C.S. Lewis is morally incoherent

I read C.S. Lewis’s “Narnia” books as a child, and have dim memories of enjoying them. Because of this, and because the trailers for the upcoming movie look gorgeous, I have been planning to see The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when it comes out. As preparation I thought it would be a good idea to reread the series. To my great disappointment, I’ve discovered that they don’t hold up well under adult perception — in fact, that Lewis’s creation is morally and dramatically incoherent in a deep and damaging way.

The core of the problem is Aslan, the godlike lion who sang Narnia into existence in The Magician’s Nephew (seventh book to be written but earliest in narrative time). The dramatic problem is that Aslan is a total deus ex machina, whisked onstage any time that Lewis wants to ratchet the plot past some obstacle or hammer home a moral, then whisked offstage before anybody has time to wonder why nothing ever seems to happen without Aslan in back of it. As a child I didn’t question this; as an adult, I grew quite fed up with the creature’s excessively convenient appearances and gnomic pronouncements by the middle of Book Three. He might as well have “Authorial Contrivance” stamped on his forehead in letters of fire.

But the problem with Aslan goes deeper than a mere dramatic flaw; or, if you like, the dramatic flaw is a symptom of a deeper incoherence in Lewis’s world. The deeper problem is that Aslan’s role in the Narniaverse fails to make either logical or mythical sense.

Logically, if Aslan is sufficiently powerful to sing Narnia into existence (as he does in the first book) he should have been able to create anything or anyone he needed to in order to cold-cock the White Witch (who is for certain not powerful enough to make worlds and hosts of sentient beings). Instead, all he does is mumble about a prophecy and rely on four children accidentally arrived from another universe to set things right.

OK, perhaps there is some constraint on Aslan’s power of which we are not aware. But Lewis never tells us that there is. By failing to do this, he reduces the Narniaverse to a travesty without any narrative integrity of its own, a mere puppet-show in which one is all too aware of the author pulling the strings. My suspension of disbelief was destroyed; the only entertainment left for me was to wait to see which string Lewis would pull next.

The closest to a clue we get to a rationale is a reference to the law of the “Deep Magic”, which the Lion and the Witch refer to when she claims the right to kill Edmund for his treachery. Aslan does not dispute this. Instead, he offers himself to be sacrificed on the Stone Table in Edmund’s place. But Aslan’s sacrifice is a fraud.

Consider what happens objectively. The Witch “kills” Aslan with a stone knife — but within minutes he is back and better than ever, it being by his representation a law of the Deep Magic that when one innocent of treachery is sacrificed on the Table the magic turns back on itself.

But I see no actual sacrifice here. It’s a sham, a put-up job. Aslan suffers no harm at all other than some transient pain and the indignity of having been trussed up like a Christmas goose. To a being that can sing worlds into existence this is surely no worse than a hangnail. We are only fooled into thinking otherwise, if we are, because Lewis abuses the word “death” to refer to a condition that is completely reversible, and is in fact reversed.

In retrospect, Aslan’s vaunted sadness on the way to the Stone Table is evidence of either (a) extreme cowardice, because he’s boo-hooing even though he knows he’s got a get-out-of-death-free card, or (b) an indication that he doesn’t know in advance he’ll survive. But (b) is ridiculous — he’s certainly quick enough to explain his resurrection to the children afterwards, and does so in terms which pretty much exclude the possibility that he wasn’t expecting it.

This is, at the very least, absurd sloppiness on Lewis’s part. He could have put some words in Aslan’s mouth that told us he was surprised to be alive; in that case Aslan’s bravery and sacrifice would have been real. In that case, the whole scenario would have at least made some sense on a mythic and moral level, even if it remained logically incoherent. But, as it is, Lewis misses no opportunity to miss an opportunity; he screws up on every level.

A comparison with Tolkien is apposite here. I read the Rings trilogy a few years before I read the Narnia books. In rereading Lewis, I discover that his prose construction is better than J.R.R Tolkien’s, his descriptions more evocative, his characters more fully drawn. Lewis is in almost all ways a more able writer than Tolkien; and yet, it is the Rings trilogy that stuck with me and the Narnia books I nearly forgot.

The difference, I think, is that Tolkien cared about the causal depth and autonomy of his secondary world in a way the Lewis did not. By “causal depth” I mean the degree to which events in the secondary universe are made to seem a natural unfolding of its laws and nature, rather than being products of divine or authorial whim. By “autonomy” I mean the degree to which we are convinced that the secondary universe has an existence of its own, separate from our primary reality.

Tolkien famously insisted that fantasy, when properly done, is the creation of a secondary world with both causal depth and autonomy. I have written elsewhere about flaws in Tolkien’s biology; but, as I observed there,

Tolkien was very careful about logical consistency in areas where he
was equipped by temperament and training to appreciate it; he invented
a cosmology, thousand of years of history, multiple languages; he drew
maps. He lectured on the importance of a having convincing and
consistent secondary world in fantasy.

And, indeed, Tolkien practised what he preached. The Ring trilogy is largely (though not entirely) internally coherent; you have to dig for edge cases like the sexual biology of elf/human matings before the seams really show. His detailed world-building addresses logical consistency. And because Tolkien’s Eru/Iluvatar creates Middle-Earth but then withdraws from it in order to let the Speaking Peoples work out their destiny, the choices they make have moral heft.

Lewis, by contrast, cheats his readers. His secondary world lacks causal depth — one way or another Aslan is at the back of everything. It lacks autonomy; Father Christmas shows up as a minor character. In these and other ways, Lewis’s contrivances are crude and obvious; he fails, on both the logical and moral levels, to create a secondary world with an integrity of its own. Or rather, he begins promisingly. Then he squanders that promise in order to prosecute a ham-handed allegory that fails to hang together even on its own terms. Thus, even if one doesn’t parse the various logical and moral flaws in detail, the whole edifice has a rickety and inauthentic feel to it.

(I discovered after I was well into writing this essay that Tolkien appears to have disliked the Narnia books, and even quarrelled with Lewis about them, for exactly these reasons.)

I think the problem has to be located in Lewis’s Christianity somewhere, if only because Aslan (the locus of the most serious structural flaws) is such an obvious Christ-figure. It’s as though Lewis gets so caught up in retailing his own odd spin on the Crucifixion that he forgets to make any logical or moral sense out of his version.

One thing that fantasy can do is re-imagine the familiar in a way that makes it possible for us to see it fresh, without our normal preconceptions. Lewis achieves this in the story of Aslan’s encounter with the Stone Table, but the effect is the opposite of what Lewis probably intended — because it’s only a short step from noticing that Aslan’s self-sacrifice was a fraud to noticing that Jesus’s purported self-sacrifice has to have been a fraud too, and for precisely the same reasons.

If we are to believe Christian myth, Jesus didn’t die and exists in eternity. A few hours or days on a cross should be meaningless to a being that knows it will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, especially when (being omniscient) it can foresee the entire “ordeal” in advance.

So the end result of Lewis’s attempt to write a veiled Christian apologia is to expose the vacuity of the Crucifixion myth. Nice going, Clive!

P.S.: I wrote this, then I thought about what J.K. Rowling has done with the moral-didactic children’s fantasy in the Harry Potter sequence. The comparison is devastating to Lewis.

76 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis is morally incoherent

  1. The point you are missing is that the reason C.S. Lewis wrote the books was to be able to deal with more serious Christian themes on a level children would understand — themes that he felt were being whitewashed and watered down in Sunday School, which he tended to think of as a kind of pablum that was absolutely useless for and insulting to children.

    (He even described the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as an attempt to get more serious concepts past the eyes of “Watchful Dragons” because fairy tales were generally ignored by adults.)

    And the contrast between the stuff taught in Sunday Schools (even today) and the stuff in the Narnia books are striking: in Sunday Schools, Jesus is shown as a kindly, gentle man and that’s it — Aslan is “not a tame lion” and even “good” animals and creatures can be afraid of him, even though at the same time he does show compassion and gentleness, etc. In Sunday Schools, the crucifixion, and the theological reasons behind it, aren’t really mentioned at all — not in Children’s classes — yet Aslan is murdered by cruel creatures who mock him first, and he does so in order to save the life of Edmond, who is sort of a rat for the major part of the book. These are pretty heavy subjects that are presented fairly well, and presented in a way so that you don’t even necessarily understand it’s being done. When I first read TLTW&TW I had no idea it was Lewis presenting Christian theology, but I understood that Aslan, though he was a “good” creature, was also a *dangerous* one, and while I didn’t draw any parallells between Aslan being killed and Jesus being crucified I did understood that his sacrifice was being made for someone who didn’t really deserve it.

    Also, because the book is so solidly built on the tradition of fairy tales — specifically fairy tales, rather than Tolkiens adaptation of them into high fantasy — there was an automatic understanding of “don’t sweat the details” that I picked up on and that I suspect a lot of other children did as well. Not everyone will, of course, and some people want everything to be internally consistent. But the lack of consistency didn’t bother me. The books were consistent enough to tell the stories Lewis wanted to tell, and everything else was just fun.

    The difference between the two was that Tolkien was building a world, deliberately, while Lewis was more interested in telling a bunch of stories that took place in a world that he wasn’t particularly interested in fleshing out. And so, for example, in the Voyage of the Dawn Trader, as they get closer and closer to the edge of the world, the lands they encounter get more strange and less defined, and that works for me.

