C.S. Lewis’s Peculiar Argument for the Supernatural
For my whole young adult life, I had struggled with the existence of God. I always called myself a Christian; I was raised in a Christian home. But my dad instilled into me from a very early age the idea of asking questions and having curiosity for the reality of existence itself. Though many trends came and had gone from me in my growing up, this one part of me was just always there. I have thus always had a love for philosophy to some degree–to a point in which my own theology was subject to my philosophy.
That has changed now. I don’t really give much in the way of philosophy anymore; I don’t find I really need to since the Bible speaks on all matters relating to life. And seeing Christ as the beginning and end of all problems answers the philosophical questions (this subject I will soon explore in a separate article). However, before now, when I did indulge philosophical wanderings, who is one of the most likely figures that such a young person like myself would flock to to satisfy my philosophical desires? There are many, but few so likely as Clive Staples Lewis (better known as C.S. Lewis). For what is likely the vast majority of my young twenties, C.S. Lewis’s thought dominated my own thinking. He does not play as prominent a role today in my faith, but he will always be treasured in my mind as a blessing from God to someone like myself.
Thanks to his Mere Christianity book, I was pretty much solidified (at least intellectually) into the Christian worldview on a basic level. It gave me such a rich foundation on the philosophical power of Christianity. Today, I take a far less philosophical approach to Christianity, coming from a reformed tradition, and so I wish to therefore take this time to quickly mention for the record that I do embrace what is called the Presuppositional approach to apologetics (an approach Lewis did not take) and am not here trying to promote a purely rational, philosophical approach to Christianity’s truth. Christian truth is founded on the conviction of God’s divine revelation in Scripture, and I rest in that.
However, though I am a presuppositionalist, that does not mean I cannot appreciate good, rational arguments for the truth of Christianity. It is always good to learn new things, especially things as thought-provoking as what I am about to explain here and that is simply C.S. Lewis’s peculiar case for the existence of the supernatural.
The Origin of Religion
This blog article may be understood more or less as a commentary of one of Lewis’s books since that is the book, and in particular one of its chapters, that I am going to be deriving the entirety of the material of this article from. It is chapter one of C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain, one of his most underrated books, in my opinion.
Lewis begins the chapter asking himself a hypothetical question that if, when he was an atheist, anyone had asked him why he did not believe in God, what would his reason be? Lewis spends the next couple pages giving his answer. In short, his answer would be what the typical answer to doubt the existence of God is, which is the problem of pain and suffering (that is what the book is about, after all). There is too much death and evil and suffering in the world, the atheist Lewis argues.
When he’s finished with the answer, he then goes on to critique his own answer. How does he do this? Your standard apologetic reaction is probably that Lewis began pondering how he knew evil in the first place. While he documents in Mere Christianity that this was a huge reason why he could no longer support an atheistic philosophy, this argument is surprisingly not how he questions himself here. In fact, such an answer is not at all addressed throughout the entire book.
Instead, C.S. Lewis asks the question, “If the universe is so bad, or even half so bad, how on earth did human beings ever come to attribute it to the activity of a wise and good Creator? Men are fools, perhaps; but hardly so foolish as that.” on page 3 of the book.
That certainly is a strange question to ask. Is it not so obvious? Even I myself when I was surprised by that question thought it was silly to ask. How does simply asking how men, in their foolishness, would conceive of a universe so full of death actually be in the hands of a powerful and good spirit, offer a single foundation-shaking argument to the atheist question of evil and suffering?
But the more I thought and read his argument on the matter, the more it struck me that C.S. Lewis was onto something I don’t think most apologists, even in the strictly rational, evidential world are aware of. Lewis begins quickly by shedding doubt on the obvious rebuttal from the skeptic; that the simple answer is our ancestors were cavemen–buffoons with not even half the scientific and progressive discovery of life we have today. Of course when they see lightning bolts, they may attribute to it some kind of god activity. Today, we know better. Easy answer… Or is it?
