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May 04, 2006

Western Faith and Western Reason

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Over the last week I spent some time with a book I'd long meant to read: C.S. Lewis' 1952 "Mere Christianity." Many people have found the book to be an illuminating defence of orthodox Christianity -- a convincing presentation of the fundamentals that all Christian faiths share. In 2000, the magazine Christianity Today even named "Mere Christianity" the best book of the 20th century.

I've written before about how the appeal of Christianity eludes me. Short version: Although I was raised Presbyterian, and although I can follow some of the arguments and be impressed by much of the art and culture, I simply don't imaginatively/ emotionally/ spiritually connect with Christianity. Still, we in the West live in a world that Christianity has played a big role in shaping, so I treat myself to the occasional wrestle with the subject.

Though I haven't come close to cracking the nut yet, "Mere Christianity" certainly struck me as a heckuva book. I understand its rep. It's closely argued and beautifully written, and presented in a wonderfully accessible, direct, and informal style. (Lewis originally delivered the material as a series of lectures at Oxford in the mid-1940s, so its tone is very conversational.) Anything but a Bible-thumper, Lewis wants to make a secure, reasonable, and logical intellectual case that the Christian basics -- original sin, the transcendent Creator God, the divinity of Jesus, His bodily resurrection -- are objectively true, and even inevitable. They simply must follow from the nature of life itself.

But -- despite the book's combo of modesty and magnificence -- I didn't get very far into it. By mid-book, Lewis was elaborating arguments that sooooo don't-concern me that I couldn't see any reason to go on.

I found following Lewis' line of reasoning an odd experience. I felt in close touch with his taking-off point -- roughly, the inevitability of the religious dimension. By page 20, though, I was aware that a gap had opened up between Lewis' concerns and mine. By the time page 70 rolled around, the gap had widened to the point where it was as though C.S. and I were inhabitants of two different universes. On and on his lovely language and his awe-inspiring thinking-powers rolled. Meanwhile, I had about as much idea what he was talking about as I would if I were to sit in on a higher-math seminar. There was no effort that was in my power to make that could have brought me into the conversation that C.S. Lewis was conducting.

I don't think I've ever before had such an experience: feeling so close to a book's p-o-v at its outset, and then so completely divorced from it not all that much later. I felt so puzzled by this phenomenon that a few days after I abandoned the book I picked it up and began flipping through the opening pages again.

I wasn't able to pinpoint a precise word, or sentence, or agument. But I was able to zero in anyway. Wouldn't you know it: Our diff boils down to the one-god thing -- the Big Guy Behind the Curtain who's in charge of all, who knows all, etc. For Lewis, the Big Guy is central, key, crucial, unavoidable. For me ... Well, I dunno, exactly. He seems optional, unlikely, made-up. If He does a lot for you, then of course bless you. But to me He looks about as convincing as a comic-book character.

Sigh: monotheism, eh? It's a vision (or a picture or model) that has never jibed with anything I've ever experienced or intuited. In fact, monotheism seems to me like such a peculiar conceit that I find myself wondering about its origins and its appeal. Who dreamed it up? What psychological/ emotional /sociological needs does it serve? I have some theories about all this, as I guess everyone does. But, given my complete psychic disconnect from the material, I suspect that they aren't of much interest.

Still, I got a lot out of my wrestle with "Mere Christianity." Western civ so embodies Christian values that it (Western civ) often puzzles me as much as Christianity itself does. Why do people work so hard? Why all the torment and the striving? Where do people expect their struggles to take them to? Why this tendency to argue over the One True Way? And what is this about needing redemption, anyway? A few hours spent with Christian philosophy and history can make these questions seem a little less puzzling.

The culture-thing that "Mere Christianity" made me feel momentarily-enlightened-about was the fixation many Westerners have on "greatness" and "transcendence." Are you as struck as I am by the way so many people return over and over again to those two questions: "Is it great?" "Is it transcendent?"

I have no beef with greatness and transcendence. What I completely fail to understand, though, is why anyone would fixate obsessively on them. To my mind, "greatness" is a cross between a consensus opinion and an acknowlegement of influence. Tons of people have considered Plato great; Plato has also, demonstrably, been very influential -- thus he qualifies as one of "the greats." Why should I quarrel with this? Calling Plato "great" is no skin off my back, no matter how I feel about his writing myself. (See here for a longer version of my thoughts about the greatness question.)

