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!]
The necessarily limited length of these articles means that Lewis doesn’t have time to fully develop and defend his opinions, but they are still a joy to read and cover a stimulating variety of topics (in addition to the ever-present subject of Christianity) such as history, philosophy, education, and morality. Some of the essays have not aged well and some would be of little interest to the average reader, but overall they are a nice supplement to Lewis’ more in-depth works.
[Why I read it: It seems that just when I think I’ve read everything C.S. Lewis ever wrote, something else turns up. I think I picked this unfamiliar title up at some used bookstore or other.]
Readers who aren’t put off by the rather abstruse tour, in chapters three and four, of ancient writers who influenced the medieval mind will be well rewarded by an accessible analysis of what C.S. Lewis calls the medieval “Model of the Universe,” as evinced by the literature of the time. This Model is fascinating in its coherence, aesthetic appeal, contrast with the modern point of view and, especially, comprehensiveness: astronomy, biology, philosophy, physiology, physics, art…none of these topics are left out. Even the most outlandish of medieval beliefs is treated by Lewis with sensitivity, understanding and not a trace of chronological snobbery, though I do wish that many of his claims were more rigorously substantiated.
This book is full of interesting facts and themes that I am, depressingly, forgetting even as I type this review. Some of the most interesting (stripped, in the interest of conciseness, of the discussion and proofs that accompany them) follow:
- According to Lewis, the Medievals were “very credulous of books” and had little or no concept of fact vs fiction when it came to literature (11).
- “I have read a novel which represents all the Pagans of that day [the transitional period considered the source of much medieval thinking, circa 205 to 533AD] as carefree sensualists, and all the Christians as savage ascetics. It is a grave error. They were in some ways far more like each other than either was like a modern man. The leaders on both sides were monotheists, and both admitted almost an infinity of supernatural beings between God and man. Both were highly intellectual, but also (by our standards) highly superstitious” (46).
- “…educated people in the Middle Ages never believed the winged men who represent angels in painting and sculpture to be more than symbols” (71).
- “Medieval art was deficient in perspective, and poetry followed suit. […] The relative size of objects in the visible arts is determined more by the emphasis the artist wishes to lay upon them than by their sizes in the real world or by their distance. Whatever details we are meant to see will be shown whether they would really be visible or not” (101).
- “In all this [literary descriptions of opulence] one may suspect a certain vulgarity of imagination–as if to be a High Fairy were much the same as being a millionaire. Nor does it obviously mend matters to remind ourselves that Heaven and the saints were often pictured in very similar terms. Undoubtedly it is naïf; but the charge of vulgarity perhaps involves a misapprehension. Luxury and material splendour in the modern world need be connected with nothing but money and are also, more often than not, very ugly. But what a medieval man saw in royal or feudal courts and imagined as being outstripped in ‘faerie’ and far outstripped in Heaven, was not so. The architecture, arms, crowns, clothes, horses, and music were nearly all beautiful. They were all symbolical or significant–of sanctity, authority, valour, noble lineage or, at the very worst, of power. They were associated, as modern luxury is not, with graciousness and courtesy. They could therefore be ingenuously admired without degradation for the admirer” (131).
- Medievals lacked a “sense of period” when it came to history: they “pictured the whole past in terms of their own age,” attributing to historical people the same language, clothing, customs, and religious practices as themselves (182). This gave them a feeling of close connection to the past. Such a close connection, in fact, that the perceived reality of the historical stories “forces them presently to see and hear, hence to set down, at first a little more, and then a good deal more, than their book has actually told them. […] If they had been less rapt by what they read they would have reproduced him more faithfully” (212). This tendency to act “like a historian who misrepresents the documents because he feels sure that things must have happened in a certain way” (211) fills me with horror, but that is because the modern conception of “originality” and the value placed on it was simply not an issue in the Middle Ages. “The originality which we regard as a sign of wealth might have seemed to them a confession of poverty. Why make things for oneself like the lonely Robinson Crusoe when there is riches all about you to be had for the taking?” (211).
But my favourite parts of the book are those three night walks where Lewis looks up at the starry sky and helps you to feel what people from the Middle Ages might have felt at the same view (98, 112, 118).
[Why I read it: It’s unusual to find a C.S. Lewis book that I haven’t read, so I was happy to spot this attractive edition on the shelves of Magus Books.]
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.]
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.]
While Macdonald’s Phantastes is one of the best fantasy books I’ve ever read and I enjoyed the Curdie books as a child, I’ve never been a fan of his other novels and was not particularly looking forward to reading this anthology. Just as it feels wrong that I love Bach but not his favourite instrument, the organ, so I always thought it felt wrong to love C.S. Lewis and not George Macdonald, one of Lewis’s most-loved inspirations. Happily, the issue is cleared up in the preface, where Lewis calls the Macdonald books I happen to like “the great works,” while admitting that “necessity made MacDonald a novelist, but few of his novels are good and none is very good” (xxix). The rest of the preface provides an excellent discussion of mythology, which would make the book a must-read in any case.
Each of the 365 excerpts presented in this collection is worthy of a day’s reflection and reading the whole book in one go felt rather like going to a dinner buffet that only serves steak. There is an aura of the commonsense and uncompromising, softened by the humility and gentleness that should be the defining characteristics of every Christian. Some of my favourite quotes were the ones on spiritual “dryness,” where MacDonald points out that the firm foundation on which our faith is built cannot be shaken by changing emotions and feelings:
That man is perfect in faith who can come to God in the utter dearth of his feelings and desires, without a glow or an aspiration, with the weight of low thoughts, failures, neglects, and wandering forgetfulness, and say to Him, “Thou art my refuge” (1).
Troubled soul, thou are not bound to feel but thou art bound to arise. God loves thee whether thou feelest or not. Thou canst not love when thou wilt, but thou art bound to fight the hatred in thee to the last. Try not to feel good when thou art not good, but cry to Him who is good. He changes not because thou changest. Nay, He has an especial tenderness of love toward thee for that thou art in the dark and hast no light, and His heart is glad when thou doest arise and say, “I will go to my Father.” …Fold the arms of thy faith, and wait in the quietness until light goes up in thy darkness. For the arms of thy Faith I say, but not of thy Action: bethink thee of something that thou oughtest to do, and go to do it, if it be but the sweeping of a room, or the preparing of a meal, or a visit to a friend. Heed not thy feeling: Do thy work (18).
N.B. Most of the book is not written in the old-timey, King James Version speech.
[Why I read it: given to me as a birthday present by my parents.]