15 January, 2007

C.S. Lewis on the Divine goodness

I've owned a series of famous apologetic works by C.S. Lewis for some time. A large number of Christians I know admire the way Lewis explains Christian thought, and since I took it upon myself to wonder recently whether apologists were being entirely convincing in their approach to answering the atheist challenge, I decided to look at one of Lewis' texts. (Lewis converted to Christianity from atheism.) Truth be told, I was looking for Mere Christianity and found The Problem of Pain instead. I've wondered about that recently, too, so I picked it up and started reading. (I'm still stealing looks at Purgatorio, too.)

A pleasant aspect of the text is that Lewis admits his reliance on past centuries of wisdom in the preface:

Except in the last two chapters, parts of which are admittedly speculative, I have believed myself to be re-stating ancient and orthodox doctrines.
Good! Too many Christians seem to think that this sort of reliance is a kind of weakness.

(I should interject here that, although I once felt myself capable of dealing with the problem, and that even now I believe I have an "intellectual" answer to it, based on the same ancient and orthodox doctrines that Lewis believes, the current rationalist assault, coupled with the utter lack of response at the parish level in the Catholic Churches I have visited, has nevertheless given me pause, shaken my confidence, and caused me to question. All of this is a good thing, as far as I am concerned intellectually, but the emotional effect is rather less pleasing.)

I'll start with my own observation from some weeks back,
The only resolution I can come to is that if God exists—which, despite all these struggles, I do not doubt, and if God is good, and if God loves us, then our understanding of goodness and love and even of God is truly skewed.
Reassuringly enough, Lewis concedes essentially the same. He begins by reviewing his own argument in favor atheism when he was an atheist, then stating at the beginning of chapter 2,
The possibility of answering [the problem of pain] depends on showing that the terms "good" and "almighty", and perhaps also the term "happy" are equivocal: for it must be admitted from the outset that if the popular meanings attached to these words are the best, or the only possible, then the argument is unanswerable.
Even more reassuring is his description of the common image of God as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they say, "liked to see young people enjoying themselves," and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, "a good time was had by all." We have certainly progressed beyond the common, infantile sentimentalism of pop religion here.

At this point, I have read only the preface, the introduction, and the fist two chapters. It makes for excellent reading, and Lewis draws some analogies that are compelling. When speaking of the divine goodness, for instance, he speaks of the artist who worries over his work, erasing and re-drawing, refusing to accept mediocrity, or the husband who, precisely because he loves his wife, takes some interest in what she does, or how she looks. When we fall in love with a woman, he asks, do we cease to care whether she is clean or dirty, fair or foul? Do we not rather then first begin to care? Does any woman, regard it as a sign of love in a man that he neither knows nor cares how she is looking? Similarly, what father does not discipline his child out of love, and the child looks askance at it?

None of this is supposed to answer the problem, but to make the reader re-examine his own false presuppositions regarding the meanings of the words involved. That's a relief, since I find the question remains unanswered at this point.

On the other hand, there are a few quibbles that I have with the argument. I'll note the two that vex me the most.

First. Although he is not as bad as Peter Kreeft, Lewis has a habit of making short, witty remarks that are meant to be convincing, and to make one's opponents look silly. If one pauses to think about it, however, these quotes are not so convincing after all. One is the somewhat famous quote that It is mere nonsense to put pain among the discoveries of science. Lay down this book and reflect for five minutes on the fact that all the great religions were first preached, and long practised, in a world without chloroform. Well, yes, of course. I can nod my head to that. It is nevertheless a straw man argument, and a shockingly bad one at that. Rationalists do not, to my knowledge, claim that science discovered pain; rather, the claim is that religion was chloroform before science discovered chloroform—and, they add, it wasn't a particularly good chloroform at that, which is why religious people went about murdering and burning so many people who took a slightly different point of view. (I do not endorse that position; I merely wish to clarify it, for the sake of honesty.) If we move on to the notion Lewis appears to wish to dispel ("[O]ur ancestors were ignorant and therefore entertained pleasing illusions about nature which the progress of science has since dispelled", and this caused them to imagine "a wise and good Creator"), I must point out that, as a matter of fact, our ancestors were ignorant, and did entertain illusions about nature which the progress of science has since dispelled, and that St. Paul himself says that the Creator God is evident from creation. It is perfectly reasonable to suppose from this that, therefore, some humans (St. Paul, at least) would imagine a good and wise Creator based on observation of nature. The fact that I disagree with the conclusion, based on observations of my own, does not make the supposition unreasonable!

