XFiles Weekend: Doing it wrong

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 5, “We Have Cause To Be Uneasy”)

C. S. Lewis is famous both as a Christian apologist and as the creator of a number of charming and popular fantasy worlds. He put both talents to good use in Chapter 4, and now he’s going to back-track just a bit before moving on to the next leg of his epic quest.

I ended my last chapter with the idea that in the Moral Law somebody or something from beyond the material universe was actually getting at us. And I expect when I reached that point some of you felt a certain annoyance… You may have felt you were ready to listen to me as long as you thought I had anything new to say; but if it turns out to be only religion, well, the world has tried that and you cannot put the clock back.

Lewis has three things to say to those of us who have caught on to the fact that he’s just “wrapping up” religion to make it look like philosophy, but I suspect we’ll only fit in one or two of them today.

First, as to putting the clock back. Would you think I was joking if I said that you can put a clock back, and that if the clock is wrong it is often a very sensible thing to do? … [P]rogress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer… There is nothing progressive about being pig headed and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world, it is pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistake.

Lewis originally wrote these words during World War II, so it’s easy to understand the almost tangible longing to go back to a time before there was any war. But what is the “big mistake” here, and to what more-idyllic time would Lewis have us turn back the clock? World War II was, in the West, a war between the Christian nations of Europe. Granted, after the Enlightenment, it might be more accurate to call them post-Christian nations, but was Enlightenment the big mistake? Is Lewis saying that perhaps we ought to undo the Enlightenment, and go back to the union of Church and State that held sway during the Dark Ages? Do we need to undo the Protestant Reformation (which resulted in so many wars), and unite the West under one Pope, with so much power that he could command kings? Does the world need another Holy Roman Emperor?

Like I said, Lewis wrote this under the stress of war, so it’s easy to understand his longing for a better time. The problem is finding any point in history where things were ever genuinely improved by abandoning science and reverting to superstition and to the rule of men whose authority rested on a “reality” that could not be seen and was not part of the world we find around us. Don’t forget, those “good old days” gave us wars with names like “The Thirty-Years War” and “The Hundred Years War”! I sincerely doubt that, for all his blurry-eyed nostalgia, even Prof. Lewis would seriously wish for a return to the days when science was held accountable to religion rather than the other way around.

What I find interesting about the history of Christian Europe, especially in the context of Mere Christianity, is that in all of this long history of Christian nation warring against Christian nation, God and His Moral Law so consistently encouraged both sides to believe that their own cause was right and just, and the enemy’s was evil. That’s exactly what we’d expect to find if people were defining right and wrong in terms of how they felt about the consequences. “Hey, if we win this one, it’ll be really great! Well, for us, at least.” That’s not just predictable, it’s virtually inevitable.

It’s a pretty poor fit, though, for the idea that, in some “reality” above and beyond the material universe, there’s an absolute and universal Moral Law that not only defines right and wrong for every man, but also mystically communicates that definition to man so that he knows when he’s doing something he shouldn’t. Think about it: of all the wrong things you could do, declaring open war on your fellow Christians ought to be fairly high on the list, don’t you think? Yet the long traditions of hostility and warfare that lead to WWII show no sign of any such Moral Law declaring, for all to see, which side was right and which was wrong.

As Lewis himself says, if you’re headed the wrong way, going forward does not bring you closer to your goal. There’s nothing progressive about being pig headed and refusing to admit a mistake, even a mistake with a multi-century tradition behind it. You can tell yourself that there’s a supernatural force that mystically shows each man the difference between right and wrong, but if you find that following that fantasy only leads you down a road of endless violence, persecution, and war, then maybe you are the one who should consider an alternate route.

Let’s move on.

Then, secondly, this has  not yet turned exactly into a ‘religious jaw’. We have not yet got as far as the God of any actual religion, still less the God of that particular religion called Christianity. We have only got as far as a Somebody or Something behind the Moral Law. We are not taking anything from the Bible or the Churches, we are trying to see what we can find out about this Somebody on our own steam.

This is very nearly true. What we’ve got so far is not any particular religion, it is merely a primitive form of animistic superstition, the instinctive and thoughtless tendency to assume that complex phenomena are the result of conscious decisions by some kind of invisible person or persons (aka spirits, gods, angels, demons, etc). Lewis does not understand how complex moral codes can arise among people without there being some kind of intelligent, deliberative edict-making behind it, so he thoughtlessly assumes that our moral codes must reflect some supernatural person issuing specific edicts defining for us what right and wrong are.

