What are Rights?

So, I had a very brief debate with somebody on Facebook about the concept of rights, based off of someone else’s status regarding the difference between rights and privileges. My personal opinion on the matter is that rights are something the government acknowledges, while privileges are something the government grants. The other fellow claimed that there was no difference between a “right” and a “privilege” since both were granted by the government.

This got me to thinking about such things, and I began to wonder about how to construct, without resorting to Scripture, a concept of “rights” as something that governments acknowledge, but do not create. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wonder long, as the first gentleman (hat tip to Dalton) said that it made sense to define them as things that are intrinsic to being human.

This makes a lot of sense, honestly. Consider the Declaration of Independence–life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are the rights mentioned within it, a trifecta based on the work of John Locke, who had as his third right “property” instead of “pursuit of happiness.” (It is my contention that, had the Founders kept the original formula, a lot of nonsense could have been avoided. Mostly within the past fifty years, but still.)

All of these are, whether one is atheist or theist, part of being human. Life? This should be kind of obvious. Your humanness kind of stops when you’re dead. Liberty? All living creatures can make choices, and man is the only one able to reason and rationalize him, and liberty is about the ability to choose (preferably to live virtuously). Property? In the original world, to work or hunt a bit of land, or make a tool, was to make it yours, and theft was punishable by death.

And, let’s face it–protecting these rights from people who wanted to take them away by killing/enslaving/stealing was kind of why governments were formed in the first place. In point of fact, popular revolutions tend not to arise until people decide that the current government is doing such an utterly lousy job at protecting those three things, in various forms, that anything else would be better. They are very often wrong, but still.

Thing is, though, this isn’t just a matter of pedantry. To put it bluntly, what the government gives, the government can also take away whenever it wants, and the only real reason for opposing such an action is “It made me feel bad/hurt me” or “Long-term, this will lead to trouble.” The people likely to be attracted by the first tend to be poor at post-revolutionary rebuilding, and people likely to be attracted by the second are few and far between, and tend to be lousy revolutionaries.

If, however, there’s an actual notion (and not just a fig leaf) that the government is transgressing its bounds by going after these rights beyond what is necessary to keep the rights in play, one may actually get a shot at having A. large portions of society join in on the revolution and B. Having large numbers of people who happen to be good at revolutions and/or rebuilding join in.

And, for that matter, having such notions embedded into society decreases the likelihood that the government will transgress those bounds to the point where revolution is necessary, which is really a much better option than a bloody revolution every generation or so.

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness

It’s Raining Tacos?

Digital communication is powerful. As the late Uncle Ben said, “With great power comes great responsibility.

Postmodernism has had an incalculable effect on our world. From academia down to blue-collar workers, its lack of overarching, objective meaning, replaced with a focus on relative meaning found in ourselves or our culture, has called the idea of knowable, transcendent “truths” into question. It is no wonder then that postmodernism would not have the staying power as a satisfactory philosophy for the real world. People cannot consistently live what postmodernism preaches. We all intuitively know that some things are just true or false, so it would only be a matter of time before this movement faded and the Western world shifted another direction. Indeed, echoing Nietzsche, it might now be appropriate to say “Postmodernism is dead, and we have killed it.” In the arts, in the news, and in philosophy, people just aren’t taking the old postmodernism as seriously anymore, as a look at what is being printed and produced these days will show. I came across a wonderful piece by the philosopher Alan Kirby on the Death of Postmodernism  that beautifully addressed some concerns I’ve had about where our culture is now moving.

With postmodernism waning, what might post-postmodernism look like? This is our era and our time. It appears to me that this period in which we are currently living is moving more in the direction of modernism, the period that occurred before postmodernism, that was characterized by analytic, empirical, and scientific truth based on human progress, “pulling itself up by its bootstraps” as it were. But it does not seem to be exactly like modernism–the current cultural climate appears to have taken Postmodernism as a caution to the dangers of ignoring particulars in its quest for universal truth. The implications of this look promising, as people will be more open to discussing transcendent truths while remaining grounded in the particulars of reality. Unfortunately, the  balancing act ensues between postmodern and modern tendencies often tips one direction or the other, and both exist in weird ways in our post-postmodern age. As I see it, there are two (often overlapping) main groups, the super-modernists (typified by the new atheists), and the social media-inspired, postmodern-ish worldview (i.e. a lot of it found on Reddit) that’s not all that different from the old postmodernism, at its core. My favorite name for the new period is pseudo-modernism, as I think it captures this balancing act perfectly. Of course, all is not well with this post-postmodern period. It carries both the good and bad of its predecessors, modernism and postmodernism.  In his Wendell Berrry-esque critique of pseudo-modernism, Kirby notes the surface level engagement and “triteness” that combines the worst of both modernism and postmodernism in the period. This arises from the new “social media approach” to texts:

The pseudo-modern cultural phenomenon par excellence is the internet. Its central act is that of the individual clicking on his/her mouse to move through pages in a way which cannot be duplicated, inventing a pathway through cultural products which has never existed before and never will again. This is a far more intense engagement with the cultural process than anything literature can offer, and gives the undeniable sense (or illusion) of the individual controlling, managing, running, making up his/her involvement with the cultural product. Internet pages are not ‘authored’ in the sense that anyone knows who wrote them, or cares. The majority either require the individual to make them work, like Streetmap or Route Planner, or permit him/her to add to them, like Wikipedia, or through feedback on, for instance, media websites. In all cases, it is intrinsic to the internet that you can easily make up pages yourself (eg blogs).”