    I still find the books enjoyable to read, though I find the backstory for Prince Caspian a bit tiresome because it takes too long to finish. The inconsistencies strike me as unimportant.

  2. Not to say that there aren’t ANY logical inconsistencies in the Chronicles, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call Lewis “morally incoherent”. Logically inconsistent at times, sure, but incoherent is a too strong. We are all imperfect in our understanding–we simply strive to understand better as we go along, as I’m sure Lewis did. Plus, it’s a lot easier for authors who come AFTER him to see his deficiencies and improve upon such weaknesses in their own works.

    Perhaps the most comprehensive reference to all things Narnia is Paul Ford’s “Companion to Narnia”. If I had it on me, I would first look up the entry on “sacrifice”. Highly recommended.

    Just a few things in regard to your specific points: 1) We assume that his impending death is what Aslan was so sad about. While it’s understandable that a reader might think that’s the case, the book never actually says. And even if it is, Aslan doesn’t necessarily know the *nature* of how it will all work out — only the fact that it will. (I admit it’s a stretch.)

    2) The nature of the sacrifice is different between Aslan and Christ, so a description of one does not give comprehensive insight into Lewis’ understanding of the other. Christ’s sacrifice was to atone for the sins of all who trust Him with their lives. Aslan’s however, was designed to redeem an individual traitor. Lewis always maintained that he never meant the Chronicles as an allegory. Since the nature of the sacrifice is different, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the nature of Aslan’s sadness might be different than Christ’s.

    3) Aslan *is* powerful enough to “create anything or anyone he needed to in order to cold-cock the White Witch.” He doesn’t want to do it that way.

    By the way, apart from salvation itself, what I as a Christian appreciate about my Lord’s sacrifice on the cross isn’t primarily His bravery in enduring it, although being human He certainly felt the pain. But (1) His willingness as Holy God and Creator to suffer the indignity that He did for a creature like myself that has rebelled against His own authority at times. And (2) Christ’s willingness to suffer separation from God the Father (even briefly), with whom He had been in communion from Eternity past.

    The type of suffering is analagous to a person who lives in pain, and would LIKE to commit suicide to end it, but instead sacrifices their own desires and lives, so as to avoid sin. It is not a meaningless sacrifice. It costs them dearly.

  3. Lewis is, I think, being a bit evasive when he says the Narnia books aren’t allegory. They aren’t allegories of Christianity only because the stories start in our world (in Lewis’ eyes, the Christian world) and then move out to another world where God and Christ interact with it somewhat differently. So Aslan is not an allegory for Christ because in the Narnia books, he *is* Christ.

    But that seems an over-precise distinction to make. :)

  4. Tolkien indeed severely criticized the Narnia series for the sloppiness and inconsistency of its Secondary World, but as far as I know he didn’t attack the portrayal of Aslan.

    You neglect the possibility that Aslan’s sadness does not refer to his own fate, but the fate of others.

    As for Jesus’ self-sacrifice being a fraud, you’re on record that Christianity is one end of the Axis of Evil, so such misunderstandings are only to be expected. It’s certainly a paradox that Jesus was both wholly God, and knew what would happen to him in full detail, and wholly man, and did not foresee it, nor escape his suffering and (genuine) death. But it’s the central mystery of the whole religion. Treating it as a matter of science and reason misses the point.

    (I believe my comment on your “Tolkien and Sex” posting answers your issues with JRRT — who was of course not entirely consistent either: if Orcs are warped Elves, why aren’t their children Elves too? — satisfactorily.)

  5. > If we are to believe Christian myth, Jesus didn’t die and exists in
    eternity. A few hours or days on a cross should be meaningless to a
    being that knows it will come again in glory to judge the living and
    the dead, especially when (being omniscient) it can foresee the entire
    “ordeal” in advance.

    The Christian “myth” is that Christ DID die, but that he overcame
    death. You are also overlooking the fact that during his time on
    Earth, Christ was as human as anyone else. Yes, this is somewhat of
    a logical contradiction, but again, that’s the “myth”. To compare,
    even knowing intellectually that you would recover, how much would
    you look forward to undergoing a severe beating that would leave you
    near death? That was only the first step in what Christ endured.

  6. Treating Christ’s nature as a matter accessible to reason is the point; religions that cannot tolerate that sort of analysis are insane, in the strongest and strictest sense of that term. And I say that as a person who has had more than the usual share of profound mystical experiences, even (once) within a Christian framework (see this essay for details). The set of sane religions is nonempty: Theravada Buddhism is probably the most successful of them, though I have (other) fundamental disagreements with it.

    But I perhaps didn’t make clear in the essay that I don’t think it’s Christianity per se, insane as it is, that ruins these books, but specifically Lewis’s version of it. We have evidence from Tolkien that a deeply Christian sensibility can produce much better fantasy than this.

    J.K. Rowling is interesting because she is also a moral didacticist who uses the mode of fantasy to address children. I think she is a slightly more able writer, though that is a judgement on which reasonable persons might differ. But her real strength is that she is both excellent at moral reasoning and excellent at explaining moral reasoning in explicit and metaphorical ways that are accessible to children — it is precisely this trait that gives the Harry Potter books their power (there is a parallel to the best of the Heinlein juveniles here). Indeed, my evaluation is that Rowling on her worst day is stronger at this than Lewis is on his best.

    I think Tolkien might have matched Rowling’s ability at this from within a Christian worldview, but we know that he didn’t care to try.

  7. > Treating Christ’s nature as a matter accessible to reason is the point; religions that cannot tolerate that sort of analysis are insane,

    Isn’t it Science then, not religion? Or are you saying religions such as “We all live in a computer” are also acceptable religions?

  8. Neal, the entire observable universe is (more or less by definition) a causal unit. I consider all attempts to separate it into a “natural” part explicable only by science and a “supernatural” part explicable only by religion to be at best a sort of map/territory error and at worst dangerously insane. So I don’t really accept the terms of your question, sorry.

  9. James Dixon: give me the right medical setup, and I too can “die, and then overcome death”. People getting pacemakers installed have to go through this. Some people undergo it accidentally, without an anesthesiologist and a heart-lung machine, by getting immersed in freezing water. Total cessation of physiological processes and brain activity, but reversible.

    If you think this is playing games with the definition of death, you’ve missed the point — which is that if “death” is reversible and the entity going in knows that, it completely loses both the practical and moral meaning of death. It doesn’t matter whether the resurrection is technological or “supernatural” (as with Aslan and Christ). We don’t invoke probate on the will when a pacemaker implantee “dies” during device calibration, so why consider Jesus to have “died”?

    It took Lewis to make me see this, so I guess the Narnia books have some value after all.

  10. ESR says:

    I consider all attempts to separate it into a “natural” part explicable only by science and a “supernatural” part explicable only by religion to be at best a sort of map/territory error and at worst dangerously insane.

    Well said. People refusing to see reality as it is, is surely a precondition to many societal ills. I suppose it’s scary for some to simply and honestly say, “I don’t know” instead of offering up and believing in a “supernatural” verbal explanation…but damn, they’re missing out on one hell of a fun rollercoaster ride. Not knowing has got to be the most enjoyable “experience” there is.

  11. A surgical patient doesn’t die for three days, and they are not aware during the death. Christ experienced a torturous death, followed by an even more torturous two days (technically) in Hell, during which he was also separated from the Father. I don’t remember the details of Aslan’s death, but Christ’s death wasn’t trivial.

  12. >If we are to believe Christian myth, Jesus didn’t die and exists in eternity. A few hours or days on a cross should be meaningless to a being that knows it will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, especially when (being omniscient) it can foresee the entire “ordeal” in advance.

    A common orthodox answer is that Christ is both God and man. If He were less than fully human, your ‘should be meaningless’ observation is spot on. However, he knew, blow for blow, what would happen. Consider Matthew 26:39. Jesus was neither suicidal, nor masochistic, nor minimizing the situation. The quotation of Psalm 22 during the crucifiction indicates there were no divine pain-killers in use.

    Your post points towards at least a few of deep theological problems. The fact that Lewis’s attempt at an allegorical handling of the problems serves to highlight the problems is ironic.
    a) Assuming some Creator, why bother to create?
    b) Why does creation contain imperfection?
    c) Given that the creation requires calibration, why do we need butchery?

    Right, well, those questions shan’t be answered soon or unambiguously, modulo a return of Christ.
    I would recommend Paul Tillich as a writer of some density and profound insight into such questions, if you’re tired of the usual formula responses.
    Best,
    Chris

  13. I remember reading C.S. Lewis when I was younger (most probably in my early adolescent years). I probably would never have read him if my father hadn’t caught the “Born Again” bug in 1984 or 1985… I remember thinking, “Wow, Aslan is just like Jebus!” as if I was the only one in the world privy to that information.

    Yeah, I was a strange kid.

    Anyways, things happen as they do, and I grew up. Spiritually, I found myself in a barren wasteland: I was trying to be Christian, trying not to sin, and finding myself increasingly depressed because, well, I would *always* end up sinning again. This cycle continued from the time I was about 14 or so to the age of 20, when I transferred from NJIT to Calvin College. My main reason was to move out of my father’s house, but it was also to broaden my education as well as to hopefully deepen my flagging relationship with God.