Second. Mr. Lewis describes his entry to the university in this way,
By the mercy of God I fell among a set of young men (none of them, by the way, Christian) who were sufficiently close to me in intellect and imagination to secure immediate intimacy, but who knew, and tried to obey, the moral law. Thus their judgement of good and evil was very different from mine. ...[T]he great test is that the recognition of the new standards is accompanied with the sense of shame and guilt: one is conscious of having blundered into society that one is unfit for. ...When the relevant difference between the Divine ethics and your own appears to you, you will not, in fact, be in any doubt that the change demanded of you is in the direction you already call "better". The Divine "goodness" differs from ours, but it is not sheerly different: it differs from ours not as white from black but as a perfect circle from a child's first attempt to draw a wheel.
Here I encounter a clear difficulty.

On the one hand, I am delighted that Lewis' experience is something like one that I distinctly remember from my own university years. It was the first time that I met some actual, faithful Catholic who took their faith seriously. They were, in my opinion, some of the most beautiful souls I had ever met. I did not become Catholic at that time, but, having been raised among mere cultural Catholics or anti-Catholic Protestants, it was as if someone had removed a curtain. I could see out the window of the room where my sickbed lay, and marvel at the splendid spring out-of-doors where other children played. How I longed to be like that myself! So, when I did become a Catholic—a move that required me to reverse some of my most deeply-held principles, which today I consider to have been fundamentally mistaken and even harmful to my soul—I was indeed moving in the direction that I would call "better".

Alas, this is where things break down. The fact that Lewis and I both consider our experiences as improvement does not mean that others would, also. Indeed, my experience is that most people find the change demanded to be in a direction they consider not merely "worse" but right out "laughable". If you doubt me, turn away from this weblog and reflect for five minutes on whether a lifelong, monogamous relationship that relies only on natural birth control is "better" or "worse". I dare say that most men will hear "monogamous" and immediately answer "worse" even before we discuss birth control. Indeed many naturalists will approve of this, since male primates (and we are a species of primate) are not known for their monogamy. Certainly not the Bonobo monkey at any rate. If one really imagines that most men will answer "better" to such a proposition, I will answer with two things:
  • Lewis himself concedes that all men in all places possess a standard of morality, but, he argues, they disobey it. This does not suggest, in my opinion, that most people think morality is actually better for them personally when they follow it; it is better for them personally when other people follow it. I may be mistaken, but this suggests to me that Lewis faces a contradiction.
  • Second, I have rather vivid memories of my childhood acquaintances mocking my morality, especially when it kept me out of their "fun". This may best be illustrated by an episode from when I was a high school teacher. A student asked me, "Mr. Perry, have you ever been drunk?" "No, E—," I answered, quite honestly. "Have you ever done drugs?" "No, E—." "Have you ever been in jail?" "Of course not!" He concluded his interrogation with, "Daaaaamn, Mr. Perry! Ain't you never had no fun?" To which all the students in the class—every blessed one—laughed uproariously. Needless to say, (a) I didn't have a lot of friends growing up, and (b) I soon quite teaching high school.

    There is, I assert, a large number of people for whom "better" is equated with "more fun" or "more pleasurable", and whose sense of "fun" and "pleasure" is superficial, perverse, and self-destructive. They will not become Christians unless Christianity is made to appear to them as "more fun" or "more pleasurable" than what they are doing right now. Although it would be much, much better for them to move in a direction that Christians know is "better", they themselves would not see this immediately, and would likely move further away from Christianity as soon as this became apparent to them. Indeed many of them imagine themselves to be Chrsitian already, and think that Christianity does not demand of them any of the sort of inconveniences or sufferings that stand in the way of perfection. And why shouldn't they? Their preachers have been telling them this for over a century.

1 comment:

Elliot said...

Good points. What's better for us, morally, is not always that obvious, or at least not until after we've damaged ourselves.