XFiles Weekend: What is good?

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

It’s getting increasingly difficult for Prof. Lewis to pretend that he’s doing anything more than hiding traditional Christian dogma inside a secularized vocabulary. He still struggles gamely to maintain appearances, but in Chapter 5 he’s getting more and more careless about slipping openly Christian assumptions into his ostensibly objective “inquiry.”

[T]he being behind the universe is intensely interested in right conduct—in fair play, unselfishness, courage, good faith, honesty and truthfulness. In that sense we should agree with the account given by Christianity and some other religions, that God is ‘good’. But do not let us go to fast here. The Moral Law does not give us any grounds for thinking that God is ‘good’ in the sense of being indulgent, or soft, or sympathetic.

It doesn’t? How would Lewis know that? Remember, his “rational” argument thus far has been based only on the observation that people sometimes have feelings that they ought to do certain things, and yet they don’t do them. Unfortunately, as Lewis himself has argued, we don’t find any basis for this “Moral Law” anywhere in the facts of the universe, which means these subjective feelings are our only connection with the Moral Law. And these subjective feelings shift and conflict in so many ways that it’s impossible to know what’s actually in this so-called Moral Law. So how can Lewis be so sure he knows what it does and does not give us grounds for?

Lewis knows (or thinks he knows) about the Moral Law because what he’s really talking about is the Christian ideal of an absolute and eternal Moral Law as typically summarized by the Ten Commandments. He’s proceeding, not from the evidence he has cited, but from ordinary dogma. Notice how his discussion of the Moral Law echoes Jesus’ teachings about the Law of Moses and the even stricter divine law behind it:

There is nothing indulgent about the Moral Law. It is as hard as nails. It tells you to do the straight thing and it does not seem to care how painful, or dangerous, or difficult it is to do. If God is like the Moral Law, then He is not soft.

As you may remember from last week, the context of this argument is that Lewis is trying to “discover” something about the Someone or Something allegedly behind the Moral Law. The reason Lewis thinks the Moral Law is hard as nails is because he assumes that the God of the Old Testament is behind it. Were he to look at the evidence instead of at Christian dogma, he would have less reason for certainty: that same inner feeling that tells people they “ought” to be doing certain things is just as likely to also indulge them with a selection of reasons why its ok not to in this particular case. More often than not, feelings are a very self-indulgent guide.

Of course, you can interpret that indulgent voice in a Christian framework, and claim that it’s actually a different source, say a sin nature or a demon. But there’s nothing qualitatively different between one subjective moral feeling and another. You’re just interpreting them differently, based on Christian traditions. Which of course you are free to do, but at that point you ought to give up and admit that you’re not really following the evidence wherever it may lead, and that you’re simply assuming Christianity to be true, and adjusting the facts as needed to fit your desired conclusion. Which, by the way, pretty much sums up Lewis’ approach here.

He soldiers on anyway, and, without intending to be ironic, takes the tone of an unbiased observer cautioning the reader not to jump to any conclusions.

It is no use, at this stage, saying that what you mean by a ‘good’ God is a God who can forgive. You are going too quickly. Only a Person can forgive. And we have not yet got as far as a personal God—only as far as a power, behind the Moral Law, and more like a mind than it is like anything else. But it may still be very unlike a Person.

For example, it might be more like a committee, or a war. But you won’t find Prof. Lewis raising any polytheistic possibilities, except possibly trinitarian ones, because we’re not being nearly as objective as Lewis would like to pretend. His careful disclaimers notwithstanding, we are headed straight for the conclusion that God is a good, forgiving God. That’s why Lewis is already introducing the assumption that God is the Person behind the Moral Law, despite insisting that we have not yet got as far as a personal God. There are large gaping cracks in his logic that let his dogmatic agenda shine through—and that’s not the worst of his problems.

[I]t is no use either saying that if there is a God of that sort—an impersonal absolute good—then you do not like Him and are not going to bother about Him. For the trouble is that one part of you is on His side and really agrees with his disapproval of human greed and trickery and exploitation. You may want Him to make an exception in your own case, to let you off this one time; but you know at bottom that unless the power behind the world really and unalterably detests that sort of behaviour, then He cannot be good. On the other hand, we know that if there does exist an absolute goodness it must hate most of what we do. This is the terrible fix we are in.