    Attending Calvin actually hastened the demise of Christianity in my heart.

    It wasn’t that they weren’t a devout school, or that the students there didn’t Believe, or that there weren’t resources available for self-indoctrination… it was that the spiritual support I was looking for ended up being obliterated rather than strengthened. This was just as well, given that the spiritual house I had been living in had been one built out of external motivations rather than internal ones (fear of reprisal from my father translated to a fear of reprisal from God).

    When it all came crashing down, I found myself having to re-examine everything I took to be a moral or a value and decide if it was something I should continue living with. A few incidental things changed–I’m not sure how many core beliefs have shifted (except that now I feel that I have a responsibility to myself and my fellow man instead of to an all-powerful uberbeing).

    I’ve dabbled with meditation and Zen, and I believe I can identify with glancing blows of The Gods. I am certainly no longer religious (though I do have the occasional knee-jerk reaction from the latent fear in my heart). I’m only slightly mystical. I have a sense that I should (for my own sake and for no other reason) get into it a little more… make a little space for it… but, for the most part, I just let things be. I try to live Now and to let my actions be fluid.

    My latest brush with Lewis came from a book given to me by one of my Christian friends. She believes that I will “come back” to the fold one day… the title is Pilgrim’s Regress–an obvious knock-off of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Lewis claims that the book is his own experience, dressed up in the style of Bunyan. Fine. I still think the book was ham-handed.

    I’m getting tired of people trying to convert me back. I know the basic premise: believe or die. You know what, though? I think that, if there is some kind of judgment, whoever judges me will consider the fact that I was honest with myself rather than attempting to live what I felt to be a lie. After all, they will know my heart and soul, right?

  14. > It’s certainly a paradox that Jesus was both
    > wholly God, and knew what would happen to
    > him in full detail, and wholly man, and did not
    > foresee it, nor escape his suffering and
    > (genuine) death. But it’s the central mystery
    > of the whole religion.

    You say “mystery”. We geeks have another term for it: “hand-waving”.

    http://www.catb.org/~esr/jargon/html/H/handwave.html

    “To gloss over a complex point; to distract a listener; to support a (possibly actually valid) point with blatantly faulty logic.”

    It’s logically impossible for something to be both X and not-X at the same time. For example, a square circle is logically impossible. Even though I can string together the words “square” and “circle”, we can’t *imagine* what a square circle would actually look like. So the term “square circle”, even though gramatically correct, actually has no meaning. The term doesn’t refer to anything.

    Likewise, the fact that Christians can string together phrases like “fully god and fully man” doesn’t mean anything. If “god” and “man” are mutually exclusive, then you have X-and-not-X again, and the term winds up meaning nothing.

    Now, it *sounds* really good, really deep, like you’re a Zen master or something. But you don’t have to think very hard to realize that there’s no substance there.

  15. 1) Unlike Aslan, Christ *did* give up something: he gave up his humanity. He had only a brief respite after crucifiction, perhaps to prove that he *could*, then vacated the premises. After crucifiction, Jesus didn’t hang with the boys any more.

    (Or, putting a different spin on it, perhaps the sacrifice was becoming human in the first place and experiencing the human condition. I’ve heard the “separation from God is pain” theory before but must confess that I don’t intuitively grasp it. Your argument about the transient nature of this pain is fully applicable under this assumption.)

    2) I consider the Narnia series my kid version of “Popcorn novels”: light, enjoyable reading that was quick and fun and had little depth. This contrasts with Heinlein (even, perhaps especially, the juvenile targeted books) to which I can trace life long influence. I didn’t read JRRT as a child.

  16. “So the end result of Lewis’s attempt to write a veiled Christian apologia is to expose the vacuity of the Crucifixion myth.”

    Having read the Narnia books so long ago, I can’t really comment on the specifics of Aslan’s death, but Christian mythology stresses that Jesus was indeed human, with all of the limitations of humans (I suppose you could argue about sin, but the point is that Jesus was capable of sin but did not partake). My 16 years of Catholic schooling have drummed this into me, and I’ve always considered that while Jesus believed he would take his Father’s side in heaven, he did not _know_ that he would. His faith was absolute, but faith is not knowledge. With that in mind, I would consider Aslan to be subject to similar uncertainty about his demise (though, again, I don’t remember enough about the books to speak with that much confidence in the matter). To put it another way, most Christians believe in an afterlife too, that doesn’t mean they don’t suffer in death.

    The religion/science quandry is more complicated and could go on and on (and most likely does, elsewhere), but I’d say that there are some things that science can’t explain. The funny thing is that religion doesn’t really explain them either, but again this is a longer and perhaps unresolvable discussion…

  17. I am not a Christian and consider christianity on the insane side also, but I don’t agree about your assessment on the books in question. The choices made can be understood in different ways.

    “Logically, if Aslan is sufficiently powerful to sing Narnia into existence (as he does in the first book) he should have been able to create anything or
    anyone he needed to in order to cold-cock the White Witch (who is for certain not powerful enough to make worlds and hosts of sentient beings).”

    This issue can be readily sorted out the same way it is sorted out in monotheistic omnipotent god religions: god can do anything he wants, but he leaves us free will, for whatever presumably good reason of his own, and from our freedom comes our ability to do evil and act against his plan, likewise Aslan has certain minimalism constraints on his power if he wants to respect free will.

    “The closest to a clue we get to a rationale is a reference to the law of the “Deep Magic”, which the Lion and the Witch refer to when she claims the right
    to kill Edmund for his treachery. Aslan does not dispute this. Instead, he offers himself to be sacrificed on the Stone Table in Edmund’s place. But Aslan’s
    sacrifice is a fraud.”

    I don’t agree about his sacrifice quite being a fraud. If you hold a worldview in which acts are good or evil in themselves, roughly independently of their consequences, in accordance with some kind of metaphysical ethics similar to some structural law of nature, the sacrifice is perfectly valid, both because it affects Aslan’s friends and the witch who kills him. That the sacrifice is revoked doesn’t make it null, the witch has done evil, the friends of Aslan have been done evil. Also from here can come Aslan’s sadness: it makes him sad that the witch is using her free will to do evil, either because it shows the problems of free will, or because he feels compassion for the witch who is damning herself, or whatever combination thereof.

  18. Eric, I think you’re missing a very important element here.

    If the ‘verse is a causal unit, a single system, then by Godel’s incompleteness theorem it is not possible to entirely describe the system WITHIN the system.

    The terms “natural” and “supernatural” are exactly this division: the system itself is nature, so anything we can describe within the system has a “natural” explanation. However, there MUST be some components of the system that cannot be so described, and by necessity must have “supernatural” explanations: it is outside or above nature. So that division is simply the only rational division you can make. (Are scientific explanations infra-religious? Infraligious? That’s a cool word; I like that. I’ll use that somewhere and not explain it, and people will get confused. That will be a good joke on them.)

    I *do* believe the vast majority of religions are shoving everything and the kitchen sink into the “supernatural” camp with even the slightest provocation. The little divot in your upper lip (philtrum) is supposedly where the angel Gabriel told you a secret before you were born and then “shushed” you with a finger to your lips. Why? What possible purpose does that serve? How does that explain or accomplish anything whatsoever? There’s no POINT. Can’t that be some sort of useful quality with perfectly natural origins? As Carlin once put it, if you’re going to believe in angels, you may as well believe in goblins… but *that* would be stupid.

    Well-designed systems have minimal outside definition. They begin with a small vocabulary whence a massive system is built. If you believe God created the ‘verse, and that God is just the bestest of EVERYTHING, then clearly the vocabulary God used would be exceedingly small. So small, in fact, that it might actually be a single word – while everything else is natural.

    I think there’s just a very small area that can’t be resolved within the system, and that little area can be filled with something you might call “God”. I do. But you have to discard the baggage; you can’t fill that area with whatever you already have and are calling “God”, you have to fill that area with WHAT GOES THERE. Calling it “God” does not magically make Jesus exist and the flood a real historical event and the world six thousand years old. It’s just a label. It still has to be what it *is*, without embellishment or alteration.

    So when you get a clearer picture of what goes there, you have to revise your view of who and what God is and did. Sometimes that means you have to discard ideas you really like, and if you happen to have built something on top of that idea, it all comes tumbling down. (I think Jesus said something once about building your house on sand… okay, I’m lying; I *know* Jesus said something about it, I just don’t want to start quoting the bible here.) But by revising that view repeatedly, you get closer to the truth, which is what you’re supposed to be interested in getting.

    It’s terribly obvious from most religions’ opposition to this idea that “truth” is really not on their wish-list anymore.

  19. Caliban, I used to be a mathematician with a specialty interest in formal logic and axiomatic systems. Godel’s incompleteness theorem only applies to formal axiomatic deduction, which is a far more constrained form of “description” than we have for the real universe (in which, for example, the so-called “Law” of the Excluded Middle normally does not apply). If you try to apply Godel’s theorem outside its proper domain, all you will get is impressive-sounding nonsense.

  20. Matt Cline: While I agree with your conclusion that mystery=handwaving, your argument is flawed. The Aristotelian “Law” of the Excluded Middle is not applicable outside of deduction in a formal axiomatic system, and not even universally applicable within that domain (there are multivalued and fuzzy logics).

