The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Christianity in the Age of Unbelief

God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics by C. S. Lewis, edited by Walter Hooper, Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1970, 360 pp.

Other than the Bible itself and books containing stories for children taken from the Biblical narratives the first Christian literature I remember reading was written by C. S. Lewis. I didn’t realize that it was Christian literature at the time. My mother, who loved fantasy novels, suggested that I read C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia when I was a boy. I did so and would re-read them several times as a child, a teenager, and as an adult. While I recognized by the end of the last book that Aslan was supposed to be God the various ways in which the Christian message is re-told through these novels was largely lost on me upon my first reading of these books.

It was years later, after learning about Who Jesus was (the God-Man), and the significance of His death on the cross as payment for our sins, and coming to faith in Him in my 15th year, that I re-read these novels and finally appreciated them for what they were. I would read much more of C. S. Lewis in the years after that. While a high school student I read his Screwtape Letters and his Mere Christianity, and these too would become books that I would re-read from time to time over the years. It was not until after college that I finally got around to reading his space trilogy, which like the Narnia series addresses serious topics through the medium of fiction (albeit in a very different way). I have also read several other of his non-fiction books including Of This and Other Worlds, Surprised by Joy, Letters to Malcolm, The Abolition of Man and A Grief Observed.

A couple of weeks before Easter this year, I came across a copy of God in the Dock in the library. I had heard of this book in the past but had never read it before, so I took it out and read it for the first time. This is not a book which C. S. Lewis wrote as a book. It is a compilation of various essays, speeches, radio addresses, and letters, pertaining to Christianity.

Some of these I had read in different contexts in the past. Most of them, however, I was reading for the first time. The collection was brought together into a book and edited, after Lewis’ death, by Walter Hooper, who was Lewis’ private secretary late in his life, and who became a trustee and the literary adviser to his estate. (1) It was published for the first time in 1970.

The title of the collection is drawn from the title of one of the essays in the book. This was an essay Lewis wrote in response to a request that he “write about the difficulties which a man must face in trying to present the Christian Faith to modern unbelievers”. After discussing a number of barriers to faith, such as a skepticism towards history (but not pre-history because that is labeled “science”) and linguistic barriers brought about through the change in meaning of a number of English words, Lewis brings up the matter of sin. He writes that “Apart from this linguistic difficulty, the greatest barrier I have met is the almost total absence from the minds of my audience of any sense of sin”. (p. 243) This he contrasts with the sense of guilt that existed everywhere when Christianity was born.

Lewis writes:

The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge: if God should have a reasonable defence for being the god who permits war, poverty, and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the Bench and God is in the Dock. (p. 244)

This modern arrogance has not gone away since the day Lewis wrote those words. If anything, it has deepened and gotten worse. It permeates the writings, for example, of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. We have become so autocentric, both as individual persons and as a species, that we now think of God as Someone Who if He exists at all exists to make sure that reality caters to our every whim. When something goes wrong we blame God for failing to do “His job”. The thought that God is Sovereign Lord over His creation, that we exist because of His will and to do His will, and that we are therefore accountable to Him and not the other way around, seldom crosses our mind.

It should, however, and it ought to disturb our complacent thoughts. At the end of the Book of Job in the Old Testament, God gives a furious rebuke to Job over his human arrogance. That arrogance had been expressed in far less presumptuous and far more respectful language than our own.

How does one present the claims of Christianity to people who believe that we have the right to hold God accountable to man-made standards? Lewis ends his essay by admitting that he has not found a solution to this problem.

The essays that comprise this book argue as a whole for the validity of Christian faith and morality in the age when God is “in the dock”. They are not all strictly works of apologetics, in the sense of writings addressed to unbelievers to convince them of the truth of Christianity. The essay that immediately precedes “God in the dock” proper in the compilation, for example, is entitled “Priestesses in the Church?” It addresses the subject of the ordination of women as priests in the Church of England, which is not exactly a topic one would expect to come up in the context of defending the Christian faith against skepticism. Lewis, however, who is taking the con position on the subject, does so by making the argument that the proposed changes would “make us much more rational ‘but not near so much like a Church’” (p. 235) (2) This is related to an apologetic defence of the Christian faith in the sense that it is fairly pointless to defend the Christian faith against modernity if you have brought so much modernity into the Church that the “Christian faith” is no longer distinguishable from it.

God in the Dock displays both the strengths and the weaknesses of this type of book. As an example of the latter, there is much repetition, especially among the essays on the subject of miracles, a topic on which Lewis also wrote a monograph. This should not detract from the book for an avid Lewis fan but it might be a good reason not to use this book to introduce someone who has never read C. S. Lewis before to his writings.

One of the strengths, of posthumously published compilations, however, is that a good editor can take a writer’s essays and distill the best of them into a volume that becomes a mine lode of golden nuggets of wisdom.

In this collection we find the ultimate answer to the anti-Paul nonsense that one hears in certain circles. In an essay entitled “Modern Translations of the Bible”, originally written as the preface to J. B. Phillips’ Letters To Young Churches: A Translation of the New Testament Epistles, Lewis writes:

A most astonishing misconception has long dominated the modern mind on the subject of St Paul. It is to this effect: that Jesus preached a kindly and simple religion (found in the Gospels) and that St Paul afterwards corrupted it into a cruel and complicated religion (found in the Epistles). This is really quite untenable. All the most terrifying texts come from the mouth of Our Lord: all the texts on which we can base such warrant as we have for hoping that all men will be saved come from St Paul. If it could be proved that St Paul altered the teaching of his Master in any way, he altered it in exactly the opposite way to that which is popularly supposed. (p. 232)

This is very true, and Lewis goes on to point out that while the life, death and resurrection of Christ – the content of the “gospel” came first, of the writings of the New Testament it is St. Paul’s epistles which present the Christian Church’s first reflections upon the significance of the gospel. The “Gospels” came later to provide an account of Who the Jesus that St. Paul wrote and preached about was, what He did, and what He taught.