Continuing this line of thought, Kirby muses:

A pseudo-modern text lasts an exceptionally brief time. … Text messages and emails are extremely difficult to keep in their original form; printing out emails does convert them into something more stable, like a letter, but only by destroying their essential, electronic state. Radio phone-ins, computer games – their shelf-life is short, they are very soon obsolete. A culture based on these things can have no memory – certainly not the burdensome sense of a preceding cultural inheritance which informed modernism and postmodernism. Non-reproducible and evanescent, pseudo-modernism is thus also amnesiac: these are cultural actions in the present moment with no sense of either past or future. The cultural products of pseudo-modernism are also exceptionally banal, as I’ve hinted. The content of pseudo-modern films tends to be solely the acts which beget and which end life. This puerile primitivism of the script stands in stark contrast to the sophistication of contemporary cinema’s technical effects. Much text messaging and emailing is vapid in comparison with what people of all educational levels used to put into letters. A triteness, a shallowness dominates all … for now we are confronted by a storm of human activity producing almost nothing of any lasting or even reproducible cultural value – anything which human beings might look at again and appreciate in fifty or two hundred years time.”

From never-ending, looping Vines, to “tacos falling from the sky—no need to ask why,” the proliferation and popularity of often pointless internet memes  just beg asking “why?” Much of internet culture is reminiscent of filler. “Where did the time go?” we often ask after spending an afternoon mindlessly flipping through and “sharing” the internet’s products. It is not that these things are bad in themselves, but their popularity and obsessive enjoyment shows a lack of something better, in many cases. What Kirby is seeing in this second strain of the new era is a natural result of postmodern nihilism. If the truth is not knowable from impartial analysis of facts, but nevertheless obviously exists, then we must make it ourselves, in “community,” or more correctly, the pseudo-community typified by the internet that gives a sense of presence and companionship without the real thing. The shift in what constitutes meaning from the individual or the community to the interactive virtual world is still not based on transcendent, true truth like classic theism, or even Enlightenment objective truth. Instead, meaning is created (or at least extremely influenced) through interaction with other people on the web. This is not all that different from the cultural relativism of the 70s, except that now, the meaning-culture has shifted to the worldwide web. When society “lives” online, the nuances of the real world and the physical presence of others must be simulated, which confines users to the functions the social media programmers have defined. As a programmer myself, I can attest to the ultimate rigidity and forced guidelines software imposes on the user, whatever appearances of total freedom such software may provide. Furthermore, internet and social media users are not forced to confront people with whom they disagree or dislike. “Unfriending” a person or clicking away from a difficult web article means that you can create your own reality much more easily, not growing in intellectual or spiritual maturity as you think and pray through life’s important issues in genuine community with embodied persons. To sum up the similarity to cultural relativism that pseudo-modernism shares, I must agree with Kirby that

To a degree, pseudo-modernism is no more than a technologically motivated shift to the cultural centre of something which has always existed.”

What then should be the response of Christians to this new trend? While our pseudo-modern age has fractured into the super-modernism and digital relativism centered on the interaction of people to “make” truth, these systems still center on Man for their source of truth. I suspect that there are even deeper trends between the banality of pseudo-modern expression and the backlash move toward extreme modernism to provide a cohesive and objective reason for living. To clarify the problem of truth in digital relativism, it is helpful to remember that for truth to be non-arbitrary, it must be grounded in a sufficient metaphysical source. Modernists, postmodernists, and pseudo-modernists all try to place that source of truth in man- in the author, in the reader, or in the conversation. Yet man is finite, capable of making moral and mental mistakes and contingent on things outside himself for even his very breath. Not only does life have an external meaning, but that meaning is found in the Person and work of Jesus Christ, who frees us from the pointlessness of living for ourselves, so that we can say that
“whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ…” (Philippians 3:7-8, NIV)

Why Science Arose out of Medieval Europe

Saint Anselm, 1033- 1109 A.D. He wrote that "faith seeks understanding."

Saint Anselm, 1033- 1109 A.D. He wrote that “faith seeks understanding.”

This is the second part in a series on Faith and Science and medieval Christendom. (The first part is here, though most blogs in this particular series, including the current one, are standalone.)

Because faith and reason are not fundamentally at odds, Christian orthodoxy has a tradition of affirming that faith seeks understanding. While faith is not just knowledge, but is also an act of trust based upon that knowledge, a gift given freely in the Person of Jesus Christ, faith seeks after greater understanding of the One who gives it. This is not just an abstract theological statement—at least not as it relates to the existence of modern science (or a lot of other, more important things!) —because it is the very essence of the medieval University, and, I will argue, of science as well.

