So let us talk about C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright and the topic of human evolution. I have recently taken N.T. Wright to task for his take on those who oppose his approach to theistic evolution. As it happened, just after posting that well-thought out epistolary sunbeam of mine, I was listening in my truck to C.S. Lewis’s treatment of theistic evolution in The Problem of Pain. And lo! His was a position like unto Wright’s. What now, Dougie?
Well, it seems to me the thing to do is offer up a blog post touching on the three key differences between Lewis and Wright related to this issue.
In outlining these differences, I do not mean to indicate that theistic evolution is okay for anybody. It is not okay when C.S. Lewis does it, it is not okay when Tim Keller does it, and it is not okay when N.T. Wright does it. But apart from the general not-okayness, it remains true that when C.S. Lewis does it, we generally don’t get an entertaining (to some) blog rant from me about it. So why is that?
Let us begin by ruling out, in a spirit of Christian charity, personal inconsistency on my part.
1. The first and most obvious difference is that Lewis spent his public career as a Christian apologist extricating himself from evolutionary assumptions. Wright is crowning his scholarly career by doubling down on a weird form of aggressive evolutionary dogmatism. In short, Lewis was coming out and Wright is going in.
As he grew older, Lewis became increasingly uncomfortable with the claims made on behalf of biological evolution. A good example of where he started can be found in The Problem of Pain, mentioned above, published in 1940. Here is one problematic excerpt.
“For long centuries God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself. He gave it hands whose thumb could be applied to each of the fingers, and jaws and teeth and throat capable of articulation, and a brain sufficiently complex to execute all the material motions whereby rational thought is incarnated. The creature may have existed for ages in this state before it became man . . .”
But remember that Lewis had been converted as an adult, less than a decade before this, and was converted in stages out of strident atheism. The longer he was a Christian, the more we can track his distance from evolution. In 1942, he published Perelandra, which he considered mythic, but his mythic treatment included a very historical Perelandrian Adam and Eve. And another good place to look is his essay “Funeral of a Great Myth,” which can be found in Christian Reflections. There Lewis says that evolution appeals to every part of him except for his reason.
Specifically to the point, over a period of years Lewis was a correspondent with a man named Bernard Acworth, a creationist who had sent Lewis his book on evolution. This excerpt comes from a letter written by Lewis to Acworth in 1951.
“I must confess it has shaken me: not in my belief in evolution, which was of the vaguest and most intermittent kind, but in my belief that the question was wholly unimportant. I wish I were younger. What inclines me now to think that you may be right in regarding it as the central and radical lie in the whole web of falsehood that now governs our lives is not so much your arguments against it as the fanatical and twisted attitudes of its defenders. The section on Anthropology was especially good. … The point that the whole economy of nature demands simultaneity of at least a v. great many species is a v. sticky one.”
And by 1954, he had penned a fine satiric poem mocking evolution called Evolutionary Hymn. “Lead us, Evolution, lead us, up the future’s endless stair . . .”
I also wish Lewis had been younger when he first encountered some very solid arguments against biological evolution. But regardless how old he was, a very definite movement away from the dogmas of biological evolution is obvious.
2. The second thing is related to the first one. In making this point, I am referring to public ethos, and am not in the least pretending to know the actual state of anyone’s heart. But in print Lewis is humble and Wright is proud. You cannot turn around in Lewis’s writing without him issuing a general invitation to real theologians, inviting them all to correct him at any time. At the same time, he also knew when certified theologians, to be distinguished from the real ones, were busy giving away the store. In Fern Seed and Elephants, Lewis says this: “Missionary to the priests of one’s own church is an embarrassing role; though I have a horrid feeling that if such mission work is not soon undertaken, the future history of the Church of England is likely to be short.” In contrast to this clear-sighted evaluation, Wright seems committed to maintaining a uniquely Anglican myopia through which he may view the Anglican Götterdämmerung with equanimity.
I hope you liked Anglican Götterdämmerung. The phrase, I mean, not the actual meltdown.
Lewis lays no claim to originality, and labors to work within the orthodox parameters of the historic Church. This is one of the traits that enables him to be so refreshingly original. In contrast, Wright is constantly claiming originality — even when he is arguing for positions that have had a long legacy in the church. I wrote about this off-putting problem before.
What this all means is that we want to work with Lewis, even when he is guilty of a howler, and the inclination to work with Wright is not nearly as thick. Wright’s very real contributions mean that we have some impulse to overlook howlers. But it is not nearly as strong, and when the howlers are also belligerent broadsides against nearly the whole length of Christian intellectual history, and nearly the whole breadth of faithful Christian belief today, we find that our howler-overlooker is just plain busted.
3. And last — related to the previous point, Lewis correctly identified the general outlines of mere Christianity. He knew what the really important issues were, and was more than willing to identify with those who shared those fundamental tenets, despite disagreements elsewhere. In short, Lewis knew that if someone denied the resurrection, they were simultaneously denying the Christian faith. Wright, by way of contrast, has declared a heresy war on those who differ with him about the age of the earth (seriously?) and yet is willing to remain ecclesiastical chums with men who deny the bodily resurrection of Christ.
In my previous post, I noted that N.T. Wright defended the Christian faith of Marcus Borg, despite Borg’s denial of the resurrection. I should have noted where that information came from — in 2005, Wright spoke at the Auburn Avenue Pastor’s Conference, and I was with a group of men who had lunch with him there. At that lunch, he said that Borg was passionately devoted to Jesus, and was a Christian. He thought him a mixed up Christian, but a Christian. If you want to chase down a written treatment of the same issue, there is more here.
This was of a piece with something else I learned at this lunch. I asked Wright if Paul’s “blameless according to the law” (Phil. 3:6) and Zecharias and Elizabeth’s “blameless according to the law” (Luke 1:6) were the same kind of basic thing, and Wright said yes. He said that Zecharias and Elizabeth would have thought that the pre-Damascus road Saul of Tarsus was something of a hothead, but that they were, all of them, faithful Jews together. This runs clean contrary to Paul’s later testimony that he had been an insolent man and a blasphemer (1 Tim. 1:13). Yet another crucial reason why authorship claims are important, but whether Paul says that he himself had been a blasphemer, it remains the case that the Bible says that Paul had been a blasphemer. Yet another crucial reason why inerrancy claims are important.
Now I am quite prepared to acknowledge that Borg is to the Christian faith what Saul was to Judaism — a Christian outwardly, just as Saul was a Jew outwardly — but that is not what Wright was saying.
Because he has identified young earth creationists as gnostics — a deadly heresy — and as those who collude with evil because of their concern with otherworldly salvation, and has affirmed the bonds of his fellowship with deniers of the resurrection, we may therefore conclude that something is, to use the technical parlance, screwed up somewhere. He is willing to drum faithful believers out, and welcome unbelievers in. This is not Mere Christianity; it is Mere Unbelief. Christians who affirm that God made Adam, a material being, out of the dust of the ground, and Eve from his physical rib, are called gnostics, for pity’s sake, and a man who believes that the body of Jesus rotted in the ground but who somehow continued His existence as a Giant Sky Vapor, is well within the pale.
In short, Wright has excommunicated the gnats and has ordained the camel.