Wednesday, January 20, 2010

An exercise

"Jesus’ College is the only one in which God’s truth can be really learned; other schools may teach us what is to be believed, but Christ’s alone can show us how to believe it."
- Charles Spurgeon, Morning and Evening, Evening Jan. 19.

Recently, a friend lent me God in the Dock, a collected edition of C.S. Lewis' minor writings and shorter presentations. Among them is Meditation in a Toolshed, a brief piece in which Lewis speaks about the distinction between looking at and looking along. Reading tonight's Morning and Evening - a twice-daily devotional to which I have often turned in my quiet times of contemplation - I was struck by the parallel thrust of Spurgeon's rumination.

In Toolshed, Lewis distinguishes looking at from looking along along an experiential axis, similar to the research method distinction between, respectively, grounded theory and participant-observer strategies of data collection and interpretation. In short, the metaphor Lewis constructs is based on the familiar analogy of revelation as a source of light: envisioning a beam of light cast onto an object, looking at the ray grants information about the light itself, while looking along the light reveals knowledge about the source and target of the emission.

Lewis' privileging the latter over the former seems a priori, but I think that there are fair arguments to be made in support of looking along versus looking at. Both positions bear reasonable and seemingly non-trivial epistemic value. But what may grant us liberty to preference looking along over looking at is the existence of convincing order in the revelation.

That is to say, revelation, and specifically the Christian revelation, is itself ordered in an intuitively convincing manner: a beam of light hitting the blank wall of the toolshed may be dismissed as a random structural failure, while a beam of light illuminating a carving on the ground is not so easily dismissed. The question then is whether the information revealed by participating in the Christian process - looking along - is of the former or latter quality.

Adding to the difficulty of processing this information is the hypothesis that the results are biased through human intervention. After all, alternative beams of light exist, striking seemingly intentional points on the ground, and it seems a fairly foundational part of participating in looking along that looking along one source of revelation is mutually exclusive with others. So, one of the common claims of those looking along a particular light is that the other lights are false constructs, illuminating points (metaphysical/theological points, that is) that may seem appealing but are, in fact, only so because they are intended by human effort to be so rather than divine effort.

Spurgeon's quote is situated in similarly hairy territory. All the issues raised with Lewis' beliefs - and more - can apply here. It is interesting that both predicate "real learning" with participation: learning is distinguished from learning about. There is something about active, personal, engagement that is valuable to both authors - and it is very attractive to me, too. But it seems as though much post-Enlightenment/Rationalist thought has found itself striking an antagonistic position, claiming that personal investment in a situation has quite the opposite effect: rather than granting knowledge in a particularly valuable way, it taints what data is gathered. Is this an intractable disagreement? One wonders.

There are far more issues in this exploration than I can adequately here address. I like both the ideas expressed by Lewis and Spurgeon. In both cases, there is great intuitive appeal, but it is difficult to articulate the basis - defending the premises - of the appeal. Perhaps one either "feels it" or doesn't.

Merely an exercise in rigour.

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