The medieval University viewed theology as “the Queen of the Sciences” because theology is aimed at understanding the Faith most directly, and because it ties together all the other academic disciplines into a coherent whole—a structure where everything relates to everything else (making interdisciplinary study not only possible, but theologically necessary) and ultimately, to the Source of knowledge Himself. A very good case exists that Christian theology provided the atmosphere that led to the creation of modern science—a lot of previous assumptions had to be built up that we take for granted as obvious today. As I continue to blog my way through historian of science James Hannam’s The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution, discussing some of these intellectual building blocks seems the best route to go. There are four such categories into which Hannam fits these medieval stepping stones: institutional, technological, metaphysical, and theoretical. Each of these categories of scientific precursors could easily take a blog post (…or a book; many have been written!), so I’ll try to cover the latter categories of metaphysics and theories in this blog post, sharing the stories of the forgotten dreamers who contributed to the foundations of modern science.

The first of Hannam’s categories is the metaphysical foundation for science that allowed science to develop when there was no practical benefit to pondering the natural sciences in themselves, and no guarantee that they would work. This seems silly to us as moderns, looking back at hundreds of years of scientific success after scientific success, but medieval people had to have a very good reason to waste significant resources on the precursor to science, known as natural philosophy. There was no obvious “right side of history” about science for our ancestors, as the intuitions we have about science simply did not exist. So what made scientific thinking worthwhile? Since nature was created by God, and reveals something of Him, Hannam notes it must be deserving of study, and that natural philosophy has something to teach those who would listen. (348) Furthermore, since God has revealed Himself to be reasonable, orderly and consistent in His character, nature as His creation is also reasonable, consistent, and law-like. However, nature isn’t like Aristotle’s universe that is bound by necessity, where arm-chair theorizing can get you the answer. In medieval thought (and orthodox Christianity generally), God is not constrained by nature, but only by Himself, ultimately, and His promises. God is free to create natural laws however he wants— and knowing Him— they’re consistent and worth the experimenting and observing. To find out what nature is like, then, it makes sense to go look! That belief in consistent laws of nature that could be one out of many different possibilities but are discoverable through observation and experimentation is the core of the modern Scientific Method we all learned in high school. (349)

Merton College, Oxford. Founded in 1264 A.D. Image credit: Tom Murphy VII. GNU Copyrighted

Merton College, Oxford. Founded in 1264 A.D.
Image credit: Tom Murphy VII. GNU Copyrighted

The second of Hannam’s categories is the collection of theories that made a foundation for science. These are ideas that medieval or very early Renaissance thinkers developed out of the influence of the medieval worldview. Remember how interdisciplinary thinking has a solid justification in medieval theology? Many of these collected theories were arrived at in such a manner. For pre-medieval thinkers, areas of learning such as mathematics and natural philosophy were considered as distinct as most pre-postmodern thinkers would consider language and universal truth to be distinct fields of study. (The analogy isn’t perfect, but it gets the sentiment across.) (350) A perfect example of this fusion of mathematics and natural philosophy is the story of some fellows known as the Merton Calculators. Merton, a college of Oxford University, was a premier British medieval institution of learning and is the setting of very important advances in medieval thought leading to modern science.

At the time the Merton Calculators came on the scene, Aristotle was a big deal. To get an idea of how big a deal, check out the first post in this series, but for now, suffice it to say that even though people had known his natural philosophy had problems for over 500 years, it still hadn’t really been thoroughly discredited by the time the first Calculator arrived on the scene around 1330 A.D. or so. The basic problem was that Aristotle had a commonsense but highly incorrect view of motion. He said something along the lines that an object cannot continue to move without being pushed in some way. That sounds reasonable. If I throw a ball, it will eventually stop moving, right? However, it’s totally wrong, because if I threw that ball without air resisting it, it would really keep going forever. Several scholars objected to this idea of Aristotle’s, the most famous being William of Ockham, but much of Aristotle’s understanding of motion was still in effect and employed even in the calculations of the Calculators themselves.

Now onto the seemingly trivial but in effect enormous intellectual insight of the Calculators: Aristotle believed that mathematics was a thing and nature—well that was another thing. There is a lot of commonsense in being cautious about using conclusions from one discipline to justify conclusions in another discipline, so Aristotle certainly wasn’t stupid, but according to the Merton philosophers, he was wrong. The first of the Calculators at Merton was Thomas Bradwardine who worked there in the 1320s. He had this to say about Aristotle’s view of math and nature:

[Mathematics] is the revealer of every genuine truth, for it knows every hidden secret and bears the key to every subtlety of letters. Whoever, then, has the effrontery to pursue physics while neglecting mathematics should know from the start that he will never make his entry through the portals of wisdom. (Bradwardine, qtd. in Hannam, 171)

Aristotle, the Philosopher.  384 - 322 B.C. His natural philosophy was highly revered in the Middle Ages, but had to be overcome for modern science to develop.

Aristotle, the Philosopher. 384 – 322 B.C. His natural philosophy was highly revered in the Middle Ages, but had to be overcome for modern science to develop.

