Archives For Religion

Robotic Religion

June 6, 2016 — 17 Comments

robot monkClergy can be irritating. I know that better than most . . . because I am one.

While a tiny minority bear some striking similarities to humble saints of the past, far more carry all of the common marks of fallen humanity. They can be argumentative, vain, manipulative, and even vindictive.

It’s not pretty.

Ministers aren’t unique. Being on the “inside” of any community—be it construction workers, educators, soldiers, bankers and politicians—allows one to see unpleasant attributes that are often shielded from the general population.

But, getting back to clergy . . . Since their role is unique in conveying “divine” counsel to others, it is especially important that they be approachable and amicable.

Scientists in China are working on a means of getting around the built-in limitations of the human mediation of divine wisdom.*

They have devised a “robot monk.” It is quite versatile. Not only can it chant Buddhist mantras, something an iPod could do at least as well, it is able to carry on a conversation! Well, the conversation is presently limited to 20 set questions about Buddhism. And the use of a touch screen “held” against his chest makes the comparison with an iPad a bit more accurate.

The automaton’s creator predicts the robot in the yellow robe of a novice will have a major impact, even though he spends most of his day “meditating” on an office shelf.

Enthusiastically agreeing, one worshiper said, “He looks really cute and adorable. He’ll spread Buddhism to more people, since they will think he’s very interesting, and will make them really want to understand Buddhism.”

Now, how can a Christian pastor hope to compete with that. After all, not many are considered to be “cute and adorable.”

What Would C.S. Lewis Think?

That’s a question I sometimes ponder when confronted by particularly odd realities that few of his day could have foreseen.

Lewis was quite respectful of clergy. Read, for example, this account of the way that even religious leaders can succumb to a type of patriotism that is far from biblical.

Patriotism . . . is not a sentiment but a belief: a firm, even prosaic belief that our own nation, in sober fact, has long been, and still is markedly superior to all others. I once ventured to say to an old clergyman who was voicing this sort of patriotism, “But, sir, aren’t we told that every people thinks its own men the bravest and its own women the fairest in the world?”

He replied with total gravity—he could not have been graver if he had been saying the Creed at the altar—“Yes, but in England it’s true.” To be sure, this conviction had not made my friend (God rest his soul) a villain; only an extremely lovable old ass. It can however produce asses that kick and bite. On the lunatic fringe it may shade off into that popular Racialism which Christianity and science equally forbid. (The Four Loves)

Now, it was not the personality or demeanor of this elderly priest that made his comment inappropriate. It was the comment itself. But for a prime example of clerical pride that drives people away from the Gospel, one needs look no farther than the “Episcopal Ghost” in Lewis’ The Great Divorce.

In Mere Christianity, Lewis concisely states the distinctive purpose of clergy. “The clergy are those particular people within the whole Church who have been specially trained and set aside to look after what concerns us as creatures who are going to live for ever.”

Could any other role demand so much integrity and goodwill? I think not. And it is precisely because this role is so unique and significant, that our shortcomings are doubly damning.

Perhaps, given the failings of sinful (i.e. all) ministers, it’s time to consider substituting a robot?

shermanI have no doubt that in no few cases it would be an improvement.

Of course, Christian churches would require a different model. Perhaps one that looks like Sherman on the Mount (minus the bird)?

_____

* You can read a Reuters article about this marvel of Chinese technology here.

Professor Bob Dylan

February 24, 2015 — 13 Comments

dylanCan you imagine having singer Bob Dylan as your high school history teacher?

According to a recent interview,* it could have happened.

Still actively touring in his seventies and considered an American musical icon. I was stunned to hear what he said about another path his life may have taken. The interviewer posted the remark this way:

Bob Dylan: His True Calling

“If I had to do it all over again, I’d be a schoolteacher—probably teach Roman history or theology.”

I didn’t realize he and I had so much in common! When I did my undergrad studies in history, I took every Roman history course the University of Washington offered. As for theology . . . well, having become a pastor, my interest in the study of God’s revelation of himself to the world is a given.

Can you imagine Dylan lecturing on apotheosis in the early empire? [Apotheosis is the elevation of a person to godhood, and was a formal event after the death of some emperors. The emperors themselves knew it was a farce, of course. Seneca wrote that emperor Vespasian, on his deathbed, actually said, “Alas, I think I’m becoming a God.”]

