Spirit And Nature: C.S. Lewis’ “Miracles”

Miracles: A Preliminary Study is C.S. Lewis’ third major work of Christian apologetics—and also his last. He became known as an apologist first through The Problem of Pain and then through his radio broadcasts which later became Mere Christianity. Both of these projects were published during the war, and Miracles itself started growing during those years as well, though publication was delayed until 1947. His career as an apologist was a rather minor part of his writing output. He wrote more novels, more studies of English literature, more essays of personal opinion. But never mind: he is known as the great Christian apologist of the 20th century. And Miracles is, without a doubt, his greatest work in the field.

It must be admitted that the title is a bit misleading. Before Lewis can talk about miracles themselves, he finds that he needs to talk about the relationship between Nature and Supernature; and before he can talk about that, he needs to talk about how we think about them; and before he can talk about that, he needs to talk about how we think. It’s quite some time before he talks about miracles themselves. Among the valuable insights in the early chapters comes after his arguments for God’s existence outside of Nature, and how the act of reasoning undercuts naturalism (the belief that Nature is all there is): it is the insight that each human mind, being an offshoot of Reason that originates in God, is an ‘incursion’ of Supernatural reality into Nature. In effect, we are ‘miracles’.

I’m no longer fond of the word, to own the truth. To me it implies a whole way of thinking about God and His relationship to the world: that there are times when God is acting and times when He is not. That miracles are interruptions of the laws of Nature and that when such laws are operating ‘normally’, it’s because God is doing nothing. I admit this is how I once thought about miracles and it seemed to make sense when I thought it. But my theology has been growing into the idea that every moment of existence is a willful and deliberate act of God; that God is constantly involved in Nature even when it works as we expect. And why we expect it to operate in certain ways is a mystery; there is no guarantee that the sun will come up tomorrow just because it did so today. That God once parted the Red Sea is no more a miracle than His making the tide to ebb and flow.

Perhaps a key reason why I liked this book as much as I did is that Lewis is of the same mind, though obviously arguing and writing on a level far beyond mine. It is also Lewis at his least Platonic, and more clearly acknowledging than I’ve read him do elsewhere that the spiritual and the physical are intricately connected and parts of the same Reality.

By teaching the resurrection of the body [Christianity] teaches that Heaven is not merely a state of the spirit but a state of the body as well. Christ, it is true, told His hearers that the Kingdom of Heaven was ‘within’ or ‘among’ them. But His hearers were not merely in ‘a state of mind’. The planet He had created was beneath their feet, His sun above their heads; blood and lungs and guts were working in the bodies He had invented, photons and sound waves of His devising were blessing them with the sight of His human face and the sound of His voice. We are never merely in a state of mind.

Ultimately, Lewis’ conception of what miracles actually are provides a wonderful vocabulary for my own. He deals entirely with what we see Jesus doing in the Gospels, after admitting himself that he doesn’t possess the skills (I presume he means the languages) to comment on the Old Testament. He categorizes these first into Miracles of the Old Creation; with these we acknowledge that God is always at work through Nature, creating wine out of water and multiplying bread and fish, but in the ‘miracles’ He is simply taking a shortcut to the same result. Miracles of the New Creation, however, truly do violate our expectations of reality; the dead rise, the living walk on water, and with these we recognize that our house is being rebuilt, that the new Creation is breaking into this one. It offends our sense of order because we live in the Fall. One aspect of the Fall is that the two parts of ourselves, the Spiritual and the Natural, have quarrelled and are now in conflict. But when the Fall is healed, so will the relationship between Spirit and Nature. To use Lewis’ image, one will not ride the other as a knight on horseback, but they will be as united and whole as a centaur is. This vibrant poetry is further testament to Lewis’ great strength: the marriage of imagination, not only reason, to theology.

After the book was published, a philosopher and intellectual named Elizabeth Anscombe delivered a paper at Oxford’s Socratic Club (of which Lewis was president) in which she expressed her disagreement with what he’d written in Chapter 3, an outline of the “Argument from Reason” for the existence of God. Anscombe was a Catholic and not denying the existence of God, only raising doubts about the argument itself. It seems that this event gave birth to a legend: that Anscombe ‘destroyed’ Lewis the reasoner and that in her wake he abandoned writing apologetics. From my (admittedly not extensive) reading, this is nowhere close to the truth. What in fact happened is that Lewis believed that Anscombe had misunderstood what he’d said, though conceded some points, and rewrote Chapter 3 to better argue his own position. Anscombe seems to have judged the rewrite very acceptable, and the debate was resolved. So much for academic drama.

What is true is that Lewis wrote no major apologetic book after Miracles. An essay here and there, but his Christian non-fiction after this is more personal and reflective on the spiritual life (such as Surprised By Joy and The Four Loves). This marks a turning point, then, in his writing as well as being a fine testament to his intellectual approachability.

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