C. S. Lewis and 8 Reasons for Believing in Objective Morality

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The cornerstone of the moral argument is the existence of an objective moral standard. If there really is a standard of right and wrong that holds true regardless of our opinions and emotions, then the moral argument has the ability to convince. However, apart from the existence of such an objective standard, moral arguments for God’s existence (and Christian theism) quickly lose their persuasive power and morality as a whole falls to the realm of subjective preference. Although I could say a fair amount about what the world would be like if morality really was a matter of preference (consider The Purge), the purpose of this article is to provide reasons for believing in objective morality (or “moral realism,” as philosophers call it).

Because of his continued focus on the objective nature of morality throughout his writings, and due to his unique ability to communicate and defend this concept in a clear and compelling manner, I will rely heavily on the thought of C. S. Lewis below. As I’ve read through a number of Lewis’s books, I’ve identified eight arguments he raises in favor of objective morality. Below is my attempt to list these eight arguments and offer a few thoughts of my own concerning each.

1)    Quarreling between two or more individuals.[1] When quarreling occurs, individuals assume there is an objective standard of right and wrong, of which each person is aware and one has broken. Why quarrel if no objective standard exists?

By definition, quarreling (or arguing) involves trying to show another person that he is in the wrong. And as Lewis indicates, there is no point in trying to do that unless there is some sort of agreement as to what right and wrong actually are, just like there is no sense in saying a football player has committed a foul if there is no agreement about the rules of football.[2]

2)    It’s obvious that an objective moral standard exists.[3] Throughout history, mankind has generally agreed that “the human idea of decent behavior [is] obvious to everyone.”[4] For example, it’s obvious (or self-evident) that torturing a child for fun is morally reprehensible.

As the father of two children, a daughter who is five and a son who is three, I have noticed that even my young children recognize that certain things are obviously right or wrong. For example, while watching a show like PJ Masks, my children can easily point out the good characters as well as the bad ones – even without my help. In short, the overwhelming obviousness that certain acts are clearly right or wrong indicates that an objective moral standard exists.

3)    Mistreatment.[5] One might say he does not believe in objective morality, however, the moment he is mistreated he will react as if such a standard exists. When one denies the existence of an objective standard of behavior, the moment he is mistreated, “he will be complaining ‘It’s not fair!’ before you can say Jack Robinson.”[6]

Sean McDowell relays an example of this when he shares a story involving J. P. Moreland taking the stereo of a University of Vermont student who denied the existence of objective morality in favor of moral relativism. As Moreland was sharing the gospel with the university student, the student responded by saying he (Moreland) couldn’t force his views on others because “everything is relative.” Following this claim, in an effort to reveal what the student really believed about moral issues, Moreland picked up the student’s stereo from his dorm room and began to walk down the hallway, when the student suddenly shouted, “Hey, what are you doing? You can’t do that!”[7]

Again, one might deny the existence of an objective standard of behavior through his words or actions, but he will always reveal what he really believes through his reactions when mistreated. (Note: Here at moralapologetics.com, we do not recommend you go around and mistreat others, as that wouldn’t be a moral way to do apologetics. See what I did there? Rather, we are simply bringing up the mistreatment issue as a way of exposing a deep flaw within moral relativism.)

4)    Measuring value systems.[8] When an individual states that one value system is better than another, or attempts to replace a particular value system with a better one, he assumes there is an objective standard of judgment. This objective standard of judgment, which is different from either value system, helps one conclude that one value system conforms more closely to the moral standard than another. Without some sort of objective measuring stick for value systems, there is no way to conclude that civilized morality, where humans treat one another with dignity and respect, is better than savage morality, where humans brutally murder others, even within their own tribe at times, for various reasons.

 

To illustrate this point, Lewis says, “The reason why your idea of New York can be truer or less true than mine is that New York is a real place, existing quite apart from what either of us thinks. If when each of us said ‘New York’ each means merely ‘The town I am imagining in my own head,’ how could one of us have truer ideas than the other? There would be no question of truth or falsehood at all.”[9] In the same way, if there is no objective moral standard, then there is no sense in saying that any one value system has ever been morally good or morally bad, or morally superior or inferior to other value systems.

5)    Attempting to improve morally.[10] Certainly, countless individuals attempt to improve themselves morally on a daily basis. No sane person wakes up and declares, “My goal is to become more immoral today!”[11] If there is no absolute standard of good which exists, then talk of moral improvement is nonsensical and actual moral progress is impossible. If no ultimate standard of right and wrong exists, then one might change his actions, but he can never improve his morality.

If there is hope of moral improvement, then there must be some sort of absolute standard of good that exists above and outside the process of improvement. In other words, there must be a target for humans to aim their moral efforts at and also a ruler by which to measure moral progress. Without an objective moral standard of behavior, then “[t]here is no sense in talking of ‘becoming better’ if better means simply ‘what we are becoming’ – it is like congratulating yourself on reaching your destination and defining destination as ‘the place you have reached.’”[12] 

6)    Reasoning over moral issues.[13] When men reason over moral issues, it is assumed there is an objective standard of right and wrong. If there is no objective standard, then reasoning over moral issues is on the same level as one arguing with his friends about the best flavor of ice cream at the local parlor (“I prefer this” and “I don’t like that”). In short, a world where morality is a matter of preference makes it impossible to have meaningful conversations over issues like adultery, sexuality, abortion, immigration, drugs, bullying, stealing, and so on.

7)    Feeling a sense of obligation over moral matters.[14] The words “ought” and “ought not” imply the existence of an objective moral law that mankind recognizes and feels obligated to follow. Virtually all humans would agree that one ought to try to save the life of a drowning child and that one ought not kill innocent people for sheer entertainment. It is also perfectly intelligible to believe that humans are morally obligated to possess (or acquire) traits such as compassion, mercifulness, generosity, and courage.[15]

8)    Making excuses for not behaving appropriately.[16] If one does not believe in an objective standard of behavior, then why should he become anxious to make excuses for how he behaved in a given circumstance? Why doesn’t he just go on with his life without defending himself? After all, a man doesn’t have to defend himself if there is no standard for him to fall short of or altogether break. Lewis maintains, “The truth is, we believe in decency so much – we feel the Rule of Law pressing on us so – that we cannot bear to face the fact that we are breaking it, and consequently we try to shift the responsibility.”[17]

Although the eight reasons provided above do not cover all of the reasons for believing in objective morality, it is a starting point nonetheless. If any of the reasons above for believing in objective morality are valid, then the moral argument for God’s existence (and Christian theism) has the ability to get off the ground. In fact, if there are any good reasons (in this article or beyond it) for believing in an objective moral standard, then I think God’s existence becomes the best possible explanation for morality since such a standard at the least requires a transcendent, good, and personal source – which sounds a lot like the God of Christian theism.

 

 

 

 

Stephen S. Jordan currently serves as a high school Bible teacher at Liberty Christian Academy. He is also a Bible teacher, curriculum developer, and curriculum editor at Liberty University Online Academy, as well as a PhD student at Liberty University. He and his wife, along with their two children and German shepherd, reside in Goode, Virginia.


[1] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 3.

[2] Ibid., 4.

[3] Ibid., 5.

[4] Ibid. In the appendix section of The Abolition of Man, Lewis provides a list that illustrates the points of agreement amongst various civilizations throughout history. See C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 83-101.

[5] Ibid., 6.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Sean McDowell, Ethix: Being Bold in a Whatever World (Nashville, TN: B&H Books, 2006), 45-46.

[8] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 43, 73. Also see Lewis, Mere Christianity, 13.

[9] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 13-14.

[10] C. S. Lewis, “Evil and God,” in God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2014), 3-4.

[11] Even if someone’s goal is to become more immoral, he still needs an objective standard to measure the level of his badness.

[12] Ibid.

[13] C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 54.

[14] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 10.

[15] C. Stephen Evans, God and Moral Obligation (New York, NY: Oxford University Press), 2-3.

[16] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 8.

[17] Ibid.

Interview with David Baggett

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What is moral apologetics and how does it impact the average person?

When I say moral apologetics, I’m referring to various versions of the moral argument. It’s doing apologetics—a rational defense of the faith—using the resources of ethics and moral truth. Of course the phrase “moral apologetics” can also simply be used to express the idea of doing apologetics in a moral way—respectfully, politely, kindly—and I think that’s a good idea too. Particularly if one wants to offer a moral argument for God’s existence, it ought to be done morally. Otherwise it’s like cheating on an ethics test—which would be more than a little ironic.

Moral considerations in favor of theism generally or Christianity particularly come in lots of forms. Formal arguments are just one way; but other ways include casual conversations, a sense of conviction over sin, the need for forgiveness, recognition of the dignity and value and equality of people, the primacy of love. I’d hazard to guess that the sorts of considerations central to most people coming to faith are moral ones. C. S. Lewis gave a version of the moral argument in Book I of Mere Christianity, in which he said that the existence of an objective moral standard and the way we all invariably fall short of it are the two most central concepts in coming to understand the universe. By the way he also first gave that chapter as a radio address in England during World War II—you don’t get much more practical than that. Lewis also wrote that until we recognize that we’ve fallen short of the moral law, we have little sense of any need for forgiveness and salvation, so the considerations of morality can function well not just to point people to God, but to the need for the gospel. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga, when asked, has said that the moral argument is likely the best argument on offer from natural theology. Christian apologist William Lane Craig, when asked, has admitted that when he has debates on various college campuses, the moral argument tends to be the most effective one.

So when we actually give a moral argument for God or Christianity, the basic idea is that we start with foundational moral realities of which most all of us are readily aware, and then we try to make the case that theism can explain these realities better than can the alternatives—like atheism or various secular efforts.

The average person likely doesn’t think about the argument in its formal versions very much, but there’s something deeply intuitive about recognizing moral truth when we see it and allowing it to point us beyond ourselves—and perhaps even all the way to God. There’s something about axiomatic moral truths that gets us thinking about the nature of reality and the human condition. Where did these moral standards come from? It’s not just a matter of what a society happens to dub morality, because societies can be wrong, just as individuals are. There’s an objective standard out there; what does that say about the world we live in? Moral apologists tend to think it says quite a bit.

What’s the history of moral apologetics?

The history of the moral argument is rich indeed. The first really big name associated with the moral argument is Immanuel Kant, who gave a few different versions of it. Before him, you can find precursors of the moral argument or aspects of it in numerous thinkers—from Plato to Aquinas, Descartes to Reid, Pascal to Locke, Pascal to Berkeley. It was Kant, though, who put it together in a systematic way. He saw the reality of the moral law, its authority, our inability to meet the law on our own resources alone, the need for an account of the full rationality of morality. Since him, in the English speaking world, nearly every luminary in the field of moral apologetics has had something to say about Kant. Agree or disagree, we can’t responsibly ignore him. In the 1800s and into the early 1900 several dozen major European thinkers devoted considerable thought to the evidential force of morality where God’s concerned. John Henry Newman is an example, a famous evangelical-turned-Anglican-turned-Catholic. A big aspect of his moral argument is the role of conscience as a faculty that puts us in touch with the deliverances of the moral law. Other major thinkers subsequent to Newman were A. E. Taylor, William Sorley, Hastings Rashdall, and lots of others. A number of these gave whole Gifford lectures and wrote whole books on the topic. Of course in the mid-1900s Lewis popularized the argument in Mere Christianity, and since then, in the United States, there’s been a veritable explosion of interest in the moral argument in which a number of top-notch philosophers have devoted to it their considerable analytic skills. Jerry Walls and I are putting the finishing touches on a book chronicling this fertile history.

What’s the nature of your work in moral apologetics?

When I was in graduate school I decided to write my dissertation on the Euthyphro Dilemma, which arose in an early Socratic dialogue: Is something moral because God commands it, or vice versa. (At least that’s a common contemporary version.) It struck me as interesting because it related to this matter of God and ethics and whether there’s a connection between them. It’s thought by many to pose an intractable objection to theistic ethics. I didn’t agree, but wanted to figure out what I thought about it. After doing that work it freed me up to extend the argument all the way to the moral argument. If we can defend a strong account of the dependence of morality on God, while effectively critiquing secular ethics and basing the whole thing on moral truths that most everyone agrees on, we have the ingredients for an effective moral apologetic.

So in my work I tend to focus on moral facts like objective moral values and duties, moral knowledge, moral transformation, and moral rationality, and argues that these realities are better explained by theism than by atheism. It’s interesting and important work, endlessly fascinating to me. Take moral duties, for example. What is it about the world that can account for their existence—these binding, prescriptive, authoritative moral duties that impose obligations on us irrespective of whether we want them to or not, or whether we have any intention of obeying them or not. What does their existence say about the nature of reality? Or take the essential dignity and value of people. What accounts for such a thing? What does such a moral fact have to teach us about the nature of ultimate reality? In books like Good God, God and Cosmos, and The Morals of the Story, those are the kinds of issues we spend time exploring.

Why have you developed an interest in writing about Mr. Rogers?

That might seem a bit odd, right? But I actually see it as integrally related to moral apologetics. I grew up watching him, of course, like most of us did, and always loved the guy. But the recent documentary got me more interested in finding out about his life. There was much I didn’t know—that he was an ordained minister, personal friends with Henri Nouwen, a graduate of seminary, someone with a vibrant spiritual life. The documentary does a remarkably good job talking about his life and ministry—and he really did see his television work as ministry, though nothing ever heavy handed. Watching his story is deeply moving; most leave the theater in tears. I’ve seen the documentary three times already and it deeply touches me every time. Bullied as a kid, he went on a lifelong quest to see the good in others, even if it was hard to see. He was a wonderful man, and as I thought about it I realized that in his quiet, gentle, loving way he was embodying the sorts of principles I talk about when I do moral apologetics. He didn’t give an argument, or paint people into corners, but he lived its truths, and in the process demonstrated their power. St. Francis said, "Preach Jesus, and if necessary use words." We as evangelicals can underestimate the power of a life lived well to communicate important truths and inculcate in others a hunger to know God. Mr. Rogers did this, day in and day out; he was a prayer warrior, someone who took spiritual formation seriously, someone who saw his work in television as a calling and ministry. He saw himself on a mission to protect kids and their innocence, to let them know they’re loved, that they’re special and unique. He saw the absolute primacy of love. His whole life was a moral apologetic.

What are some of the ways Mr. Rogers connects with your work on the moral argument?

He took seriously the biblical command to love your neighbor as yourself. It wasn’t a coincidence his show was “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” He saw that love of God is inextricably tied to love of neighbor. He aimed to be a helper, someone who made the world better in big ways and small, a repairer of creation. He took friendship seriously, investing his time and money and energy in cultivating them with great care. He challenged us all to make goodness attractive—nothing Pollyannaish, but real, actual goodness—and he modeled what doing that looks like. Believers and unbelievers alike look at his life and can see there was something special about him; they can see the love of Christ within him. He didn’t just talk about the primacy of love; he showed us what making love the priority actually looks like.

Part of what drew me to him was that, though he was all about the same principles we talk about in moral apologetics—taking our responsibilities seriously, protecting the innocent, preserving human dignity, making people feel loved, loving your neighbor—he did it in a way that wasn’t heavy handed or off putting, but eminently attractive. Having done a lot of thinking about the theology and theory behind all of this, I’m deeply inspired to see it play out in flesh and blood in a life like his. So I’m aiming to get a trade press contract to write a book about him—particularly about the influences on him like Henri Nouwen, like the child development expert he studied with, Margaret McFarland, and his favorite seminary professor, William Orr.

How do you teach your students to view pop culture through the lens of moral apologetics and why is this important?

Truth can be found in all sorts of places. We just need to cultivate the eyes to see it. I consider it providential that after grad school I was able to get involved with my friend Bill Irwin’s series on philosophy and popular culture. It was a brilliant idea to use the medium of popular culture to talk about important issues in philosophy that arise in fun and unexpected ways in our music and movies and television shows, and its staying power demonstrates what a smart idea it is. In a sense we can do the same with apologetics, including moral apologetics, and see all around us all sorts of important truths that point us to God. My wife just wrote a piece on the television show “The Man in the High Castle.” There’s nothing specifically Christian about the show, which is an adaption of a novel by Philip K. Dick, but implicitly in the story is a strong moral lesson that we need a moral anchor that mere people or even whole societies alone can’t provide, moral truths that go beyond political power or mere expediency. Whether it’s “The Man in the High Castle,” Harry Potter, or Mr. Rogers, apologists can tap into pop culture in all sorts of ways to build bridges and generate important conversations.

 

More Than Mere Morality

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By David Baggett and Marybeth Baggett

Connecting God and ethics nowadays often invites amusement at best, disdain at worst. “Religious nones” are on the increase, yet society seems to be holding together tolerably well. Add to that the number of stories about religiously affiliated folks behaving badly, and for many, it’s just not clear what the purpose of throwing God into the moral equation is. Perhaps nothing more than an authoritarian party-pooper whose rules are inscrutable, and a life spent following them, bleak. Ned Flanders from The Simpsons is the posterchild for such a posture—religious, affable, yet perpetually clueless. “I don't drink or dance or swear, I've even kept kosher just to be on the safe side. I've done everything the Bible says! Even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff!” 

It’s commonplace today to think morality is on better footing without religion’s involvement, which usually just taints and ruins it. All manner of human strife, critics declare, stems from faith convictions—the Crusades, religious persecution throughout history, and contemporary terrorism and unrest in the Middle East. And the Judeo-Christian deity is no better, so the argument goes. After all, Richard Dawkins writes, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

As we said, moral apologists are facing a bit of a publicity crisis these days. Still Dawkins’s bluster helps us understand why moral considerations are now often taken as evidence against God’s goodness or existence, as in the classical problem of evil. Moral arguments in favor of God’s existence—even though they’ve been advanced by thinkers as notable as Immanuel Kant, John Henry Newman, and C. S. Lewis—usually tend to push listeners beyond believability, sometimes even beyond civility. “I don’t need God to be moral!” comes the retort. To suggest otherwise is on par with accusations of offensive body odor or, even worse, forcing the premature cancellation of Firefly. What kind of monster do you think I am?

Duly admonished, most proponents of the moral argument walk back their claims, profusely apologizing and distancing themselves from any implication that unbelievers can’t uphold fine values and sport strong characters. Yes, yes, they say, we appreciate Mulder’s devotion to Scully, thoroughly irreligious as it is. And they dial back their claims, set aside questions of conversion, and start with common ground, exploring the best explanation of moral agency or rights, duties or knowledge. Such care and judiciousness is admirable. It’s also effective in building a bridge between believers and nonbelievers, and heaven knows the more bridges constructed in these divided times the better.

Nevertheless, despite the provocations associated with the claim, it is difficult to blithely accept that we can somehow achieve radical moral transformation of our own devices. A quick glance at human history or literature removes any lingering doubts to the contrary. Maybe there’s something to this God/morality connection, at least something worth thinking a bit about rather than dismissing it out of hand. It is an idea we find compelling ourselves—that anything like realistic hope for moral perfection is possible only if God makes it happen. In fact, we lay out such a case for readers, along with a number of other considerations for the moral argument, in our recent book, The Morals of the Story: Good News about a Good God.

Once everyone’s hackles are down, cooler heads will often acknowledge that, true enough, this world is a mess, and not even Dr. Horrible can save us. Consensus is that something does have to give. We have heard this sentiment expressed in Sarah Silverman’s recent plea for a better world after her friend Louis CK confessed to abusive mistreatment of women; we heard it in victim statement after victim statement in the sentencing trial of convicted child molester Larry Nassar. In light of these horrific wrongs, we can see that the cursory and superficial manner in which morality is often treated in this era of soundbites and social media is just not cutting it. The very issue of moral transformation is often overshadowed by a rather shortsighted and watered-down account of what morality is all about. It’s not simply conventions and negotiations to ensure we get along; it’s not merely knowing and avoiding social taboos and staying in the public’s good graces. It’s much deeper than that, more solid and foundational to reality itself. It features traditional and authoritative obligations with attendant guilt for wrongdoing; it’s a call to a life of virtue with talk of a coming reckoning and promise of forgiveness for sins. To think about it otherwise is to domesticate it beyond recognition.

Take an analogy. There is a crucial difference between genuine health, on the one hand, and merely treating conditions, on the other. A Tylenol might give relief for a few hours, but only a root canal will eradicate the underlying problem. Rather than seeking the cure we need for our moral disease, it’s tempting instead to alleviate a few symptoms, settle for a few incremental improvements along the way, thank our lucky stars for a modicum of palliative therapy, and deny we’re really that sick after all. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography provides a memorable example of just this approach. As a young man, he once set himself to the formidable task of attaining moral perfection. He outlined his plans to conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead him into; however, unsurprisingly, this strategy failed to achieve its ambitious goals: “I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined. While my care was employ’d in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another; habit took the advantage of inattention; inclination was sometimes too strong for reason.” Having failed to reach his lofty aims, Franklin settled instead for the mere appearance of virtue.