Bob Dylan’s interest in spiritual matters is genuine. He has high praise in the interview for Billy Graham. “This guy was rock ‘n’ roll personified. He filled football stadiums before Mick Jagger did.”

In 1979, Dylan released the first of three “Christian” albums, “Slow Train Coming.” It has a number of great pieces, and I listen to the album at least once a month. One song, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” won him the Grammy that year for “Best Male Vocalist.” It’s lyrics are sobering, and everyone should hear it at least once.

And, Speaking of C.S. Lewis

Well, we weren’t actually. But, here at Mere Inkling we usually do.

These two men bear some obvious parallels. They are masters of words. Poets extraordinaire. Lewis and Dylan both possess enviable creative imaginations. Each has accumulated a vast legacy in their work, which will continue to inspire for many generations to come.

I also learned this on the internet—they share the same Myers-Briggs personality type. At least, this site claims they are both INFPs. (I’m an ENTJ myself, a common personality aggregate for pastors.)

And, they had at least one more thing in common. They knew that in this life, there is no such thing as spiritual neutrality. When we ultimately stand before the throne of our Creator, it will not suffice to say, “Well, I didn’t do anything truly evil.”

In a moment we will listen to Dylan’s ballad about the choice before us. First, though, consider how Lewis uses the imagery of the war engulfing the world in the 1940s to describe this truth.

Why is God landing in this enemy-occupied world in disguise and starting a sort of secret society to undermine the devil? Why is He not landing in force, invading it? Is it that He is not strong enough? Well, Christians think He is going to land in force; we do not know when. But we can guess why He is delaying. He wants to give us the chance of joining His side freely. I do not suppose you and I would have thought much of a Frenchman who waited till the Allies were marching into Germany and then announced he was on our side.

God will invade. But I wonder whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realize what it will be like when He does. When that happens, it is the end of the world.

When the author walks on to the stage the play is over. God is going to invade, all right: but what is the good of saying you are on His side then, when you see the whole natural universe melting away like a dream and something else—something it never entered your head to conceive—comes crashing in; something so beautiful to some of us and so terrible to others that none of us will have any choice left? For this time it will be God without disguise; something so overwhelming that it will strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature.

It will be too late then to choose your side. There is no use saying you choose to lie down when it has become impossible to stand up. That will not be the time for choosing; it will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen, whether we realized it before or not. Now, today, this moment, is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us that chance. It will not last forever. We must take it or leave it. (Mere Christianity).

Now, as promised, “Gotta Serve Somebody.”

_____

*You can read the entire interview in the current issue of AARP The Magazine, available here.

Introducing Anatole France

August 11, 2014 — 9 Comments

papeThere’s always a new author to meet. Some are more worth meeting than others.

I was introduced to Anatole France (1844-1924) when I saw him listed on the “must read” list of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I’m not a big Fitzgerald fan, but as an amateur literary historian, I was curious about how this particular list was recovered. Apparently, he had dictated it to one of his nurses, several years before his death. However, the list only turned up last year, having lain unnoticed in the nurse’s effects.

The France title that Fitzgerald deemed essential was The Revolt of the Angels. Its importance to him is highlighted by the fact that this relatively short list only included twenty-two titles. And one of that mere score of selections was The Revolt of the Angels.

The angelic dimension of the work is what intrigued me. Angels, of course, are real beings. They’re distinct from people (contrary to the pervasive contemporary notion that when people die they “become” angels).

There actually was an angelic revolt, and there are several references to it in the Scriptures. “How you are fallen from heaven,
O Day Star, son of Dawn!” (Isaiah 14:12).

I was curious whether France was writing about this ancient event. I was also intrigued by Fitzgerald’s interest in the volume, given its subject.

I was disappointed.

It turns out that, like Mark Twain, France was sympathetic to the Devil. I’m sure he thought himself quite the wit when he wrote, in reference to the Bible, “We have never heard the devil’s side of the story, God wrote the whole book.”

I don’t have time to read texts like this—when there is more than enough good literature to keep me occupied for several lifetimes. However, it appears to be based on Gnostic concepts with God (the Creator of this world) viewed as an imperfect demiurge. His incompetence, it seems, justifies the heavenly revolt.

