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An Evolutionary Fluke

January 11, 2022 — 19 Comments

Did trees evolve from apes? An odd question, to be sure, but one humorously posed by C.S. Lewis in a letter to his father.

While this column does discuss the theory of evolution, it’s not doctrinaire. So, whatever your opinion of Darwin’s notions, read on, and you may enjoy a pleasant surprise.

C.S. Lewis, the brilliant Christian apologist was not an ironclad “evangelical” in the American sense of the word. Here in the U.S., that typically requires adherence to a handful of doctrines, usually including the affirmation of the infallibility of the Scriptural autographs and of the creation of humanity in the persons of our first parents, Adam and Eve.

As important as these matters are, very few Christians would deem them salvific, in the sense that people holding less “vigorous” views on these issues will be excluded from heaven.

C.S. Lewis was one of those who focused on the core of the Christian faith, rather than secondary doctrines. He referred to this as “mere Christianity,” and it was based on a trusting relationship with God through the Person of Jesus, God present with us in the Incarnate Word.

As for doctrines per se, like all good defenders of the faith, C.S. Lewis preferred not to get bogged down with secondary matters. This is consistent with the spirit of Paul’s advice to the young pastor, Timothy.

Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. . . . Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone . . . (2 Timothy 2:14, 23-24).

Lewis’ 1927 Evolutionary Conversation

In March of 1927, C.S. Lewis wrote one of his eclectic letters to his father in Northern Ireland. As usual, he commented on his father’s previous correspondence and shared about his current health and activities. While his relationship with his father grew strained after his mother’s untimely death while he was still a child, Lewis’ letters to his father exude familial respect framed in the context of early twentieth century British sensibilities.

That said, Lewis was always eager to share curious or silly experiences he knew would amuse his solicitor father. He takes a humorous approach, for instance, to advising his father to consult a more skilled doctor to diagnose an ailment, rather than suffering with the incomplete work of the physician he has always known, he will simply be “offer[ing] up several months of pain as a sacrifice on the altar of an old acquaintance.”

At the same time, he acknowledges his personal inclination toward doing the same, stating that “if I lived at home [I] would continue to use Gillespie all my life.” Gillespie, it turns out, ran a taxi service long favored by the family despite his bumpy transportation. “I have never regretted Gillespie and his hexagonal wheel,” Lewis shares.

He returns to his argument, however, by saying his father’s health demands the attention of a competent physician rather than relying on past ties. He concludes with an illustration based on his own brother. “Hang it all, even you wouldn’t suggest that because I’ve known Warnie a long time I ought to trust him as an interpreter on a holiday in Spain.”

C.S. Lewis proceeds to share with his father current events at Magdalen College (“we are putting up a new building”) and a recent nightmare (“it was the sense of being on the moon . . . the complete desolateness, which gave the extraordinary effect”).

The letter includes other fascinating elements, but it is time now to consider the reference to evolution.

An Absurd Age

I absolutely love the way C.S. Lewis invites us to experience the following moment. His story is so vivid, it still lives a century after the described events transpired.

We live in the most absurd age. I met a girl the other day who had been teaching in an infant school (boys and girls up to the age of six) where the infants are taught the theory of Evolution. Or rather the Headmistress’s version of it.

Simple people like ourselves had an idea that Darwin said that life developed from simple organisms up to the higher plants and animals, finally to the monkey group, and from the monkey group to man.

The infants however seem to be taught that ‘in the beginning was the Ape’ from whom all other life developed – including such dainties as the Brontosaurus and the Iguanodon.

Whether the plants were supposed to be descendants of the ape I didn’t gather. And then people talk about the credulity of the middle ages! À propos of this can you tell me who said ‘Before you begin these studies, I should warn you that you need much more faith in science than in theology.’ It was Huxley or Clifford or one of the nineteenth century scientists, I think.

Another good remark I read long ago in one of E. Nesbitt’s fairy tales –‘Grown ups know that children can believe almost anything: that’s why they tell you that the earth is round and smooth like an orange when you can see perfectly well for yourself that it’s flat and lumpy.’

Ironically, immediately after this, Lewis introduces his next subject with the words: “Almost the only interesting thing that has happened to me lately was a visit from a young German.” You see, I wasn’t misleading you when I said his letters are filled with fascinating material.

One must assume that times have changed, and that English children are no longer being taught such simplistic distortions of actual theories. But that’s not the theme of this current post. Rather, I wish to show how wonderfully entertaining a simple family letter can be – especially when it comes from the pen of C.S. Lewis.

I think I know what C.S. Lewis would think of this. Academic titles are often confusing to those unfamiliar with the maze of higher education. And their usage sometimes reveals the vanity of their bearers. For example, some people insist on using titles such as “Doctor,” even when they earned the degree online with requirements that pale when compared to an honest bachelor’s degree.

When young, most of us become acquainted with the title “Doctor” in association with medical treatment. Even as adults, many people immediately think of stethoscopes and syringes when they hear the word.

