C.S. Lewis, the Scandal of Particularity, Science & Revelation

Reading about my Veracity co-blogger John Paine’s adventures in England, and seeing the photos of the Eagle and Child, it made me think of C. S. Lewis. Until recently, I have never been a very avid C. S. Lewis reader. My problem is a bit different from John’s. Sure, Lewis can at times be hard to get through, but my primary difficulty is that I have a rebellious streak against reading popular Christian authors.

Back when I was in college in the mid-80’s, it seemed like EVERY Christian I knew was reading C. S. Lewis. Or at least, they planned to read Lewis. Lewis just seemed a bit too trendy to me, and Lewis himself thought that his work would be long forgotten within years of his death. At that time, Lewis had been dead for twenty years, and it just seemed like there was a desperate need for new voices, and aside from exceptions like Francis Schaeffer, evangelical Christianity was not producing many with the kind of substance Lewis possessed. I respected Lewis, but I had little desire to fall into the “Lewis crowd.” So I bought a small stack of MacMillan published titles from the college bookstore, and there they sat on my shelf, unread, for years.

The situation is different today. C. S. Lewis is still popular, but mostly through his children’s works, and not so much through his apologetics writings. Among evangelicals now, I find that C. S Lewis is someone everyone has heard of, but few have really read. Like me, those books just sit up on the shelf, and many Christians say, “Maybe someday I will try to crack open some of Lewis’ more challenging writings.”

A few years ago, my rebellious spirit prompted me to go against this evangelical malaise and actually read Lewis. I read The Great Divorce, and it gave me a whole new way of thinking about the doctrine of hell. Lewis’ Space Triology was up next, and it made me wish I had read through the whole series thirty years earlier! Sure, there are some peculiar constructions in Lewis’ style that seem outdated, but the man had a grasp for ideas that in many ways was years ahead of his time. It would probably help us if we were to dust off those Lewis books on our bookshelf, and engage what Lewis had to say. This video by pastor John Piper, tells us why Lewis is still important:

Here is one of those ideas in Lewis that has had me thinking a lot recently….

How Lewis Can Help Christians to Think

In an online exchange in the comments section of the Veracity blog, both John and I have had a discussion with ksocreative. Our discussion partner was evidently raised in some Christian environment, but now he views Christianity as being without any scientific foundation. The particular truth claims of Christianity fail to meet the universal appeal of science, whereby the modern scientific enterprise explains away the need for such particularity. After all, if you were born in a “Christian” part of the world, you would probably advocate a defense of Christianity, whereas if you were born in a different part of the world, you would probably defend Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, or whatever particular system of belief in which you were raised. According to this argument by ksocreative, religious belief is only matter of geography.

Fundamentally, this argument is a protest against the so-called “scandal of particularity” of Christianity. Why would God reveal Himself through the nation of Israel, among all of the other peoples of the world? Why would the Christian Bible be so special, among so many other religious books? Why Jesus of Nazareth? Why would God choose to reveal Himself through a singular human person, at a singular moment in time, in a singular place?

In recently preparing an adult Bible class lesson on Romans 1, I was reminded that there are two kinds of revelation as taught within the Bible. First, we have general revelation, that which can be known by anyone, believer or non-believer, simply by looking at the world around us and the world God has created. Modern atheism does not find the evidence in general revelation to be sufficiently convincing for the truth of Christianity, but Paul’s message in Romans teaches that the evidence is indeed sufficient for those who are open to rethink their presuppositions about what Creation really is, and who the Creator might be.

But the second source of revelation complements the first. Special revelation is found in written form in God’s Word, the Bible, but ultimately in the person of Jesus Christ. General revelation, though not sufficient enough to show us about the truth of redemption, is sufficient to show us that there is a Creator. But special revelation fills the void, showing us that there is a problem in our perception of the Creator, such that we do not always recognize Him as such. We become so enamored with the creation itself that we do not even consider the real possibility that as creatures, we stand before a transcendent Creator. This distorted view of creature and Creator finds resolution in the Gospel. That Gospel has given us the redemptive truth that restores our relationship with God, and our perception of Him, as well as our perception of ourselves and the world we live in.

