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Conversing with the Dead: On the Connection Between Tradition & Change

Jaroslav Pelikan, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Jaroslav Pelikan, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

G.K. Chesterton once called tradition “the democracy of the dead.”  Another Christian intellectual, C.S. Lewis, encouraged his readers to avoid “chronological snobbery,” that is, the belief that our age is better simply because it is after a previous age.

What does it look to acknowledge that traditions develop and change without simply turning into a blind iconoclast?  We find some help in a wonderful little book by the late Yale historian of doctrine Jaroslav Pelikan, fittingly titled The Vindication of Tradition.  He suggests avoiding both “relativism” and “constructionism” in viewing the development of a given tradition:

There is a kind of historical relativism that will emphasize only the variety of opinions and the irresistibility of change over the years, but will ignore the continuity. There is also a kind of strict constructionism that proceeds as though development were not real and were only the application of an unchanging and unchangeable authority to outward change. The American republic, the Jewish community, and the Christian church have all had advocates of both these interpretations, and they still do. But their accumulated wisdom has taught them to recognize – and the critical-historical study of their traditions has compelled them to acknowledge – that development is real but that it goes on within the limits of identity, which the tradition defines and continues to redefine.  Like any growth, development may be healthy or it may be malignant; discerning the difference between those two kinds of growth requires constant research  into the pathology of traditions. But it is healthy development that keeps a tradition both out of the cancer ward and out of the museum. (59-60)

To those who think that tradition and development are opposites, and completely unrelated, note Pelikan’s observation:

A “leap of progress” is not a standing broad jump through where we have been to where we go next. The growth of insight – in science, in the arts, in philosophy and theology – has not come through progressively soughing off more and more of tradition, as though insight would be purest and deepest when it has finally freed itself of the dead past. It simply has not worked that way in the history of the tradition, and it does not work they way now. By including the dead in the circle of discourse, we enrich the quality of the conversation. (81)

In other words, development occurs best within a tradition, in conversation with those who’ve gone before.  This epistemological humility is akin to Sir Isaac Newton’s insight that if we can see a little further than those who have come before, it is only because we “stand on the shoulders of giants.”

There is a great deal of theologizing that falls into the above categories – a complete sloughing off of tradition (which is a bit like cutting one’s anchor in a violent storm), or an ossifying of tradition (as if we should use ether instead of modern anesthesia because ‘that’s how grandma did it’).  These are both dead ends.  Instead, healthy development happens in traditions that keep distinctive identities and include the dead in the conversation even while seeking new expressions and avenues.  As Pelikan put it elsewhere, tradition is “the living faith of the dead” while traditionalism is the “dead faith of the living.”

Where do you see the vibrant use of Christian today? How do we discern healthy development from unhealthy?  When does tradition become traditionalism? Leave a comment below!

 

 

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Will the Real C.S. Lewis Please Stand Up? (re: that fake quote)

screwtape-fake

A very popular quote – but it’s not from Lewis!

[Author’s note: the fake Lewis quote about politics is making the rounds once again following the inauguration.  It was originally passed around in the Fall of 2016, but I suspect it will pop up every now and again.  Thanks for landing here, and for sharing these reflections. I still believe the quote below, actually from Lewis, is more profound than the fake one that has been popularized.]

The quote to the right has been making the rounds on social media lately, purportedly from C.S. Lewis’ classic Screwtape Letters.  This is Lewis’ imaginative account of a senior demon (Screwtape) training up a younger tempter (Wormwood).  While the quotation in question sounds very much like the real thing, it is in fact not from C.S. Lewis.  It is what Mickey Efird, a retired professor from Duke Divinity School, would call “pious fiction.” I am not sure of the origin, but I would imagine it was made as an homage to Lewis, though with perhaps not enough clarification that it was essentially fan fiction.  I’m not sure if the author intended this connection, but it reminds me of a line from Eliot’s “Choruses from The Rock,”

They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.