As John Hare deftly explains in his important work The Moral Gap, without divine assistance to bridge the chasm between our ethical obligations and capabilities, we find few options other than exaggerating our capacities, lowering the demand, or forging secular substitutes. But as Kant and Lewis have pointed out, and as we so acutely recognize, that approach—psychologically appeasing as it might be—cannot rescue us from our moral dilemma, obligated to a standard that, try as we might, we cannot meet, called to a sublime vocation of which we’re unworthy. At least on our own finite and meager resources.

Malcolm Muggeridge famously wrote that the depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellec­tually resisted fact. Babylon Bee put a humorous twist on this serious subject with the story of a 29-year-old mom who believed that people are basically good—at least until her daughter grew up a little. “Now that Charlotte is two—hoo boy. That innate depravity is shining through with the brightness of a thousand suns…. She’s like a Category 5 hurricane with a cute face.”

Lewis said that there are two facts that are well-nigh undeniable: the existence of moral truths, and that we invariably fall short of them. Lewis thought these two truths provide the most important clue to understand this world in which we live. They constitute our diagnosis; God’s overtures of love offering forgiveness and transformation is the prescription. The life that awaits us, Lewis proclaims, is about so much more than implementing a moral regiment or diluting the standard: “The people who keep on asking if they can’t lead a decent life without Christ, don’t know what life is about; if they did they would know that ‘a decent life’ is mere machinery compared with the thing we men are really made for. Morality is indispensable: but the Divine Life, which gives itself to us and which calls us to be gods, intends for us something in which morality will be swallowed up.” God can do more than merely ameliorate the symptoms of our chronic moral malady. We are to be remade—a glorious prospect indeed. In the face of our urgent need to become not just better people, but new people, for a revolution of the will, for radical moral transformation, the death and resurrection of Christ is indeed “good news.”

Reading Literature through the Eyes of C. S. Lewis, Part 6

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            Christians seeking to read literature from a biblical Christian worldview can benefit from the valuable insights Lewis offers in Experiment in Criticism for how to read and interpret literature. One of Lewis’s key arguments for the study of literature is that the reader must commit to receiving, rather than merely using, a book. Lewis states, “When we ‘receive’ it we exert our senses and imagination and various other powers according to a pattern invented by the artist. When we ‘use’ it we treat it as assistance for our own activities” (An Experiment in Criticism 88). Furthermore, “‘Using’ is inferior to ‘reception’ because art, if used rather than received, merely facilitates, brightens, relieves or palliates our life, and does not add to it” (88).

Ryken observes the danger of attempting to use rather than to receive literature:

There is a danger that we must be aware of when we look for world views in literature. It is the danger of reducing literature to a set of abstract ideas, as though this is what literature exists for. In the process, the story or poem itself becomes superfluous. Works of literature embody and incarnate a world view. In talking about that world view in the terms I have outlined, we inevitably formulate it in conceptual terms. But this conceptual framework should never become a substitute for the work itself. It should only be a light by which to illuminate the story or poem. Literature imagines forth a world view. It allows us to experience and feel that world view as experientially as possible. In effect, we look at the world through the ‘eyes’ of the writer’s world view.” (Windows to the World 141-42)

Thus, Lewis’s maxim that “[t]he necessary condition of all good reading is ‘to get ourselves out of the way’” when reading a book is highly beneficial to the reader (An Experiment in Criticism 93). This approach of receiving literature allows the text to speak for itself without the reader imposing preconceived ideas upon it.

Such an approach may ostensibly seem contradictory to a biblical Christian worldview; however, Lewis considers this approach an act of love. Ryken demonstrates this idea in his comment on Lewis’s system of receiving, rather than using, a book:

Lewis thereby shows a respect for the literature he discusses that is akin to Christians’ respect for the Word that they regard as authoritative, whether it comes as Scripture or creed. In a day of ideological criticism in which critics use literature chiefly to advance their own political agenda, Lewis instead listens to authors and works. The model he provides in this regard may, indeed, be his greatest legacy as a literary critic. (Reading the Classics with C. S. Lewis 30)

Lewis’s approach to literature is thus based on humility and respect for the text. Whereas some critics attempt to use a literary work to fit it into their personal or political agenda, Lewis’s method allows the text to “speak for itself” rather than to be manipulated and warped by the reader.

To understand more fully Lewis’s insight, his essay “Meditation in a Toolshed” may be helpful for consideration. Lewis observes a beam of light entering a dark shed. His epiphany is that, to fully understand the beam of light, the viewer must look both at and along the beam. To relate this to literature, the Christian must not only read critically with the biblical Christian worldview, or “along,” but also must look “at” the text for what it is, to fully appreciate and understand it. According to Ryken, Lewis discredited the approach to literature that focuses on considering merely the “idea” of a book: “To reduce a piece of literature to its ideas … is an outrage to the thing the poet has made for us” (Lewis, qtd. in Realms of Gold 8-9).

            Moreover, Lewis offers another piece of advice for reading literature; he states that exposure to good literature aids one’s ability in detecting what constitutes good literature. He states, “The best safeguard against bad literature is a full experience of good; just as a real and affectionate acquaintance with honest people gives a better protection against rogues than a habitual distrust of everyone” (An Experiment in Criticism 94). Lewis also advises the reader on how to critique a book based on his own reading and the guidance of critics: “He is, in a word, to have the character which MacDonald attributed to God, and Chesterton, following him, to the critic; that of being ‘easy to please, but hard to satisfy’” (120). When Lewis considers those critics who have been most beneficial to him in his study of literature, he states that they are those who helped primarily

by telling [him] what works exist. But still more by putting [the works] in their setting; thus showing [him] what demands they were meant to satisfy, what furniture they presupposed in the minds of their readers. They have headed [him] off from false approaches, taught [him] what to look for, enabled [him] in some degree to put [himself] into the frame of mind of those to whom they were addressed. This had happened because such historians on the whole have taken Arnold’s advice by getting themselves out of the way. They are concerned far more with describing books than with judging them. (An Experiment in Criticism 121-122)

Thus, for Lewis, context is crucial to a fair study and judgment of literature. He esteems critics who faithfully put a work in its historical and cultural setting to more fully understand its meaning. By first understanding a book by its context, readers can then apply it to their own lives, both through a more fuller grasp of human life and as a safeguard against blindspots of the contemporary age.

Furthermore, Lewis offers his counsel on properly balancing books with what their critics claim for them. Lewis states, “The truth is not that we need the critics in order to enjoy the authors, but that we need the authors in order to enjoy the critics” (An Experiment in Criticism 123). Also, “If we have to choose, it is always better to read Chaucer again than to read a new criticism of him” (An Experiment in Criticism 124). In other words, Lewis prefers the original text to the criticism of it, yet, simultaneously, he recognizes the value of criticism insofar as it is placed in its proper position below the text.

            Lewis’s expansive knowledge of literature and his positions at the two greatest universities for humanities give him credibility for establishing his own literary theory. He not only explores the merits of literature from a critical standpoint in his essays and books, but also incorporates his principles into his own fiction writing. By advocating that readers must receive, rather than use, a literary text, Lewis offers an approach that encourages readers to enjoy literature rather than to impose one’s personal agendas on it. 

 

Comment

Lauren Platanos

Lauren Platanos graduated summa cum laude from Liberty University with a double major in English and Government. After developing a love for the wide range of works by C.S. Lewis, she furthered her study of his writings at Oxford University. After graduation, Lauren went on to study holistic health and became a certified integrative nutrition health coach. She now lives with her husband and two dogs in Virginia, where she coaches individuals through their healing journey through her online business healpeacefully.com.

Reading Literature through the Eyes of C. S. Lewis, Part 4

Photo by  Janko Ferlič  on  Unsplash

Photo by Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

            One of the standards Lewis gives to determine what constitutes good literature is whether a book has stood the test of time. He offers advice in his essay “On the Reading of Old Books.” He recommends that, for every new book one reads, one should read an old book: “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between” (201-2). He continually emphasizes the superiority of the classics and great books. Additionally, he advises the average reader that, if the need arises to choose between a new or old book, the reader should choose the old because “he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusively temporary diet” (“On the Reading of Old Books” 201). The danger in new books, he explains, is that the book is still “on trial [and must still] be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light” (“On the Reading of Old Books” 201). Thus, the central reason Lewis offers for reading old as opposed to modern books is that older ones have stood the test of time, whereas modern ones have not had adequate time to be judged and deemed worthy to be read.

        Lewis offers further evidence for the value of old books: those that have stood the test of time are valuable because they reveal the mistakes of the era in which they were written. By learning from these past mistakes, readers are better equipped to avoid similar mistakes in their own age.  He explains that, since each age contains a particular dominant view of life, a book from that era is particularly good at both “seeing certain truths and . . . liable to [make] certain mistakes (“On the Reading of Old Books” 202). Everyone needs “books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of [their] own period. And that means the old books” (“On the Reading of Old Books” 202). Old books often contain ideas that run counter to contemporary worldviews or issues and are beneficial for the way that they often reveal the possible flaws behind current ideas. Often writers, though seemingly “as completely opposed as two sides could be were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions (“On the Reading of Old Books” 202). Therefore, reading old books is preferable to new ones because not only can they help readers identify mistakes of past ages but also those same books will also enable them to better understand the problems of their own age.

            In another essay, “On Stories,” Lewis further addresses what constitutes good literature, focusing more particularly on literature as an art form. He argues that the function of art is “to present what the narrow and desperately practical perspectives of real life exclude” (“On Stories” 10). One aspect of stories that Lewis was most fond of was that, “to construct plausible and moving ‘other worlds,’ [writers and readers] must draw on the only real ‘other world’ [they] know, that of the spirit” (12). He explains further, “Good stories often introduce the marvelous or supernatural, and nothing about Story has been so often misunderstood as this” (13). This aspect of literature reveals Lewis’s earlier argument that literature can be a road both to and from heaven. Although he considers one negative possibility of escapism, the encouragement of “happiness under incompatible conditions” (14), Lewis also takes into account the potential benefit of the escape into literature: “[The] whole story, paradoxically enough, strengthens our relish for real life. This excursion into the preposterous sends us back with renewed pleasure to the actual” (15).

            Moreover, Lewis’s essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” explores standards for determining the quality of children’s literature. He states, “I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story” (“On Three Ways of Writing for Children” 24). Lewis touches again on the potential problem of escapism by differentiating between two types of longing: “The one is an askesis, a spiritual exercise, and the other is a disease” (30). His argument here is that, if a child “escapes” into literature, it is healthy and even beneficial, if the longing produced by entering into a fictional world is a spiritual longing. However, if the reader wishes to imaginatively live in an alternate world merely to escape the real one, then it can become destructive.

            Additionally, Lewis argues that literature should not be overtly didactic. Its primary purpose is to entertain, and a “moral” should not be incorporated at the expense of entertainment. Lewis argues that, rather than asking what moral theme or principle contemporary children need to hear, a writer ought to ask oneself what moral he or she needs to learn. Lewis advocates, “The only moral that is of any value is that which arises inevitably from the whole cast of the author’s mind,” for “what does not concern us deeply will not deeply interest our readers, whatever their age” (“On Three Ways of Writing to Children” 33). Therefore, the moral must not be something superficially placed in front of the child, but something portrayed in a real sense and driven by the true concerns of the writer.

 

             

 

Comment

Lauren Platanos

Lauren Platanos graduated summa cum laude from Liberty University with a double major in English and Government. After developing a love for the wide range of works by C.S. Lewis, she furthered her study of his writings at Oxford University. After graduation, Lauren went on to study holistic health and became a certified integrative nutrition health coach. She now lives with her husband and two dogs in Virginia, where she coaches individuals through their healing journey through her online business healpeacefully.com.

Reading Literature through the Eyes of C. S. Lewis, Part 3

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            Lewis readily recognized that not all values in literature were Christian, but that they often encouraged a sub- or anti-Christian morality. He acknowledges that “[t]he sub-Christian or anti-Christian values implicit in most literature [do] actually infect many readers” (“Christianity and Culture” 16). For example, Lewis lists some of the most common sub-Christian values in literature: honor, sexual love, material prosperity, pantheistic contemplation of nature, yearning for the past, and liberation of impulses (“Christianity and Culture” 21-2). Although he states that he cannot defend for the values of sexual love or the liberation of the impulses, he can make a case for the other four values, which “are all two-edged” in that they “may symbolize what [he] think[s] of them all by the aphorism ‘Any road out of Jerusalem must also be a road into Jerusalem’” (“Christianity and Culture” 22). Thus, Lewis recognizes that some of these values may lead the reader away from God; at the same time, however, he also recognizes that the opposite is also possible and even likely: such values may lead the reader to a recognition of God and salvation.

            To explain further this idea of sub-Christian values and the way they might lead a person to eventual salvation, Lewis offers an example of how the sub-Christian value of pantheistic contemplation of nature can be “two-edged.” Lewis explains, “There is an easy transition from Theism to Pantheism; but there is also a blessed transition in the other direction. For some souls I believe, for my own I remember, Wordsworthian contemplation can be the first and lowest form of recognition that there is something outside ourselves which demands reverence” (“Christianity and Culture” 22). Though it may ostensibly sound like a risk, considering he concedes that this “road to Jerusalem” goes both ways, the point Lewis makes has special significance for him personally. In fact, it was through the literature of George MacDonald, Christian fantasy writer, and Lewis’s love of myth that Lewis was persuaded to embrace theism as a viable alternative to atheism (Veith 139). For him, literature was a step toward theism, and theism a step toward Christianity.

            Lewis thus finds culture, and literature as one of its primary products, beneficial for both the Christian and the non-Christian reader. He states, “Culture, though not in itself meritorious, [is] innocent and pleasant, might be a vocation for some, [is] helpful in bringing certain souls to Christ, and [can] be pursued to the glory of God” (“Christianity and Culture” 28). Furthermore, Lewis states, “I agree with Brother Every that our leisure, even our play, is a matter of serious concern. There is no neutral ground in the universe: every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counter-claimed by Satan” (“Christianity and Culture” 33). Therefore, Lewis both defends the merit of literature and recognizes the importance responsibility of the reader to protecting both mind and heart when reading.

            Moreover, Lewis clarifies the relative importance the reader must place upon secular literature. He argues, “My whole contention is that in literature, in addition to the spiritual good and evil which it carries, there is also a good and evil of the second class, a properly cultural or literary good and evil, which must not be allowed to masquerade as good and evil of the first class” (33). To demonstrate, Lewis uses the following example: “I enjoyed my breakfast this morning, and I think that was a good thing and do not think it was condemned by God. But I do not think myself a good man for enjoying it. The distinction does not seem to me a very fine one” (36). In other words, literature itself, when it contains sub-Christian values, should not be looked to as a primary, or spiritual, good; rather, it should be considered as a secondary good, given as high a value as possible below a spiritual value.

            In reading literary works, readers are stretching their imagination to experience God’s creation in a novel manner. Literature allows readers to better empathize with others, as it often encourages selflessness and love. Literature also teaches mankind about human life and reality in a way that other disciplines cannot. In stories, abstract ideas are fleshed out in concrete, real terms in a way that provides meaningful understanding for the reader. Most importantly, literature can assist readers in comprehending a variety of worldviews and in becoming more capable witnesses for Christ. Lewis advocated on the behalf of all such arguments for literature’s value.

            Ryken endorses Lewis’s viewpoint when he argues in favor of confronting worldviews embedded in literature. He argues that the encounter with worldviews both “gives us a historical perspective on our own civilization and spares us the naïveté of beginning anew with each generation” (Windows to the World 142). Furthermore, according to Ryken, an understanding of the worldviews

helps us understand people who live by them today . . . [and] gives us a knowledge of the alternatives from which to choose our own world view. C.S. Lewis has written that ‘to judge between one ethos and another, it is necessary to have got inside both, and if literary history does not help us to do so it is a great waste of labor.’ (Windows to the World 142-3)

Therefore, through encountering worldviews in literature, the reader gains not only a deeper understanding of various historical perspectives on life but also an authentic understanding of his or her own worldview.

Lewis notes the significance of examining a worldview from the “inside,” which is made possible through reading stories and observing how various worldviews actually apply to the lives of those characters who adhere to them. Veith expands on this idea:

One of the greatest benefits of literature, as C. S. Lewis points out, is that it provides a way for us to enter into other people’s minds for a while, to allow us to understand what it feels like to live in a certain time or to hold to a certain worldview. Reading works by rationalists or naturalists or Marxists or existentialists can help us to understand these perspectives better from the inside and to identify the human needs they address (and fail to address). Such understanding is necessary whether we are attempting to refute these limiting worldviews or simply to communicate more effectively to the modern mind. (73)

Thus, Lewis reveals an important reason for why Christians should read literature: to step inside others’ worldviews to gain understanding of and connection to them.

 

 

Comment

Lauren Platanos

Lauren Platanos graduated summa cum laude from Liberty University with a double major in English and Government. After developing a love for the wide range of works by C.S. Lewis, she furthered her study of his writings at Oxford University. After graduation, Lauren went on to study holistic health and became a certified integrative nutrition health coach. She now lives with her husband and two dogs in Virginia, where she coaches individuals through their healing journey through her online business healpeacefully.com.

Reading Literature through the Eyes of C. S. Lewis, Part 2

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            Throughout C. S. Lewis’s academic career, the question of what value literature held, whether Christian or non-Christian, seemed to interest him. He wrote on the topic early in his academic career through essays such as “Christianity and Literature” (written around 1939) and “Christianity and Culture” (1940). Lewis’s seminal work on the question, An Experiment in Criticism, was published in 1961. Another significant work contributing to Lewis’s literary theory, a collection of essays entitled Of Other Worlds, was published posthumously in 1966. Therefore, to more fully appreciate Lewis’s opinion on the validity of literature, it is necessary to begin with an examination of his two primary essays on the issue in order to establish the foundation of the theory on which he built throughout his academic career as teacher and critic.

            In the first essay, “Christianity and Literature,” Lewis develops his view about what constitutes good literature. One of his central arguments regarding the creation of literature is that no literary art is produced in a vacuum; rather, it is contingent upon a prior tradition that intended to reflect eternal truths. He discusses the “theory of genius,” the trend of contemporary literary criticism to place value on being creative, original, and spontaneous (“Christianity and Literature” 5). In response to such theory, Lewis argues:

In the New Testament the art of life itself is an art of imagination: can we, believing this, believe that literature, which must derive from real life, is an aim at being ‘creative’, ‘original’, and ‘spontaneous’[?] ‘Originality’ in the New Testament is quite plainly that prerogative of God alone … The duty and happiness of every other being is placed in being derivative, in reflecting like a mirror. (“Christianity and Literature” 6)

In this passage, Lewis attacks both the contemporary criticism of his time as well as the mindset of authors who were striving for novelty and extemporaneity in their writings. He maintains that the root of all critical theory should be the “maxim that an author should never conceive himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom which did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody in terms of his own art some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom” (“Christianity and Literature” 7). Furthermore, Lewis contends that a Christian literary theory and criticism should not only oppose the theory of genius but also the “idea that literature is self-expression” (“Christianity and Literature” 7). Critic Jerry L. Daniel observes Lewis’s integrity in avoiding such self-expression in Lewis’s own imaginative writing: “He wrote to communicate whatever vision was filling his imagination at the moment, not to reveal his inner self” (“A Basis for Literary Criticism” 23). Accordingly, good Christian literature and literary theory are established upon the assumption that all good art reflects the eternal wisdom and beauty of God without attempting to take credit for bringing such similar truths into existence.

            In his second essay, “Christianity and Culture,” Lewis explores the question of what value culture has for the Christian, or even for the non-Christian, by focusing particularly upon literature as a product of culture. He captures the significance of the question as he sets it forth early in the essay: “The glory of God, and, as our only means to glorifying Him, the salvation of human souls, is the real business of life. What, then, is the value of culture? It is, of course, no new question; but as a living question it was new to me” (“Christianity and Culture” 14). This essay analyzes a wide variety of literary critics, both Christian and non-Christian, who stake claim on this living question. Lewis investigates the philosophies or literary criticisms of Matthew Arnold, Croce, I. A. Richards, St. Jerome, John Keats, Thomas a Kempis, Pope Gregory, John Milton, John Henry Newman, Jeremy Bentham, and Sir Philip Sidney, among others. Noting some of their important contributions, he also often points out significant shortcomings or contradictions in their work. By confronting and thoroughly evaluating the theories of numerous critics and philosophers, Lewis enhances his credibility as a critic as he advances his own literary philosophy. In addition to these great thinkers, he looks to Scripture to build a constructive case for considering the relevance of culture and literature.

