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.
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
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-.