While that might be going a little far, Bradwardine succeeded in expressing Aristotle’s (wrong) laws of motion in mathematical form, a huge step forward for the future development of physics, leading to Galileo and ultimately Newton. While Bradwardine’s general formula of motion did not work in the real world because it allowed Aristotle’s mistakes a foot in the door, another Calculator developed a formula that was much smaller in scope, but was one of the most important to the history of physics, as this Middle-Age theory was actually correct: the mean-speed theorem. Along with the other Merton Calculators, William Heytesbury (who lived from 1313-1373 A.D.) showed the nature of the theorem using math in hypothetical situations rather than in the experimentation of modern science, so his work was still medieval, though a huge advance. The mean-speed theorem, or Heytesbury’s theorem, states that if an object moves while constantly accelerating, the distance it covers will be the same as the distance the object would have traveled at its average speed during the same amount of time. (174-175)

In all, the work of the Merton scholars led to further advances in natural philosophy both at Oxford and later on the Continent, and what I’ve covered is but the tip of the iceberg of medieval pre-scientific scholarship that Hannam discusses. I hope it is enough, though, to demonstrate that in the areas of metaphysics and theories of natural philosophy, the Middle Ages made possible what was to come. As Newton himself said of his discoveries, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Bradwardine and Heytesbury are but two of those now oft-forgotten giants, along with many others in medieval Christendom who helped to birth modern science.

Reason Illuminates Faith (in the Middle Ages)

Aquinas, symbolically integrating Christian Faith and intellectual inquiry.

Aquinas, symbolically integrating Christian Faith and intellectual inquiry.

Two of my favorite topics are science and the medieval world, so I’m really excited to do a blog series for the soapboxguild on some books related to these topics. What do the Middle Ages and scientific ideas have to do with each other? Quite a bit more than you might think. Unlike the thoughts brought to mind by words like the “Dark Ages,” the medieval period was not a totally backwards time of ignorance and superstition (though as in any era, both were present!), but one of intellectual formation that proved critically necessary for modern science to develop. I knew a little of this from various material I’d read in the past, but did not realize the extent of the importance of medieval theology, natural philosophy, and history to the development of science, or how much was accomplished before the Renaissance ever occurred. In the process of trying to learn more about medieval science, I picked up a book by Dr. James Hannam, a British historian of science. His work, The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution, is incredibly readable for its length and depth, and is a credit to its author. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in science and the Middle Ages. This series of blog posts is my attempt to gain a deeper appreciation for the issues Hannam raises, and to think alongside him as he dives into the lost world of medieval cosmology, medicine, mathematics, and philosophy.

To begin, then, we should start with one of the most influential figures in medieval thought, on one of the most important issues raised by the period. The man is the Angelic Doctor, Thomas Aquinas, and the question is the relationship between reason and faith. Thomas Aquinas was born in 1225 A.D. to upper-class, wealthy parents in Italy. He entered the clergy as a poverty-sworn Dominican while at university, to the displeasure of his parents, who expected him to become a powerful and wealthy Benedictine monk. (We know this because they  subsequently kidnapped him from college for the purpose of putting some worldly sense into him. According to an early biographer, this included hiring a prostitute to tempt him to leave his life of holiness. It only succeeding in causing the captive Aquinas to cast her out of his room.) (Hannam 85-86) After this, Aquinas “transferred” to the University in Cologne to study under one of the most famous philosophers of his time, Albert the Great (as opposed to Alfred the Great, who was an educated king of pre-England who lived much earlier). Aquinas earned his degree and gained a reputation as a skilled thinker, eventually teaching at the University of Paris, a hub of medieval scholarship. There he encountered the Averroists, and there our story of faith and reason really begins in earnest.

Siger of Brabant (upper right, wearing red) appears in this 15th-century illustration of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

The writings of classical antiquity were only partially known, thanks in part to the fall of Rome, for much of the Middle Ages. Shortly before Aquinas came on the scene, a Muslim commentator on Aristotle, named Averroes, had been translated into Latin and was causing quite a firestorm. Averroes held to things like determinism, a lack of personal moral responsibility, and an eternal rather than created universe. Needless to say, people concerned about theology had an issue with this interpretation of Aristotle. In the Middle Ages, the ancient authorities Plato and Aristotle were taken very seriously, and different Christian scholars attempted to deal with Averroes in different ways, as usual. Siger of Brabant, a thirteenth-century professor  of philosophy at Paris, accepted to some degree the conclusions of Averroes’ reasoning process. However, he dealt with this in a way we might find very familiar in our modern science and faith discussions. According to Hannam, he posited that we can know by faith that Christian doctrine is true, even though reason shows something else. This is a problem if we are to hold to Christian orthodoxy, or even if people of faith want to engage in truth-seeking. Thus Aquinas- like his forbears Augustine and Anselm-  realized he needed to engage Aristotle with a “faith that seeks understanding,” walking in the confidence that the Author of Faith is also the Author of Reason. In his subsequent grappling with Aristotle, Aquinas went on to create the Summa Theologica, one of the greatest works of theology ever written. As Hannam humorously notes:

Thomas wrote direct rebuttals to some of Siger’s work but concentrated on producing his own synthesis of Christian and pagan philosophy. This found its definitive expression in his Summa Theologica. It is a massive work and, despite the fact he never quite finished it, it remains the highest accomplishment of medieval scholarship. What he had achieved was such a successful amalgamation of Aristotle’s philosophy with Christian doctrine that some Catholics have since failed to distinguish between the two. (91-92)

Augustine, influential early Church Father, inquires and questions with his heart aflame with Veritas (truth).

Augustine, influential early Church Father, inquires and questions with his heart aflame with Veritas (truth).

