Tuesday, August 1, 2017

"Making Nothing Into Words": Perelandra's Anticipation of Progressive Theology and the Loss of Meaning

C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was recently used to defend Eugene Peterson's recent public discussion of openness to performing LGBT weddings (which has subsequently been retracted). As a giant of the faith, C.S. Lewis is claimed by both liberal and conservative Christians as a champion of their ideals, much like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Pope Francis.

This raises an interesting question: would Lewis' underlying philosophy and theology allow him to travel the same road as former conservatives who become leaders of Christian progressivism like Rob Bell, Rachel Held Evans, Peter Enns, etc.?

Anyone familiar with Lewis' grounded classical worldview would, in fact, see him as mutually exclusive with the progressive mentality in general though there are certainly some issues where he could most likely find some common ground. However, in Perelandra, the second installment of his Space Trilogy, he provides an explicit warning against progressive thinking in the character of Weston.

According to apologist Alisa Childers, there are five symptoms of progressivism in theology: a lowered view of the Bible, emphasizing feelings over facts, essential Christian doctrines are open to renegotiation, historic terms are redefined, and there is a paradigm shift from sin and repentance to social justice.
All of these markers appear in Weston's character in Perelandra which is the second installment of The Space Trilogy. In it, the main character, Ransom, is taken to the newly inhabited edenic world of Perelandra (what we call Venus). He is tasked with preventing Weston, the returning nemesis from the first book Out of the Silent Planet, from perverting this new world by causing a "fall."

In Out of the Silent Planet, Weston espouses a kind of vulgar and transparently bombastic modernity that is intent on exploiting Malacandra for the progress and preservation of humanity, ignoring its hnau, sentient and conscious lifeforms that, while not human are persons:  
"To you I may seem a vulgar robber, but I bear on my shoulders the destiny of the human race. Your tribal life with its stone-age weapons and bee-hive huts, its primitive coracles and elementary social structure, has nothing to compare with our civilization—with our science,     medicine and law, our armies, our architecture, our commerce, and our transport system which is rapidly annihilating space and time. Our right to supersede you is the right of the higher over the lower."
He exemplifies the utilitarian secular scientific progressivism so prevalent before the violence of the 20th century. 

However, there is a switch in Weston’s ideology between the first book of the Space Trilogy and the second. See how Weston explains his new-fangled philosophy to Ransom:
    
“all my life I had been making a wholly unscientific dichotomy or antithesis between And and Nature—had conceived myself fighting for Man against his non-human environment…I had been content to regard Life as a subject outside my scope. The conflicting views of those who drew a sharp line between the organic and the inorganic and those who held that what we call Life was inherent in matter from the very beginning had not interested me. Now it did. I saw almost at once that I could admit no break, no discontinuity in the unfolding of the cosmic process. I became a convinced believer in emergent evolution. All is one. The stuff of mind, the unconsciously purposive dynamism, is present from the very beginning…The majestic spectacle of this blind, inarticulate purposiveness thrusting its way upward and ever upward in an endless unity of differential achievements towards an ever-increasing complexity of organization, towards spontaneity and spirituality, swept away all my old conception of a duty to Man as such. Man in himself is nothing. The forward movement of Life—the growing spirituality—is everything. I say to you quite freely, Ransom, that I should have been wrong in liquidating the Malacandrians. It was a mere prejudice that made me prefer our own race to theirs. To spread spirituality, not to spread the human race, is henceforth my mission. This sets the coping-stone on my career. I worked first for myself, then for science; then for humanity; but now at last for Spirit itself—I might say, borrowing language which will be more familiar to you, the Holy Spirit…I mean that nothing now divides you and me except a few outworn theological technicalities with which organized religion has unhappily allowed itself to get incrusted. But I have penetrated that crust. The Meaning beneath it is as true and living as ever. If you will excuse me for putting it that way, the essential truth of the religious view of life finds a remarkable witness in the fact that it enabled you, on Malacandra, to grasp, in your own mythical and imaginative fashion, a truth which was hidden from me…I have no doubt that my phraseology will seem strange to you, and perhaps even shocking. Early and revered associations may have put it out of your power to recognize in this new form the very same truths which religion has so long preserved and which science is now at last re-discovering. But whether you can see it or not, believe me, we are talking about exactly the same thing.” 

Also, when Ransom brings up the difference between God and the Devil, Weston simultaneously decries and redefines dichotomous thinking: 

“Now your mentioning the Devil is very interesting. It is a most interesting thing in popular religion, this tendency to fissiparate, to breed pairs of opposites: heaven and hell, God and Devil. I need hardly say that in my view no real dualism in the universe is admissible; and on that ground I should have been disposed, even a few weeks ago ,to reject these paris of doublets as pure mythology. it would have been a profound error. The cause of this universal religious tendency is to be sought much deeper. The doublets are really portraits Spirit, of cosmic energy—self-portraits, indeed, for it is the Life-Force itself which has deposited them in our brains…Your Devil and your God are both pictures of the same Force. your heaven is a picture of the perfect spirituality ahead; your hell a picture of the urge which is driving us on to it from behind. Hence the static peace of the one and the fire and darkness of the other.  The next stage of emergent evolution, becoming us forward, is God; the transcended stage behind, ejecting us, is the Devil.”

So what parallels exist between Weston’s thinking and the definition of progressive theology? All five standards are present but some are more prevalent than others. One can certainly see a lowering of the Bible in Weston’s train of thought even though he never explicitly claims it. However, if you really read what it is he’s arguing for, there’s no way to reconcile it with the Scriptures unless you begin to play fast and loose with them. He doesn’t discuss feelings and facts though his argument is more contingent on a kind of sophistry that has to twist Reason to be effective. There’s no discussion of social justice per se either. The strongest parallels between Weston and progressives lies in the fact that essential Christian doctrines are open to renegotiation and historic terms are redefined. 

For example, take Weston’s definition of the Holy Spirit juxtaposed against an orthodox understanding of him. To Weston, the Spirit is, "The forward movement of Life—the growing spirituality—is everything.” There’s no real creature/creator distinction. Everything is the Spirit and the Spirit is everything. It’s the forward movement of Life, the catalyst for progress and progress itself. Of course, this is just a misappropriation of the classical Christian doctrine of the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Trinity who is, according to the Nicene Creed, “The Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceeded from the Father [and the Son]; Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; Who spake by the Prophets.” There’s also a redefinition of heaven and hell. Heaven is a vision of progress. Hell is the driving force. God and Satan being to look scarily alike


The point is this: orthodox theology recognizes the objectivity of Truth. It sees Truth as engrained into the very fabric of reality. It comes from God and points us back to God. In Progressive theology, there is a redefinition of these truths. It becomes nominalist. Those words laden with meaning for the historic Church become placeholders for trendy fads and ideas. Theology is not a way to relate to God so much as a way to individually and culturally construct the world. When the very core of our beliefs become subject to constant revisionism, there is a serious loss of meaning. Ransom diagnoses the problem with Weston (and with progressive theology in general, one might add): “You had nothing to say about it and yet made the nothing up into words.”