So far as transcendence goes ... The usual Western thing seems to be to consider transcendence so precious and rare that you might live several lives without ever once tasting it. Transcendence a la Christianity is far more yearned-for and agonized-over than experienced. It also seems to be conceived of as bits and pieces of grace that are able to shed redemptive radiance on a life that is otherwise a miserable thing.

But isn't transcendence to a large extent something like happiness -- something, in other words, that is inevitably experiential? If the experience inevitably depends at least partly on the person doing the experiencing, then how can it be said of any work that it's objectively "transcendent"? Take the example of a heavy-metal concert. Doesn't the answer to the question "Was it transcendent?" depend on the person answering the question? One guy may stick his nose up in the air and call it unworthy of anyone's attentions. But another guy might leave such a concert feeling that he has had the most transcendent cultural experience of his life.

The Western fixation on greatness and transcendence seem to me to lead inevitably to a bunch of conversations that don't appeal to me at all. Playing the ranking-game. Drawing lines in the sand separating what's great from what isn't. Denying that transcendence can occur unless it comes properly-endorsed.

Hey, "the best" rules, and "the greats" are cool too. But why not be a little more relaxed about things? Why not explore? Why not taste-test? For one thing, nothing depends on you: The whole "great" or "not-great" question will take care of itself. Or it won't -- but it's not as though your opinion is going to influence matters much in either case. So why get hung up on your own opinion?

Besides, doesn't your mood, and don't your own purposes, play big roles in these equations? For example: Sometimes I'm in the mood for some of that "greatness" stuff. But other times I just want a giggle, or to feel a turned-on buzz, or to veg out. And when I'm in the mood for something minor, a Wagner opera is decidedly not going to suit. As for transcendence .. Well, isn't it common experience that the more you yearn for something the less likely it becomes you'll ever have it? So why not ease up, take what comes, and enjoy it as such?

In any case, the "greatness" and "transcendence" fixations look to me like ways of inflicting unnecesary stress, strain, and rigidity on yourself. But presumably many people do get a lot out of putting themselves through such agonies. I wonder what it is.

I start to get it, though, when I think of the stressing-over-greatness drama as a function of the Western-Christian drama. If there's an all-powerful Big Guy up there (out there, behind the curtain, whatever), and He's the ultimate in Greatness, then we will probably want to reach in his direction. There's almost certainly one way and one way only to get there.

Perhaps (I find myself thinking) "greatness" in the West really means "close to God-ness," and perhaps "transcendence" is what happens when a this-world creation delivers a whiff of Godliness. Perhaps the artist who shows a knack for delivering Greatness and Transcendence deserves to be thought of as Godly himself. Still, still ... I dunno. It all seems a little "my way or the highway" to me. And when the lambs do wander astray, the Big Guy does more glowering than I'm comfortable with. I like straying myself.

As it happens, I recently finished going through James Hall's "Tools of Thinking," a Teaching Company lecture series. It's a pretty-good introduction to standard-issue Western ways of mental grappling. I had much the same reaction to these lectures that I did to "Mere Christianity": It's interesting, it's well-done, it's enlightening, and it finally doesn't concern me much.

A few minor beefs: Hall can be tiresome. He indulges in a lot of professorial whimsy: autobiographical digressions, private jokes, and much too much bemused chuckling and sighing. Me, I take this behavior-set as an indication that Hall has talked about his subject for, oh, a couple of decades too long.

That said, he still delivers a compact and decently-organized run through Western ways of puzzling things out: Plato and Aristotle ... Descartes and Hume ... Syllogisms and logical positivism ... Deduction/induction and hypothesis-formation ...

For me, listening to these lectures was like watching a game of expert chess: fascinating, dazzling, puzzling. How amazing that people can be so brilliant! And how peculiar that they should expend this amount of mental energy on this kind of activity! In other words, I observe with curiosity but without understanding why anyone should care. Incidentally, a few other EZ-but-sensational resources that I've found handy for grokking the whole Western-mind thing: Roger Scruton's "A Short History of Modern Philosophy," "An Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy," and "An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture," and Nigel Warburton's "Philosophy: The Basics" and "Thinking from A to Z."

