C.S. Lewis on Making Sense of the Human Experience
How are we to make sense of humanity in our day? Neuroscientists often reduce humans to brains, leaving no room for personhood. Philosophers regularly deny the will, rejecting the idea that humans can make real, meaningful decisions, and thus have moral accountability. Scientists often discount immaterial human values and regard them as illusions.
No wonder the humanities are in the decline in favor of the hard sciences. But can science explain the human experience? C.S. Lewis thought so. At first. But then he changed his mind.
As a careful logician, Lewis feared that an accidental universe might not afford a foundation for rationality. Where was he to go to make sense of it all? Though he rejected the idea of God due to cruelty and injustice in the world, he understood without God he couldn’t seem to find a standard by which to call the world unjust. And while he spent his early adult years as an atheist, he wrestled with a life-long pursuit of joy that nothing in this world seemed able to satisfy.
In Search of a Theory of Us
Lewis was searching for answers to the same questions thinking men and women have been asking since before the time of Socrates. They are the same questions we’re asking today. Consider Alex Rosenberg, professor of philosophy at Duke University. In his book The Atheist Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions, he argues that only science can explain humanity, a view he calls “scientism.” In the end, since science cannot explain them, he dismisses human values like moral distinctions, free will, personhood, and meaning.
The prolific philosopher Bertrand Russell promoted a similar creed. He famously said, “What science cannot teach us, mankind cannot know.” One must wonder if Russell discovered this truth through a telescope or studied it beneath a microscope. This much is clear: science didn’t teach it to him. It is a philosophical value.
Lewis came to believe the exact opposite conclusion, that science can only explain part of humanity, the physical part. What it, science, can’t explain, are all the immaterial aspects that make the human experience so beautiful.
I’m reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s talk that he gave on “The Superstitions of the Skeptic.” He began by poking fun at his good friend, an atheist, George Bernard Shaw, “I’d like to begin my rambling talk by taking whatever Mr. Bernard Shaw, and say the opposite.”
Like Chesterton, philosopher Roger Scruton is skeptical of science’s ability to explain us. In a recent talk at Princeton University, Scruton said, “Wait a minute: science is not the only way to pursue knowledge. There is moral knowledge too, which is the province of practical reason; there is emotional knowledge, which is the province of art, literature, and music. And just possibly there is transcendental knowledge, which is the province of religion. Why privilege science, just because it sets out to explain the world? Why not give weight to the disciplines that interpret the world and so help us be at home in it?”
Maybe there’s hope for the humanities after all.
Edgar Andrews, Emeritus Professor of Materials at the University of London, makes a similar point. “A scientist’s dream is to develop a ‘theory of everything’ – a scientific theory that will encompass all the workings of the physical universe in a single self-consistent formulation. Fair enough, but there is more to the universe than matter, energy, space and time . . . Most of us believe in the real existence of non-material entities such as friendship, love, beauty, poetry, truth, faith, justice and so on – the things that make life worth living. A true ‘theory of everything’, therefore, must embrace both the material and non-material aspects of the universe and my contention is we already possess such a theory, namely, the hypothesis of God.”
Like Edgard Andrews, C.S. Lewis was in search of the sort of view of the world that was big enough, not just for the world, but for him and all his fellow humans. After all, what good is a worldview that’s too small for you? Lewis followed in the direction the signposts were pointing, beyond the world for an explanation of all that is in the world. Perhaps that’s why Lewis loved using fantasy to explain fact, taking us into an imaginary world in order to teach us something about our own.
Not everyone appreciated the religious implications of C.S. Lewis’s children’s stories though. Laura Miller, co-founder of Salon.com, loved the Narnia stories when she was young. But as an adult, finding religious breadcrumbs in the Wardrobe angered her. She reflects on this in her work The Magician’s Book: A Skeptics Adventures in Narnia, “Life, unlike stories, has not theme, no formal unity, and (to unbelievers, at least) no readily apparent meaning . . . The Chronicles . . . spoke to me across a spectrum of yearning.”
For Lewis, Christianity made sense of these longings. As he said in a line at the end of his essay “Is Theology Poetry,” “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.” I want to discuss three strands of the human experience that Christianity made sense of for Lewis: reason, justice, and joy.
Christianity and Reason
C.S. Lewis became an atheist as a teenager while tutored by a level-headed logician, William T. Kirkpatrick, whom Lewis called “The Great Knock.” Kirkpatrick told Lewis to read great books in their original languages and to think critically. Years later, however, his reading and critical thinking would begin leading him away from atheism.
In his spiritual memoir Lewis writes, “A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful in his reading.” This reminds me of the lines from the seventeenth century philosopher Francis Bacon. “I had rather believe all the Fables in the Legend . . . then that this universal Frame, is without a Mind . . . It is true, that a little Philosophy inclineth Man’s Mind to Atheism: But depth in Philosophy, bringeth Men’s Minds about to Religion.”
This isn’t just a concern for philosophers. Even the great scientist Charles Darwin shared this concern. He once said, “The impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God.”
In a letter in 1881 to William Graham, a Christian author, regarding Graham’s book The Creed of Science, Darwin elaborates on this concern, “Nevertheless you have expressed my inward conviction, though far more vividly and clearly than I could have done, that the Universe is not the result of chance. But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions in a man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animal, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”
This is an argument that still garners attention from public intellectuals today. Thomas Nagel, philosophy professor at NYU, responded to this challenge in his book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Neodarwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. Nagel, an atheist, concedes the problem, though not adopting a religious solution. “Evolutionary naturalism implies that we shouldn’t take any of our convictions seriously,” he writes, “including the scientific world picture on which evolutionary naturalism itself depends.”
