C.S. Lewis on Praising God

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“Bless the Lord, O my soul,
And all that is within me, bless His holy name.” ~Psalm 103

In his book, Reflections on the Psalms, Lewis writes that during his journey towards the Christian faith, and even for some time after he arrived, he “found a stumbling block in the demand so clamorously made by all religious people that we should ‘praise’ God; still more in the suggestion that God Himself demanded it.”[1] He writes that the obligation we had to honor God – to attend church where His praises are sung and do our best to join in – seemed to border on ludicrous for a God who also tells us that He needs nothing. From a human perspective, this made God seem petty to Lewis. Why did He demand this perpetual compliment, approval, and honor?

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There Was a Boy Called Eustace Clarence Scrubb

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“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

We tend to be naïve about the process of spiritual growth. When it happens, we are shocked at the ugliness and pain of the process. Conceptually, we know that sin is terrible. Sin put our Lord on the Cross. But conceptual knowledge of something is always weaker than the thing itself. Our concept of sin always falls short.

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Illusions and Boats

Watts, George Frederic, 1817-1904; A Sea Ghost

Sea Ghost by G.F. Watts

“We men and women are all in the same boat, upon a stormy sea. We owe to each other a terrible and tragic loyalty.” G.K. Chesterton

Here is a thoughtful article from one of my favorite scientists/theologians, Alister McGrath: Is God a Figment of Our Imagination? On Certainty, Scepticism and the Limits of Proof. In it, he claims that “everyone who believes anything worthwhile and takes the trouble to think about things – including atheists, Marxists, or secular humanists – will find themselves having to confront the vulnerability of their beliefs. We are all in the same boat.”

I would add that honestly confronting the vulnerability is key and as I did this, I saw that I would have to give up more with atheism. We are all in the same boat in some ways but at the end of the day, when it comes to levels of vulnerability, our beliefs are ultimately in different boats. Not all boats are created equal. I learned this by investigating the fundamentals of atheism or the bottom atheism’s boat, you could say. It had more holes.

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The Burden of Doubt: A Cross to Bear

Loneliness

“The Sea of Faith /Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore /Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. /But now I only hear /Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, /Retreating…” from “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold

A wise man once said: “In dealing with the arrogant asserter of doubt, it is not the right method to tell him to stop doubting. It is rather the right method to tell him to go on doubting, to doubt a little more, to doubt every day newer and wilder things in the universe, until at last, by some strange enlightenment, he may begin to doubt himself.”

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Conclusion – The Medievals and Modernity

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“He understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding. His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world.”[1]

I think I finally understand what G.K. Chesterton meant when he said that our modern world is topsy-turvy, that we are all born upside down when it comes to our cosmic perspective. It really has to do with the self-conscious way we look at the universe, from the smallest of things to the greatest. Of course, this self-consciousness began in the Garden, but it is particularly pronounced today. Lewis writes that our “whole attitude of the universe is inverted.”[2] “In modern, that is, in evolutionary, thought,” he writes, “Man stands at the top of a stair whose foot is lost in obscurity.”[3]

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Part Two: Medieval and Modern Suffering

The Agony in the Garden circa 1799-1800 by William Blake 1757-1827

Jesus’s Agony in the Garden by Blake

We moderns do not suffer well. At first glance, this might seem strange to our medieval ancestors since our living conditions are far superior to that of any other civilization in human history. Nevertheless, they would quickly discern that our relative wealth and security represent “only the surface of our lives.”[1] Below the busy-ness and sophistication, there is an emptiness as vast as the space of our cosmological models. Because of this, we feel our suffering more acutely. Despite the fact that their day-to-day lives were decidedly more difficult, our medieval ancestors would pity us. Chesterton wrote that because of our nearsightedness when it comes to the cosmos, we “have been forced to be gay about the little things, but sad about the big ones.”[2] Indeed, the little and big things have been cordoned off from one other in our world. As C.S. Lewis wrote, we have divided the two such that “on the one side [there is] a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow ‘rationalism,’” that is ultimately meaningless.[3] In his book Faith, Hope and Poetry, Malcolm Guite writes that in our world, “the faculties of Imagination and Intuition, those very faculties that alone [are] capable of integrating, synthesising, and making sense of our atomized factual knowledge, [have been] relegated to a purely private and ‘subjective’ truth.”[4] Again, man is the measure in the modern mind, so this subjectivity is inevitable. Part of our task as apologists is to repair the fragmentation between our imaginations and our reason, to bind again what has been torn apart. As Holly Ordway writes in her book Apologetics and the Christian Imagination, our culture struggles “not with missing facts, but with missing meaning,” and this is difficult mental soil for the Gospel to take root.[5] This is where imaginative apologetics is indispensable for it seeks to bridge the gap between the two. Once again, we can look back to our medieval clerk to give us a way forward for in his mind no chasm existed. Therefore, as we scale the lonely peak of our modern age once again, leaving the medieval pageantry and joy behind, it is our task as ambassadors for our Golden King to tell our age about that valley below.  Two poems, in particular, can show us how the combination of imagination and reason provide a powerful antidote to our modern situation: Malcolm Guite’s “O Sapientia” and “O Clavis,” two among seven sonnets inspired by the medieval ‘O Antiphons’ that were written for the Advent season.

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Part One: The Medieval Model of the Cosmos

Dante-Paradise

Gustave Dore’s depiction of Dante’s Divine Comedy: The Celestial Rose – seeing the universe from a spiritual point of view

In his essay, “First and Second Things,” Lewis wrote that “you can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.”[1] In fact, he continues, if you put second things first, you will end up getting neither. The thing that strikes one most when studying the differences between the Medieval Model and our own is the inversion of first and second things between the two. The medieval mind took for granted that the world, though complex, was ordered. They looked to first things to help them discover its structure, two of which were God’s goodness and Mankind’s sinfulness. Taking these as starting points, along with a tremendous respect for the wisdom of the past, they constructed their cosmology. Modern man has debunked these first things and begins with himself: cogito ergo sum. The consequences of this inversion reverberate throughout our cosmology, creating a very different reaction to the universe as compared to the medieval stargazer. Lewis writes that it is precisely this inversion that has led to the emptying and “desiccation of the outer universe” that characterizes our model, not the scientific discoveries of our more technologically advanced age.[2] He calls the inversion a result of a “great movement of internalization and that consequent aggrandizement of man,” something that is the subject of his book The Abolition of Man.[3] In other words, we have dispensed with the hierarchy of the medieval model and have put mankind into a first-place in our world, crushing everything into a “flat equality.”[4] Therefore, it is not so much its details but the Medieval Model’s ordering of first and second things that can speak wisdom into our current age and illuminate where we have gone wrong. The medieval observer’s respect for authority and recognition of Mankind’s place within an objective hierarchical order provide powerful correctives for our modern age. It reveals how our distrust of authority, our hunger for autonomy, and our worship of radical individualism have shaped our own model of the universe in such a way that it has shrunk to the point where “the parts seem greater than the whole.”[5]

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