Oldest Fears

Nearly they stood who fall;

Themselves as they look back

See always in the track

The one false step, where all

Even yet, by lightest swerve

Of foot not yet enslaved,

By smallest tremor of the smallest nerve,

Might have been saved.

 

Nearly they fell who stand,

And with cold after fear

Look back to mark how near

They grazed the Sirens’ land,

Wondering that subtle fate,

By threads so spidery fine,

The choice of ways so small, the event so great,

Should thus entwine.

 

Therefore oh, man, have fear

Lest oldest fears be true,

Lest thou too far pursue

The road that seems so clear,

And step, secure, a hair’s

Breadth past the hair-breadth bourne,

Which, being once crossed forever unawares,

Denies return.

~ C.S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress, (181).

Forums to share

Whenever I find them, I will try to watch or listen to roundtable discussions composed of my favorite authors or speakers. I sometimes find these attached to larger conferences, variously described as Q & A or open forums. At the best of times, I’ll find a relaxed and serendipitous conversation, where thinkers will address a range of topics they haven’t necessarily covered in their writing and speaking.

I’d like to share two such talks in this post. The first is a round-table discussion between the notorious Four Horsemen of the New Atheism movement, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett. Apparently the title of the video, “The Four Horsemen” was its inaugural use. While I like these guys quite a bit more than they would like me, what I appreciated about this video was the opportunity to see these men interacting on areas of agreement and, most interesting to me, areas of disagreement. I have read quite a bit of Dawkins and have always found him more enjoyable in print that in person. I admire the late Christopher Hitchens the most of the lot, primarily because of his candor and interest in granting fair representation of those whom he (sometimes vehemently) disagrees with. Though their rhetoric can occasionally be taxing to this pious Christian, I find interacting with their challenges to be mostly enjoyable.

The second video is a discussion between pastors and theologians, John Piper, Doug Wilson, Sam Storms, and Jim Hamilton. The two hour session was called An Evening of Eschatology. The four men interact on various views regarding what Scripture says about things to come. The discussion is situated around the various positions on the millennium referenced in Revelation 20 (Wilson- postmillennial, Storms- amillennial, Hamilton- premillennial, with Piper serving as moderator), so you have a unique opportunity to see how the positions compare in the context of a passionate yet irenic debate.

If you’re in to this sort of thing, drop a line into the comments of any talks you’d recommend. I’ve enjoyed these discussions across a variety of subjects including history, theology, politics, science, ethical issues, etc. I’ll try to share more as time allows.

Body and Soul

I’ve recently been teaching a class on the relationship between the body and the soul at our church. The writings of C.S. Lewis have been invaluable for me because he anticipated much of our contemporary philosophical and scientific discourse on the mind-body problem. His wonderfully clear analogies have been faithful friends.

I knew that I generally found myself in agreement with Lewis’ ideas regarding the embodiment of our souls and the important distinction between mind and matter. I was therefore prepared to wrestle with a statement that he had written which I thought had an awkward lack of balance. The quote frequently shows up with this subject:

“You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”

The statement seemed to place an almost Platonic emphasis upon the soul over against the body with regard to our personhood. Rather than seeing humans as body-soul composites, it implied that we are more soul than body. This is striking because it seemed to run against the grain of Lewis’ other writings about the body. For instance:

“Man has held three views of his body. First there is that of those acetic Pagans who called it the prison or the ‘tomb’ of the soul, and of Christians like Fisher to whom it was a ‘sack of dung’, food for worms, filthy, shameful, a source of nothing but temptation to bad men and humiliation to good ones. Then there are the Neo-Pagans (they seldom know Greek), the nudists and the sufferers from Dark Gods, to whom the body is glorious. But thirdly we have the view which St. Francis expressed by calling his body ‘Brother Ass’. All three may be – I am not sure – defensible; but give me St. Francis for my money. Ass is exquisitely right because no one in his senses can either revere or hate a donkey. It is a useful, sturdy, lazy, obstinate, patient, lovable and infuriating beast; deserving now a stick and now a carrot; both pathetically and absurdly beautiful. So the body.” ~ from The Four Loves

I’m aware that the two quotes are not mutually exclusive. The longer quote above could be consistent with the kind of hierarchy implied in the shorter. However, when the longer passage is compared with Lewis’ other writings, a kind of balance appears which places the ‘you are a soul’ quote to the status of unrepresentative outlier.

