C S Lewis on current theistic evolution controversies

The excellent Preston Garrison, apart from alerting me to the review of a new book on Babylonian science that led me to a whole series of posts on the ANE and Hebrew pictures of the world, recommended an old and little-read book by C S Lewis. Studies in Words, published in 1960 just three years before his death, is a philology text for students, so not the most obviously relevant book for thinking about either “biblical science” or modern science. But it actually has some useful light to cast on both.

What Lewis does is to take examples of English words like “sad”, “wit”, “simple” or “sense”, and trace how their original meaning has evolved over the centuries both in English and in its source languages – Anglo-saxon, Latin, Greek and so on. The stories are fascinating, and a salutory reminder to us all that to use ancient etymology as the arbiter of current meaning is fallacious. Every preacher should remember that when pontificating on the difference between “agape” and “philia” in John 21 (as Don Carson points out in the indispensible Exegetical Fallacies – incidentally even Lewis fell down here in his study The Four Loves). And likewise every TE interpreter of Genesis 1 when basing their case for the solid firmament on “raqia” being derived from a verb that could originally mean “to beat out”.

Before getting down to brass tacks, I must just mention a pithy saying very apposite for a project like The Hump. In Lewis’s chapter on the word “life”, that word had in his time, and probably up till now, become such a buzzword that it was often used without any real  meaning at all. He deconstructs a sentence from Nietsche, “the orgiastic, mystical sense of oneness, of life as indestructibly powerful and pleasurable” by reminding us that “to make Life (Biological) ‘pleasurable’ is like putting ‘drawn in chalk’ or ‘equilateral’ into your idea of Triangle,” or “like calling a chessboard and a box of men a good move.”

Anticipating that he was offending many devotees of “Life with a capital ‘L'” he ends the chapter:

It is more dangerous to tread on the corns of a live giant than to cut off the head of a dead one: but it is more useful and better fun.

Think of current buzz-words words like “fundamentalist”, “freedom” or “diversity” and you’ll realise there are still plenty of giants with tender feet around to annoy.

One word that ties in nicely with the post linked above is “world”, which as I discovered in preparing the ensuing blog series, derives in most languages either from words meaning “ground” or “soil”, or from more surprising ideas like “age”: the Old English word “woruld” itself means something like “time of man”, meaning an individual life long before it became generalised to the lives of many men, or all humanity.

Lewis says nothing about the Babylonian concept, partly because he’s concentrating on the direct roots of English and partly because the ANE wasn’t his field. But he does endorse the idea I gained from the review of the new book by Francesca Rochberg, that the whole idea of a circumscribed entity which would be understood to have a shape, a position in space and so on is a late, Greek idea.

“Cosmos” was a mental concept neither available to, nor needed by, earlier writers. It was therefore not available to the writer of Genesis either, which means we have some work to do to understand what the text really means to say about “the heavens and the earth”. Yet oddly enough, the radical concept presented by Genesis that everything was created by one God who stands apart from what he has made in itself paves the way to the whole idea that there is a “world” as we understand it. Lewis mentions none of this, but the chapter is worth reading to show just how flexible, and thoroughly mutated, the apparently obvious word “world” is in reality.

If Lewis has somewhat to say on biblical interpretation, he has a word for contemporary science too, and that is in his chapter on “nature”. Like “world”, this word has made steady progress from the specific to the general (and beyond that into the merely vague!). In all the languages he cites, it originally meant simply “what something is like”.

Because some things are like other things, it became quite quickly applied to things like the “natures” of trees, hats or people. But the big move – quite parallel to the development of “world” as “cosmos” and in the same general period – was to begin to imagine that, if one lumped all the natures of absolutely everything together, one could have a catch-all concept of “what everything is like” called “Nature”. And this could, in time, become quite metaphorical and personal, so that “Nature” can abhor vacuums, or teach us that men shouldn’t have long hair, or be red in tooth and claw. None of those mean quite so much if you remember Nature means no more than “the sum total of everything”.

Lewis’s most interesting point, though, is that, almost as soon as this idea of “everything” arose, people started to make exceptions to it, so that it didn’t mean everything after all. Aristotle, for example, said that neither mathematics nor God should be considered part of Nature. Plato hived off the non-material world of forms from Nature. And such distinctions are still maintained today, if not universally, not only by theists insisting (as we rightly do) on the radical duality between the transcendant God and his Creation, but by perhaps a majority who think that mathematics was necessarily true even before the Big Bang.

Most amusing among these exclusions, though, is Lewis’s four page analysis of the modern distinction between “natural” and “supernatural.” He points out that a ghost (assuming it exists) cannot be said to be outside nature, for that would simply mean it didn’t exist. But phlogiston doesn’t exist either, yet isn’t by that token supernatural. And ghosts are not Platonic forms, nor mathematical concepts nor, being created beings, God.

