Sunday 21 March 2021

CS Lewis's conversion is not a valid model for modern Man - indeed almost the opposite

For reasons I described earlier; the most famous Christian conversion of the twentieth century - i.e. that of CS Lewis - is not valid for modern Man. 

Modern Man must choose to become a Christian - and that choice typically comes from a context of disbelief not only in God, but the objectivity of Good, the existence of spirit and the soul; and indeed disbelief in any purpose or meaning in the universe. 

Contrast this mainstream, normal modern nihilism with Lewis's well-known account of how he came to believe in God (the belief in the necessity of Jesus came later). From Surprised by Joy

You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? The words compelle intrare, compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.

I fully accept the truth of Lewis's account - I am sure that is how it was for him. But Lewis was born in 1898 in a socially-enforced, strictly Christian-church part of Ireland; where people then and later would suffer, risk and die for their church - and for Lewis conversion involved return

Furthermore, in Lewis's Godless youth and younger-adulthood, atheists retained (unconsciously) most of the metaphysical assumptions of theism and the ethical assumptions of traditional Christianity. They were a long way from the generations-deep nihilism that is mainstream and normal nowadays. 

Nowadays; I would say that the experience of being hunted-down by a relentless God, out to reclaim his own; a God that must actively be resisted! - must be very rare indeed. 

In such a world as this, the idea that we convert when we can no longer resist God is probably counter-productive. It was for me. 

I read Surprised By Joy in about 1985, when I was exploring Christianity quite actively (Note: I did not actually become a Christian until 2008). I enjoyed the book, but took away the idea that the time to believe in God was when that belief could not be resisted - when one was overwhelmed by God. So I was - to an extent - waiting for that to happen.  

I did not take personal responsibility for my belief - but equated truth with being-overwhelmed; and of course what one is overwhelmed by in modern life is not God but the ideology of secular leftism as it impinges from all-directions

So, if our assumption is that belief is dictated by a sense of being hunted-down and compelled by external ideas; this now leads to mainstream, secular, leftist nihilism - not to God*. 

Ironically; all this was fully and deeply understood by CS Lewis's best friend Owen Barfield; whose 'conversion story' is so lacking in drama that it has no real beginning or end. He simply, gradually, chose to believe in God and the necessity of Jesus; and (in middle age) joined the Church of England (without strictly subordinating himself to its rules - e.g. he remained an Anthroposophist and believed in that type of reincarnation). 

Barfield realised (and wrote - in essays and books that CS Lewis read and, apparently, liked!) that modern Man's consciousness experiences the world in an alienated fashion and from-this chooses to believe what it believes. 

But Barfield was Not any kind of relativist or post-modernist: he believed in a real-reality, a really-real God, that Christ was the single most important 'event' in the history of the universe etc. But he also recognized that these 'objective' truths do not force-themselves upon modern Man from outside; but must be recognized by modern Man with a free act of choice and from a state of alienation, from a detached consciousness.

(Modern Man chooses God or Not-God, from a state beyond even that 'solipsism' in which the reality of other people is doubted. Modern Man has reached a nihilism in which even the reality of one's own thinking consciousness is doubted! It is now quite normal and mainstream for Men to (choose to) believe that their own consciousness is an epiphenomenon, an inessential and non-functional artifact of brain electrical activity. People even discuss - with bland unconcern - that they themselves might be no more than software simulations in some kind of Matrix...) 

Barfield also made clear that this situation led to the opposite possibilities of either the first freely-chosen Christianity in history; or else to types of moral and aesthetic inversion and depravity never before seen in history (which is what has actually happened).  

At any rate; my advice to modern people who are interested in the possibility of becoming a Christian would be very different from what Lewis described. 

I would emphasize that anyone who relies on being overwhelmed by the strength of external persuasion or compulsion will almost certainly accept the dominant nihilism and evil; whereas God, truth, beauty and virtue must be chosen, and by a responsible inner act deriving from absolutely free agency. 

In brief; Truth is real but must be chosen; and then we get what we want

So we need to be sure that we really (from our true-selves, by full acceptance of responsibility) actually-want, what we suppose-we-want.  

*I am thinking of those evangelists who make the error of assuming that anyone not a Christian must actively be resisting the obvious dictates of reason and the promptings of their deepest and most spontaneous emotions. Yet, such is the depth of skepticism, cynicism, nihilism; that modern people reflexively doubt all their good impulses, all logic and reason, all choices that lead to life eternal, happiness, love, creativity! Increasingly, as of 2021; we see that 'belief' is just for here and now and today; passively adopted for reasons of expediency - especially from fear and despair (fear of being exiled-from and scapegoated-by the 'community' - which is now obviously controlled top-down by the Establishment; and despair of a materialist life without the 'optimism' offered as carrot for obedience to the Establishment).  


fitzhamilton said...

Well. I don't know. All I can say for myself is that I have from my very earliest childhood known that God is very real. He has enveloped and encompassed me from the very beginning, my earliest memories are unmistakably suffused with his presence. My mother was often there as well, but not in the way that God was.