This account doesn’t square well with what we tend to assume about the Middle Ages. After all, backwards, pre-Renaissance religious people run away from philosophy, science, and reason. We know this from experience, right? How many of us were told that philosophy and science were antithetical to religious belief at their core, and we had to choose one or the other? (Now, there may very well be genuine discord between science and religion on some points these days, but I’m talking about the very natures of scientific inquiry and religion here.) If I had to choose, that choice is made. I will follow Christ, however foolish that might appear to the world. But (surprise surprise!) that choice assumes wrongly about nature’s Creator, according to the long history of Christian orthodoxy. The assumption that Christians bury their heads in the sand comes from our own cultural experiences (or stereotypes, perhaps?) of faith where we or our parents grew up, causing us to project our own experiences- or often prejudices- onto the broader tradition of Christianity. But this simply is not warranted: our forbears, from the Apostle Paul in the Areopagus of Greek philosophy, to Augustine and Aquinas, and on into the 20th century with Francis Schaeffer and C.S. Lewis, would all say that they have confidence that Christian belief can stand up to its opponents in the marketplace of ideas. This is because reason illuminates faith. Since God is a God of truth and the very standard of truth, reason and faith are not mutually exclusive, but find their unity in the reasonable, consistent, non-arbitrary Source of wisdom. In other words, faith in Christ Jesus seeks understanding, in order that we might wonder and worship Him better– it cannot bear to remain ignorant of the redeemed soul’s greatest Desire. Augustine famously stated that our hearts are made for God and are restless until they rest in Him. It is just as true that our minds are made for God and are unsatisfied with any lesser answer to their questioning than that of the unanswerable I AM.

In Whose Image?

Having posted recently about bodies–twice, with a guest post–I have come to the conclusion that my positions on the matters previously discussed require some explanation–more specifically, the presupposition behind those positions.

Essentially, I believe that human beings are created in the image of God, unlike anything else in this world. At base, pretty much all of my positions, philosophies, opinions, and whatnot stem from this.

So, what does this mean, exactly?

First, human beings are more precious than any other form of life. Given the choice between killing a human or the last (insert animal here) , I’ll kill the animal. However, that also means that the penalty for the murder of another human being must be death, for no other penalty will suffice. But care must be taken that an innocent man is not slain.

Second, because God is the maker of humanity, he gets to set the rules for humanity, and the parameters for how we interact with others and with Him. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts. And when I say maker, I mean maker. That which we were created from, he made, and he was not made himself. This is true of no one who is not God, which means that no one who is not God can claim this right.

Thirdly, the previous two mean we should approach other people, and ourselves, with the idea that we are made in the image of God–the imago Dei. I fail miserably at this, because I treat people like they’re mortal. We aren’t. We are immortal–not eternal, mind. When the body dies, the soul lives on. What is done with and to that body, especially by its owner, marks the soul, but the soul is the immortal component.

This should not fill us with pride, that we are made in God’s image. For man’s origins are ultimately of dirt, given life by the breath of God.

This does mean that we are not to degrade ourselves or others, not even in jest or at play. This does mean that we are all–and I do mean all, not just the favored group of whatever time we are in–precious in the sight of God.

Fourthly, we must remember that this image is already marred and twisted by sin and the fall of man. That which was all good has been corrupted, and I mean this in the most ancient sense of the term. We are dead men walking. We don’t know how to treat each other as we should anymore, but we can’t be alone, for enough of what we were remains that we feel the need to be together–and those who don’t have this are broken in their own way.

So we murder. We lie. We steal. We rape. We seduce. We tempt. We flaunt. We covet. We envy. We seek that which is other than the Creator. We seek ourselves and find our doom.

But fifthly, salvation is offered. The path has been given by which we can go from death to life, by the life and death and return of the Creator’s Son, who is one with His Father and yet is not the Father.

Someday the image will be remade as the creation broken with it is, but for now, we walk in the darkness, seeking the light. Let us not mar the image of God more than we have, whether it be the one reflected in us or the one reflected within others.

Cultures forget this at their peril, for it is within the first failure to acknowledge the image of God that the seeds of their fall are planted.

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness

The Mystery of The Chronicles of Narnia

ImageAs a medieval literature scholar, C.S. Lewis borrowed his cosmology from the medieval understanding of the heavens, and thus the medieval conception of Beauty. Cosmology means more than just the stars, or how the Big Bang might have occurred. It is a comprehensive view of one’s universe. Questions of cosmology inherently impinge upon questions of beauty. In his Planet Narnia, C.S. Lewis scholar Michael Ward makes a convincing case that each Narnia book’s atmospheric qualities are intentionally meant to represent the influences ascribed to each of the seven celestial spheres in medieval cosmology. The controversy arises from the claim that this cosmology is the “interpretive key” to the Narniad specifically, as Ward puts it— especially in light of the fact that not a peep of such an intention was ever stated by Lewis. Not before, nor after the series was published and became a best-seller did he ever let on that the seven spheres were the unifying connection between the seven books. It is justifiable upon first discovering the thesis to think with Nathaniel Peters

The sensible reader’s first reaction to this revelation will be that it is, basically, nutty. Why has it taken someone fifty years to find this? And why didn’t Lewis inform anyone of this secret? His friend J.R.R. Tolkien, like many others, had criticized Lewis for being a literary magpie, plucking elements from innumerable sources to create a slap-dash mythology for his fictional world. Who could imagine that a method, in fact, lay hidden in this madness? (Peters 56)

This question is a sensible objection, and needs to be carefully considered before laying out Ward’s textual evidence. Michael Ward realizes this, and spends several chapters addressing these two issues: why the reader should give his thesis serious consideration, and why it took someone fifty years to discover it, if true.