    You are correct to say that “square circle” is impossible, but only because the contradiction is formally entailed in the definitions of “square” and “circle” and the particular two-valued logic used in geometry. In the real world, most predicates are non-Aristotelian: consider “hot” and “cold” as examples. One cannot take for granted the two-valued logic applies.

    You can repair your argument by establishing that “fully God” and “fully man” are Aristotelian predicates, and this should not actually be difficult. But understand that it does need repair.

    And, by the way, I’ve known John Cowan for many years. He is a geek, and fully aware of what handwaving is. If he really believes the Christian theology he is retailing (something I had never seen any previous sign of — in fact he has described himself to me as a rationalist) he’s got to be blushing something fierce about now. You were right to call him on this in exactly these terms, and I think he is too honest not to know that.

  21. Caliban Darklock: What you are describing is the concept known as ‘god of the gaps’. I.e. anything that can’t be explained by nature or science must be God. The problem is, of course, that we’re able to explain more and more as time goes on, and those gaps are getting smaller and smaller. What once we explained by God (how do planets stay in the sky? how do bumblebees fly?) are now explained by science. I think an argument can be made that, if we were wrong about God being present in one area, we’re probably wrong about Him in the little that’s left.

  22. Although, as a retelling of the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, his second book in the Space Trilogy is remarkable. Not good as science fiction, though.

  23. > Neal, the entire observable universe is (more or less by definition) a causal unit.

    I have never heard of a causal unit. I guess you mean the whole thing arose from a single cause? Or do you mean it is self contained in its causes and effects? If so, in a world with rules full of cause and effect, where is the opportunity for religion?

    Anyway, while I give great credibility to cause and effect in my daily life, it can’t explain the origin of the universe. In fact, the idea of the origin of the universe to a mind like mine that is so seeped in cause and effect is rather confounding and mind-boggling. Like, the universe can’t exist, but it does.

  24. As an ex-Christian non-theist, I don’t see a problem with the Christian logic that Christ was both fully God and fully Man as particularly flawed. If God decided to become human, he would give himself most of the human frailties, including fear and uncertainty and loneliness and temptation and all that stuff. And it’s further no more complicating than noting that I am both fully American and fully male. God can do both, but we can’t (in the Christian universe, anyway). I would also have to say that if you look at science hard enough, you’ll find that there are any number of paradoxes that can’t be explained by current theory, and no one looks at scientists like they’re irrational nutcases when they say, “yeah, this conflicts with everything we currently understand, and we can’t explain it.” (Examples: the fact that we can’t account for most of the mass of the universe, or, the apparent phenomena of punctuated equilibria in evolution). Of course, the scientists believe, or at least hope, that with enough study we’ll eventually have a full understanding of these things. But they acknowledge that maybe we won’t, or maybe the answers are too complex for human minds to wrap around without enhancement.

    That said, I actually quite agree about the Narnia books. I read them when I was 13 or 14, which was young enough to still be rather entertained by them, but old enough perhaps to question them. I had the same irritation with Aslan you describe. I still enjoyed the first book, but I got less and less enjoyment out of subsequent books (although I liked the on with the talking horse). Mostly i sense the same negativity about standard Christian theology you do: if this is God, he’s a bloody mixed up God and not one worth a whole lot of admiration. It amounts to this: “So you set up all these unrealistic and often cruel rules, and because you were too stubborn and arrogant to change them, you accepted sacrifices from your creations instead to appease you. Then you decided maybe that was kinda dumb, but you were so stubborn you still couldn’t let it go, so you made a big show of making yourself human, and having yourself tortured to death, so you could make a big show of how forgiving you were. And now you’ll preserve those of your creation who believe all this crap, and the rest you’ll torture for all eternity? If that’s the score then tell you what: chuck me in the lake of fire, you jerkrkoff, because I hate your guts anyway.”

    Nevertheless despite all this I have good friends who are Christians, even members of the clergy. And I find that any number of them are far more rational and less tied to dogma and open to mysticism than you might think.

  25. Oh, by the way, Christ’s suffering? It was actually pretty minor compared to what many others in his shoes were put through by the Romans. So not only did God apparently put on a whole big show just to appease himself and give his creations something to feel bad about, but he actually cheated, and only took 39 lashes and three days on a cross. Other criminals god hundreds of lashes and crucifiction that lasted for weeks before death.

    But as I say, I’m not a Christian, and am emotionally rather hostile to big parts of the faith itself (if not toward its members), so maybe I’m just being petty.

  26. Like BaptistDeathRay, I too read the books while young, and never realised that they were meant to be allegories of Christianity. I was 22 before I found out that Lewis had written the books as parallels to the Christian story, and I was amazed when I read that.

    I wonder why the two of us missed the intent of the author. Are we just dumb? I would say no, but perhaps people with fresher memories of the books than I might care to explain how it could be missed.

  27. Um, or maybe just maybe the process of being killed is immensely painful and traumatizing, regardless of whether one knows that one will come back again?

    At any rate, in their respective mythologies neither Jesus or Aslan is all-knowing, and while Aslan (and probably Jesus) clearly knew he was coming back, there’s nothing to indicate that he had any reason to think that being stabbed to death would not be a horrific experience to live through.

    Oops, Occam’s razor strikes again!

  28. __The terms “natural” and “supernatural” are exactly this division: the system itself is nature, so anything we can describe within the system has a “natural” explanation. However, there MUST be some components of the system that cannot be so described, and by necessity must have “supernatural” explanations__

    Nonsense. Godel’s work only applies to formal systems. By no stretch of the imagination could reality be described as a formal system.

  29. Although, as a retelling of the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, his second book in the Space Trilogy is remarkable. Not good as science fiction, though.

    Exactly! Lewis was too blatant to be enjoyable, even for my believing ten-year-old self who’d never read real literature. And even if the middle book is as you say, which I’m not so sure of, that’s only the middle book. The first and third ones were hilariously awful in every way.

  30. Neal, by “causal unit” I mean that everything in the universe is causally connected to everything else. Pick any two observable events A and B and you should in principle be able to find a chain of interactions that connects them. This is not the same thing as saying “A causes B” or “B causes A”, just that no observable event is isolated from causal influences by the rest of the universe.

    Causal unity is significant because it means any theory of the universe has to have a parallel explanatory unity; it’s no good trying to say that some things in the universe have one set of causes and other things have an entirely different and disjoint set of causes.

    The easiest way to satisfy yourself that the observable universe has to be a causal unit is to think for a while what it would be like if that weren’t true. What could you possibly know about any causal units you aren’t connected to?

  31. The question therefore becomes, is “supernatural” all by itself a null concept? I.E. if it’s observable it must be natural even if you can’t explain it?

    This probably gets back to Clarke’s dictum about advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic. “Supernatural” in that formulation would merely mean “something we don’t seem able to understand.” Could it be that there are natural phenomena that have such complex sets of causalities, that the human mind as currently constructed cannot grasp them? Can’t rule it out, can ya?

  32. Dean, yes, I believe “supernatural” is a null concept.

    It might be there are some phenomena that are too complex for us to comprehend. But anybody who asserts that about any given phenomenon shouldn’t be given a pass on having to prove the incomprehensibility rather than simply assert it.

    And even if there are such phenomena, that’s a different issue from whether those phenomena are “naturally” caused or not.

  33. I also believe that there is no such thing as supernatural. The very word “supernatural” is a logical tautology. For example, although I don’t believe in God, I automatically recognize that the question, “If God can do anything, can he make a rock so big he can’t pick it up?” is merely a word game, an exercise in infinite recursion for which there can be no answer because of its phrasing. It’s along the lines of, “if you call a tail a leg, does a dog have five legs?”

    The real question is, “if there is an omnipotent omniscient God, could she put limits on her own power?” The answer I think would be yes. I doubt she exists, but if she did, surely she could. It’s like saying, “If I’m strong enough to smash your face with my fist, or to empty my Glock into your chest, am I capable of resisting that urge?” This appears to be the basis of the Christian belief about Jesus. “Yes he could do all those things, but he didn’t!”

    To which my response is, “okay, I can dig it even if I don’t buy it.”

    If I showed you something that defied all the known laws of physics–say, the fact that the universe appears to have far to little mass to account for what we see in stellar and galactic motion–would that be proof of “supernatural” intervention? Or would it be proof of “well there’s something going on here we don’t understand?”

    100 years ago, physicists invoked something called “the ether” to explain things they didn’t understood. Was “the ether” supernatural? Or was it just a grasp at an intellectual straw?

    Today, physicists invoke something called “dark matter” and “dark energy” to explain the apparent paradoxes they see. My guess is that the real problem is that both Einstein and Shroedinger were wrong in some blindingly obvious way…. and if we’re very lucky, we’ll both live long enough to find out how.

    After all, Newton was extraordinarily on the money in 98% of what he said. But he was so spectacularly wrong on a couple of fine points that physicists and astronomers had to completely re-evaluate everything just to account for what Einstein observed.

