C.S. Lewis: finding God when we thought we were alone

On Monday there was a wonderful Zoom webinar co-sponsored by Peaceful Science about Christian scientists’ engagement with the Resurrection. Our own @AndyWalsh and @dga471 were panelists along with Erica Carlson (Physics, Purdue) and Katie Galloway (MIT, Chem. Eng.) and of course @swamidass was there.

Anyway, yesterday morning I got a C.S. Lewis “quote of the day” from Miracles that seemed to tie in somewhat into the conversation thinking about what approaches to explaining Christianity were effective in communicating with atheists (especially scientists):

It is always shocking to meet life where we thought we were alone. “Look out!” we cry, “it’s alive.” And therefore this is the very point at which so many draw back—I would have done so myself if I could—and proceed no further with Christianity. An “impersonal God”—well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads—better still. A formless life- force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap—best of all. But God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband—that is quite another matter. There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (“Man’s search for God”!) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us!

I wonder if this would resonate at all with folks who became Christians after being atheists growing up? I’ve been a Christian all my life and so I often wonder how someone moves from unbelief to belief and if there are these encounters where, as Lewis puts it here, we “meet life where we thought we were alone”.

I’m also a little curious what my atheist friends would think of the C.S. Lewis quote generally. Do you ever find yourself drawn to feelings of “something out there”? Does it ever seem personal in some way – “somebody is out there”?

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I consider it typical Lewis gibberish. I’ve never understood what anyone sees in him. Though a few parts of the Screwtape Letters were entertaining, and rather fewer parts of the Narnia books. Perhaps my sensus divinatus is defective?

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Lots of Lewis is like that. My read is that he made this jump from those various strawman positions to one where he though he had been found by a being. And so it seems he always thought it was like that for others. For him, it seems, it was a big deal when he discovered that he could conceive of this god being real.

For me, it was the opposite. Because I thought god was real, I had to deal with what he was and what he was supposed to be. He didn’t pull on the cord, and now I know why.

I think it’s fair to let Lewis tell us how he felt. It doesn’t resonate with me, at all, and maybe that simply because… I’m not Lewis.

Added, to @Jordan: it was cool of you to ask, and I hope my comments don’t derail a discussion of Lewis’ words by those who are inspired by them. Respect.

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What are the distinctly Christian voices that have been most compelling for you? Even if they are not ultimately convincing or compelling.

Do you mean compelling in general? I still have strong affinity for some distinctly Christian voices, but not because they are compelling about god. U2, Patty Griffin, Over The Rhine, those are Christian voices that inspire me.

But perhaps you mean Christian writers?

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Tolkien, of course. But he was subtle. That may also not be what @swamidass is talking about. He may want writers who are witnessing, proselytizing, and such.

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Both answers are good. What did you like about the voices you both mentioned?

I like Tolkien a lot, but then if we’re going back in history we can find extraordinary Christian voices. Few of them are female, and fewer still are modern.

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I’ve been thinking about inviting the author of this book for an interview.

I’m also really pleased to see growing group of women scientists grow more connected to us. One of them, @michelle, just provisionally joined the moderator team. Ciara, my editor, is a biologist. There are also a few articles planed from two other women in science.

(side note: I think the forum redesign that will be rolled out will do quite a bit to make space for women on the forum.)

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Tolkien built a world, something Lewis never managed or perhaps wasn’t interested in. The story is complex and interesting, and I do like the writing too. Also, it isn’t so obviously a Christian allegory. (I refer to The Hobbit and LOTR; The Silmarillion is less successful.)

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Would you say perhaps what Lewis is talking about is something more general about the moving from one belief to another, rather than something specific about Christianity?

This was exactly the type of reply I was looking for, thank you! I’m trying to (gently) have some discussion about belief vs non-belief without it being a debate or argument. I’m hoping to understand a bit better how my atheist friends actually think, rather than what I imagine they think, so I don’t misrepresent or misunderstand them.

But Lewis was also more gear toward children, so I think the less complex story makes sense to me. I know Tolkien’s world was much more developed than Lewis’, but Narnia seemed to be quite imaginative to me when I was younger.