The kind of thinking that Hall presents is one that is modeled on math and science. It's the kind of thinking you do when you pull yourself together and you say, "OK, now I'm going to solve that puzzle." (It isn't, in other words, about intuitions, hunches, gambles, seat-of-the-pants knowledge, winging-it, etc.) And, just as Christianity seems to lead inevitably to a certain finite set of discussions (faith, redemption, transcendence, etc), the science-modeled idea of knowledge seems to lead inevitably to another finite set of discussions: Empiricism vs. idealism. Deductive reasoning vs. intuition. What constitutes proof.

Standing outside these discussions as I do, I find myself wondering about them: Are they all a consequence of monotheism? If there is an all-powerful, all-knowing Big Guy Behind the Curtain, then perhaps it makes sense that many people would spend their lives trying to understand what He's up to, what He knows, and what He means. It might also makes sense that they'd keep striving, er, progressing, and that they might see "the artist" as some kind of substitute Godhead.

When religion itself starts to falter, art might well become a surrogate monotheistic religion, issuing dictates from on high. An example: As far as the official architecture world is concerned, if you're interested in architecture, then it automatically follows that you agree that Daniel Libeskind is a brilliant and important architect. You simply must. But what to do about people like me? I'm an architecture and urbanism buff, yet I certainly don't think that Daniel Libeskind is any good. Which in art-monotheism terms means that I'm an apostate, I guess.

I find myself suspecting that what draws one to religions, philosophies, and art-creations is more a matter of temperament and maybe even of body chemistry than of reasoning. Do you ever assent to an artwork or to an item of faith because you have been intellectually persuaded to do so? It seems to me more accurate to say that people by and large assent to what they assent to because they resonate to it.

Artwise, I have my likes and dislikes -- but I'd never try to do the monotheistic thing and reshape the world in the image of my tastes and preferences. Religion-wise, I resonate some to Buddhism and quite a lot to Hinduism, but I'm pure vibration where Vedanta is concerned. Vedanta ... It isn't monistic or dualistic; it's "non-dualistic." Vedanta ... "Truth is one, the names sages give it are many." Sigh: I'm vibrating as I type these words.

But what does it mean to resonate? In my case, I'm drawn to these religions for a simple reason: The conversations they carry on explicitly are the conversations that are already taking place in my brain. What they discuss is what I'm always thinking about. If, where mainstream Western thinking and faith are concerned, I stand on the outside looking in, with the Vedanta conversation I'm instantly right there in the middle of it.

Anyway: I found "Mere Christianity" well worth a visit, though I'd suggest spending a few days with Buddhist and Vedanta classics as well. Why not see how they affect you? "Tools for Thought" was also very helpful. But I'd suggest enhancing the it with some heterodox works: Christopher Alexander's "The Timeless Way of Building," perhaps, or Stephen Toulmin's "The Uses of Argument." Toulmin's mind-blowing approach to thinking is very well-presented in another Teaching Company lecture series. I wrote an introduction to Toulmin here.

Anything you can say about the appeal of monotheism that might enlighten me further?

Here's the C.S. Lewis Foundation. Here's a C.S. Lewis FAQ. Wikipedia says that as a boy-man, Lewis was fascinated by sado-masochism and that he sometimes signed letters "Philomastix" ("whip-lover"). Steve Sailer thinks monotheism gets a bad rap. Rodney Stark sometimes seems to think that Christianity is responsible for every worthwhile thing ever. Here's an interview with Stark. Here's another. Robert Speirs and Rick Darby weigh in on God.



posted by Michael at May 4, 2006


I read Mere Christianity many years ago and experienced the same diversion of worldview, but for me the forks in the road seemed pretty clear. Lewis assumes a number of premises which I don't share. As he made his premises explicit and built on them, the resulting logical edifice got ever shakier until at last it crumbled to the ground.

The best example is the "Lord, Liar, or Lunatic?" trilemma. It starts with the premise that the listener shares with Lewis the beliefs that (a) the gospels are an accurate rendition of events, including the existence of christ and the statements he made, and (b) christ was a great moral teacher. I doubt both of those. but most especially (a). So given the choice "Lord, Liar, or Lunatic?" I have no trouble picking "Liar" - meaning that Jesus was being metaphorical when he claimed god-ness - or "Lunatic" - meaning Jesus was somewhat deranged - and I'd be equally happy with a fourth option not listed: "Legend". Meaning we have little reason to believe the Gospels are accurately portraying anything about Jesus.

