Thursday, January 8, 2009

Meditation in a Toolshed

This is the first C.S. Lewis essay we read for the class, and I was rejuvinated by Lewis' insight on this particular topic. He articulates truths that I've never stopped to ponder, but then when I read what he has to say, I am overcome by the validity of his argument. I never would have used a toolshed, for example, to demonstrate the distinction between "looking along" and "looking at." My mind just never would have gone there. I am very grateful that C.S. Lewis had the ability to point out the unexpected.

Lewis' major point in this essay can be summarized in this statement, "We must, on pain of idiocy, deny from the very outset the idea that looking at is, by its own nature, intrinsically truer or better than looking along. One must look both along and at everything." Lewis comes to this conclusion in a dark toolshed, of all places, after having seen two perspectives of a beam. In one glance, Lewis was "seeing the beam, not seeing things by it." Then, Lewis moved and saw along the beam to the sun and a tree outside. He distinguished the different experiences of "looking along the beam and looking at the beam." Lewis continued to give examples of looking at and along, which I found very helpful. The point is this: "You get one experience of a thing when you look along it and another when you look at it." This statement really hit me in the face, "It has been assumed without discussion that if you want the true account of religion you must go, not to religious people, but to anthropologists."

That hit me so hard because all of my life I have been in secular atmospheres. I grew up in a post-Christian atmosphere, and I spent two years studying religion from a secular perspective at the University of Michigan (it was an infuriating experience and that is why I transferred). Grand Rapids is the first "Christian" area I've ever inhabited. I have been taught to look at religion from the "outside" (Lewis would say along at the beam.) I intuitively believed this approach to be wrong, but I never had any means to disprove it. That is why Lewis' words were so refreshing to me.

Last semester, in my Historical Theology class, my professor asked the question, "Is it possible for someone outside a religious tradition to fully understand that tradition?" Automatically, based on my previous religious studies, I reverberated what I had been told: the true "objective" perspective is looking at religion with a sociologist's eye, standing quite distance from actual practice. Yet, she brought up some of the arguments Lewis made in this essay, and it was a refreshing surprise to me. I now believe that it is impossible to truly understand religion unless you're inside of it. I sympathize enthusiastically with Lewis who claims that, "The people who look at things have had it all their own way; the people who look along things have simply been brow-beaten. It has even come to be taken for granted that the external account of a thing somehow refutes or 'debunks' the account given from inside." From an academic perspective often religion can be seen as "a mass of biological instincts and inherited taboos." Having experienced secular religious academia, I realize how completely true this is! It is disturbing that our finer academic institutions are succumbing to these illogical ideas in teaching religion.

I have countless classmates and relatives who see religion from the "outside..." and since it is so easy to criticize, there is a lot of ugliness to see. Lewis later writes, "But it is perfeclty easy to go on all your life giving explanations of religion, love... and the like, without having been inside any of them. And if you do that, you are simply playing with counters. You go on explaining a thing without knowing what it is." When I hear this, my heart aches for all of the students in my previous Bible classes at Michigan, who heard from an "outsider's" perspective, but they never really knew what it was all about. As we discussed in class, science is needed, of course, but so is experience. In academia, especially concerning religion classes, that needs to be put into practice.

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