    On top of that, the most astonishing thing about Einstein’s is that he figured it all out with his imagination and no empirical data he gathered personally. It was just him, some papers he read about experiments by others, and his own skull. If you ever want to feel humbled, just check this out:

    http://www.aip.org/history/einstein/voice1.htm

    This guy did nothing with his life but think and imagine and write down some equations. He’s not amazing because of the atom bomb or anything else. He’s amazing because this bastard just sat down and thought hard for a few years and set the entire world of physics on its ear.

    Yet: he is wrong somewhere. He has to be wrong somewhere. Relativity and Quantum mechanics do not mesh. Hawking has spent his whole life trying to square them, and he can’t. He (once again entirely with his imagination) has managed to come up with some predictions that vindicate both theories. But there’s something very wrong somewhere with both theories, and he knows it. Yet he can still produce interesting syntheses between them. He was the guy who proved to the worlds of physics and astronomy that black holes MUST exist… and then, topsy-turvy, turned around and convinced them that black holes must emit particles, despite all theoretical data which said nothing could escape them.

    I submit to you that Stephen Hawking is the most astonishing and powerful wizard of our day. Most people don’t grok what he does. Of those who do grok what he does, most acknowledge that he humbles them. Yet if you ask him, he’ll tell you he’s frustrated at the limits of his power.

    99.9% of it all coming from his brain.

    Fascinating, eh?

    So what is “supernatural?” Is it “something that operates outside the known laws of time and space?” Or is it merely “something that we can’t explain yet?”

  34. Caliban, I used to be a mathematician with a specialty interest in formal logic and axiomatic systems. Godel’s incompleteness theorem only applies to formal axiomatic deduction, which is a far more constrained form of “description” than we have for the real universe (in which, for example, the so-called “Law” of the Excluded Middle normally does not apply). If you try to apply Godel’s theorem outside its proper domain, all you will get is impressive-sounding nonsense.

    Speaking of “impressive-sounding nonsense” … Where do pull THIS stuff out …

  35. My problem with theology is that it says: We do not understand things, and we can never, no matter how much we try, understand them, so we must accept obvious contradictions as truths. It’s the direct denial of reason and hope. Einstein’s and Hawking’s accomplishments demonstrate how astonishingly much we CAN understand.

  36. >Causal unity is . . .

    Is that just a way of saying there exists a set of laws that apply everywhere uniformly in the universe?

    Followons include: “No supernatural stuff, just stuff we don’t understand”

    Anyway, as i mentioned before, the only problem I have with this is that cause and effect is broken, since you cant’ get something from nothing, yet the Universe is here, so you can.

    So while that sounds really good, it’s wrong.

  37. What no one else seems to have mentioned is that The Magician’s Nephew, which you reference in saying that Aslan sang the worlds into being, is not the first book; it’s the sixth. When Lewis wrote (that is, drafted or first composed) LWW, he had no plans for a series, no backstory on Aslan as creator, and no particular Christian agenda; he himself said that the genesis of the book lay in the image of a faun carrying some parcels and an umbrella, in a picture rather than an abstract idea. I don’t really understand what you mean by calling him “morally incoherent”, but his weaknesses are those of any unplanned series of stories, and he didn’t bother to retro-engineer them for consistency.

  38. Actually, under some circumstances you can get something for nothing. Google for “virtual particle”.

  39. I’m not reading that these virtual particles come form nowhere. They are definitely coming from something.

    A particle that exists only for an extremely brief instant in an intermediary process. Then the
    Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle allows an apparent violation of the conservation of energy. However,
    if one sees only the initial decaying particle and the final decay products, one observes that the energy
    is conserved.

    This definition seems pretty consistent with other web definitions, the partcile is part of a process.

    Even if something did come from nothing, it would be a strange world. Like, how big is it? How long does it last? Since it is unrelated to anything, it would also have nothing to do with time, and its creation is independent of the things that are already here, unless you say the thing that came from nothing is affected by the existing stuff, in which case nothing isn’t nothing after all. My suspision is we would all be blobbed out in nanoseconds.

    I’ll stick with my original coment, which is that all the laws, etc., are pretty cool but that they all must be wrong being they assume causation. Meanwhile, I’m not jumping off the fourth floor of a building.

  40. /* It might be there are some phenomena that are too complex for us to comprehend. But anybody who asserts that about any given phenomenon shouldn’t be given a pass on having to prove the incomprehensibility rather than simply assert it.
    */

    Good point. I do find your statement in “Dancing With the Gods” interesting, though:

    “If my language is too ‘religious’ for you, feel free to transpose it all into the key of psychology. Speak of archetypes and semi-independent complexes. Feel free to hypothesize that I’ve merely learned how to enter some non-ordinary mental states that change my body language, disable a few mental censors, and have me putting out signals that other people interpret in terms of certain material in their own unconscious minds.

    “Fine. You’ve explained it. Correctly, even. But you can’t do it!”

    Now, yes, you do then go on and explain the reason why skeptics can’t imitate Wiccan rituals and get results. However, it seems to me that the explanation is more an assertion than a proof. Of course, that’s not proof that you haven’t got a proof somewhere (g).

  41. Heh.

    I thought you would get it, Eric.

    Too bad.

    I’d say more, but the comments are already long, though surprisingly insightful. (More so than most of the original post, in fact.)

  42. Max, I don’t claim that the mechanisms or effects of Wiccan ritual are incomprehensible. In fact, I specifically and strongly deny that. You’re assuming a parallel that doesn’t exist.

    You, and several other respondents in this thread, seem to be having problems distinguishing among these categories:

    1. 1. Phenomena we can use instrumentally, for which we have generative theory, and which we can integrate into the rest of human knowledge (most of hard science is in this category)
    2. 2. Phenomena we can use instrumentally, but for which we lack a full generative theory and integration into the rest of human knowledge.
    3. 3. Phenomena we neither have the instrumental ability to manipulate nor a generative theory for, but which are in principle comprehensible to the human mind. This is the ordinary unknown.
    4. 4. Phenomena we will never comprehend because they are intrinsically inscrutable to the human mind.

    To me these categories are quite separate. You quoted me writing about category 4, then jumped to me writing about category 2. Because I’m a rationalist, I’m very skeptical that category 4 is more than an empty set; because I’m an experimental mystic, I have a lot of experience with category 2.

  43. I thought you would get it, Eric. Too bad. I’d say more, but…

    You can’t get away with that.

  44. Anyway, as i mentioned before, the only problem I have with this is that cause and effect is broken, since you cant’ get something from nothing, yet the Universe is here, so you can.

    Within the Universe, cause and effect apply. In fact, this is by definition: If anything is found to influence or be influenced by something in the Universe, that thing is part of the Universe itself.

    Even if something did come from nothing, it would be a strange world. Like, how big is it? How long does it last? … My suspision is we would all be blobbed out in nanoseconds.

    I’m not really sure what you’re talking about here. Care to clarify?

  45. First, I’m no Christian: the fact that I can explain Christian theology in its own terms doesn’t mean I believe it. In fact I agree with esr; the set of in-principle-inexplicable things is probably empty, though I am not willing to assert its emptiness. “An agnostic is someone who does not know whether or not there is a God [skepticism] and believes that you do not either.” –Larry Niven, modified

    Second, I think that Hume discredited the idea that particular events do or do not stand in a causal relationship pretty thoroughly. Saying that A is the cause of B, where A and B are uncategorized events, is no more than saying that A preceded B. (In relatively theory, we would add talk of space-like and time-like intervals: what happens on Earth today can’t be the cause of what happens near Alpha Centauri tomorrow.)

    Instead, causality and the related notion of producer-product (a producer is necessary but not sufficient to its product, as acorns to oaks) only make sense in terms of classes. We say that an event A of class a produces an event B of class b if at least one event of class a has preceded an event of class b and no event B’ of class b that is not preceded by an event A’ of class a exists. (This notion can be refined and grounded empirically by talking of the relative amounts of positive and negative evidence available to an imperfect reasoner.)

    E.A. Singer used to explain this, koan-like, by talking about a class of objects that could not be defined in terms of their structure or components, and that obeyed laws admitting of no physical explanation. After letting his students confuse themselves for a while with metaphysical speculations, he would explain that he was talking of the class of timepieces. It is a law of timepieces that cheap ones, relatively speaking, keep worse time than structurally similar expensive ones; yet the cheapness of a cheap sundial has nothing to do with the cheapness of a cheap mechanical wristwatch. (This doesn’t quite work in the era of digital watches, where the timekeeping part is the cheap part.) In general, any functionally defined class has these two properties, unless by accident it is extensionally equivalent to a structurally defined class.

  46. > I’m not really sure what you’re talking about here. Care to clarify?

    The idea is something comes from nothing.

    it either happens or it doesn’t. If it does happen, and it is from nothing, then it is completely unrelated to the universe, of which time and matter/energy are a part.

    If you get something from nothing, and it is a small thing in this universe, then it is related to it by size, so it isn’t “from nothing.” It’s related to the properties of the universe, and so is a part of it and its processes.

    If it happens only probabalistically every so often or lasts so long it is likewise related to the universe.

    Therefore, to get something from nothing, it will either happen all the time, or not at all, and in the former case the size of the event is also unrelated to the universe, so the size of the event will be anything from infinite to nothing.

    so in these cases, the something (energy/matter) or anything else you get that affects the universe would happen so often that it would effectively wipe it out. Or it just doesn’t happen, which is what I believe.

