Benedict XVI and C. S. Lewis: The novelty of modern Agnosticism (and a possible response)

It is often asserted that agnosticism is the ‘default option’ when it comes to religious belief. People will claim that there is just not enough evidence either way to make a decision as to whether or not God exists. However, this, it seems to me, is something of a recent phenomenon, and contrary to the common experience of most cultures and ages. A quick survey of human history will provide ample evidence that it is properly basic to human experience to acknowledge the existence of some sort of divinity, which is responsible for the creation of the world, and the foundation of all the goodness and truth recognised by human beings.

This latter term – ‘recognise’ – is itself an illuminating one in this context, insofar as when we recognise something we experience re-cognition, or re-knowing (the word comes from the Latin cognoscere – ‘to know’).  So in recognising something about the world, we are affirming something that, in a sense, we have always known; or rather, when its truth dawns upon us, it is a rediscovery of something that has always been fundamental to our understanding of the world. This is supremely the case in the recognition that God exists and has made the world, as well as the many corollary truths that flow from that.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his book Truth and Tolerance (written prior to his election to the papacy, as Cardinal Ratzinger), provides an outline of this common understanding of the world when contrasted with the modern tendency to agnosticism and relativism regarding religion:

Christianity has more in common with the ancient cultures of mankind than with the relativistic and rationalistic world that has cut loose from the fundamental insights of mankind and is thus leading man into a vacuum, devoid of meaning, which risks being fatal for him unless the answer to it comes to him in time. For the knowledge that man must turn toward God, and toward what is eternal, is found right across all the cultures; the knowledge about sin, repentance, and forgiveness; the knowledge concerning communion with God and eternal life; and finally the knowledge of the basic rules of morality, as they are found in the form of the Ten Commandments. It is not relativism that is confirmed; rather, it is the unity of the human condition and its common experience of contact with a truth that is greater than we are.

from Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions (2004), p.79, Ignatius Press.

            That last sentence captures the essence of what I am talking about here – that our history witnesses to a ‘common experience of contact with a truth that is greater than we are’. The modern attitude, that is wary of trusting its existential instincts, and denies a voice to the testimony of all previous ages, is an anomaly, which as Benedict XVI rightly says, ‘is thus leading man into a vacuum, devoid of meaning’. How then have we arrived at this position? Why does modern man seek to cut himself off from the most basic human insights about existence and reduce the question of life’s meaning to a kind of scrambling in the dark with no sure answers and noone to guide us in the right direction?

At best, some of us will grant that there is ‘something out there’ – a bigger picture of some sort; and that life is not without meaning. However, this attitude is often swiftly accompanied by the assertion that we cannot know anything more than that, and that the world religions are either all basically the same – human attempts to makes some sort of sense of our place in the universe, but none that provide any real access to the truth of things. In the same book, Benedict XVI also comments on this tendency:

…religion demands the making of distinctions, distinctions between different forms of religion and distinctions within a religion itself, so as to find the way to its higher points. By treating all content as comparably valid and with the idea that all religions are different and yet actually the same, you get nowhere. Relativism is dangerous in quite particular ways: for the shape of human existence at an individual level and in society. The renunciation of truth does not heal man. How much evil has been done in history in the name of good opinions and good intentions is something no one can overlook.

ibid, p.204.

            I.e.; the world’s religions are emphatically not all basically the same – whilst they represent much common ground (if this were not the case then the previous point regarding the common testimony of mankind would be a falsehood), there are differences between them. These differences, whilst sometimes very subtle, are also very important. For instance, whilst Hinduism contains much wisdom that would not be problematic for a Christian to affirm, the difference between their doctrines of God, which to many may seem quite a small one, is of enormous importance for how we see the world. Similarly, Christianity has even more in common with Judaism and Islam, but again, the doctrine of the Trinity (which itself stems from the doctrine of the Incarnation), whilst apparently just one of those issues where non-religious people would decry believers for disagreements over pedantic theological formulae, safeguards the central truth that God’s essential nature is Love. We may have forgotten quite how central this doctrine is to how we see things, but its importance is undeniable (take it out of the equation and see what happens).

Simply put, what one believes makes a difference, and religious truth is knowable. So again, the question has to be asked – why do so many in today’s culture try to pretend that this is not so? At the very least, the existence of God should strike any sensible human being as a basic intuition about the world we live in. What is stopping us from following our instincts, and from insisting on interpreting our experiences through a lens of unjustifiable scepticism? Furthermore, in the cases when God’s existence is acknowledged, why do we insist on sitting on the fence with respect to the world’s religions, and ignoring the important differences between them that so obviously exist?

Both questions are related, as the second is simply to ask why that once we acknowledge one truth we do not follow up on the conclusions that arise from it – once we admit that God exists, we are instantly faced with the question of where He is to be found. There are many factors to be considered in answering this, but I would submit that the central issue at hand is that to acknowledge that God exists is to acknowledge that I am not, ultimately, in charge; that I do not set the terms and conditions of my existence. The modern (and post-modern) period is characterised by a culture of self – what’s true is true for me, what’s most important is what makes me most happy and satisfied, this is my life and I am in charge of my own destiny.