The issue of the author’s silence may be addressed by considering Lewis’ views on Christian apologetics and spiritual truths. Lewis came to view deep truths in terms of Contemplation and Enjoyment. Using the metaphor of a beam of light piercing the darkness of an old toolshed through an opening above, Lewis believed that looking at the beam from the darkness of the shed was one way to approach truth. This method, Contemplation, was logical and analytical, but it did not encompass the full reality of the beam. That would take stepping into the light and looking along the beam. The shed and beam itself, while there, disappear as the blue sky and leafy-green of trees outside are revealed in Enjoyment. Drawing attention to the effects of the beam thus decreases its effectiveness and thus lowers Enjoyment. (Ward 16-17) Lewis viewed the atmosphere of his works in this way, not wanting to draw attention to his hidden meanings. In a precursor to the Narniad, “The Quest of Bleheris,” Lewis explicitly admitted in a letter to a friend that the inner meaning of the romance was carefully hidden. Ward sheds light on the motivation for Lewis to hide his meanings.


The atmosphere [of a story] should be entered into so that it comprises our whole imaginative vision. If we attempt not to Enjoy, but rather to Contemplate, the deathliness of Hamlet or the ‘redskinnery’ of The Last of the Mohicans (which is the opening example of [atmospheric hiddenness] in [Lewis’] ‘On Stories’) we will find the quality going dead and cold in our hands, because we will have stopped ‘living the story.’ (Ward 17-18)

Thus we see that Lewis had placed hidden meaning in stories similar to Narnia before, and that he did not desire to bring his organizing principle or “atmosphere” in a story to the forefront of a reader’s mind. It is also important to remember that Lewis did not write the Chronicles in a personal vacuum. He wrote them after his infamous debate with philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, in which he was defeated in his defense of his book Miracles. Lewis acknowledged his defeat, and re-wrote a second edition of Miracles to deal with the objections Anscombe had raised for his Argument from Reason for the Existence of God. (4, 35) During this time, he also began the first book of the Narnia series, partially out of his conviction that analytic reason alone could not fully experience the deep spiritual truths of the Christian faith. (35) These considerations shed some light on why he wouldn’t broadcast his intentions for hidden layers of beauty and organization in what otherwise appear to be the “plucking of elements from innumerable sources to create a slap-dash mythology for his fictional world.” Considering the influence that Dante held for Lewis, it is also significant that

One debt is secrecy, for Dante thought of poetry as something ‘to be adorned as much as possible,’ to have its ‘true sense’ hidden beneath a rich vesture of ‘rhetorical colouring.’ Another debt is the Christianization of that cosmos, for Dante was the only poet, in Lewis’s view, to have infused the medieval model of the heavens with ‘high religious ardor.’ (41)

The second objection to consider before making the positive case involves the fact that no other literary scholar “wised up” to Lewis’ intentions before Michael Ward fifty years later. The explanation is actually much simpler than one might expect, and it is twofold. First, a few did, though they did not consistently apply the astrological planetary references they noted in a few books to all the books. The second reason has to do with the organizing principles critics were looking for, versus what Lewis was actually doing: using astrology to (seemingly paradoxically to most critics) represent Christian truth. This is strange considering the abundance of astrological, planetary influences Lewis employed in the Space trilogy and his other previous works. (244-252)

With the scope of this paper, a fleshed-out representation of Ward’s positive argument is not possible, so the following is more a summation of much more detailed and textually careful work in Planet Narnia. Ward begins by analyzing Lewis’ previous works, especially his poem “The Planets” and The Ransom Trilogy, as well as “The Discarded Image.” Ward shows that Lewis had quite an interest in astronomical and astrological matters. The Space Trilogy follows in the tradition of his previous poem “The Planets” in Christianizing the medieval cosmology as his forbear in that regard Dante did. (41) Lewis uses the planetary gods as archangels or spiritual powers subservient to and yet representing different aspects of their Maker, depending on the astrological influences traditionally ascribed to each planetary deity. This is made abundantly clear in the Ransom trilogy, especially “The Descent of the Gods” in chapter 15. (47-51) The imagery Lewis explicitly employs in these works is nearly identical to the planetary imagery implicitly used in the Chronicles. Ward examines each of Lewis’ books in light of an “Enjoyed” atmosphere related to each of the planets. As Schuurman succinctly reviews the associations in First Things,

For example, as hinted above, the planet Jupiter is represented in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The joviality, kingliness, and even redness of Jupiter are all celebrated in The Lion in ways they do not appear in other books in the series. The Jupiter link also helps explain what otherwise seems incongruous. The appearance of Father Christmas in The Lion has brought on the ire of a number of critics who considered this addition to the story to be out of place. Ward champions him, saying “Father Christmas is, in modern culture, the jovial character par excellence, loud-voiced, red-faced, and jolly.”