            As he constructs a case for culture, which encompasses literature, Lewis examines how it has influenced his own life and how it may influence others. He starts by noting that insofar as there is a demand for teaching culture, and since it is good for a man to have a job, teaching literature is good. He then states, “But is culture even harmless? It certainly can be harmful and often is” (“Christianity and Culture” 20). It is with this acknowledgement that he then asks how culture has influenced himself personally, explaining that “it has given [him] quite an enormous amount of pleasure” (“Christianity and Culture” 21). After confessing his own experience of taking pleasure from cultural artifacts, he makes an important analysis of whether pleasure should be considered a good:

I have no doubt at all that pleasure is in itself a good and pain in itself an evil; if not, then the whole Christian tradition about heaven and hell and the passion of our Lord seems to have no meaning. Pleasure, then, is good; a ‘sinful’ pleasure means a good offered, and accepted, under conditions which involve a breach of the moral law. The pleasures of culture are not intrinsically bound up with such conditions—though of course they can very easily be so enjoyed as to involve them. Often, as Newman saw, they are an excellent diversion from guilty pleasures. (“Christianity and Culture” 21)

In this analysis, Lewis shows that pleasure is a “good” insofar as it does not violate God’s law. In fact, he shows, through the influence of Newman, that the pleasure found in literature can even be useful as a diversion from sinful pleasure. He concludes, “We may, therefore, enjoy [the pleasures of literature] ourselves, and lawfully, even charitably, teach others to enjoy them” (“Christianity and Culture” 21).

 

Comment

Lauren Platanos

Lauren Platanos graduated summa cum laude from Liberty University with a double major in English and Government. After developing a love for the wide range of works by C.S. Lewis, she furthered her study of his writings at Oxford University. After graduation, Lauren went on to study holistic health and became a certified integrative nutrition health coach. She now lives with her husband and two dogs in Virginia, where she coaches individuals through their healing journey through her online business healpeacefully.com.

Reading Literature through the Eyes of C. S. Lewis, Part 1

            A central concern for Christians regarding literature is what value, if any, literature holds for the reader. Although this is not a new consideration, it is one C. S. Lewis referred to as a “living question” for its continued importance for discussion. Literature is often accused of being useless, merely entertainment, irrelevant to life, or immoral (Ryken, Windows to the World 18). Does a biblical Christian worldview allow Christians to enjoy literature, and if so, how should Christians decide what books they should read? In answering these difficult questions, one author in particular should be respected and consulted for answers: C. S. Lewis. This prominent Oxford and Cambridge lecturer and imaginative writer provides a thorough response for how Christians should engage the humanities and culture, particularly in the area of literary art.

            Lewis had the extraordinary privilege of teaching at the two most prestigious universities in the world for the humanities: Oxford and Cambridge. He first taught at Magdalen College, Oxford, from 1925 to 1954. He then earned the position of Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Magdalene College, Cambridge. In Reading the Classics with C. S. Lewis, Leland Ryken accordingly spells out some of the advantages of studying “with” such a learned scholar. First, Ryken notes that with Lewis’s literary criticism, readers are “in the presence of someone who simply assumed that the world of literature is a self-rewarding world of overwhelming importance” (24). Furthermore, he “had a knack for delineating the features of an author’s world” (24), and a way of attracting readers both to “individual works of authors” as well as immersing them into the “entire world of imaginative literature” (26). The key, according to Ryken, is Lewis’s vast array of reading experience; he states, “I know of no twentieth-century critic who refers to so many works and writers” (26). On a more personal level, Ryken observes, “To read literature with C. S. Lewis is to get to know Lewis himself, and this is part of the appeal of his criticism. Criticism as an impersonal scholarly inquiry did not occur as an option for Lewis. His own tastes and personality come through at nearly every turn” (28). Mark Noll considers the influence and importance of Lewis:

Lewis’s writing has constituted the single most important body of Christian thinking for American evangelicals in the twentieth century. His defense of supernatural Christianity, his ability to exploit learned culture, his example as a writer of fiction, his demonstration that the truths of the faith could be expressed in lively prose—all contributed an unusual measure of intellectual stimulation to evangelicals on this side of the water. (218)

As one of the greatest literary scholars and critics in the twentieth century, Lewis’s views on literature are vital for any Christian seeking answers to the questions of why one should read literature, what constitutes a good book, and how one should approach reading.

The most tragic reality students face in the secular university today is the absence of belief in absolute truth. Literature is typically not studied from the perspective of what the author is trying to communicate; instead, students are encouraged to decipher their own meaning and apply it to the text. In a society entrenched in postmodern ideologies, the understanding of what principles govern the reading of good literature is often lost. With postmodernity came the false presupposition that there are no objective standards to which literature must adhere. The result is “art for art’s sake” and the assumption that the reader, not the author, determines the meaning of the text. As postmodernists disregard absolutes, words, which form the foundation of literature, lose their essential meaning. Thus, words such as “Truth,” “Love,” “Wisdom,” “Beauty,” and “Justice” become mere abstractions which people subjectively understand. The loss of a stable language is detrimental to a student’s entire education. When words lose their function of communicating universal truth and meaning, students lose the ability to come to a meaningful understanding of truth and reality.

            Lewis, noticing the gravitation toward relativism in the contemporary worldview of his time, set forth concrete principles for interpreting literature. He believed in the importance of understanding the worldview of an author, as well as how readers’ worldviews affect the way that they interpret literature.  Yet Lewis argues that readers should not allow their own worldview to frustrate or impede a story; instead, they must “receive” rather than “use” a story (Experiment in Criticism 93). Thus, Lewis strikes a balance between two polarized forms of literary criticism. On one end of the spectrum, readers simplify a literary text to force it into a uniform category to argue that it advocates a particular worldview or universal truth. At the other extreme are those who deny the existence of absolutes and thus force the text to fit whichever meaning they subjectively wish to contend. Lewis’s approach, as a middle ground, encourages readers to interact with a text and to enjoy it for what it is worth, yet not to impose their personal agendas on the text to determine its meaning.

            Fiction is a unique vehicle for explaining and illuminating the reality of human life. Although a fictional story does not necessarily tell a true story, it is an instrument through which the reader can discover truth. Humans are, as beings created in the image of God, creators in their own right. Thus, a person who is crafting literature is creating a world. By entering the world of fiction, according to Lewis, the reader can later re-enter the real world with a refreshed perspective on reality. Emphasis on supernatural reality is one of the most common themes in Lewis’s work, particularly in his fiction. In his essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” Lewis explains that he uses the genre of fantasy as a vehicle to convey his message because other genres attempting to express a moral or principle may inadvertently cause the reader to feel obligation. According to Lewis, “an obligation to feel can freeze things” (37). In other words, when entering the imaginary world, the reader typically does not feel that he or she is being told what to do. Instead, while watching the story unfold, the reader can experience the abstract or concrete ideas evoked by the author in a natural, rather than forced, environment. Such an environment is most effective, for it allows the reader alone to decide how to act upon the underlying message.

 

Comment

Lauren Platanos

Lauren Platanos graduated summa cum laude from Liberty University with a double major in English and Government. After developing a love for the wide range of works by C.S. Lewis, she furthered her study of his writings at Oxford University. After graduation, Lauren went on to study holistic health and became a certified integrative nutrition health coach. She now lives with her husband and two dogs in Virginia, where she coaches individuals through their healing journey through her online business healpeacefully.com.

Objective Morality, the Nature of Guilt, and God’s Offer of Divine Forgiveness And Promise of Moral Transformation: A New Look at C. S. Lewis’s Moral Argument (Part 2)

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by Stephen S. Jordan

Mankind’s Inability to Keep the Objective Moral Law

            Lewis’s first point acknowledges the existence of an objective moral law; his second point is this: “None of us are really keeping [it].”[1] These two concepts are so deeply ingrained within his version of the moral argument that he claims:

These, then, are the two points I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.[2]

Much has already been said about the first concept –“they know the Law of Nature [sic]”; the rest of this section will deal with the second – “they break it.” His second point is not a judgmental one that only applies to others; he is “quite willing to admit that he belongs among the moral lawbreakers.”[3] In fact, he admits “. . .that this year, or this month, or, more likely, this very day, we have failed to practice ourselves the kind of behaviour [sic] we expect from other people.”[4]

Lewis claims what is obvious to any rational human being: no one perfectly adheres to the objective moral law. In fact, one of the “most natural thing[s] in the world [is] to recognize that human beings are imperfect and fall short of moral ideals.”[5] Lewis observes that moral failure, or “falling short,” elicits a sense of guilt in all humans,[6] moments when,

…all these blasphemies vanish away. Much, we may feel, can be excused to human infirmities: but not this – this incredibly mean and ugly action which none of our friends would have done, which even such a thorough-going little rotter as X would have been ashamed of, which we would not for the world allow to be published. At such a moment we really do know that our character, as revealed in this action, is, and ought to be, hateful to all good men, and, if there are powers above man, to them.[7]

 

Guilt serves as a trigger that alerts one to his own failure to do what ought to have been done in a particular situation.[8] Psychologists define it as “moral transgression in which people believe that their action (or inaction) contributed to negative outcomes.”[9] Guilt “has long been considered the most essential emotion in the development of the affective and cognitive structures of both conscience and moral behavior.”[10] Even “the atheist feels guilt (accompanied by dread) when he recollects his violation of the moral law. Even he can feel the law’s inexorable demands.”[11]

            If there is an objective moral law and it is clear that all men fail to adhere to its demands, it seems odd that one would experience guilt before such an abstract, impersonal moral code. Rules and principles do not elicit feelings of guilt and shame within individuals; only persons are responsible for this. Does this indicate that there is One behind the objective moral law that is more like a Person than anything else? According to John Henry Newman, “Inanimate things [such as rules and principles] cannot stir our affections; these are correlative with persons. If, as is the case, we feel responsibility, are ashamed, are frightened, at transgressing the voice of conscience, this implies that there is One to whom we are responsible, before whom we are ashamed, whose claims upon us we fear…”[12] Along the same lines, A. E. Taylor states, “When we feel as we ought to feel about the evil in ourselves, we cannot help recognizing that our position is not so much that of someone who has broken a wise and salutary regulation, as of one who has insulted or proved false to a person of supreme excellence, entitled to wholehearted devotion.”[13] If there is indeed a Person behind the objective moral law, then transgression of this law is ultimately an offense directed against the One to whom all persons are responsible.

            At this point, Lewis notes, “. . . after you have realized that there is a real Moral Law, and a Power behind the law, and that you have broken that law and put yourself wrong with that Power – it is after all this, and not a moment sooner, that Christianity begins to talk.”[14] Lewis refers to the One behind the Law as “a Power”; it certainly seems that such a being also has to be “a Person” – considering the guilt and shame that individuals experience when they transgress the objective moral law.

            Mankind’s inability to adhere to the moral law is ultimately transgression against the Person behind the law; this is a frightening position for mankind to find himself in. As Lewis says, “He is our only possibly ally, and we have made ourselves His enemies.”[15] Is there any way out of this predicament? The only way out for man is if the divine Person decides to provide a way of rescue. Guilt can only be alleviated by a person; in this case, it can only be cured if the divine Person, the One who has been wronged, God himself, chooses to forgive.[16] Matter, nature, a divine mind or Power, an impersonal force, or some other conception of the divine, cannot forgive; “Only a Person can forgive.”[17]

Although there may be several theistic religions that set forth the notion of a personal God,[18] Christianity stands alone as being able to provide an adequate ground for such a God. Throughout Scripture, God is active. He makes the decision to create (Gen. 1:1), walks in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:8), experiences emotions (Is. 61:8), converses with human beings (Job 38-41), loves (Jn. 3:16), displays compassion (Mt. 9:36), judges (Jas. 4:12), disciplines (Deut. 8:5), and performs a host of other person-like acts. In addition to these examples, there are two fundamental reasons why Christianity is unique in its conception of God as a Person: 1) the Trinity; and 2) the Incarnation.[19] These two doctrines are unique to Christianity; the former demonstrates that God has always been personal (consider the interrelationships of the three Persons within the Triune Godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), whereas the latter reveals that God is an actual Person (Jesus Christ is God “manifested in the flesh”; 1 Tim. 3:16).

The good news that Christianity offers is that God, the “one lawgiver” (Jas. 4:12) who stands behind the objective moral law, the Person who has been transgressed, has decided to offer divine forgiveness to those who choose to accept it (1 Jn. 1:9).[20] Additionally, Christianity provides hope of moral improvement, and even radical transformation, through the indwelling of the third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit (Phil. 1:6).[21] Some think that time cancels sin and will ultimately alleviate guilt, but, as Lewis suggests: “[M]ere time does nothing either to the fact or to the guilt of a sin. The guilt is washed out not by time but by repentance and the blood of Jesus Christ.”[22] Only when one admits his guilt, repents of his sin, and turns to the Person and Work of Christ can he receive God’s divine forgiveness and experience moral transformation – which are the two things that he most desperately needs in light of his moral predicament.       

 

Conclusion

            Lewis’s moral argument, in a broad sense, as evidenced in this essay, begins with eight reasons for believing in the existence of objective morality, continues with the obvious fact that mankind is unable to adhere to such a moral standard, and concludes with a discussion of how the Christian God is the only One who is able to account for these realities. The latter half of the essay, an emphasis has been placed on the nature of guilt, which is an objective reality for all who have transgressed the moral law. Because guilt is not elicited by rules and principles, but rather by persons, and since humans experience guilt when failing to adhere to the moral law, the One behind the moral law must be more like a Person than anything else. Finally, the moral predicament that Lewis highlights in his argument – “they know the Law of nature” and “they break it” – is ultimately remedied through God’s offer of divine forgiveness and promise to morally transform all who admit their guilt, repent of their sin, and turn to the Person and Work of Jesus Christ.

 

Notes: 

[1] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 7.

[2] Ibid., 8.

[3] Baggett, “Pro: The Moral Argument is Convincing,” in C. S. Lewis’s Christian Apologetics: Pro and Con, 124.

[4] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 7.

[5] Baggett, “Pro: The Moral Argument is Convincing,” in C. S. Lewis’s Christian Apologetics: Pro and Con, 127.

[6] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 11.

[7] Ibid., 51.

[8] What if one does not feel guilty when he really is? Or, what if one feels guilty when he is actually innocent? According to David Baggett, “Guilt it is thought, properly attaches to morality in a way it doesn’t to breaking the laws of logic. We don’t feel guilty, and shouldn’t, for making a logical mistake. Maybe we feel silly or even embarrassed, but not guilty. The feeling of guilt, though it can be absent on occasions when we’re still actually guilty and present on occasions when we’re not (which is enough to show these things aren’t identical), more typically points to a real state of guilt.” David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls, God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016), 176.

[9] David A. Cole, Julia W. Felton, and Carlos Tilghman-Osborne, “Definition and Measurement of Guilt: Implications for Clinical Research and Practice,” Clinical Psychology Review, vol. 30 (July 2010): 536-546.

[10] Francesca Gino, Ata Jami, and Maryam Kouchaki, “The Burden of Guilt: Heavy Backpacks, Light Snacks, and Enhanced Morality,” Journal of Experimental Psychology, vol. 143, no. 1 (2013): 414-424.

[11] H. P. Owen, The Moral Argument for Christian Theism (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1965), 118.

[12] John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (London: Burns, Oates, & Co., 1874), 109.

[13] A. E. Taylor, The Faith of a Moralist (London, England: MacMillan and Co., 1951), 207.

[14] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 31.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Why the need for divine forgiveness? David and Marybeth Baggett provide a helpful response to this question: “As Newman and others in the history of moral apologetics could see, though, there is a limit to how much human relationships can explain. Sometimes guilt doesn’t seem to be connected to any particular human person. At other times the wronged person is no longer around to confer forgiveness. On yet other occasions the wrong seems to be so grievous that no human being likely has the authority to offer forgiveness. In all of these cases, it becomes more plausible to think that forgiveness by God himself is necessary.” David Baggett and Marybeth Baggett, The  Morals of the Story: Good News About a Good God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018), 180.

[17] Ibid., 30.

[18] For example, consider the following discussion found in Clement Webb, God and Personality (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1918). Judaism: “But it would be absurd to deny that a religion has a personal God which has ever taken as its ideal the great Lawgiver to whom his God ‘spake face to face as a man speaketh unto his friend’” (86). See also Exodus 33:11. Islam: Anthropomorphic language is used of the God of Islam. “But it would seem that the tendency of that teaching is to reduce the personal relations which can exist between man and God to the lowest terms, to those, namely, which may exist between a slave and a master of absolutely unlimited power. Still this is a personal relation, and on the whole it would seem best to describe the God of Mohammedanism as a personal God” (86-87). Eastern religions: “If we may say that the God of much Indian worship is not what we should usually call a ‘personal God,’ we must take care not to imply by this that the Indian’s religion is not his personal concern, for nothing could be less true. Moreover, the important and widely prevalent type of Indian piety known as bhakti is admitted to be devotional faith in a personal God: while Buddhism, which originally perhaps acknowledged neither God nor soul, has produced in the worship of Amitabha, the ‘Buddha of the Boundless Light,’ the ‘Lord of the Western Paradise,’ a form of piety which has seemed to some scholars too similar to the Christian to have originated except under Christian influence” (88).

[19] Human knowledge of the Trinity and the Incarnation is solely understood by way of divine revelation. Humans know what they know about God because God has revealed himself to them. Divine revelation is made possible through communication, which is a personal task that is carried out by persons. According to Carl Henry, “[D]ivine revelation is Christianity’s basic epistemological axiom, from which all doctrines of the Christian religion are derived…” God’s decision to reveal himself to humanity indicates that he is intrinsically personal, which only further serves to reinforce the argument that Christianity provides the best possible explanation for a personal God. Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority Volume 1: God Who Speaks and Shows: Preliminary Considerations (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1976), 213.

[20] An interesting discussion on forgiveness can be found in C. S. Lewis, “On Forgiveness” in The Weight of Glory (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 177-183. Another discussion on forgiveness is located in Lewis, Mere Christianity, 115-120.

[21] Christianity not only speaks of the possibility of radical transformation, it provides countless examples of it throughout history (e.g., the disciples, the apostle Paul, early church leaders, Augustine, Saint Patrick, and John Newton). See Baggett and Baggett, The Morals of the Story: Good News About a Good God, 193.

[22] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 55.

Objective Morality, the Nature of Guilt, and God’s Offer of Divine Forgiveness And Promise of Moral Transformation: A New Look at C. S. Lewis’s Moral Argument

by Stephen S. Jordan

Introduction

Countless philosophers and theologians throughout history have postulated arguments in favor of a divine being. There are four kinds of classical arguments that have attempted to establish the existence of God: the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, the ontological argument, and the moral argument. The origins of the cosmological and teleological arguments can be traced to the ancient world, the ontological argument dates to the medieval time period, but the moral argument is a relative newcomer as it has modern ancestry.[1] Although the moral argument emerged onto the philosophical scene largely through the writings of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in the eighteenth century, it was C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) who popularized the argument more than anyone else in the past two centuries.[2]

Lewis’s moral argument is detailed primarily in Book 1 of Mere Christianity; however, portions of Lewis’s moral argument are found in his other writings as well. Therefore, this essay will pull from a broad Lewisian corpus in an attempt to present a more robust picture of his moral argument, which begins with reasons for believing in the existence of objective morality, continues with mankind’s inability to adhere to such a moral standard, and concludes with the necessity of a divine being (of a particular sort) in order to account for these realities.[3]

The Existence of an Objective Moral Law

            In Book 1 of Mere Christianity, Lewis suggests that the existence of objective morality is obvious (or self-evident) for at least four reasons. First, when two or more individuals quarrel, they assume there is an objective standard of right and wrong of which each person is aware of and one has broken. For example, when one says, “That’s my seat, I was there first!” or “Why should you shove in first?” he is not merely stating that the other man’s behavior does not happen to please him, but rather that there is “some kind of standard of behaviour [sic] which he expects the other man to know about.”[4] At this point, oftentimes the other man will provide reasons for why he did not go against the standard or he will provide excuses for breaking it. Such a response is an acknowledgement that a moral standard exists; an individual would not try to provide reasons or give excuses if he thought no such standard existed. Second, mankind has generally agreed throughout history that “the human idea of decent behaviour [sic] was obvious to every one [sic].”[5] This does not mean “that you might not find an odd individual here and there who did not know it, just as you find a few people who are colour-blind [sic] or have no ear for a tune.”[6] Writing during wartime, Lewis provides an example to drive his point home: “What was the sense in saying the enemy was in the wrong unless Right [sic] is a real thing which the Nazis at bottom knew as well as we did and ought to have practiced? If they had had no notion of what we mean by right, then, though we might still have had to fight them, we could no more have blamed them for that than for the colour [sic] of their hair.”[7] Third, mistreatment reveals what an individual really believes about morality. To validate this claim, Lewis states, “Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong [sic], you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining ‘It’s not fair’ before you can say Jack Robinson.”[8] Although some deny the existence of objective morality through their actions, they always affirm it through their reactions. When an individual is mistreated, he will usually react as if an objective standard of proper treatment does, in fact, exist. Fourth, making an excuse for a mistake is providing a sufficient reason (in one’s mind) for breaking a standard of behavior. As Lewis says, “If we do not believe in decent behaviour [sic], why should we be so anxious to make excuses for not having behaved decently?”[9] He continues by adding, “The truth is, we believe in decency so much – we feel the Rule of Law pressing on us so – that we cannot bear to face the fact that we are breaking it, and consequently we try to shift the responsibility.”[10]

            Throughout The Abolition of Man, Lewis constructs a case for the existence of objective values such as love, justice, and courage.[11] Lewis states that there are three possible responses for one to consider regarding objective values: 1) reject their existence; 2) replace them; or 3) accept them. One, if objective values are rejected, then all values must be rejected. If values are subjective, then values as a whole become a matter of preference. Furthermore, if objective values are rejected, then rules/laws are no longer possible or binding upon humans because every rule/law has a value behind it.[12] Next, to attempt to refute a value system and replace it with a new one is self-contradictory. According to Lewis, “There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgement of value in the history of the world.”[13] Furthermore, to attempt to replace a value system with another one is to assume that there is something awry with the present system, which can only be realized if an objective standard of judgment exists in the first place.[14] This leaves one viable option: accept the reality of objective moral values.