  47. Well, that’s a relief, John. I was starting to worry that you’d had some kind of religious conversion and shut down three quarters of your brain. But Matt Cline was still right to zap you; when you know that terms like “mystery” don’t have any meaning in this context other than a handwave you should know better than to repeat them as though they have a meaning.

    (And, because I know how your mind works, I’ll suggest you don’t bother giving me any crap about their intersubjective meaning among Christian theologians. Pink elephants have an intersubjective meaning to drunks, but I don’t have to respect that one and you shouldn’t either.)

    :-)

    I reject Hume’s skepticism about causality, by the way. It’s not useful. Causality is like any other abstraction; it’s something we insert between observables in a theory in order to lower the Kolmgorov complexity of the theory while preserving its predictive capacity. Hume just got himself tangled up in the issue of whether there is something “real” about causal links and reacted badly, but that’s because like most philosophers he got stuck on doing ontology when he shouldn’t have.

  48. ESR, thanks for the clarification!

    I’ve also enjoyed the follow-up post to this one.

  49. Since we started recording history, we have divided into two camps of thought. Some have choosen to comprehend existence as if there were an intelligent and “good” personality behind our reality and some have choosen not to. Obviously many variations exist within each camp. If both sides are honest, they will find that they have all these round pegs in their hands – their experience of reality – and if they are looking for somewhere to place these pegs they eventually run into some square holes. This is true of the theist and the atheist. Some things we live with just don’t fit our world view perfectly. We often choose camps based on how many extra round pegs we have left at the end of the day.

    The thing I find interesting about Lewis is that he operated very honestly in both camps. As an atheist, he could not answer many things with intellect, logic or philosophy and eventually he perceived that christianity had the fewest leftover pegs – but he never was able to fit them all somewhere.
    I think Lewis insisted that Narnia was not an allegory simply because he didn’t want to be responsible for trying to fit every round peg in somewhere. Some of the concepts he does enlight within the story would be considered anathema by many theologians but his purpose was not to develop doctrine but to develop exploration within the minds of his young readers.
    You are correct that these stories do not stand up to adult scrutiny – they were written for children – I believe his niece or nephew specifically. I would guess they were also written for himself – playtime in the midst of scholarly pursuits – an escape from hard reality with hard expectations where he could explore some of the pegs and holes he perceived.

    Your example about Aslan being all-powerful and yet requiring the assistance of four lost children and the absurdity of the idea is to me an honest look at christianity. Many christians have to ask the question “If God is so powerful that He could create the entire universe with a word, a song, why can He not defeat my cancer, my pain and heartache, my financial troubles, my witch. If He indeed has the power, and if is He truly good then He should be willing to do battle as well… why then is this witch still alive?” This question alone drives many to another worldview camp because that peg is just too large to fit the square hole and too heavy to carry around on a daily basis. Narnia does not pretend the peg doesn’t exist, but it doesn’t attempt to forcefeed it into a hole either.
    I personally spent too much time with a big mallet in my hand. Like Lewis, I have resided in both camps for a time and found myself anxious to make all the peices fit somewhere – to the point of fabricating holes that looked round (it’s amazing what a little shading around the edges can do..).
    There is enough christian marketing material already, I’m glad Lewis was honest enough to express his view of his faith at that time without trying to pretty it up with forced consistency.

    If we can define a mystery simply as something yet unknown, every faith has mystery. I would include atheism as a “faith” even though it might define itself as a “non-faith” because were I an atheist I still have to wonder and still have to assume some things about my experience in reality. If I held a christian faith, I would not hold all answers either but should wonder at them and assume that there is a personality who does hold them all. So far neither has all the evidence required to convict without doubt.

    A couple of years ago, I too re-read the Chronicles. They brought back to me a sense of childhood imagination and delightful wonder that had been missing for some time. Perhaps this is not a personality requirement for many but I know I missed it for a long time and it’s return sparked some new life in my relationship with my kids. I didn’t walk away with theological refinement or logical clarity, but I did receive a tidbit of inspiration to enjoy all of my pegs, even the leftever ones.

  50. After reading the blog and the comments, I think something is missing from the discussion: the investigation of the motivation behind the assertions. I would rather find it more practical to look at why people are saying things, not what they say. The interesting thing is that it is somehow hardcoded into our minds that if one makes an assertion like “this food just smells bad” we instantly start taking it seriously, and start arguing “no, it does not, it smells like roses” or “yes, truly, horrible”. The best thing we ever seem to do is a neutral, rational investigation of the assertion – instead of investigating why the assertion was made.

    But this is not practical, because when people asserting something, they are doing it because they like the idea, because they want to believe that way, and no assertion has anything to do with something being true or not true. They only real meaning of “this food smells bad” is just “I am in a bad mood” or “this food reminds me of my elementary school which I hated” and has NOTHING to do with the actual food indead.

    So, people will ever find a million and one logical reasons to believe in the Bible and others will find a million and one logical reasons not to. The point is that if we like it and want to believe in it, we will always find ways to rationalize it, and if we dislike it, we will also can always find many good arguments.

    So, the really important question is not whether it is true or not, but why do you want it to be true or not.

    For example, I do not like Christianity because it is dramatic and takes everything seriously, especially morality and ethics, while I like those kind of ethics that say “do your best, but do not waste your energies on worry or guilt, or any concept of sin”.

    Personally, I think the usual case for wanting to believe in God and wanting to believe in “pure” science is both a wish for security and stability.

  51. Shenpen: “Personally, I think the usual case for wanting to believe in God and wanting to believe in “pure” science is both a wish for security and stability. ¬“

    I’m glad you made that point Shenpen. Dean Esmay asked earlier, “So what is “supernatural?” Is it “something that operates outside the known laws of time and space?” Or is it merely “something that we can’t explain yet?””

    It’s both and because you use “known laws” it can be. I realize this is an unpopular and perhaps uncomfortable idea but I agree that it is entirely plausible that we as humans may not have the biological equipment to comprehend “all” of the complexities of the universe. (And Neal, this is your opportunity for religion.) To possibly mis-quote Herbert, “What senses do we lack that we are unaware of another world all around us?” However, it is all the more fascinating to attempt to make sense of nature, particularly on the fringes (the so-called mystical) that appear merely as glimpses perhaps of Herbert’s “‘other world”, with this in mind. It may be possible to understand the “mind of God” or it may not but that is part of the joy of life – to experience and then try to.

    Eric: while I agree on the causal universe model, it must be considered that we may observe the effects of some causes very indirectly such that we’ll never hammer out just what they are or how they work. Hijacking Feynman’s metaphor for the eye: the bug in the corner of the swimming pool deducing all the forces at work in causing the surface ripples – I doubt very much whether the bug will also deduce the cause of the wind despite being able to experience its effects on the ripples. I believe this is where “God”, to keep with the Christian key, “lives”. Science and religion are unified in that they are human attempts to explain human experience. The thing that makes religions “insane” is of course when their stories lead people to believe their story is the only one that can be right and you have to take that on “faith”. Thank God for Hinduism! LOL.

    Shaw mentioned that “his purpose was not to develop doctrine but to develop exploration within the minds of his young readers”. Your assertion that Aslan “should have been able to create anything or anyone he needed to in order to cold-cock the White Witch“ or that his sacrifice was not really a sacrifice thus Lewis is “morally incoherent” is missing the point. It is allows us to examine the Christian story in another context. Your post appears to actually say that you believe Christianity is “morally incoherent”, the Narnia books don’t help to change this view and perhaps reinforce it and are badly written too. The stories are fairy-tails and not the word of law. They do what they do very well. So to Shenpen’s point above it appears that you’ve succeeded in pointing out Lewis failed to do with the Narnia stories what you needed/wanted him to do but perhaps you’ve misinterpreted his intentions or just tried to compare apples to oranges?

  52. Now, yes, you do then go on and explain the reason why skeptics can’t imitate Wiccan rituals and get results.

    Why on earth would sceptics want to do that? The one’s I’ve met wouldn’t regard the need to do controlled experiments to test Wiccan claims as having a vary high priority. Most of them just think it’s an excuse to dance naked round the coffee table.

    Back to CS Lewis, I was reading the other day about how making The Horse And His Boy is going to test the sensitivity of the filmmakers as they struggle to adapt the not-very-flattering depiction of the Calormenes so they don’t appear to be a caricature of our bearded Middle Eastern brothers. But maybe they’ll just skip that one. More distressingly, I hear the people who’ve bought the rights to His Dark Materials are proposing to dick with it extensively in order to pander slavishly to the sensitivities of Christian Middle America. For shame.

  53. ESR
    “Is it cold or hot?” is a bad example of a multivalued (> 2) possible existent because of the imprecise nature of “cold” or “hot”. If you had said “I define `hot` as measurably above 100 degrees C and `cold` as measurably below 0 C” then these terms can be applied to things that actually exist. However, then you are back to a two valued system! A thing is either “hot” or not, or “cold” or not, or neither or not (three dual values, i.e. you can make three statements that are either true or not). Can you give a better example?

  54. Shenpen: “They only real meaning of “this food smells bad” is just “I am in a bad mood” or “this food reminds me of my elementary school which I hated” and has NOTHING to do with the actual food indead.”

