The Perelandra Thesis

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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.

Further reflecting on the difference between the “corridors of faith” depicted by William James and C. S. Lewis (see my “Hall Pass”, 17 September 2008), I wonder what life would be like in the “rooms” leading off the halls of James’s and Lewis’s imaginations. What would be their distinctive marks of character?  Would I enjoy living there?  Or would they be “nice places to visit, but not to live?”

At first glance, we notice that both James and Lewis acknowledge wide variation in the rooms leading off their corridors.  As James said, it matters not what takes place in the rooms, whether they be places for atheism or prayer or chemistry or metaphysics.  And Lewis’s hall similarly leads into very different sorts of rooms, where language, aesthetics, norms and customs vary widely.  Nonetheless, the rooms of each corridor do share common traits, and we must look to what characteristics they hold in common if we are to understand the significance of either James’s mere ‘pragmatism’ or Lewis’s mere Christianity. We must peer into the rooms and discern their quality of life, for it is in the rooms that life is lived; it is in the rooms that the fruit of our labors is produced and harvested.

 Perhaps the most obvious difference between James’s and Lewis’s depictions is that James’s rooms are private rooms, peopled by individuals pursuing their independent sciences, philosophies and worldviews.  Lewis’s rooms, however, house communities of people sharing life.

James explicitly describes his “rooms” of pragmatism in terms of individual pursuits-“In one you may find a man writing an atheistic volume; in the next someone on his knees praying for faith and strength; in a third a chemist investigating a body’s properties…”, and so on.  And this makes perfect sense, given that the individual pursuits matter not.  Indeed one person’s pragmatic pursuits and beliefs must not hold sway over any other person’s pursuits or beliefs, for that would open the door to dogma and dogmatic teaching.  James’s corridor of pragmatism can thus lead to any pursuit, any worldview, so long as it “works”, so long as it suits the individual pursuing it.  James’s corridor thus is perfectly suited to the postmodern mantra of “whatever works for you.” Relativism rules, because relativism is the antidote to noxious dogma. In this regard James truly was ahead of his time, for his “Whatever!” trumps “credo.”

 Lewis, on the other hand, makes it quite clear that life takes place in community.  The “rooms” in his metaphor are all communities of faith. There is no room for solitary confinement.  Much as people can and do disagree in his rooms, even on important matters of faith and dogma, people will also be held accountable to their community and to their shared faith, and even in an important sense people in each room are accountable to the others in all the other rooms.

Herein lies a sharp challenge for faith: How can a faith community tolerate internal disagreements over dogma, let alone find a way to get along with the secular community around them?  Such disagreements are decidedly impractical, are they not?  The Christian life therefore stands as antithesis to pragmatism.  It is patently impractical, non-pragmatic, and even non-conformist, by the standards of James’s ‘mere pragmatism.’[1]  No wonder James held such antipathy toward Christianity! Yet, this will be a defining mark of Christian faith, if Christianity is true-communities of faith will live out their beliefs by honoring God above all, even above dogma.  And they will find a way to do it that invites others in to share their fellowship; in Lewis’s metaphor, people will perennially invite outsiders into their particular “rooms” of community and faith.

The Christian life therefore presents the world with something strange-a community of belief that holds something as more important than, shall we say, more sacred even, than their own ability to articulate a shared dogma.   This will be the defining mark of Christian faith, over and against pragmatism, and it can only be expressed in the form of witness among a worshiping community.  Barth rightly explains why Christian belief is inseparable from life lived as a witness to belief-

Because the election of Jesus Christ is the truth, then the difference of those who are chosen in Him (their calling) is the witness to the truth besides which there is no other. There and there alone the truth is testified-there and there alone it finds expression…[2]

And what will this witness look like?  How will this nonconformist, zealous Christian life appear to others who are both inside and outside the faith community?  Strange?  Yes, but strangely human:

It is thus most striking that he [a Christian] presents himself to other men of the world as a nonconformist, as one who is zealous for God’s honor, as a witness to what he, who is also a man of the world, has to advocate to others of his kind.  He does this by offering to them the image of a strangely human person. [3]



[1] Karl Barth elaborates on this impractical and non-conformist character in The Christian Life: “Hence he can have not practical use for enterprises that still compete with the knowledge of God in the world”, (Eerdmans, 1981; T&T Clark, 2004) p. 203.

[2] Barth, K., Bromiley, G. W., & Torrance, T. F. (2004). Church Dogmatics, II/2 (345).

[3] Barth, The Christian Life, (Eerdmans, 1981; T&T Clark, 2004) p. 204.

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.