Thursday, February 25, 2016

Did C.S. Lewis Invent the Concept "Atheology"?

Well, things have been hot and heavy around here at DET this week with two dynamite posts from Our Illustrious Leader (see here and here). Our Marketing and Communications departments have been working round the clock to keep up with the traffic and I figured these folks deserve a little time off. So please allow me, dear readers, to switch things up a bit with a post on ... wait for it ... C.S. Lewis.

You heard that right.
Is Lewis in fact the Big Other elephant in the
postmodern atheologian's linguistically-
constructed closet?
The guy who introduced our readership to Walter Rauschenbusch and Teilhard de Chardin (see Shameless Self-promoting Plugs Nos. one and two, respectively) is now squaring the circle by inserting into this venerable blog a post about the beloved children's author, Renaissance lit critic and Oxbridge don.

The veneration that Lewis has garnered among conservative evangelical and Roman Catholic readers, especially, is certainly inestimable. There's an apocryphal story, which I'm unable to confirm as of press time, that when Christianity Today was compiling its famous "Books of the Century"  feature and the results of the first poll of contributors was tallied, Lewis' collected works occupied the first 63 slots of the top 100, leaving a paltry 37 slots for the likes of Bonhoeffer, Solzhenitsyn, Weil and Camus. The editors wisely sent the ballots back out, to broaden the sample a bit.

But if Lewis is much beloved among millions of Christians and other literature loves -- as well as some former employees of the Walt Disney Company -- his reputation among Barthians and other "serious" theologians is, well, a little more (harumph) ... sketchy. Whatever. All the Jack haters can enroll all their kids in "Experiment House," for all I care. I rather like the old guy, warts and all.

Nonetheless, as I shall contend here, the folks who should be troubled by Lewis are not so much the dialectical theologians as much as our friends, the critical theorists and their co-conspirators within the academy and the on the blogosphere. Heads up. We don't throw y'all a bone so often over here at DET, so enjoy it while it lasts.

I was... I mean, um, a friend was recently reading an essay by Lewis in his volume of essays, Christian Reflections (Eerdmans, 1967), titled simply "Historicism."
God's image is strikingly absent here.
No. 61 (Rust and Blue) by Mark Rothko.
From the Museum of Contemporary Art,
Los Angeles.
The odd thing about this essay is that Lewis defines historicism in terms almost exactly opposite to how I usually think of it. To my mind, the word denotes the attempt to relativize and level all efforts to secure a unified meaning that transcends yet unifies the flux of historical experience; so historicism in this sense would be deeply empirical, possibly even positivst. Lewis, on the other hand, is criticizing the very attempt to discern such a meaning from the meager resources of speculative reason. His specific target is idealist philosophers and those influenced by them in other fields, such as theology. So Hegel (old school modernist Hegel, not new school postmodernist Hegel) or Carlisle would be examples of historicists, in Lewis' sense of the word.

But that is not the interesting part. What really caught my ... my friend's attention was this passage, which sets up a contrast between the historian proper, who engages in the legitimate attempt to discern coherent causal sequences, and the dreaded historicist:

The mark of the Historicist [capitalized in the original, to ominous effect], on the other hand, is that he tries to get from historical premises conclusions which are more than historical; conclusions metaphysical or theological or (to coin a word) atheo-logical (pp. 100-101, emphasis mine).

Wait, what? Is Lewis claiming here to have invented the term "atheology"? Not knowing the etymology of this word, so freighted as it is in contemporary academic discourse, I naturally would have assumed some profoundly opaque thinker such as Heidegger or Lacan would have originated it -- not this frumpy, mid-20th century literary scholar known for his popular Christian apologetics and children's fantasies. And, to make matters worse, a Platonic realist to boot!

So what? you're asking. If one were to sidle up to, say, a Barthian with the bold claim: "I am an atheist"or "atheologian (atheologist?)," she's going to be, like, "Meh. Tell me about the god you don't believe in. I probably don't believe in that god either." (This is one reason, by the way, that Barthians are rarely invited to cocktail parties.) So the kind of writer who tends to lurk around a website like Die Evangelischen Theologen is likely to shrug off the whole business: "Whatever (yawning). We have the Nicht-Gott and all that, and we all have copies of The Viking Portable Nietzsche on our bedside tables. Smile! Jesus loves you, nonetheless, though I can't prove it. Get over yourself." (Perhaps no respectable Barthian actually talks this way. Hmm. Perhaps this is why I never get invited to cocktail parties.)

Rather, as an (often bemused) outside observer, I worry more about the atheologians/atheolgists and critical theorists out there. It seems to me their honor, their claims to anomalousness are on the line here. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? The spirit of Aslan, indeed, bloweth where it listeth.

We all own this book. But how
many of us have actually read it?
To be sure, I find no evidence of the deconstructionist backslash or strike-through in Lewis' writings. That innovation would have to wait for Derrida, as far as I know. Still, this potential bombshell is worrisome. For example, the deconstructionist philosopher of religion and atheologian Mark C. Taylor was born in 1945 (so says my journal of record, Wikipedia), a mere five years before this Lewis essay was published. Could the seeds of Taylor's dazzling postmodern project have actually been planted not by reading Altizer in grad school or from pondering the ostensible meaninglessness of life but, simply, from hearing some passage from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?

It's simply in the interest of Christian charity -- or if you prefer, basic human decency -- that I call attention to this incongruity, in the hopes that an expert from the critical theory camp will set the record straight. Is this danger for real, or am I simply erring here? Please do respond ASAP, either in the comments below or perhaps on your own blog, so my world of thought will not collapse and my head implode. Paging John Caputo! Paging Slavoz Žižek! Paging Peter Rollins!



Jay Potter said...

It's a bit of a different use of the term, but according to Ngram Viewer the term 'atheology' was first used in 1798 by Jonathan Swift in a discussion on the theology of Buddhism.

You can see the graph here:

J. Scott Jackson said...

Interesting. Thank you!