hagegorn’s Beyond the River tells that story, but with a special emphasis on the role of Rev. John Rankin, a leader in the abolitionist crusade.

Never heard of his name? You wouldn’t be alone. Modern accounts give more attention to the primary attention-getter of the abolitionists, William Lloyd Garrison. Yet Rankin, at the time, might be considered the premier abolitionist, particularly since he was attacking slavery from his Christian beliefs, unlike Garrison, who was not an evangelical.

Rankin lived in Ripley, Ohio, just on the freedom side of the Ohio River. His house on the hill was a beacon of freedom for slaves seeking to escape the South. It was a beacon in more than figurative language; Rankin always put a light in the window at night so the slaves could see where they needed to go.

Rankin’s house, therefore, for many, was the first stop on the Underground Railroad.

Hagedorn’s book is the best type of narrative history, as the reader is drawn into the lives of people; it’s a living narrative, not a dusty tome of facts.

The other book students read simultaneously is Mark Noll’s The Civil War As a Theological Crisis. This one is a must-read, since it lays out both sides in the emerging conflict and shows how Christians took opposing points of view on the issue of slavery, with both attempting to use Scripture for their support.

In one sense, it is a difficult book because it forces readers to deal with a deep divide between Christians and their interpretation of Scripture. Yet that’s precisely why it is so important for this course. We need to understand where people are coming from when we disagree with them. We can’t simply denounce everyone who has a different belief when they are seemingly using Scripture as their basis.

Both of these books provide the background for the war itself. I make good use of Ken Burns’s classic documentary on the Civil War for many of the battle details, along with my PowerPoint slides to emphasize key points. Besides battles, though, there were the political maneuverings throughout the war that were just as significant.

A book that portrays the opening stages of the conflict is Adam Goodheart’s (yes, that’s his real name) 1861: The Civil War Awakening.

This book is a latecomer to my course, but a most welcome addition, as it continues the fine narrative quality that the Hagedorn book gives the students. They are taken into the intimate lives of those affected by the outbreak of the war in the same manner as they have previously been introduced to the historical figures involved with abolitionism.

One of my goals is always to give students books that keep their attention. 1861 does that admirably.

The same can be said of a book that I’ve used every time I’ve taught this course: Jay Winik’s April 1865: The Month That Saved America. No superlatives can adequately describe how well written this book is. Even though the title suggests nothing outside of that particular month, in actuality, it offers all the background necessary to understand why the book has as its subtitle, The Month That Saved America.

By the time students finish reading Winik, they grasp, perhaps for the first time, how differently things might have turned out without some key decisions that were made during that crucial month, especially considering the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Speaking of Lincoln, no, I don’t minimize his role, although my recitation of the books I’m using may seem to indicate that. The final book for the course is very Lincoln-centered. Ronald White’s Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural delves into the mind of Lincoln in a comprehensive way, in particular, his spiritual growth during the agony of the war.

Lincoln’s religious beliefs have always been a fertile field of study and interpretation for historians, and, naturally, there is disagreement. What White accomplishes is a step-by-step account of how Lincoln’s views of God and Scripture led him to write the specific words we see in that second inaugural, which has been called, with credibility, the most theologically oriented address ever given by a president. And it was not a speechwriter who cobbled it together; it all came directly from Lincoln’s own meditations.

The Civil War Era was a tragic time in American history, but there is much we can learn from it and apply today. Teaching a course like this is not just some listing of battles; rather, it’s an opportunity to meditate deeply ourselves about the impact Christians can make in the world and how the events from this era still reach down to our society now.

Lewis on Gnat-Straining & Camel-Swallowing

I’m not a seminary-trained theologian. Everything I’ve learned about Scripture is the result of deep personal interest inspired by a desire to get closer to the One behind the Scripture. That’s why, as a young man just out of college (with a degree in radio, TV, and film production), I spent countless hours with a cassette-based course learning Koine Greek. (Anybody remember cassettes?)

Some might say that I shouldn’t be so theological in my commentary because I don’t have the official stamp of approval from an institution that grants degrees in religion. I prefer C. S. Lewis’s perspective when he noted, “One is sometimes (not often) glad not to be a great theologian; one might so easily mistake it for being a good Christian.”

C. S. Lewis 8Knowledge about theology is not the same as knowledge of God. Lewis details the temptations that can come to those who feel they have attained some type of exalted status:

The temptations to which a great philologist or a great chemist is exposed are trivial in comparison. When the subject is sacred, proud and clever men may come to think that the outsiders who don’t know it are not merely inferior to them in skill but lower in God’s eyes; as the priests said (John 7:49), “All that rabble who are not experts in the Torah are accursed.”

