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How Not To Be a Chronological Snob (Post 4)

I am exploring fifteen ways thoughtful believers saw the world before the Enlightenment, and how we see the world now. C. S. Lewis draws these distinctions masterfully in his writings. I believe this is one reason why his books and articles are so engaging and enduring. He is on to something, and we intuitively know it. 

In this post, I’ll identify a ninth distinction he makes that we should consider. Again, I think the pre-Enlightenment perspective is the correct one. If we can resist the temptation to chronological snobbery, these ideas can help us navigate our modern world.

Integration vs. Disintegration

Pre-Enlightenment Integration

Prior to the Enlightenment, most people believed that there was an underlying unity “below the surface” of things. At first glance, it may have seemed then, as it does now, that reality is a cacophony of different, independent realities. But premodern people looked deeper. They were able to see beyond mere appearance. They were able to more easily grasp the unseen, underlying integrity of all things.

Integrity is an interesting term. Dictionaries offer two definitions of the word. For instance, Dictionary.com lists, as the first (most common) understanding of the word, “adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.” The second definition of integrity is “the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished.” 

This order is telling. The second understanding is the premodern understanding. Integrity encapsulated the idea that things are a seamless whole. That all the parts work together, because “the whole is prior to the parts.” That there is a fundamental unity to the thing, and when it is functioning in that way there is integrity.

This assumption of all creation having a fundamental integrity, or being deeply integrated, was based on the assumption that God created everything and therefore gives everything this underlying unity. This is not the pantheistic idea that “all is one and one is all.” In that case there actually is no unity and no integration, because there is ultimately only one reality–The One. 

Rather, according to a biblical worldview, God created great diversity. Yet his creation is integrated in two ways. First, all creation is integrated in its dependence on God as Creator and Sustainer. We read this about Christ in Colossians 1:15-17:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

All things have a deep, underlying unity because ultimately all things depend on Christ for their creation and continuation. 

Second, all things have their specific unity, or integrity, because they are more than a mere collection of parts. We are told that God created the various parts of his creation “according to their kind”:

Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:11-12)

So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:21)

And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so. God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:24-25)

The Hebrew word used for kind in these passages is min. It can also be translated as species, as it was in Genesis 1:21, 24, and 25 in the Latin Vulgate (around A.D. 400). In the Vulgate, it is also translated as genus in Genesis 1:11, 12, and 21. 

Throughout the premodern period, species and genus were synonymous. In the 1700s, Carl Linnaeus distinguished the two in his new classification system, which we use to this day. But up to that point, both terms referred to a kind of thing, things of the same sort, or things sharing the same form. So we best understand the term kind as a thing’s immaterial essence, which makes the thing what it is (making it an oak tree, cow, or human person). 

It is easy for us to miss this understanding of form, due to how we have been trained to think as intellectual children of the Enlightenment. When we see the term form, we immediately think of a thing’s physical structure. But this is not what the term connoted before the modern era. Rather, it was understood to mean the immaterial essence of the thing. I have discussed our shared human nature here and here. I have given reasons to believe that immaterial essences, or forms, exist in my post here

Therefore, if there is an immaterial essence that underlies physical things, there is a deep unity to individual things. For instance, my various parts (my physical parts, as well as my thoughts, desires, emotions, etc.) are “mine” because they are all ultimately parts of my soul (my individuated human nature). So I am first and foremost a unity (an immaterial substance) that has diversity (my various parts). 

This is the pre-Enlightenment understanding that emphasized the deep unity, or integrity, of all things.

Enlightenment Dis-integration

This all changed in the Enlightenment. Many rejected the belief that God created and sustains all things. From this, it follows that there is no fundamental unity, or integrity, to reality due to its shared dependence on God as its source.  

Second, many rejected the notion that each thing had an immaterial essence that made it what it was. People came to believe there are no immaterial realities such as forms or essences. Therefore, individual things do not have a fundamental unity underlying their many parts. This followed from the shift from a realist view of properties to the nominalist view (see my earlier posts in this series for more on this shift). 

For instance, Darwin made this shift clear in his writings:

I am fully convinced that species are not immutable; but that those belonging to what are called the same genera are lineal descendants of some other and generally extinct species, in the same manner as the acknowledged varieties of any one species are the descendants of that species. (Darwin, The Origin of Species, Modern Library edition, p. 14)

In other words, if biological taxonomy is grounded in special natures (species having unique natures), then it is fixed (the taxonomy is objective, determined by these special natures underlying various biological organisms). This is precisely what Darwin is rejecting. And his thought won the day. (I’ll write more on this soon. If you would like to do a “deeper dive” into this issue, I’ve published on this in an academic journal: “In Defense of Biological Essentialism: A Response to Sober et al.,” Philosophia Christi 4, no 1: 29-44, 2002.)

This reduction from unity to disunity, or from integrity to disintegrity, has pervaded thought since the Enlightenment. Hence the primary definition of integrity now is merely ethical integrity–doing the right thing. Gone is any notion of integrity referring to all things being whole, united, and as they should be. This broader and deeper notion of integrity can no longer be the case without underlying essences. 

Instead, we are now left with a mechanistic view of reality. Everything is nothing more than a collection of its (material) parts. All things are more or less complicated machines. Reality is ultimately a collection of disunified parts, without any inherent integrity.

Implications of This Reduction

We see the implications of this Enlightenment reductionism everywhere we look. I have mentioned a few implications above; I will add two more here. 

We see an implication in this reductionism in our approach to medicine. Modern medicine has moved away from treating patients as primarily persons (unified wholes). The emphasis has shifted toward treating patients as nothing more than broken machines. Therefore, “bedside manner” or relationships and conversations are no longer important or necessary. All that a doctor must do is look at the patient’s chart, determine what part is broken, and fix it. The patient as a person, a self who possesses the broken part, is irrelevant to the call or the work of the physician. 

Another implication concerns the work of Christian academicians. Part of their calling is to integrate their faith and scholarship. This means integrating truths taught in Scripture with what is known in their fields of study. 

Some Christians argue that integration is unnecessary. They argue that reality is already integrated, due to God being its Creator and Sustainer. Therefore, there is no need to integrate what is already fundamentally integrated. 

This objection seems to confuse metaphysics with epistemology. The objection concerns metaphysics–what is, or the “order of being.” In this sense, the objector is correct–reality is already united or integrated.

However, the task of integration is one of epistemology–the “order of knowing.” The Enlightenment tore apart our understanding of this deep unity. Therefore, the Christian scholar is called to promote an understanding of the deep unity or integrity of all things. In our post-Enlightenment world, the Christian scholar is called to the task of integration, epistemically understood. 

Conclusion

Obviously I am not getting to five of Lewis’s distinctions each week. This week I got through just one! To write more would make this post much too long.

Next week I’ll continue with Lewis’s distinctions between the pre-modern and modern periods of thought.

Until then, grace and peace.

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