Thursday, December 29, 2011

studying inside


Yesterday I was tidying up the mounds of paper from my last semester and came across a forgotten note I had scribbled over a month ago.  It was a reminder to check out an article by C.S. Lewis that one of my professors had  mentioned.  I googled the key phrase and Lewis' name, and came across a lucid piece of writing that addressed the issue I run into all the time when studying theology:  is it better to study something from the inside (which makes one prone to bias and narrow thinking) or to look at it critically from the outside (which is more objective but lacks immediacy)? 

This is an especially pertinent question for me right now because I will be teaching a course this term on Christian Spirituality.  I want to invite students to investigate the people we are studying and to become invested in their lives to some extent.  Yet I need them to engage in critical analysis and good research practices.  Lewis, in his signature accessible and analogical manner, insists that we weave both approaches together, forging a learning method that acknowledges both the inside and outside aspects, or as he calls them, "looking along" and "looking at." 

Here are a few quotes from the article:

It has been assumed without discussion that if you want the true account of religion you must go, not to religious people, but to anthropologists; that if you want the true account of sexual love you must go, not to lovers, but to psychologists; that if you want to understand some “ideology” (such as medieval chivalry or the nineteenth-century idea of a “gentleman”), you must listen not to those who lived inside it, but to sociologists.

A physiologist, for example, can study pain and find out that it “is” (whatever is means)
such and such neural events. But the word pain would have no meaning for him unless he had “been inside” by actually suffering. If he had never looked along pain he simply wouldn't know what he was looking at. The very subject for his inquiries from outside exists for him only because he has, at least once, been inside.

But it is perfectly easy to go on all your life giving explanations of religion, love, morality, honour, and the like, without having been inside any of them. And if you do that, you are simply playing with counters. You go on explaining a thing without knowing what it is. That is why a great deal of contemporary thought is, strictly speaking, thought about nothing - all the apparatus of thought busily working in a vacuum.

Lewis also addressed the fallacy that one can actually be totally subjective:  ...you can step outside one experience only by stepping inside another. Therefore, if all inside experiences are misleading, we are always misled. The cerebral physiologist may say, if he chooses, that the mathematician's thought is “only” tiny physical movements of the grey matter. But then what about the cerebral physiologist's own thought at that very moment? A second physiologist, looking at it, could pronounce it also to be only tiny physical movements in the first physiologist's skull. Where is the rot to end? The answer is that we must never allow the rot to begin. We must, on pain of idiocy, deny from the very outset the idea that looking at is, by its own nature, intrinsically truer or better than looking along. One must look both along and at everything.

Lewis' example of studying suffering is beautiful and very appropriate.  How can one really speak knowledgeably about pain unless one has been inside it?  How can we purport to be experts on any subject that we have kept our distance from?  I have always believed that I can only truly learn from or about a subject if I love it.  If there is no love, I will put up barriers between us, and that will impede my learning.  Yes, much can be learned by taking an objective look at something from an outside perspective.  But this knowledge will always be incomplete without venturing inside, even if just for a moment.  The word "incarnation" comes to mind. 

Here is the C.S. Lewis article in its entirety:  Meditation in a Toolshed     

the photo:  taken from a speeding car while driving through Manitoba one morning in December.  Colorization effect added (because it reminded me of van Gogh).

1 comment:

Josh Hopping said...

wow..CS Lewis does have a way of getting to the heart of the matter. It some ways it is similar to saying that it is not enough to simply learn about something(looking at) but one has to actually walk it out or apply it (looking along). It is the same for following Jesus as it is for physiologist dealing with pain and suffering.

Good stuff to ponder. Thanks for sharing.