How ironic that devotion to learning about the God of love and unrivaled humility should lead us to the opposite end of the spectrum. Lewis notes that “as this pride increases, the ‘subject’ or study which confers such privilege will grow more and more complicated.” He goes on:

The list of things forbidden will increase, till to get through a single day without supposed sin becomes like an elaborate step-dance, and this horrible network breeds self-righteousness in some and haunting anxiety in others.

PhariseesThose who consider themselves the elite theologians, like the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, will burden people down with externals, ignoring the essence of the faith. Lewis concludes:

Meanwhile the “weightier matters of the Law,” righteousness itself, shrinks into insignificance under this vast overgrowth, so that the legalists strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.

We do this gnat-straining and camel-swallowing in other areas of life as well, such as in politics. I see it all the time in that realm. To avoid that, we need to look at ourselves and make sure we are putting first things first, being careful to make loving God and mirroring His character our primary goal.

Insights from Tozer

A. W. TozerNormally, on weekends, I draw from C. S. Lewis and Charles Finney for some thoughtful quotes. I’m not home this weekend, and therefore don’t have my usual sources to use. However, I have a habit of collecting quotes from all sorts of people who have offered wise and sound insights. One of those is A. W. Tozer, a Christian and Missionary Alliance pastor whose books have encouraged many and have guided them into a closer relationship with the Lord.

Let me just offer some of my favorite Tozer quotes for your pondering on this Lord’s Day. As much as I value correct theology, Tozer issues this warning to all of us:

You can be straight as a gun barrel theologically and as empty as one spiritually.

Whenever we fall into the error of thinking that all that is necessary is proper theology, we miss the mark. If our life doesn’t exemplify that theology, we are deceived.

In our day, with many churches preaching an “easy” gospel that doesn’t require a true change of heart, another of Tozer’s admonitions hits home:

The idea that God will pardon a rebel who hasn’t given up his rebellion is contrary both to Scripture and to common sense.

God gave us both—Scripture and common sense—and they confirm each other. Tozer brings that common-sense approach to the subject of prayer also:

To pray without expectation is to misunderstand the whole concept of prayer and relationship with God.

Prayer is not just a discipline we practice for our own good. It should be offered in the expectation that God actively listens and wants to respond. He looks to our hearts to see how genuine they are, and we need to understand that what we should have with Him is a relationship and not merely head knowledge of how to get one’s sins forgiven. That distinction is significant. It echoes the cry of Tozer’s heart:

There are rare Christians whose very presence incites others to be better Christians. I want to be that rare Christian.

That’s where the Lord wants to lead all of us.

One final Tozer quote worth pondering:

A. W. Tozer Quote

That’s where I seek to be: firm on the truth, yet gentle and inviting enough to draw others to the truth. Take these few thoughts with you today. May they make a difference in how you handle life.

Finney: The Foundation of Our Moral Obligations

Charles Finney can get into some pretty deep waters at times in his Systematic Theology. Yet if we understand the aim of his discussion, we see there is always a practical application of any theory he dissects. For instance, he takes on philosophers and/or theologians who say the foundation of our moral obligations is “will the right for the sake of the right.” Not so, says Finney:

Charles Finney 3The law of God does not, cannot require us to love right more than God and our neighbor. What! Right of greater value than the highest well-being of God and of the universe? Impossible! It is impossible that the moral law should require anything else than to will the highest good of universal being as an ultimate end, i.e., for its own sake. . . .

When we pray and preach and converse, must we aim at right, must the love of right, and not the love of God and of souls influence us? . . . Must I pray because it is right, and do all I do, and suffer all I suffer, not from good will to God and man, but because it is right? . . .

Did He give His Son to die for the right, for the sake of the right, or to die to render the salvation of souls possible, for the sake of the souls? . . .

To love God is right, but to suppose that God is loved because it is right, is absurd. It is to suppose that God is loved, not from any regard to God, but from a regard to right. This is an absurdity and a contradiction. To love or will the good of my neighbor is right. But to will the right, instead of the good of my neighbor, is not right. It is loving right instead of my neighbor. . . .

But enough of this cold and loveless philosophy. As it exalts right above all that is called God, and subverts all the teachings of the Bible, it cannot be a light thing to be deluded by it. But it is remarkable and interesting to see Christian rightarians, without being sensible of their inconsistency, so often confound this philosophy with . . . virtue. Numerous examples of it occur everywhere in their writings, which demonstrate that rightarianism is with them only a theory that “plays round the head but comes not near the heart.”

I find that an illuminating passage. We need to think clearly about “why” we obey God.

Tearing Away the Veil

Sometimes the veil is torn away and we can see the deep and wide chasm that exists in our society. A comment Santorum made the other day has served as the catalyst for showcasing the dichotomous thinking that dominates our culture. The media are in an absolute apoplectic fit over his all-too-true statement that Obama’s theology masquerades as Biblical theology, and that the president’s worldview is decidedly other than Christian.