So it goes for all seven books, with this interpretive key: Aslan particularly embodies the best of each planet in turn, and thus offers different windows onto the person of Christ, “in whom all things hold together.” To complete the key, Mars features in Prince Caspian, Sol saturates The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Luna reflects in The Silver Chair, Mercury dances through A Horse and His Boy, Venus plays throughout The Magician’s Nephew, and Saturn begins the final book The Last Battle. (Schuurman 442)

While I am ambivalent about Lewis’ choice to use astrological imagery to represent God’s creative majesty when medieval astrology is often misunderstood as inquiring of the stars, (which often did occur and was recognized as a condemned activity in Scripture for its occult nature– however, Lewis, like Dante and other medieval Christians before him, viewed the heavens as influential to, but not determinative of, life on this earth. This rejection of determinism in favor of free will here deserves its own post, which I plan to do later) his love of medieval cosmology influenced the beloved Narnia books both in content and in atmosphere, bringing the beauty of the cosmos to us moderns and reminding us that the world is intentional, meaningful, and beautiful.



Ward, Michael. Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

Peters, Nathaniel. “The Music of the Spheres.” First Things (vol. unknown) (2008): 56-58. Web.

Schuurman, Peter. “Book Review: Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis.” Calvin Theological Journal (vol. unknown): 441-443. Web.

Thoughts on Choice

My apologies for not posting Wednesday–it’s been hectic. And yes, I’m talking about abortion.

As everyone who reads this blog probably knows, the Texas state legislature recently passed legislation that severely restricted both the sale of abortion services and their acquirement.

As you might be able to guess, this does not fill me with tears and woe. I’ve heard most of the arguments against such restrictions, and they don’t hold up very well. Many of the arguments focus on the motives of the restrictors, which I covered earlier here: https://thesoapboxguild.wordpress.com/2013/06/15/getting-snowed. Most of the others seem to forget things like adoption. I also refuse to consider statements like “You’ll never be pregnant, so you have no right to speak” to be legitimate argument—largely because it is a curious fact that no one talking about abortion will ever be in a position where they can be aborted.

The only really compelling arguments for circumstances in which elective abortion should be legal can be found in the question of what to do with children resulting from cases of rape and incest. As to these, I am unaware of any current laws that allow executing children for the crimes of their fathers.

I do not include “life of the mother” in this because, as far as I know, all such cases also involve the death of the child if nothing is done. That’s not elective abortion, that’s choosing whether to let two people die or kill one person. Now, you’d better make right sure that two people will die if you don’t kill one before you kill the one, but I’m not willing to make someone die to save someone who probably won’t live anyway. Also, I think that if you at least try to save the kid, then it counts as inducing premature birth.

Which brings me to the question of this thing called “bodily autonomy,” which I ran across during a Facebook debate. Yes, occasionally those are more than just wastes of time. The argument runs as follows: A. Your body is yours; B. No one has the right to use your body without your consent. When used by those who want to see elective abortion remain legal, this is then followed by: C. An unborn child uses a woman’s body to live; Therefore, D. a woman has the right to evict the resident whenever she chooses.

Let me lay out my cards here. I don’t believe in bodily autonomy, but rather the imago Dei as the basis for my opposition to things like slavery, etc. That deserves a blog post in and of itself, but my point here is to say that I may not understand this as well as someone who believes in the notion.

That being said, I think I understand what the concept’s purpose is. It’s a way to have a purely secular argument against things like slavery and such, and I get that. However, even the concept of bodily autonomy really doesn’t explain why elective abortion in all circumstances should be legal.

Here’s why.

First, it’s a misapplication of the principle. The intent of the idea is to prevent other people from intentionally exploiting other people. Forgive me from generalizing from experience here, but when I was conceived, no one asked me if I wanted to be conceived at all, much less whose Fallopian tube I wanted to be conceived in. In other words, the unborn child has not chosen to use the womb it is residing in. Saying that the unborn child is an intruder that may be killed is kind of like saying that I have the right to kill someone if another person kidnaps them, ties them hand and foot and gags them, and then throws them into my house.

Not only that, but it’s not like the unborn one in this situation is simply using the womb for their convenience. They’re literally dependent on the thing. Given the choice, if they could choose, they would be out of there and living.

Side note: One complaint I heard during the aforementioned debate was that such restrictions mean that the unborn have greater rights than their mothers. Yeah, right. The only right they have that they can even sort of use is the right to live. Liberty? Tethered by a literal umbilical cord and stuck inside a space that is maybe a foot square. Pursuit of happiness? See above.

And if you want to get into the Bill of Rights, as near as I can tell, the only right the unborn can actually use that’s in there is the one about no one being “deprived of their life…save by due process of law.” And no one seems to be proposing that women don’t have a right to live.

Secondly, on this argument, let’s talk about the one unborn for a moment, I mean, sure they don’t speak–or, for that matter, really think. But, well, they’re human, right? Doesn’t that mean they might get some say as to what they want done with their bodies? Well, since they can’t have a say in the matter, seeing as they don’t talk or anything, maybe we should err on the side of not killing them.

