Is Anything Simply True?

A bulky robot trots stiffly across the lawn, pauses before an obstacle then clears it with an awkward jump. A computer-generated voice on the telephone negotiates an appointment for a haircut. We watch the demonstration videos and stare, amazed.

It has been a big week for technology news and there are several miracles here. First, that we have – through the expenditure of great genius and motivation and resources – produced machines that move and talk a little bit like humans. Second, that the earth – possessing no genius or motivation or resources – produced the humans who made the machines.

It is not quite safe to think about that. We believe two contradictory things and those things must be kept apart or awkwardness ensues. It is perfectly respectable to say that our own complexity is the product of luck and muck and time. On the other hand, no one throws parts in a box, shakes it for a while and expects an assembly to emerge. As we have all learned to our sorrow, life does not work that way. Luck does not do work. Luck does not make machines.

It is uncomfortable to think contradictory thoughts, so we don’t. We build mental fences to keep our hard-fought experience away from our fragile theories.

I read an editorial yesterday that wondered if anything is simply true – true for everyone. Subjectivism is a popular theory these days and many people liked what she wrote. I don’t know the author, but I suppose that she has a car, and perhaps a spouse, and maybe even children. If so, she probably believes in stop lights and is confident that other drivers do, too. Very likely, she believes in hunger and is anxious to prevent it in those who depend on her. As a successful person, I think she must believe in kindness, and probably takes care to encourage and protect those around her.

In fact, she believes that many things are simply true and she expects that other people should believe those things, too. Without shared truth, we could not live together in peace.

I respect the robotic accomplishments demonstrated this week – the tenacity and tough, independent thinking required to learn how things work. Our thinking about the creatures who inspired and produced the robots should be that way, too – grounded in logic and experience and open to all of the data around us.

Tashlan at Calvin

In “The Last Battle”, C. S. Lewis tells an exciting story.  Narnia is invaded.  The intruders lack strength to take the land by force but try something else.  Instead of defying Aslan, Narnia’s divine but long-absent leader, the Calormene invaders make a theological appeal — the appeal often called syncretism — and claim that Aslan has ordered the invasion.

The elegance of the plan is self-evident.  Why destroy a weapon that can be turned to your advantage?  The beloved Aslan, it is said, “never does turn up, you know.  Not nowadays”.  He has been gone for a long time.  He became a subject for interpretation, and re-interpretation, and finally became irrelevant.  “All that old idea of us being right and the Calormenes wrong is silly.  We know better now.” 

The modern American reader feels right at home in the story.  For many, Jesus is such a figure, a divine leader who does not seem to show up in any very tangible way, whose traditional defenders seem dated and silly.  His whole religious enterprise is creaking with age and reeking of cultural faux pas.  We may have believed the whole story once, but we know better now.

What, then?  We might discard him entirely, of course, as Judas did, but there is something about Jesus, as there is something about Aslan in Lewis’ story – something undeniably good that might still be rescued from the undesirable accretions of history and, well, from the increasingly embarrassing Christian scriptures.

We don’t want to completely discard Jesus, especially those of us in Christendom.  We like Christmas and Easter, our sacred traditions and noble ideas.  But we also like things that Jesus did not like.  And so, syncretism: the attempt to glue together the parts we like, whatever their source.

While attending a recent conference at a Christian college, I noticed an example of such gluing.  I picked up the campus newspaper and came upon an editorial titled “Aslan in the name of Tash”.  In it, the author references the story I mention here and says that Lewis therein “commends a character for worshiping ‘Aslan in the name of Tash’, essentially worshiping God, but in all appearances, by practicing an entirely other religion.”  The article concludes that “it can certainly be true and honest for me to say with my Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers there is one God and to affirm words of the Qur’an and Torah.”

I’m sure the author’s intentions were good, perhaps expressing her concept of humility, but I think the article misses an important point.  It is the evil character in Mr. Lewis’ story who says “The Calormenes use different words but we all mean the same thing.  Tash and Aslan are only two different names for you know Who.”  Lewis tells us the story to tell us that this is wrong. 

Tash is not Aslan.  The “one God” of the Qur’an is not the “one God” of the Bible.  At the timid suggestion that Emeth, the honorable Tash-worshiper, was received because, after all, “thou and Tash are one”, Lewis says, “the Lion growled so that the earth shook”.

I think Lewis was right.  Jesus is not a concept that we can somehow break free from the rest of scripture and glue to our favorite ideas from other sources, manufacturing our own little Tashlan.  If Jesus is real at all, he changes our understanding of sex and religion and a hundred other things, including the scriptures that reveal him to us.

The “Aslan in the name of Tash” article prompted a (to my mind, very sensible) letter to the editor.  For this, the reader was chided: “I do think that you, as one espousing whatever Christianity means to you, ought to be more careful in your estimations of the validity of other faiths.  Writing off an entire tradition because it does not affirm the identity of Christ seems like an overreaction.”

I don’t know what the reader felt about this response, but it strikes me as just the sort of thing that Tashlan would like.