Moreover, this attitude has resulted in a period of incomparable licence and permissiveness– it is therefore quite understandable that those who are, in one way or another, living out of step with what, deep down, they know to be the moral law, would seek to deny a Lawgiver. In the words of Saint John the Evangelist, ‘every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed’ (John 3:20). It is particularly easy in our post-Christian culture to live this way and take this attitude, as we are able to ride on the coattails of centuries of law, morality and custom that make our societies nice places to live in. But, as I mentioned earlier, what we believe is important, and a culture that denies the truth (in word and in deed) that has created and sustained its way of life can only continue to enjoy its benefits for so long. Saint Paul made this point back in the first century A. D. (c.f.; Romans 1) and it still applies today.

However, given that this is the situation we find ourselves in – where agnosticism is seen as the default position, and people seek to ‘exchange the truth about God for a lie’ in order to avoid the searching light of truth exposing their shortcomings – how then do we present the truth to them? After all, the attitude I have described above does not care much for reasoned argument, as it deliberately seeks to avoid truth per se. Reasons can be given, historical evidences can be provided, but for those who simply do not care about truth, these attempts will be in vain.

Fr. Robert Barron, posted a video recently in which, commenting on the fiftieth anniversary of C. S. Lewis’ death, he singled out Lewis’ talent for providing material that people could engage with imaginatively, and in terms of a narrative rather than a set of propositions. Supremely in his Chronicles of Narnia, but also in much of his other writings, he emphasised Christianity as a story to be entered into and lived within. Through his experience as a historian of literature and literary critic, he found that oftentimes it is narrative that has the greatest impact on us, because it engages our imagination as well as our intellect, and furthermore, because we are enjoying the story (Lewis had a very specific meaning of ‘enjoyment’ which I have discussed here) we will receive its truths all the more readily – it will get in behind our defences, so to speak.

So, when questioned about our faith, and when engaged in debate about the validity of the Christian claims, maybe it is better to ask our co-debaters this: What sort of a universe makes most sense to you? What bigger picture gives the fullest account of your existence? What (and also Whose) story are you living in?

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10 thoughts on “Benedict XVI and C. S. Lewis: The novelty of modern Agnosticism (and a possible response)

  1. Pingback: Human, earth and kindness? | Neo Gallerian

  2. Pingback: Sentimentality | Journey Towards Easter

  3. Reblogged this on Journey Towards Easter and commented:

    This is a re-blog of an earlier post of mine. I had started to write a post in this area, and then remembered that I had already written pretty much exactly the same thing in November! This is the second time that this has happened now – either my memory is going, or I’m just getting lazy (or both). Anyway, here it is…

  4. I can’t vouch for this because I am too lazy to look it up, but I seem to recall that CS Lewis was impressed and influenced by the writings of GK Chesterton. Chesterton also talked about stories, referring to the faerie stories that are the true stories. And I did read a piece by Tolkien where he explained that the original meaning of myth was truth – but told as a story. My take on this is for example Aesop’s Fables. No one believes that the Fox ever attempted to jump up and grab the grapes and then opined that they were probably sour anyway. But the story conveys a truth.

    The Greatest Story Ever Told, according to Tolkien, has the special advantage of having been written by one who did not have to use myth or fable to tell his story. He used History and wrote it with real people and events.

    • Yes, Lewis was certainly very influenced by Chesterton – in his letters, when asked who has been the biggest influence on his literary and religious imagination, he always cites GKC (particularly The Everlasting Man). Regarding Chesterton’s view on fairie stories – I know that he believed them to contain a great deal of truth (there is a whole chapter on this in Orthodoxy), but I haven’t read anything where he discusses the use of stories in communicating doctrine per se – though it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if he did!

      Anyway, I definitely agree with your take on Aesop’s Fables. I was discussing this the other day actually, when someone asked me why we bother to keep re-telling the old Greek myths, and, using the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, I tried to make the same point you have here – that the story conveys a truth which, if spelt out didactically, would lose its savour and power to connect at a deeper level (whereas, when we hear the story, we just ‘get it’).

      Have you read Tolkien’s ‘On Fairy Stories’? He not only does a great job of explaining what they are (and perhaps more importantly, what they are not), but also goes into great detail about the use of myth to convey truth, and the connection of those myths to His Story (as you mentioned above). Worth a read if you haven’t already!

      • I believe it is “On Fairy Stories” that gave me my understanding of his view on myth. I remember as a kid trying to tell someone what was different about the LOTR vs other fantasy novels. I told him that when you read the story, it just feels real, like it really did happen and the Third Age was our ancient and forgotten history.

        Now I would add that it is shot through with Truth about things ancient and deep and beautiful and holy – things for which our very souls resonate with longing.

    • Yes, this is a very good point – that, with the best stories, it is often very hard to explain what makes them different from other stories, or what the author is trying to say – because what they are trying to communicate is the whole story; you can’t pull a bit out here and a bit there, it is a totality. Reminds me of something Flannery O’Connor said, when someone asked her what the ‘point’ to one of her stories was, and she replied:

      ‘If I could tell you that, I wouldn’t have had to write the story’

      Also, I very much agree that the LOTR is shot through with holy and beautiful things – Tolkien said later in his letters that it was (at first unconsciously, and later consciously) a fundamentally Catholic work, in that he was trying to create a world different from ours, but run according to the same principles, with the same Truth at its heart. He did a cracking good job too – I think parishes across the Western world should start issuing communicants with copies of TLOTR, as an attempt to re-engage people with the Greatest Story Ever Told but without them realising that they are being catechised!

  5. Pingback: Benedict XVI and C. S. Lewis: The novelty of modern Agnosticism (and a possible response) |

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