Lewis references this argument in numerous essays and books. He gives a lengthy treatment of it in his book Miracles, which he also debated at “The Socratic Club” at Oxford University. There’s a bit of a controversy as to how the debate went, as some felt Lewis lost. However, two points should be considered, first, his debate partner, G.E.M. Anscombe, was a Christian. She didn’t disagree with Lewis’s conclusions, rather, she challlenged the language of his argument. Second, in a later edition of Miracles, Lewis did incorporate changes that reflected their interaction. This much is clear: Lewis was refining his argument not retreating from it.
In Miracles Lewis writes, “Thus a strict materialism refutes itself for the one reason given long ago by Professor Haldane, ‘If my mental processes are determined wholly by motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true . . . and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.”
For Lewis, an intelligence, a design, a mind, behind the Cosmos, made sense of his rational pursuits.
Christianity and Justice
Lewis was a man of conviction. But how could he make sense of his moral intuitions? He was a careful student of the human experience which meant his eyes were wide open to suffering, his own and that of others. Having lost his mother as a child and served in World War I as a young man, he was no stranger to the ugliness of life. That’s what led him to eventually reject God.
But for someone like Lewis who didn’t seem to possess an unevaluated experience or an unqualified opinion, would a secular view of life make sense of his moral reasons for rejecting God? Consider a few skeptics of our day who admit, that on atheism, there is no objective standard for good and evil:
Richard Dawkins in his book A River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life makes the following bold assertion, “In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
The accomplished secular ethicist, Kai Nielson, made the same point in a journal article, “We have not been able to show that reason requires the moral point of view, or that all really rational persons should not be individual egoists or classical amoralists. Reason doesn’t decide here. The picture I have painted for you is not a pleasant one. Reflection on it depresses me . . . Pure practical reason, even with a good knowledge of the facts, will not take you to morality.”
Michael Ruse, an atheistic philosopher and popular author, puts it plainly, “ethics is illusory.” Alex Rosenberg of Duke University says that moral distinctions, the act of calling one thing good and another evil, is an illusion. Imagine seeing a boy scout walk an elderly woman across the street. When on the other side, the scout punches her in the nose and steals her purse. The idea of a moral distinction between these events is an illusion, according to Rosenberg.
Yet, we all make moral distinctions all the time. We call things unjust, evil, or good and beautiful, all the time. Where do these moral intuitions come from? For Lewis, such questions pushed him to reconsider God.
In Mere Christianity Lewis writes, “But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be a part of the show, find myself in such a violent reaction against it?”
Lewis faced the predicament: he didn’t believe in God but he did believe in justice. To make sense out of justice, however, Lewis found he needed to return to God. Christianity made sense of his moral intuitions about the universe.
Christianity and Joy
The pain of longing afflicted C.S. Lewis throughout his life. He described it as a sort of nostalgia that doesn’t look back, but rather forward, not to the familiar, but to something other, offering a deeper joy. Lewis described it as “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, the news from a country we have never visited.”
Lewis would later conclude, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” Christianity made sense out of this religious impulse. His longing for transcendence was like other longings, there was something real on the other side of the desire.
Peter Kreeft, philosopher professor at Boston College, outlines this argument as follows:
1. Every natural, innate desire in us corresponds to some real object that can satisfy that desire.
2. But there exists in us a desire which nothing, nothing on earth, no creature can satisfy.
3. Therefore, there must exist something more than time, earth and creatures, which an satisfy this desire.
After a long walk with none other than J.R.R. Tolkien, and others, Lewis bowed his head in his office at Oxford and admitted that God was God. Sometime later he would go even further up and further in, and not only embrace Theism, but the thing itself, Christianity. Lewis saw the truth of Christianity and through it, was able to see everything else.
Shortly after C.S. Lewis became a Christian he spent a holiday with his best friend from childhood, Arthur Greeves. In the two weeks he was there he wrote a book giving an allegorical account of his conversion to Christianity. He used John Bunyan’s motif from Pilgrim’s Progress. However, in Lewis’s work, the goal was not to relieve a burden but to find fulfillment for a desire. It was not about going forward, but about returning to the faith of his youth. Lewis’s book was published as The Pilgrim’s Regress.
In Lewis’s account of his conversion, he had to fight through a number of philosophies and resist the Spirit of the Age in his quest to find the fulfilment of his desire. His journey brought him back to the faith he rejected in his youth. Lewis’s character couldn’t make the journey without divine assistance.
C.S. Lewis understood that the longing to know God cannot be satisfied merely through human efforts. We see this in his often-used example of Hamlet and Shakespeare. If Hamlet were ever to know Shakespeare, Shakespeare would have to write himself into his story. This is the claim at the heart of Christianity: the author of our story has written himself into the plot.
For Lewis, the Incarnation of Jesus, what we celebrate as Christmas, made sense of his religious longing. His desire pointed to something real, though something he could never reach on his own and nothing on earth could satisfy. But God demonstrated his love in this, while we could never get to him, he came to us. Lewis descried the Incarnation as a part of a novel that has been missing. Once found, it begins to make sense of the rest of the story. For Lewis, he could see the truth of Christianity. And through it he could begin to make sense of everything else.