I later became less aware of him. I was indoctrinated in the indifferentism and so called skepticism of our culture, and the Church though present enough to provide a mild counter to the eviscerating acidic stream of secularist satanism, only gave me a general dogmatic orientation.

I fell into hedonic idolatry, as most teenagers, most people, do. It made me miserable. I suffered without reason. But I remembered what I knew, and one night alone in a room above the Aegean, wisteria in the air whiskey in my belly Billie Holliday on my tape deck, I was presented a choice. Follow me, or be enslaved by him. I asked for the Cross.

My mother taught me the value of offering up my suffering. The nuns taught her to say her prayers, and she taught me. It's all concatenation of grace upon grace.

I do not think grace is escapable. I know it can be refused. We're all immersed in him. He is here, within us, now. We need only seek him, and he will be found. The invitation is universal. It has to be, otherwise his judgement would be unjust. And he is justice, he is mercy.

I don't know what to think of what you are saying here. You say many things that I think wise. But your theology in deep resolution is blurry.

I agree with you that John is the best gospel. But the synoptics are beautiful, true, too. I think you are very wrong to doubt them. The tradition is of Israel, and Israel is of the tradition. Israel and the Church are the same, and the tradition (scripture) is of the Church. Don't doubt the witness. The people may be faithless, but our God never is. The chaff mixes with the wheat. Our Master shall sort his harvest in the end.

All of this is to say that I do not doubt Jack's conversion at all. God takes each of us in his own way. He harvests us each uniquely according to his and our own will.

Matthew T said...

conversion story' is so lacking in drama that it has no real beginning or end. He simply, gradually, chose to believe in God

Thanks for writing this. For a long, long time one of my pet peeves with respect to pop evangelical culture has been the way that it's expected for everyone to have a dramatic or impressive conversion story. "So tell us how you got saved, bro!" It's like, I kinda just nonchalantly decided it was all real, you know?

Bruce Charlton said...

@fh "your theology in deep resolution is blurry."

Well, no. It may be regarded as wrong if (as is almost certain) you do not share my fundamental metaphysical assumptions; but it is crystal clear - and comprehensible by the average 8 year old!

But I am Not writing for people like you who see no problem with having a Christian faith and are happy with their denominations and churches. Good luck to you!

But be aware that you are rare, getting rarer, and very few others can (or should even try to) follow your path.

Bruce Charlton said...

@MT - Well, for me it was a big decision and began to change my life immediately. yet it was also gradual. The final decision came following an everyday miracle/ answered prayer, and was confirmed by another. I then waited a few months before announcing it and - following CS Lewis's advice! - began to attend the nearest church of my birth denomination, take communion and seek confirmation. None of these first steps except maybe for communion - was the right long term decision; but I learned from my mistakes.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

My own reconversion has also been gradual and lacking in drama. (Not that I haven't had a few dramatic spiritual experiences, both as an atheist and as a Christian, but they played no role in my conversion!)

Nicholas Fulford said...

I take exception with nihilism, though not with epiphenomenalism. It seems to me that each is a wave upon a wave, that the ocean is common and that we rise and fall over time and our intimately connected to a particular point where by whatever unknown means the universe began to express, and over some 13.8 billion year of that unfolding has lead to this conversation.

I have difficulty with "God" in the same way that I have difficulty with treating the map as the land that it is meant to represent. The map is not the Earth, but so many treat it as such. (As an aside; I love tales of people mindlessly following their GPS when it does not lead to serious mishap. It seems the epitome of comedy to treat symbolic representations and especially those that display on electronic displays as more real than what we experience.)

I know that you and I disagree on this Bruce, but i see religion as an attempt to contain and make comprehensible what is not comprehensible and that this results in error in the form of projections. Even in our longest and deepest interpersonal relationships our idea of another person is distorted and incomplete at best. I've been to funerals and heard people who have known the person for many years describe the person in terms which are quite different from my own experience. Similar in a number of respect, certainly, but very different in others, and I dare say if one were to integrate all of those narratives the image would still be a pale one. And this is with a flesh and blood person with whom we can talk, appreciate music, have intimacies, and many other things which shape the internal map that we hold of that person. The very big problem with the collection of human images of the divine is that they have extreme variability over differing times and cultures. It is like the story of the four Indian gentlemen who are blind and touch an elephant. Each has a limited and unique frame and describes the elephant from a distinct frame. One feels the trunk, another the leg, another the tusk and another the tail. Each describes it differently and has a projection of what it is from a narrow and distorting frame.

In the matter of that which results in the unfolding of our universe I have to honestly say a big, "I don't know and I can't know." This is not a matter which can be resolved via beliefs about which there are so many variations. As someone with a scientific bent I have to leave it alone because there is nothing useful to say without introducing various forms of error and bias. It is very much akin to asking, "What exists outside the universe?" This is not a question that admits of any ability to observe because I exist within this universe and it has limits beyond which nothing can be observed.