Suffice it to say, the book is commended for reading by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. That sort of endorsement speaks volumes.

Here, however, is a random paragraph. It may be illustrative of the tone of the work, even though pulled from its context. The speaker is, I believe, one of the positive characters in the book. While France himself was an atheist, his sympathetic character summarizes a pagan cosmology quite elegantly.

Young Maurice’s guardian angel [said] “I argue, like you, in the language of human beings. And what is human language but the cry of the beasts of the forests or the mountains, complicated and corrupted by arrogant anthropoids. How then . . . can one be expected to argue well with a collection of angry or plaintive sounds like that?

Angels do not reason at all; men, being superior to the angels, reason imperfectly. I will not mention the professors who think to define the absolute with the aid of cries that they have inherited from the pithecanthropoid monkeys, marsupials, and reptiles, their ancestors! It is a colossal joke! How it would amuse the demiurge, if he had any brains!”

That is actually a rather provocative quote, and I’m sure it may lead some to explore the text even further. I certainly don’t object to that, and would be curious to hear back from anyone familiar with the book. I would especially like to see the reaction of Christians to The Revolt of the Angels.

If you are interested in a more creative fictional treatment of fallen angels, be sure to read C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. While the presentation is truly groundbreaking, Lewis’ take on the motives and nature of these defeated beings is actually based on reality. Cast from the heavens they are consumed with rage and hatred of God.

A positive note about Anatole France

Whatever I think about the writer’s theology, I did read several wise quotations attributed to him. I’d like to close with these, as they may be more edifying than our discussion of Gnostic cosmology.

“Nine tenths of education is encouragement.”

“Some succeed because they are destined to; most succeed because they are determined to.”

“If 50 million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.”

“When a thing has been said and well said, have no scruple; take it and copy it.”

And my favorite:

“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”

_____

The illustration above is the work of Frank C. Papé (1874-1972) an English book illustrator. It comes from another of France’s “religious” works.

Face to Face with God

October 28, 2013 — 14 Comments

Jesus with animalsA recent letter to the editor of Lutheran Witness includes a delightful example of the wondrous glory of childhood simplicity.

When our four-year-old son . . . saw a bird outside the window, he commented “I wish I were a bird with wings so I could fly up to heaven and talk to Jesus.” [His parents] asked what he would say to Jesus if he were a bird. His simple reply . . . “Tweet, tweet.”

How gloriously innocent. So unpretentious and joyously pure. I think this captures the essence of what Jesus was referring to when he said “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3-4, ESV).

C.S. Lewis discussed the innocence of children in his essay “The Abolition of Man.” He is discussing the monolithic power of society, or government, in reshaping what it means to be human. God preserve us from those who would redefine and eradicate the very qualities of humanity Jesus praised.

Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man. The battle will then be won. . . . But who, precisely, will have won it? For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please. . . .

Hitherto the plans of educationalists have achieved very little of what they attempted and indeed, when we read them—how Plato would have every infant “a bastard nursed in a bureau,” and Elyot would have the boy see no men before the age of seven and, after that, no women, and how Locke wants children to have leaky shoes and no turn for poetry—we may well thank the beneficent obstinacy of real mothers, real nurses, and (above all) real children for preserving the human race in such sanity as it still possesses.

But the man-moulders of the new age will be armed with the powers of an omnicompetent state and an irresistible scientific technique: we shall get at last a race of conditioners who really can cut out all posterity in what shape they please.

When you and I stand in the presence of God, our adult words will vary. We’ll all drop to our knees—some in adoration, others perhaps in fear—but what will we say?

I can imagine some of the words that will come to our lips.

“Thank you.”

“Why did you allow . . ?”

“I love you.”

“I despise you because . . ?”

“Hallelujah.”

Or, perhaps, “Why did you delay so long?”*

I suspect we will probably be speechless. Certainly, at first. There’s a song that captures well the mystery that awaits us when we find ourselves face to face with our Creator. It’s more in spirit with the response of the young child who simply tweeted out his greeting to God.

Surrounded by Your Glory, what will my heart feel?

Will I dance for you, Jesus? Or in awe of You, be still?

Will I stand in Your presence, or to my knees will I fall?

Will I sing ‘Hallelujah!’? Will I be able to speak at all?