Nevertheless, this notion of “special revelation” runs completely counter to the modern mind, as ksocreative argues. The idea of a “chosen” people is anathema to our secular minds that logically appeal to the broadly universal, explanatory power of contemporary science. Oddly, C. S. Lewis in “The Grand Miracle” chapter of Miracles, agrees. Lewis says it much better than I can:

To be quite frank, we do not at all like the idea of a ‘chosen people’. Democrats by birth and education, we should prefer to think that all nations and individuals start level in the search for God, or even that all religions are equally true. It must be admitted at once that Christianity makes no concessions to this point of view. It does not tell of a human search for God at all, but of something done by God for, to, and about, Man. And the way in which it is done is selective, undemocratic, to the highest degree. After the knowledge of God had been universally lost or obscured, one man from the whole earth (Abraham) is picked out. He is separated (miserably enough, we may suppose) from his natural surroundings, sent into a strange country, and made the ancestor of a nation who are to carry the knowledge of the true God. Within this nation there is further selection: some die in the desert, some remain behind in Babylon. There is further selection still. The process grows narrower and narrower, sharpens at last into one small bright point like the head of a spear. It is a Jewish girl at her prayers. All humanity (so far as concerns its redemption) has narrowed to that.

Lewis’ observations about the principle of “selection,” that undergirds the narrow particularity of special revelation, gets at the heart of ksocreative’s objection. But the next paragraph gave me something I have never thought about before in my life:

Such a process is very unlike what modern feeling demands: but it is startlingly like what Nature habitually does. Selectiveness, and with it (we must allow) enormous wastage, is her method. Out of enormous space a very small portion is occupied by matter at all. Of all the stars, perhaps very few, perhaps only one, have planets. Of the planets in our own system probably only one supports organic life. In the transmission of organic life, countless seeds and spermatozoa are emitted: some few are selected for the distinction of fertility. Among the species only one is rational. Within that species only a few attain excellence of beauty, strength or intelligence.

Lewis ironically observes that this same principle of “selection,” as he calls it, or what I call “particularity,” of special revelation, is found broadly in general revelation, as well. In this great vast universe, as revealed through the science of astronomy, why is there (apparently) only one planet capable of sustaining life? In the field of physics, most of our universe has “nothing” in it. Why so little matter in such a large universe? I know that many Christians are suspicious of biological evolutionary theory, but Lewis uncovers another gem that fits with the Christian story. Out of all of the millions of species, most of them long since have gone extinct, why is there only one species that has produced the kind of rationality that makes modern, scientific society even possible today?  Is this not also an example of the “scandal of particularity,” seeing how the particular illumines and makes sense of the universal?

Chew on that for a while. If Lewis’ analysis is correct (and I think he is), then the particularity associated with special revelation and the particularity that is evidenced in the natural world through general revelation are not that much different after all.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

2 responses to “C.S. Lewis, the Scandal of Particularity, Science & Revelation

  • Ken Petzinger

    Thanks, Clarke. Unlike you, I have been a C S Lewis fan for many years; but after reading many of his books years back, I have not really continued in that journey lately. So you are an encouragement!

    Let me add just one more thought about the particularity of the universe that has only become apparent since Lewis died. Any universe consists of types of laws – gravity, electromagnetism, etc. – plus a whole bunch of “constants” like the masses of elementary particles like electrons and quarks, the strength of all those forces, and the charges on particles like electrons, protons and neutrons to name just a few, There are several dozen such numbers needed to fix a universe like ours. They are the numbers that you find on the inside cover of your favorite physics textbook, and they are very particular to our universe,

    Now scientists think they know how our universe originated and how it works. But they can also imagine a host of other universes, each of which might have a different set of constants. As scientists crank up their universe generating machine, they can investigate the possibility that any universe other than our own – with a different set of numbers – has the “right” ones, which would enable it to support life.

    You might think that if we changed our particular numbers by just a tiny bit that there would be just a tiny change in the resulting universe. But study shows that is definitely NOT the case at all. In fact some numbers of this set of universes have to be fixed to incredible precision – like one part in the sixtieth decimal place – to avoid a catastrophe rendering them incapable of supporting life. AMAZING! The only way around a theistic conclusion to this science is to posit that our universe is only one of an imagined mega-set of other of alternate universes, so that we of course happen to live in the “right” universe, with just the “right” numbers.

    So particularity is definitely common to both general and special revelation.

    • John Paine

      Ken, thanks for these insights. Critical thinking like this begs the questions that ultimately lead to theological conclusions. In our culture we are constantly distracted and incredibly self-absorbed. Skeptics claim that God doesn’t exist. Agnostics wonder why God, if He exists, is so distant. But when we think critically, logically and thoroughly, as you point out, He is right there. As witnesses, we need to learn to ask the right questions and encourage people to think beyond their daily preoccupations. Thanks for commenting!

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