I suppose at this point in my life I am very pragmatic about the role of religion; if it serves to motivate a person to be charitable, kind, socially responsible, and it creates meaning for that person then I have no issue with it. Where I have an issue with it is where you have an issue with secular leftist ideology, and that is that I would prefer that people have a live and let live attitude to it. I find it particularly problematic where religion and politics become blended in a way that poisons. That amalgamation is a truly hideous one from where I sit - which is in Canada looking south at a very angry society where politics and religion have been in bed together since the 18th century at least. Religion has often gone hand in hand with colonialism and has been contributory to grave harms done to indigenous peoples including the taking of land, the devaluing and enslaving of people, all justified in the name of God.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Wm - I wasn't really trying to say that modern conversion would be lacking in spiritual drama; but that it is likely to be active; something that we make happen. This would tend to invalidate it, and make it a matter of 'wishful thinking' according to mainstream analysis - but properly understood it is a matter of free agency. In fact, I believe that the modern craving to be 'overwhelmed by reality' is the wishful thinking of these times, because people crave an escape from their own cynicism and alienation.

@NF - Your arguments fall into the usual 'Cretan Liar' type paradox of asserting that you know something, when you have argued that nothing can be known.

Believing in God is no more complicated than believing in one's mother, having faith in a mother's love. It is this kind of personal, relational knowledge which comes first - and the abstract categories which you use to analyze the world, and with-which you reject this personal and relational knowing, are the truly artificial constructs. Indeed, such abstractions probably did not exist before the ancient Greeks, and probably do not exist for most people alive in the world today.

"I suppose at this point in my life I am very pragmatic about the role of religion; if it serves to motivate a person to be charitable, kind, socially responsible, and it creates meaning for that person then I have no issue with it."

Don't you perceive that is nonsense? You are assuming that the role of religion is to serve your arbitrary assumption that "charitable, kind, socially responsible" is the proper aim of life. But on what basis? Plenty of people disagree - for example heroic societies (or Nietzsche!) would regard such assumptions as no better than the ethics of the farmyard, a slave mentality, the politics of resentment.

My point is that you have metaphysical assumptions but unacknowledged and unexamined; and your relativism make it impossible that you can have any basis for any assumptions.

As for your defense of leftism based on the idea that Canada is a moral model and the US is poisonous... Laughable! The two places are so similar in world historical terms as to be indistinguishable! In retrospect, the American Revolution was a big fuss about nothing, and made no significant difference to either place.

(From the British POV the primary issue of that war was holding-onto the West Indies sugar plantations, and the mainland war was a sideshow. But that is off topic)

The progressive fairytale you describe is just the totalitarian mainstream Global Establishment propaganda, and as such affiliated to the extreme evil of our times; rendering the gross wickedness invisible while creating fake and incoherent ethical (non-)problems such as racism 2021, feminism 2021, environmentalism 2021...

Pangloss said...

From our side of heaven it indeed may seem we are choosing. From God's side of heaven it appears the initiative was always His. As we are an obstinate breed. In the end, it is revelation as that is the way truth comes to us. The Father reveals the Son and then the Son reveals the Father. It is my experience and conviction that those who want to know can simply throw up a prayer (and keep repeating it until it happens at His time) to the Father to reveal the Son. He will answer. Because it is His delight as Jesus Christ is His greatest Work. As simple as that.

Bruce Charlton said...

@P - Well, I disagree. It was once as you say - but not any more, at least not for many people. I am sure our mindset as of 2021 needs to be that God must be sought actively and chosen with full responsibility.

Of course, God will then respond; but we cannot expect the heavy lifting to be done by God while we are 'merely' receptive, or merely formulaic, or rely upon 'external' rituals or forms of words; because for many people that externally-driven path leads to one or another form of damnation...

Because, after all, we have just this year seen the wholesale abandonment of Christianity by all the major Christian churches; who have explicitly put Global Establishment-defined healthism above the needs of soul and spirit - and willingly, with self-congratulation, closed the churches, suspended the sacraments, condemned the gathering of Christians, and supported the dehumanization and mutual fear of Men.

This is the By Far worst crisis of Christianity in 2000 years - as evidenced by the reality that hardly any self-identified 'Christians' have even noticed the fact, so deep is their corruption, so weak is their faith.

Bruce Charlton said...

@P - Further. What used to be regarded as a 'safe' way of being a Christian (i.e. downplaying individual choice, emphasizing obedience to church authority, asserting that Man merely conforms to God's initiative and grace) is now revealed as a fraud. Those who assert such doctrines have abandoned their responsibilities, shut-up churches they lead, and left the faithful laity each on his own.

Well, now we know. Best to know.

Pangloss said...

Bruce, I agree with you as to how the vast majority of churches are wholly conforming to the world as a system. And normally God appears to work through Christians and churches to reach seeking unbelievers, and this road now is largely blocked. Through disobedience of those who lead those churches (so was that Christianity or Churchianity during all those years..?). Hence I did not mention 'the church'. Just a personal quest, an interaction between God and man.