C. S. Lewis and Higher Criticism, part 6

"If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?" (John 3:12 ESV)

In Lewis’ final comments to a body of Anglican ministers, he encourages a healthy skepticism of too much theological skepticism. He reminds them that just because a biblical account of an earthly event has spiritual meaning behind it, it does not necessarily mean the event didn’t really happen. Bemoaning the fact that now parishioners believe more than their ministers, he asks that perhaps one should wait until “he knows as he is known” to discover which were and which were not literal events.

Read part one.

Read part two.

Read part three.

Read part four.

Read part five.

A Due Agnosticism

For agnosticism is, in a sense, what I am preaching. I do not wish to reduce the sceptical elements in your minds. I am only suggesting that it need not be reserved exclusively for the New Testament and the Creeds. Try doubting something else.

Such scepticism might, I think, begin at the very beginning with the thought which underlies the whole demythology of our time. It was put long ago by Tyrrell. As man progresses he revolts against ‘earlier and inadequate expressions of the religious idea… Taken literally, and not symbolically, they do not meet his need. And as long as he demands to picture to himself distinctly the term and satisfaction of that need he is doomed to doubt, for his picturings will necessarily be drawn from the world of his present experience.’

In one way of course Tyrrell was saying nothing new. The Negative Theology of Pseudo-Dionysius had said as much, but it drew no such conclusions as Tyrrell. Perhaps this is because the older tradition found our conceptions inadequate to God whereas Tyrrell finds it inadequate to ‘the religious idea’. He doesn’t say whose idea. But I am afraid he means man’s idea. We, being men, know what we think; and we find the doctrines of the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the Second Coming inadequate to our thoughts. But supposing these things were the expressions of God’s thoughts?

It might still be true that ‘taken literally and not symbolically’ they are inadequate. From which the conclusion commonly drawn is that they must be taken symbolically, not literally; that is, wholly symbolically. All the details are equally symbolical and analogical.

But surely there is a flaw here. The argument runs like this. All the details are derived from our present experience; but the reality transcends our experience: therefore all the details are wholly and equally symbolical. But suppose a dog were trying to form a conception of human life. All the details in its picture would be derived from canine experience. Therefore all that the dog imagined could, at best, be only analogically true of human life. The conclusion is false. If the dog visualized our scientific researches in terms of ratting, this would be analogical; but it thought that eating could be predicated of humans only in an analogical sense, the dog would be wrong. In fact if a dog could, per impossible, be plunged for a day into human life, it would be hardly more surprised by hitherto unimagined differences than by hitherto unsuspected similarities. A reverent dog would be shocked. A modernist dog, mistrusting the whole experience, would ask to be taken to the vet.

But the dog can’t get into human life. Consequently, though it can be sure that its best ideas of human life are full of analogy and symbol, it could never point to any one detail and say, ‘This is entirely symbolic.’ You cannot know that everything in the representation of a thing is symbolical unless you have independent access to the thing and can compare it with the representation. Dr. Tyrrell can tell that the story of the Ascension is inadequate to his religious idea, because he knows his own idea and can compare it with the story. But how if we are asking about a transcendent, objective reality to which the story is our sole access? ‘We know not – oh we know not.’ But then we must take our ignorance seriously.

Of course if ‘taken literally and not symbolically’ means ‘taken in terms of mere physics,’ then this story is not even a religious story. Motion away from the earth – which is what Ascension physically means – would not in itself be an event of spiritual significance. Therefore, you argue, the spiritual reality can have nothing but an analogical connection with the story of an ascent. For the union of God with God and of man with God-man can have nothing to do with space. Who told you this? What you really mean is that we can’t see how it could possibly have anything to do with it. That is a quite different proposition. When I know as I am known I shall be able to tell which parts of the story were purely symbolical and which, if any, were not; shall see how the transcendent reality either excludes and repels locality, or how unimaginably it assimilates and loads it with significance. Had we not better wait?

Such are the reactions of one bleating layman to Modern Theology. It is right that you should hear them. You will not perhaps hear them very often again. Your parishioners will not often speak to you quite frankly. Once the layman was anxious to hide the fact that he believed so much less than the vicar; now he tends to hide the fact that he believes so much more. Missionary to the priests of one’s own church is an embarrassing role; though I have a horrid feeling that if such mission work is not soon undertaken the future history of the Church of England is likely to be short.

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