People keep trying the phrase “trialogue,” but it never catches on. There must be something naturally infelicitous about it. Added fun: When people want to put you on your heels by trying to explain things in terms of dialectic, whether Hegelian or Marxist – and usually understanding neither – you can even the imbalance by prefering to discuss in terms of a dialogic understanding. It has several meanings, none of them very clear, so you can pretty much call it what you want.
John F. Kennedy, CS Lewis, and Aldous Huxley died within a few hours of each other in November of 1963. Peter Kreeft’s novel, Between Heaven and Hell is an imagined conversation between three of them immediately after “somewhere beyond death.” I mention it here because it is a three-way conversation among the atheist Huxley, the humanist Kennedy, and the Christian Lewis. (Yes, I recognise that Kennedy was a theist, but his approach, behavior, and philosophy were all human-centered in practice.) Alliances between them would shift in different phases of the argument: the rigorous and classically trained Huxley and Lewis would ally against some premise of Kennedy’s they felt was hopelessly naïve and long since disproven; later, Huxley and Kennedy would be allied against Lewis, or Lewis and Kennedy against Huxley on one point or another. Finally, there were places in the argument where all three stood alone, finding no common ground with either of the other. It’s a lot of fun. Kreeft favors Lewis, but is a fairly honest broker – and the three he writes about were fairly honest brokers themselves, giving credit to other points of view when due.
We tend to regard meaning of life debates as being between believers and nonbelievers. Michael Novak’s No One Sees God, while giving some mention of varieties within each group (at least six types of atheist, for example, he lists here, makes a sharp dual split rather explicitly. With the emergence of the New Atheists, and this week’s Rally for Reason, this tendency has become even more pronounced in the popular discussion. There are the Real Scientists and Intellectuals on the nonbeliever side; the Christians, Moslems, Animists and whatever among the believers, each tugging on those in between, who lean this way and then that.
Reading recently in the social theorists, the existentialists, the occasional physicist, and the absurdists, I think it’s at least a three-way argument, with shifting alliances. Dawkins and Hitchens have painted themselves and the nonbelievers as the true heirs of the Enlightenment, conveniently ignoring quite a few problems with that. Retriever sent me a bit of Kierkegaard last week, which reminded me that existentialist philosophers had the Enlightenment well under assault – the atheist Nietzsche and Soren the believer – well before the 20th C was even under way. (Reminder: surprising how many existentialists turn out to be theists of some sort, I noted decades ago. Christians tend to be suspicious even of their own in this, and don’t mention them so much. It’s not just the atheists who make this a two-way split. We may be well more at fault here.)
The Absurdists (and all their Dadaist, Expressionist, and Surrealist cousins, who I know far less well) followed on in their undermining of meaning, reason, and understanding. The Enlightenment believed that there was ultimately a grand explanatory theory for everything, if we would only persevere and find it. The believers tended to protest that there was an entire realm of mystery and faith transcending it. The 20th C artist and theorists worked from the other end, noting that enormous amounts of reality kept leaking out the sides and bottom of rationalist thinking. The physicists increasingly described a probabilist, neither-this-nor-that world full of Schrodinger Cats, wave-particles, and chaos; a world made up of equations more than matter – and such equations(!) as the mathematicians had given them as if in anticipation of all this “Then maths left the real world behind, just like modern art, really. Nature was classical, maths was suddenly Picassos. But now nature is having the last laugh. The freaky stuff is turning out to be the mathematics of the natural world.”
Francis Schaeffer wrote Escape From Reason, clearly believing the Christian’s natural ally against all the Deconstructionists and Postmoderns was the Enlightenment. Only partly true. CS Lewis was also logician by deserved reputation,* and made most of his appeals to skeptics on rationalist grounds. That perhaps is also oversold. We are, in American culture all children of the Enlightenment to greater or lesser extent. Even the fundamentalists, however much they would exclude themselves and the New Atheists agree with them, are Men of the West, and the later West at that. The American Revolution is Athens, Jerusalem, and Rome, all three.
Yet the world has changed since then. Gutenberg remade the world, but not all at once, and that transition from oral to literate culture was still not complete, with more to come at the close of the 18th C. The media theorists redefine meaning, context, and understanding, sometimes in ways that Christians find congenial, sometimes not (but always, in ways that are not immediately obvious). A remarkable percentage of those folks – Marshall McLuhan, Walter J. Ong, Jacques Ellul – were Christians, though again, not always welcomed and embraced by our tribe. (A remarkable percentage were Canadian, also. I don’t draw any conclusions from that at present.) We have come to accept consciously what we alwasys knew empirically but resisted, searching for grand unifying theories: that language and meaning shift in context; that strange new creatures grow up in society, unpredicted but more importantly, inherently unpredictable.
I call temporary halt here. I have too many threads running. I’ve lost control of the flow of this.
*Yet even he noted that physics was creeping away from that world, “Schrodinger asking for thirteen dimensions to describe the universe,” and in Miracles, finds his first exceptions to the ordered natural world in the sub-natural rather than the super-.