Lewis’s response to this is to say that the ‘nightmare size and emptiness of the universe’ was already known then just as much as it is today. In other words, the skeptic’s argument depends on the cognitive understanding of death in relation to their scientific understanding. The less they knew of science, the more they delved into mythology, says the argument. But when we step back, we see that the scientific understanding is irrelevant since the entire argument rests on the fact that the universe is filled with cold, overwhelming emptiness and death and suffering. It was known then just as it is today. It is therefore too simplistic and inconclusive to come to this position.
Lewis further details that many modern science books (in his day at least) asserted that the men of the Middle Ages were foolish enough to think the earth flat, but he rebuts this by saying that Ptolemy disproved this theory during this time. Our ancestors were not so foolish as we like to make them to be. In fact, so much of what we know today is built on the foundation they built. One might even say they were far more sophisticated and perceptive than we are today. What Da Vinci was able to do without a calculator is demonstrative that they were likely far smarter than we are. They simply did not have the technology then to do what we can now.
Therefore to dismissively imply our ancestors were ignorant and foolish is simply inconclusive and ahistorical . Lewis furthers this point by saying that not only is this insufficient, but that in light of our medical technology today compared to what they had then, our ancestors were contrarily far more aware of the reality of the dense darkness of the universe and yet religion dominated even more then. Lewis hence concludes that “religion has a different origin”.
The main point to be taken from Lewis’s argument is that we live in a world dominated by a philosophy of materialism. That is to say that all of reality that we can know can be made sensible purely by material and not non-material means, including religion. Anything that is not material is non-existent. But if religion does have a different origin, it cannot be explained by the materialist.
If such a simple answer as this will not work, the answer must be sought elsewhere.
The Experience of the Numinous
Lewis begins, therefore, to delve into the origin of religion. We are going to focus primarily on the first stage (but inquire somewhat into the others). He lists three elements in all developed religion, but in Christianity there is a particular fourth one not found present in the rest of religion. The first one is what Lewis says, quoting a professor in his time, the “experience of the ‘Numinous’”. Lewis goes on to explain what this is. I will briefly explain it here.
There are essentially three stages of the Numinous, according to this. The first stage of the Numinous experience is merely the fear of physical danger, and this is not a true experience of the Numinous. The example used is that of a tiger. The natural reaction to the idea of a tiger in the vicinity is often becoming startled and fearful. This is what we may call the fear of physical danger.
The second stage is what Lewis describes as “the fringes of the Numinous”, and that is the idea of, instead of hearing of a tiger, you hear of a ghost in the vicinity. Assuming one believed it, one would feel fear, just like before, but yet different and Lewis describes this fear as ‘uncanny’ or simply as Dread. It is not of physical fear, since a ghost, having no physical form, cannot inflict physical pain. Yet one fears it simply because it is a ghost.
The third stage would be considered Awe, and it would be triggered by the feeling that instead of a tiger (Physical Fear) or a ghost (Dread) it was a mighty spirit that was so far beyond you in every way. It would strike you with awe.
What is Lewis getting at here? His simple point for this present moment is that this pattern of the experience of the Numinous has haunted man for his entire existence. Man, unlike the rest of the animals, has a peculiar “sixth sense” if you will, in which he concludes that the universe was haunted by spirits. Lewis traces a long history of poetic literature throughout all mankind, all the way down to the very holy Scriptures themselves, the evidence that men have been haunted by the Numinous experience.
What then is all this to prove? Remember, the materialist says that all that we know about reality, and all that is true is physical in nature. Anything that is not physical is not worth believing and cannot exist in reality. This is their fundamental reason for their rejection of religion and the supernatural (in other words, the Numinous). But if this is true, how then did the idea of the supernatural come into existence? How can what is purely material spawn what is inherently immaterial?
This is where things get truly interesting as Lewis deals with this issue. Lewis writes:
“Now this awe is not the result of an inference from the visible universe. There is no possibility of arguing from mere danger to the uncanny, still less to the fully Numinous.”Chap. 1, Page 8.
