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In his introduction to St. Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation,” C. S. Lewis makes the claim that societies of a certain time period are limited to the perspective of their own day. He maintains that reading authors from earlier centuries helps a reader to see beyond his or her cultural and time-sensitive limitations. I claim that Christians participating in the modern debate about human origins and the biological theory of evolution could benefit from Lewis’ advice. Christian scholars and laypeople alike would find new insights on the discussion if they were to read earlier Christian writings on God’s creation.

Lewis wrote to a British audience of the 20th century, persuading them of the value of reading Athanasius’ work. He assumes his audience would rather read a modern, secondhand source than an old, firsthand one, and so explains the value of firsthand knowledge. It is better to listen to what older Christians actually said, in the context in which they said it, than to what modern Christians claim they said. Therefore, reading Athanasius’ actual words, albeit translated, is to read pure, unfiltered ideas, from the mind of one who lived in a different time.

All societies see things from a standpoint in time that is unique from both the past and the future, Lewis says. In many ways, that perspective might be useful to see truth in certain details of the world. However, there are other details about which those societies might be ignorant, based on the same perspective. By turning to authors who wrote outside of their time and setting, readers expose themselves to ideas free from the same restrictions. Often, older authors will help them to see areas where they are ignorant. Lewis gives an example of this for his own audience, using the work in question. Athanasius, he says, has a helpful understanding of miracles that is extremely relevant for his day. Many objected to the idea of the miraculous, as miracles purposelessly went against the laws of nature. He tells his audience that Athanasius’ approach to miracles is the “final answer” to those objections [pp. 9]. They would be able to better defend their faith to themselves and to others by reading his approach.

He also shows that Athanasius himself is an example to follow when it comes to combating the wrong doctrines and evil tendencies of one’s era. Arius was leading even Christian leaders away from the doctrine of the Trinity, and in “On the Incarnation,” Athanasius stood firm to defend it, refusing to “move with the times” [pp. 9].

Lewis’ counsel is timeless. It is just as relevant to 21st-century United States as it was to 20th-century England.  One particular topic of our day which I think would benefit from this advice is that of human origins. Christians argue about the interpretation of Genesis and other Scriptures, about the acts of God’s creation and sustainment of the universe, about the evidence for macroevolution, even about the validity of scientific investigation itself. One can read literature by young-earth creationists, which asserts that modern science has many things wrong and is untrustworthy. They say that accepting evolution undermines orthodox theology.1 Others say just the contrary: that scientists do honest work, that Christians ought to embrace the theory of evolution, and that it does not compromise biblical truth.2 Both groups argue with each other in the present day, from the same temporal perspective.

To help shed more neutral light on the discussion, one could turn to theologians who wrote on Genesis and God’s creation before 1859, when Charles Darwin wrote his book, On the Origin of Species. These voices would speak from times and places that were not caught up in the modern, culture war. Considering their historical approaches would help Christians to see what they themselves may be missing in the contemporary debate. They could find new perspectives to apply, and they would be better able to recognize truth and falsehood in their dialogue partners. Indeed, C. S. Lewis’ words hold true for all people of every time and context. To take up the writings and wisdom of older Christians would prove fruitful for many on a variety of issues, and no less for those in the discussion of human origins.

Notes

1. “Evangelical Theologians Compromising with Evolution,” Answers in Genesis, Accessed September 5, 2012, http://blogs.answersingenesis.org/blogs/terry-mortenson/2010/11/29/evangelical-theologians-compromising-with-evolution/

2. “Are Science and Christianity at War?,” BioLogos, Last modifed June 27, 2012, Accessed September 5, 2012, http://biologos.org/questions/science-and-religion

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