If demons and fairies exist, Lewis points out, no doubt they have their own natures and act according to them. In the end, the only valid meaning of “supernatural” (and Lewis agrees it is valid linguistically) is a purely emotional one:

…the beings which popular speech calls supernatural, long before that adjective was applied to them, were already bound together in popular thought by a common emotion. Some of them are holy, some numinous, some eerie, some horrible; all, one way or another, uncanny, mysterious, odd, “rum”…

…I think the learned word, on the strength of a very superficial relation of meaning to the thing the plain man had in mind, was simply snatched at and pummelled into the required semantic shape, like an old hat.

Now, all this would be fine in common conversation, but this purely emotional word has now become the basis of the entire way we do science: we practise “methodological naturalism” only by sharply distinguishing “natural” from “supernatural” – which as Lewis has shown, means no more than baptizing a popular emotional category as a rigorous philosophical foundation for the study of reality.

He mentions this aspect only in passing (it is not his main interest, and in any case the term “methodological naturalism” had not, I believe, been coined in 1960). He does this by employing an accurate but somewhat cynical category used throughout the book, that of “the methodological idiom”, whereby something is defined purely on the basis of which department of the university has it on its curriculum. Thus such creatures as ghosts

are not part of the subject matter of ‘natural’ philosophy: if real, they fall under pneumatology, and, if unreal, under morbid psychology. Thus the methodological idiom can separate them from nature.

You will realise that this adminstrative boundary is no more rigorous a criterion than the popular one of getting, or not getting, shivers down your spine. And it’s an entirely malleable distinction, too, as Jonathan Bartlett pointed out in his recent talk at the Alternatives to Methodological Naturalism conference. In the century of pure “mechanical philosophy” before Newton, spooky action at a distance gave scientists shivers down the spine, and so were excluded from science. Once Newton demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that gravity was just such a force, the action was no less spooky, but less prone to cause shivers, and so it became science.

But it is an entirely arbitrary distinction, based on a word whose definition is no more than emotional. Philology, in the end, rather than reality, turns out to be what determines the boundaries of legitimate science. Sends shivers down your spine, doesn’t it?

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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9 Responses to C S Lewis on current theistic evolution controversies

  1. Noah White says:


    Fascinating stuff here. Philology is one of my absolute favorite subjects, though I don’t know much about it in detail, so I’ll have to check out Lewis’ book.

    Perhaps not entirely pertinent to the topic at hand, (but very much pertinent to the blog as a whole!), I’m reading through Richard G. Olson’s Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe for that paper that I mentioned a couple weeks ago. In the chapter(s) focusing on Britain, Olson highlights how the mid-century mass exodus from religion generally and orthodox Christianity specifically had almost nothing to with science, and everything to do with social issues that people felt the church was not addressing. Most people turned to science and critical scholarship only after the fact as a way bolster up their anti-religion sentiments. The book is fascinating, even-handed, and very gracious to both sides of the issue (and he divests “scientism” of its negative connotations, which is refreshing). If you haven’t read it, I think you’d love it!

    I’m also wrapping up Kitchen’s OT book (well, at least the parts that I was interested in). I’m struck by how willing he is to rip off the veneer of the OT and make it seem very, very normal. He acknowledges that the book is not a theological treatise in the introduction, which I appreciate, but I can’t help but want to ask him how he keeps from being cynical about the faith given that most things laypeople (believer and non believer alike) find remarkable, he demystifies. There seems to be an equal hit taken by biblicists of both stripes–the skeptic is forced to see that he can’t dismiss it all as theological fantasy, and the fundamentalist is forced to see that the story is mundane, miracles of timing aside. Any thoughts here?

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


      By “mundane” I suppose you may be referring to things like the plausibility of the shallow reed sea (yam suph) being driven back by a strong wind, as distinct from the Charlton Heston Niagara-in-reverse image? Similarly a miracle like the drying of the Jordan being known within recent times when a landslip at the very site mentioned in the text occurred?

      Whilst sometimes finding such explanations reveals a skeptical mindset, it doesn’t follow that it must. For an event that has occurred a few times in recorded history to occur just when required is no less miraculous for that, any more than would be the healing of cancer on laying on of hands, even though spontaneous resolution has sometimes been recorded. Ancient Israel was not, after all, Disneyland. Hey, people didn’t even vaporise when they annoyed the ark of the covenant!

      On the contrary, I think the tendency to regard everything and everybody in the Bible as a special case tempts us to ignore the fact that we have exactly the same God. For example, as I’ve written before, God’s covenantal commitment to use natural events to bless or judge Israel either told the truth about God and nature then and now, or was as untrue then as now. What it can’t be is true for the Bible world but not for the scientific world.

      If we’re, in fact, in the same world and believe the Bible, then it’s surprising that climate change is not being met by concerted prayer and repentance on the part of the churches, rather than merely activism for or against climate science. But that’s all about the purely emotional distinction between “natural” and “supernatural”, on which vide supra!

      • Noah White says:

        Thanks for the corrective, Jon–we’re in the same world and have the same God, so perhaps Kitchen’s tack is a healthy one for believer and unbeliever alike. I always tend to go towards the skeptical, which is a mindset I ought to work on correcting.