All of this having been said, there are certain arguments that can be made for abortion, such as lower crime rates, not making unwanted children suffer (a curious argument, since their existence is being cut off, but I digress), and the amelioration of various other social ills. Two things: Almost all of these could be solved via other means, and it is also true that said social ills could be fixed by killing all the poor, sick, abused, and/or physically/mentally unhealthy people. No one is proposing this because everyone knows it’s wrong.

In other words, this isn’t even a wolf by the ears, folks, much less “a good, a positive good!”

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness

Thought Experiments

There’s a lot to talk about this week. However, I do not intend to do so until Saturday, because today is not politics day. So, moving on, to the actual post.

If you’ve been following this blog, you might have noticed that there was a brief discussion following the last post regarding “divine command” vs. “divine nature” morality. Mentioned in the initial comment was the idea that under divine command theory, God could command that rape and murder were right and kindness be wrong.

While I’m not sure about that, this lead me to think about thought experiments in general. While these are oftentimes useful for considering cause and effect–for instance, asking and answering the question of what would have happened had Lincoln not been elected president in 1860 would help with determining his effect on history–sometimes their hypothetical nature inspires people to do very silly things.

For example, I once ran across a post where someone has posed the question “What if heterosexual sex and not homosexual sex was considered an abomination?” and had done a video based on the notion.

The very question itself made no sense, because it does not recognize the very basic nature of the reality that heterosexual sex is the most cost-effective way to produce children. Such a society would end within three generations, for one of two reasons: 1. It would go the way of the Shakers, who never had sex ever and so are down to around six members last I checked; 2. The heterosexuals would overwhelm the homosexuals by sheer weight of numbers after a few decades of childbearing, and heterosexuality would soon no longer be considered an abomination.

Similar to such are various ideas about the commands of God, and “what if they were different?” The answer is that the very fabric of reality itself would be changed and shifted, and we would not be having this discussion. If God was so psychotic as to decree that rape and murder were good, I’d either be dead or lynching someone right now.

Let me put it this way: thought experiments are only actually valid when they don’t go up against some fundamental bit of reality. Perhaps someone can disagree with this, but at the point where what you’re talking about makes no sense based on the rules of the reality we live in, what’s the point?

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness

A Bit of Perspective

Here’s Wednesday’s post, as promised. By the way, you can expect the posts to be in the late evening.

Anyway, here’s the meat of the thing.

Postmodernism has been the great bogey of late twentieth century and early twenty-first century conservative Christianity. What exactly postmodernism is has been the subject of great debate, especially among the postmodernists, because most of them are academics and enjoy arguing over these sorts of things.

As near as this layman in the field can tell, postmodernism holds that there is no objective moral truth and that the objective truth about events and motivations is unknowable. The reason for the former is that there is no transcendent authority over man. The reason for the latter is that everyone has their own narrative of how things happened, and that the winners wrote and write the history books. It should be noted that it is tacitly understood among postmodernists that if anything is written by a white Christian male it is automatically more wrong than just about any other narrative available. The sad part is that I’m only half-joking about that.

Anyway, for postmodernists everything that is said has some kind of bias behind it. Language becomes a vehicle for oppression, and the truth is rendered unknowable by the fact that we must put it into words, and good luck communicating with anyone.

This, of course, was and is a direct challenge to theologically conservative Christianity, which is based around claims of absolute truth provided by a book written three thousand to two thousand years ago and has, for the past thousand years or so, been run primarily by white males, although this is changing as Christianity’s center moves further southward. In the meantime, while Christianity was largely gutted by modernism, it still remained the dominant cultural paradigm for the area that saw the rise of postmodernism—the West. This was, of course, intolerable to the postmodernists. As a result of these two factors, their assault upon Christianity began well-nigh immediately. Discussion of the details will have to wait for another day.

That those assaulted would react was a given. The reactions tended to one of two forms. The first was to laager up and defend against all vestiges of postmodern thought, which was a bad idea, because there was some gold to be found amidst the dreck. As an example, the postmodern insistence on the importance of language might have some useful insights into the constant wrangling over creeds during the early days of the church.

The second was worse—wholesale capitulation. This was performed by the same groups who’d let themselves be swept along by modernism in the twentieth century and romanticism in the nineteenth, namely the mainline Protestants and liberal Catholics. The result was a shift to a Christianity with no real claim to understanding anything about eternity, a catastrophic decision.

However, both reactions were two sides of the same coin in that each saw in postmodernism something new that would change everything, either for worse or for better.

They were, and are, both wrong. As it is written in Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun, and postmodernism is no different. Essentially, it’s a retread of Romanticism with more boring writing. Emphasis on feelings over objective truth? Check. Noble savage idea? Check. Anti-organized religion? Check. Nature worship? Check. Glorification of youth? Check. Modernism, by the way, was a retread of the Enlightenment, in its emphasis on civilization, attempts to reduce the behavior of man to scientific principles, and favoring of cold reality over feelings.

That’s all it is, and it will fade away, just as romanticism did, and will eventually be resurrected after a time, in a cycle that that will last until the end of time. Remember this, and do not fear rumors of new philosophies, for by now, they are all simply retreads of previous theories.

Walk in the Word, instead.

Lowell Van Ness