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Sunday, April 18, 2004

Miracles Part IVb and Conclusion

In this final installment of my extended review of C.S. Lewis Miracles Lewis discusses the miracles of the "old creation" (chapter 15) and the "new creation" (chapter 16) followed by an epilogue.

In categorizing the miracles recorded in the New Testament (Lewis specifically does not discuss the miracles of the Old Testament, instead holding the tentative view that at least some of the miracles of the OT are not historical and instead are derived from the Hebrew mythology which is the mythology chosen by God to reveal certain truths. Certainly this view has few proponents in the modern evangelical world, but more about evangelicalism and C.S. Lewis in a later post.) Lewis contends that those he classifies of the old creation are those where

"God does suddenly and locally something that God has done or will do in general. Each miracle writes for us in small letters something that God has already written, or will write, in letters almost too large to be noticed, across the whole canvass of nature."

These miracles can themselves be classified, the first group of which are those of fertility which include:

  • Turning water into wine at Cana

  • The two instances of miraculous feeding; the feeding of the 5,000 and the multiplication of fish

  • The Immaculate Conception

  • The interesting point that Lewis makes is that in all of these God does not do something arbitrary of ridiculous as is recorded in pagan myths. Rather, these miracles show a God who respects Nature as one he created and in some sense works inside its boundaries.

    The second group of miracles of the old creation are those of healing which include all of the various healings from restoring the site of the blind to making the lame walk to exocising demons. Once again, these miracles can be thought of simply as an amplification of the healing powers already in Nature or the removal of an obstacle to those powers.

    The third group of destruction includes only the withering of the fig tree. Here Lewis again argues that Jesus merely intensified a process which was already underway.

    The final group of miracles of the old creation are those of dominion over the inorganic and here Lewis only specifically mentions the calming of the storm. Once again as with all of these miracles, this miracle is God acting quickly and locally to do something he does more slowly and globally.

    In chapter 16 Lewis discusses the miracles of the new creation and he begins, appropriately with the resurrection. As an aside he makes the point that the gospel as the first Christians understood it was the resurrection, or more correctly, the witness of the risen Christ in the roughly six weeks from the resurrection event until the ascension. As a result, modern skeptics have it backwards when they assume that the gospels were written to convince people of Jesus' divinity. On the contrary the gospels were written to people already convinced of the resurrection through an experience and simply served to fill in the details.

    Lewis then goes on to discuss the nature of the resurrection in the sense above (and the ascension since he views these events as inseparable). By pointing out various attributes of the accounts in the gospels (Jesus ate food, was not bound by matter, was in some sense unrecognizable, could not be touched at first) Lewis throws aside the Gnostic view of Jesus simply as "negatively spiritual" and builds a case for, as Paul said, the risen Christ as the "first fruits" of a new breed of humanity ushering in a new era, "the first movement of a great wheel beginning to turn in the direction opposite to that which all men hitherto had observed." Lewis also notes how this view of the resurrection was truly different from the existing Jewish beliefs of "heaven" and the existence of the soul after death in Sheol.

    The resurrection of Christ is then a precursor or "false dawn" of this new mode of existence much like we already see in the old nature in examples such as flowers blooming before spring and sub-men evolving before true men. This idea is played out as well in the other three miracles of the New Creation, the walking on water, the resurrection ofLazaruss, and the Transfiguration.

    In the walking on water we see a glimpse of the new relationship between Spirit and Nature where Nature is completely obedient to Spirit. In one sense, however, Lewis notes that we are seeing this relationship today in that each time we think or raise our arm Spirit is commanding matter and matter obeys. In the new mode of existence our dominion, which is at present attacked by a lawless Nature and which survives only in the brain, will be extended to the outer world. In the resurrection ofLazaruss we see a merely anticipatory flash of the glorious resurrection although it is only a mere reversal of natural processes that shows that one day the present condition of the universe winding down will be reversed. Here Lewis introduces the idea of entropy and thermodynamics to argue that the universe requires a point in the past at which it was, like a watch, "wound up" (although Lewis is writing here several years before the Big Bang theory became widely accepted through the discovery of background radiation in 1964, there is little doubt that he would have used this as support for his arguments). The Transfiguration or "Metamorphosis" is more enigmatic since it has all the earmarks of a vision. As a result it is difficult to know in what way it provides a glimpse of the new creation.

    Lewis then circles back to discuss the New Nature shown in the resurrection in more detail. In my favorite section of this chapter he discusses the most troublesome aspect of the New Nature for moderns, the idea that reality is not 1-floored (nature is all there is), or 2-floored (there is the natural world and there is the spiritual - "the blinding abyss undifferentiated spirituality") but rather that there is a floor in between. This is why there are many who believe in the immortality of the soul but not the resurrection of the body, why people desire to strip Christianity of its miracles, and why Pantheism is more popular than Christianity. Lewis explains this revulsion to the super-natural world of the New Creation as the normal reaction of beings with both a natural and spiritual component, who when contemplating God (as the mystics teach) feel that the physical is "almost irrelevant". Today this results from the constant war being waged between the Old Nature and the Spirit and our need to suppress the Old Nature in such times which is in fact a symptom of our present condition. We cannot conceive of a time when the New Nature and Spirit will be in cooperation with each other although brief glimpses are provided through the Sacraments and the best instances of sexual love. This also serves to explain why God thought it necessary to create a physical world at all (on a personal note the deprecation of all things physical by many evangelicals I think reflects a misunderstanding of this point). The New Creation will serve to heal the discrepancy between the two worlds.

    In this section Lewis also addresses the skeptics view of the Ascension as a "going up" to heaven and being seated at the right hand of the Father as one that is too simple for reality and merely reflects the unsophisticated view of the ancients as heaven existing in the clouds. Lewis concedes that the apostles may well have viewed the Ascension in almost this way (as vertical movement upward) but that does not mean that there was not more significance to it. Further Lewis argues that indeed a God who created men to live in a natural world of sky and earth surely knew what affect the expanse of the sky would have and that of course contemplation of the expanse of the universe is the first seat of spiritual awe.

    Finally Lewis addresses the view of some that "Heaven is a state of mind" (which by the way is often said of Lewis). He rejects this view on the basis that what the resurrection shows is that heaven is not merely "a state of the spirit but a state of the body as well: and therefore a state of Nature as well." This view should give Christians hope in a Heaven that is alive and overflowing with the beauty of the New Nature, rather than a view of cold and sterile spirituality.

    Chapter 17 is an Epilogue where Lewis provides some practical advice for those who having read the book are prepared to go further. Particularly he addresses the attack that comes after putting down such a book as this but then sinking again into "real world" where such miraculous matters are shown to be false by the hard reality of the world. Lewis would argue that this is precisely what a reader should expect since the mind wants to fall back to its natural "grooves and ruts" but that "belief feelings" can only be inculcated through Reason and training. Secondly, he notes that readers should not be surprised if they never witness a miracle. After all, the miracles recorded in the Bible were performed at junctures in history where God acted usually on the behalf of the entire universe. It would be no surprise (and indeed it would likely not be sought after) if the reader did not live through such times.

    In summary (as if I've not summarized enough) Miracles is a book I view as sort of a "basic training" for Christian thought in a Naturalistic and to a lesser degree a post-modern world. In that sense it is a much longer and more detailed and therefore more convincing book than Mere Christianity and one I would give to someone who truly wants to wrestle with these issues.

    Here are the first few installments of this very long review.
    C.S. Lewis on Miracles
    Miracles Part II
    Miracles Part IIIa
    Miracles Part IIIb
    Miracles Part IVa


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