Lewis did, however, conclude chapter 23 of The Screwtape Letters with this reflection on politics that says much to our contemporary situation:

About the general connection between Christianity and politics, our position is more delicate. Certainly we do not want men to allow their Christianity to flow over into their political life, for the establishment of anything like a really just society would be a major disaster. On the other hand we do want, and want very much, to make men treat Christianity as a means; preferably, of course, as a means to their own advancement, but, failing that, as a means to anything—even to social justice. The thing to do is to get a man at first to value social justice as a thing which the Enemy demands, and then work him on to the stage at which he values Christianity because it may produce social justice. For the Enemy will not be used as a convenience. Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist’s shop. Fortunately it is quite easy to coax humans round this little corner. Only today I have found a passage in a Christian writer where he recommends his own version of Christianity on the ground that “only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilisations”. You see the little rift ? “Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.” That’s the game,
Your affectionate uncle
SCREWTAPE 

To my mind, the real Screwtape quote is even more relevant today than the fictive pericope.  Certainly there is a word we need to hear from the latter about focusing on the drama and immorality of others instead of trying to increase in virtue ourselves.  The real Lewis, however, offers a subtler and more important point on the dangers of manipulating faith for our own personal and ideological ends.  Many, if not most, forms of popular Christianity (read: Protestantism) are proffered either a) as a means of personal advancement or b) as a means of societal advancement.  Both fit demonic desires. Screwtape tells Wormwood they want their victims to “treat Christianity as a means,” preferably to selfish ends but also to more noble ends if necessary.

This is a subtle but crucial point – a “little rift” as Screwtape calls it.  Christianity turned into a means is thus embraced not because it is true, not because, say, Jesus really is the Messiah of Israel and the world’s true Lord (N.T. Wright’s lovely formulation), but because Christian faith gets you from point A to point B.  Even if point B is something desirable like “social justice,” we (Screwtape’s victims) have successfully reduced Christianity from an end to a means, from the truth on which the world turns to just another way of achieving some desired outcome.

screwtape-quote

St. Augustine noted long ago, there are things that can be used and things that can be enjoyed.  Only God can be truly enjoyed, for all other things are to be used or enjoyed only in reference to God.  The temptation to make faith a means to anything else is to attempt to use God rather than enjoy God.  This makes the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob into little more than a glorified genie.

Much like fictive quotes associated with John Wesley, the real Clive Staples is better than the invented.  There is a reason he is still influential decade after his death.  Few have put so eloquently or so readably what is at stake in Christian believing and Christian living (which, in his brilliance, he did not divide).  So perhaps we’d be better off if we made this last quote famous, since it cuts to the heart of all our idolatries.  What better way to honor a teacher and writer whose legacy is the simple but radical project he named “mere” Christianity?

What are you other favorite quotes from Lewis?  How else do you see the temptation today to turn Christianity into a means rather than an end? Leave a comment below – and don’t forget to subscribe!

Source: Lewis, The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics, p. 253.

P.S. The first Methodist to say that social justice is a core aspect of the gospel because they’ve conflated it with social holiness loses points.

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C.S. Lewis on the Preference for Old Books

Ron Burgundy loves old books.

Should we, the denizens of the 21st century, have a preference for old books? The most articulate defender of classic Christian belief in the last century was a layman with no formal theological training.  This is probably because C.S. Lewis read so many old books (including for devotional purposes).  He makes a case for reading classic texts in the introduction he wrote to a true masterpiece of Christian theology: Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word:

Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why – the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

C.s.lewis3

Clive Staples Lewis, courtesy WIkimedia Commons.

A pretty doable ratio: 1:1 or no less than 1:3.  The trajectory of of modern theology would be quite different if our seminary professors and pastors practiced this kind of reading.  The need for “a standard of plain, central Christianity” is why I am a proponent of creeds and catechisms: such are needed to distinguish the massive rivers of Christian truth from negotiable tributaries.  “In essentials, unity,” urged Augustine.

There is much liberty in Christian belief if we have agreement on the essentials.  But as Athanasius knew so well, there are some non-negotiables. It’s no accident he’s known as Athanasius contra mundum (“against the world”).  By introducing homoousious (“of the same being”) into the dialogue at Nicea, Athanasius stood up to the Arian heresy and preserved, against the popular compromise option, the doctrine of Christ’s full divinity.

