XFiles Weekend: Armchair hero?

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 2, “Some Objections”)

In Chapter 1, C. S. Lewis introduced two ideas that (he claims) “are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.” These two ideas are (a) that there is a universal Moral Law defining right and wrong, which we somehow inherently know, and (b) that we do not obey this law. Unfortunately, these two ideas are not themselves the product of clear thinking, and indeed are a rather biased and superstitious failure to understand human morals realistically. There is no singular universal Moral Law by which we all make moral judgments; rather, we judge right and wrong based on how we feel about the outcome. This fundamental disconnect between theory and reality has already bubbled to the surface in a number of inconsistencies between what Lewis claims and what we find through even a trivial examination of the real-world facts.

In Chapter 2, Lewis acknowledges some of these difficulties and attempts to either refute or discredit them. As we shall see, though, his attempts to reduce his troubles only adds to them. As the good fairy told Pinocchio, once you tell a lie, it grows and grows until it’s as plain as the nose on your face—even when you sincerely believe the lie because you first deceived yourself.

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XFiles Weekend: Assumptions and consequences

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 1, “The Law of Human Nature”)

Chapter 1 of Mere Christianity sets out to establish what C. S. Lewis calls “two facts” that “are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.” We looked at the first of these “facts” last week: the notion that there is some kind of universal Moral Law, aka the Law of (Human) Nature, that dictates the definition of Right and Wrong. According to Lewis, we all know that this Moral Law exists, and we’ve even got some kind of inherent knowledge of what its commandments are. And yet (“fact” number two), we do not do what this Law tells us we should.

We’ll get to the rest of Chapter 1 in a moment, but first let’s note in passing just how far Lewis has already gone astray, due to the preconceived ideas he’s trying to impose on his interpretation of the evidence. Because he’s thinking in terms of divine commandments, he’s already introducing the notion that his so-called Moral Law is not just a description of common patterns of behavior, but is in fact some kind of obligation that each and every individual is somehow responsible to live up to. It’s a subtle little twist, but as he gets into the second part of Chapter 1, we’ll see that this extra little assumption is really a key factor intended to drive us to Lewis’ desired conclusion.

It’s kind of slick, in a way. He directs our attention to certain real-world facts (i.e. the way people judge actions in light of consequences), and then, while our attention is focused on the observations, he slips in a subtle, biased twist that colors our interpretation of these facts. Notice, the extra twist is not part of the observed facts: we don’t observe any Universal Moral Law with any objectively declared principle binding its precepts upon all mankind. This is purely Lewis’ ideology, injecting itself into the argument when it thinks no one is looking. Pretty sneaky, eh?

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XFiles Weekend: C. S. Lewis and the “Law of Human Nature”

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 1, “The Law of Human Nature”)

One of the most widespread arguments against atheism today is the claim that we know God exists because we all possess some kind of inherent knowledge of a universal and unchanging moral law, implying the existence of a universal and eternal Law-Giver. C. S. Lewis may not have been the first to make this argument, but he gives it an almost prototypical presentation in the first chapter of Mere Christianity, and it’s a safe bet that most modern proponents of the “moral law” argument took it directly or indirectly from Lewis. In a very real sense, then, we have an opportunity to study the roots of a major pillar holding up modern apologetics. And not surprisingly, we’re going to be most interested in the very large cracks at its base.

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XFiles Weekend: It’s more like “guidelines”

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 1, “The Law of Human Nature”)

We’re ready to start the main body of Mere Christianity, but before we delve into what Lewis calls the “law of human nature,” let’s take a moment to do some forward thinking. Let’s start with a species that is intelligent enough to have some understanding of cause and effect, so that they can anticipate the probable consequences of their actions, and choose the ones which will have the most favorable outcomes. Let’s further suppose that these beings possess enough empathy to communicate with each other, to recognize each other’s feelings, and to anticipate what sort of feelings others are likely to feel in any particular set of circumstances.

Given this as a premise, plus the assumption that each individual wants to achieve the most favorable possible outcomes, what consequences would we expect as the members of this species interact with each other and with an environment that contains both dangers and opportunities? If we look at a few specific scenarios, I think a clear general trend will emerge.

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XFiles Weekend: A peculiar prelude

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, preface)

I don’t want to get bogged down in the preface, but there are one or two points here worthy of comment, so I thought I’d put one more post into it. As we saw last week, Lewis hasn’t even gotten into the main part of his book yet, and already he’s running into problems with his basic premise. His goal is to “defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times,” a kind of “mere Christianity” that transcends personal bias and denominational bickering. And yet, as both ancient and modern church history show, this common core of beliefs is sufficiently elusive that its defenders have a hard time expressing what it is without falling into the No True Scotsman fallacy. Lewis, alas, is no different.