I can only imagine! I can only imagine!

We used to sing this song at chapel services in southwest Asia. I have often thought it would be very meaningful to record this song in my own voice, to be played at my own funeral (should the Lord tarry).

That’s not nearly as morbid as some might think. It’s a song of praise, awe and wonder, in my rendition I would end it with the words “I no longer imagine,” for my faith in God will have given way to sight.

_____
* The answer to that question is actually found in the Scriptures. From the third chapter of Peter’s second epistle:

This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.

Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

Unimpressive Clergy

September 9, 2013 — 9 Comments

sheeps clothingI recently read something alarming. Apparently pastors merit little respect nowadays.

I guess that didn’t surprise me, but it did sadden me, that the once respected “profession” of the ministry has fallen so far in the public’s esteem.

Christianity Today, a fine magazine, reported a Pew Research poll that inquired as to whether people believed that “pastors contribute ‘a lot’ to the well-being of society.”

37% of adults agreed

52% of weekly churchgoers agreed

I’m not surprised only a third of the general American population agrees with that notion . . . but I’m amazed that only half of the people who actually attend religious services concur with the statement.

Only half of the people who go to church think pastors do anything worthwhile!

Perhaps they’re like most people who think so little of members of Congress. They like their own representatives and senators (readily reelecting them), but hold the rest of Congress in disdain.

Students of poll-taking recognize the results depend on a wide range of factors. Most significant is precisely how the question is posed. I suppose the phrasing “a lot” to rate magnitude of the clergy’s contribution could account for some of the negative responses.

Still, it’s logical that most of the people who disagreed with the premise, really do possess a low opinion of clergy. In the wake of child abuse scandals and those infrequent but well publicized cases where ministers commit outrageous crimes, it should come as no surprise.

I suppose it wouldn’t bother me quite so much that clergy were held in low regard, if I wasn’t a pastor myself.

But, as I was ruminating over this gloomy fact, it dawned on me that I actually share the less than glowing opinion of many of the poll’s respondents. I too don’t think that highly of many of the so-called ministers out there either. Especially the self-ordained ones or those pseudo-clergy who just buy a diploma off the internet. (The latter group really irritates me, since I belong to a denomination that requires four full years of seminary education prior to ordination.)

Not that education is all that significant in evaluating ministries. Many highly dedicated and productive ministers never attended seminary at all. And, on the reverse side of the coin, many people who have highly advanced theological degrees are self-aggrandizing hypocrites.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite passages from C.S. Lewis’ allegory about the separation between heaven and hell. In The Great Divorce he relates a conversation involving a lost soul who was a highly regarded theologian while he was alive.

Lewis calls him the “episcopal ghost,” but that’s not a reference to his denomination, merely his ostentatious persona and the fact that he attained the lofty office of “bishop.” Unfortunately, I’ve met more than one person during my life who greatly resembles the misguided theologian in the story.

I enjoy this particular literary encounter so much that I wrote an article about it for a C.S. Lewis journal some years ago.*

If you’ve never read The Great Divorce, you’re missing out on a real gem. It is one of the very few books I have ever read in a single sitting. Once I began it, I couldn’t put it down. (I know that’s a cliche, but in this case it’s literally true.)

The passage I find so provocative appears below. (I didn’t have the heart to edit it, since some readers will want to follow the entire conversation.) After rereading it, I’m beginning to wonder why anyone in Pew’s poll considered clergy praiseworthy.

To understand the dialog, allow me to set the stage. In this fictional work, various “ghosts” (insubstantial souls of those who died without a relationship to Christ) are met at the outskirts of heaven by “bright people” (redeemed, truly real human beings) with whom they were acquainted during their mortal lives. The redeemed individuals attempt to persuade the lost to desire in some small way to draw close to God, so that they might continue a journey drawing closer to his grace.

In this scenario, the two men were both liberal theologians, but one of them, before he died, came to believe that what the Scriptures teach was actually true.

_____

* “Confused Clerics,” The Lamp-Post 18.1 (March 1994): 15-22.

One Sad Pastor

‘My dear boy, I’m delighted to see you,’ [the Ghost] was saying to the Spirit, who was naked and almost blindingly white.** ‘I was talking to your poor father the other day and wondering where you were.’

‘You didn’t bring him?’ said the other.

