What is real?
When skeptics say that God is not real, they are usually arguing from sensory experience: they haven’t seen or experienced God, therefore, God might be a nice idea, but he is an imaginary one.
This method of investigation is rooted in a worldview against which C.S. Lewis struggled for most of his life: naturalistic materialism. This worldview limits the real to what can be observed by the senses: as the phrase goes, “seeing is believing”.
The reason Lewis pushed back against this worldview was not because he disdained the senses or the scientific method. His critiques were rooted in the conviction that while naturalistic observation can tell us about part of reality, it is inadequate to give us the whole picture.
In other words, sense and science can give us one layer of reality, but it takes other kinds of language to get at the deeper layers: art, music, literature, mythology, theology.
Is art real? Is music real? Is story real? Is myth real? Is theology real?
To quote the inimitable Morpheus: “If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”
Or to quote Dumblebore, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” (skip to 4:34)
Lewis wanted his readers to ask themselves what they meant when they use the word “real”: had they fallen into reductionism?
Reductionism was the air most people breathed, and Lewis draws our attention to it intriguingly in the first of The Screwtape Letters. The older demon (Screwtape) begins his correspondence by cautioning Wormwood against allowing his patient to withdraw his attention “from the stream of immediate sense experiences.” Instead, he writes, “Your business is to fix his attention on the stream. Teach him to call this ‘real life’ and don’t let him ask what he means by ‘real’.”
In other words, the best way to keep a person from God is to keep them believing that only concrete things like a newspaper or a cup of tea can be classified as real, to get them to say, “I have no time to think about spiritual matters; it’s time to eat lunch.”
What is real? The stream of immediate sense experiences? Or is there a deeper layer beyond that stream, a deeper reality?
Next: What is a kiss? What is a star? What is a man?