C. S. Lewis on Discarding Old Ideas for New Ones

06/08/2012 10:38 am ET | Updated Aug 08, 2012

C. S. Lewis is known by most for his work of fiction, particularly "The Chronicles of Narnia." Others are more aware of his theological accomplishments, such as "Mere Christianity" or essays like "Myth Became Fact."

Did you know that Lewis, a professor in medieval and renaissance literature, also wrote specifically in his field?

If you didn't, you are probably not alone.

Among his academic contributions, the one that I love the most is "The Discarded Image." In this book, Lewis discusses a medieval model of the universe, what he calls an "image." An image is that perception of how the universe or world works and this image, in some valuable way, provides form and structure by which an individual might live.

This does not mean that the model of the universe is true or matches reality entirely, but that from the perception of the person attempting to make heads or tails of life, it provides the feeling that the universe makes sense.

In the medieval period, Lewis says this was the geocentric or Ptolemaic model of the universe, where the planets revolve around the earth. In that period, this model or image of the universe provided both a theological message (see my previous post on The Huffington Post) and a practical tool, particularly helping farmers in planting crops. "This is the medieval synthesis itself," Lewis explains, "the whole organization of their theology, science, and history into a single, complex, harmonious mental Model of the Universe."

Whether this geocentric image of the universe matches the way the universe actually works is beyond the point of its value. In fact, long after Copernicus and Galileo demonstrated that reality is very different and heliocentric, the older model of the universe persisted. After all, with a few minor adjustments, it worked for the moment and became a staple of farmer's almanacs.

At some point, however, this model or image was no longer tenable in light of new discoveries about the reality of the world and it was discarded for newer models. For Lewis, this change was not simply because human beings were now somehow brighter, rather, the model itself no longer gave meaning to the world. "We can no longer dismiss the change of Models as a simple progress from error to truth," writes Lewis, "No Model is a catalogue of ultimate realities, and none is a mere fantasy. Each is a serious attempt to get in all the phenomena known at a given period."

In other words, transition from older models is not merely about discovery, it is about how human beings understand the facts in light of what else they believe about reality. Models can change because of "an unprovoked assault of new facts" or because we, not the facts, change. We become discontent with what is and discard what no longer makes sense.

It is this point that I really found helpful for explaining my own transitions in life. Many times the light was turned on and the old answers provided for me utterly failed. When that light shines, I cannot un-see it. Additionally, light on the nature of the world can come from any source, whether it is C.S. Lewis or his polar opposite, Richard Dawkins, or simply a song I hear on the radio. In any case, if there is truth to what I hear, I would be foolish to ignore it.

At first, I might fight against these challenges to my worldview and perhaps there is cognitive dissonance. I can either embrace the new image that points out the holes in my old ones, or I can, through denial, patch up my flawed views with enough putty and paint that I no longer notice the problem.

Changes I made early on in my view of the world were strongly theological. I admit that in my more fundamentalist and teenage years, I even considered the possibility that a changed belief meant eternal condemnation. Today I realize that no matter what change I do or do not make to how I understand the world, there is always someone eager to consign me to hell for it. At some point you have to have the guts to go with what appears right given one's current model or image of the universe.

This has given me the freedom -- to the best of my courage -- to be me, knowing that I am always evolving. It is the theme behind my writing, either on The Huffington Post or at my blog by the same name as Lewis' book.

It has also provided me a better perspective on others.

While I hope to convince friends, family, colleagues or HuffPost readers of better images -- and I assume I am not alone in this -- I should also not be surprised when others are not convinced. Perhaps a person's current perspective does not affect his or her world negatively enough to warrant a change. Perhaps there is not enough of a shared journey for my perspective to make sense to everyone. It is also possible that the person I want to change is afraid -- as my younger self was -- that the jaws of hell are eager for them to embrace new ideas, drooling at the thought of consuming them.

Maybe one day I'll find that the person I wanted to convince was actually the one who was right.

Knowing that another person may not have taken the same journey also helps with my lack of patience. I'm certain that at some point, when I needed to change but was not ready, someone with more knowledge of the world (a friend or older mentor) gave me time to figure it out.

Lastly, I should say that these discarded images are not simply cast to the garbage heap, nor are they mere mementos of my intellectual travels. No one should be a mere consumer of ideas, just eager for the next flashy thing. They are companions and help chronicle my story. They set the trajectory for my future, and more importantly they pave the road for ideas yet undiscovered.