‘Well, no. He lives a long way from the bus, and, to be quite frank, he’s been getting a little eccentric lately. A little difficult. Losing his grip. He never was prepared to make any great efforts, you know. If you remember, he used to go to sleep when you and I got talking seriously! Ah, Dick, I shall never forget some of our talks. I expect you’ve changed your views a bit since then. You became rather narrow-minded towards the end of your life: but no doubt you’ve broadened out again.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘Well, it’s obvious by now, isn’t it, that you weren’t quite right. Why, my dear boy, you were coming to believe in a literal Heaven and Hell!’

‘But wasn’t I right?’

‘Oh, in a spiritual sense, to be sure. I still believe in them in that way. I am still, my dear boy, looking for the Kingdom. But nothing superstitious or mythological…’

‘Excuse me. Where do you imagine you’ve been?’

‘Ah, I see. You mean that the grey town with its continual hope of morning (we must all live by hope, must we not?), with its field for indefinite progress, is, in a sense, Heaven, if only we have eyes to see it? That is a beautiful idea.’

‘I didn’t mean that at all. Is it possible you don’t know where you’ve been?’

‘Now that you mention it, I don’t think we ever do give it a name. What do you call it?’

‘We call it Hell.’

‘There is no need to be profane, my dear boy. I may not be very orthodox, in your sense of that word, but I do feel that these matters ought to be discussed simply, and seriously, and reverently.’

‘Discuss Hell reverently? I meant what I said. You have been in Hell: though if you don’t go back you may call it Purgatory.’

‘Go on, my dear boy, go on. That is so like you. No doubt you’ll tell me why, on your view, I was sent there. I’m not angry.’

‘But don’t you know? You went there because you are an apostate.’

‘Are you serious, Dick?’

‘Perfectly.’

‘This is worse than I expected. Do you really think people are penalised for their honest opinions? Even assuming, for the sake of argument, that those opinions were mistaken.’

‘Do you really think there are no sins of intellect?’

‘There are indeed, Dick. There is hide-bound prejudice, and intellectual dishonesty, and timidity, and stagnation. But honest opinions fearlessly followed—they are not sins.’

‘I know we used to talk that way. I did it too until the end of my life when I became what you call narrow. It all turns on what are honest opinions.’

‘Mine certainly were. They were not only honest but heroic. I asserted them fearlessly. When the doctrine of the Resurrection ceased to commend itself to the critical faculties which God had given me, I openly rejected it. I preached my famous sermon. I defied the whole chapter. I took every risk.’

‘What risk? What was at all likely to come of it except what actually came—popularity, sales for your books, invitations, and finally a bishopric?’

‘Dick, this is unworthy of you. What are you suggesting?’

‘Friend, I am not suggesting at all. You see, I know now. Let us be frank. Our opinions were not honestly come by. We simply found ourselves in contact with a certain current of ideas and plunged into it because it seemed modern and successful. At College, you know, we just started automatically writing the kind of essays that got good marks and saying the kind of things that won applause. When, in our whole lives, did we honestly face, in solitude, the one question on which all turned: whether after all the Supernatural might not in fact occur? When did we put up one moment’s real resistance to the loss of our faith?’

‘If this is meant to be a sketch of the genesis of liberal theology in general, I reply that it is a mere libel. Do you suggest that men like…’

‘I have nothing to do with any generality. Nor with any man but you and me. Oh, as you love your own soul, remember. You know that you and I were playing with loaded dice. We didn’t want the other to be true. We were afraid of crude salvationism, afraid of a breach with the spirit of
the age, afraid of ridicule, afraid (above all) of real spiritual fears and hopes.’

‘I’m far from denying that young men may make mistakes. They may well be influenced by current fashions of thought. But it’s not a question of how the opinions are formed. The point is that they were my honest opinions, sincerely expressed.’

‘Of course. Having allowed oneself to drift, unresisting, unpraying, accepting every half-conscious solicitation from our desires, we reached a point where we no longer believed the Faith. Just in the same way, a jealous man, drifting and unresisting, reaches a point at which he believes lies about his best friend: a drunkard reaches a point at which (for the moment) he actually believes that another glass will do him no harm. The beliefs are sincere in the sense that they do occur as psychological events in the man’s mind. If that’s what you mean by sincerity they are sincere, and so were ours. But errors which are sincere in that sense are not innocent.’

