A woman once wrote to C.S. Lewis in great distress. It appeared, she said, that England was
becoming a very pagan nation. She meant “pagan” not in the imprecise sense of “generally un-Christian” but specifically that the culture of Britain was reverting back to pre-Christian worldviews of spiritism, ritual and nature-worship. She expressed this concern earnestly to Professor Lewis to see what analysis or prescription he could give to the state of the nation.
I’m guessing his response surprised her. “Oh that it would,” replied Lewis (referring to the prospect of England’s reverting to paganism). Lewis proceeded to explain that, though paganism was false, it was truer than materialism and a much preferable place for a culture to be. If England were to become pagan, Lewis argued, that would at least entail embracing a philosophy about reality that was inclusive of the supernatural, the divine and the metaphysical. Materialistic naturalism offered no such upward view.
As was his great gift, Lewis points us to something so obvious we probably missed it. Christians have a completely different definition of reality than the rest of the world, but nowhere is the difference more significant than with materialists and metaphysical naturalists. It’s not just that the Bible and naturalism differ on the historical record. It’s not just that Jesus and the materialists tell a different story about human significance. Christianity entails–really entails, not just features, but demands–the supernatural. Christianity is an universe in which the miraculous and spectacular and metaphysical are not just occasional guests but permanent residents. The Gospel tells us that that the natural world is not the only world; in fact, the natural world isn’t the realest world.
I believe this aspect of the Christian gospel is the single most significant obstacle in the way of faith for most unbelieving people in the West right now. Do not misunderstand: Most people have no problem with the idea of a some sort of consciousness after death. Heaven, of course, always writes bestsellers. What is a true stumbling block for Western people is the idea that there are, at any given moment in human life, innumerable spiritual realities at work. It simply does not jive with what Screwtape called “the inarticulate sense of actuality” to believe that every idle word I speak or every bizarre neighbor I meet has eternal significance. The day in and day out experience of the created puts us in a trance that makes gibberish out of any mention of a Creator.
That’s why it is so important for followers of Christ to be explicit about the greater reality of the unseen. It will not do in our culture of scientistic reductionism to be preoccupied with articulating an experientially robust faith. The phrase “So heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good” is probably a flat-out lie, but even if there is some truth in it, that truth has had its day. The threat of adapting the Gospel to accommodate anti-eternal states of mind (whether scientific naturalism proper or autonomous sexual nihilism) far outweighs the likelihood that we will focus on the supernatural to the expense of the natural.
An example of what I’m talking about appeared just last week. The Huffington Post exuberantly told of a new study that shows that children who are “exposed” to religion (note the victimizing language) tend to be unable to tell fact from fiction:
The study found that, of the 66 participants, children who went to church or were enrolled in a parochial school were significantly less able than secular children to identify supernatural elements, such as talking animals, as fictional.
By relating seemingly impossible religious events achieved through divine intervention (e.g., Jesus transforming water into wine) to fictional narratives, religious children would more heavily rely on religion to justify their false categorizations.
“In both studies, [children exposed to religion] were less likely to judge the characters in the fantastical stories as pretend, and in line with this equivocation, they made more appeals to reality and fewer appeals to impossibility than did secular children,” the study concluded.
Upon reading this, my reaction was something like this: “Uh, duh.” Come on, HuffPo, you don’t expect me to believe that you had no idea kids raised on the stories of Scripture are less likely to label things “impossible.” I can’t think of one thoughtful Christian who would bat a third eye at this. Of course Christian children believe in amazing things. Of course they are not as quick to label something impossible. Isn’t that what Christianity is? Or alternatively we could ask: What exactly does a Christianity that produces children who believe at the same rate as unbelievers even mean at all? If Christian parents are not teaching their children to believe in the seemingly impossible, on what grounds are they even Christian?
Here’s the unsaid assumption: Christianity, in order to be societally legitimate, has to look and sound just like unbelief. But that will never happen. If the choice is between my daughter believing in Jesus Christ and in fairies, and believing the arguments of Richard Dawkins and being “grown up” about fairies, I choose the former. This is not to say that Christians should believe in just anything. It matters that we teach our children what is real and what isn’t; it matters just as much that we teach why those things are real and unreal. Fauns and fairies are not real but that’s not because our world “just doesn’t do that sort of thing.” We live and and move and have our being in One who is infinitely more majestic and lovely than the finest fairy tale creature ever imagined.
Christians occupy a different reality than unbelievers. In fact, it is not reality in which unbelief lives, but unreality. The religion of the temporal is false through and through. Let us not be ashamed of this. Let us be explicit about the greater reality of the unseen. The unseen can be seen once the eyes are opened.