But Lewis marches merrily along, having "proven" Jesus was God, to see what the implications are. At which point he's totally lost me.

Posted by: Glen Raphael on May 4, 2006 06:44 PM

"So far as transcendence goes ... The usual Western thing seems to be to consider transcendence so precious and rare that you might live several lives without ever once tasting it. Transcendence a la Christianity is far more yearned-for and agonized-over than experienced. It also seems to be conceived of as bits and pieces of grace that are able to shed redemptive radiance on a life that is otherwise a miserable thing."
Whoa, Michael. Christianity is Eastern, not Western in its thought. Transcendence is God's otherness, not his behind the curtainness. Occasionally there is a breakthrough of God into human history and this is never discovery or reward, but grace. So we have our Moses and Abraham and Jesus and Buddha, etc who experience God personally and who nobody quite knows how to deal with and around whom gather followers who have not and will not experience transcendence themselves, but do recognize hints, goads and lures in the wake of the prophets, the seers, etc. They develop programs, denominations, religions, etc but none of these takes, or can take, the place of religion.
How can this be? Damn if I know.

Posted by: citrus on May 4, 2006 07:09 PM

Correction! "None of these can take the place of revelation." Sorry! Citrus

Posted by: citrus on May 4, 2006 07:11 PM

Michael, I'm very close to where you are. When pressed, I say that like the Blackfeet I'm omni-theistic and eco-systematic. I am NOT theistic and get very impatient with people who use theism to define religion and use a-theistic when they mean anti-theistic, thus forcing me to speak of being un-theistic, meaning just ignoring the issue.

I think that the Old Testament and to some degree the New Testament are based on life as experienced in desert tribes dependent on city-states and oasises (scarcity with controllable sources of plenty). There was a chief, there were rules coming from a priest-caste, and both became so arbitrary and disfunctional that Jesus was necessary. Also, lurking down in there someplace is the 10,000 year old (for us -- only 8,000 for them) shift from hunting and herding to agricultural crops and the difference that made to the culture, like "who's on first?".

I came to C.S. Lewis when looking for descriptions of the "sublime" which he said was evoked strongly for him when traveling on the train. He saw a small house, warm and fragile, under the immense bulk of a dark mountain. It was the juxtaposition. I think that's partly what he means about the "transcendent." It is certainly subjective, but one can evoke it artistically. He made little dish-gardens to try to capture it.

When I'm forced to reason in logical fashion, I start from the classical definition of God as That Than Which Nothing Can Be Greater and then expand that into all of existence, all of the existences that might have been but weren't, all of the existences that are still potential, etc. etc. It is a logical category like infinity or eternity. Nothing can be destroyed because it remains in God. It's pretentious to think that any human being could comprehend God -- it only means you have a little tiny humanoid God in your head.

And when people say, "Okay, then where's your moral component," I say, "If God is TTWNCBG, then every act of yours is part of God, creating God as it were, and you'd better be damn careful what you do, because that will be the God you get." Of course, it's shorter to say, "What goes around comes around," or to speak of Karma which most people seem to understand now.

Have you read "Surprised by Joy"? Michael? A better place to start and a good movie, too. Lewis was one of the Inklings, you know. He wasn't all stuffy. I don't know who or what sent "Joy" and her two sons to C.S. Lewis, but I sure think he needed her! (Paul Tillich had a thing for spanking too. Some self-flagellation relieves guilt -- that might have been Lewis -- but evidently in Tillich's case it was English Boarding School Boy Erotic -- a whole genre. Nothing to do with God.)

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on May 4, 2006 08:26 PM

"Beyond Narnia," a filmed life of CS Lewis, has just been released on DVD.
I never saw what the self-mortifiers in various religious traditions (including Hindu saddhus--there's a show about them now at the Rubin Museum) were trying to prove about greatness and transcendence. I don't think God is the least bit impressed if you fast for Lent, flagellate yourself, or wear a hairshirt and stones in your shoes.
Speaking of Western civ--I feel about most of the tenets of Western philosophy (be they monads, subject/object relations, theory of mind, Cartesian maxims, or whatever) the way Michael does about monotheism in religion and some of Lewis' arguments. Who the bleep cares? I find dry philosophical concerns very difficult to summon any interest in--yet I have no trouble with abstract thought of any kind. I used to have some interest in aesthetic philosophy, but then decided that was a bloody waste of time too.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on May 4, 2006 11:48 PM

Another thought--has anyone tried to read John Henry Newman lately?