Lewis indicates in his essay entitled, “Evil and God,” in God in the Dock, that an objective moral standard must exist in order to allow for moral improvement. He claims,

If things can improve, this means that there must be some absolute standard of good above and outside the cosmic process to which that process can approximate. There is no sense in talking of “becoming better” if better means simply “what we are becoming” – it is like congratulating yourself on reaching your destination and defining destination as “the place you have reached.”[15]

 

According to Lewis, talk of moral improvement is nonsensical if there is no “absolute standard of good” that exists. If no such standard existed, one might change his morality, but he could never improve his morality.

            In Miracles, before actually discussing the possibility of miraculous events, Lewis argues for the existence of God by utilizing the moral argument and the argument from reason.[16] There are times when these two arguments overlap. For example, “Besides reasoning about matters of fact, men also make moral judgements – ‘I ought to do this’ – ‘I ought not do that’ – ‘This is good’ – ‘That is evil.’”[17] When men reason over moral issues, it is assumed that there is an objective standard of right and wrong. If there is no such standard, then moral reasoning is on the same level as one arguing with his friends about the best flavor of ice cream at the local parlor (“I prefer this” and “I don’t prefer that”).[18] Simply stated, if there is no objective moral law, then everything becomes a matter of preference.

            Within the introductory chapter of The Problem of Pain, Lewis presents what he calls the “strands or elements” found within “all developed religion.”[19] The second strand that is noted involves mankind’s sense of a moral code. According to Lewis, “All the human beings that history has heard of acknowledge some kind of morality; that is, they feel towards certain proposed actions the experiences expressed by the words, ‘I ought’ or ‘I ought not.’”[20] The words “ought” and “ought not” imply the existence of an objective moral law that mankind recognizes and is obligated to follow. If such a moral code did not exist, then the words “ought” and “ought not” would mean little more than “I prefer” and “I do not prefer.”

            In sum, Lewis provides at least eight reasons for believing in the existence of objective morality. One, when two or more individuals quarrel, it is assumed that an objective standard of right and wrong exists.[21] Two, mankind has generally agreed throughout history that an objective standard of decent behavior is obvious to all people.[22] Three, mistreatment reveals what one really believes about morality.[23] An individual might deny the existence of an objective standard, but as soon as he is mistreated, he will respond as if such a standard exists (“That’s not fair!”). Four, when a person makes an excuse for a mistake on his part, he essentially provides a sufficient reason (in his mind) for breaking an objective standard of behavior.[24] Five, if objective moral values (such as love, compassion, etc.) are rejected, then all values must be rejected. If this happens, then values become a matter of preference. Additionally, if an individual attempts to replace one value system with another, he must assume that an objective standard of judgment exists to help him determine that one value system is superior to another.[25] Six, an objective moral standard must exist in order to foster the possibility of moral improvement.[26] Seven, when individuals reason over moral issues, the existence of objective morality is assumed.[27] Eight, the words “ought” and “ought not” imply that an objective standard of behavior exists that mankind is obligated to follow.[28]

(Part 2 coming next week) 

Notes: 

[1] The cosmological argument can be traced to Plato and Aristotle. Although traces of the teleological argument appeared in the writings of Socrates (Xenophon’s Memorabilia 1.4.4ff), Plato (Phaedo), and Philo (Works of Philo 3.182, 183.33), it came to fruition later in the middle ages (the last of Aquinas’ “Five Ways”) and modern world (Paley’s Natural Theology). The ontological argument was first formed by Anselm in the medieval time period, although he was not responsible for naming it. Implicit fragments of the moral argument can be found in Plato, Augustine, and Aquinas, but its emergence onto the philosophical scene did not take place until Kant utilized it in the eighteenth century.

[2] To be fair, there are numerous “heavy hitters” in the field of moral apologetics between Kant and Lewis, such as: John Henry Newman (1801-1890), Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900), William Sorley (1855-1935), Hastings Rashdall (1858-1935), Clement Webb (1865-1954), and A. E. Taylor (1869-1945). Lewis “popularized” the moral argument, in the sense that he made it appealing to a wider audience, but he would not have been able to do so without these men who came before him.

[3] Lewis’s argument is not a strict, deductive proof for God’s existence. Rather, Lewis provides an argument that is rationally persuasive in the sense that the existence of a divine being (of a particular sort) is the best explanation for the available evidence. See David Baggett, “Pro: The Moral Argument is Convincing,” in C. S. Lewis’s Christian Apologetics: Pro and Con, ed. Gregory Bassham (Leiden: Brill Rodopi, 2015), 121.

[4] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 3.

[5] Ibid., 5. In the appendix section of The Abolition of Man, Lewis provides a list that illustrates the points of agreement amongst various civilizations throughout history. See C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 83-101.                              

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 6.

[9] Ibid., 8.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Values are the “why” behind rules/laws, whereas rules/laws are the “what.” For example, there are laws against murder because human life is intrinsically valuable.

[12] Ibid., 73.

[13] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 43.

[14] Lewis expounds upon this in Mere Christianity when he suggests the following: “If no set of moral ideas were truer or better than any other, there would be no sense in preferring civilized morality to savage morality, or Christian morality to Nazi morality. In fact, of course, we all do believe that some moralities are better than others...The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other. But the standard that measures two things is something different from either. You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality [sic], admitting that there is such a thing as a real Right [sic], independent of what people think, and that some people’s ideas get nearer to that Right [sic] than others.” Lewis, Mere Christianity, 13.

[15] C. S. Lewis, “Evil and God,” in God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2014), 3-4.

[16] He does this because if God exists, then miracles are at least possible. In his words, “Human Reason and Morality have been mentioned not as instances of Miracle (at least, not of the kind of Miracle you wanted to hear about) but as proofs of the Supernatural: not in order to show that Nature ever is invaded but that there is a possible invader.” C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 68.

[17] Lewis, Miracles, 54.

[18] Naturalism largely fails to account for this. Lewis explains: “If we are to continue to make moral judgements (and whatever we say we shall in fact continue) then we must believe that the conscience of man is not a product of Nature. It can be valid only if it is an offshoot of some absolute moral wisdom, a moral wisdom which exists absolutely ‘on its own’ and is not a product of non-moral, non-rational Nature.” Lewis, Miracles, 60.

[19] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 5.

[20] Ibid., 10.

[21] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 3.

[22] Ibid., 5.

[23] Ibid., 6.

[24] Ibid., 8.

[25] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 43.

[26] Lewis, “Evil and God,” in God in the Dock, 3-4.

[27] Lewis, Miracles, 54.

[28] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 10.

 

Insights of C. S. Lewis Concerning Faith, Doubt, Pride, Corrupted Love, And Dying to Oneself in Till We Have Faces (Part 2)

Photo by  Igor Goryachev  on  Unsplash

 

Pride, Devouring Love, And Dying To Self

Let us turn now to a second major theme in TWHF: pride and corrupted love. There are a number of insights concerning this theme that Lewis offers in his prose that are illustrated well in TWHF. Consider first the nature of pride and the fact that it blocks the knowledge of God. Lewis says that pride is the key sin that is central in Christian ethics. People recognize pride in others but often fail to see it in themselves.[1] Lewis says that pride is what often makes it difficult to convince unbelievers of their sin problem. It leads them to overlook their own sins yet feel that they can judge God for allowing the evils in the world; in short, it leads humans to think we are “on the bench and God in the Dock.”[2] Pride is the pathway to all other vices. It is the “complete anti-God state of mind” and is by nature competitive. We are not proud merely because we are smart or attractive but because we are smarter or more attractive than others.[3] Pride seeks power and puts one’s self forward. It always causes conflict with others and with God.[4] Lewis says, “The moment you have a self at all, there is a possibility of putting yourself first—wanting to be the centre—wanting to be God, in fact.”[5] Since God is “immeasurably superior” to all people, Lewis stresses that pride prevents one from knowing God. Pride involves “looking down,” but God can only be known by looking up. Prideful people may say they know God, but they cannot.[6] Those who truly know God will have their focus on God and not themselves. We cannot relate to God properly unless we humbly recognize Him as God.[7]

In TWHF, Orual fails to recognize her pride for most of the novel, and this prevents her from knowing the gods and discovering truth. So long as she was elevating herself and only looking down, she could not realize that the gods were above her. She could not know herself or the gods because she was a prisoner of her pride. As the novel opens, she seeks to put the gods in the judgment seat (i.e., in “the dock”) and is angry that they will not answer her.[8] By the end, however, she discovers that the accusations she had wanted to make against the gods for most of her life were indefensible. She realizes that this is why the gods “do not speak to us openly” about our concerns. It is because we do not know as much as we think we do and our pride blinds us to the truth. The gods cannot “meet us face to face till we have faces.”[9] This also illustrates why Lewis says that prayer would be far too dangerous for us if God answered every prayer.[10] Orual had prayed for the gods to reveal things to her, but they were silent. In the end, she knew it was good that they had remained silent and not answered her prayer.

A second insight within this theme is that pride corrupts love into a jealous hate that devours others. In The Four Loves, Lewis says that prideful self-centeredness and jealousy can creep into “every kind of love.” This may involve not wanting the one we love to “become brighter or more beautiful” or not wanting “the old ways to be changed even for the better.”[11] He gives the example of two siblings who share everything and are extremely close throughout life, but one of them experiences a change—a new interest that the other cannot share. Perhaps, he says, the change is that one “undergoes a religious conversion.” The one who did not change is liable to feel that she is losing the bond with the other. She is likely to mock the new love of the changed sibling and call it “nonsense.”[12] This is exactly what Orual experienced when Psyche found a new love that Orual did not share and did not want intruding into her love for Psyche. Orual admits that her hatred of the gods and her true motivation to separate Psyche from them were rooted in her belief that the gods stole Psyche’s love from her. Orual would rather Psyche be killed than have another come between her and Psyche. “Psyche was mine,” she says.[13]

Lewis also notes in The Four Loves that there is sometimes a need to be needed by the one we love, and this can be twisted into something like hate. Lewis gives the example of one who has the need to care for another person in a motherly way such that the other person is smothered by these efforts and does not desire them.[14] Love should express itself in wanting the other person to be self-sufficient and not require one’s support;[15] when it does not, this twisted sort of love “contains a good deal of hatred” and becomes “a god” in one’s life—an idol that “becomes a demon.”[16] This is reflected in The Great Divorce by the female ghost who, even in the afterlife, is obsessed with controlling her husband and desires to continue to rule over him and “make something of him”—a goal she believes she never fully completed in her earthly life.[17] She goes on and on describing how she met all of his needs and how he would be lost without her even though it was evident that he did not desire (or, in her mind, “appreciate”) her efforts. Her preoccupation with her husband needing her prevented her from knowing God and from seeing the destruction that her “love” produced in her own life and in the earthly life of her husband. In the end, this continual need to be needed sucked up her very existence.[18] This type of twisted love is clearly exemplified in Orual’s desire to control and rule over Psyche. Although Psyche assures Orual that her god husband must now be the one to guide her, Orual insists, “You cannot go your own way. You will let me rule and guide you.”[19] Although Psyche neither needed nor desired Orual to rule her, Orual had a need to be needed. She was so desperate to keep Psyche under her “loving” rule that she coerced her by threats. Mirroring what Lewis says in The Four Loves, Psyche tells Orual, “I am not sure I like your kind [of love] better than hatred.”[20] Orual, in revealing her true thoughts at the end of the novel, says she was not jealous of Psyche until the gods started to elevate Psyche and make her the “next thing to a goddess.” Orual wanted the gods to elevate her instead and show her the truth so that she could in turn teach Psyche.[21] She was bent on Psyche needing her as a ruler and teacher. Although Psyche was happy with the gods, Orual took no comfort in this. Her pride and twisted love led her to insist that she must be the only one to give Psyche happiness.[22] The Fox described this attitude as “one part love in your heart, and five parts anger, and seven parts pride.”[23]

Lewis declares that the worst sort of pride involves looking down on others “so much that you do not care what they think of you.”[24] Although Orual no doubt would have preferred for Psyche to think well of her, there is a real sense in which she exemplifies the sort of pride Lewis is describing. Orual wanted to have Psyche’s companionship and love, and she did not care if Psyche knew she was coercing her so long as it meant keeping Psyche in her life and under her control. She was willing to threaten to kill Psyche and herself to keep Psyche under her rule and did not back down when Psyche accused her of using Psyche’s love for her as a weapon.[25] Orual devoured others with her twisted love and was “a craver” even if they thought less of her for it.[26]

Another insight of Lewis concerning pride and love is that one should never be less drawn to God than one is to another human and should never love God less than another human. Lewis says that we cannot love another human too much. We can only love God too little so that our love for that human person is placed higher than our love for God.[27] Lewis also thinks it is not a sin to be proud of another human—so long as that pride is mere admiration and that admiration is less than what one has for God. It is never acceptable to “love and admire anything more than we love and admire God.”[28] Lewis portrays this concept well in The Great Divorce through the character Pam. Pam wants to see her son Michael, who is in heaven, but she needs to desire God to do so. She says she will love God if that is the only way to see her son, but she is told that one must not love God as a means to being united with what ought to be a lesser love. She is “treating God only as a means to Michael.”[29] Indeed, Lewis wrestled with this temptation himself after his wife died. As he was struggling to maintain his trust in God’s goodness, he considered that he may simply be “sidling back to God” because he knew that doing so is the only possible road to seeing his wife again. But he realized that God “can’t be used as a road.” Lewis says, “If you’re approaching Him not as the goal but as a road, not as the end but as a means, you’re not really approaching Him at all.”[30] So love for God must exceed one’s love for any human; however, throughout nearly all of TWHF, Orual’s relationship with Psyche was clearly far more important to her than Psyche’s relationship with the gods or her own relationship with the gods.[31] Orual was more drawn to Psyche than she was to the gods and desired a love relationship with Psyche that she did not desire to have with the gods. This made Psyche an idol in Orual’s life that led her astray greatly.

Finally, a crucial insight of Lewis related to pride is that one must die to oneself in order to know God and love others properly. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, “Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it.” He says that if you “look for yourself,” then “you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.” We must submit to the death of our “ambitions and favourite wishes every day” if we are to be remade.[32] This dying to self is powerfully illustrated in TWHF, as Orual is told by the gods to “die before you die.”[33] Orual had to be “unmade” and die to herself and her prideful ambitions in order to become her perfected self.[34] In Mere Christianity, Lewis uses a fleet of ships to illustrate how moral growth needs to occur within a human, between humans, and in the interaction between each human and God. To function properly, each ship in the fleet must be seaworthy, each ship must not collide with or damage other ships, and all the ships must be collectively headed toward the proper destination (i.e., God).[35] In TWHF, Orual must die to herself in order to grow morally as an individual. Doing this allowed her to relate better to others and understand the root of pride that infected her relationship with and knowledge of other humans and the gods.

Conclusion

Lewis illustrates powerfully many insights from his prose in TWHF. Concerning faith, he portrays emotional doubt in the lives of Orual and Psyche and the need to use reason to trump such doubt. He reveals through Orual how moral growth requires personal effort as well as drawing upon God’s help. He also reveals much of what he learned in his own struggle with doubting God’s goodness through Orual’s process of discovery. Concerning pride, he shows through Orual’s self-discovery how pride prevents one from knowing God by blocking one from knowing oneself and one’s flaws. He also illustrates in Orual many of his insights concerning the way pride and jealousy can corrupt love into a devouring hate and how one’s love of self and others can wrongly exceed one’s love of God. Finally, Lewis shows in TWHF how dying to oneself is a true prerequisite to overcoming pride and finding one’s true self so that one can relate properly to God and others. Thus TWHF is a masterpiece in which Lewis—via the medium of retelling a myth—portrays many of his theological and moral insights

Notes

37. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 121.

38. C. S. Lewis, “God in the Dock” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 268.

39. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 122.

40. Ibid., 123-4.

41. Ibid., 49.

42. Ibid., 124.

43. Ibid., 127.

44. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 3.

45. Ibid., 294.

46. C. S. Lewis, “Work and Prayer” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 107.

47. C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1960), 45.

48. C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, 46.

49. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 290-1. This is much like what Lee Strobel experienced prior to his conversion to Christianity. When his wife became a Christian, he at first resented her love for God out of his own “self-interest.” He worried that he was losing her because her belief that she now had a relationship with God was coming between them. See Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 16.

50. C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, 48-50.

51. Ibid., 50.

52. Ibid., 56.

53. C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 516.

54. Lewis, The Great Divorce, 513-6.

55. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 159.

56. Ibid., 165.

57. Ibid., 291.

58. Ibid., 292.

59. Ibid., 148.

60. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 126.

61. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 165. Orual also used her position as Queen to keep Bardia with her needlessly and selfishly and did not encourage the Fox to leave her and go home to Greece as she knew he wished to do.

62. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 305.

63. Lewis, The Four Loves, 122-3.

64. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 127.

65. Lewis, The Great Divorce, 518.

66. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 685.

67. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 72-6.

68. Ibid., 226-7.

69. Ibid., 279.

70. Ibid., 307-8.

71. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 71-2.

Insights of C. S. Lewis Concerning Faith, Doubt, Pride, Corrupted Love, And Dying to Oneself in Till We Have Faces (Part 1)

Photo by  João Silas  on  Unsplash

Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

In Till We Have Faces (henceforth TWHF), C. S. Lewis combines his passion for pagan mythology with his knack for communicating Christian truths via story. Lewis often stresses in his various works his belief that pagan mythology, while not reflecting the complete truth about God, contains various nuggets of the ultimate truth that is found in Christianity. Christianity, he says, is the “true myth” that melds the human need for believing what is true about the world as it actually is with our need for imagination and wonder and delight.[1] It is thus not surprising that, in TWHF, Lewis powerfully illustrates a number of theological and moral positions that are prominent in many of his other writings by retelling the story of the myth of Psyche and Cupid.

This paper will examine two major themes in TWHF that are also emphasized heavily within Lewis’s prose: the theme of faith and doubt and the theme of pride and corrupted love. With regard to the first major theme of faith and doubt, we will examine three key aspects of faith that Lewis stresses throughout his writings that are beautifully illustrated in TWHF. The first aspect of faith involves holding onto what one believes with good reason to be true about God in the face of various emotionally-driven, non-evidential temptations to abandon one’s faith. The second aspect of faith involves humbly drawing upon God’s help as we strive to follow Him and be molded into a person of greater character. The third aspect of faith deals with believing that God is good in the midst of pain and suffering and incomplete information.

The paper will then examine the second major theme of pride and corrupted love. This will begin by examining how Lewis considers pride to be the antithesis of God’s mindset and how it prevents one from knowing God. This truth is at the heart of TWHF. Next, we will consider what Lewis has to say about how pride corrupts love into a sort of jealous hate that devours others and how this is exemplified in the life of Orual in TWHF. We will also see how Lewis’s warning against loving God less than we love others is illustrated in the novel. Finally, we will examine how Lewis’s repeated exhortation to engage in the biblical principle of dying to oneself in order to combat pride and relate properly to God and others is portrayed clearly in TWHF.