    This is a terrible example and detracts from your argument. There’s a really good reason the food smells bad — because it probably is. Okay, maybe our noses are just hanging around for fun and to throw in their little two cents’ worth like the court jester and make fun of us.

    Seriously though, I think our sense of smell is developed in a pretty straight-forward way and is perhaps one of the less deceptive of our senses. It’s developed so that we don’t eat food that will make us sick, which greatly increases our chances of survival. I don’t know about you, but my nose doesn’t have an ego of its own that needs to be placated on a regular basis.

    I think deeper down though, your argument (not just the bit I quoted) is indicative of the sort of twentieth century anti-intellectual approach of continental philosophy that ultimately doesn’t say anything at all, yet at first glance looks really deep.

  55. Someone else may have pointed this out in earlier comments, so forgive me if this is a repeat.

    I think it’s important to note that Christ’s sacrifice was not that he die in our place but that he endure the punishment of mankind’s sins in our place. I don’t think there was any doubt that he would return from death. In fact, he repeatedly told his Disciples not to worry and that he would return. The suffering, fear, and uncertainty he felt leading up to his death were brought on by 1) his entirely human condition and 2) the placement of God’s judgement upon himself.

    So, Christ’s sacrifice was not in his death alone. For, yes, the fact that he died and returned would render his sacrifice a fraud if the sacrifice was merely his death. Instead, the sacrifice was that he bear the punishment for all mankind. God, in that moment, chose to divert all his anger and wrath at the sinful condition of man on a single person: Jesus. For this, God made the ultimate sacrifice so that he himself could be at peace with man. Mankind was spared his wrath.

    There is something interesting to note here, though, as you discuss that Aslan must have been bound to some sort of law (“Deep Magic”), for God is also bound to his own laws. For this reason, he could not simply wave his hand and have peace with humanity. His law says that he cannot tolerate sin or allow it into his presence. His law also says that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22). So, in order to satisfy his own law, he took the initiative in making his peace with humans so that he could let us into his presence.

  56. I think they are two extremes. Yes, I understand what you are meaning: you are meaning post-modern. That’s one extreme. Always trying to objective and examining the pure logic or trueness of words instead of looking at their intended meaning, is another extreme.

    It’s just the good ol’ map-territory problem. Taking the map for territory is one mistake, however, not understanding the practical usefulness of maps is another one, I agree.

    Religion, or at least religions of faith (as contrary to religions of experience) basically means “I believe this model be true”, where every sane person is usually saying “I believe this model be useful”. In such cases we should always look for the motivation, I think.

    For example, I think the Tibetan way of modelling everything as inner, outer, and secret levels is very useful, for example, romantic relationships can develop on a physical (purely sexual base) leve, the outer level, or the partners can share many emotional energies and ideas, and this is the inner level, or there could be the hard-to-define spark of something, which we call true love, and this is the secret level. I find this model very useful, however, would not even try to hint it is “true” in an objective sense.

    So what I suggest is that you can take ever-subjective PoMo as a starting point, but then add practicality and the “get things done” way of thinking, and what you will get is a very handy middle way.

  57. Tolkien and Lewis were attempting two very different things. The idea of subcreation, the creating of a logically consistent fantasy world that gives the illusion of an alternative reality was, to my knowledge, Tolkien’s unique contribution to fantasy literature. I’m not aware off-hand of anyone who did that before him, though it is possible someone did.
    Most of what you see before Tolkien idoes not strive for that kind of internal consistency, but rather tries for a kind of dreamlike quality. If you read the work of George MacDonald, whom Lewis acknowledges as a major influence, you will find no attempt at consistency whatsoever. It feels like you are reading someone’s dream journal. The same is true for most faerie tales and myths. Lewis did attempt to make his world a bit more solid than that, but nothing like what Tolkien did.
    As for which type of fantasy you prefer, well, I guess that’s just a matter of personal taste.

  58. You’re reading way too much into the book. The book should not be read objectively, but with the emotion of a neurotypical…

  59. Dean Esmay, on your statement: “Oh, by the way, Christ’s suffering? It was actually pretty minor compared to what many others in his shoes were put through by the Romans. So not only did God apparently put on a whole big show just to appease himself and give his creations something to feel bad about, but he actually cheated, and only took 39 lashes and three days on a cross. Other criminals god hundreds of lashes and crucifiction that lasted for weeks before death.”

    Now I’m sure that you understand that the romans were punishing the other criminals for what they believed were wrongdoings. So it only would make sense that they would be hesitant to punish Jesus. As you probably know, Pontius Pilate himself did not see why Jesus should be crucified. He obviously ended up giving the order to crucify him anyway, but only to please the Jews, and to get them out of there. And then again, Jesus still did die. And from what I heard, death by crucifiction was extremely excruciating no matter what. And then there is also the intangible part. If you believe what the Bible says, he died with the burden of every single sin ever committed and to be committed. And if you’ve ever done something someone you care thinks is wrong, and have to try to hide it from then, I’m sure you know how burdening that can be. That’s how christians (should) feel about sinning. So imagine all those burdens and feelings from every single person in history… kind of heavy huh?

    Now if you don’t want to believe that Christ died in exchange for our sins, that is up to you. But if you want to take this story for what it is really meant to be, and for the reason it was even told in the first place, then I’m sure you’ll understand that the suffering Christ went through wasn’t in any measure small or reduced. It might have been less than some other criminals, but then again they were criminals, not innocent men. I’m guessing that if you would have the power that Pontius Pilate had, that you would have also ordered more extreme punishment for people you believed to have trespassed your law. Jesus had not broken any law dictated by the romans.

    And once again going back to the Bible, I’m sure you realize that the story isn’t there just to makes us feel sorry for what Christ went through. As important as it is to us that he did die, it would have meant nothing if he hadn’t resurrected. In this act God shows his ultimate power, the power over death. With this act he gave us the ability “exist” with him after death, even though in another form unknown to us, and not have experience the eternal suffering of hell. As I see it, you can either do what you please here on earth and live a free life by earthly standards, and then suffer through eternity; or you can believe that Jesus’ death and rsurrection had a purpose, live within that freedom (even though others might not see that as freedom) and then live in freedom from torture for eternity. Your choice, buddy.

    And about your whole theory on God creating cruel rules and being stubborn and so forth, it doesn’t make much sense. If you admit that he was powerful enough to create mankind, and wasn’t pleased with it, why would he keep them around? In the Bible it says that God was pleased with man after he created him. Granted mankind did turn against him, and he actually wiped almost everybody out with the flood too give them another chance. And now tell me, if you would have the power to create something like a human, wouldn’t you also feel better if they decided to show you their gratitude on their own, rather them forcing them to do it? Just some food for thought for ya…

  60. Matt Cline: Funny you bring up Zen. The notions of you having a face before you were born (“conceived” would be more accurate), or of a single hand clapping, are also logically impossible. Yet people find these questions worth thinking about. The notion that Christ is God and man is exactly the same kind of thing: an attempt to break out of reason. Every religion has a paradox of this kind at its core: for neopaganism, it seems to be “the gods have objective existence and they are only within us”, though I speak under correction here. In fact I will say, no paradox, no religion.

    I don’t say this is a Good Thing or even my thing. Just that it’s out there.

  61. John, the three cases you cite are not parallel.

    1. It is a Catholic dogma (derived from Aquinas) that reason is sufficient to arrive at correct theology — apprehension of paradox is not required. And the early Protestants (Luther, Calvin, Erasmus, Zwingli) thought Thomist Catholicism was too mystical!

    2. No neopagan I have ever met believes “the gods have objective existence and they are only within us”. There are neopagans like me, who are instrumental rationalists who view neopaganism essentially as depth psychology. There are neopagans who have the traditional religious belief in an objective correlative. For neither camp is there a paradox.

    3. Zen truly does use paradox in an essential way. But beware of Zen-izing other religions; it doesn’t work. I’m a sometime student of Zen, raised Catholic, now neopagan. One size does not fit all. You have to bend Catholicism and neopaganism way out of shape to make them fit a Zen template.

  62. I was very well pleased with this article. I am a Christian and a Bible-student at Dallas Baptist University. I will openly admit that I wanted to read this article because I thought it was going to be a low-class christian slash. It is interesting to see the viewpoints of other people in this world. While I do not necessarily agree with the thesis, the arguments made in the paper were thoroughly stated and done so in a surprisingly non-offensive manner. I personally believe in God, absolute morality, and the fallable nature of man and while it may dishearten me to read through to the end where it is concluded that Jesus’ death and resurrection was a myth, I must state that I respect the way this blog was well-written. I definitely intend to tune in and see what interesting things will be discussed in the future.
    Kudos,
    D. Dvorak

  63. It is a Catholic dogma (derived from Aquinas) that reason is sufficient to arrive at correct theology — apprehension of paradox is not required.

    Umm, well, no. What the First Vatican Council declared was that the knowledge of God (his existence and some of his essences) could be known by the “natural light of human reason” — or as Lytton Strachey memorably put it, it became a matter of Faith that Faith was not necessary for the knowledge of God. That does not at all mean that the more difficult or paradoxical doctrines, like the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Homoousia, are accessible to reason alone!

