A Gathering Voices post by Greg Cootsona
There are two things I’ve been doing the past few years. First of all, I’ve been reading a lot by C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), especially his take on scientific materialism, human suffering, the nature of Jesus, and the Bible. The primary reason for this is writing, and recently finishing, my new book C. S. Lewis and the Crisis of a Christian. Besides that, November 22, 2013 marked the fiftieth anniversary of Lewis’s death—and on that day, a memorial was dedicated in his honor in the Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey, where he joined Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and the like. This honor for a scholar of the Middle Ages and Renaissance literature who dubbed himself a “dinosaur” and yet whose books still sell millions of copies, whose children’s fiction, The Chronicles of Narnia, has its fourth feature film in process, and who was dubbed today’s “hottest theologian” just a few years ago by Time.
I’ve also been wrapping up a project, Scientists in Congregations, which funded congregations to develop programs that engage science. These churches and their seventeen thousand members ran the gamut along the theological spectrum, but all find scientific insights fascinating, powerful, and important for faith.
Can these two projects could speak to one another. More specifically, can Lewis’s words offer insight for Christians living in a world saturated by science?
The first thing we have to say is that Lewis was no scientist. He did not hold a degree in science, and even famously had troubles with mathematics—so significant in fact that these deficiencies almost prevented his entrance into Oxford. But what if we didn’t look particularly at science as an experimental discipline, but as the basis for a worldview, and what we focused on the Bible and how Christians read it in light of scientific discoveries? Two primary insights from Lewis set us on the right course.
First of all, Lewis viewed the Bible as the word of God that derives its authority from the one Word of God, Jesus Christ. Lewis read the Bible as a literary text (which is certainly not the same as taking the text literally) and discovered God’s word carried by Scripture, a book filled narratives, meaningful stories, or—as he liked to put it—“myths” (which doesn’t equal “fiction”). Myth, as Lewis wrote, is “at its best, a real unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination.” And, as he concluded after a famous 1931 walk with J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, myth became fact in Jesus.
Lewis’s approach can help Christians avoid pseudo-problems with the Bible when it does not provide (in his words) “impeccable science.” For example, Lewis writes, Genesis 1-2 probably “derived from earlier Semitic stories which were Pagan and mythical,” or as the church Father Jerome put it, was written “after the manner of a popular poet” (thus a myth). Nevertheless, Lewis concluded that, under divine guidance, this biblical text became a vehicle for the profound story “which achieves the idea of true Creation and a transcendent Creator.”
Secondly, Lewis concluded that science had a rightful place in intellectual work, but had no right to determine all truth. He believed the Bible could be read on its own terms and offer legitimate wisdom. Therefore, it didn’t need science to validate its claims. Paradoxically, this may be the best way for congregations that take science seriously as they read their Bibles… in other words, not to suffer unnecessary pains about whether Scripture supports or denies science.
Having studied the way churches interact with science over the past two decades—and the thirty-seven congregations we’ve funded—I realize that the Bible often seems outdated because it has not been updated with the most current scientific discoveries. Our project has clearly discovered that the Bible and science can and must speak to one another, but these discoveries imply no need to justify the truth of biblical texts with science. Instead we are free to make connections where they exist. It’s an honest interchange without forced agreement or impenetrable conflict.
In the end, Lewis directs us to read the Bible as a liberating book—one that leads Christians to the center of their faith, Jesus Christ—and to let the free study of science also take place. I think that’s something that can help Christians who want to engage contemporary culture like he did. Maybe that’s one more reason Lewis still speaks today.
About the Featured Author:
Greg Cootsona, Ph.D. just finished C. S. Lewis and the Crisis of a Christian for Westminster John Knox Press. He serves as pastor of adult discipleship at Bidwell Presbyterian Church in Chico, California and teaches in the Comparative Religion department at California State University, Chico.