Old books take us out of the assumptions of our present age – assumptions we often do not notice because we are drowning in them – and invite us to participate in what Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead.”

The cult of the present has enough devotees.  Better to pay homage, even if only occasionally, to that great company of women and men who lived and died before our age had dawned.  The results will be truly relevant because they are in touch with the timeless.

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A New Kind of Devotional Reading

by Drew 3 Comments

A confession: I find much that passes for “Christian inspiration” cloying and vacuous. C.s.lewis3

On the other hand, I quite like what many of my colleagues found utterly painful in seminary: real theology.

Hey, I can’t help it. As Saint Gaga says, “I was born this way.”  But, it turns out, I am not alone.  In his marvelous introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word, C.S. Lewis commends theological writing as devotional reading:

For my own part I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others.  I believe that many who find that “nothing happens” when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.

A couple of things stand out here: Lewis noted decades ago that the “devotional” books were not necessarily aids in growing our devotion to Christ.  How many popular devotional books are little more than nuggets of popular wisdom with a dollop of Scripture?  That describes vast majority I’ve encountered, at least.

Also, this helps us understand why a layman without any formal theological training turned out to be such an excellent theologian: he read extensively in the primary sources – like On the Incarnation of the Word – rather than getting trickle-down doctrine from lowest-common-denominator books designed for consumer ease rather than depth and truth.

Lewis’ experience resonates with my own.  What about you? Have you tried theology as devotional reading?  What makes your heart “sing unbidden?  If you haven’t yet familiarized yourself with Lewis’ corpus, his work – such as Mere Christianity, or Screwtape Letters – would be a wonderful place to start.  You just might find them more devotional – drawing you closer to the heart of God – than those page-a-day readers that the publishers push on us year after year.

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C.S. Lewis Was Right: Bulverisms are Everywhere

cslewisC.S. Lewis stands up to the decades after his death with astounding endurance.

Consider a few instances where, like Chesterton before him, the British literati’s pen continues to prove startlingly contemporary well past his own lifetime:

  • Lewis asked big questions about the nature of the afterlife before Rob Bell made Calvinists’ hearts a-flutter over them.
  • The Oxford don made Christian fiction an art form, and took it to heights hitherto unmet (and CGI is just now making it possible to visualize the products of Lewis’ stunning imagination).
  • Before Rabbi Kushner popularized the theodicy question, Lewis wrote The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed, both of which hold up better.

And that only scratches the surface of how insightful Clive Staples Lewis continues to be for our own age.

I suppose it is no surprise that he observed a phenomenon of public discourse in 1941 that has reached vicious heights in 2015.  He even invented a name for it in an essay by the same name collected in God in the Dock: “Bulverism.”  For Lewis, a Bulverism occurs when someone mistakes or substitutes a counter-argument for a psycho-social observation:

In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became to be so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism.” Some day I am going the write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father – who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third – “Oh, you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.”

Lewis goes on to claim that he sees this error everywhere:

I see Bulverism at work in every political argument. The capitalists must be bad economists because we know why they want capitalism, and equally Communists must be bad economists because we know why they want Communism. Thus, the Bulverists on both sides. In reality, of course, either the doctrines of the capitalists are false, or the doctrines of the Communists, or both; but you can only find out the rights and wrongs by reasoning – never by being rude about your opponent’s psychology.

Note that the author goes out of his way to insist this isn’t a strategy of this or that “side” or party.  Bulverisms are found everywhere.  And aren’t they still, today? Such poor rhetoric has become the air we breathe.

An example just came across my news feed today.   A group of African bishops in the UMC released a statement that dealt with issues of global terrorism, human sexuality, and the unity of the church.  Bishop Warner Brown Jr. committed a clear Bulverism in his statement to United Methodist News Service:

San Francisco Area Bishop Warner Brown Jr., the president of the Council of Bishops, said his African colleagues were speaking out of their context.