 

Faith and Doubt

Lewis has much to say about faith and doubt in his prose; indeed, two chapters of Mere Christianity are fully devoted to the subject. Let us consider three aspects of faith that Lewis emphasizes in his writings and exemplifies in TWHF, beginning with his recognition that faith requires us to hold onto what reason tells us is true about God and not allow our commitment to God to waver when we are tempted to doubt for various emotionally-driven reasons that are not rooted in evidence or reason. Lewis recognizes that human minds are not “completely ruled by reason.” Despite having good reason to trust one’s surgeon, for example, Lewis himself experienced emotional doubt and anxiety when he had surgery; he allowed his “emotion and imagination” to overrule his reason.[2] A Christian with reasonable faith still experiences times when “his emotions rise up and carry out a sort of blitz on his belief.” Also, in some situations there are moral reasons that it is not “convenient” to think that Christianity is true (e.g., when one is tempted to sin). Faith involves maintaining commitment to what one knows is true about Christianity despite one’s changing moods and circumstances.[3] It is a virtue to “teach your moods where they get off” and control them when they challenge one’s reason. This involves recognizing one’s moods and using reason to remind oneself that one’s faith in Christ is true by engaging in the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible reading, and church attendance.[4]

This sort of emotional doubt is seen in both Psyche and Orual in TWHF. Psyche rationally believes—on the basis of her longing for the gods, her recognition of their beauty, and her religious experience—that the “god of the Mountain” is the source of all beauty and has been “wooing” her to come to him.[5] Lewis considers the human longing for God and for that which is beyond this world to be a rational reason to believe in God.[6] Yet, despite having good reason to be confident in the gods, Psyche has moments when her emotions—fear in particular—rise up and cause her to doubt. A fear arises in the back of her mind that the god of the Mountain does not exist and that she will slowly die tied to a tree instead of being united with the god. The thought made her cry, but she quickly began reminding herself of the confidence that she has that the Fox’s skepticism about the gods is wrong and that her sense that the gods exist is correct.[7] As Lewis says in A Grief Observed, “You never know how much you really believe in anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you.”[8] At such times, it is easier for emotions to get the better of one’s faith, but Psyche reasoned herself away from this doubt in exactly the way Lewis says one should respond to such emotional blitzes.[9]

Orual also experiences emotionally-driven doubts. Unlike Psyche, Orual has no longing for the gods—especially after they take Psyche away. She has hate for them and admits her repulsion to believing that Psyche is living with a god husband in a palace, exclaiming in an angry outburst, “I don’t want [to believe] it!”[10] Although she clearly realizes that the evidence for Psyche’s account of her god husband is enough to believe it is true,[11] she allows her emotions to overrule her reason. Indeed, immediately after realizing that she believes it is true, emotional doubt occurs—what reason told her is true is wiped out by an emotional blitz of “blinding waves of sorrow”.[12] Because she lacks the longing for the gods that Psyche has, Orual does not invoke reason to try to talk herself out of her emotional rejection of the truth. Instead, she convinces herself that she is justified in accepting what is not true despite the fact that factual doubt (i.e., doubt rooted in a lack of evidence) was never the problem.[13] Unless one is determined to rule one’s moods by reason, Lewis says one will remain merely “a creature dithering to and fro” with one’s beliefs “dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion.”[14] That is exactly what happens with Orual. Because she is so influenced by her moods and emotions rather than grounding herself in reason, her beliefs seem to swing wildly back and forth. She goes from nearly a “full belief”[15] that the unseen palace exists to moments later “fluttering to and fro between two opinions” and finding it “unbelievable” that Psyche’s palace and god “could be anything but madness.”[16] Then, shortly thereafter, she briefly sees the palace and is so sure that Psyche is married to a god that she plans to go and ask Psyche and the god to forgive her of her doubts, but when the palace disappears she immediately tries to tell herself it may not have been a veridical experience.[17] Then, after hearing Bardia’s opinion and reflecting again on the evidence, she considers it “plain” truth that Psyche was given to the god.[18] In the end, it is made clear that Orual did know that the palace was real all along and that her emotions—especially her jealousy—were the culprits in her convincing herself that the evidence is unclear.[19] Her emotions carried out a blitz on her beliefs. Like Orual, Lewis experienced the temptation to think negatively about God out of anger rather than what he knew to be true. He calls it “hitting back” at God. But Lewis stresses that “the mood is no evidence.”[20] He illustrates this well in Orual.

Consider now a second aspect of faith stressed by Lewis: realizing that one falls short of the mark morally and striving to be good while at the same time recognizing that one must seek God’s help to make this improvement.[21] Lewis says that the first step to developing this aspect of faith is to try hard to be good for even “six weeks,” as nobody realizes “how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good.” Doing this convinces us that we lack the resources apart from God to live up to the demands of morality.[22] This is seen in TWHF, as Orual realizes in the end that she is “ugly in soul” and desires to change her “ugly soul into a fair one.” She realizes that she needs the gods’ help to do this, but she sets out to try to be good and take the first step. She finds that she could not be good for even a half hour and was concerned that the gods would not help her.[23] So as soon as she tries hard to be good, she realizes how much divine help is needed. Yet as the novel unfolds, she finds that the gods are helping her to grow morally. They are doing their “surgery” on her by revealing things to her about herself using events in her life (e.g., the process of writing her book) and interactions with other people (e.g., Ansit and Tarin).[24] As Lewis stresses in Mere Christianity, God helps us to grow via many means. He uses nature, books, experiences, and other people—even when we do not realize they are being used.[25]

A third aspect of faith addressed by Lewis involves believing that God is good in the midst of suffering and incomplete information. Lewis knew well the reality of this faith struggle, as he wrestled with doubting God’s goodness after his wife died. Like Orual, who never seriously doubted the existence of the gods but had serious doubts about their goodness, when Lewis lost his wife he reports struggling with thinking “dreadful things” about God. The conclusion he fears most “is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like.’”[26]

As Psyche was preparing to be offered to the god, she talks with Orual about how to interpret the gods’ actions in such a way that they are considered good. Psyche suggests that even if the gods seem to humans to be doing evil, we may simply not know enough to realize that the gods are actually doing what is good; in addition, she suggests that it is possible that the gods are not the cause of the evils we attribute to them. Orual, on the other hand, sees no other way to interpret the gods demanding Psyche as an offering than to declare that it is clearly evil.[27] Like Orual, when Lewis was in the early stages of his grief after his wife died he was tempted to think, “What reason have we, except our own desperate wishes, to believe that God is, by any standard we can conceive, ‘good’?”[28] Yet he quickly realized that it is “too anthropomorphic” to think of God as an evil Being; moreover, there seems to be too much good in the world. An evil Being is not likely to include “love, or laughter, or daffodils, or a frosty sunset” as traps or baits in a ploy to harm us. In response, however, to the question raised by Psyche as to whether we are able to evaluate God’s goodness, Lewis rejects the idea that anything God does must be considered good because we are too limited or fallen to pass judgment on God’s morality. He denies that “we are so depraved that our ideas of goodness count for nothing” and that the goodness of God is beyond our ability to assess. If that were true, Lewis says, we would then lack any reason to obey God or to call God “good,” for that term as it applies to God would be meaningless.[29] Lewis, however, does hold that God’s ways and His knowledge are beyond us so that we do not fully understand God’s reasons for allowing things[30]—a truth borne out in TWHF.

Orual also thinks for most of the novel that the gods are toying with us in “cat-and-mouse play” by giving us something good in our life just to take it away and make things worse.[31] In the same way, Lewis for a time wondered if God was like that when his wife died. His concern was that there is a God who is playing with us like we are “rats in a laboratory.” It seemed to Lewis that “time after time, when [God] seemed most gracious He was really preparing the next torture.”[32] Yet Lewis came to realize that this thought was an emotional “yell rather than a thought” rooted in reason and evidence.[33] Orual, too, comes to see that the gods have not been mistreating her; rather they have been preparing her for moral surgery.[34]

It is also interesting that, when his wife dies, Lewis wonders on what basis he had begun having doubts about God’s goodness. He knew about evil and the fact that spouses die before his own wife died, and it never bothered him before; however, it began to bother him and challenge his confidence in God’s goodness once the suffering happened to him personally.[35] In the same way, Orual says she “never really began to hate” the gods and hold the strong feeling that they are cruel until they affected her personally by taking Psyche away.[36] It is only when suffering impacts our lives personally that this aspect of faith in God’s goodness tends to be doubted.

(Part 2 coming next week)

Notes:

1. C. S. Lewis, “Myth Became Fact,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 58-60.

2. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity: A Revised and Amplified Edition, with a New Introduction, of the Three Books Broadcast Talks, Christian Behaviour, and Beyond Personality (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 139.

3. Ibid., 140.

4. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 141.

5. C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 1956), 74-6.

6. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 135-7.

7. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 70-1.

8. C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 665.

9. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 140-1. See also Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 108-9. Psyche’s doubts began to return as she was left at the tree. She felt that her old longings were gone and she could no longer believe in the god and the palace. Yet in her doubt she prayed to the gods. Emotional doubt returned when faced with stress and the possibility that her faith is misplaced, but she turned to the spiritual disciplines in the midst of it.

10. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 124.

11. Ibid., 120, 123-4.

12. Ibid., 121.

13. Ibid., 290-1.

14. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 141.

15. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 120.

16. Ibid., 126.

17. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 133. See also C. S. Lewis, “Is Theism Important?,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 191. Related to the brief vision of the palace, Lewis says that religious experience often “comes and goes: especially goes.” Faith involves retaining “what is irresistible and obvious during the moments of special grace. By faith we believe always what we hope hereafter to see always and perfectly and have already seen imperfectly and by flashes.”

18. Ibid., 137.

19. Ibid., 290-1.

20. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 673.

21. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 141-9.

22. Ibid., 141-2.

23. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 281-2.

24. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 253-67.

25. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 190.

26. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 658.

27. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 71-2.

28. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 668.

29. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 669.

30. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 568.

31. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 249.

32. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 668-9.

33. Ibid., 669.

34. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 253-67.

35. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 671-2.

36. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 290.

 

 

C. S. Lewis’s Christian Apologetics: Part Three: The Moral Argument (Outline)

Editor's note: Choo has provided a helpful outline of the chapter on C.S. Lewis' moral argument by David Baggett and Erik Wielenberg. If you are interested in the full chapter, you can find the book information here.

 

New Edition of C. S. Lewis as Philosopher: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty

From the Preface to the 2017 Edition of C. S. Lewis as Philosopher: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty It has been nearly ten years now since the first edition of C. S. Lewis as Philosopher: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. That decade has seen only growing interest in the philosophical aspects of Lewis’s work. What at the time seemed to us to be a rather novel approach to Lewis has become much more common, unsurprising because by both training and temperament Lewis often exhibited the earmarks of a first-rate philosophical mind. It was likely his amazing and eclectic range of interests and talents that concealed his philosophical acumen.

Some books have taken the project further than we were able, like Adam Barkman’s excellent and wide-ranging Philosophy as a Way of Life, a trend that we think is excellent. Stewart Goetz has recently argued in his A Philosophical Walking Tour with C. S. Lewis that Lewis was first and foremost a philosopher, and he is currently writing another book in which he will explain in depth Lewis’s philosophical views.

Our original collection was the result of several philosophically themed essays read at Oxbridge 2005—including keynote addresses by the likes of Peter Kreeft and Jean Bethke-Elshtain—but almost inevitably this genealogy meant that there would be gaps in our treatment. Because we didn’t make comprehensiveness our goal, however, we didn’t let this dissuade us. The collection that resulted was, in the estimation of many, a needed contribution to the literature irrespective of its limitations. InterVarsity Academic made possible the book coming to the light of day, and it enjoyed a solid run for a decade. It has been adduced by several researchers in the literature, and some of its chapters, like David Horner’s on the Trilemma or Bethke-Elshtain’s on The Abolition of Man, have been cited prominently quite a number of times. We are deeply grateful to Liberty University Press for catching the vision of and making possible a new edition.

We do not claim that this new expanded edition fills in all the various gaps in our treatment of Lewis as philosopher. It remains only one contribution toward this ambitious living research agenda. However, we have intentionally added five major new chapters that, each in its own way, contribute to a fuller picture of Lewis the philosopher. Our goal remains not to cover all the traditional areas of philosophy, but to show more intentionally some of the rich insights of Lewis’s writing that reveal aspects of philosophy and the human condition that, too often in contemporary times, go unaddressed, or at least under-addressed.

For example, Bruce Reichenbach has written an epistemology essay that reveals the way Lewis recognized some aspects of knowledge that often go overlooked. Among such features of knowledge are the ways in which it is perspectival, value-laden, and personal, but without any of these aspects of knowing detracting from objective truth or the propriety of deeply held convictions. Lewis could adroitly integrate subtle aspects of postmodernity with those of premodernity, like perhaps no other, holding in synergistic balance insights often mistakenly conceived as contradictory or in irremediable tension.

Another example is Will Honeycutt’s chapter that discusses Lewis’s penetrating engagement with various pagan myths. Rather than gravitating toward a simple “disassociationist” model in which there is only or primarily a disconnect or dissonance between Christianity and the pagan myth stories, Honeycutt reveals the way Lewis had the mind of both a philosopher and a poet, a logician and a classicist. The resonances and points of connection between the pagan myths and the “true myth” of Christianity are just as if not more evidentially important to Lewis than the differences and disanalogies.

One of Lewis’s most important and repeated apologetic arguments went unaddressed in the first edition, and we came to see that it deserved a serious and sustained treatment, namely, the argument from desire. To this end, we commissioned Sloan Lee to write an essay on it, and in his characteristic and charming zeal he ended up writing two terrific chapters. Not only does he meticulously spell out what the argument says and what motivates it; he brilliantly and carefully subjects to withering critical scrutiny no less than five significant objections to the argument.

Stew Goetz wrote the fifth new chapter, in which he discusses the hedonistic elements of Lewis’s work. He rightly points out a recurring theme in Lewis: that God’s intention is that we experience joy and pleasure. To the contrary of this lending itself to a crass sort of hedonism, however, Lewis’s understanding of our high calling in Christ elevates the kinds of pleasure that should satisfy. Rather than settling for base pleasures or ones that don’t fit our deepest nature or ultimate end, we need to undergo a transformation of character, indeed a death to self, that enables us to develop a taste for the higher and better pleasures for which we were designed.

In sum, this book has about 35,000 entirely new words of analysis and commentary on Lewis that, combined with all of the original essays in the collection, will hopefully result in a book that will feature prominently in the library of every Lewis aficionado. Once more the labor that made this edition possible was a labor of love, done in the earnest hope and prayer that the result will be a blessing to many.

Image: "Lamp Post of Narnia?" by K. Franklin. CC License. 

Till We Have Faces, Self-Knowledge, and Learning to Die

One important way that C. S. Lewis went about irrigating deserts and planting gardens was to be honest that the tide had turned against many of his most cherished convictions, and since he was convinced that the new direction was mistaken, he would often point backwards. To the charge that this was retrograde, he famously said, “We all want progress, but if you're on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.”

After accepting his new post at Cambridge, Lewis—on his 56th birthday—gave his inaugural address in 1954 called De Descriptione Temporum, a description of the times, in which he aimed to identify the central turning point in western civilization. “[S]omewhere between us and the Waverley Novels, somewhere between us and Persuasion, the chasm runs.” To make the case for his proposal, Lewis adduced germane examples from the realms of politics, the arts, religion, and technology. With respect to religion, what Lewis primarily had in mind was the un-christening of culture. Exceptions abound, but the “presumption has changed,” adding

It is hard to have patience with those Jeremiahs, in Press or pulpit, who warn us that we are ‘relapsing into Paganism’. It might be rather fun if we were. It would be pleasant to see some future Prime Minister trying to kill a large and lively milk-white bull in Westminster Hall. But we shan’t. What lurks behind such idle prophecies, if they are anything but careless language, is the false idea that the historical process allows mere reversal; that Europe can come out of Christianity ‘by the same back door as in she went’ and find herself back where she was. It is not what happens. A post-Christian man is not a Pagan; you might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce. The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past.

In 1935 Cambridge philosopher William Sorley expressed misgivings about this demotion of morality that’s bound to result in an artificially truncated worldview in which moral ideas are paid short shrift. “If we take experience as a whole,” Sorley wrote, “and do not arbitrarily restrict ourselves to that portion of it with which the physical and natural sciences have to do, then our interpretation of it must have ethical data at its basis and ethical laws in its structure.” Perhaps it’s not surprising that Sorley is a luminary in the field of moral apologetics, as the later Cambridge professor Lewis would be as well. For at the heart of moral arguments is the abiding conviction that morality can provide a vital window of insight into reality. Hermann Lotze, a 19th century German philosopher, in fact once wrote that “the true beginning of metaphysics lies in ethics,” a sentiment with which both Sorley and Lewis resonated.

Recall Lewis’s words from Mere Christianity to this effect:

These, then, are the two points I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.

This paper is about perhaps the greatest example he provided of this: his novel Till We Have Faces (subsequently TWHF), which harmoniously weaves together and integrates numerous of Lewis’s philosophical, theological, and ethical emphases. It contains, in fictional form, what Lewis thought about the import of myth and beauty, of joy and desire, of reason and imagination. This essay will cover an aspect of the novel that arguably resides at the thematic heart of the story and at the intersection of ethics and epistemology.

Lewis’s story refashions the myth of Cupid and Psyche. It is set in Glome, a barbarian kingdom on the edge of the Hellenistic world, and is told by the main character, Orual, the eldest daughter of Rom, King of Glome, step-sister of Psyche, and sister of Redival. The main story is about Orual’s indictment of the gods for failing to make their ways plain. Ostensibly the worry is wholly epistemic. The indictment comes in the form of an account of the major portion of her life, presented with the request that the reader judge her case against the gods. Her intended audience is “wise Greeks,” who, because of their philosophical education, will readily see in the events she reports puzzling epistemological problems and, therefore, will more likely see the truth of her charge.

The events in question pertain to Orual’s central passion: her love of Psyche. The two people who give her happiness are Fox, a Greek slave her father secured as tutor for his daughters, and Psyche, who is not only uncommonly beautiful but virtuous as well. After Psyche’s mother dies at childbirth, it is Orual who brings Psyche up as her own child. What generates conflict with the gods is the demand, presented by the Priest of Ungit—Glome’s version of the fertility goddess—that Psyche be sacrificed on the Grey Mountain to her son, the Shadowbrute, supposed god of the Mountain. The sacrifice is to remove a curse that has befallen the kingdom.

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After the sacrifice, Orual makes a trek to bury Psyche’s remains but discovers Psyche alive and well, radiant in fact, claiming to be living with her husband/god in a beautiful palace. Orual, though, is unable to see the palace, so she is left to figure out the truth. Skeptical the gods are good, she devises a plan to liberate Psyche, but it goes horribly wrong, sending Psyche into exile. Orual returns home to reign as Queen of Glome and tries to forget her past.

As for aspects of the novel that pertain to the question of epistemology, particularly religious epistemology, first one should note that the era and context of the story is distinctly premodern. The default position is decidedly not atheism, agnosticism, or skepticism, but one of robust religious conviction and theological interpretation of the events in question. Following Robert Holyer, we can immediately identify two major epistemological issues: whether the gods are just inventions of the priest and pandering to popular superstition, or rather that the gods are real. The Fox is of the former opinion, but Orual and Psyche of the latter. The second major epistemological question is this: If the request for Psyche’s sacrifice is genuinely Divine, how is it to be understood? Is it a malevolent request born of jealousy and intended to bring suffering not only to Psyche but also those who love her, particularly Orual? Or is there some paradoxical way in which the deed might result in Psyche’s well-being and therefore be consistent with the affirmation that the gods are good? Orual inclines to the former, always casting the holy places as dark places; Psyche, to the latter.

So a central problem of the novel is to read the signs of the Divine correctly and to find in them reasonable assurance sufficient to live faithfully in the face of the irresolvable mystery and ambiguity featured heavily in the book. Evidence is not undeniable or incorrigible, and questions remain unanswered. A related concern of the book involves Lewis’s most important innovation: Orual’s inability to see the palace of the gods. In Lewis’s key adaptation, Psyche saw it and claimed to live in it, but Orual couldn’t see it at all, except once and only briefly.

Among the various signs and signals of divine reality and goodness, perhaps the most important is the experience of the Holy. Rudolf Otto, author of The Idea of the Holy, claimed that experiences of the Holy are one of the basic sources of religious belief throughout the centuries. He distinguished and described several constituent elements of the experience of the Holy, two of which are these (both found in TWHF): (1) tremendum, a kind of dread or fear unlike our other fears—as Orual rightly describes it, a fear “quite different from the fear of my father,” and (2) fascinans, a consuming attraction or rapturous longing. Psyche is poignantly aware of both, Orual mainly only of the former. Fascinans, or “Joy,” to use another Lewisian term, is associated with the objects of the imagination, with beauty, with poetry, and above all with the Mountain—all common motifs in Lewis’s fiction.

A second sign is empirical evidence, which is ambiguous. A third sign is finding Psyche alive and well days after her sacrifice, which raises the question of how reliable her testimony is. The story Psyche recounts is remarkable, but Orual has to admit that Psyche had always been trustworthy. The final and most difficult piece of evidence is experience of divine realities—like Orual’s glimpse of the palace and Psyche’s more continuous experience of the gods.

The epistemological task in the novel is to determine the nature of ultimate reality—whether it is jealous and cruel, or mysterious and marvelous. Reason plays an important role—drawing conclusions from premises taken from a broad array of experience, but much of the reasoning that Lewis thought is called for is implicit and intuitive, requiring an equal mixture of philosophy and vision, a reconciliation of reason and imagination. Orual has to choose between rival explanations in the face of real ambiguity and mystery, a measure of hiddenness that perhaps ensures that her inquiry reveals her real motivations more than just her cognitive prowess.