        The natural/supernatural distinction is quickly showing itself to be the biggest blockage in moving the evolution and sovereignty debate forward. If we could just get past that, I think the frustrations felt by and toward BioLogos would wane a bit.

  2. Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

    Yes, Jon, that Lewis book is excellent. I read the whole thing years ago, and still consult it from time to time. It is not only good in itself, but reminds one that in addition to being one of the world’s leading Christian writers, Lewis was a first-class philologist and Oxford/Cambridge scholar. He had a Classical education which is rare today.

    When I was in high school, I grasped greedily at the last fading wisps of that Classical education as far as they were available to me. But now all that education has been pushed out of the publicly-funded high schools; my kids got none of it, not even in a top academic school. Today, only those fortunate enough to be able to afford to do a “useless” university degree in Classics or the like have access to that wonderful humanistic tradition. In a previous era, even the children of the poor had some access to it in tax-paid high schools. Your Dad might have driven a milk truck for a living and received very little pay, and you might own only one pair of shoes, but you still would get to study Greek mythology and a few years of Latin while in high school. So if economic pressure forced you to study a “useful” subject in university, you at least picked up some Classical education as a child and teenager. Now you have to go to university — where you have to pay — to study such things. Thus, by an irony which goes unnoticed among the educational propagandists of the modern era, their “egalitarian” educational changes over the past 40 years have made the school system more elitist rather than less.

    Of course, the situation may be different in Britain than on this side of the Atlantic; maybe the Classical tradition still thrives in state schools there, and kids can still graduate having read Caesar’s Wars in Gaul in Latin and knowing the stories of Oedipus and of the Trojan War (not to mention being able to correctly use participles and gerunds). But that tradition is dead here.

  3. pngarrison says:

    Eddie, I don’t think it is really completely dead here. There is a classical school run by the Greek Orthodox church just down the road from me (a prof there encouraged me, of all people, to apply to teach philosophy), and a friend of mine taught for several years in the classical undergraduate program at SW Baptist Seminary. Of course they read the classics in English, as even my friend doesn’t know the classical languages. I could have taken Latin in high school, as my dad recommended (a lawyer of course) but I took Spanish instead. So all my classic reading has been in translation, but our book club checked with a classics scholar at the Catholic College of St. Thomas More (sadly, now defunct), next to TCU, to get his recommendation on what he thought the best translations were. I know there is at least one other classics secondary school in town. The sum of all this is that my impression is that there is something of a movement in some private evangelical education to take a classics approach. Of course, of the quality of instructors they can get, I know nothing, except that retired biochemists are probably not the best option. 🙂

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Eddie and Preston – interesting tangent. In my own case, Latin took me into Gallic Wars V and a bit of Virgil, but Greek was out if one did science (as I did). Nevertheless, Chaucer crept into English in the original and Beowulf was at least mentioned – Grendel’s Mother summoning up pictures of the Incredible Hulk. And Greek myths were around in the popular culture in some way – if only the film version of Jason and the Argonauts and the centurs in Fantasia.

      My kids, in the “comprehensive” state sector, really got none of it at all. Even their history was the PC version of civilised Islam v the barbarous Christian West. However, in contrast to that my medical partner’s son, a bright kid who got to the local grammar school (in one of the few areas where they still exist in the state sector) was fired up enough by classics to do it at Oxford.

      I think the biggest loss is not the knowledge itself – which one can make up in later life, I guess – but the pervasive idea that there is nothing to be gained by it, and that culture began with … I don’t know – Newton? Darwin? Nowadays probably Kinsey since even the morality of ten years ago is considered mediaeval!

      It’s tempting to tut-tut at Preston’s classicists relying on translations, but we need to remember that Augustine never really got the hang of Greek, and yet had a thought or two!

    • Noah White says:

      Seconding that it’s not quite dead over here! My school in Houston (K-12) underwent a shift from a public school-esque education (with the obligatory Bible class) to a classical education around my 8th grade year. The shift was basically complete by the time I graduated. I took Latin on into college as well, but I’m at a liberal arts university with a heavy base in the classics. Apparently there are quite a few classical schools in the greater Houston area, as well as DFW and Austin from what I can tell. Though Eddie’s point may still stand that public schools are basically devoid of it.

  4. Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

    Preston, Jon, and Noah:

    Thanks for your further comments and information.

    Preston, it appears from what you say that while Latin is still on occasion available at the high school level, that is mainly in schools run by churches or evangelical groups. I was thinking more about the public high schools where (presumably) the majority of American youth go. Let’s take downtown Dallas, or downtown New York, or downtown Denver, or downtown Providence, or downtown Charlotte. Or if you like, expand the range to the suburbs of those cities. What percentage of the high schools in those places offer even a single year of Latin any more? Would I be wrong to say that the figure would be less than 10%? And if we “up” the standard to a full Latin program, and ask how many high schools offer Latin all the way through, not just for a single year, would I be wrong to say that the figure would be less than 5%?

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