The tempting reply – if I weren’t hoping to avoid that which I am observing – would of course be: so is Bishop Warner Brown, Jr. of the San Francisco area.  Because after all, who the hell doesn’t speak out of their context?  It’s a facile kind of observation, a victory purchased cheaply, but one that is used ad nauseum:

  • She went to an all-girls college, so you know she’s a man-hater.
  • He comes from money, so he can’t help but act like a spoiled brat.
  • She’s from the Northeast, so naturally she’s going to support Bernie Sanders.
  • He’s from the Bible Belt, ergo he’s a right-wing nut job.

As Lewis saw so well 70 years ago, Bulverisms are not only a poor excuse for an argument, but they threaten the very possibility of virtuous discourse.  The ubiquity of this error is all the more troubling because Christians are ostensibly committed to charity, patience, and honesty – any of which alone should make Bulverisms rare if not extinct among the baptized.  Should is, of course, the operative word here.

I’ll give Lewis the last say, a word of warning that is also a sad description of public conversation today:

Until Bulverism is crushed, reason can play no effective part in human affairs. Each side snatches it early as a weapon against the other; but between the two reason itself is discredited.

Was Lewis right about Bulverisms? Where do you see them? How do we avoid them today? Leave a comment below!

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The Surprising Imagination of C.S. Lewis [Review]

surprising imaginationA key to understanding the widely-varied C.S. Lewis corpus is to apprehend his astounding use of imagination.  Lewis described himself as chiefly an “imaginative man” in 1955, moreso than a critic or religious writer. Authors Jerry Root and Mark Neal ground their work in this insight in their fascinating new book The Surprising Imagination of C.S. Lewis: An Introduction.

Newly published from Abingdon, Root and Neal provide a work that is simultaneously an introduction to Lewis’ major works and a substantive argument about the animating source of his writing.  Their aim is to demonstrate that “through Lewis’s autobiography, children’s stories, science fiction, poetry, religious work…and literary criticism than an intentional use of the imagination is always at work.” (xvii)  Thus there is plenty to chew on here both for the life-long Lewis aficionado and an excellent introduction for those looking for an overview as they begin to treat with the Oxford don.

The authors follow a common pattern throughout. They have selected a handful of Lewis’s most-used forms of imagination and describe them, chapter by chapter, by giving an overview of a representative work and explicating how it uses that particular kind of imagination.  For instance, the authors argue that “shared imagination” is especially evident in Lewis’s apologetic masterpiece, Mere Christianity.  Referring to the famous “Lord, liar, or lunatic” argument regarding the identity of Jesus, Root and Neal point out that Lewis here uses an Augustinian strategy to build his case.  This displays a sense of shared imagination about the basic content of Christian faith (the purposes of Mere Christianity) by using a shared (that is, classic) observation from one of the faith’s great teachers.  In the course of that chapter, the reader is both introduced to the content of Mere Christianity and given a sense of how shared imagination functions within.  This basic flow marks all the other chapters as well.  I especially enjoyed the chapter on The Great Divorce (a personal favorite) and transforming imagination, and found myself wanting to dig into the Space Trilogy after reading the author’s examination of Out of the Silent Planet.

The authors highlight Lewis’s varied uses of imagination throughout, but are quick to point out that their work is only an introduction to something quite pronounced in their subject’s writings.  An appendix includes a large number of other forms of imagining and suggestions about where to find them.  In the end, a nod to Lewis’s children’s literature speaks volumes about the importance of this subject to Lewis and all those who would appreciate his full body of work: “Lewis, by using his imagination,” they note, “brings his readers into other worlds, much like Aslan brought children into his world.” (194)  They point out that Lewis uses imagination with a mastery reminiscent of the earliest Christian exegetes, those Mothers and Fathers who pioneered to analogical reading of Scripture centuries ago.

That insight is a fitting tribute to one of the greatest Christian thinkers of the last century, who continues to aid readers both to live and articulate their faith decades after his death.  The Christian imagination has been enriched by the imagination of C.S. Lewis, and this new offering is a delightful exploration of and a helpful introduction to a modern master who will continue to illumine our journey toward God for decades yet to come.

Thanks to Abingdon for providing a copy of this book for review.

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