In other words, the “Awe” is not something you can infer from the physical, material world. The skeptic would agree, but far from favoring his view, it actually provides at the very least, a two-edged sword. Because insofar as it is not able to be explained by material means, it is likewise not able to be explained away by material means. It has no origin in the material, and hence the material has no claim to its truthfulness. As soon as the materialist tries to explain away the supernatural (the Numinous) he must rely on non-material means. If he does not, he is already presupposing some form of supernatural means or otherwise ‘non-material’ means of its existence. Lewis writes:
“Most attempts to explain the Numinous presuppose the thing to be explained–as when anthropologists derive it from fear of the dead, without explaining why dead men (assuredly the least dangerous kind of men) should have attracted this peculiar feeling. Against all such attempts we must insist that dread and awe are in a different dimension from fear.”Chap. 1, Page 9.
Let’s remember that Lewis is approaching this case as if a skeptic himself, using materialist presuppositions to see if they are adequate to explain man’s experience of the numinous. But the very fact that man has any conception of the supernatural actually puts a wrench into the entire idea of it being false. If man is entirely material, man can only make material conclusions about anything. “Not true!” the skeptic may cry, “Human beings have always come up with absurd, supernatural explanations for things that are perfectly explained naturally”. I don’t doubt this as a reasonable statement, but the skeptic is missing the point.
If all there is, as we have described, is merely the physical danger and not the other two stages of the numinous experience, then that means it would be impossible to attain to the other two by the physical dangers. Hence they ought not even be conceivable. There’s no way to get from the physical danger to the uncanny and more still, to the awe. There’s absolutely nothing in a bolt of lighting–in itself–that suggests that it has supernatural significance. To a creature that has entirely materialistic properties and therefore no connectivity to any higher perceptions of such things like lightning, it simply cannot follow that any such creature would come to any supernatural conclusion at all. The other animals certainly do not do this. Only man does. Let us quote C.S. Lewis once more as he explains this:
“You may say that it seems to you very natural that early man, being surrounded by real dangers, and therefore frightened, should invent the uncanny and the Numinous. In a sense it is, but let us understand what we mean. You feel it to be natural because, sharing human nature with your remote ancestors, you can imagine yourself reacting to perilous solitudes in the same way; and this reaction is indeed ‘natural’ in the sense of being in accord with human nature. But it is not in the least ‘natural’ in the sense that the idea of the uncanny or the Numinous is already contained in the idea of the dangerous, or that any perception of danger, or any dislike of the wounds and death which it may entail could give the slightest conception of ghostly dread or numinous awe to an intelligence which did not already understand them. When man passes from physical fear to dread and awe, he makes a sheer jump, and apprehends something which could never be given, as danger is, by the physical facts and logical deductions from them.”Chap. 1, Page 9.
When Lewis speaks of “a sheer jump”, what he means is there is no purely rational reason, and therefore no material reason for why man would ever make supernatural conclusions in the first place. Hence, the question the materialist should really be asking is not, “Why are men religious?” in the skeptical sense of ‘why are we so stupid as to be religious?’ but rather he should be asking, “How can it be that if man is but a natural being that there is any conception of the supernatural at all?”
At first sight, it seems as though the skeptic has a substantial argument against the idea of religion and spirits and supernatural existences. But in further, closer examination, his very own question poses a serious problem for his claims. And once more, if there was ever a time in which the supernatural idea of a wise and good Creator was least popular in history, so far from it being modern man, it was ancient man that should have far less likely have believed such preposterous things in light of the overwhelming death he was surrounded by and so little technological and medical amendments to such illnesses.
Lewis finally concludes on this point by leaving the question open to interpretation (yet with a slight sarcasm towards the materialist conclusion):
“There seem in, in fact, to be only two views we can hold about awe. Either it is a mere twist in the human mind, corresponding to nothing objective and serving no biological function, yet showing no tendency to disappear from that mind at its fullest development in poet, philosopher, or saint: or else it is a direct experience of the really supernatural, to which the name Revelation might properly be given.”Chap. 1, Page 10.
The Moral Experience
Our primary point has been argued, but I thought it fascinating to look into the other parts of the religious or supernatural experience all humans encounter.
The next contention Lewis moves on to is the moral experience. Lewis’s argument is primarily the same. Firstly that if we assume man has no transcendent, spiritual Creator, man is merely the product of natural events, i.e., the physical universe. But if this is so, why is a purely natural creature, with purely natural features producing unnatural thoughts? The physical world itself is not able to explain these.