From both the Right and the Left, Santorum is being taken to the verbal woodshed for breathing such heresy, and for introducing a theological element into the presidential race. Apparently, they don’t believe there is any connection between ultimate reality and politics. I beg to differ.

In fact, he was correct. Obama’s worldview is in direct opposition to a Biblical worldview. Now, Santorum came out later and said that he didn’t mean to imply Obama wasn’t a Christian personally, merely that his worldview was inconsistent with standard, orthodox Christian theology. The only criticism I have of anything Santorum said was that later statement. Of course, as a presidential candidate, one must be careful not to alienate everyone by declaring your opponent a non-Christian, particularly when the “One” is touting his Christianity as often as he has been recently.

However, I’m not running for president, and I will say what Santorum cannot: Obama’s so-called Christianity is not the real thing. His view of Christ and salvation are not Biblical. He is caught up in a spiritual deception, but he’s not a victim—it is of his own making, by his own free will.

Naturally, this will be an ongoing point of attack from Santorum’s challengers. Ron Paul is already saying that social issues should be off the table. Mitt Romney has nothing to run on besides being a businessman, so he doesn’t want anything to do with moral values. Gingrich has so much baggage that he will probably avoid the same, except for disparaging Santorum for standing up for Biblical foundations in society.

In the current field, only Santorum has the lifestyle that reflects a Biblical worldview. For that, I respect him, and I pray for his success.

By the way, new polls show he has a commanding lead in both Texas and Oklahoma. These go along with a big lead in Ohio and a consistent lead in Michigan. That last one is still in play because Romney will be pulling out all the stops there. If Romney loses one of his “home” states, he’s in big trouble.

Romney should be running away with the nomination: he has the money, the organization, the backing of the Republican establishment. But he doesn’t have the hearts of Republican voters. Santorum is filling that vacuum.

Finney, Government, & Politics

Charles Finney, one of the greatest of the nineteenth-century evangelists, penned a systematic theology that has too long been neglected by the church as a whole. Some people consider parts of his theology to be controversial; I say he is refreshing and bold in his explanation of the Biblical message.

Since he was primarily an evangelist, even those who are aware of his theology are in the dark on his views of politics and government. Finney lived in an era when slavery was a crucial issue, and he argued for its extinction. He also had some pertinent commentary on the role of government and Christian involvement in politics. For instance, he sees government as ordained by God and accountable to Him:

As the great law of benevolence, or universal good willing, demands the existence of human governments, all men are under a perpetual and unalterable moral obligation to aid in their establishment and support. In popular or elective governments, every man having a right to vote, every human being who has moral influence, is bound to exert that influence in the promotion of virtue and happiness. And as human governments are plainly indispensable to the highest good of man, they are bound to exert their influence to secure a legislation that is in accordance with the law of God. The obligation of human beings to support and obey human governments, while they legislate upon the principles of the moral law, is an unalterable as the moral law itself.

Finney never would have understood the modern mania for “separation of church and state,” as evidenced by these words:

In a popular government, politics are an important part of religion. No man can possibly be benevolent or religious, to the full extent of his obligations, without concerning himself, to a greater or less extent, with the affairs of human government. It is true, that Christians have something else to do than to go with a party to do evil, or to meddle with politics in a selfish or ungodly manner. But they are bound to meddle with politics in popular governments, because they are bound to seek the universal good of all men; and this is one department of human interests materially affecting all their higher interests.

In other words, Christians are under an obligation to be involved since government makes an impact on all of life. For those who would argue that Christians should abstain from lawmaking, Finney retorts,

It is admitted that selfish men need, and must feel the restraints of law; but yet it is contended that Christians should have no part in restraining them by law. But suppose the wicked should agree among themselves to have no law, and therefore should not attempt to restrain themselves, nor each other by law; would it be neither the right nor the duty of Christians to attempt their restraint, through the influence of wholesome government? It would be strange that selfish men should need the restraints of law, and yet that Christians should have no right to meet this necessity by supporting governments that will restrain them. It is right and best that there should be law. It is even absolutely necessary that there should be law. Universal benevolence demands it; can it then be wrong in Christians to have anything to do with it?

Government also has an obligation—to act in accordance with God’s moral law:

It follows that no government is lawful or innocent that does not recognize the moral law as the only universal law, and God as the Supreme Lawgiver and Judge, to whom nations in their national capacity, as well as individuals, are amenable. The moral law of God is the only law of individuals and of nations, and nothing can be rightful government but such as is established and administered with a view to its support.

So what would Finney think about overturning “Don’t ask, don’t tell”? You don’t even need to ask; he has already told us.