‘You’ll be justifying the Inquisition in a moment!’

‘Why? Because the Middle Ages erred in one direction, does it follow that there is no error in the opposite direction?’

‘Well, this is extremely interesting,’ said the Episcopal Ghost. ‘It’s a point of view. Certainly, it’s a point of view. In the meantime…’

‘There is no meantime,’ replied the other. ‘All that is over. We are not playing now. I have been talking of the past (your past and mine) only in order that you may turn from it forever. One wrench and the tooth will be out. You can begin as if nothing had ever gone wrong. White as snow. It’s all true, you know. He is in me, for you, with that power. And—I have come a long journey to meet you. You have seen Hell: you are in sight of Heaven. Will you, even now, repent and believe?’

‘I’m not sure that I’ve got the exact point you are trying to make,’ said the Ghost.

‘I am not trying to make any point,’ said the Spirit. ‘I am telling you to repent and believe.’

‘But my dear boy, I believe already. We may
not be perfectly agreed, but you have completely misjudged me if you do not realise that my religion is a very real and a very precious thing to me.’

‘Very well,’ said the other, as if changing his plan. ‘Will you believe in me?’

‘In what sense?’

‘Will you come with me to the mountains? It will hurt at first, until your feet are hardened. Reality is harsh to the feet of shadows. But will you come?’

‘Well, that is a plan. I am perfectly ready to consider it. Of course I should require some assurances…I should want a guarantee that you are taking me to a place where I shall find a wider sphere of usefulness—and scope for the talents that God has given me—and an atmosphere of free inquiry—in short, all that one means by civilisation and—er—the spiritual life.’

‘No,’ said the other. ‘I can promise you none of these things. No sphere of usefulness: you are not needed there at all. No scope for your talents: only forgiveness for having perverted them. No atmosphere of inquiry, for I will bring you to the land not of questions but of answers, and you shall see the face of God.’

‘Ah, but we must all interpret those beautiful words in our own way! For me there is no such thing as a final answer. The free wind of inquiry must always continue to blow through the mind, must it not? “Prove all things”…to travel hopefully is better than to arrive.’

‘If that were true, and known to be true, how could anyone travel hopefully? There would be nothing to hope for.’

‘But you must feel yourself that there is something stifling about the idea of finality? Stagnation, my dear boy, what is more soul-destroying than stagnation?’

‘You think that, because hitherto you have experienced truth only with the abstract intellect. I will bring you where you can taste it like honey and be embraced by it as by a bridegroom. Your thirst shall be quenched.’

‘Well, really, you know, I am not aware of a thirst for some ready-made truth which puts an end to intellectual activity in the way you seem to be describing. Will it leave me the free play of Mind, Dick? I must insist on that, you know.’

‘Free, as a man is free to drink while he is drinking. He is not free still to be dry.’

The Ghost seemed to think for a moment. ‘I can make nothing of that idea,’ it said.

‘Listen!’ said the White Spirit. ‘Once you were a child. Once you knew what inquiry was for. There was a time when you asked questions because you wanted answers, and were glad when you had found them. Become that child again: even now.’

‘Ah, but when I became a man I put away childish things.’

‘You have gone far wrong. Thirst was made for water; inquiry for truth. What you now call the free play of inquiry has neither more nor less to do with the ends for which intelligence was given you than masturbation has to do with marriage.’

‘If we cannot be reverent, there is at least no need to be obscene. The suggestion that I should return at my age to the mere factual inquisitiveness of boyhood strikes me as preposterous. In any case, that question-and-answer conception of thought only applies to matters of fact. Religious and speculative questions are surely on a different level.’

‘We know nothing of religion here: we think only of Christ. We know nothing of speculation. Come and see. I will bring you to Eternal Fact, the Father of all other fact-hood.’

‘I should object very strongly to describing God as a “fact”. The Supreme Value would surely be a less inadequate description. It is hardly…’

‘Do you not even believe that He exists?’

‘Exists? What does Existence mean? You will keep on implying some sort of static, ready-made reality which is, so to speak, “there”, and to which our minds have simply to conform. These great mysteries cannot be approached in that way. If there were such a thing (there is no need to interrupt, my dear boy) quite frankly, I should not be interested in it. It would be of no religious significance. God, for me, is something purely spiritual. The spirit of sweetness and light and tolerance—and, er, service, Dick, service. We mustn’t forget that, you know.’