Posted by: winifer skattebol on May 4, 2006 11:49 PM

I must say I agree with you when it comes to trying to understand and empatize (sp?) the standard, received, orthodox interpretations of biblical religion, whether Judaism or Christianity,Protestant, Catholic, or what have you. It's sort of like letting somebody else read a book for you and telling you what it means; or rather telling person A, who tells person B, who tells C, etc, down through the generations until you get to the current received version, which bears almost no resemblance to the original.

My solution? Well, after I read James Joyce's Ulysses six times (it was my favorite novel for a long time, though not anymore) I started looking into that next one, what was it called? Joyce said he wrote it to be the perfect book for insomniacs. Well, I memorized the first few pages but then decided there was another book a lot more complicated than that one, and if I was going to waste the rest of my insominiacal life reading anything I might as well tackle that one, and read it start to end just like a novel, with no preconceptions.

If I had to describe the experience of reading that book in one sentence I would say it was like crossing on foot a vast desert in which there was the occassional oasis. But well worth the trip, nonetheless, because there is a kind of unifying vision that ties it all together, a poetic vision of the collective imagination of the fairest and most beautiful possible thing (suitably anthropomorphized (sp?) of course.

You asked where the main character came from? Well, here is my take on it:

Posted by: Lea Luke on May 5, 2006 12:35 AM

Here's the line of reasoning I tumble into whenever anyone starts in on me with the Jesus "thang":

I do not understand the crucifixtion idea. How does this concern me? To accept Jesus as saviour means accepting the concept of original sin. To accept the concept of original sin means accepting the concecpt of Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, the Serpent, etc. To accept the idea that an evil entity, i.e. the Devil, corrupted Adam and Eve, then you must accept the fact that God is not completely in control here. At this point, the argument becomes ridiculous. We are talking about a Creator who is responsible for the vast universe we have only recently become aware of...hundreds of millions of galaxies scattered through billions of light years of space...and each galaxy like our own containing several hundred BILLION stars just like our own sun. A staggering reality. Now, what was that you were saying about Adam and Eve?

On the other hand, Vedanta makes it all perfectly reasonable.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on May 5, 2006 07:14 AM

Interesting speculation, Mary. There are some people who have reported near-death experiences that have a similar attitude - that you create your afterlife with your actions in this life. I don't know how valid near-death experiences are, butenough people have reported them, that I believe that there is something to them...

Posted by: tschafer on May 5, 2006 10:05 AM

You don't have to be a believer (I'm not) to understand that the concept of monotheism (One, and only One God) marks a great step forward for mankind. The reason? If there is One God, and Man is made in the image of God, then Man takes on the aspect of the Sacred. The slow painful road up from paganism - with paganism's immense and inherent cruelties - begins.

Posted by: ricpic on May 5, 2006 10:35 AM

Religion seems to be a constant in human history. Many people seek religion. If they don't like or are forbidden conventional religion some of these people will invent their own. I think that this religious impulse underlies much leftism, environmentalism, "new age" thought, Scientology and so forth.

I am not a religious person but I think that if you are looking for a religion you may as well choose one that has stood the test of time. Scientology and recycling are pale substitutes for ethical and philosophical systems that have endured in their basic forms for thousands of years. Judaism and Christianity, for example, for all their flaws, provide well-tested templates for personal behavior, family relationships and to some extent business. The new religions may or may not provide similarly useful templates, but it's difficult to know because most of these creeds haven't been around very long. Why bet your life and your family's welfare on the dubious wisdom of L. Ron when you can be part of (for example) a Jewish tradition that has existed, more or less in modern form, for millenia? There is, despite technological advances, nothing new under the sun where human nature is concerned. There is good reason to stick with the old belief systems if one needs a belief system at all.

Posted by: Jonathan on May 5, 2006 10:55 AM

When my mother was dying (aged 89), a lifelong Presby who didn't want any minister prowling around her deathbed -- I think because she didn't want him or her seeing her in an undignified and what she regarded as "losing" situation -- she said, "Well, I hope the next planet is as interesting as this one has been!" I admired her attitude but did not share it. Didn't tell her that.

