Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Theological / Epistemological "Either/Or" Reasoning and C.S. Lewis's "True Myth"

By Dave Armstrong (7-5-05)

This is an exchange with an Orthodox acquaintance of mine:

I don’t have the book with me (I usually to quote from things when name-dropping), but the general point is that Lewis had two different modes, or phases, when it came to truth. One was the “true myth” idea that Tolkien used on him that was the turning point in his becoming a believer, and the other was this either/or liar/devil thing. The either/or thing was a function of his getting involved in apologetics, but he didn’t come to believe in Christianity because of the liar/devil thing, he came to believe because of the “true myth” thing.

In any case, the either/or argument doesn’t appeal to me whether it’s the deity of Christ, the papacy or Reformed doctrines. While reason is necessary, I don’t find such harsh logic either attractive or appropriate when it comes to discerning Christian truth. But that may just be me. I realize it appeals to a lot of other people.

It’s interesting that you adopt the “either/or” reasoning in the very act of condemning it (or at least frowning upon it in your own case). You can’t knock it on the one hand and then turn around and use it in the very act. What you have done in effect is create yet another dichotomy that doesn’t have to exist. It isn’t necessary. You don’t have to choose (by adopting “either / or”) between “either / or / liar / devil” and “true myth.” And the reason is that they are two equally valid modes of reasoning (which is why Lewis used them both).

God used the “true myth” insight for Lewis because he was interested in mythology and romanticism and was (apparently, by God’s grace) looking for connections between that interest of his and the claimed truths of Christianity. So he came to see that the Resurrection could be a true occasion of that particular “phoenix” or “gods becoming / interacting with men” motif in mythology. By the same token, that doesn’t men he had to rule out the laws of contradiction. The fact of Jesus’ Resurrection doesn’t necessitate accepting every such instance. One has to be discriminating as to evidence and credibility, and now we are smack dab back into the “either / or” that you claim you don’t care for (while using it to make your statement of protest and choice).

It seems to me that the Orthodox approach would be much more like what I am describing: accepting various modes of reasoning and reflection (along with non-rational mysticism, etc.) and not forcing one to make unnecessary choices and pit things against each other unnecessarily. It’s the Protestants who specialize in that (as Fr. Louis Bouyer argued at length in his classic, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism).

Maybe that’s another dividing line between those who become Orthodox and those who become Catholic. There are things which some people demand an either/or for,

It’s not so much that people demand it, but that the laws of logic and of thinking do not allow any other way for rational men. You act as if logic is a mere arbitrary choice of human beings. But then you use it throughout this response because there is no other way to rationally communicate and make arguments, where various truth claims are concerned.

whereas Orthodox are more than happy to shrug and say, “I don’t know.”

Agnosticism is a far different thing from denying the laws of logic which are inherent to a sensible, non-absurd thinking process. You can claim to not know something, or claim that it canot be known by anyone, without knocking knowledge itself and how it must ordinarily be arrived at by us mere mortals.

. . . Anyway, like I said before, you can’t scratch an itch you don’t have. This is why I appreciate you documenting your journey [a recent convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism], because I can compare it to my own journey, compare it to my own Burning Questions and/or lack of having similar Burning Questions as you, and better understand why you became this and I became that.

Indeed; that’s why all conversion stories are helpful to those in all parties. They help us sort out our own beliefs and things we might be questioning or otherwise wondering about.


. . . In the end, though, the biggest problem is that if things are going to be put this way, then I don’t see what sort of meaningful discussion can take place between Catholics and non-Catholics.

Claiming that one thing is or might be or probably is true somehow mitigates against constructive discussion? How, pray tell? I think the choice is either to think in logical terms or to not attempt discussion with those who differ from us at all (this is what Lewis would say: to argue is to presuppose the laws of logic and there is your “either / or” again: if by that — broadly speaking — we mean the law of contradiction, a=a, and a is not b). If logic is tossed because it is “divisive” then inter-communication becomes as meaningless and futile as arguing why my preference for chocolate ice cream proves that yours for vanilla is “wrong.” If everything is relative like that, or (I should say: pun intended) merely a matter of personal taste, then we simply can’t talk. Why would anyone bother to do what is done here or on any such forum? All we can do is sit and enjoy our ice cream the way we want it, and leave everyone else to theirs. All choices are equally valid. Individual choice would be bliss. I don’t think theology works like that, and I doubt that you do, either.

We aren’t forced to make a rigid choice. My example of how to communicate to the non-Christian or non-Catholic (as the case may be) has always been St. Paul on Mars Hill (Acts 17). Note how he made various connections with his hearers: to find common ground. That is an example of the “true myth” or more “ecumenical” mode of persuasion or thinking. But then he started narrowing down choices to the one true God (the either/or or apologetic and generally “rationalistic” mode). He had to do that to avoid religious relativism. He couldn’t just say, “you have your gods, and I have my one God and isn’t it wonderful and let’s all get along. It’s all equally great and true and happiness-producing” He had to confront them with the error of their ways, and proclaim the truth that they needed to hear. So he used both approaches. They aren’t mutually exclusive.

It’s just so dam[n] combative and I think the combativeness is part of the reason we all find ourselves in this position in the first place.

There is a good combativeness and a bad combativeness (if you know what I mean). What we all surely know is what lousy, disrespectful arguing and apologetics on the Internet looks like. But the problem there, 90% of the time (I would venture to guess — it has sure been my own experience with lots of folks) is lack of charity, not a too-rigid approach to logic. It’s not logic that turns people off (rightly-understood) but a certain “cold logic” which is not accompanied by charity, and is accompanied by judgmentalism and condescension. That is perceived (rightly so) as pompous and arrogant and therefore, the person will not be open to hearing what the presenter is trying to share. But we mustn’t throw the baby out with the dirty bathwater.

So, in all things charity, but also we must argue our positions. Why? Well, biblically speaking, because this is our model. Both our Lord Jesus and St. Paul engaged in very serious, “controversial” discussion. They gave reasons for things, and opposed false positions, and made no bones about it. Both were also ecumenical (which defeats another false dichotomy: the “apologetics vs. ecumenism” canard). Paul spoke of those who hadn’t heard the gospel being judged by their consciences (Romans 1 and 2). Jesus was very kind and complimentary towards the Roman centurion and Samaritan woman at the well, etc. He told the parable of the Good Samaritan. He said that the kingdom would be given to the Gentiles as well as to His own group: the Jews. He was inclusivistic, not exclusivistic.

I think the causes of lack of religious certainty or assurance ultimately lie elsewhere (in many places). Some people seem to feel quite confident in their beliefs (I am numbered among those, in case anyone didn’t know that :-), and others struggle more. That doesn’t make them lesser persons or inferior; it is just something that is their cross, by temperament, experience, education, position in life and pressure of friends and peer groups, or whatever it might be. One might say having less certainty leads to greater humility. I don’t think it is an ironclad connection, but there is certainly some truth to that.

Anyway, I’m starting to ramble. Hopefully, I’ve added something to the discussion.

You may have missed it in [another post] when I said:

And I apologize for the way I put my original statement. I shouldn’t have called it “flawed.” I should have just said it didn’t appeal to me or something. Didn’t mean to be contentious.

It seems to me that the Orthodox approach would be much more like what I am
describing: accepting various modes of reasoning and reflection (along with
non-rational mysticism, etc.) and not forcing one to make unnecessary choices and pit things against each other unnecessarily.

Yup. And I simply felt like the article was forcing me to make an uneccessary choice. That was the only point in my posting.

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