‘If the thirst of the Reason is really dead…,’ said the Spirit, and then stopped as though pondering. Then suddenly he said, ‘Can you, at least, still desire happiness?’

‘Happiness, my dear Dick,’ said the Ghost placidly, ‘happiness, as you will come to see when you are older, lies in the path of duty. Which reminds me…Bless my soul, I’d nearly forgotten. Of course I can’t come with you. I have to be back next Friday to read a paper. We have a little Theological Society down there. Oh yes! there is plenty of intellectual life. Not of a very high quality, perhaps. One notices a certain lack of grip—a certain confusion of mind. That is where I can be of some use to them. There are even regrettable jealousies…I don’t know why, but tempers seem less controlled than they used to be. Still, one mustn’t expect too much of human nature. I feel I can do a great work among them. But you’ve never asked me what my paper is about! I’m taking the text about growing up to the measure of the stature of Christ and working out an idea which I feel sure you’ll be interested in. I’m going to point out how people always forget that Jesus (here the Ghost bowed) was a comparatively young man when he died. He would have outgrown some of his earlier views, you know, if he’d lived. As he might have done, with a little more tact and patience. I am going to ask my audience to consider what his mature views would have been. A profoundly interesting question. What a different Christianity we might have had if only the Founder had reached his full stature! I shall end up by pointing out how this deepens the significance of the Crucifixion. One feels for the first time what a disaster it was: what a tragic waste… so much promise cut short. Oh, must you be going? Well, so must I. Goodbye, my dear boy. It has been a great pleasure. Most stimulating and provocative. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.’

The Ghost nodded its head and beamed on the Spirit with a bright clerical smile—or with the best approach to it which such unsubstantial lips could manage—and then turned away humming softly to itself ‘City of God, how broad and far.’

_____

** Lewis’ use of the nakedness metaphor here is obviously an allusion to the creation of Adam and Eve who, while in a sinless state, required no clothing. It is in no way lewd. Rather, it is an image of purity.

csl and kingAuthor Stephen King surprised quite a few fans during a recent PBS interview when he expressed his belief in the universe’s intelligent design. In nature and the cosmos, like theist C.S. Lewis before him, he views a creation so complex and wondrous that he thinks it makes more sense to believe in a divine power than to dismiss faith.

During the interview, King said,

I choose to believe it, yeah. I think that . . . there’s no downside to that, and the downside—if you say, well, OK, I don’t believe in God, there’s no evidence of God—then you’re missing the stars in the sky, and you’re missing the sunrises and sunsets, and you’re missing the fact that bees pollinate all these crops and keep us alive and the way that everything seems to work together at the same time.

In an essay, “Christianity and Culture,” C.S. Lewis alludes to the “Theist” phase of his own life. He points out how limiting a faith that recognizes God only abstractly, in his handiwork, can be.

There is an easy transition from Theism to Pantheism; but there is also a blessed transition in the other direction. For some souls I believe, for my own I remember, Wordsworthian contemplation can be the first and lowest form of recognition that there is something outside ourselves which demands reverence.

To return to Pantheistic errors about the nature of this something would, for a Christian, be very bad. But once again, for “the man coming up from below” the Wordsworthian experience is an advance. Even if he goes no further he has escaped the worst arrogance of materialism: if he goes on he will be converted.

King is, of course, far from what one would properly call a “person of faith.”** Still, it may be that he is presently moving in a positive direction. The following words reveal his yearning for hope, criticism of institutional religion, and his as yet unanswered questions about why God allows suffering in our world.

It’s certainly a subject that’s interested me, and I think it interests me more the older that I get. And I think we’d all like to believe that after we shuffle off this mortal coil, that there’s going to be something on the other side because for most of us, I know for me, life is so rich, so colorful and sensual and full of good things, things to read, things to eat, things to watch, places to go, new experiences, that I don’t want to think that you just go to darkness. . . .

But as far as God and church and religion and . . . that sort of thing, I kind of always felt that organized religion was just basically a theological insurance scam where they’re saying if you spend time with us, guess what, you’re going to live forever, you’re going to go to some other plain where you’re going to be so happy, you’ll just be happy all the time, which is also kind of a scary idea to me. . . .