When it comes to the nature of a human being (which is an important part of religiious belief), I believe that we are a flame that forms when cells are alive and functioning. When the cells
stop burning, the flame goes out. Period. The end. No soul, except as a participation in the whole -- because the cells come apart into elements and molecules that form into something new
that rekindles -- or (more poetically) goes on being a participant in "God." One of my differences with Christianity is that I don't believe in nor seek eternal life either as myself or as a transformation that preserves me (reincarnation-- getting new "meat"). That's why I try to give it all I've got right now, in this lifetime.

But the arts, the community, the memory of oneself, one's impact on the world -- all of those count BIG with me. They are a form of immortality. Which is why I retired a bit early in order to write. This is my only life. I intend to use what I have left. And it is the reason I write about Bob Scriver -- it is my effort to keep him alive. (My mother said that if I wrote about her, she'd come back as a ghost and strangle me.) It's a bit awkward that in re-invoking him, I have to bring back all those other women, too! I'm the last living wife of four. I have no desire for us all to be sharing an eternal life in Heaven.

tschafer, I think that what some people describe as "afterlife" is just the brain reacting to diminishment and endorfins. But you might be the one who is right.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on May 5, 2006 11:00 AM

Surely, the Christian psychological emphasis on the need for greatness is one of the reasons that Christendom has produced more individual greatness in the arts and sciences than other civilizations.

As you say, art came to be seen as a replacement for religion in the search for greatness, but that seems to be dying out too, so the level of production of greatness appears to be in decline, just in my lifetime alone.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on May 5, 2006 11:20 AM

It does seem that the impulse to greatness and innovation is dying out, even at the minor level of popular culture. In popular music, there is much that seems to be derivative - the best modern pop sounds like it's recycled from the late 1970's, and the kids today realize it - I saw an 18 year old kid wearing a "Ramones" t-shirt the other day - my God, that's what I was wearing at that age! And the Black community, a font of creativity that popular music has borrowed from again and again - how old is Hip-Hop now - 25-30 years old? You are right about stagnation - and it seems to be happening at every level...

Posted by: tschafer on May 5, 2006 11:36 AM

Until I read your post, Michael, I hadn't ever thought of equating, or linking, "transcendance" with "greatness". "Experiential" seemed to be exactly what it was -- immediate, subjective, occasionally communicated from person to person, or group to group. An "a-ha!" moment when a person was fully present and available. I don't think these moments require theological underpinnings to be fully appreciated; I do think they tend to inspire more than a few theological musings. FWIW, whenever I have those moments, I'm inspired to be "grateful" - or demonstrably gracious toward others. Does there need to be an Other to validate my experience? When Jesus says "Love your enemies" "bless those who persecute you", the suggestion seems to be you might as well make your enemy the Other.

And I can't recommend any of Lewis's writings without appending a bushel of caveats - the sole exception being An Experiment In Criticism, which is Lewis at his imaginative best. Terry Teachout recently cadged a Lewis quote on transcendance from this book:

Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like a night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.

Cheers, and thanks for the post!

Posted by: Whisky Prajer on May 5, 2006 12:55 PM

As Rodney Stark says eloquently in several books, the truly fascinating question about Christianity is why it alone led to the Industrial Revolution and individual freedom. The challenge is to use the strengths of Christian thinking to keep cultural and scientific progress going while getting rid of the emotionalism that constantly threatens to drag America back into the pit of despair inhabited by Communists, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and other collectivists.

Posted by: Robert Speirs on May 5, 2006 01:01 PM

Great post and fantastic comments. I don't really have anything to add that hasn't already been said, except to say that my view of existence seems to be almost identical with Ms. Scrivner's.

Posted by: the patriarch on May 5, 2006 01:55 PM

Sigh: monotheism, eh? It's a vision (or a picture or model) that has never jibed with anything I've ever experienced or intuited.

How about the big bang? The essential wholeness and oneness of reality as demonstrated by quantum entanglement? I don't see a big gap between monotheism and eastern religions either, just different expressions of the essential oneness / wholeness of reality.