Some of Lewis’ essays in this book have become even more timely in the decades since his death in 1963 (3). His “Humanitarian Theory of Punishment”, for example, defends the traditional view of legal punishment as being based on the fact that the offender deserves it, against the modern “humanitarian” view that punishment should be to help, heal, and fix the offender. Lewis argues, that “this doctrine, merciful though it appears, really means that each one of us, from the moment he breaks the law, is deprived of the rights of a human being”.

It is in this essay that Lewis writes the following:

Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. Their very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be ‘cured’ against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level with those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals. But to be punished, however severely, because we have deserved it, because we ‘ought to have known better’, is to be treated as a human person made in God’s image.
(p. 292)

This argument is valid against the Nanny State as a whole as much as against the humanitarian theory of punishment, and it is not surprising therefore that four chapters later we find an essay entitled “Is Progress Possible? Willing Slaves of the Welfare State”.

Greg Epstein, secular humanist chaplain at Harvard University, and one of the aggressively evangelistic new school of atheists, recently published a book entitled Good Without God which argues for a morality grounded in humanism rather than faith in a supreme Being. Long before Epstein came along, however, C. S. Lewis opened his essay “Man or Rabbit”, which is the twelth chapter in Part One of God in the Dock with the question “Can’t you lead a good life without believing in Christianity?” That is the topic he had been assigned. Lewis, however, challenged the question itself. Our belief or unbelief in Christianity, should be based not upon the question of whether it helps us be good people, but upon the question of whether or not it is true.

In this book, we find some of Lewis’ most compelling arguments as to why we can and should believe Christianity to be true. In defending the believability of Christian miracles, Lewis goes beyond pointing out that the position that “science has debunked miracles” is based upon a faulty understanding of the nature of science and science’s laws. He points out that the specific miracles claimed by Christianity, such as the turning of water into wine, the healing of the sick, and the multiplication of loaves and fishes, are all examples of things that God does all the time in Creation, through natural process. “The miracles done by God incarnate, living as a man in Palestine, perform the very same things as this wholesale activity, but at a different speed and on a smaller scale” (p. 29). This is in contrast to the kind of miracles found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, transformations that are completely arbitrary. Those the Lord refused to do:

Bread is not made of stones, as the Devil once suggested to Our Lord in vain. A little bread is made into much bread. The Son will do nothing but what He sees the Father do. (p. 30)

Christianity, then, is not just another example of mythology, no different from the stories of the Egyptians, Greeks, Norsemen, and other pagans.

We should not, however, go too far in the other direction in separating Christianity from mythology altogether. Christianity, Lewis argues, is true mythology. This is his answer to those, like Scottish anthropologist Sir James Frazer whose Golden Bough presented parallels between Christianity and the mythology of fertility cults, in order to make a case for positivism (which holds that religion is a step in the progression of mankind from primitive magic to science). Yes, pagan mythologies involved a dying god who comes back to life, a symbol of grain, which is buried, and brings forth new life.

There is a huge difference, however, between these stories and the Biblical account of the death and resurrection of Christ. The latter happened within human history. It happened to a specific person, in a specific place, at a specific time, under the nose of the authorities of the Roman Empire.

Lewis points out that the Gospels do not use the death and resurrection of Christ, the way pagan fertility religions do. The connection between His death and resurrection and the seed being planted is there, but it is not dwelt upon, and in fact is reversed. Christ makes the seed symbolic of Himself, not the other way around.

Lewis also points out that the naturalistic, fertility religion, which featured the dying-and-reviving corn king, was absent from the Jewish faith. Yet it was among the Jews, that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ took place. Lewis writes:

Well, that is almost inexplicable except on one hypothesis. How if the corn king is not mentioned in that Book, because He is here of whom the corn king was an image? How if the representation is absent, because here, at last, the thing represented is present? If the shadows are absent because the thing of which they were shadows is here? The corn itself is in its far-off way an imitation of the supernatural reality; the thing dying, and coming to life again, descending and re-ascending beyond all nature. The principle is there in nature because it was first there in God Himself. (p. 84)

The author of the book of Hebrews in the New Testament points out how the sacrifices, priests, and tabernacle/temple of the Old Testament faith, were symbols of Jesus Christ, the true Priest after the order of Melchizedek, Who offered the true sacrifice of His own blood once and for all, in the true Holy of Holies. If God was preparing the Jews for the coming of Christ, by giving them this symbolism, then would it not be reasonable to expect that He Who commanded His Gospel to be preached to all nations, would have been preparing them to receive the message as well?

In Christ then, mythology comes true, just as the true meaning of the sacrifices of Israel was finally unfolded in Him.

(1) Hooper is also now an Anglican priest.

(2) The quotation marks within the quote are there because he is paraphrasing Charles Bingley from Pride and Prejudice.

(3) He died on the same day J. F. K. was assassinated. Aldous Huxley died the same day as well.

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