So far so good, then. Lewis is correct that he’s only laying a superstitious framework on which to build a Christian apologetic later on, and has not yet started the explicitly Christian portion of his presentation. He’s being less than honest, however, when he claims that he’s not taking anything from the Bible or the Churches. He may believe that he’s not taking anything from Christian traditions (in which case he’s being less than honest with himself), but it’s quite plain that, while he’s giving the appearance of working things out “on our own steam,” he is in fact only considering those alternatives which are consistent with the Church teachings he wants to arrive at, and is bending and twisting the facts in order to fit them into the plan he has in mind.

Why, for example, does he always refer to the Moral Law and the Somebody Who designed it in the singular? If we want to be superstitious about morality, we could just as easily say that there are several Somebodies, each with his or her own Moral Law, each of which gets mystically urged on some portion of mankind through the windows of the soul (or whatever). Suddenly the wars of Christian Europe become understandable: there were two Gods (or more), and two or more Moral Laws, and each one was taking a different side, assuring the troops that they were doing what was right and good and just. If we were really free to see where we can get “under our own steam,” it would seem that this would be a much more fruitful approach to reconciling superstition with reality.

We’ve also seen that Lewis takes an extremely biased view of the evidence, in that he uses the evidence both to argue that the Moral Law is a law of nature, and also that it proves the existence of the supernatural by its very failure to behave like a law of nature. Wouldn’t it have been more rational to admit that this Moral Law is not, in fact, a genuine law, since it fails to behave like one? That would have left him without an argument to use in making a case for Christianity, though, so he does not even consider that alternative. Though he does not acknowledge the role Christianity plays in his argument, it nevertheless defines his argument.

Granted, he’s not explicitly telling us that we ought to just accept Christ as our personal Lord and Savior, yet it’s quite plain that even the initial postulate is aimed in that direction. Remember from the end of Chapter 1, the two “facts” he cited as being “the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.” These “facts” are (1) that we each have the “curious idea” that we ought to behave in a certain way, and (2) that we do not behave the way we think we should. You could say much the same thing by quoting “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” and that’s pretty much what Lewis is doing. He’s just re-phrasing it to make it sound like it’s coming from objective observation rather than from the Bible.

This is a very long ways away from genuinely proceeding under own own steam and seeing where it takes us. Notice how Lewis insinuates guilt into what he pretends are unbiased observations: we ought to behave in a certain way, we do not do what we ought to do. The clear implication is that we have an implicit obligation to behave in a certain way, and we deliberately failed to fulfill that obligation. We’re guilty, in debt, wrong. It’s a perfect setup for the Four Spiritual Laws. Think that’s just a coincidence? And that’s the opening of his argument.

If we take the original observation—that people sometimes do things they feel they shouldn’t—there are questions we should ask that Lewis doesn’t bother with. For example, when people feel obligated to behave a certain way, are these legitimate obligations? Is it really wrong to lie to the police about where the Jews are hiding? If we consider the possibility that these impulses might be wrong at times, we come to rather different conclusions than Lewis does regarding the existence of some perfect Moral Law.

Or we could ask, to whom are these obligations owed? Lewis leaps easily and naturally to the conclusion that there must be some supernatural Person who is offended when we “disobey,” but is that logically where we would go under our own steam, or is Lewis just letting Christian teachings tell him what he ought to believe? The more obvious “Who” would be other people, since they’re the ones who are going to call the police if you walk outside with no clothes on (or not, depending on which culture you happen to be in at the time). Lewis doesn’t merely avoid this possibility, he tries to dismiss it by pointing out that people didn’t consciously sit down and write out the laws of morality. But who sits down and consciously writes out the laws of fashion, or stock market prices, or what types of fiction will sell well and bring in profitable movie rights?

No, Lewis is quite clearly presenting a straightforward and unmistakably Christian apologetic from the get-go. His initial premise assumes in not-very-subtle terms that we are all sinners in need of a savior, and he builds on that to create (manufacture?) a foundation for precisely the kind of heavenly Being Who could fill this messianic role. His attempts to try and disguise this as an objective and unbiased inquiry merely diminish my respect for him.

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Posted in Unapologetics, XFiles. 5 Comments »

5 Responses to “XFiles Weekend: Doing it wrong”

  1. pboyfloyd Says:

    I like the way he shifts the focus of his conversation so as to seem as if he has addressed a point when he has not.
    “..some of you felt a certain annoyance..if it turns out to be only religion…you cannot put the clock back.”

    Well, the ‘clock back’ thing may be a source of annoyance for you, and if it IS, his ‘solution’ is, ‘don’t be annoyed’.