Here is the problem: Lewis is setting up a conflict between “sinners” and the Moral Law, a “terrible fix” that (ta-da!) Jesus can ride in on a white horse and save us from. In order to pull that off, though, he needs to portray the Moral Law as unmerciful, inflexible and unforgiving. That means that the Moral Law, which supposedly defines Right vs. Wrong and Good vs. Evil, does not include mercy and forgiveness on its list of things that are Good and Right. If it did, then we wouldn’t need a Savior, because the Moral Law itself would already provide at least the possibility of a just and right forgiveness.

Forgiveness and mercy, in other words, are not technically “good” in this system. The Moral Law requires that you can’t be good unless you “really and unalterably detest [sinful] behavior,” which means that to be merciful and forgiving is to be “indulgent” and “soft” in the most negative possible connotations of those words. To exploit some loophole in this Law in order to help a sinner escape the Law’s demands does not merely violate this Law, but makes it irrelevant. If the Moral Law defines what is Good and Right and Just, then there’s no way God could be doing good by flouting what this Law requires.

In The Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis takes a stab at solving this problem by proposing that there is an older and deeper Law that takes precedence over the Moral Law, and allows for “ransoms” to be paid for sin. That way, it would still be “legal” for Aslan/Jesus to save us from the penalty of sin, even though it was not legal to let the offender escape the justice demanded by the Moral Law. (The moral issue of using human sacrifice to enable the sinner to escape the Law is a question we’ll leave for another time.)

This solution only compounds the problem, however,  because even if we did have some more powerful Law overruling the Moral Law, would that “deeper Law” be something we could legitimately call “good”? The definition of Good and Evil, remember, are supposed to rest within the Moral Law, so even if the other Law did manage to overthrow the Moral Law, this would not be a good thing according to the “official” definition of “good.” (Think about it: how could it possibly be “good” to overthrow the Law that defines what “good” is?)

What Lewis needs to do is to somehow reconcile these two Laws in a way that allows both Laws to be “good.” In order to do that, however, the two Laws need to refer to some external standard of Right and Wrong that they can both share in common. That means, however, that the Moral Law is not the true standard of right and wrong, good and evil. For all of Lewis’ carefully-crafted argument, his main thesis shipwrecks on the shoals of forgiveness. If you’re going to define righteousness in terms of some kind of supernatural, inflexible, and unforgiving Moral Law, then you have made it impossible for God to remain righteous while exploiting some devious loophole in order to thwart the requirements of the Law. Abort, retry, fail.

All C. S. Lewis is doing is manufacturing a contrived crisis in order to motivate us with a false fear that we’re in some kind of “terrible fix” so that we’ll be eager (and uncritical) when the time comes for him to offer us his genuine patented remedy for what ails us. In reality, the “fear” he’s feeding us is nothing to be afraid of at all: in the real world, good and evil are driven by consequences, and by a common consensus about which consequences are worth pursuing or avoiding.

In any group consensus, compromise is a useful and legitimate virtue, provided it’s not being used as an excuse for one party to force their will on the others. In such a realistic moral system, forgiveness and mercy, when appropriate, are entirely natural and beneficial. We need no Savior because there is no “absolute good” to take offense at our actions. There are only complicated consequences, and people trying to do the best they can with what they’ve got at the moment. Confusing the issue with unrealistic fears only makes a hard job harder.

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Posted in Atheistic Morality, Unapologetics, XFiles. 9 Comments »

9 Responses to “XFiles Weekend: What is good?”

  1. pboyfloyd Says:

    “..we know that if there does exist an absolute goodness it must hate most of what we do.”

    But there’s always another perspective and intention to take into account as far as ‘most of what we do’ is concerned.

    As in, “Yes, you were doing the right thing in your eyes trying to stop abortionists, but you had a political agenda, which is a hateful thing!”

    Seems Lewis is setting us up to be screwed if we do and screwed if we don’t as well as screwed if we do the opposite.

    Great stuff for leading you into ‘Jesus’ arms’ I suppose, yet still somehow unfair, and, being unfair, presumably hateful to God.

    The mind boggles.

  2. pboyfloyd Says:

    Seriously though, I suppose that old man Lewis knew that most atheists would be thinking that reading this further is like some kind of punishment. After ten or twenty, “Are you shitting me?”s, it’s time for skeptical people to shrug and leave it to the true believers, isn’t it?

