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Credulitas, Part II: In Defense of the Gullible

In The Discarded Image, Lewis makes it very clear: “credulitas must precede all instruction” (35). In my last essay, I expounded on this theme with stories from the classroom, essentially inferring that credulitas is itself an educational virtue. I’d like to defend that idea by looking again to Lewis, who not only models credulitas but defends it as a virtue in his other works as well. As we trace this idea, let us consider credulitas as it relates to the human faculty that modernity has almost extinguished entirely: the imagination.

If belief is indeed the beginning of all instruction, then let us say that unbelief is the goal of modern education. This is, I believe, what Lewis was attacking in The Abolition of Man. Lewis exposes many problems with modern educators, such as Gaius and Titius, but one sin he keeps coming back to is that of “debunking.” It is something that Lewis attacks all throughout this work. But for our purposes, as it relates to belief and unbelief in education, Lewis is incredibly clear:

In actual fact Gaius and Titius will be found to hold, with complete uncritical dogmatism, the whole system of values which happened to be in vogue among moderately educated young men of the professional classes during the period between the two wars. Their scepticism about values is on the surface: it is for use on other people’s values; about the values current in their own set they are not nearly sceptical enough. And this phenomenon is very usual. A great many of those who ‘debunk’ traditional or (as they would say) ‘sentimental’ values have in the background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process. They claim to be cutting away the parasitic growth of emotion, religious sanction, and inherited taboos, in order that ‘real’ or ‘basic’ values may emerge. (AOM 29)

This is, if you recall, exactly what my students were doing with the fantastical stories of Bede. They were skeptical enough towards Bede’s miracles but not to their own materialistic impulses. This kind of reading betrays an almost Nietzschean attitude towards a text. “When all that says ‘It is good’ has been debunked,” writes Lewis, “what says ‘I want’ remains” (65). If we get to “debunk” whatever claim we ostensibly disagree with, or whatever element in the story for which we cannot account, then what is left is sheer will, the choice to accept or reject what we like, regardless of the author’s intent. And if you think this doesn’t apply to classical education, what better image is there than the erudite classicist Thomas Jefferson scissoring out the portions of Christ’s miracles recorded in the Gospels. In his final point, Lewis admonishes us,

you cannot go on ‘explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.

In the end, we must believe something if we are to get anywhere with learning something. Credulitas, therefore, is vital to educating the soul, becuase it is life-giving to the imagination, to that inner eye which perceives more than the mere physical realities.

If the imagination is nourished on the food of good, true, and beautiful stories, then credulitas is the metabolizing organ in the anatomy of the soul. And however much we may desire or value creativity, we undermine its ability by our skepticism. Lewis recounts for us the contradictions we modern educators make: “In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful” (26). Let us say that the organ Lewis speaks of is the organ of belief, which Modernity, by its continual debunking, destroys. As Christians, however, we ought to restore that organ; we ought to nourish and prise belief.

Lewis defends credulitas in narrative form as well, particularly in one’s initiation into the land of Narnia. When Peter and Susan, for instance, first hear of Lucy’s experience in that country, they are reproached by Professor Digory Kirke for their incredulity, for their small and cramped vision of the world, and for their illogical disbelief in their sister’s account. Similarly, Eustace, as he is confronted by Ramandu, must also learn to believe in a world where stars are more than mere balls of flaming gas.

We moderns are afraid to be “taken in” by stories, and of the world we pronounce our disbelief along with the Rationalist Theseus: “I never may believe these antique fables, nor these fairy toys.” It is better to be a skeptic, says the Modern, than to be made a gullible fool. But Chesterton reminds us, “His soul will never starve for exploits or excitements who is wise enough to be made a fool of.” In his chapter on Pickwick in Charles Dickens, Chesterton defends the gullible, arguing that the believing man gets the most out of life. Those who possess credulitas possess that “god-like gullibility, which is the key to all adventures” (42). We, however, often avoid being “taken in.” But “To be taken in everywhere,” writes Chesterton, “is to see the inside of everything. It is the hospitality of circumstance. With torches and trumpets, like a guest, the greenhorn is taken in by Life. And the sceptic is cast out by it.”

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