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XFiles: The myth of “mere Christianity”

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, preface)

I’ve got a few books in my queue now, but I think the book I’d like to tackle next is Mere Christianity, by C. S. Lewis. It’s a logical next step, because Lewis is one of the people who helped define the modern, evangelical Christianity that Geisler and Turek were mere apologists for. It also doesn’t hurt that Lewis is a higher calibre of thinker, which may spare us some of the groaners G&T laid on us with distressing regularity.

Of course, Lewis is going to have his own set of quirks. The first page of the preface, for instance, consists of Lewis explaining how the contents of the book were originally given on the radio, and how the first printed edition used contractions and italics to capture the informal feel of the original talks. It says a lot about his personality that he feels the need to explain to us why contractions and italics were a mistake, and how the new edition expands all the contractions and rephrases the sentences to emphasize the ideas without the use of italics.

Never fear, though: this book isn’t going to be a tedious lecture on the fine points of grammar and typography. After this initial fussiness, he jumps right in to what I think may be a core problem in the whole book. And, sad to say, he doesn’t seem to notice that it’s a problem.

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XFiles: The Faith, by Chuck Colson

(Book: The Faith, by Chuck Colson.)

I have a couple more substantial books coming in, but in the meantime I thought I’d take a quick look at Chuck Colson’s book The Faith. As some of you may recall, I bought this book in response to a request from a publicist at Zondervans, who invited me to submit questions to Colson, which the latter promised to respond to publicly in his blog. I sent him two rather simple ones (I thought), and never heard from him again. Go figure. So now I’ve got the book, and I’ve got a gap in the XFiles series, so it seems like it must be God’s will for me to review it now.

Here’s the Reader’s Digest ultra-condensed summary: What do Christian’s believe? A curious mixture of evangelical pop theology and contemporary conservative politics (what Colson calls “social holiness”). Why do Christians believe? Because great Christians demonstrate the power of God by the way they fearlessly face persecution and death for their beliefs. Why does it matter? Because if Christians don’t jump up and vote Republican every time Karl Rove says “family values,” they might end up following the example of the great Christians, and frankly that scares the shit out of them. The Church may love martyrs, but they love them best when they’re someone else.

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XFiles: The surprise ending

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, Appendix 1.)

We’re just about done with Geisler and Turek’s attempt to deal with the existence of evil and the problems this poses for their allegedly all-good, all-wise and all-powerful god. And, in a bit of a surprise twist at the end, it turns out that the unbeliever actually wins this one. The Christian runs out of answers, admits that his “explanations” don’t really do the job, and ends up encouraging the atheist to just have faith. Great way to end a book called I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, eh?

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XFiles Friday: the best of all possible worlds

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, Appendix 1.)

We’re watching a kind of textual cartoon in which Geisler and Turek have a straw-man atheist (Mr. Straw) grilling a Christian (Dr. Geistur) on the question of evil. So far, the atheist seems to be giving the Christian a pretty hard time, and the Christian, despite his smug and triumphant tone, is floundering.

It goes no better for the Christian when Mr. Straw asks why God created people knowing that so many of them would end up eternally damned in Hell.

GEISTUR: Good question. There are only five options God had. He could have: 1) not created at all; 2) created a non-free world of robots; 3) created a free world where we would not sin; 4) created a free world where we would sin, but everyone would accept God’s salvation; or 5) created the world we have now—a world where we would sin, and some would be saved but the rest would be lost.

Or at least, those are the only 5 options Geisler and Turek could think of, so naturally an all-wise and all-knowing God would be incapable of finding or creating a sixth alternative. Right?

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XFiles: Too many holes

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, Appendix 1.)

I remember watching a cartoon, long ago, where the rabbit was visiting Holland, and happened to spot a hole in the dike. Naturally, he stuck his finger in it to plug it. Well, you can guess the rest. No sooner does he plug one hole than the dike springs another leak. Soon he’s plastered himself to the wall, using fingers, toes, and even his long rabbit ears to plug all the leaks, and then even more leaks break out. He can’t plug the new ones without taking his fingers out of the old ones. You just know this isn’t going to end well for the poor rabbit!

I don’t know what sort of expression was on the faces of Geisler and Turek as they wrote their appendix on the problem of evil, but the more I read it, the more I think they must have had the same intense look of inventive desperation as that cartoon rabbit had. Every time they turn around, their rationalizations have new holes, and they’re running out of fingers to try and plug them all with. The best solution—replace the shoddy structure with a sound and solid one—isn’t available to them. Instead of taking a consistent, cohesive approach, they must resort to an erratic and hyperactive succession of sound-bite rationalizations, hoping to save the day by jumping from leak to leak fast enough to stop the flow of disaster. It doesn’t actually work, but at least they can feel good about how busy they are.

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