Because an M.D. (Doctor of Medicine) is a professional degree, similar to an Ed.D. (Doctor of Education) or J.D. (Doctor of Law), some holders of so-called academic degrees such as the Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) disparage them. I recall a conversation with an acquaintance who taught college courses at our overseas military base. Upon my mention of one of our flight surgeons, the professor said with a chuckle, “oh, I thought you were referring to a real doctor.”

Professional degrees are, in fact, real. The current conversation about the First Lady’s desire to be addressed as “doctor” is inappropriate. She earned her Ed.D., and such honorifics are appropriate. While—prior to becoming an “emeritus”—I always preferred the simple title “pastor,” during my years as a chaplain, I was frequently addressed by my military rank. I would gently remind the individual that (per regulation) all chaplains, even flag officers, are to be addressed as “chaplain” or another appropriate religious title.

I have written about titles in the past. They are useful, and many possess deep inherent significance. Think of “rabbi” in the case of Jewish teachers such as Nicodemus. He was the Pharisee who approached Jesus of Nazareth saying, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (John 3).

Solid academic credentials, like hard-earned skills or talents, do not guarantee success. Circumstances, and even prejudices, often limit opportunities. It was, after all, the snobbery of the English faculty at Oxford that denied C.S. Lewis a full professorship while he taught there. The more enlightened Cambridge righted that wrong. You can read an account of that sad story here.

Shifting Fashions in Academia

This mention of Oxbridge leads us to the inspiration for today’s reflections. For a number of years, some universities have exchanged long held traditions for a variety of modern fashions. (They remain bastions of many archaic customs, of course, and not all of them noble.)

One such discarded tradition was referring to certain university roles with the title “master.” It was used in the British sense, owing nothing at all to the historical blight of slavery. Rather, as Yale University stated in their announcement:

The term “master,” when used to describe the role in the residential colleges, will be changed to “head of college.” The use of “master” as a title at Yale is a legacy of the college systems at Oxford and Cambridge. The term derives from the Latin magister, meaning “chief, head, director, teacher,” and it appears in the titles of university degrees (master of arts, master of science, and others) and in many aspects of the larger culture (master craftsman, master builder).

The rationale for their decision—which one wonders whether it may eventually be applied even to “master degrees”—is revealed in the inevitable victor in contemporary social debates.

Some members of our community argued that discarding the term “master” would interject into an ancient collegiate tradition a racial narrative that has never been associated with its use in the academy. Others maintained that regardless of its history of use in the academy, the title—especially when applied to an authority figure—carries a painful and unwelcome connotation that can be difficult or impossible for some students and residential college staff to ignore.

What struck me was not the commonplace rejection of traditional verbiage. Words change and although I have a couple sheets of paper declaring me a magister (master), I possess no exceptional attachment to the title.

One thought that flashed upon my mind when I heard the choice of a replacement title. Head strikes me as an altogether loftier appellation than master. The head is the utter sovereign of the body. Consider the following declaration from the fourth chapter of Ephesians.

And he gave the apostles . . . to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ . . . speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

Head is a powerful word in the Scriptures. Doubtless its days are also numbered at Yale, should any of their “Religious Studies” scholars stumble across other biblical passages, such as Ephesians 5:23 or 1 Corinthians 11:3.

A More Ominous Reason to Beware of Academic Heads

Readers of C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy (also referred to as the cosmic trilogy or the Ransom trilogy, after the name of its protagonist) should immediately draw the same connection I did about the potential dangers wrought by academic heads.

The three books are outstanding, individually and as a group. They deal with humanity living in the midst of a supernatural universe, when spiritual forces of holy and unholy purpose vie to influence us. (Just as they do in the real world in which we all reside.) One article echoing my encouragement to read the trilogy acknowledges,

While Narnia is a world apart from our own, this science fiction trilogy is set within our own solar system. While its events happen closer to home, perhaps one reason that it gets relatively little attention is that it lacks a Christ figure on par with Aslan the Lion. Though this of course is silly, as the Christ figure of our world is Christ himself.

Perhaps the biggest reason it is less popular than Narnia is that its lessons are not as easily digested. The Space Trilogy is aimed at adult readers and not at children.

I cannot reveal the significance of the academic leader at work in the final volume, That Hideous Strength. Suffice it to say that the head of the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.) may not live up to the acronym of the academy he oversees. He is rather dictatorial, as one of his faculty inadvertently suggests when attempting to recruit a young PhD candidate for the Institute.

“What exactly are you asking me to do?” she said.

“To come and see our chief, first of all. And then—well, to join. It would involve making certain promises to him. He really is a Head, you see. We have all agreed to take his orders” (That Hideous Strength).

C.S. Lewis’ life revolved around the university. I would love to share a cup of tea with him today and hear what he would think about the modern elimination of the title master. Still, I somehow doubt the Oxford and Cambridge don’s opinion would come as any surprise.

Who Should We Trust?

March 24, 2014 — 14 Comments

staffordshire cross“You can trust me, I’m a pastor.” When I was ordained thirty-three years ago, that might have been sufficient to persuade many people to give me the benefit of the doubt. Not so today.

