“Authority, reason, experience; on these three, mixed in varying proportions all our knowledge depends. The authority of many wise men in many different times and places forbids me to regard the spiritual world as an illusion. My reason, showing me the apparently insoluble difficulties of materialism and proving that the hypothesis of a spiritual world covers more of the facts with far fewer assumptions, forbids me again. My experience even of such feeble attempts as I have made to live the spiritual life does not lead to the results which the pursuit of an illusion ordinarily leads to, and therefore forbids me yet again…. the value given to the testimony of any feeling must depend on our whole philosophy, not our philosophy on a feeling. If those who deny the spiritual world prove their case on general grounds, then, indeed, it will follow that our apparently spiritual experiences must be an illusion; but equally, if we are right, it will follow that they are the prime reality and that our natural experiences are a second best.”C.S. Lewis, “Religion: Reality or Substitute”, in Christian Reflections. The Collected Works of C.S. Lewis. (New York: Inspirational Press, 1996), pp. 200-201
We have argued that humans are innately tuned to seek the absolute and to turn towards the transcendent. Our ruling cultural paradigms in the 21st Century West, Materialist Modernism and Postmodernism, deny this. In doing so, they also deny what makes humans uniquely human and put humanity on a par with any other accidental evolutionary extrusion. There is no accounting for all the categories of human experience and awareness of something “other”, “beyond”, “higher”, “greater” than what we are now, and to which we yearn to aspire.
Beyond his well-known Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis was a great English thinker and writer about reality in his own right. He cites three forms of evidence: the evidence of history, the evidence of reason, and the evidence of experience. History gives us “the authority of many wise men in many different times and places”. Reason shows him (us) “the apparently insoluble difficulties of materialism”, a subject which we have previously and frequently approached from a variety of angles. Personal experience refutes the claim that the transcendent is all an illusion foisted upon the gullible. Incidentally, Lewis could hardly have been accused of being a gullible simpleton. He was a well-respected and established professor and scholar of Medieval Literature and culture at Oxford University. In Surprised by Joy he called himself the “most reluctant Christian convert in history”, or words to that effect.
At this point of our discussion, we will therefore accept that human beings are a union of the physical and spiritual aspects of reality. As Lewis says, “… the hypothesis of a spiritual world covers more of the facts with far fewer assumptions” than pure materialism. For many modern/postmodern Western people with their conviction that strict materialism is the only acceptable version of reality, at least in practice if not in theory, this may be unpalatable. After all, it (re)opens the discussion about God, Creation, and moral responsibility and accountability. An unwillingness to even discuss these subjects betrays fear and weakness that their case is not nearly as conclusive as they like to assert.
Perhaps it is fair to ask why the possible, even probable, existence of the supernatural opens up the divisive Pandora’s Box of morality, personal responsibility, and accountability. Let us consider once more the three “witnesses” on the subject which Lewis posits.
First, the enormous preponderance of the “authority of many wise” people through all recorded human history claims that moral living is incumbent upon each of us and all of us together and that its expectations and standards are rooted in the spiritual side of reality, to which they also bear witness. Furthermore, this same authority declares that responsibility and accountability are both personal and collective, and that this flows from the same (spiritual) source as morality itself.
Then reason tells us that moral, responsible living is simply a much more satisfying course of life with much richer results in both the short and long term, for both the present and the future. (Cf. Pascal and his wager in “The Third Way, 43 – Kohelet 7”.) Once more, the historical record on this score is irrefutable. Philosophers from all civilized cultures, from China to England, from antiquity until the modern period, have argued this, whether religiously motivated or merely considering morality and accountability on their own merits, as did Aristotle and Confucius, for example.
Finally, every reasonably “normal” person experiences guilt and the sense of personal accountability which sooner or later will find them out. It matters not if you are religious, agnostic, or atheist. This understanding does not need to be taught, and it is inexplicable as a simple animal fear of getting caught and being punished. This virtually universal experience is repeated over and over from infancy on. It is actually a point of “first contact” with the absolute and transcendent aspects of reality, something we call “the conscience”. It is coupled with the unavoidable sense of wonder when faced with phenomena such as the incredible vastness of the universe, or the amazing and inextricable harmonious complexity of all that is, from the protozoa to the human brain. Faced with these awesome facts, it is an entirely natural reaction to be overwhelmed with one’s own infinitesimal insignificance and to behold all this with an irresistible sense that there has to be a Maker behind it all, one who knows us through and through.
Even today, with all the weight of our educational apparatus and cultural propaganda against bowing to “the absolute” and accepting our natural awe of the transcendent, the vast majority of humankind still adhere to what the sages of the ages have told us about the spiritual foundation of reality and the presence within it of mystery and things we are intended to seek, but from which we are estranged.
As Rousseau[i] put it, the whole human race is “in chains”, somehow barred from clearly perceiving what Francis A. Schaeffer[ii] called “true truth”. As tautological as this may sound, it is not nonsense, for we Modern-Postmoderns have become experts at obscuring the evidence and blurring all the categories and methods which might help lead us out of our self-imposed estrangement. The truth is that we are afraid of the truth because it will actually and really hold us personally accountable for what we do with it once we admit it. So we find “other truths” to explain away the mysterious aspects of reality. We convince ourselves that someday, somehow, all the mysteries will fall before the might of our reason, logic, and Science. Someday, somehow, the deepest secrets of the universe will be unlocked to our intellectual prowess. After all, has this not given us all the technological and scientific wonders we now know, proving that, as Lamarck told Napoleon about God, and Hawking declared in echo, “We no longer have need of that hypothesis?”
It is the old Goebbels[iii] propaganda technique. Tell a lie often enough and loudly enough and people will come to believe it, no matter how outrageous. Thus we can plausibly restructure “the truth” as needed to accommodate the newest and latest reinterpretation of the “scientific data”. We can redefine human nature or aspects thereof by rewriting the textbooks, for example redefining disorders and abnormalities into normalcy which can then be imposed on those who oppose. Alternatively, dissidents and recalcitrants harking back to “old superstitions” can be sanctioned and bullied into silence or ostracized so they no longer need be heard.
However, who we really are cannot be defined out of existence. What our hearts know even as our conscious minds protest against the voice of conscience cannot simply be decreed as unreal when the soul is whispering more and more loudly “Nevertheless…” What the spirit hungers and thirsts after cannot be made invisible by strident affirmations seeking to shout down the conscience.
In fact, these shouts are really more reinforcement of the testimony of the “three witnesses”. The more vehement the anger and shouting against the truth, the stronger the truth becomes until its light breaks out of the darkness. The longer we live in the dark and the deeper we try to bury the light, the lighter it will become and the more it will bedazzle us when it breaks out once more into the clear, as it will again.
The question is, can we, in our own power and strength, break the truth of who we really are free? Or do we need help to end our estrangement from the light of the transcendent absolute?
[i] Jean-Jacques Rousseau – French Enlightenment philosophe, d. 1778.
[ii] Francis A. Schaeffer – American Presbyterian minister and philosopher, d. 1984.
[iii] Joseph Goebbels – Nazi German Minister of Propaganda, 1933-1945, d. 1945.
2 thoughts on “The Third Way, 48: Saviours and Salvation, 4 – The Three Witnesses”
Great questions, Vince. I wonder if we can’t get anyone to hear them!
One small point, you describe C.S.Lewis as “a great English thinker and writer,” but he was actually Irish, like most of the great creative writers of that time period!
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Thanks, Bob. Getting people to hear these days is quite a challenge. Thanks for the reminder about Lewis’s real ethnicity.
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