Posted by: Matthew Cromer on May 5, 2006 02:04 PM

tschafer, I think that what some people describe as "afterlife" is just the brain reacting to diminishment and endorfins. But you might be the one who is right.

I write a blog dedicated to scientific evidence that reductionism is an incomplete model of reality.

This post and this one touch specifically on evidence that human consciousness and memories persist beyond biological death.

Posted by: Matthew Cromer on May 5, 2006 02:19 PM

First off, thanks to everyone for thoughtful and fascinating responses. Thanks as well for being kind -- I suspect y'all know a lot more about the subject here than I do, so I appreciate the patience and indulgence.

Glen -- That is a cute little move Lewis made, isn't it? Funny too that it became such a famous one. Like you, I feel like I can see holes in it a mile wide. Yet it seems so closely argued ...

Citrus -- You're under suspicion of being one very liberal Christian! It's interesting that you're struck by similarities between Christianity and Buddhism. Never saw it that way myself, so thanks for getting me thinking.

P. Mary -- Your mom sounds like she was a sparky gal fer sure. I'm with you on karma, too: I have no idea of course whether it's real or not, of course, but it's sure a handy and helpful concept. The "theism" thing is interesting. I'm not entirely sure about it, but there's certainly is something animating and moving through everything (and encompassing and engulfing everything). So ... Anyway, I had this moment when I thought, Why not call it (the overarching, all-pervadingness everythingness) God? I mean, just as a way of referring to it? And, strangely, I wasn't bugged by the idea. Metaphor or not? Beats me.

WS -- I have a friend who says he can't get with any religion that demands that its adherents dress badly or make themselves look ugly. I didn't know about that Lewis docu, tks.

Luke -- Six times through "Ulysses" and you even made it all the way through "Finnegan's Wake"? Now that's commitment and love. I'm still reeling from the thought. But your mind is probably still savoring the aftertaste.

Charlton -- "How does this concern me?" made me laugh out loud. BTW, I vote that you record all the great Vedanta classics.

Tschaefer -- Your mind is hard at work on many interesting topics!

Ricpic -- Is paganism the only alternative to monotheism? But maybe there's just a barbaric part of me that yearns for a taste of the cruel old rites ...

Jonathan -- That's hypersensible and beautifully put, tks.

Steve -- I think you're almost certainly right. I'll add only that I can't see why a doctrine that works on a social level should also be expected to work on a personal level. I mean, maybe, maybe not. So: Christianity at work, Hinduism at home? Or would such an arrangement defuse the kinds of drives that Christianity seems to foster?

WP -- Gratitude is a great theme for a blog posting, hint hint. Eloquent reflections about the experience of transcendence too. That's a nice passage from Lewis, tks.

Robert -- That's saying an incisive mouthful! There seems to be a kind of addictive quality to the monotheistic thing. It seems to deliver big highs but also big lows. And mood swings can be hard to handle. How to manage this?

Patriarch -- Thanks. Not entirely surprised to learn that your p-o-v where these things are concerned semi-parallels Mary's ...

Matthew -- That's a good point, though I often find myself thinking that monotheism has to do an awful lot of backing-and-filling to account for the general Oneness of it all. After all, if God is over there, and we're over here ... Many thanks too for the links.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 5, 2006 07:11 PM

A great post. I agree completely. The only C.S. Lewis I've read was The Screwtape Letters, way back around 1974, when I was in high school.

I have no affinity for philosophy, religion or humanistic psychology (Freud, Jung, etc.) as they all rely on axiomatic premises that have to be taken solely on faith.

I also agree about greatness and transcendence. I love Prokofiev's 5th symphony. I also love classic rockabilly: Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent. I enjoy them because I enjoy them. More than that I can't say, and frankly, don't really care.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on May 5, 2006 07:23 PM

The companion books by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, THE JESUS MYSTERIES and JESUS AND THE LOST GODDESS, make a good case for how Christianity is just a version of the old pagan myths about dying and rising gods grafted onto the Jewish notion of the Messiah.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on May 6, 2006 12:11 AM

Tschafer writes:

"In popular music, there is much that seems to be derivative - the best modern pop sounds like it's recycled from the late 1970's, and the kids today realize it - I saw an 18 year old kid wearing a "Ramones" t-shirt the other day - my God, that's what I was wearing at that age!"