    The last one, which is relevant here, is a clear-cut case of the Church explicitly rejecting the simpler and easier-to-understand formulations like “Jesus is something between human and divine” (Arianism), “Jesus is mixed human and divine” (Monophysitism), “Jesus has two personalities in one body (Nestorianism), “Jesus is a human being” (Unitarianism), “Jesus is God masquerading as a human” (Docetism), “Jesus was born human but became God at his baptism” (Adoptionism), and so on (and my apologies to any theologians reading this, to whom all this will look like a drastic oversimplification), in favor of the straightforward and completely paradoxical “Jesus is wholly human and wholly divine, both at the same time”.

    Thanks for the correction on neopaganism, though I still wonder whether the theological situation is as black and white as you paint it.

  64. Nice review. I haven’t read the books — this is about your review.

    There are class views of Christianity that I have found make greater sense of many texts than the divine views.

    For example, in some views, Christ was simply a human revolutionary expressing himself in the same iconographic terms used by religious leaders of his time to administer populations — he was a social hacker who lacked a better vocabulary (at least that could be widely understood). By democratizing divine standing he was destroying it (taking it away from the exclusive possession of rulers) and empowering people to be more concerned with their standing in the here and now than with their score on some Tally Sheet In the Sky. Thus creating free thinkers (relative to their time), he became a political problem both for the dominant Romans and the subordinate Rabbinical government of the oppressed. Hence execution. Hence the limits of the narrative he was constructing. Hence his lack of forsight. Hence his self-sacrifice. Hence the essentially allegorical nature of The Resurection (it is the revolution, not the literal body of Christ, that lives on). (Of course, this view implies that Andrew Lloyd-Weber, at least as treated by some directors and actors, is one of the best theologens of our time :-)

    Now by almost two millenia later the technology of population administration has advanced a bit. In Lewis’ time, you have a political leadership to which he is subject and with which, it seems from your description, he identifies as willing subject. Said leadership operates with more detailed understanding of the limitations of their understanding and control, of the naivete of their subjects, and of the danger of outside forces who presumably do not share a vision of the Peacable Kingdom. To “sing into existence” — to decree — to rule primarily by The Word, implying The Idea — yet to have finite and contingent power. Don’t know about Lewis but that is how your description of Aslan comes across to these ears. This is not to say that Lewis saw it in quite these terms or that he denied, in any way, the relevance of The Divine to the concerns he was allegorizing (as he evidently would not, given other writings). It is only to say that this is the arrangement of power he was struggling to understand, perhaps hampered by his particular superstitions. That he bails so often and reaches for deus ex machina reveals, perhaps, exactly where one may find the contradictions between his received theology and the facts on the ground.

    Generally good people inherit both the revolutionary ethic *and* administrative control over populations. It sounds as if, from your description, Lewis was an apologist for their failures at reconciling these traditions and/or an educator, trying to at least expose hoi poloi (such as yourself) to the issues of the day.

    -t

  65. On the subject of the Sacrifice:

    Imagine for a moment that you are in the following position. You have committed no crime, yet the authorities wish to kill you. You have at your fingertips the power to thwart them completely and utterly. You also posess the *authority*, being the rightful heir to the throne they pay lip service to. Yet, for reasons you know, yet lack the capacity to understand at the moment, you cannot use that power; you must submit to them.

    Imagine for a moment that, to accomplish your mission, you must go to a place where you are going to be whipped, beaten, mocked, tortured, taken as close to death by physical punishment as a man can get. You are aware that you will be rescued at the last moment, and that your rescuer has the medical facilities necessary to restore you to perfect health.

    Now imagine that you are actually there, enduring pain and suffering, false accusations, punishment for nothing more than claiming to be who you actually are. You’re being whipped, beaten, spat on, mocked, possibly sexually violated (imagine Christ at Abu Ghraib)… and the entire time, you have it in your power to turn on them and obliterate them completely and totally, heal your own wounds… and then go on to rule the world. You’re even mocked at numerous points that if you really *were* who you said you were, you could put a stop to it, and because you don’t, that’s how they know you’re guilty!

    Not only this, but your closest friends have abandoned you. Not that you didn’t see it coming…. you knew the entire time you were with them what sort of people they were. And they are the *greatest* of the people for whom you are enduring this punishment.

    You know full well why you are doing what you are doing. But knowing and experiencing are two very different things. If I promised to pay your medical bills, and pay for treatment sufficient to restore you to perfect health, would you consent to being tortured to prove your point? Heck, would you even consent to a life-saving surgery without the aid of any kind of anesthesia, whatosever (not even copious amounts of alcohol, or a sharp blow to the head)? Would you give your left kidney to your own mother while fully awake and feeling the entire experience?

    (Not a serious offer, btw…)

  66. If you think that Narnia is incoherent and doesn’t make logical or mythical sense, you should read the Bible. Better yet, to get a better understanding, read Thomas Paine’s “The Age of Reason,” which tears so many holes in the Bible that I can’t believe (oops, did I say that!) people can put their faith (oops, i did it again) in this stuff. But then again, faith means never having to ask why? Don’t think, just believe. But…I am, therefore, I will think!

  67. If you believe the myth that Jesus didn’t truly die and rise from the dead, you’ve got no hope as a Christian. If Jesus didn’t truly rise from the dead, then death still has power over us as Christians. C. S. Lewis had Aslan truly rise from the dead because that’s what Christ did.

  68. Hmm,

    Quite an interesting piece you have here. I know this article is old but it is certainly new to me.
    If anyone is interested there is a book by Micheal Ward, “Planet Narnia” which gives
    an interesting insight into C.S. Lewis’s works and answers the objections raised in this
    article rather nicely.

    Oh and Bob?

    1. The term “faith” used in the Christian tradition is actually “Pistis”, a Greek word meaning “steadfast loyalty based on prior
    acts”. Try to understand the word before using it.

    2. Paine’s “Age of Reason” is an example of poor scholarship at its worst. He obviously had no grasp of the history of his subject, no grasp of the languages the Bible was written in (hand waving away the Greek wording, much as you did) and fills the rest of the book
    with nothing more then rhetoric and venom, all of it empty and without direction. He finds no contradictions, so he creates a series of straw men out of “What If?” situations. In short, no evidence and pitiful argumentation. If you want to read Atheistic thinking with some actual meat, I recommend virtually anything written by Quentin Smith.

    You claim to have arrived at your conclusion by thought. Apparently, you have neither thought long enough or hard enough.

  69. The difference pointed out by several commenters above between CSL’s purposes in writing the Chronicles and JRRT’s in writing the LOTR is vital, esp. when you take into account that Lewis was writing primarily for children. In this regard comparing the two is not particularly useful; it’s rather like comparing ‘The Wind in the Willows’ with ‘Watership Down.’ Both feature anthropomorphised animals living in an author-created world that has some semblance to reality, but to argue that TWITW is “inconsistent” or “lacking in coherence,” especially compared to ‘Watership Down,’ is somewhat beside the point. In fact, if Lewis and Tolkien weren’t Christians, friends, and literary associates I doubt we’d even be having this discussion, because it wouldn’t occur to anyone to compare the two.

    “Christ’s sacrifice was not in his death alone. For, yes, the fact that he died and returned would render his sacrifice a fraud if the sacrifice was merely his death. Instead, the sacrifice was that he bear the punishment for all mankind. God, in that moment, chose to divert all his anger and wrath at the sinful condition of man on a single person: Jesus. For this, God made the ultimate sacrifice so that he himself could be at peace with man. Mankind was spared his wrath.”

    This is one version of the atonement (the so-called “penal model”) but it is not the only one, and is, in fact, a rather late development in the history of Christian theology. I doubt it’s the one Lewis, who was very familiar with the Church Fathers, actually held. It’s been a while since I’ve read either the Chronicles or Lewis’s theology, but it seems to me that his take on the atonement is probably more in line with the classic Patristic idea, what Lutheran theologian Gustave Aulen has called the “Christus Victor” model.

    “If anyone is interested there is a book by Micheal Ward, “Planet Narnia” which gives
    an interesting insight into C.S. Lewis’s works and answers the objections raised in this
    article rather nicely.”

    I have not read Ward’s book in its entirety, but I’ve dipped into it here and there. This article by Ward:

    http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=20-10-022-f

    is a sort of precis of the book. He does answer some of the very objections raised in this article.

  70. Of course the narnia series is a little heavy handed and lacks casual depth, they’re children’s books! Tolkein’s works were written for himself, an academic I believe, and so of course they are much more developed. The Aslan sacrifice does break down a bit, but for Christ the real sacrifice was not the pain of torture and death, it was the separation from God. The real pain lay in the rending apart of God. He chose to tear Himself apart on the deepest levels. That was the sacrifice, not transient physical pain.

  71. Perhaps a late comer to this thread, referred by a recent posting, I must admit that the 10 year old who tried reading Lewis never made it past the first Narnia book. I *did* finish The Screwtape Letters, and loved it. I had read through the Silmarillion twice by the time I was 12 (not to mention the many readings through LOTR, and beginning into the History of Middle Earth series).

    Somehow, I saw instinctively as a child the shallowness of Narnia. Now that you’ve described the Deus ex-machina obviousness of the Lion, I remember this is where I lost interest. I wish I had been able to articulate that instinct then in understanding why I never liked Narnia and loved Tolkien, (even his translations fascinated me as a child). Thank you for putting the pieces together here. I’m not sure why I didn’t put it together years ago.

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