Monday, March 21, 2011

C. S. Lewis and the Scandal of the Evangelical (and Orthodox Jewish) Mind

Ryan Harper at the Huffington Post has an article on C. S. Lewis' influence on American evangelical Christianity, noting that Lewis is particularly valuable in countering arguments based on relativism. Harper argues, though, that the very strength of Lewis' ideas are having the detrimental effect of furthering Mark Noll's "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind."

As is the tendency with all powerful ideas, Lewis's arguments have become a rhetorical talisman, an epistemological panacea. Because they offer a number of compelling insights that strike at the root of important questions, they are taken to resolve all root matters. Therefore, however new the wineskins, readers of popular evangelical apologetics end up drinking some version of that sound old Oxford vintage.

The result of this Lewis-worship is a two-fold narrowing of evangelical intellectual life. First, as Lewisian thought becomes the discursive structure of critical inquiry, it ceases to be the object of critical inquiry. Lewis is never put in the dock for inspection, revision, abandonment or refinement. Lewis is the dock.

Second, an evangelical milieu that so prides itself on its "engagement" with secular thought and culture begins to count reading and rehearsing Lewisian argument as such engagement. "Engagement" thus becomes a second-hand affair -- synonymous with finding out what C.S. Lewis has said on a given topic. But the 21st century has some new topics; and while it is unwise to execute some great divorce with the past and its great thinkers, each generation must write its own books.

Lewis certainly has had an influence on me and I openly admit that when making arguments about the need to put forth coherent statements about ultimate values, that I am channeling Lewis. That being said I see myself as engaging in a conversation with Lewis, a conversation that goes to different places. For me, the bigger issue than just trying to make moral statements is trying to pass those statements on to one's children. (See "When Lesbian Nazis in Bell-Bottoms Attack.") Perhaps this is because Lewis lived in a world in which even his atheists were still deeply in touch with a traditional culture. I live several generations down this path and worry when the heritage of the Enlightenment, based ultimately on early modern Christian thought, will finally run out on us.

This problem posed by Harper needs to be taken a step further. Yes, Lewis was a powerful writer. That the evangelical community has an unhealthy relationship with him I think, though, is due to the fact that it has yet to produce a writer who can match him. Perhaps this is the true scandal of the evangelical mind. Forget about being able to match secular academic culture; it has yet to match C. S. Lewis. Thus the theological conversation never moves beyond Lewis. Readers have nothing better to read than Lewis as writers are not capable of doing anything but reproduce Lewis.

I would go so far with this as to make a comparison to Orthodox Judaism and R. Samson Raphael Hirsch. Hirsch, a nineteenth-century German rabbi, was certainly the Jewish writer that most influenced me as a teenager and college student. Now as Dr. Alan Brill once pointed out to his class, Hirsch as a major influence on American Orthodoxy is a fairly recent phenomenon, due in large part to his having many descendants who translated his work into English and got them published. The other side to this, I would point out, that in terms of looking for books on Jewish thought that were sophisticated enough to pass muster with an intelligent teenager and which took an engagement with an outside world as a given I did not have much in the way of alternative options but for Hirsch. So this millennial American Orthodox teenager found himself in a situation in which the only Orthodox Judaism he could relate to was from nineteenth-century Germany. This is not a critic of Hirsch. He was a great thinker and writer. I am sure if I would be able to read him in German I would appreciate him all the more. That being said one has to ask why I was never given any serious twentieth-century Jewish literature to relate to. (The closest thing I could think of is Herman Wouk's This is My God which is Hirsch updated for 1950s America.)

As for me, I must admit that there was something particularly dangerous in Hirsch in that, considering my Asperger mental framework, I was not intuitively aware that I was not operating in nineteenth-century Germany and that I should not be trying to be a nineteenth-century German. So I had to push forward on my own to realize that I needed to face the reality of the twenty-first century and its unique issues; all this without the help of a useful Modern Orthodox literature. More recently I have begun reading the books of R. Jonathan Sacks and at least he is a step in the right direction. But until Modern Orthodoxy builds its own literature, it will remain caught between feeding off of Haredi and secular sources, while trying to create some personal dialectic whole between the two, and reaching back to some past thinker and trying to make him relevant for the present.

