Meditation in a Toolshed

Does being a Christian forever disqualify you as an appropriate authority on the truth of Christianity? If I wanted a true account of the Christian religion, would I do better to try see things as a Christian, or as a fair-minded secular religious studies professor? C. S. Lewis provides a helpful illustration in “Meditation in a Toolshed”[1]

I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.

Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.

C. S. Lewis seeks to combat the idea that it is better to evaluate the truth of a worldview (to slightly change the metaphor) by looking in from the outside. Lewis observes that this “modern” idea has been swallowed and assumed without discussion for the last fifty years. If this idea were correct it would be disastrous for the Christian, for how then can one be confident of their religious belief?

Let us go back to the toolshed. I might have discounted what I saw when looking along the beam (i.e., the leaves moving and the sun) on the ground that it was “really only a strip of dusty light in a dark shed”. That is, I might have set up as “true” my “side vision” of the beam. But then that side vision is itself an instance of the activity we call seeing. And this new instance could also be looked at from outside. I could allow a scientist to tell me that what seemed to be a beam of light in a shed was “really only an agitation of my own optic nerves”. And that would be just as good (or as bad) a bit of debunking as the previous one. The picture of the beam in the toolshed would now have to be discounted just as the previous picture of the trees and the sun had been discounted. And then, where are you?

In other words, you can step outside one experience only by stepping inside another. Therefore, if all inside experiences are misleading, we are always misled.

He calls the idea that we should only be confident with just one way of knowing – such as by looking at things – “rot.” He concludes,

. . . 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. . . we must start with no prejudice for or against either kind of looking. We do not know in advance whether the lover or the psychologist is giving the more correct account of love, or whether both accounts are equally correct in different ways, or whether both are equally wrong. We just have to find out. But the period of brow-beating has got to end.

1. C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), p. 212