Lewis suggests looking within, as part of an epistemic quest predicated on the traditional idea that at the foundation of all knowledge is self-knowledge. Thales thought the hardest thing to do is “to know thyself,” employing a phrase that invokes the specter of what would be on the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Plato would write that the essence of knowledge is self-knowledge. Centuries before Plato, the Hindu Upanishads confirmed, “Enquiry into the truth of the Self is knowledge.”

In the Apology, Socrates, at the precipice of his own death, asked, “Are you not ashamed to spend so much trouble upon trouble heaping up riches and honor and reputation, while you care nothing for wisdom and truth and the perfection of your soul?” Socrates did not claim to have attained to great wisdom, but the most important knowledge of all, he thought, is self-knowledge. Other speculative matters of alleged knowledge aren’t likely to conduce to greater perfection of the soul than authentic knowledge of the self. And perfection of soul far exceeds in importance anything else, which is why this ancient approach to epistemology, focused on self-knowledge with the goal of moral maturation, resides at the intersection of epistemology and ethics.

TWHF assumes that who we are shapes what we see, but rather than culminating in a radical subjectivism, for Lewis it leads to something like a virtue epistemology, according to which there’s a reality to be seen. Admittedly it’s seen through a glass darkly, but how much of it we can genuinely grasp remains a function of who we are. Understanding who and what we are, then, is foundational to knowledge. For Lewis, poetry—and art more generally—though vitally important, was penultimate, hardly anything like a compensation for lost faith.

In Part II of TWHF, Orual augments her original book—her original complaint against the gods—by writing that “I know so much more than I did about the woman who wrote it.” Interestingly, she says that what began the change was “the very writing itself.” The writing itself—the art—enables the growth in self-knowledge, but this is only the beginning: to prepare her for “the gods’ surgery.” “They used my own pen to probe my wound.” Lewis didn’t think that the epistemic quest was over once we looked within, practiced art, or saw the world under some fresh aspect, but that by growing in self-knowledge we can begin to see the world more accurately, we can apprehend more of reality, and the world will begin to look quite different from how it did before.

Orual had written her complaint against the gods. Ostensibly her complaint is epistemic, but when she adds to the book later, she admits things aren’t as they seem. How does her writing probe her wound and reveal to her the truth about herself? Primarily by a close and brutally honest examination of her various relationships—and the past she has tried so hard to veil. For example, she has had no pity in her heart for her sister Redival, but, after writing her original complaint, she encounters a former servant of her father’s named Tarin, who says, of Redival, “She was lonely.” This catches Orual by surprise, the “first snowflake of the winter I was entering.” She comes to admit as a certainty that she had not thought at all how it had been for Redival when she, Orual, first turned to Fox, then to Psyche, because “it had been somehow settled in my mind from the very beginning that I was the pitiable and ill-used one. She had her gold curls, hadn’t she?”

Next comes insight concerning her treatment of Bardia, her servant whom she loves. He is married, though, and always out of reach. After she finishes her book, she hears he is sick, and within a few days, he dies. She goes to visit Ansit, his widow, but Ansit is bitter toward the Queen, accusing her of working Bardia to death. “After weeks and months at the wars—you and he night and day together, sharing the councils, the dangers, the victories, the soldiers’ bread, the very jokes. . . .” And “I do not believe, I know, that your queenship drank up his blood year by year and ate out his life.”

The Queen replies with incredulity that Ansit should have spoken up, but Ansit says she never would have deprived her husband of his work and “all his glory and his great deeds.” Should she make a child and dotard of him? “I was his wife, not his doxy. He was my husband, not my house-dog. He was to live the life he thought best and fittest for a great man—not that which would most pleasure me.”

Ansit is suggesting that her love for Bardia means she had to give up some of her own desires, not make it all about herself, which begins to prick the Queen’s conscience because this very pattern has always been her own modus operandi. This raises a most important thematic element in the book: a recurring question of what real love means and looks like. Lewis was of the view that we can convince ourselves that our motivation is one of the purest love, when it might be far from it. The point here is that, sometimes when we think we are at our moral best, we may well be at our worst.[su_pullquote align="right"]Lewis, like Kant, saw such moral darkness as powerfully suggestive that it’s altogether rational to believe there are resources beyond our own to close this moral gap. [/su_pullquote]Orual long thought of the gods as indulgent and selfish, and is now accused by Ansit of being “gorged with other men’s lives, women’s too: Bardia’s, mine, the Fox’s, your sister’s—both your sisters.” Now, Orual writes, “the divine Surgeons had me tied down and were at work.” At first she is angry, but then Orual admits to herself that it is all terribly true, more than Ansit could even know. And she confesses her horrific treatment of Bardia, finally concluding, “Did I hate him, then? Indeed, I believe so. A love like that can grow to be nine-tenths hatred and still call itself love.” She adds, “I had been dragged up and out into such heights and precipices of truth, that I came into an air where [her love for Bardia] could not live. It stank; a gnawing greed for one to whom I could give nothing, of whom I craved all.”

Next, she has to reexamine her relationship with Batta, who had been a servant Orual had executed. Now she remembers that Batta had her loving moments. Yes, she was a busybody and tattletale and rumormonger, but now she recalls Batta’s warmth and humanity. Orual is inexorably forced to face the truth of who she was and is and of what she’d done—none of which she wanted to hear, all of which she needed to hear.

Having long thought of the gods as ugly in character, Orual now sees this as projection; now she comes to think that she herself is like Ungit: ugly in soul. In despair, she plans to kill herself before she’s stopped by the voice of a god: “You cannot escape Ungit by going to the deadlands, for she is there also. Die before you die. There is no chance after.” Earlier Lewis availed himself of the Socratic dictum “Know Thyself,” and now Lewis makes reference to the Socratic notion that true wisdom is the skill and practice of death. Reflecting on Socrates, the Queen writes, “I supposed he meant the death of our passions and desires and vain opinions.”

Philosophy, properly understood, trains us how to die, and not just physically. That part of us that most needs to die is our vainglory, our self-aggrandizement, our pride, our inordinate passions. She then reasons, “[I]f I practiced true philosophy, as Socrates meant it, I should change my ugly soul into a fair one. And this, the gods helping me, I would do. I would set about it at once.” The Queen resolves to be “just and calm and wise in all my thoughts and acts; but before they had finished dressing me I would find that I was back (and know not how long I had been back) in some old rage, resentment, gnawing fantasy, or sullen bitterness. I could not hold out half an hour.” She writes, “I could mend my soul no more than my face. Unless the gods helped. And why did the gods not help?”

In her angst and emotional tumult the Queen comforts herself with her complaint against the gods, and with obstinate tenacity holds on to one last consolation. Namely, at least she had cared for Psyche, taught her, and tried to save her, even wounded herself for her. And then comes a vision. In the vision she has a chance to read her indictment against the gods. The book/indictment/complaint has, however, now become much shorter. She is reluctant to read it, but she does, and in fact, without realizing it, reads it over and over again. We can identify three closely related salient highlights.

First, on the evidential score, she admits that she had been shown a real god and the house of a real god and should have believed; the real issue isn’t that. She admits she could have endured belief in the gods if they were like Ungit and the Shadowbrute. In truth she resents their meddling, their wooing of Psyche, their failure to follow through and devour Psyche as promised. “I’d have wept for her and buried what was left and built her a tomb. . . . But to steal her love from me!” The beauty of the gods—the fascinans she’d heretofore resisted and rejected—didn’t make things better, but worse. For it enables the gods to lure and entice, leaving Orual nothing. Second, she’d have rather Psyche remain hers and dead than the gods’ and made immortal. She has prided herself for her profound love of Psyche, but now the truth is revealed: it isn’t Psyche’s well-being she wanted to secure, but her own comfort. Psyche was hers.

Third, Orual insists that had she been the one to whom the gods had made themselves known, she would have been able to convince Psyche of their reality and goodness. Instead it was Psyche made privy, and Orual resented it. “But to hear a chit of a girl who had (or ought to have had) no thought in her head that I’d not put there, setting up for a seer and a prophetess and next thing to a goddess . . . how could anyone endure it?” Orual only wanted Psyche to be happy on terms she dictated. “What should I care for some horrible, new happiness which I hadn’t given her and which separated her from me? Do you think I wanted her to be happy, that way? It would have been better if I’d seen the Brute tear her in pieces before my eyes,” and “Did you ever remember whose the girl was? She was mine. Mine. Do you not know what the word means? Mine!” The sober truth about who Orual is has now been revealed, its dregs poured out. The complaint is the answer. She now has knowledge of herself, and what it reveals is a horrible malady, a problem in need of a solution.

Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?

The death of most importance in TWHF is not Orual’s physical death in the final chapter, but rather the death to which she’s called after coming into a deep knowledge of herself and her moral malady. When Orual faces who she is, her initial response is one of despair, and rightly so when she sees the distance between where she morally is and where she thought she was, when she sees that at her best she is actually at her worst, when she sees that what she thinks is her love is actually mainly hate. Lewis, like Kant, saw such moral darkness as powerfully suggestive that it’s altogether rational to believe there are resources beyond our own to close this moral gap.

The solution called for in TWHF, however, is radical. What’s needed is nothing less than death—not physical death, though. What philosophy, rightly understood, can teach us is how to die—to experience the death of our moral malady, our self-righteousness, our pride, our predatory natures, our possessiveness, our self-consumption. What such moral desperation reveals is the need for radical transformation—far beyond what we can do on the strength of our own meager moral resources alone. And if we “die before we die,” before it’s too late, as Orual is told to do, then perhaps the sting of death can be removed, its inevitability not entail fatalism, and its aftermath be full of hope. For the longest time Orual had hardened her heart and resisted intimations of something more, whereas for Psyche such a longing constituted the “inconsolable secret” of her heart. Psyche’s longing for the Mountain and the imaginary gold-and-amber castle of her youth, rather than a groundless hope or vacuous wishful thought, was the “sweetest thing” in her whole life.

Different Bodies: Part Two

 

A Twilight Musing

Paul begins 1 Corinthians 15 by pointing to the Resurrection of Jesus as the culminating capstone of the Son’s mission on earth, forming an essential part of the Gospel message (vv. 1-19).  He then proceeds to argue that if there is no resurrection from the dead, the consequence is that “in this life only we have hoped in Christ, [and] we are of all people most to be pitied” (v. 19).  In the succeeding verses, he goes on to draw a sharp distinction between the resurrected body of Jesus (the Second Adam) and the “natural body” of the First Adam: “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (vv. 20-21).  After an expansion on why “we are of all people most to be pitied” if there is no resurrection, Paul responds to the question, “How are the dead raised?  With what kind of body do they come?” (v. 30).

Paul goes to nature for analogies to answer these questions.  The resurrected body is as different from the natural body as is the fruit of a grain of wheat from the seed that was sown.  He points also to how the kinds of flesh are different from each other, and how heavenly bodies differ in brightness.  But the difference between our fleshly bodies and our resurrection bodies is even more striking:

What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable.  It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power.  It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.  Thus it is written, "The first man Adam became a living being"; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.  But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.  As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven.  Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.  (1 Cor 15:42-49, ESV)

What struck me in a fresh way in this passage was Paul’s reference to the first man being “from the earth, a man of dust.”   I had always assumed that the “body of death” from which we are finally delivered in the Resurrection is the fallen body destined for physical death because of sin.  A corollary of this assumption was that the original, unfallen bodies of Adam and Eve were not temporal, but eternal, so long as they lived in obedience to God.  But as I pointed out in Part One, even unfallen mankind was subject to some form of limitation on their physical lives; some kind of development in the context of temporality still remained to be worked out.  Paul’s discourse makes clear that Christ’s resurrection from the dead, and the participation of all believers in that resurrection, constitutes the final working out of God’s eternal purpose for His creation. By giving details of the distinction between the body of Adam and the body of our resurrected Lord, which we will one day share with Him, Paul demonstrates also the difference between our present universe, whether fallen or unfallen, and God’s “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (II Pet. 3:13).

The core of my new insight hinges on the implications of Paul’s summation in vv. 50-51: “I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.”  It is not just the corrupted, sinful body of the fallen First Adam that cannot inherit the kingdom of God, but even the yet-unfallen flesh and blood with which God clothed him in the first place.  If we accept that the original, unfallen Adam and Eve were “flesh and blood,” then it must also be accepted that they were, in some sense, perishable when they were created.  We have no way of knowing what would have developed in our world if our first father and mother had not rebelled, but it seems fair to conjecture that some form of cessation to their fleshly form would have been part of the picture.

I ran across a statement in C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet that articulates as a general principle of God’s creation what I believe to be true of Earth and the life God put on it.  The major character, Ransom, is talking to a being in the unfallen world of Malacandra (Mars), who has told Ransom about an ancient race that perished from the planet, leaving the area where they once lived cold and lifeless.  Ransom asks where the divine Creator and sustainer of the planet was when all this happened.  Could He not have prevented this destruction?  Ransom’s instructor replies, “I do not know.  But a world is not made to last forever, much less a race; that is not Maleldil’s [God’s] way.”  I present for your consideration the idea that God’s design in creating the world in which we live was not that it would last forever as it was, even if it had not rebelled; but that it was intended to be the stage for a process by which the Devil would be defeated and God’s moral superiority be established.

The eternal, resurrected bodies we will share with Jesus, as well as the eternal home in which we will dwell with Him, are not merely transformations of our present bodies and our present world, but entirely new, spiritually defined bodies and an abode that transcends completely our material universe.  In this eternal state, body and soul and spirit are so bonded together that they are no longer separable nor distinguishable from one another.  History, which by definition records change, will be at an end, wrapped up in God’s eternal “now.”

Image: "Eternity" by Norbert Reimer. CC License. 

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Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S. Lewis Onstage, Part III

Image credit: Jeremy Daniel

Image credit: Jeremy Daniel

We had been told to wait in the lobby of the second floor for Max McLean to arrive, which he did about fifteen minutes later. After one performance and before another, with a Q&A sandwiched in between, I marveled in advance at his generosity of time. We didn’t want to waste his energies, so we dove right in after quick introductions. He’d freshly turned 64 a week before, as it happens, which happened to be the age Lewis was when he died, but McLean exudes vitality and shows every appearance of being able to keep going like this for quite a while.

To prepare to interview him, we’d read all the interviews he’d done we could get our hands on, and in so doing we discovered that, from a young age, he’d suffered from a fear of public speaking, a severe form of social anxiety, sociophobia. As a certified introvert I wanted to ask about this because, seeing him on the stage performing, nobody would ever imagine this. He had actually turned to theatre originally in college to overcome his fears; we wanted to know if the fears were gone or if he’d simply learned to manage them.

“I think that if I’m not prepared the anxiety will come back. The fear makes you really prepare. I find that there’s an enormous fear of failure. I don’t think I’ve gotten over that.” Asked whether he considered himself an introvert or extrovert, he said he is definitely an introvert, getting his energy from reading and his quiet time. “Absolutely,” he added for emphasis.

After college McLean studied acting in London, always having been impressed by British actors and their use of language. Interesting to note, too, are the various English thinkers and writers who have left an impression on McLean—from Shakespeare to Shaw, Eliot to Chesterton, Spurgeon to Lewis. He will be returning to England this summer for Oxbridge, a triennial Lewis conference held at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, and doing some of this performance there.

Prior to McLean’s conversion to Christian faith, he admitted that he’d tried to read the Bible but it made no connection; he couldn’t find a way of getting into it. “It was just a flat book. It could have been an engineering book, but it wasn’t a book that captured my imagination. Once Jesus became alive to me, I read the Bible differently. I read John’s Gospel; I thought Jesus was going to come out of the pages. He was a story, a human being that was a hero and an overwhelming one. So my emotions were engaged.”

So why are theatre and story so powerfully effective at capturing the imagination of people, and why is that important? McLean replied, “Well, that’s the critical thing, because the imagination serves up the raw material of what we think about. Romans 1 tells us we all have the knowledge of God. There’s that thing about how we all have eternity in our hearts. And these things are intact—like I mentioned in the Q&A that people want to talk about these things but they don’t know how to talk about them—so I think that the theatre captures people’s imagination and stirs the imagination—which then asks, could this be true? And then a person is more willing to invest intellectual capital. You know, you’re not going to invest intellectual capital unless your imagination is engaged, unless you want to know more. So I think theatre is an extraordinary tool for that.”

In pursuing this goal, by what intentional steps does the FPA strive to engage a diverse audience? “People make their own choices about their entertainment options. So essentially we don’t do it in a church. We do it in a theater. We advertise in the New York Times, we advertise in the subway. We advertise at NPR. I think the main thing is this: our best audience is somebody . . . who’s able to use relational capital to say, ‘Okay, come with me to see this play, because you’re not going to be embarrassed. It’s going to be a safe space, and you’re going to enjoy it.’ And if they don’t want to engage, no harm done. You know, you go out to dinner, and when they have questions, that’s great, and when they don’t have questions, that’s great too.”

McLean thinks the theatre can do great good, but only if it’s done well. We’d been struck by the plethora of rave reviews his work had consistently garnered, by reviewers both sacred and secular. Accolades and awards are commonplace—from the DC Metro Arts to the Washington Post, the Chicago Critic and Splash, the Indianapolis Monthly to World Magazine to Stagebuddy and The Weekly Standard. Adjectives among reviewers describing his work abound like “fascinating,” “smart,” “brilliant,” “masterful,” “winsome,” “delightful,” “captivating,” “satisfying,” and “moving.” We asked him to talk about the importance of striving for excellence in his work.

“Doing it in New York . . . New York is kind of hyper in that way. To do theatre in New York is such a challenge, and if you make it known that it comes from a Christian worldview the bar just gets really much, much higher. And then to consider doing it in such a way as to engage a diverse audience in this highly polarized world that we’re in right now, it’s almost impossible. So you depend on these kind of things: the writing, the acting, the stagecraft . . . you don’t want it to be turned off at that level or you won’t get a fair hearing. And a fair hearing might be ‘I’ve heard it, I listened to it, I think it’s rubbish, but it was really well executed.’ As opposed to what mostly happens: the execution is terrible, and nobody even bothers . . . or the message is so trite that it’s just immediately dismissed. So what we do, in order to accomplish our mission, we spend a lot of time thinking about what material has the best possibility to reach a diverse audience, then we have to execute it to the highest levels that our budgets will allow. Which means that we hire all our designers. They’re professionals. Just like you go to the best doctor, the best dentist, we hire the best sound designer, the best set designer . . . because you don’t want it to be dismissed at the execution level. You want the message to be heard, and you don’t want anybody to say, ‘Oh, I’m not going to listen to the message because the messenger just doesn’t care.’”

We thought it particularly interesting that one of the most recurring descriptions we’d read of his work was “funny,” and especially all the references to self-deprecating humor. Why, we asked, does this seem to function so well as an ice breaker and bridge builder with his audience?

“Well, humor is a reaction. It doesn’t lie. I mean, there are things you can do to create it, depending on your sense of humor. So much of modern comedic humor is based out of anger, and putting somebody down. Lewis’s humor is based on wit, and surprise, and also his own making fun of himself. He didn’t take himself that seriously. He did, but he tried to act like he didn’t. So I think that humor does tear down barriers, that if you can get to it, that if you’re good enough to find the humor, theatre is built on it. . . . I do think it’s a very high priority. Chesterton thought humor was the bloom of his argument.”

Having seen McLean at work, I must say: if anybody can demonstrate that life is a comedy and not a tragedy, McLean’s channeling Lewis can. Still, he admits to mixed results among certain atheist reviewers. Plenty of “generous atheists” have accorded his work accolades because they enjoy a good time. Still, particularly among those who seem to think they have a stake in the game, there’s resistance. “A real true blue atheist is one for whom the possibility of the supernatural world breaking into the material world is just considered impossible. So any other possibility is more probable than the supernatural. That’s really hard core.”

When up against that level of settled conviction that theism isn’t so much as possibly true, perhaps McLean’s work is exactly what’s needed to chip away at the wall. Rather than just more discursive argument that only heightens defense, something that’s engaging, entertaining, and aesthetically pleasing might be what’s needed to break down the barriers. McLean agrees, adding: “People have these moments of joy, moments where the supernatural breaks in. Because there are two spheres. There’s the sphere of love, which isn’t just biochemistry.”

Using performance art to wake people up, stir curiosity, and generate conversation is what McLean and the FPA are all about. This summer this show will hit the road; readers are encouraged to find out if it’s showing near you; and if so, sell all you have and see it! It’s a world-class production, and it’s eminently worth it, irrespective of your worldview. And this fall in New York a new production will begin, again based on Lewis: “Shadowlands.” I think this may necessitate another death-defying trip to the City.

