God in the Dock, by C.S.Lewis

A Delightful Read

I was browsing the church library for something to read on a Sunday evening, and happened onto this collection of C.S.Lewis essays, which I had never heretofore read. I should have. Lewis has a clarity of reason that is extremely rare in this post-modern era. Last week I finished. Three weeks ago I became convinced I wanted this book in my own library, so I went out and bought it. The title of the book is very British; in American English we would probably say "God on Trial" (that's what "in the dock" means to Brits). C.S.Lewis was British; some of his more obscure references are footnoted by the editor, and a few British spellings look strange to the American mind. No matter, the thinking, although mostly some 60 years old, is very timely today in America.

I will never be a C.S.Lewis, I can only hope to whet your appetite for the real thing. Get this book. Some of the ideas that struck me (the essays are numbered):

2.  Miracles [p.27]  "The experience of a miracle in fact requires two conditions. First we must believe in a normal stability of nature, which means that the data offered by our senses recur in regular patterns. Secondly, we must believe in some reality beyond nature." One always enjoys reading in a famous author the same ideas one has independently argued oneself. In this case, my own essay on why I am a Christian, "What's Really Important" explores the same pair of basic concepts. I think it's important, because it establishes the credibility of the Christian message over against competing religions. Lewis is much more eloquent than I, and his approach is slightly different, but we agree. In essay 7 he takes up the same topic in the form of a conversation with an anti-religious materialist. "If there was anything outside Nature, and if it interfered -- then the events which the scientist expected wouldn't follow. That would be what we call a miracle. In one sense it wouldn't break the laws of Nature. The laws tell you what will happen if nothing interferes." Lewis goes on to refute the popular notion that ancients were more accepting of miracles, quoting Ptolemy (whose cosmology governed science up until Galileo), "the earth, in relation to the distance of the fixed star, has no appreciable size and must be treated as a mathematical point." [p.74] Several other essays take up various related issues in the science-religion debate.

10.  Christian Apologetics [p.94]  Lewis discusses how to make a compelling case for Christianity, by first understanding what the audience believes. "(1) I find that the uneducated Englishman is an almost total sceptic about History" and [p.95] "(2) He has a distrust of ancient texts." I see this same mind-set among educated Americans today. They don't know about the Science of Textual Criticism. We do know what the ancient texts originally said. But most important, [p.96] "(4) We must learn the language of our audience." He later repeats this point, even recommending that part of the ordination requirements for a pastor should be that he must translate a theological topic into ordinary (non-theological) language, that is, completely without using theological words which mean something else to ordinary lay persons than to theologians. If you cannot do that, you probably don't understand it yourself [p.338]. We translate the Bible into the common languages of third world countries where we send missionaries; why can't we do it for the people in our own country. This is incredibly insightful, and appeals to the Bible translator in me.

In this same essay on apologetics, [p.101] "One of the great difficulties is to keep before the audience's mind the question of Truth. They always think you are recommending Christianity not because it is true but because it is good." This is a compelling issue. Christianity is of no value at all unless it is true, and then it is of supreme importance.

16.  Religion without Dogma is badly titled. It was first presented to the Oxford Socratic Club in response to a defense of agnosticism, and its key strength is the utter demolition of materialistic views of rational thinking. [p.137] "It would be impossible to accept naturalism itself if we really and consistently believed naturalism." Lewis verges here on a vitalistic model of the mind, which seems self-ratifying, but may not actually be the case; however he certainly demolishes any hope of a materialistic model being provable. The best a materialist can hope for (Lewis does not say this) is the realization that Goedel's Theorem allows in a system for true propositions which cannot be proved within that system. Perhaps the human mind is strictly materialistic, but you cannot prove it because any effort to do so renders your argument meaningless. This is an amazing insight.

19.  What Are We to Make of Jesus Christ? [p.157] "Suddenly in comes an extraordinary remark -- 'I keep on sending you prophets and wise men.' Nobody comments on it. And yet, quite suddenly, almost incidentally, He is claiming to be the power that through all the centuries is sending wise men and leaders into the world." Of all the writers and wise men I have read, only Lewis and Jesus himself (and maybe the Apostle Paul) can pick up an incidental like this and unpack deep theological significance. The "Liar, Lunatic, or Lord" argument is fleshed out more fully in other Lewis writings; the essay here is probably near the beginning of his thinking about it.

Part II in this collection restarts the essay numbers with 1.

5.  Two Lectures [p.209] is a very insightful observation that Evolution argues only from simple to complex, while in the real world we also have simple things like acorns coming from whole (complex) oak trees, and rocket engines coming not from simpler machines but from the far more complex mind of a man. Evolution thus is not a reflection on the way Nature operates, but rather it completely ignores how half of Nature operates. Lewis is sometimes excused as believing in evolution; this essay makes it clear that he believes no such thing -- at least not the way the scientists describe it.

Part III begins the numbering again:

1.  Bulverism is about the debating technique of an imaginary person, Ezekiel Bulver coming to the realization of [p.273] "the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and then explain [the cause of] his error, and the world will be at your feet." Suzette Hadden Elgin, probably unaware of Lewis' prior work, addresses the same fallacy in her series of books, The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense. It is very difficult in debate to recover from this kind of thrust. Lewis gives examples from political arguments: "The capitalists must be bad economists because we know why they want capitalism, and equally the Communists must be bad economists because we know why they want Communism." And again, "The forces discrediting reason, themselves depend on reasoning. You must reason even to Bulverize."

4.  The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment is a lucid and devastating critique of any approach to crime other than punishment. The only rational and humane way to administer the consequences of crime is if the perpetrator deserves his punishment. If you treat it solely as a sickness, then there is no protection from any philosophy (for example, religion) from being deemed a sickness to be cured; if your concern is only prevention, then picking on any suitable victim to punish (whether guilty or not) can have that effect. [p.288] "It is only as deserved or undeserved that a sentence can be just or unjust." And [p.292] "To be 'cured' against one's will and to be cured of states we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level with those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals. But to be punished, however severely, because we have deserved it, because we 'ought to have known better', is to be treated as a human person made in God's image." Later he also points out, [p.339] "Hanging is not a more irrevocable act than any other. You can't bring an innocent man to life: but neither can you give him back the years which wrongful imprisonment has eaten." I wish some of the arguments for or against capital punishment today were as clearly stated.

5.  Xmas and Christmas [p.301] incisively cuts to the distinction between the secular and sacred traditions, still relevant today. Lewis does this with humor in a fictional chapter from an ancient historian, Heroditus. I am reminded of my own disgust at the modern celebration.

Some other Quotable Quotes

[p.32]  "The filth that our poor, muddled, sincere, resentful enemies fling at the Holy One, either does not stick, or, sticking, turns into glory."

[p.92]  "If one has to choose between reading the new books and reading the old, one must choose the old: not because they are necessarily better but because they contain precisely those truths of which our present own age is neglectful."

[p.93]  "What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects -- with their Christianity latent." [italics his]

[p.101]  "I was a professional literary critic and ... I did know the difference between legend and historical writing: that the Gospels were certainly not legends (in one sense they're not good enough); and that if they are not history then they are realistic prose fiction of a kind which actually never existed before the eighteenth century."

[p.153]  "[God] would rather have a world of free beings, with all its risks, than a world of people who did right like machines because they couldn't do anything else."

Tom Pittman
2006 January 2