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  • Writer's pictureNick McDonald

C.S. Lewis on Progress Vs. Faith




Today we’ll be looking at an essay of C.S. Lewis’s called “Dogma and the Universe”.

Lewis’s goal in this essay is to show that to “evolve” in our perspective of the universe does not imply, in any real sense, that we must now put away all of our earlier Christian beliefs. He sees this common misperception playing out in two ways.

1. “We now understand we’re so small in the universe, it’s impossible to believe in a personal God who care so much for humanity.”

I remember hearing this sentiment on a talkshow growing up. One of the hosts mocked the idea that God loves us and had a plan for us by saying, “That sounds rather egotistical, doesn’t it?”

Here is how Lewis responds.

As far as I understand the matter, Christianity is not wedded to an anthropocentric view of the universe as a whole.

His first point is that a human-centered world isn’t, he thinks, necessary to the Christian vision. I actually disagree with him here on the whole. The world is “in Adam” and in that sense, anthropocentric. But if what he means is that the world is primarily meant to mechanically and directly serve humanity, that kind of anthropocentrism we can safely reject.

I remember long ago in an apologetics class in high-school learning how a banana was like a coke can: a simple proof that, in the most mechanical sense possible, the universe was created for us. I think now that’s a pretty silly way to think about the universe, and if that’s what Lewis is critiquing, I wholeheartedly agree.

Then Lewis makes a rather simple but profound point.

However that may be, it is certain that the whole argument from size rests on the assumption that differences of size ought to coincide with differences of value: for unless they do, there is, of course, no reason why the minute earth and the yet smaller human creatures upon it should not be the most important things in a universe that contains the spiral nebulae. Now, is this assumption rational or emotional?

Lewis is pointing out here that the argument from size to value isn’t rational at all. It’s emotional. We don’t think our legs are more valuable than our brains, and we don’t think short men are slightly less valuable than tall men (or we do, but we can at least admit it’s not logical). For all its claims of rationalism, Lewis points out this is only an emotional argument.

Then he turns the tables on this objection:

It is not Christianity which need fear the giant universe. It is those systems which place the whole meaning of existence in biological or social evolution on our own planet. It is the creative evolutionist, the Bergsonian or Shavian, or the Communist, who should tremble when he looks up at the night sky. For he really is committed to a sinking ship. He really is attempting to ignore the discovered nature of things, as though by concentrating on the possibly upward trend in a single planet he could make himself forget the inevitable downward trend in the universe as a whole, the trend to low temperatures and irrevocable disorganization. For entropy is the real cosmic wave, and evolution only a momentary tellurian ripple within it.

Lewis in other places has admitted that the gospel of scientific progress is, probably, the most personally appealing to him outside of the Christian gospel. The problem is, a close examination of the universe shows any progress made by humanity is a blip on the screen. On the whole, the universe is decaying, burning, freezing out, spinning off into frenzies of chaos. What sort of a vision is that? It’s a threat to the idea of eternal, inevitable progress, staring us straight in the face, and it comes no less from scientific discovery itself.

Now, Lewis will address the second way he sees this assumption of progress being wielded as an argument against Christian faith.

2. “We know so much more than those country bumpkins in Jerusalem, now. Why would we ever continue to believe the things they believed?”

Lewis, here, wants to make a simple point about this: just because knowledge increases, that doesn’t mean beliefs change. In fact, if beliefs change, he argues, this isn’t really and properly a development of ideas at all. If a politician, for example, has a sense of right and wrong, but then encounters a bureaucracy which puts them to the test, that shouldn’t change his sense of right and wrong…just how he applies it, in a more complicated way:

But only in so far as that first knowledge of the great moral platitudes survives unimpaired in the statesman will his deliberation be moral at all. If that goes, then there has been no progress, but only mere change.

If the statesmen's sense of morality changes, Lewis argues, that's not progress at all. It's starting over. It's not building on ideas, but destroying ideas and beginning at square one.

As for history, Lewis gives the analogy, here, of mathematics. No one wants to “move on” from Euclid, but rather to fill in the blanks and expand on older mathematical theories:

I take it we should all agree to find this sort of unchanging element in the simple rules of mathematics.

That, he says, is just like the Christian faith and its morals:

I would add to these the primary principles of morality. And I would also add the fundamental doctrines of Christianity.

To take a concrete example, Lewis cites the resurrection of the dead:

When a Central African convert and a Harley Street specialist both affirm that Christ rose from the dead, there is, no doubt, a very great difference between their thoughts. To one, the simple picture of a dead body getting up is sufficient; the other may think of a whole series of biochemical and even physical processes beginning to work backwards.

Just because the Doctor has “filled in the blanks” on a resurrected body, that doesn’t actually change the essential belief in a resurrected body. They can both say, “he rose”, and mean the same thing, with very different pictures in their heads.

And so, he concludes:

The Jew knows more than the Pagan, the Christian more than the Jew, the modern vaguely religious man less than any of the three. But, like mathematics, it remains simply itself, capable of being applied to any new theory of the material universe and outmoded by none.

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