I have the exact same reaction to what my teenage son listens to today on KROQ: it's basically the same as what I was listening to on KROQ c. 1977-1982. The new stuff like Green Day and the Foo Fighters sounds just as good as the old stuff, but the old stuff sounded new in 1977.

Same with hip-hop: when "Rappers' Delight" was a Top 40 hit in late 1979, I said, "Boy, black people sure are creative. I bet this rap music will be a big fad for a year or two, and then they'll come up with something totally different, just like they've been doing every few years since ragtime."

Posted by: Steve Sailer on May 6, 2006 01:14 AM

I had a hard time with lewis's reasoning until I realized that he was narrative-centric. He believed that what we describe these days as a human organism was in fact better thought of as a narrative. After all, in what other way can a person in their 70's talk about themselves as a five year old and use the word 'I'?

Posted by: Terry on May 6, 2006 03:16 AM


If you need all of this intellectual argument to believe in Christianity... then you really are in the wrong ball game.

Mark Steyn is one of my favorite writers, and although he doesn't directly address Christianity, he writes often about the over-intellectualization that has hamstrung the West.

This is a very good essay:

Tradition doesn't need an intellectual defense. The destruction of tradition demands a damned good explanation.

I am Christian. None of the long-winded argumentation in this post or comments has anything to do with that. I don't evangelize, and I don't care whether anybody else shares my point of view.

It is, however, alarming... this modernist willingness to throw away the artistic, intellectual and spiritual tradition of Western society. This is a weakness. I am in awe of the confidence with which so many are willing to toss the faith and knowledge of their fathers. Of course, the twin fascist ideologies of feminism and gay activism have worked tirelessly for decades to degrade and stigmatize the father.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on May 6, 2006 10:43 AM

"Do you ever assent to an artwork or to an item of faith because you have been intellectually persuaded to do so?"

Edith Stein (a/k/a St. Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) did just that. She read Teresa of Avila's autobiography one night.

The Church has a lot of doors -- Intellectual, artistic, musical, etc. You can "read yourself in", as she did, and as I (pretty much) did.

Jonathan as always is very sound.

John Henry Newman -- a terrific writer. The thing to look at, I'd suggest, is the Parochial and Plain sermons.

Posted by: Lexington Green on May 6, 2006 02:31 PM

Calm thyself, Shouting Thomas. I'm on your side. I believe there is a God. My problem is with orthodoxy. As far as the ethics of Christianity are concerned, they are safe with me. Since the New Testament is unintelligible without the leavening effect of Greek humanist philosophy, it is quite alright to be both a believer in God and a skeptic of Christian dogma. For the record, the most incredible building ever constructed, in my humble opinion, is Chartres cathedral. Feel better now?

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on May 7, 2006 02:45 PM

I found this post odd in that the pre-Christian obsession with greatness and glory in classical Mediterranean civilization was completely ignored. The Chinese emperors seem to have had some passing familiarity with the desire for greatness as well. I think an obsession with greatness has to do with the movement out of hunter/gatherer civilization into agricultural kingships where there is a large material surplus that can be captured by charismatic leaders.

Posted by: MQ on May 8, 2006 02:22 AM

Christian apologetics I think make Christians feel better, but I've not really seen them convince anyone who wasn't convinced already. I think they do sway someone who's honestly undecided. But for those who've come to a conclusion, whether they know it or not, they merely serve kind of the same space as "Top Ten (movies, songs, books, fashion disasters) Ever!" lists; the reader wades through primarily thinking either "I agree" or "What crap."

I still think the best things to read regarding Christianity and what it means are the Gospels (and Acts and Romans if you've got the time). In a good translation, they are pretty straightforward and clear.

Even as creaky as they can seem, they are still the most eloquent expression of the ideas and intent of Christ.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on May 10, 2006 11:26 AM

"The companion books by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, THE JESUS MYSTERIES and JESUS AND THE LOST GODDESS, make a good case for how Christianity is just a version of the old pagan myths about dying and rising gods grafted onto the Jewish notion of the Messiah." Books like these drive me nuts. They ignore just how very Jewish the roots of Christianity are. I see them as trying to make Christianity more palatably "white" and I lump them together with silly, blond, blue-eyed, Hollywood Jesus "art". Brrrr!

Posted by: Bradamante on May 11, 2006 06:21 PM

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