(Before readers bring up the examples of R. Joseph Soloveitchik and R. Abraham Isaac Kook, let me point out that I have been writing about my own personal experience as a teenager trying to mature into an intellectually serious Orthodox adult. Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Kook were not major influences on me at that point in my life. Furthermore, neither of these thinkers set out a coherent weltanschauung like Hirsch's Horeb, certainly not one that can be presented to teenagers. Most importantly, any attempt to use thinkers like Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Kook, both of whom distinct non-products of late twentieth century American culture, runs the same risk as turning to Hirsch.)


Baruch Pelta said...

I'm not exactly sure what you mean when you talk about the "literature" Modern Orthodoxy needs to build. Just off the top of my head, there are certainly obvious writings by Rabbis Joseph Lookstein, Walter Wurzburger, Jonathan Sacks, Emanuel Rackman, Lawrence Kaplan, and Aharon Lichtenstein which represent coherent expoundings on Modern Orthodoxy qua hashkafa.

no one said...

People tend to think in clichés. Most folks are simply too busy and don't have time to try to found a world view on their own so they accept what is around in their social environment. This does not usually reflect very deep thinking. But even if people would think deeply into issues it is unlikely to come up with the depth and comprehensiveness of some great thinkers of the past. For this reason people rightfully try to find some system of thought that works for them.
I think if we are going to admit we are not all great philosophic thinkers why not go to the great books of the past. In the Jewish world we have a few thinkers of great quality like the rambam or the arizal. Most everyone else is just serving up predigested material.
So my feeling is that going to Hirsch makes a great deal of sense because he was deep and comprehensive though not anywhere near the rambam. But as opposed to almost everything else out there he does stand out in terms of being comprehensive. I would say that even though he was German that is not in itself a problem because all modern thought especially in the Jewish world comes from Germany (especially chasidic circles which became Nietzsche in disguise since the 1920's in which commitments and values and nationalism became the dominate themes instead of the Torah paradigm (Yes there is a Torah paradigm and it is no where to be found today in orthodox Judaism).
But i would agree with you we ought to try to find a way past nineteenth century Germany. I have not succeeded in doing this but i have a suspicion that rebbi nachman has an alternative world view that can take on even win the Nietzsche Freud Kierkegaard Axis that exist today in the orthodox world (in disguise in places like yeshiva university).
Chasidic education is clothing and ritual education. It has little to do with Torah.
Modern orthodox education has to do with money and existentialisms and comfort. and nationalistic ideas of Hegel. Also it has nothing to do with Torah.

S. said...

>(The closest thing I could think of is Herman Wouk's This is My God which is Hirsch updated for 1950s America.)

That was a big one for me (Wouk, that is). I was never a huge fan of Hirsch, but I used to get a real sense of joy from reading him (that is, I felt that he felt joy, not that I did). Then I realized that his linguistics were not what they seemed and that he was a witch hunter, and the whole thing soured for me.

>As for me, I must admit that there was something particularly dangerous in Hirsch in that, considering my Asperger mental framework, I was not intuitevly aware that I was not operating in nineteenth century Germany and that I should not be trying to be a nineteenth century German.

That is really interesting to me. I agree re R. Sacks, although sadly I am too far fallen for such books to have any kind of religious effect on me. I *like* him, and I think he is and can be a great influence on Orthodox Jews, modern or otherwise. I suppose if there is anyone at all who is a religious influence on me, it is Shadal, who, although he died 145 years ago, is really in many respects an 18th century type of Italian Jew as a 19th century one. That's kind of sad if the last Jew who had something religious to say to me was born in 1800.