Monday, February 02, 2009

The Funeral of a Great Myth (C.S.Lewis)

Last week I read The Funeral of a Great Myth by C.S.Lewis in Walter Hoopers collection of Lewis' essays . It's a funeral oration by Lewis for the great myth of our age (which is an imaginative way to both do apologetics and train Christians in it). Lewis uses the term Myth positively to describe great stories. For Lewis, Christianity is the myth that became fact. He speaks at the funeral of The Myth of Evolution.

The point here isn't to speak of the scientific hypothesis of evolution - he accepts it as valid though likely in need of future adjustment, like all science. It is the connected Myth who's funeral Lewis attends. He observes that this is a story that predates Darwin's Origin of the Species by several decades, found in poets. Chronologically we have problems if we claim to derive and base The Myth from the science. We get the science we want.

The science is one of change, but in the Myth, evolution is always improvement. Scientist, Haldane is cited observing that in the science it's nine degredations for every one improvement whereas the Myth always climbs upward. Even with its origins in question, the Myth presents "one of the most moving and satisfying world dramas which have ever been imagined".

This is a story that captures the spirit of all the stories we  love - it's the story of the Younger Son and the Ugly Duckling, David over Goliath, it's Dodgeball. In this myth man arrives, becomes Robinson Crusoe, then a demigod and then even takes God's throne. Lewis respects the story for not ending with the vulgarity of total triumph (as with it's Hollywood echoes), but as a tragedy where all the progress is undone at its end. The end of all possible stories and the end of the world.

But, Lewis says this story is self-contradictory. It says reason is the unintended by-product of a mindless process and yet rests everything on reason. Proving there are no proofs. The Myth is ill-fitting with the world we experience... requiring order to come out of chaos. The defence returns - we see evolution in organisms, acorns become oaks, embryos become men. And we see it in the history of machines - technology advances. But, says Lewis, they weren't actually evolution for the acorn doesn't drop out of nowhere, but from another oak. The analogies fail because they only look at half of the picture..."all the immediate plausibility of the Myth has vanished" failing to remain plausible in the imagination.

Nonetheless it suits us because it allows us to explain love as an elaboration of lust and vice as underdeveloped virtue we are drawn to it. The Myth allows us to soothe the old wounds of our childhood, expecting our fathers and forefathers to be lesser than us. The Myth serves consumerism - telling us we need to upgrade and improve. And the Myth is required by politics to tell us that every change will be progress. The Myth of Evolution has embedded itself in our hearts and minds.For all this Lewis warns us to debunk the Myth with respect. It is a compelling story, and sadly the Christian is often a "dull dog" who does not, or dares not, see how compelling and thrilling and charming it is.

Reflecting on this, I'm aware that the temptation is to attack The Myth viciously, coldly and scientifically, but to do so is to disregard the deep roots that it's story has in human hearts. We surely must admit that its an appealing story that we'd like to believe. We may carefully observe its weaknesses, and then begin to present an alternative story that is more plausible and compelling, though it may not immediately seem so. The Preacher of Ecclesiastes proposed a different story 3000 years ago, but his is hard to swallow and in it Man is surely less heroic. The art of drawing someone away from the story of unending progress must be handled carefully. Our aim is not to cut the ground out from under people, but to invite them compellingly and sensibly into a different story. To move from The Myth of Evolution to The Myth that came True. Such transition will not be easy, but it is necessary and possible.

4 comments:

  1. Mate, I'm really loving how much you're getting out of Lewis. I've not read this one. Especially love this:
    Lewis warns us to debunk the Myth with respect. It is a compelling story, and sadly the Christian is often a "dull dog" who does not, or dares not, see how compelling and thrilling and charming it is. Reflecting on this, I'm aware that the temptation is to attack The Myth viciously, coldly and scientifically, but to do so is to disregard the deep roots that it's story has in human hearts"

    And not to do so critically runs so counter to my pride & one-upmanship.

    One comment/question: certainly the optimistic Myth of HG Wells & co is still around (cf how the world, myself included, was longing for Obama), but there's a much stronger undercurrent of pessimism too now, right? (eg Gaia) which I've not found Lewis speak much of, but which finds fantastic expression in eg Voltaire's Candide, or Gulliver's Travels.

    This all reminds me of two other essays, "Is Theology Poetry?" and "De Futilitate", which is in Christian Reflections (preface by W.Hooper) if that's the collection you've got. You're a great encouragement to pick up and read!

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  2. one more comment off the back of a lot of recent conversations: it strikes me that christian polemicists also confuse the Myth with the science. That's just as unhelpful - ideological abuse is harmful from wherever it comes. Unfortunately, the ideological baggage of the US "culture wars", exacerbated by the cold war, means this distinction touches a nerve all to often.

    The theme of the right use/abuse of science is the golden thread through Denis Alexander's Rebuilding the Matrix, from his historical introduction to his concluding proposals for 'science with a human face'. His chapter interacting with Monod and Dawkins on chance and teleology is stunning, and wrestles helpfully with the Genesis texts. He respectfully explains the social motives for creationism, but pulls no punches in critique. If there was one book I'd recommend for evangelical & academic integrity, it'd be Alexander's RTM by a country mile.

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  3. I'm loving it. Looking forward to having you stay with us next Tuesday though I'm thinking it might be one if we get talking.

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  4. David Keen on the science, the myth and the deification of Darwin: "What I want to know is: why, when Christianity is presented on TV, is it always unorthodox views which get the full treatment (see the current Christianity, A History), but when science (especially evolution) is presented there is never a heretical voice raised? "

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