Monday, April 11, 2005

Neahaus on Lewis

I found another interesting article from Father Neahaus, this time on C.S. Lewis. In this 1998 essay, he wonders how Lewis' methods would fare today, and how they might need to be altered:
Theology, at least in the great tradition, claims to be about truth. It makes cognitive claims about the way things really are. It is one of the great secularizing achievements of modernity to have created the category we call "religion." Questions about God, judgment, purpose, sin, and redemption are all put into a sandbox labeled "Religion," leaving the rest of the public square for the deliberation of questions dealing with "the real world." This is evident in our universities, where theology has long since been replaced by—at best, or perhaps at worst—"religious studies." For two hundred years, theologians retreating from the advance of scientific and philosophical debunkings have taken refuge in the sphere that modernity graciously set aside for religion as a subcategory of poetic expression. Lewis is sometimes viewed as joining that retreat, and there are elements of his work that can be cited in support of that view, but I think that was not his intention. On the contrary, he wanted to call a halt to the retreat. He wanted to persuade us that the religious, and particularly Christian, construal of reality is more encompassing, has more explanatory power, and is, in a word, true. While presenting himself as a religious thinker rather than a theologian, he was attempting to do the authentically public thing that many theologians had lost the nerve to do. ... In short, it is suggested that Lewis has no standing in the deconstructed public square. His arguments have no public purchase. It is not that the cleverly educated of today disagree with his arguments. On the contrary, they agree with his argument that modernity’s methodological skepticism logically leads precisely to where he says it leads. Except the endpoint that he views as catastrophe they welcome with a frisson of nihilistic delight. Consider one of the most rhetorically admirable passages in the entirety of Lewis’ work. It comes at the very end of The Abolition of Man:
But you cannot go on "explaining away" forever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on "seeing through" things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to "see through" first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To "see through" all things is the same as not to see.
To which today’s clever academic says with patronizing glee, "Exactly, old man. Except for your last line, for to see through all things is to see precisely what is to be seen, precisely what is there, which is to say—nothing!" It is hard to know how seriously we should take the fashionable nihilism of our time. In The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom called it "debonair nihilism," which might be described as a flirtation with nothingness that has nothing as a consequence. Bright young things look over the edge into the abyss and gigglingly pronounce it to be "intriguing." It has been remarked that suicide is the most sincere form of self–criticism. With respect to the nihilism so enthusiastically embraced by today’s herd of independent minds, one might take it more seriously if more of them leaped over the edge. Of course there are such as Michel Foucault who follow the lethal illogic to its end, but there are many times more who, like Richard Rorty, declare that "truth" (in quotation marks) is socially constructed "all the way down," yet go on living in pleasantly genteel irony, just as though the quotation marks were not there. ... For the moment, and in answer to the question, What are we to do?, I suggest that we should also do what C. S. Lewis did so very well. As Christian humanists in the public square, we should persist in making the very best arguments that we can.
Indeed, which brings us to this.

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