Everything is sort of built in a way that to me suggests intelligent design. But at the same time there’s a lot of things in life where you say to yourself, well, if this is God’s plan, it’s very peculiar. And you have to wonder about that guy’s personality, the big guy’s personality. . . . What I’m saying now is I choose to believe in God, but I have serious doubts.

For many intelligent people, like C.S. Lewis and Stephen King, coming to faith cannot be severed from their reason. They desire to make sense of the world. Some, sadly, determine that human beings perish forever with their final breath. With that worldview, using King’s words, “you just go to darkness.”

Fortunately many others—brilliant and simple people alike, for God shows no partiality—possess true wisdom and heed the words of Jesus, that he is the way, the truth and the life. Both of these writers experienced an ineffective exposure to the church when they were young. Unfortunately, it served as more of an inoculation than a foundation.

Eventually C.S. Lewis followed that path from theism to Christianity. It’s not impossible that Stephen King may, as well.

_____

* A full transcript of the PBS interview is available here.

** In the interview, King “commends” the entertainment value of enthusiastic, emotionally-charged preaching, while disparaging his own mainline upbringing.

I went to a Methodist church for years as a kid, and Methodist youth fellowship on Thursday nights, and it was all pretty – you know, think of a bottle of soda with the cap off for 24 hours. There weren’t very many bubbles left in that stuff by then. It was pretty – it was Yankee religion, Terry, and there’s really not much in the world that’s any more boring than that. They tell you that you’re going to go to hell, and you’re half-asleep.

Seeking the Living

March 31, 2013 — 9 Comments

tombOne of the readings at our celebration of the Resurrection, this Easter morning, came from the Gospel according to Saint Luke. It included the powerful words of the angels waiting beside the empty tomb. To Mary Magdalene and the other women who had arrived to complete the ceremonial preparations for Jesus’ burial, they said: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”

That’s precisely what separates Christianity from every other religious faith; for two millennia, Jesus’ disciples have followed a resurrected and living Lord.

This is what non-Christians are ultimately unable to fathom. Christianity is far more than the adoption of a particular lifestyle. It is infinitely more than a cognitive acquiescence a set of doctrines. It is nothing less than a dynamic, living relationship with our Creator through his only begotten Son.

Many regard Jesus as a great teacher from an ancient epoch—whose words are worthy of preserving. This is a good thing . . . but it’s not Christianity.

Many consider Jesus the model of a noble life—and strive to emulate his compassion and humility. This too is a good thing . . . but it’s not Christianity.

Many regard Jesus as an object of superstition—and they spout religious jargon while living hypocritical lives utterly devoted to their carnal appetites. This is not a good thing . . . and it’s most certainly not Christianity.

C.S. Lewis refers to this inherent inability to “persuade” an unbeliever to see beyond Christianity as a creedal profession or even a simple lifestyle and comprehend it as a relationship.

Our opponents, then, have a perfect right to dispute with us about the grounds of our original assent. But they must not accuse us of sheer insanity if, after the assent has been given, our adherence to it is no longer proportioned to every fluctuation of the apparent evidence. They cannot of course be expected to know on what assurance feeds, and how it revives and is always rising from its ashes.

They cannot be expected to see how the quality of the object which we think we are beginning to know by acquaintance drives us to the view that if this were a delusion then we should have to say that the universe had produced no real thing of comparable value and that all explanations of the delusion seemed somehow less important than the thing explained.

That is knowledge we cannot communicate. But they can see how the assent, of necessity, moves us from the logic of speculative thought into what might perhaps be called the logic of personal relations. What would, up till then, have been variations simply of opinion become variations of conduct by a person to a Person. Credere Deum esse turns into Credere in Deum. And Deum here is this God, the increasingly knowable Lord. (C.S. Lewis, “On Obstinacy in Belief”).

Ultimately, inviting others to share the joy and peace that we disciples of Jesus know—undeserving as all of us are—is not about persuasion. It is about introducing them to Jesus.

It’s about echoing the words of the angels in that Judean cemetery. “Don’t seek Jesus among the dead. He is risen and living, and he offers eternal life to all who call upon his name.”