The latest Gallup poll records the continuing decline of our trust in “clergy.” Relentless negative press (much of it recording genuinely criminal and repellent behaviors) has taken its toll. Today only 47% of Americans trust ministers (of all faiths).

The good news, if you can consider it that, is that clergy still rank as the seventh most trusted group (out of twenty-two vocations considered).

But it remains quite pitiful. And quite understandable. Even being a pastor, there are many people considered clergy who I would not trust. First of all, anyone who purchased their “ordination” over the internet, and has the audacity to pretend to be a minister. I see a credibility gap there. (I would not include those who buy one of the fake diplomas as a “joke” to be untrustworthy . . . only those who pass themselves off as a “real minister.”)

I could go on, but my purpose here is not to trash clergy, since more than enough people already devote themselves to that purpose.

I am curious just who, in our increasingly uncertain and selfish world, we should trust.

I personally am in a rather envious position. I don’t have to rely on hoping people will trust me because I’m a pastor. I am also a sworn officer of the law. Albeit, I merely serve as a volunteer chaplain with my local county Sheriff’s Office, but we honestly do swear an oath to uphold the law, and we proudly wear regular uniforms, complete with our own chaplain badges (stars).

The thing about being in law enforcement is that I can benefit from the fact that it is the sixth most respected institution. So that carries me across the halfway mark all the way to the 54% trustworthiness milestone. I guess that’s fair, since I too place a higher trust in the integrity and professionalism of the average deputy or officer than I do in the average minister.

But, as I already said, I’m in a rather unique position, in that I also qualify for an even more respected category, that of a military officer. The 69% level of trust for military officers ties that of doctors and is only 1% below grade school teachers and pharmacists. So, I guess that if I want to instill confidence in my integrity, I’d best tell people that I’m a (retired) Air Force officer, and not that I am a member of the First Estate.

Trust is important. It’s a key commodity in any relationship, and absolutely essential for intimate relationships such as those shared within a family. Trust takes a great deal of time to build, and it can be shattered in just a moment. Its fragility is the primary reason why it must be treasured and guarded.

Trusted are those who never give others a cause to doubt them. My wife and I made a promise to our children that we would never lie to them. Never. We explained there would be times when we could not tell them something, or where we could only reveal a portion of the facts about a matter . . . but we promised them that whatever we did tell them would be the absolute truth insofar as we were aware.

Because of our honesty with them, our children (all adults now, of course), have been amazingly honest with us the whole of their lives. They trust us. We trust them. And none of us take that amazing gift for granted.

In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis describes his introduction to J.R.R. Tolkien. Although the two would become lifelong friends, there were obstacles that needed to be overcome. One, described by Lewis, was that Tolkien belonged to not one, but two, categories of people who Lewis had been taught to regard as suspect. He was an atheist at the time, but it wasn’t simply Tolkien’s deep faith in Christ that gave him pause.

When I began teaching for the English Faculty, I made two other friends, both Christians (these queer people seemed now to pop up on every side) who were later to give me much help in getting over the last stile. They were H.V.V. Dyson (then of Reading) and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Friendship with the latter marked the breakdown of two old prejudices. At my first coming into the world I had been (implicitly) warned never to trust a Papist, and at my first coming into the English Faculty (explicitly) never to trust a philologist. Tolkien was both.

I’m not sure where philologists ranked on Gallup’s recent poll, but I am quite sure they did not include questions about different denominations or faith groups. Before ending these thoughts I suppose I should share with you the most trusted group in the survey—nurses. Eighty-two percent of Americans trust nurses. And I too would agree with that.

The matter of who we can safely trust is of great importance. In fact, it could be argued that it is the most important question in our lives.

Ultimately, even when we assure one another we will only speak the truth . . . even then we disappoint one another. Being human, we are finite, imperfect. We cannot always be there, even for those we love. Sometimes we fail to live up to our own standards and our promises dispel like a vapor in the wind.

Johnny Cash recorded a powerful song before he died. He had lived a rough and tumble life, and had found peace in a relationship with Christ. That peace, however, did not cure all of the ills or heal all of the scars he had experienced, and his profound familiarity with this world inspired the gritty lyrics of “Hurt.”

I wear this crown of thorns

Upon my liar’s chair

Full of broken thoughts

I cannot repair

Beneath the stains of time

The feelings disappear

You are someone else

I am still right here

What have I become

My sweetest friend

Everyone I know goes away

In the end

And you could have it all

My empire of dirt

I will let you down

I will make you hurt

In a moment, I’ll share a link to his performance of this moving song. But first, the answer to the question with which we began.

Who, exactly, should we trust? Johnny Cash learned the answer to that question, and so did C.S. Lewis. I trust the same Person that they did—someone who will never disappoint. Someone who cannot lie, since he himself is the Truth. As Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 2:

Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David . . . I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. The saying is trustworthy, for:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;

if we endure, we will also reign with him . . .

if we are faithless, he remains faithful—

for he cannot deny himself.

_____

If you wish to watch the video of Johnny Cash’s musical epitaph, you can see it here.

The pectoral cross show above is part of the Staffordshire Hoard, which is the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon metalwork ever found. It dates from the 7th or 8th century.