XFiles Weekend: Doing it wrongOctober 24, 2010 — Deacon Duncan
(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.