    Not suggesting you give up DD(couldn’t even ‘say’ DD for awhile while is was ‘doing’ Dinesh D’Souza’s blog), you thrashed Lewis in his prologue anyways.

    Still, how can this castle built in the air get any better?

  3. Hunt Says:

    Hitchens does a good job outlining this problem in his speeches and debates when he mentions “vicarious redemption.” The entire notion neutralizes any sense of morality. There can be no morality when all you need to do is run to Jesus for forgiveness. If Christians actually wanted to create a system that might make some modicum of sense they would say something like: You can run to Jesus and try your luck, but there’s no guarantee you’re going to be saved, statistically, depending on the gravity of your sin. To do this, the system would make explicit what has always been explicit, that sin and forgiveness are essentially arbitrary, decided upon at the caprice of a god who really places more worth on the groveling of his followers than on any consistent notion of good and evil.
    It just seems clear to me that this is a system that has been engineered to play on the doubts and guilt of people in order to control them. It must have been very evident to ancient people that there is a vast repository of both doubt and guilt that could be played upon. It would be surprising if this huge market for human motivation and control had not been exploited.

  4. Len Says:

    I love the first piece of text that you quote: “[T]he being behind the universe is intensely interested in right conduct—in fair play, unselfishness, courage, good faith, honesty and truthfulness.” That’s a great conclusion for Prof Lewis to draw from what he’s has observed so far. Great, but unfounded.

    And towards the end: “…then you have made it impossible for God to remain righteous while exploiting some devious loophole in order to thwart the requirements of the Law.” In other words God is a lawyer.

  5. Tacroy Says:

    What really pissed me off about The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe was how Lewis literally pulled that bullshit about “an older Law” out of his ass, in the context of the book. I mean, Aslan goes to the stone table to be killed, and then… he comes back to life? What? This was totally out of left field, there’s absolutely no foreshadowing or anything, it doesn’t even make sense in the context of the story. And it’s never used again! If this were true in general, then the way war is waged would be completely different! You conscript one army, have another army sent to fight in its place, and that other army is invincible – anyone who dies comes back to life in a day! The dynamics of the world would be completely different and potentially far more interesting (what is death, when you can come back from it by sacrificing yourself? Could there be some people so selfless they die of old age for someone else, and come back to life?), but C.S. Lewis doesn’t bother exploring it – even though this was a result of some “deeper Law”, he treats it as a one-off event!

    And that’s pretty much how it seems like while reading through Mere Christianity. This stuff just shows up randomly, leaving the reader thinking nothing but “wtf!?”

  6. Ken Browning Says:

    For slaveholders in the American South there was deep consilience between moral law and biblical teaching concerning the righteous holding of slaves. This is but one example of the failure of Natural Law arguments. In every culture, in every age, the moral landscape is always adapting.

    These people need to read their own Bible. If there were Natural Moral Law then we should expect Yahweh to adhere to it.

  7. Tony Hoffman Says:

    I have to say that after reading this series, and finding the LW&W to be insufferable, is there anything that Lewis wrote that redeems his reputation as a great thinker? In other words, I don’t get why what this guy thinks is considered a matter of any weight.

  8. Scotlyn Says:

    “All C. S. Lewis is doing is manufacturing a contrived crisis in order to motivate us with a false fear that we’re in some kind of “terrible fix” so that we’ll be eager (and uncritical) when the time comes for him to offer us his genuine patented remedy for what ails us.” So, when you strip it all away, he’s really a sophisticated purveyor of serpentine lubricants…

  9. Swimmy Says:

    Tony Hoffman: I’m not sure Lewis has a reputation as a “great thinker.” When I was a Christian, my church members saw him as a weak thinker but an excellent popularizer. Sort of. . . good enough for most people, who aren’t ready for more serious work.

    You can see a lot of false modesty included in the snippets of text or host has been quoting. Probably why this book is so popular–Christians like to recommend it not as the most serious refutation of nonbelief, but as a kind of, “Read it and see what you think, I think it’s pretty good!”

    But maybe my experience is abnormal. My church was kind of elitist. It is a puzzle why someone as intelligent as Francis Collins fawns over him.

    The best Lewis I’ve read is The Screwtape Letters. I think it would be entertaining even as an atheist.