The Perelandra Thesis

Filed Under Edifying Addresses | Comments Off on The Perelandra Thesis

upcoming seminar paper for Seattle Pacific University’s Common Day of Learning, October  19, 2011, featuring Dr. Jennifer Wiseman and the search for exoplanets:

C.S. Lewis, Astrobiology & the Perelandra Thesis

(presenters: Bruce Baker & Stamatis Vokos)

We will consider some of the theological implications of life on other planets. C.S. Lewis paved the way for us with his science fiction trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength) which tells the story of human encounters with extraterrestrials. A mere 15 years ago, exoplanets were largely unknown outside of science fiction, but today we know of hundreds, and new discoveries are coming quickly. What are the implications for Christians on Earth? We will evaluate the scientific possibilities of Lewis’ imaginary exoplanet, Perelandra, share some theological reflection on the fanciful idea of extra-terrestrial souls, and guide a discussion of the issues.

What makes a human? “Psyche Opening the Golden Box” by John William Waterhouse (1903).
The answer will depend on the deepest core of being which gives a person an identity.  Let’s give this “core-of-human-being-ness” a name; let’s call it the “soul.”  Whether this thing called “soul” is real or imaginary, physical or spiritual, experiential or mental, or even beyond these categories, matters not for the moment.  Whatever the shape of the soul, it will surely be the place where the deepest tensions of life reside-the human spirit’s search for meaning, the tension between eternity and finiteness, conflicting passions and acts of conscience. We can think of the soul then as the place where the deepest experience, ponderings, and tensions of life reside.  That much at least we can say about the soul.  That much at least has been said since the dawn of human intellect.  We can read of it in books that precede even Socrates; for example, the sage Qoheleth blames this tension on God:
“He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”               [Ecclesiastes 3:11]
Thus we see that tension dwells in the heart of the soul.  To discern the shape of the soul then, we will need to understand the essence of tension.  We turn to art for help.  Art has played this role through all history and prehistory, expressing the drama in the tensions of existence. Aesthetics provide a language for tension. As Kierkegaard insightfully notes, we learn from the earliest Greek plays that “concealment [is] the element of tension.”[1] Aristotle names the two parts to be found in the drama of myth:
“…indeed, two parts in the myth, namely sudden change of fortune and recognition”   (duo men oun tou mythou meri, peri taut’ esti, peripeteia kai anagnorisis)
-Aristotle, Poetics (Ch.II)
Recognition (anagnorisis) is essential.  Why?  Because the drama turns on tension and the recognition of that tension in a sudden change of some kind in the life of the main character(s).  Recognition of what?  Of that which is concealed.  And in the moment of recognition, is the concealment resolved?  Not in the best dramas, no.  The tension is only heightened for Psyche when the identity of her mysteriously concealed husband Cupid is revealed in the night.[2] The recognition of that which was concealed only intensifies the mystery and tension.
It’s the same for recognition of the soul-the tension and mystery, in either art or the soul, are not removed, as though they had been inconsequential all along; rather, the moment of recognition creates a new and deeper tension that assimilates that which was concealed.  If it were otherwise, the concealment would have been a meaningless mistake of ignorance, and the tension would turn out to not lie at the core of the being.  If it were otherwise, art would not be art, the soul not a soul.
Thus, recognition of the soul is a movement in which the most deeply concealed core of a person is plunged into an even deeper mystery. The soul remains cloaked in mystery, even as it is being recognized for what it is (perhaps we should say, because it is being recognized for what it is).
What type of recognition is this?  What type of knowing is required to know a soul?  This is not scientia, not the type of knowing expressed in formulas or studied with calipers and microscopes.  This is rather the type of knowing that requires a walking along in relationship with the object.  This type of knowing is a “walking-along-with”, a cum scientia, or conscientia, to use the philosophical term.
Thus we see the benefit as well as the limitations of scientia to study the soul scientifically.  Scientific study of the soul and the mind/body problem are necessary for neuroscience to give assistance to knowing the soul, and to discern the chemical, biological and genetic determinants of brain function which help to sort out the root causes of mental illness and relieve people of suffering which stems from mistaken ideas of responsibility for the misfiring synapses that take a toll on their psyches.  But this scientific (scientia) study of the soul is not, and cannot be, the same thing as knowing the soul. That takes a far different kind of knowing.  The path to knowing the soul passes over the trails of scientia, but does not ultimately find its way by them.  That path to knowing is a journey of relationship that marks its progress by moments of recognition which do not trust in the quantifiable units of scientia for their precision.

[1] S. Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, Problema III.

[2] Apuleius’ (c. 125-189 AD) myth is retold marvelously by C.S. Lewis in Till We Have Faces.