XFiles Weekend: Big divisionsNovember 28, 2010 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 6, “The Rival Conceptions of God”)
Did you ever notice how some people can take a perfectly innocent and neutral fact, and make it sound incriminating, just by how they phrase it? For example, here’s C. S. Lewis observing that, when we consider all religions throughout history, both Christians and atheists can find things they think are right and things they think are wrong:
If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through. If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all those religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth. When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view.
Clever, isn’t it? Notice how you can reverse the nouns and say pretty much the same thing: atheists don’t have to believe that all religions are wrong all through, and Christians do think that the main point in all other religions is simply one huge mistake (with the possible exception of Judaism, but that’s Christianity’s ancestor, so naturally they can’t call that wrong).
Here’s another way of looking at it. He could have looked at Greek mythology and Norse mythology and all the many, many gods of the past, and said, “Of all the people who have ever agreed with me about gods existing, at least the vast majority have been wrong about their gods, whereas of all the times atheists have said that someone’s god was a myth, they’ve been right the vast majority of the time. In fact, by Christian standards, there’s only one case where there’s even a possibility that the atheists might have been wrong. So from a historical perspective, theism has been wrong most of the time, and atheism has been right most of the time.”
Of course, that would also be a biased discussion of the facts. Put this version next to Lewis’ version, though, and I think you get a fair and balanced view: you get to see how liberal Christians become when they believe in gods, and you get to see the true value of being liberal minded about gods in a world where such beliefs have historically been found to be wrong at least most of the time.
Having bragged about how open-minded Christians are, Lewis is immediately struck by a sudden twinge of monotheism.
But, of course, being a Christian does mean thinking that where Christianity differs from other religions, Christianity is right and they are wrong.
In other words, Christians also believe that “most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most.” The difference is that when atheists believe this, that’s a bad thing, but when Christians hold the same view, it’s a good thing. He then tries to soften the obvious hypocrisy of his argument by comparing religion to math: there’s only one right answer, but some wrong answers are nearer to being right than others. Which is true, but is hardly a uniquely Christian perspective: the only difference in the atheist position is which right answers you’re comparing the wrong answers to.
That’s just the warm-up though. The main point of this chapter is to divide humanity into two groups, or more specifically, to divide mankind in some way that makes Christianity look superior to all other alternatives.
The first big division of humanity is into the majority, who believe in some kind of God or gods, and the minority who do not. On this point, Christianity lines up with the majority…
…who, even by Christian standards, have been wrong in at least most of the cases where gods have been proposed. He doesn’t point out that particular “qualification” of course, but he does seem to feel like it’s not really a strong enough recommendation for Christianity, so he builds on it.
Now I go on to the next big division. People who all believe in God can be divided according to the sort of God they believe in. There are two very different ideas on this subject. One of them is the idea that He is beyond good and evil… The other and opposite idea is that God is quite definitely ‘good’ or ‘righteous’, a God who takes sides, who loves love and hates hatred, who wants us to behave in one way and not in another. The first of these views—the one that thinks God beyond good and evil—is called Pantheism. It was held by the great Prussian philosopher Hegel and, as far as I can understand them, by the Hindus. The other view is held by Jews, Mohammedans and Christians.
Isn’t it fascinating how all the polytheists, all the bulk of the majority Lewis used in his first division, have suddenly ceased to exist, and indeed seem to have never existed at all? By the second division, all theists are monotheists, either pantheistic monotheists, or Judeo-Christian(-Muslim) monotheists. Even the Hindus have somehow lost Vishnu and Krisha and all the rest, and become believers in a solitary, pantheistic He Who Is Beyond Good and Evil.
I find it fascinating that Lewis would choose this particular distinction to make when there are so many others he could have made. He wrote this during WWII; is he motivated, perhaps, by anti-Nazi sentiments, seeking to blame the war on pantheistic Prussian philosophers? Or is he, perhaps, worried that, by engaging polytheism, he might dilute the case for theism, and might raise issues that would make Trinitarianism a doubtful proposition?
Regardless, this is the division Lewis chooses to make, and it, too, is fascinating, because once again he has painted himself into a corner: God cannot be the Creator of moral standards like Good and Evil unless He Himself is indeed above and beyond such standards. With a bit of thought, Lewis ought to have been able to see that the pantheistic position is not only superior, but inevitable. Any tyrant can declare himself “good” on the grounds that, being tyrant, he can define “good” however he likes. That doesn’t make him “good good,” it just means he’s praising himself. If God is that kind of “good” tyrant, then there’s no real merit in His “goodness,” because He’s just stacking the deck to His own arbitrary advantage.
The only way God can be truly good is if some higher power, beyond Good and Evil, establishes an objective standard of goodness that God can measure up to. Such a higher power, however, is by definition a God greater than Jehovah, since Jehovah must obey and be judged by this God before He can be found “good.” (I call this God Alethea, but that’s just for our human convenience.) So already Lewis’ argument implies the superiority of the pantheistic God he wants to reject.
Lewis compounds this problem by discussing how a pantheistic God is the universe, and the Christian God is not. The Christian God is the creator of the universe, and exists apart from, and in contrast to, His creation. That means that there is indeed a greater power than Jehovah, because there exists a Reality, containing both Creation and Creator, of which the Creator is only a part. Jehovah, and the things Jehovah can do, are bound by Reality, because Reality (aka Alethea) encompasses all that is real, whether visible or invisible. Thus Jehovah can never be greater than Alethea, because She comprises everything that He can do that is real, and Alethea is always greater than Jehovah, because She comprises everything that’s real about Jehovah plus everything that’s real about Creation.
Lewis tries to paint the pantheist in a bad light (just as he did with atheists at the beginning of the chapter), as though pantheists were apathetic about the difference between Good and Evil. It’s not really fair. True, pantheists do say that good and evil are neutral from God’s point of view, but that’s not the pantheist’s attitude. The pantheist is simply reporting the fact that God does not actively promote Good and suppress Evil in the real world. Even Christians have to acknowledge that God does not intervene to prevent disasters like 9/11 or the Christmas tsunami or ebola or what have you. To say that God is beyond good and evil, and that both are part of the same pantheistic God is simply to say “Evil is real.” But that’s obviously true, so why would anyone be ashamed to say it?
The Christian reply, according to Lewis, is “Don’t talk damned nonsense,” with a footnote explaining that by “damned nonsense” he means nonsense that will literally damn you to Hell.
For Christianity is a fighting religion. It thinks God made the world—that space and time, heat and cold, and all the colours and tastes, and all the animals and vegetables, are things that God ‘made up out of His head’ as a man makes up a story. But it also thinks that a great many things have gone wrong with the world that God made, and that God insists, and insists very loudly, on our putting them right again.
Call me biased, but it seems to me that the term “damned nonsense” would be better applied to the idea of fighting for a religion, to the point of twisting the facts and slandering your opponents, when pantheism is a better fit for the facts, and when your own religion is based on blind faith in the words of men. In fact, if you’re looking for nonsense, why not consider the fact that you’re claiming an all-powerful, all-good Creator, and yet admitting that things have “gone wrong” with His creation. Why would such an awesome God become such an epic fail? That’s Lewis’ next topic, but we’ll have to save that for next week. Stay tuned.