    I think he is telling Christians that non-believers get annoyed but they really ought not to. And he’s right, that non-believers would get annoyed by just another typical apology, and wrong to imagine that him saying, ‘don’t’, is going to sway anyone.

  2. Tony Hoffman Says:

    Just a side note here: I borrowed from our local library the Chronicles of Narnia on tape, thinking that it would be fun to listen to on a 15 hour road trip with my wife and two kids, ages 11 and 9. I had never read the books, but was under the impression that they were much beloved, etc.

    Boy, did they suck. We didn’t make it more than 2 to 3 hours in before all of us were just tired of it. The boy finally just asked if we could all drive in silence rather than play another tape. The blatant pedagogy, I think, makes this “classic” a faddish bit of writing that is already too long in the tooth.

    I think that CS Lewis fans like to play up the friendship with Tolkien to borrow from the latter’s literary accomplishments. But from my exposure, I found nothing charming nor interesting in the fantasy world for which Lewis is best known. Even without the Ring Trilogy Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a rich piece of literature that rewards on each re-reading. I heard enough of Lewis’s fantasy writing to know that he clearly lacked that gift, and his musings on religion are even less interesting to me as a result.

    My point, I suppose, is that The Chronicles of Narnia are not not so charming. I’m going to have to call you on that.

  3. Deacon Duncan Says:

    To each his own I guess. I used to love Narnia when I was a believer, though it’s possible that a lot of that love was because I was so starved for a God who actually could and would show up in real life. In the end, Narnia worked against my faith because Lewis did such a good job of making Aslan’s presence flow naturally from his character and motives. So why can’t Jesus be the same way? Why does it take a preachy children’s fantasy to portray God as though He really did love us enough to want to be here, in person, to spend time with us? Reality is not like Narnia precisely because God is not like Aslan.

    Not sure that was Lewis’ intention, but that’s what he taught me anyway.

  4. Tony Hoffman Says:

    Yeah, I don’t doubt the sincere love of Narnia — one doesn’t make a 100 million film production without somebody making a case for a built in audience. And not everybody in that audience can be a complete freaking idiot. For me I suppose it’s just like Gone with the Wind, and Van Halen, and Titanic, and whatever other phenomenon has a respectably huge audience that I just don’t understand. And I can’t rule out that I’ll come around to seeing what a large mass of others brought to my attention (I hated Led Zeppelin when I was growing up, but when I started listening to them without other associations I finally understood why they were so beloved) — but I do still suspect that the charms of Narnia will not survive with each succeeding generation.

    The nearest thing I can point to, and what distinguishes works like this for me so often, is the obviousness of the philosophical intent (what I called pedagogy, and you describe as preachy). I tried reading Atlas Shrugged once in my twenties, and after 120 pages it was just too agonizing, for that reason. I suspect that a quality of literature is that the writer is undergoing a kind of psychological exploration, a journey that begins without a clear sense of how it will end. Unlike this approach, Narnia appears to be written with both fists.

    Also, to be fair, it could have just been the actors doing the reading. Man, they were awful.

  5. Deacon Duncan Says:

    It’s possible. I don’t know if you made it past the first book, but The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe is the heaviest of the heavy-handed, in terms of wrapping obvious Christian preaching in fanciful, talking-animal clothes. The stories after that got a little more varied, at least (though they all carried a pronounced moral message). The series also contains my favorite C. S. Lewis quote, from The Magician’s Nephew: “The problem with trying to make yourself more stupid than you really are is that you very often succeed.” It’s a quote I’ve avoided using in my analysis of Mere Christianity because I don’t want to overuse it, and yet there are so many places it belongs. (*sigh*)

    Lewis also wrote a trilogy of science fiction novels in the style of H. G. Wells, more or less, that has to be seen to be believed. The first, Out of the Silent Planet, is not too bad, but Perelandra tells the story of two Earth men who travel to Venus, an Eden-like paradise with its own Adam and Eve living in sinless perfection. The good guy is named Ransom and is a bit more subtle Messiah figure. The bad guy (whose name I forget) has been completely possessed by the devil, and it going to Perelandra to try and talk Eve into sinning. He’s Evil, you see, so um, yeah, that must be what he would want. The big climax of the book is that Messiah-hero Ransom chases the bad guy all over the planet and beats him to death with his fists. It takes a while. And in the last book, That Hideous Strength, the ancient Greek gods and goddesses and demigods and so on all turn out to be faithful servants of God and accompany Jesus on His triumphant Second Coming, or something like it.

    Yeah, it was just bizarre. I wonder when that one will be made into a multimillion dollar movie?