On Breaking Spells

One of my central tasks is to explain to people the nature and purpose of a Christian study center. I often say something simple like “it’s a hub of Christian community and learning at a secular university,” or “it’s a place that shows students they can love God with all their mind.” Recently, however, another phrase has stuck in my mind: “It’s a place for breaking spells.” Let me explain.

Daniel Dennett, the prominent atheist and relentless critic of religion, recently passed away. His most notable book was Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Dennett joined a chorus of other voices arguing for a reductionistic understanding of reality. Physics, chemistry, biology, and neuroscience comprise all facts, and are all we need to know what’s real. Anything beyond this, especially Christianity, is an illusion, a spell that must be broken for human beings to live in peace and enjoy life.

Six decades before Dennett published his book, this same type of language was used in a sermon preached in Oxford entitled “The Weight of Glory.” “Do you think I am trying to weave a spell?” asked C.S. Lewis. “Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness that has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years.” Lewis goes on to define worldliness as any form of education or philosophy that seeks to convince us that the good of man is to be found on the earth. Ironically, this teaching cannot help but appeal to man’s religious nature: it scoffs at the idea of heaven and then promises to bring heaven down to earth; it promises that this present life is all we need but then proclaims this worldly utopia will only be realized in the future. And it relentlessly distracts us from thinking about death, realizing that if it truly is The End, it makes a mockery of every worldview.

So who is right: Dennett or Lewis? Who is under the spell? This is one of the fundamental questions of our age. Is man truly a spiritual being, whose nature and purpose can only be fulfilled by a reality beyond this world? Or is he nothing more than atoms in motion, a purely physical reality destined, in the words of Bertrand Russell, to be “buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins”?

Such a big issue cannot be resolved in an email. Yet one of the central problems in higher education is that big questions like this are not even up for debate—they are considered “settled,” and thus the purpose of higher education is to prepare students to live and work in a secular world. But as Lewis noted, the naturalist position can only be considered “settled” just as long as we don’t think too hard about it. For it makes an argument that destroys thinking; it tells us what we ought to do while proving morality is a sham; it claims to liberate us, then shows there is no such thing as freedom, meaning, or even a “self.” A common response is: “It’s just the cold hard facts; better to face the truth bravely.” But the truth, as Dallas Willard says, “is reality, and reality is what you run into when you are wrong.” Naturalism may be a popular ideology, but it is no friend of reality, for it is neither reasonable nor livable. What should we say when its proponents double down and commit themselves to such a self-refuting position? An evil spell must be at work.

One of the goals of a Christian study center is to liberate students from this way of thinking. We want to be a place that relentlessly focuses on the big questions, questions that science, psychology, and various other disciplines cannot answer but remain central to our existence. As we do so, our hope is that students will realize that true learning cannot be reduced to an instrumental means of mastering what is earthly; rather, it is a process of deep reflection on how the world and everything in it bears the marks of God’s power, wisdom, and love.

On Breaking Spells

We are thankful to be fully up and running as a ministry, and excited about the future of the study center. Please continue to pray for us, and do not hesitate to reach out with questions or just swing by the house.

Please also consider supporting the study center this year. We exist because Christians understand that even though they may not benefit directly from our ministry, our mission is vital for the spiritual health of college students and the future of the church in America. We will only continue to exist so long as God’s people see this need and respond with sacrificial giving.

In Christ,