Just as with the Numinous, or the supernatural, the moral experience also has no physical or material existence and yet it is inescapable to us. It is so much embedded within our thinking that all men feel a sense of guilt within their conscience that they must try and sedate in some way. Here again we run up against any idea that men were merely flirting with wishful thinking and desires to give meaning to their meaningless lives. History records that so far from trying to be vastly virtuous people, mankind is plagued with men trying to escape the moral guilt of their wickedness, going so far as to try and banish morality from their thinking altogether. Lewis writes:
“The actual behavior which the Numinous haunts bears no resemblance to the behavior which morality demands of us. The one seems wasteful, ruthless and unjust; the other enjoins upon us the opposite qualities. Nor can the identification of the two be explained as a wish-fulfillment, for it fulfills no one’s wishes. We desire nothing less than to see that Law, whose naked authority is already unsupportable, armed with the incalculable claims of the Numinous. Of all the jumps that humanity has taken in its religious history this is certainly the most surprising.”Chap. 1, Page 12.
Lewis then goes on to document the remarkable reality that even the pagan and pantheistic religions, such as Stoicism, cannot escape the reality of the Law. He once more makes a skeptical conclusion; providing two explanations to the phenomenon (while once more, offering a kind of sarcastic remark towards the skeptic view) by saying:
“Once more, it may be madness–a madness congenital to man and oddly fortunate in its results–or it may be revelation. And if revelation, then it is most really and truly in Abraham that all people shall be blessed, for it was the Jews who fully and unambiguously identified the awful Presence haunting black mountain-tops and thunderclouds with ‘the righteous Lord’ who ‘loveth righteousness’.”Chap. 1, Page 13.
The Fourth Element: The Christian Distinction
Remember that Lewis, throughout this chapter, goes through what he identifies as three elements of religious development. The first being the experience of the Numinous, the second being the Law, the third being the identification and connecting of the Numinous (the supernatural) with the Law and we concluded this with the Jews taking that full step. But why must it only be the Jews, one might ask? Lewis takes quite a leap from that point to concluding it was the God of the Jews who is the true Numinous experience connected with the inescapable Law. Why not Horus? Why not Zeus?
It is indeed the fourth element that makes the Christian distinction and makes it of infinitely greater significance than the rest. The fourth element is what Lewis calls “a historical event”, which I will let him describe:
“There was a man born among these Jews who claimed to be, or to be the Son of, or to be ‘one with’, the Something which is at once the awful haunter of nature and the Giver of the moral law. The claim is so shocking–a paradox, and even a horror, which we may easily be lulled into taking too lightly–that only two views of this man are possible. Either he was a raving lunatic of an unusually abominable type, or else He was, and is, precisely what He said. There is no middle way. If the records make the first hypothesis unacceptable, you must submit to the second. And if you do that, all else that is claimed by Christians becomes credible–that this Man, having been killed was yet alive…”Chap. 1, Page 13.
The Incarnation of the Son is the fourth element of religious development, and only the Christian faith has this element. It is the historical reality of the man Jesus. What makes the Christian view so distinct, among other things, is it has historical significance. The prophetic fulfillment of holy Scripture, not only in worldly events, but in the Christ himself. He was prophesied centuries before His coming in Scripture and there He is. This reality should give any sane human being immediate pause. It was this that, later when I reflect on my Christian journey, truly caught me and changed me forever.
And as Lewis said, we only have two options about this man. Many want to make Jesus part of their cause, but His entire life, to be truly known, must be understood by those who were closest to Him. Those characters are the authors of the gospels and what they said about Him connect Him emphatically to the ancient Jewish Scriptures as the Messiah, Imanuel, the Son of David, the Son of Man, the Son of God, the Logos made flesh. This in itself, the reality of the Incarnation is the end of discussion. His existence cannot be denied; He is the single most significant character in all of history and the truth about Him can only be found in the gospels.
If all that I have said is true, then every person in the world is absolutely under obligation to find out who He was, and more still, who He is. He is of eternal significance and He cannot be simply ignored.