On Thought & Existence
Do you believe that thought is a collection of atoms rolling about at random in a bony skull? or that the arrangement of such atoms for physical and chemical reasons happened at random?
Because if you’re waiting for an answer to this question or a divine epiphany, there’s an extraordinary amount of data to consider and you’ll never get to the bottom of it.
As a child of a Catholic father and Buddhist Mother, I don’t know the answer to this question, but I agree: reasons for our existence are endless. A play I recently attended shared the experience, or at least someone else’s experience, one of the world’s most famous, a young Christian turned atheist, then theist then Christian.
One Man’s Journey
Mark and I sat in the third row center stage. I could see the sweat on the actor Max McLean’s upper lip. He researched, wrote, and acted the part of C. S. Lewis during a 90 minute performance or lecture or sermon, as one might call it. Unlike associations we have with the word ‘sermon’ this was riveting, thoughtful, engaging, funny.
The Acorn Theater in New York City has just 200 seats, an intimate venue for the one man show C.S. Lewis on Stage, the Most Reluctant Convert. We passed a couple with ashes on their foreheads, signifying the beginning of Lent in the Catholic church, a receptive audience for the performance of a Christian apologist and author of Narnia fame.
McLean’s primary sources for this play were Lewis’s autobiography Surprised by Joy as well as his Collected Letters.
Clive Staples Lewis, known to his peers as Jack, lives and breathes on stage in this show, channeled through the flesh and spirit of a thespian devotee and scholar, McLean. A collection of books, an Oxford study, leather chairs, and a stage sized window to his world, a large projector screen, made up the set.
Weeks later, the experience remains with me: this glimpse into one man’s journey, indoctrinated in his youth, served in the trenches during WWI, became a cynic, an atheist, and then at Oxford the most reluctant convert, traveling from doubt to theism, eventually to Christianity.
Lewis’s epiphany defies logic and he recalls exactly where and when he experienced it: a 30 minute ride to the zoo. The door to wisdom is through faith. All the diversions, suffering, cynicism, gave way to surrender. And through surrender and humility, Lewis became “the most thoroughly confirmed or converted Christian.” (McLean)
Every Day is a Battle
When the performance was over, the actor left the stage. He shed his Oxford jacket and accent, then returned, and sat down for a Question and Answer session. The lights went on in the theater, and like a college class, he took questions from the audience.
I asked the actor if he was a Christian or convert. McLean said he was an adult convert and Lewis did not convert him, but has been a great guide. Another audience member asked if Lewis ever made amends with his father. This was a great regret of C.S. Lewis’ life, that his father died before Lewis began to believe; he felt great shame over his relations with his father and always regretted how he treated him.
Someone else asked if Lewis became a good Christian.
McLean replied, “Such a young cynic — he just went thoroughly the other way. It’s a matter of surrender, it’s always a daily battle.”
The Scientist, the Christian, the Philosopher
Scientist Edward O. Wilson published The Meaning of Human Existence in 2014, an ambitious book for a myrmecologist and Pulitzer Prize winner of non-fiction, which I reviewed (Link to “Ant Scientist Has Answers“). A myrmecologist is a scientist specializing in the study of ants. Making a case through biology and evolution, Wilson eschews creation stories and the idea of an intelligent designer in favor of a “broader” view, that “the accidents of history … are our source of meaning.” Only intelligent self-understanding will save us.
The scientist deals in the physical world, sifting through data and studies, social behaviors and nature, what Wilson calls a bottom ups analysis. Philosophy is a tops down analysis and he submits to the ever-growing importance of the humanities. Why? Because description and analysis, as well as a lifetime of scientific study are not enough to answer the big questions; they will never be enough.
Mind and consciousness and free will are like our beliefs; they cannot be seen or dissected in any physical way.
Read Wilson’s book, and like his scientific subjects, ants and insects, the conclusions are small. By contrast, C.S. Lewis and this performance open the door to something far greater than ourselves.
Science and faith may seem to be at odds, but let’s close with Marcus Aurelius, the Roman philosopher king, who wrote in his personal diary about the idea of unity and chaos.
Either everything is a confused gathering and scattering of atoms, or else it is all a great unity and design. If the former, why am I to go on living in such a swirling chaos? Why should I care about anything but how I will finally “return to the soil”? and why am I disturbed? For whatever I do, this scattering will come upon me as well. But if it is the other alternative, than I am reverent, I am calm; I place my trust in that which governs all things. (Meditations, Aurelius. 6.10)
** The show is playing in New York City through May 21, 2017: C.S. Lewis on Stage, the Most Reluctant Convert