The Light Through Which to See the World (Part 1)

“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.”  (CS Lewis)

The above sentence is one that has been repeated many times. However, in amongst my other reading projects, I’ve found myself progressively reading through Lewis’ The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses and finally came across this quote in the setting of Lewis’ greater argument. Very few people mention the fact that this line acts as the concluding sentence to his essay ‘Is Theology Poetry?’ As the conclusion to Lewis’ argument, the phrase holds within it a greater depth of sophistication, elegance and importance in its meaning than is often thought when one merely reads it as a statement about worldview.

As Lewis intends it, his address is meant to answer the question “Is Theology merely poetry?” or “Does Theology offer us, at best, only that kind of truth which, according to some critics, poetry offers us?”. Following a generalised definition of poetry, Lewis further reduces the question to “Does Christian Theology owe its attraction to its power of arousing and satisfying our imaginations? Are those who believe it mistaking aesthetic enjoyment for intellectual assent, or assenting because they enjoy?”

Lewis goes on to explain that there seems to be a universal human enjoyment of the imaginative and aesthetic qualities of mythology (understood to be unreal), in contrast with systems of thought that we might consider to be closer to literal, historical, or factual. In other words, systems not believed have a fantastical and, therefore, beautiful quality to them which believed systems lack. But, likewise, believed systems possess a certain gravity and beauty which is unlike that of rejected belief systems. However, the latter beauty only comes as a result of belief in the system. In Greek or Norse mythology, for instance, the universe and the earth is the playground for divine beings possessing the flaws and  strengths all too familiar to us and is, in a sense, attractive. However, if we believed these myths, they would lose some sort of an appeal because they would no longer be fantastical but perceived to be banal. This banality, however, generates a newfound appreciation, a deeper and less superficial understanding of beauty, which presupposes belief.

So whilst Christian theology, may seem on the face of it to be fantastical (and in Lewis’ estimation, not in fact any more fantastic than other mythologies) the charge that one believes in Christian theology simply due to it being a superior aesthetic system compared to others seems somewhat implausible. The Christian story, in some sense, is much more banal than myth. As one approaches Christianity’s core the mythological nature of much of the Old Testament fades away to a literalism and dependency upon historical event and personages as we approach the person of Christ. In an incarnational fashion, myth becomes fact. “The essential meaning of all things came down from the “heaven” of myth to the “earth” of history.” Lewis writes, “In doing so, it partly emptied itself of its glory, as Christ emptied Himself of His glory to be Man. That is the real explanation of the fact that Theology, far from defeating its rivals by a superior poetry, is, in a superficial but quite real sense, less poetical than they. That is why the New Testament is, in the same sense, less poetical than the Old.”

But there is another sort of problem coming to bare here – the devaluing of the notions of aesthetic and poetic beauty. All worldviews, even in their most literal, naturalistic-scientific conceptualisation of the world, have poetry intrinsic to them. There is something simultaneously grand and tragic about the atheistic-naturalist narrative that has human life emerging and overcoming all odds in the face of a godless void, prevailing in the evolutionary contest against (myth’s) dragon and monster, eventually becoming and surpassing the gods that we ourselves imagined; only to finally be snuffed out by the slow but inevitable death of the universe. In Lewis’ assessment, this picture is even grander than the picture which Christianity paints. If this most “literal” of systems contains poetry, then one cannot discount a belief system merely on the grounds of the fact that it is poetic or even aesthetically appealing.

To summarise what Lewis is saying, we cannot discount Christianity on the basis of it being poetic, because poetry is essential in making sense of the world. Furthermore, there is more of the literal and historical in Christianity than there is in traditional myth, and in an important sense seems radically unlike them.

Whilst these might be, as I am inclined to think, profound observations in themselves, how do they relate to the sentence I opened with?

I hope to be able to answer this question in Part 2 of this post.

 

Anthony Bondarenko