Miracles: A Preliminary Study by C.S. Lewis, 5/5
It’s like no one told C.S. Lewis that you can’t prove the existence of God, so he just does. And that is merely to lay the foundation for his main topic, which I actually found much less interesting and convincing than the preliminary discussions–the man does not shirk an intellectual challenge. Though I have occasionally sensed some antagonism from him towards science, in this book he cheerfully tackles both the known and unknown with the grace, focus and rigorous logic that make me sometimes fear that I tend to put more faith in him than in God. Of course, no matter how hard one tries to be open-minded and logical, it cannot be too difficult a task to convince someone of something they already believe. With that in mind, I would love to know how this book is perceived by people with different backgrounds and beliefs than me.
Why I read it: C.S. Lewis is one of my favourite authors and thankfully, every time I think I’ve read all his books I come across a new one.
Motivated by a mysterious Desire, John leaves behind the lifeless religion of his hometown, Puritania, and explores both the stern, unrelenting wastes of the cerebral North and the swamps of untrammeled self-gratification in the animal South. This journey from “‘popular realism’ to Philosophical Idealism; from Idealism to Pantheism; from Pantheism to Theism; and from Theism to Christianity” will be recognizable to those familiar with C.S. Lewis’s more biographical works (200). Admittedly obscure, this tale is similar to George MacDonald’s Phantastes in that its value may be more in the recognition than the revelation–I suspect that if I reread it every 10 years or so, my appreciation of the truths it tells will grow in proportion with my own life-experience.
[Why I read it: a fortunate thrift store find!]
I couldn’t find much to like in this preachy, dated commentary on the Ten Commandments, which joins hundreds of thousands of useless, forgettable sermons on the topic that have been written over the centuries. Davidman does little more than poke at low-hanging fruit, criticizing society’s moral failings in a manner calculated to appeal more to the smugly self-satisfied or the masochistically guilt-ridden than the individual (Christian or non-Christian) who is searching for Truth. Also, the tone of authority with which the author treats issues of theology, anthropology and history does not seem well-supported by any expertise or original thought. The most remarkable aspect of the book is C.S. Lewis’s incredibly graceful foreword, which I think evinces approbation more benevolent than spontaneously appreciative.
[Why I read it: I was curious to learn more about the woman who some consider C.S. Lewis’s intellectual equal and whose death inspired A Grief Observed. Unsurprisingly, my library didn’t have a copy of this book. Surprisingly, they bought a copy when I requested it. Pretty cool.]
At first, I thought this collection of thoughts on 16 different spiritual topics was reasonably profound and insightful. It wasn’t until Merton started saying, with blithe confidence, things I doubted or disagreed with that I missed the intellectual underpinnings characterising the likes of C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. Merton’s unintellectual approach to spiritual matters is made palatable by his eloquent writing skills, perhaps dangerously so. Those who approach this book wishing to be told what to think could quite possibly be led into error, but those who have already given thought to such topics will likely recognise much truth in what he says.
[Why I read it: the title is appealing and seemed relevant to my life at the moment. I originally thought the phrase “no man is an island” came from this book, but it actually originated in a poem by the 17th-century poet John Donne. Interestingly, from the same short poem comes the phrase “for whom the bell tolls.”]
I half-expected C.S. Lewis’ intellectual style to be unsuited to the short-speech format, but was only slightly surprised to find that he is as brilliant a writer of sermons as a writer of books. Of the nine essays in this collection, I found “The Weight of Glory” to be the most challenging and “Is Theology Poetry?” the most encouraging, both addressing, to some extent, struggles I am currently experiencing.
My deepening distaste for humanity in general and aversion to interaction with humanity in particular made some parts of “The Weight of Glory” difficult to read and almost impossible to believe (though I have fewer reasons to doubt Lewis’ assertions than to trust them).
It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you say [saw?] it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendours (18).”
Luckily, Lewis can comfort as well as he convicts and I found the following excerpt (greatly weakened by the lack of supporting context) to be a welcome antidote to the noxious mélange of malaise and meaninglessness to which I have been lately putting up an admittedly feeble resistance:
If, on the other hand, I swallow the scientific cosmology as a whole, then not only can I not fit in Christianity, but I cannot even fit in science. If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees. And this is to me the final test. This is how I distinguish dreaming and waking. When I am awake I can, in some degree, account for and study my dream. The dragon that pursued me last night can be fitted into my waking world. I know that there are such things as dreams; I know that I had eaten an indigestible dinner; I know that a man of my reading might be expected to dream of dragons. But while in the nightmare I could not have fitted in my waking experience. The waking world is judged more real because it can thus contain the dreaming world; the dreaming world is judged less real because it cannot contain the waking one. For the same reason I am certain that in passing from the scientific points of view to the theological, I have passed from dream to waking. Christian theology can fit in science, art, morality, and the sub-Christian religions. The scientific point of view cannot fit in any of these things, not even science itself. 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 (91).”
[Why I read it: it was given me as a birthday present and I am always eager to read anything nonfiction by C.S. Lewis.]
This book succeeds in a purely biographical sense, but is weak in the area of apologetics which, in this case, mostly consist of lengthy quotes from sources that Flew found convincing, strung together with stilted prose. Given the depth of the subject and the limited length of the book, Flew was unable to give the numerous quotations the individual context they needed in order to be convincing, so I found myself continually questioning the true validity of his points. While I trust his expertise as a philosopher, I simply could not understand most of his philosophy-related references and, since I don’t trust him as a scientist, his numerous science-related claims seemed dubious.
Ultimately, reading this book just made me realise (not for the first time) what a true genius C.S. Lewis was.
Finding out that a couple fellow altos in choir are atheists made me want to rerereread Lewis’ compelling description of his philosophical journey from childhood, through atheism to Christianity. So much of what he says resonates with me and I always find it incredibly encouraging that such an intellectually uncompromising, well-read person would eventually find all signs pointing to God. I don’t love the book just because it supports my own religious convictions, though; I admire Lewis’ frank, disarming writing style and analytical approach to life.