McLean has written, “I’m keenly aware that, despite the best of intentions, as soon as the word ‘Christian’ appears within an artistic context, red flags go up. That, obviously, creates a challenge.” He continues:

During our first season of four plays in New York City, several reviewers expressed misgivings. Realizing that the work was from a Christian perspective, one critic wrote “my heart sank.” Another made the understatement that “presenting what is unequivocally come-to-Jesus fare to a general audience is no easy thing.”

In both cases, it was the play itself that turned them around. The first declared, “I expected a preachy bore, not the deliciously witty, theatrical treat that still resonates and amuses the day after.” He went on, “I expect that, like the first, [the next production] will be entertaining, very well staged, canny, and imbued with serious Christian thought and an earnest invitation to introspection.”

The second reviewer began by clarifying his background: “I’m Jewish by birth, liberal by conviction, and an atheist by observation and introspection.” He went on to say “how much I admire the approach of Fellowship for Performing Arts. . . . They do their work through a careful combination of good story-telling—craft comes first—and avoiding overt preachiness, allowing any message implicit in the material to take care of itself.”

Such feedback is reassuring. Art hints at the deeper structures of reality. FPA desires to create theatre that contributes to a better understanding of it. To do that requires honest, clear-eyed storytelling that entertains and engages its audiences. If a work doesn’t do that, regardless of intent, it really doesn’t matter what else it does.

It’s inspiring to see a faithful worker in this field, laboring in the hardest of venues, speaking truth and spreading light. He and the FPA deserve our admiration, support, and prayers. He’s someone who knows, like Orson Welles knew, the power of story and the importance of the imagination to wake people up, evaluate their assumptions, and generate conversations worth having. For McLean, though, the message to look up is not one of fear, but of soaring hope.

In that connection, one might wonder what C. S. Lewis was doing in jolly England when Welles did his radio performance. I don’t know. But I do know that, just hours before, Mars came up in some of his correspondence. Evelyn Underhill, famous for her works on mysticism and a convert to Anglicanism in 1921, had written a letter to Lewis that arrived on October 26th of 1938. He replied to her on October 29th, the day before Welles’ American broadcast. Here is what Underhill had written to Lewis:

May I thank you for the very great pleasure which your remarkable book Out of the Silent Planet has given me? It is so seldom that one comes across a writer of sufficient imaginative power to give one a new slant on reality: & this is just what you seem to me to have achieved. And what is more, you have not done it in a solemn & oppressive way but with a delightful combination of beauty, humour & deep seriousness. I enjoyed every bit of it, in spite of starting with a decided prejudice against “voyages to Mars.” I wish you had felt able to report the conversation in which Ransom explained the Christian mysteries to the eldil, but I suppose that would be too much to ask. We should be content with the fact that you have turned “empty space” into heaven!

In chapter 5 of Out of the Silent Planet, Ransom is in the spaceship on the way to Mars: “He had read of ‘Space’: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds . . . now . . . the very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for the empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam . . . it was the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even from the earth with so many eyes—and here, with how many more! No: Space was the wrong name. Older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply the heavens.”

Lewis’s reply to Underhill, written on October 29th, after expressing his alarm and delight at hearing from such a notable writer as she, went like this: “I am glad you mentioned the substitution of heaven for space as that is my favourite idea in the book. Unhappily I have since learned that it is also the idea which most betrays my scientific ignorance: I have since learned that the rays in interplanetary space, so far from being beneficial, would be mortal to us. However, that, no doubt, is true of Heaven in other senses as well!”

True to form for a guy who recognized that a convert must gravely count the cost.

The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S. Lewis Onstage, Part II

Image credit: Jeremy Daniel

Image credit: Jeremy Daniel

Like others who have been privileged to see what next transpired, I was thrilled and transported. It was as if C. S. Lewis himself walked onto the stage. The makeup was exquisite, and the resemblance to Lewis uncanny. Even the voice was near perfect—I remember having listened to one of the few extant recordings of Lewis a year ago. McLean intentionally didn’t aim at enunciating quite so thick an accent as Lewis actually had, explaining why after the play in a Q&A session. For an American audience, in particular, this was a smart decision to avoid it becoming a distraction. McLean’s classical training in voice paid its dividends.

Most people are likely familiar with what happens when watching an inferior performance, show, or movie; it’s hard not to hold it at arm’s length because there’s something mildly insulting and off-putting about the shoddy craftsmanship. In patent contrast, we also know what it’s like when we watch a particularly excellent performance: we’re drawn in, we lose ourselves in the story, we become thoroughly engaged. This was my experience as I sat and watched FPA’s production. A virtuoso performance, it was by turns instructive and convicting, insightful and hilarious, poignant and memorable.

The crisp monologues by the pipe-wielding Lewis recounted the tale of his conversion, chronicling how, step by methodical step, he traversed a path from skepticism to belief. Included in the account were the seminal figures of his life: his father, his brother, his teacher the “Great Knock,” and literary influences from Yeats to Chesterton to George MacDonald, whose Phantastes “baptized” Lewis’s imagination prior to his conversion.

Lewis’s aversion to Christianity was hard for him to square with the fact that so many of his favorite writers, whose writing tasted most real, were Christians. His hard-thinking friend Owen Barfield’s conversion to Christianity upset Lewis, yet Lewis found Barfield’s logic unassailable. Too many aspects of life, to be taken seriously—from consciousness to morality to reason itself—require rock bottom reality to be intelligent. Coghill helped Lewis see the virtues as relevant to understanding reality; Tolkien enabled him to see that Christianity is the True Myth; and gradually Lewis became open to the Absolute, then to Spirit, then to God, then to the Incarnation, each incremental step ineluctably inching toward greater and greater concreteness. Acutely mindful that it took God’s initiative to draw him, Lewis finally relented to the Hound of Heaven, admitting defeat, allowing himself to be vanquished by love, and not the least bit happy about it.

In contrast with any theology of “cheap grace,” or an accommodating Christianity that readily capitulates to swirling cultural whims, blithely smearing the name “Christian” on views conditioned by secularity rather than scripture, Lewis seemed intuitively to grasp from the start that real Christianity would be costly, that its implications were radical, that its demands were all-encompassing. Little wonder he counted the cost, and, after finally relenting—first to theism, then to Christianity—he was, by his own admission, the most reluctant and dejected convert in all of England. Far more quickly than most, he was able to apprehend the paradox of Christianity: to find life we must lose it, to live we must die, and that ultimately we can’t hold anything back.[su_pullquote align="right"]Lewis seemed intuitively to grasp from the start that real Christianity would be costly, that its implications were radical, that its demands were all-encompassing.[/su_pullquote]

The play was simply spectacular, and we loved it. Most of the audience stayed for the Q&A, and about ten or fifteen minutes after the play was done, McLean re-emerged, this time as himself rather than Lewis. It was a remarkable metamorphosis! Donning salmon slacks and a coal shirt, his hour as Lewis was clearly over, and now it was time to hear from the actor and writer himself. He joked about his pants, exuded confidence, showed relaxed body language, sat in the chair, and patiently fielded questions from the audience. His answers were perspicacious and trenchant, revealing him to be well read and often quite eloquent and erudite.

Asked about obstacles doing a play like this in New York, he said that theatre is a great venue to have these sorts of conversations. He’s convinced that people want to have such dialogues, but are often unsure how to do it. He spoke of his admiration for Lewis, despite admitting that some of Lewis’s writings were an acquired taste, demanding effort to apprehend them well. He had largely relied on Lewis’s own words for this play, but had to work hard to thin out some of Lewis’s diction and elaborate explications to make the ideas more widely accessible and understandable.

The result, to my thinking, was a veritable “greatest hits” woven together masterfully. I had enjoyed the play immensely, and the Q&A only enhanced my appreciation for McLean, and in a few moments Marybeth and I would get the chance to speak with him personally.

The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S. Lewis Onstage, Part I

It was Halloween Eve, Mischief Night as it’s often dubbed, the penultimate day of October in 1938. At a time when the radio was the main source of news and entertainment, the big draw that evening was the legendary Edgar Bergen and his ventriloquist dummy Charlie McCarthy. Popular lore says that a musical interlude in Bergen’s performance led many radio listeners to surf the channels and tune in to what would subsequently be called the most famous radio broadcast of all time.

Perched high in the Columbia Broadcasting Building on Madison Avenue, a precocious 23-year-old impresario Orson Welles was orchestrating a coup of the airwaves. Already reputed as Broadway’s most brilliant rising star, Welles made this particular Sunday anything but restful, directing the terrified eyes of his rapt listeners to quite the ominous October sky. It was a scant nine years before, almost to the day, that Black Tuesday had initiated the Great Depression, whose painful ripple effects were still felt. With Hitler’s foreboding rise to power and Europe so susceptible to his domination and imminent encroachment, the future was uncertain; people were already on edge and accustomed to hearing bad news.

Image credit: Jeremy Daniel

Image credit: Jeremy Daniel

That night, by the time they started listening to this storied adaptation of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (1898), much of the audience had missed the opening introduction identifying it as a dramatization. Welles’ magisterial depiction of an alien invasion in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey induced panic in lots of quarters, accounts varying as to its extent. The show was strategically punctuated by realistic breaking “news bulletins”; by a sudden impromptu and pregnant, protracted and deafening silence initiated by Welles himself; and by another voice actor emulating the rhythm and cadence of Herbert Morrison’s immortal heart-rending eyewitness radio report of the Hindenburg’s fiery destruction just a year before.

For a few hours, the show simply terrified a nation already fraught with fear. Amidst subsequent media outrage and furious calls for greater FCC regulation, Welles feigned shock and dismay over the tumult his broadcast had produced. In truth the whole scenario would catapult him into the stratosphere of international fame, issuing him his ticket to Hollywood.

On the one hand, the remarkable episode furnishes a cautionary tale against the power of propaganda; on the other, more positively, it’s a reminder of the remarkable ability of drama and story to capture and mesmerize the imagination and move the will. The broadcast was a production of the Mercury Theatre, founded by Welles and John Houseman (later of Paper Chase fame as Professor Charles Kingsfield), located on West 41st Street in New York City, a mere half mile from where my wife and I recently watched a different drama unfold—one more tethered to actual history.

H. G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds in 1898, forty years before the Mercury Theatre’s radio adaptation. The year of Wells’ book in England also marked the birth of C. S. Lewis in Belfast, Ireland, and it just so happens that the play that we recently saw was a one-man show about the great Oxford don’s reluctant conversion to Christian faith.

Inexplicably navigating the frenetic, frantic Manhattan traffic by sheer force of will and a deft defiance of physics, our taxi driver dropped us off at the Acorn Theatre on West 42nd Street. Until then we’d assumed the Amtrak train hurling along in northern Virginia at breakneck speed might be the most terrifying part of our journey, feeling suspiciously like the Knight Bus in Harry Potter’s London. The Acorn Theatre is part of “Theatre Row,” headquartered in the heart of NYC’s Theater District.

Surviving that harrowing freak show of vehicular congestion made receptive our hearts to the transcendent and miraculous, and indeed a magical afternoon at the theatre was about to ensue. It was less than an hour to the matinee show time. We were excited to relish the performance we’d heard so much about already, and just as enthused at the prospect, afterwards, of meeting its star, Max McLean, who co-directed the show with Ken Denison. His publicist had neatly arranged our post-show interview.

After procuring our tickets, we made it to the third floor theatre, its set smartly arranged as a cozy book-lined office replete with desk, virtual pictures on the back wall, and a requisite cushy chair—just the sort of environment for the bookish Lewis to make an appearance. The ostensible location is Lewis’s study at Magdalen College, Oxford, 1950. While we admired the décor and became acclimated to the surroundings—feeling more than a little giddy as quite the sophisticated NYC theatre-goers—I perused the play’s brochure.

The performance, it was explained, is a production of the Fellowship for Performing Arts (FPA), which was founded by McLean in 1992, and which aims to create theatre from a Christian worldview that engages a diverse audience. It has developed and presented award-winning plays such as The Screwtape Letters, which I saw in North Carolina some years ago, never imagining at the time I’d later get to meet McLean personally, aka Screwtape. Other productions—staged in theatres and performing arts centers in New York, London, and across America—have included The Great Divorce, Mark’s Gospel, Martin Luther on Trial, and of course this one: C. S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert. The outfit has also produced critically acclaimed audiobook narrations of classic Christian works, predicated on the power of not just reading scripture, but hearing it.

I read with particular interest the brochure’s “Note about the Play,” which helpfully explains the subtitle. In 1950, Lewis received a letter from a young American writer expressing his struggle to believe Christianity because he thought it “too good to be true.” Lewis responded, “My own position at the threshold of Christianity was exactly the opposite of yours. You wish it were true; I strongly hoped it was not. . . . Do you think people like Stalin, Hitler, Haldane, Stapledon (a corking good writer, by the way) would be pleased on waking up one morning to find that they were not their own masters . . . that there was nothing even in the deepest recesses of their thoughts about which they could say to Him, ‘Keep out! Private. This is my business’? Do you? Rats! . . . Their first reaction would be (as mine was) rage and terror.”

The Note goes on to say that this was Lewis’s mindset before he “gave in,” as he put it. Lewis had embraced ideologies like materialism, atheism, naturalism, determinism, and reductionism—views that hold in common the conviction that all of life, every action, emotion, or perception, is susceptible to deflation. Each can be reduced to pre-existing physical causes all the way back to the Big Bang. There is no need to appeal to a supernatural source. God is not required to explain or define origin, meaning, ethics, or destiny. “For many years, Lewis was a defender of this view. And given his rhetorical gifts and love of debate one could see him fit into the ‘New Atheist’ camp with the likes of the late Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris.”

This play, it was explained, would explore Lewis’s dramatic conversion from this position to Christianity. McLean, the author of the Note, adds that he thinks Lewis’s vibrancy and resonance as a Christian apologist is rooted in this experience. The primary sources for the play, the Note continues, would be Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy, as well as his Collected Letters, a three-volume veritable treasure trove of insights and rich historical nuggets. McLean wrote the script by carefully cobbling together Lewis’s disparate words into a seamless tapestry and compelling narrative with a readily discernible and inherently fascinating trajectory. In addition to the primary sources, McLean also relied on several of Lewis’s books and essay collections, including The Problem of Pain, The Weight of Glory, Mere Christianity, God in the Dock, Present Concerns, and Christian Reflections. And he acknowledges his debts to various biographies and critical insights by Douglas Gresham (Lewis’s stepson), Walter Hooper (editor of Lewis’s literary estate), Devin Brown (from Asbury University), Tim Keller (whose church McLean attends in NYC, a church that has several pastors with specific ministries for the artists in the congregation), Alan Jacobs (Wheaton), Jerry Root (who’s written a book on Lewis and the problem of evil), Andrew Lazo, George Sayer, David Downing, Oxford’s Alister McGrath, Armand Nicholi (author of a book comparing and contrasting Lewis and Freud), Sheldon Vanauken, Kenneth Tynan, and A. N. Wilson, among others.

Finally, I read that the play takes place prior to the publication of Lewis’s first Narnia story and well before he met his wife, Joy Davidman—which introduces the tantalizing possibility of a sequel. My appetite thus whetted, I was primed to see the show.

Jesus, the Bible, and Moral Knowledge

 

Introduction

Humanity can have some moral knowledge without encountering the written Word of God. People throughout the world know that the proposition, “it always wrong to torture children for fun” is true. The Bible itself says that at least some moral knowledge is available through general revelation (Romans 1:18; 2:14). However, this moral knowledge is deficient in several ways and requires the Bible for completion. I will argue that though there is natural moral knowledge, that it is deficient in its scope and authority and that the Bible, as the written Word of God, meets the conditions required for moral knowledge. And finally, I will specify how the Bible supplements the moral knowledge available through general revelation. My suggestion is that the Bible confirms what is properly known by nature and “pure’ reason, it corrects moral misunderstandings in moral knowledge, and it calls humanity to go beyond what can be naturally known to a complete vision of the moral life in Christ. The moral knowledge available in the Bible has the power it does precisely because it is the written Word of God under Jesus Christ for he is Lord and thus has the power to impose upon us moral duties and because as man he reveals, enacts, and makes possible eudaimonia or the good life. So why is the Bible necessary to compete our knowledge of the human good and human moral obligations?

Epistemology and Moral Knowledge

Though this question seems straightforward, it raises difficult and complex issues in epistemology. The question assumes that the Bible is a source of a particular kind of knowledge, moral knowledge, and that it is a superior source than any other available to humankind. This claim is controversial because many doubt the Bible’s credibility as a source of knowledge in general (the claim is that it is merely the work of men or that is has been severely compromised in its transmission), but many more doubt that adopting the ethics of the Bible would count as a gain in human moral knowledge. For example, Peter Enns argues that the morality of the Old Testament does not reflect the will of a good God, but merely adapts the “accepted cultural norms of the day.”[1] The Bible teaches a Bronze Age ethic which should be discarded in light of human moral progress. Not only is the Bible merely the work of men, it is the work of morally unenlightened ones; that is the idea. I will return to assess this claim later, but Enns’ view serves as an important and popular foil for the thesis I am proposing. What sort of argument can be given to support the idea that the Bible is a source of moral knowledge? Here the work of Karl Barth will provide some illumination.

Karl Barth argued that the “The Bible is the Word of God.”[2] Often, Barth is interpreted as meaning that the Bible becomes the Word of God only when God elects to use it as it is proclaimed in the Church. Further, the Bible itself does not communicate the Word of God, but rather, it is merely the vehicle by which divine encounter occurs (a view called “occasionalism”). However, John Morrison suggests that this view fundamentally misunderstands Barth. According to Morrison, Barth holds that the Word of God “always has the character of an event, and Scripture thus ‘becomes’ in/as an event.”[3] The “event” is God’s decision to speak in and through the Bible; this speaking is the result of divine decision and is “ever present.”[4] It is in this way that Barth identifies the Bible with the Word of God. But why should we think Barth’s account is correct?

Barth does not think that the veracity of the Bible can be established on the basis of authority external to it. Man does not grasp the Bible, “the Bible has grasped at man.”[5] What Barth is proposing is a Trinitarian worldview where God the Father speaks through his Son, the Word, and this Word is applied or realized by the power of the Holy Spirit. Man is a finite and limited creature and so knowledge of God comes only by divine grace. If this worldview is assumed, it does not make sense to try to establish the authority and veracity of the Bible as the Word of God on the basis on anything outside of the Bible.[6] Any endeavor like this would be contradictory to Barth’s view. More specifically, Barth’s answer to the question of how can know that the Bible is the Word of God is that he can know this because it is actually the case: “The possibility of revelation is actually to be read off from its reality in Jesus Christ. Therefore at bottom the individual explanation to which we now proceed can be only a reading and exegesis of this reality.”[7]

A superficial reading of Barth might lead to his dismissal as a fideist, but this would be a mistake. Showing why this would be a mistake will require the defense of another contentious thesis: all epistemological positions are inherently theological. If, for example, we adopt a view like Cartesian foundationalism, then we have made certain assumptions that have theological significance. Anthropologically, we have made assumptions about the kinds of things we are, along with the limits of our cognitive powers, and our relation to the world. Cosmologically, we have assumed that world is the sort place that is knowable and comprehensible, even if the comprehensibility extends only to our own thoughts. Morally, we have assumed that we have certain intellectual duties that must be fulfilled, namely we must establish all our beliefs on the basis of what can be deductively ascertained from within the mind of a human individual. In other words, epistemological methods imply a worldview or a view about ultimate reality and human nature. This is perhaps why Calvin argues that “Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.”[8] These issues are inherently theological and so one cannot help but beg the question for a worldview to some extent. Considering this, Barth should not be understood as a fideist, but as person who takes seriously the connection of epistemology and worldview. Barth has an honesty and clarity about his assumptions and their implications that few alternative views could claim.

But if epistemology and worldview share this deep connection, then how can we discern what account of our moral knowledge is correct in light of the challenges coming from scholars like Peter Enns? What I propose, then, is that the way to determine whether the Bible is necessary to complete our knowledge of the good and the right, is to apply two kinds of tests. First, is the worldview which claims to account for moral knowledge internally coherent? Does it make any assumptions that conflict with each other or its conclusions? Second, what account of moral knowledge best explains our most deeply held moral intuitions? If, for example, we find that the biblical vision of shalom more deeply resonates with us than Aristotle’s vision of the polis, then that is a reason to think that the biblical account is more likely the correct one.

