In his remarkable tale known as “The Madman and the Death of God,” Friedrich Nietzsche places in the mouth of the madman the most poignant question to arise in the history of Western letters:
Do we not stray as through infinite nothingness? -- Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
The thoroughly post-Christian world of the 21st Century is clearly marked by a profound struggle to avoid the abyss of nihilism while still embracing a worldview that all too strongly suggests an affirmative answer to the madman’s question. As the psychological and neuro-sciences peel back more layers of the mind and brain in search of the deepest roots of the psyche, they find themselves examining increasingly subtle physical processes, none of which provide any sort of satisfying answer to the question, “Who are we?” Attempts to craft suitable understandings of human nature and human destiny within the contexts of worldviews that are devoid of the transcendent lead naturalist thinkers to change the topic of conversation in order to avoid having to contemplate the abyss. One outcome of this intellectual avoidance is the creation of a personal void, leaving whole generations adrift. The straying psyche is all too likely to crash onto rocky shoals; the personal and collective travails of successive ranks of our youth bear increasing witness to this tragic outcome.
The gospel according to Richard Dawkins is centered in the creed of naturalism and the doctrines of materialism. As he addressed the world in The God Delusion and, more recently on campuses throughout the U.S. and U.K., Dawkins is calling for a “revival of atheism” rooted in a “declaration of independence” that is asserted on the basis that we are nothing more nor less than “mere mortals,” devoid of the foolish and fancied properties of “spirit” or “soul” and accountable to no one but ourselves. As the enthusiastic applause and cheers of his “liberated” listeners fade in the distance, one is reminded of the words of C.S. Lewis in contrast: “You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of the gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. … Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” (From “The Weight of Glory,” pp. 39-40)
Is it possible that humanity is best understood as being-that-points-beyond-itself? Might we indeed be made in the image of God? The Imago Dei? Might there, in fact, be a transcendent reality that has expressed, as it continues to express, its ultimate reality in the miracle of our personhood even as it confers meaning to the humble realm of mere matter? And might this transcendent reality be accessible to every person in this pilgrimage called life? Could there actually be a path, a purpose, an unfolding narrative that needs to inform every dimension of our lives, both personally and corporately?
Christian faith, to be sure, responds to such questions with confident affirmation. It is our privilege to bear witness to the reality of God, whose life, goodness, and beauty suffuse all reality with meaning. Yet it remains for us to discover the more immediate implications of this faith as applied to the realm of the natural, social and behavioral sciences. This task is not easy, nor is it trivial; for men and women of faith hold widely divergent views on many of the important questions that arise in these areas. Yet thoughtful Christians bear the responsibility to dialogue with each other, as with thinkers from other non-Christian perspectives, if we are to realize the hope of advancing coherent Christian understandings of human nature and personal and social behavior that relate integrally to the rich harvest of scientific knowledge pouring forth from these fields. From this position, we are able to speak compellingly to the questions: “Who are we?” “What meaning have we?” and “What are the reference points to guide a life with meaning?”.
The past six triennial Summer Institutes presented by the C.S. Lewis Foundation have focused upon Christians in higher education; on the imagination and the arts; on the natural sciences; on time and eternity; on the classic transcendentals of goodness, truth, and beauty; and on the rich legacy of C.S. Lewis himself (this on the occasion of the centennial of his birth in 1898). Oxbridge 2008 will, for the first time, focus on the human sciences, including the psychological and neuro-sciences, with a consistent interdisciplinary emphasis and reflection upon the human condition and the nature of persons.