Does the obviousness of the Christian allegory detract from Lewis for the atheist? There are some particular parallels, but for instance I see some similar parallels in LOTR, Narnia, and Harry Potter that many Christians would see as Christian symbolism (intentioned or not by the author). Is it really that Lewis made Aslan a little too Jesus-like? Or is it that Christians “claim” him so strongly? Or maybe that Lewis was a known apologist (Mere Christianity, etc.) whereas Tolkien was more the academic?

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Hmmm. That’s not how I read the quote, but it’s certainly a reasonable reading.

That’s great, and thanks. My atheist friends think in pretty diverse ways. As an apostate, I have (I think) a pretty peculiar outlook on belief. It’s different from the outlook of my friends who never believed.

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@sfmatheson sometimes it seems like you both have special distaste for Christians and special affinity. How do you make sense of that tension?

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Ha, I think you’re right. My distaste for “Christians” is mostly for the evil that they are doing now, in huge numbers, specifically as evangelicals. My real distaste is for the god character. But the special affinity is not mysterious: many of my loved ones, including a kid, are Christians. And I remember clearly what it was like to believe, and why I believed, and I think there is honor in believing in something bigger than oneself, something that is inspiring.

Most days, I don’t.

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Yes, I think people who move from from belief to non-belief and vice versa often have a different perspective from either the lifelong Christian like myself or those who have never believed. I am often
a bit intimidated by those people who have wrestling with ultimate truths and said “you know, I think I’ve been wrong all this time”. I certainly seems like it would take intellectual strength and could alienate you from family/friends.

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Fortunately this hasn’t been a part of my story. It’s common for apostates to face that challenge but I’m lucky.

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Does it still seem so? What I find most annoying is the mishmash of discordant elements, especially Santa Claus. Narnia doesn’t feel even slightly real. I do rather like its descendant, Fillory, though.

Yes. I find the last book especially appalling. No knowledge of Lewis is necessary to see the clumsy allegory. LOTR has a little bit of Christian symbolism, but it’s well hidden. I don’t think there’s any in Harry Potter.

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This is very interesting, as I certainly have some of the same issues, although maybe not to the extent. I’m incredibly disappointed with my fellow Evangelicals at times (to the point where I don’t know if it’s a useful label anymore) and yet at times I also see some pretty great things, especially at the local level.

Just as an immediate example, my church just raised $400k in the last couple week since we got the stay-at-home order to support our community during COVID-19. A large chunk of the funds are going directly to single moms in the form of $1k checks, but it’s also going homeless shelters, and other non-profits in the area that are providing food and shelter. So I can feel both frustrated, disappointed, and also proud of my fellow-Christians at the same time.

Is the good enough to outweigh the bad? Is that a reasonable criteria? I sometimes rationalize some of the worst behavior that’s been done in the name of Christianity as “well, that doesn’t reflect real Christianity” but of course I would because I don’t share the same vision of Christianity that those people do. Or I might say “well, Christianity doesn’t say Christians will be better, in fact Jesus said it was the sick that need saving” but then it seems like if God was really moving the Church to be more Christ-like then we’d see some significant movement in that direction? Sometimes I see it, sometimes I don’t.

That seems like significant common ground amongst most people. We may attribute it to different things, but I think there can be a lot of good in the idea of needing to reach outside ourselves. I would maybe use the language of “common good” here. That we are connected to each other as humans, and to the world around us, and so we owe something to that “other” out there.

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It seems for him God is something he really wants to find. I have a lot of feelings that something is out there. It never seems personal though. I tend to think that whatever “something” is, it’s unimaginable to us and could well always lay beyond our ability to appreciate it.

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Less after reading LOTR. Clearly Tolkien was immersing you in a world that you could really “feel”. Narnia is more like a bedtime story where there is a clear “moral to the story”. LOTR/Hobbit is more epic storytelling.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows really stood out to me in Harry’s sacrificial death and resurrection in order to save the world. For me, throughout the series, Harry’s inner turmoils, his fight against evil, and his relationship with Dumbledore also resonate with the Christian life. Of course people can see it differently, but it was pretty moving to me in a theological sense.

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