Lewis’ other writings portray a keen awareness and attention to materiality, as well as a strenuous effort to help his readers see how the higher world is seen and experienced by means of the lower. Another great example is his allegory, The Great Divorce. In this story, heaven was not more ethereal and cloudy than our world below, but harder, crisp, more deeply felt. In this case heaven was a more real version of the world as we know it, giving a sense of dignity to the here and now.

Naturally, I wanted to find additional context for the ‘you are a soul’ quote. I searched the highways and hedges of the internet to discover that Lewis never wrote it. Here is a link to the source that helpfully explained this for me. The statement is most credibly attributed to a letter written by George MacDonald. I’m glad that I don’t have to discuss Lewis’ views on the mind-body with an awkward caveat about that single off-balance quote. Instead, I’ll provide a statement from Matthew Lee Anderson, one that would more likely cohere with Lewis’ thinking:

You are a body. But you’re a soul too. And your human flourishing is contingent upon being a soul-bodied thing.

I ain’t the only one

Have you ever noticed that when you present people with facts that are contrary to their deepest held beliefs they always change their minds? Me neither. In fact, people seem to double down on their beliefs in the teeth of overwhelming evidence against them. The reason is related to the worldview perceived to be under threat by the conflicting data.

~ Michael Shermer in an article titled: When Facts Backfire. This article appeared in the January issue of Scientific American.

This was the opening paragraph to Shermer’s article. While my own experience confirms the truth of his statement, the cartoon of a flat-earther and a round-earther (what shall we call them?) shaking hands confirmed my suspicions of who Shermer had in mind when he wrote the paragraph.

He continued to argue that creationists, anti-vaxxers, 9/11 truthers, climate deniers, and Obama birthers, in his view, double down on their positions in spite of overwhelming evidence, due to their worldview commitments.

He provided at the end of the article six suggestions for tackling this difficult problem of talking with such Cretans:

  1. Keep emotions out of the exchange.
  2. Discuss, don’t attack.
  3. Listen carefully and try to articulate the other position accurately.
  4. Show respect.
  5. Acknowledge that you understand why someone might hold that opinion.
  6. Try to show how changing facts does not necessarily mean changing worldviews.

I appreciate that Shermer is working on the tone of his tribe, considering that many of them consider that my belief in God is as rational as belief in a flat earth. An unfortunate number of articles in Scientific American have an unnecessarily pedantic and antagonistic tone. Following these six steps would take the magazine in a helpful direction. I would like to humbly suggest a seventh piece of advice for Shermer and his intended audience: realize that you too regularly deal with the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance and the very real possibility of ignoring or even distorting evidence in support of your positions.

I work hard to identify and describe this tendency in my own life and in my own circles. My worldview demands this type of introspection. My conclusion is that Shermer’s concern isn’t a problem that afflicts religious people or conservatives alone, but all of God’s children. Shermer should be able to encourage his readers to acknowledge this without considering such an admission to be a blow to his community’s credibility. In fact, the absence of such an admission further undermines my willingness to trust such advocates of Science as impartial.

I recommend this article from the Hedgehog Review by Ari N. Schulman. Schulman addresses the pervasive sense of mistrust that society shares of the scientific community and offers balanced perspectives how the various groups involved can constructively move forward.

I’d also like to point out that I’ve got Locke on my side here:

All men are liable to error, and most men are in many points, by passion and interest, under temptation to it. If we could but see the secret motives that influenced the men of name and learning in the world, and the leaders of parties, we should not always find that it was the embracing of truth for its own sake, that made them espouse the doctrines they owned and maintained.

Let ever so much probability hang on one side of a covetous man’s reasoning, and money on the other; it is easy to forsee which will outweigh. Earthly minds, like mud walls resist the strongest batteries: and though, perhaps, sometimes the force of a clear argument may make some impression, yet they nevertheless stand firm, and keep out the enemy, truth, that would captivate or disturb them… Quod volumus, facile credimus; what suits our wishes, is forwardly believed.

~ John Locke, quoted in Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous, by W. Jay Wood.