Non-Trinitarian Accounts of Moral Knowledge

There are a variety of non-Trinitarian accounts of moral knowledge, but perhaps the most popular and viable are Aristotelian and Kantian accounts. Before briefly laying out these accounts and showing some of their short comings, we should note that Aristotelian and Kantian accounts have different targets. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle is not primarily concerned with spelling out the conditions for right action or the framework for moral duties. Rather, his aim is to provide an explanation of the human good.[1] What will make human beings happy; what realizes eudaimonia? Kant, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with accounting for the existence of the moral law  and its applicability to us.[2] A rough way of seeing the difference is this: Aristotle is concerned with the good and Kant is concerned with the right.[3]

Aristotle's Ethics

Aristotle begins with the a priori premise “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.”[4] Any rational endeavor seeks some good. If human beings want to live rationally, they ought to seek after the good. But what is the human good? Whatever it is, it must be something chosen for its own sake and not for the sake of something else. Aristotle thinks that only happiness (eudaimonia) meets this requirement; “happiness is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action.”[5] But saying simply that “happiness is the chief good seems a platitude.”[6] Therefore, Aristotle seeks to specify exactly what characterizes happiness. Aristotle suggests that the human good consists in proper function according to a telos. What a human being is will determine what counts as proper function as well as the conditions and nature of happiness.

Aristotle thinks that the essential nature of human beings can be discerned by empirical means. Through observation, Aristotle thinks he can detect two kinds of proper function or virtue. First, one can see the difference between man and lower animals. Man possesses a rational element which beasts do not.[7] Aristotle argues that a life of contemplation is the highest good because it is “the best thing in us” and reason is either “itself divine or only the most divine element in us.”[8] The virtues that allow for full utilization of the rational faculty (contemplation) are the intellectual virtues. But in addition to these, Aristotle says there are also the ethical virtues, or virtues of character.[9] Traditionally, the Greek virtues include, according to Thomas Aquinas, “temperance, justice, prudence, and fortitude.”[10] Aristotle thinks that these virtues of character can be discerned through the “doctrine of the mean.” A virtue is the balance between two vices. Temperance, for example, is the mean between self-indulgence and insensibility.[11]  Aristotle further thinks that the human good needs the right environment. Aristotle holds that it can be observed that man flourishes best when he lives in the Greek polis. The human good also requires certain material conditions, like physical health and monetary wealth. Happiness is not merely a matter of inward reflection and self-discipline; it also requires the right physical setting.

The upshot of Aristotle’s ethic for our purposes is this: Aristotle thinks that a full account of moral knowledge is available to us through the use of common sense and empirical observation. By considering the nature of human beings and their endeavors, and by observing how humans flourish, we can determine what the human good is.

Even in this brief sketch of Aristotle’s ethic, one can see how rich and multi-valent Aristotle’s account of the human good is. It strives to include all dimensions of embodied human life, and in this way, has some advantages over more Platonic accounts. The substantial nature of Aristotle’s conclusions along with his seemingly modest epistemological commitments may be why Aristotle’s model of ethics continues to be utilized. Philippa Foot, for example, argues for a naturalistic virtue ethic that attempts to justify moral realism and moral knowledge along Aristotelian lines.[12] Erik Wielenberg in his attempt to justify value and virtue in a Godless universe, suggests that Aristotle’s ethic provides “the most powerful response” to Christian morality.[13]  For many, an Aristotelian strategy provides a promising way to account for moral knowledge outside of the Bible.

While there is much to be commended in Aristotle’s approach, like his belief in the connection of facts and values, there are still some problems. One concern is whether Aristotle’s account of virtue actually follows from his insight about human beings. Kraut suggests that Aristotle’s argument in the Nicomachean Ethics may not establish the virtues, but merely shows a reason to be virtuous: “We may conclude that Aristotle proposes flourishing as the ‘ultimate justification of morality [why we ought to be moral].’”[14] In other words, Aristotle begins with the assumption that humans ought to be moral and his project, despite his intentions, only provides motivation to be moral rather than an explanation of morality itself.  Further, Aristotle’s project begs the question about the nature of the human good and the associated virtues; these values are assumed rather than demonstrated.

John Hare brings a similar charge against eudaemonist or Aristotelian ethics.[15] His contention, following Scotus, is that the moral law, or what humans ought to do, cannot be deduced from facts about human nature. Hare’s basic contention is that Aristotle’s account of moral goodness is too narrow. One piece of evidence Hare supplies comes in the contrast of Jesus and Aristotle’s view of “competitive goods.” Aristotle often thinks of the human good as requiring wealth and power; honor and magnanimity. For one to possess these qualities, others most have them in lesser degrees; they are competitive goods. Jesus, on the other hand, advocates for the virtue of humility. This is the inversion of Aristotle’s vision of the ideal man. As MacIntyre puts it, “Aristotle would certainly not have admired Jesus Christ and he would have been horrified by St. Paul.”[16] This deep disagreement about the nature of the human good, argues Hare, highlights the inscrutability of ethical virtue from human nature.[17] What facts about human nature and how we flourish could be produced to settle the disagreement? This is one reason why Hare thinks special revelation with specific divine commands is necessary for justified moral beliefs. While Hare does not take his conclusion explicitly in this direction, one could extend his argument to say that the Word of God is necessary to supplement what we can know about the human good by reason.[18] For if divine commands are required, then the Bible would be a good place to look for those commands.

Another concern with Aristotle’s approach comes from his view of God. As mentioned above, Aristotle thought that greatest possible ways of human flourishing were intimately connected with the divine. It is not altogether clear how Aristotle conceives of this relation, however. Is contemplation the highest good simply because it is the full realization of the highest element in humanity, or because it resembles the activity of God? In support of the latter possibility, Aristotle says that the value of all things is judged by reference to “God and the good.”[19] Aristotle frames this dilemma rather directly:

It is reasonable that happiness should be god-given, and most surely god-given of all human things inasmuch as it is the best. But this question would perhaps be more appropriate to another inquiry; happiness seems, however, even if it is not god-sent but comes as a result of virtue and some process of learning or training, to be among the most godlike things; for that which is the prize and end of virtue seems to be the best thing in the world, and something godlike and blessed.[20]

Aristotle seemingly wants to gloss over the relation of God and the human good, but this relation is critical to his theory in at least two ways. First, it raises the question of the nature of goodness itself to human goodness. If God is the highest good, then should not he be the telos of humanity? If all rational endeavors pursue the good, then this question is not trivial. Second, if the human good is God-given, then what does this imply about the connection of the human telos and God’s intentions for human beings? If God is both the standard of the good and the one who gives goodness or happiness to humanity, then it would seem that the question of human virtue would be primarily theological and not philosophical (assuming there is a sharp distinction between these disciplines). Investigation into morality would be a question of who God is, what he is like, and whether or not he has revealed himself and his intentions for human beings.[21] In sum, Aristotle’s approach to ethics does not actually succeed at what it sets out to do and it leaves important theoretical questions about the nature of the good, specifically the relation of the good to God and the human telos, unanswered.

Kantian Ethics

Kant’s approach to moral knowledge is different both in its method and its goal. Kant’s epistemology assumes a split between the phenomenal and the noumenal. There is a way that things appear to us which is determined by the mind and there is a way things actually are. We do not know external objects as they are, but only as they appear to us, as they are shaped by the categories of the mind. On the other hand, Kant says, “other possible things, which are not objects of our senses, but are cogitated by the understanding alone, and call them intelligible existences (noumena).”[22] God exists in the noumenal realm and is not directly accessible to us. Considering our epistemic situation, Kant thinks that the basis of moral knowledge must be established based on “pure reason.” Moral knowledge would not be knowledge of the Platonic forms, but knowledge of the entailments of reason. Pure reason operates only the analytic and a priori; it utilizes only those things known prior to experience and that are internal to the person. Kant thinks that one can postulate the existence of noumenal objects on the basis of practical reason. If some concept known analytically requires the postulation of some noumenal object to explain its existence, then this postulation is warranted. Seemingly, Kant thinks that the notion of the moral law is an a priori concept for in The Critique of Practical Reason, it is on the assumption of existence of the moral law that Kant, by use of practical reason, establishes the reality of human free will.[23]

Kant, like Aristotle, has an important role for God. But also like Aristotle, Kant’s search for moral knowledge does not begin with God. Rather, since God is in the realm of the noumenal, Kant says he “must, therefore, abolish knowledge [of noumenal objects like God], to make room for belief [in these objects]. The dogmatism of metaphysics, that is, the presumption that it is possible to advance in metaphysics without previous criticism, is the true source of the unbelief (always dogmatic) which militates against morality.”[24] Despite this move, Hare rightly argues that for Kant, God has three specific roles, the legislative, executive, and judicial so that for Kant “God gives us the assistance required to live according to the law. And God sees our hearts, as we do not, knows whether we are committed to obedience, and rewards us accordingly.”[25] It is based on God’s necessary judicial function that Kant develops a moral argument for God by means of practical reason. Kant held that a person was always obliged to keep the moral law. However, one’s self-interest or happiness and keeping the moral demand can seemingly conflict so that it would not be rational to follow the law. To keep this seeming contradiction from becoming actual, Kant, as a postulate of practical reason, thought that God must exist to make sure that the moral law and happiness coincide.

Kant’s understanding of human epistemological limitations shapes how he thinks of morality in general and moral knowledge in particular. The full extent of our moral obligations must be discovered a priori, without appeal to any external authority or empirical observation. According to Johnson, Kant’s method is to begin with analyzing our moral concepts, like “good will,” “moral agent,” and “obligation” and their logical relationship to one another.[26] Since the moral law should be necessary and absolute, it cannot consider any contingent features. It is these analytic considerations that lead Kant to his second formulation of the Categorical Imperative: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”[27]

This brief sketch of Kant’s account of moral knowledge does create some concern. One problem has to do with Kant’s understanding of the epistemic starting point. Hume may have awoken Kant from his dogmatic slumbers, but Kant seems to have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed. Hume’s skeptical challenge leads Kant to embrace epistemological and ontological dualism, when he should have rejected the skepticism.[28] The result is the Kant believes an implicit contradiction. He says he cannot have knowledge of God, except by practical reason. But this is an a priori theological belief which is no better established than the alternative. A better response can be found in the work of Alvin Plantinga, which takes seriously the implications of the Christian worldview.[29] Kevin Diller suggests that Plantinga and Barth have similar positions on this front. When faced with the problem of skepticism, Diller argues that traditionally philosophers have seen the problem as a dilemma. Either one can embrace the skepticism or change the definition of truth and knowledge (anti-realism). Diller argues that both Barth and Plantinga “chart an escape through the horns of this dilemma by rejecting certain core epistemological assumptions of modernity. Plantinga identifies its origins in the unreasonable deontology associated with classical foundationalism. Barth heralds the pre-engaged givenness and self-grounding of divine self-revelation."[30] They, instead of buckling under the weight of modernism, opt for a critical realist position of knowledge that “strongly affirms the possibility of theological knowledge.”[31]

Here is a related problem to Kant’s view. If his ethical theory ends up affirming the necessity of God, then why would God be left out of the epistemic story? Surely, if God exists and he is personal in the way that Kant’s view requires, then perhaps he might, as Plantinga suggests, create us to know him, perhaps even in a properly basic way. Considering the earlier argument that all epistemology is inherently theological, it would seem to make Barthian and Plantingian accounts at least prima facie more plausible because they at least acknowledge the determinate relation of epistemology to worldview.

A Trinitarian Account of Moral Knowledge

Having now shown some reasons to be skeptical of Aristotelian and Kantian accounts of moral knowledge, we will now see how a Trinitarian and biblical account is superior. But first we must sketch out this Trinitarian account. A significant difference between a Trinitarian account and the other accounts concerns their respective starting points. We begin with theology rather than epistemological method (particularism over methodism). The first theological assumption relevant to moral knowledge is that God is the good and that, therefore, any moral knowledge we might have will in some way be dependent on him. That God ought to be identified with the good is widely held Christian belief shared among theologians from Augustine to Robert Adams.[32] If goodness is identified with God, then the goodness of all other things must be explained in terms of resemblance to God. Moral knowledge, then is a kind of knowledge of God, either of himself directly or derivatively in his creation. That moral knowledge would be available to us given the existence of God is internally coherent and plausible. Plantinga, in a discussion of the availability of knowledge of God in general says this: “[If it is true that God exists, then] the natural thing to think is that he created us in such a way that we would come to hold true beliefs as that there is such a person as God, that he is our creator, that we owe him obedience and worship, that he is worthy of worship, that he loves us, and so on. And if that is so, then the natural thing to think is that the cognitive processes that do produce belief in God are aimed by their designer at producing that belief.”[33]  The other assumption is that the God in view is the Trinitarian God of the Bible who is revealed primarily by his Word, Jesus Christ.

Considering these assumptions, the obvious concern given our aim is to say what moral knowledge God has revealed in his Word and how he has done this. God’s modes of revelation can be divided into two categories: general and special and God has made moral knowledge available through both means, though to varying degrees. God the Father, through his Word, who made all things, reveals some of morality in his creation (Col. 1:15-16; Rom. 1:18; 2:14). However, this moral knowledge is suppressed because of sin. Some limited amount of moral knowledge is available by this route, but it is fragmentary and clouded by what Plantinga calls “the noetic effects of sin.”[34] This means that the only ultimately reliable and full source of moral knowledge must come by way of divine grace and special revelation.

If special revelation is required for this sort of moral knowledge, which is a species of the genus “knowledge of God,” then written Word of God, the Bible, would be the place to turn. But if God primarily reveals himself in and through his Word, who is Jesus Christ, then this could create a problem. The problem arises if there is a disconnect between God’s primary and supreme mode of revelation, his Son, who is the Word, and the Bible, for as John writes, “No one has ever seen God. The only one [Who is the Word of God], himself God, who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God known” (John 1:18, NET). Carson concludes from this text that “the Word was simultaneously God and with God—has broken the barrier that made it impossible for human beings to see God, and has made him known.”[35] If this separation between written Word and Word of God were actual, then the implication would be that the only special revelation to which we have ready access would be inferior to the ideal revelation of God in Jesus Christ. To put the problem another way: If in the Bible we do not encounter the Word of God, who is the only one to make the Father known, then the Bible cannot be a reliable or full source of moral knowledge. The only sure source of moral knowledge is encounter with the Living Word, who is Jesus Christ. Therefore, if our moral knowledge is going to be the best kind possible for us, it must find its source in the Word of God; the Bible must be a revelation of Jesus Christ. Fortunately, Barth shows us the way to understand the Written Word and the Word as intimately connected.

Barth contends that Holy Scripture is composed of the prophetic and apostolic witness to Christ. In the Written Word, the Church is given “the promise of God's mercy which is uttered in the person of Him who is very God and very Man and which takes up our cause when we could not help ourselves at all because of our enmity against God.”[36] The promise of the Written Word is “Immanuel;” it is the working out of John 1:18. Barth adds that the Bible is the word of men “who yearned, waited and hoped for this Immanuel and who finally saw, heard and handled it in Jesus Christ. Holy Scripture declares, attests and proclaims it. And by its declaration, attestation and proclamation it promises that it applies to us also and to us specifically.”[37] For Barth, then, the Bible functions on two levels. First, its subject is Jesus Christ. All of the Bible either looks forward or back to the revelation of God in his Son. Second, God is at work in the Bible. The Bible is not a static object, but has the character of “event.” God speaks in and through the Written Word and what he speaks is his Word, who is the Son. Thus, the content of the Written Word points to the Son, and in the Written Word, we encounter the Word of God. In this way, the Bible can serve as the best possible ground for moral knowledge. It is this sure ground that allows the Bible to not only supplement the limited moral knowledge available via general revelation, but also to correct misunderstandings. What is implicit in creation, is made explicit in Jesus Christ and his Written Word.

Barth’s comment about the person of Christ being “very God and very man” also shows why the Bible is especially fit to be our source of moral knowledge. Jesus as “very God,” possesses the right kind of authority to place upon us binding moral obligations for, plausibly, God as the creator of humanity would ipso facto have moral authority over them.[38] If Jesus were not God himself, then God’s revelation of himself in Christ would be deficient and not self-authenticating. On the other hand, the fact that Jesus is “very man” is also relevant, for in the life and person of Jesus, we find the ideal moral exemplar.[39] Jesus authoritatively as God not only tells us what we ought to do, but he also shows how humans ought to function. He gives us a clear picture of the human good. It is Jesus’ status as both “very God and very man” that puts him in a position to set forth authoritatively and completely moral knowledge with respect to the right and the good. And the fact that he communicates through and encounters us in the Written Word means this knowledge is accessible to us. The Written Word, as Barth says, is the concrete realization of Immanuel.

What the Written Word says about the right and the good also provide reason to prefer the Trinitarian account over the alternatives considered. With respect to the good, Aristotle’s virtue ethic is deficient in two ways when compared with the ethic of the Bible. First, Aristotle’s account of the virtues is both incomplete and in error at certain points. The cardinal virtues, discoverable by general revelation according to Thomas Aquinas, are supplemented by the Written Word. The theological virtues are beyond “the capacity of human nature” to apprehend and therefore it is “necessary for man to receive [knowledge of them] from God.”[40] Second, Aristotle’s vision of the good life is inferior to the biblical vision. Aristotle’s conception of life in in the polis is based on a truncated view of the good for man. Fully realized human flourishing only occurs in shalom, where God and man live in love with one another and harmony with the whole of the created order (cf. Zeph 3:15;19-20; 8:3-12). With respect to the right, we also see that Kant’s account is inferior. While Kant argues that one ought to always treat others as ends and never merely as means, Jesus commands that we “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk. 12:31). While Kant may have intended to arrive at a conclusion like Jesus’, his insistence on basing moral knowledge of the deliverances of pure reason deemphasizes the central role that love ought to play in the working out of our moral obligations. One advantage of a Trinitarian account should already be evident: a Trinitarian account takes seriously the finitude of man and the inescapabilty of making theological assumptions (either implicitly or explicitly) in our quest for moral knowledge, but the other primary advantage is this: The central place of love in the Christian ethic and its deep, natural connection with the Trinity shows that the biblical ethic is both internally coherent and that it confirms our highest possible vision of what the ethical life  should be. This should count as evidence in favor of the credibility of the Bible as the source of moral knowledge for us.

However, we must not forget the kind of objection raised by Peter Enns at the beginning. Throughout Christian history, readers of the Bible have found certain elements of its moral vision to be abhorrent and incompatible with their understanding of a loving God. Some have seen the picture of God in the Old Testament to be the opposite of loving; they instead seem him as violent and vindictive. If the Bible presents an ultimately incoherent vision of ethics, then this would count as a defeater for thinking of the Bible as the source for moral knowledge. Therefore, some response to this charge must be made. Here are two suggestions. First, it may be that many of the objections to the ethics of the OT are simply based on hermeneutical error. For example, Copan and Flanagan argue that texts claiming the complete destruction of the Canaanites are hyperbolic and that all that God actually commands is that Israel drive them from the land.[41] The language of “total extermination” is an ancient idiom that should not be read literally. Second, we should not expect that our moral beliefs match univocally with what is actually the case about morality. There is also no reason to think our natural moral knowledge should be totally equivocal, either. Rather, we should expect that our knowledge of the good and the right is analogical and open to revision, but not that it would be totally overturned.[42] Lewis argues this view:

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. But when the child has learned to draw, it will know that the circle it then makes is what it was trying to make from the very beginning. This doctrine is presupposed in Scripture. Christ calls men to repent - a call which would be meaningless if God's standard were sheerly different from that which they already knew and failed to practice.[43]

If the Bible did not challenge, expand, and correct our moral beliefs, then would it would be superfluous to moral knowledge, but as we have seen, there are good reasons to think it is necessary. So, while this objection should be taken seriously, there are at least two promising ways of responding that will preserve the coherence of the Bible as our source of moral knowledge.

 

Conclusion

The aim was to show why the Bible is necessary for moral knowledge. It was shown that two of the most popular alternative accounts for moral knowledge beg theological questions, have internal inconsistencies, and present a relatively truncated vision of the ethical life. For this reason, these alternate accounts do not provide the best explanation of moral knowledge. However, the Trinitarian account is internally coherent, has considerable explanatory power, and presents an ethical vision that exceeds our highest expectations. This vision is communicated to us by the Word of God in and through the Written Word, which means that moral knowledge is readily accessible to us. In view of the possibilities considered, the Bible as the source for moral knowledge for us is the best explanation available.

[1] Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation : Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005). Kindle location 601.

[2] Karl Barth, The Church Dogmatics (I,1), ed. Geoffrey William & Torrance Bromiley, Thomas Forsyth and Geoffrey William Translator: Bromiley (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975). 513.

[3] John Douglas Morrison, Has God Said?, The Evangelical Monograph Series (Eugene: Pickwick, 2006). 155.

[4] Ibid. 156.

[5] Barth. 110.

[6]Though this does not mean that one could not confirm the veracity of the Bible in other ways. The point is that the Bible has its own authority as a source of knowledge; its has this authority both ontologically and epistemically. Ontologically, that authority cannot be supplemented by anything else. Epistemically, nothing else is required, but arguments that corroborate the Bible would be appropriate.

[7] Karl Barth, The Church Dogmatics (I,2), ed. Geoffrey William & Torrance Bromiley, Thomas Forsyth and Geoffrey William Translator: Bromiley (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975). 31.

[8] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Christian Classics Ethereal Library 1845). Chapter 1, section 1.

 

Image: "Grandma's Bible" by Andrew Seaman. CC License.