I’m trying to finish up C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity,” and last night I read a chapter geared towards explaining why we must study theology. The “science” of Christianity, he says, not only deepens our knowledge of God, but also paints a metaphorical map of what we must do about it.
One of the stories he relays in this chapter is of an old Air Force officer who, upon hearing Lewis give a talk about theology, protested and said that “I’ve no use for all that
stuff. But, mind you, I’m a religious man too. I know there’s a God. I’ve felt Him: out alone in the desert at night: the tremendous mystery. And that’s just why I don’t believe all your neat little dogmas and formulas about Him. To anyone who’s met the real thing they all seem so petty and pedantic and unreal!”
I’ve relayed, and felt, similar things in my life. I’ve had moments where I’ve felt God’s presence in a song, or through an interpersonal connection, or in a quiet breath in nature, or even in a time of great need. I know God was there because I felt it, and for the longest time I thought that was enough. I thought that was all I needed to know, and so I put those moments aside in my mind and went about my day, forgetting about that pursuit.
For the past six weeks, though, I have been pursuing the other half of the equation. I felt then that my moments of communion were insufficient, and that in order to make God a part of my life and accept Christ in my heart, I needed to do with Christianity what I have done with all the other great pursuits of my life: learn everything there is to know until I’m satisfied that I know the map/the path/the way, and can make it to my desired destination.
Remarkably, Lewis relayed almost the same analogy early in part four, entitled “Beyond Personality.” He says that while experiences of God can absolutely be real, they are not enough to understand the totality of what is laid before us.
“Now in a sense I quite agreed with that man. I think he had probably had a real experience of God in the desert. And when he turned from that experience to the Christian creeds, I think he really was turning from something real to something less real. In the same way, if a man has once looked at the Atlantic from the beach, and then goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic, he also will be turning from something real to something less real: turning from real waves to a bit of coloured paper . . . The map is admittedly only coloured paper, but there are two things you have to remember about it. In the first place, it is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. In that way it has behind it masses of experience just as real as the one you could have from the beach; only, while yours would be a single isolated glimpse, the map fits all those different experiences together.”
He goes on to explain that theology is like that map, and that through it we can learn the path, because that map distills the knowledge of many who have walked that path before us. Furthermore, in the ocean analogy, it would not be safe to go to sea without a map, because we would be lost in infinity.
As it relates directly to my own life, I feel as though I am only beginning to understand the outlines of the map. Within that analogy, in order to understand a map, one must also have a good compass and a proper bearing. That is where I think those experiences, those moments of communion with God, come into play. In the real world, I am gifted with a good sense of direction. By experience and intuition, I know which way points north, so I also know which direction I’m headed. In terms of my spirituality, I think those experiences of God will help guide me in the direction of Him, if only by feel at first.
In the first epistle to Timothy, Paul writes about “God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:3-4). The word conveyed is not “experience” of the truth, or even “understanding” of the truth, but “knowledge.” Over and over again in the gospels, people were astonished or amazed at Jesus’ knowledge of the teachings, even at his young age. Of course, both that knowledge and the experience truly matter, because without both, I would eventually get lost.