Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Apostle Meets Skeptic

C. S. Lewis.  The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics.  New York: HarperCollins, 2007.  ISBN 0061208493.

C. S. Lewis.  God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics.  Ed. W. Hooper.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970.  ISBN 0802808689

Thanks to my mother, I grew up with C. S. Lewis.  Ever since I was old enough to think about religion in any remotely systematic way, I have lived in the intellectual shadow of the keen but simple genius behind Narnia, Screwtape, and Mere Christianity.  Receiving my own collection of Lewis' greatest hits from Mom was an unexpected bright spot in my disaffection from LDS Mormonism and the kind of fundamentalist Christianity that it embraces.   It gave me pause to think about aspects of Christianity that are still very much part of my evolving worldview.

I think I still have a lot in common with Lewis.  For one thing, my break with literalist Mormonism left me very much convinced in the reality of that which he calls "the Tao" in The Abolition of Man.  Although my walk with Mormonism ultimately took away my belief in gospel as history, it did not leave me convinced that life was meaningless or moral standards unnecessary.  I still had a strong sense of right and wrong: it was more malleable on some points (like what combination of partners can constitute a healthy marriage), but still grounded in some basic absolutes (adultery is always wrong).  So, even as the myths of Mormonism and Christianity ceased to be literally true (true as history) for me, the ethical standards behind them remained a fundamental part of my moral and philosophical outlook on the world.  I discovered Lewis' natural law ("the Tao") as something objectively true, in my own experience: whether I think of myself as Mormon, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, or agnostic (and in the last few months I have been all of these, sometimes simultaneously), I experience it as a constant reality, a standard I can trust even as the faces of the gods that guard it blur and fade, sometimes to nothing.  The Christian version is the Sermon on the Mount, a re-composition of the Jewish Ten Commandments.  Muslims have the Five Pillars of the Faith, and Buddhists the principle of compassion that is an integral part of the life of the bodhisattva.  Atheists and agnostics have similar standards rooted in the symbiotic relationships between individuals that can be observed among humans and in nature.  The term "Tao" comes to Lewis from Lao-tzu, who may just be the master of all when it comes to teaching religious truth: I am excited to read his Tao Te Ching, which I have heard of and seen quoted but have never seriously digested.

The one quarrel I have with Lewis, the only one serious enough to mention in this little essay, is the sentiment behind this statement (from page 132 of God in the Dock):
My conversion, very largely, depended on recognizing Christianity as the completion, the actualization, the entelechy, of something that had never been wholly absent from the mind of man.  And I still think that the agnostic argument from similarities between Christianity and paganism works only if you know the answer.  If you start by knowing on other grounds that Christianity is false, then the pagan stories may be another nail in its coffin: just as if you started by knowing that there were no such things as crocodiles then the various stories about dragons might help to confirm your disbelief.
This statement rests on what I regard now as a false binary: either (1) Christianity is entirely true, or (2) it is entirely false.  If (1) it is true, then it is the completion (the actualization, the entelechy) of every human religious impulse.  If (2) it is false, then it is a bunch of silly stories with no meaning that anyone should take seriously.  From where I now stand, philosophically, there is no merit in either of these positions.  This is because Christianity is not any more pure than human life in general: as I experience it, it is an amalgam of true and false, useful and silly, myth and history.  Why should I deny the truth that is in Christianity because of the many falsehoods that are also in it?  Why pretend that it represents the last word on human ethics and spirituality, when (in my experience) it clearly doesn't?  For me to do so would be dishonest and emotionally (not to mention religiously) impoverishing.  Thinking analogically shows why Lewis' dichotomy between absolute truth and absolute falsehood is ridiculous: the fact that the sledgehammer is not a good tool for brain surgery does not mean that it has no valid uses!  A tool can be useful without being the one and only tool we ever use, and the same is true of ideas.  Christianity can contain truth without containing all truth.

One more example of Lewis' tendency to over-simplify in dividing religious truth from error. Just as I reject Gordon B. Hinckley's assertion that Joseph Smith was either a complete charlatan or God's best buddy ("If [the First Vision] did not [occur], then this work is a fraud": quoted from "The Marvelous Foundation of Our Faith," Ensign [November 2002]), so I reject Lewis' attempt to say what amounts to the same thing about Christ (from pages 50-51 of Mere Christianity in The Complete Signature Classics):
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept his claim to be God.'  That is the one thing we must not say.  A man who was a man and said the sort of things Jesus said [think of Joseph Smith here] would not be a great moral teacher.  He would either be a lunatic--on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg--or else he would be the Devil of Hell.  You must make your choice.  Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.  You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon [think of Joseph Smith again]; or you can fall down at his feet and call Him Lord and God.  But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great moral teacher.  He has not left that open to us.  He did not intend to [somehow, people who over-simplify always end up speaking for deity instead of letting it speak through them].
So in theory the Sadducees and Pharisees had the right idea when they went about trying to destroy Christ as a devil?  Or maybe they should have just ignored him?  What could they possibly learn from him, as long as they were not willing to fall down and kiss his feet?  If I read Lewis right, he is saying that we should meet extravagant theological claims either with active disinterest (for the lunatic), outright rejection (for the devil), or unqualified acceptance (for God).  This is plainly a false trilemma, especially when you do the research (some of it impossible in Lewis' day, to be fair) necessary to approach the historical Jesus, who may not have made all the assertions put into his mouth by gospel writers (just as he may not even have existed).  Like Mormons who assert that their mythical Joseph Smith must be historically true or the vibrant religious life they have built around him is completely false, Lewis falls into the trap of confusing myth and history, making reality an illustration of myth instead of the reverse.  If he took himself seriously he would have to ignore, abominate, or worship a lot more than I am willing to.  Take Joseph Smith, for example.  Despite my status as a doctrinal apostate, I am not willing to define the first Mormon prophet categorically as either a "lunatic" (more so than the rest of us) or "the Devil of Hell" or the sainted martyr that the modern LDS proclaim.  I live in a world where both Jesus and Joseph Smith have useful contributions to make to human ethics and religion, even if we do not believe in the literal, historical truth of everything they are reported to have said or been (or any of it, really).  The ethical reality in my life that Christian and Mormon myths touch does not depend on those myths being historically true:  I can practice charity without believing that a man who was also God rose from the dead.  I can receive personal revelation from the universe without worrying about the exact nature of what Joseph saw or did not see in the Sacred Grove.  Why impoverish my life by assuming that all myths are either worthless (to be ignored), disgusting (to be abominated), or perfect (to be adored without criticism, accepted without qualification)?  Where do such myths exist?  As of now, I find them only in overly simplified apologetics (like Lewis' trilemma here).  The real myths, like real life, are equal parts truth and falsehood, serious thought and wild speculation.  To ignore them is stupid (because they are the lab notes in an ongoing human experiment in which I must participate: like just about every other person I have ever met, I create stories that give meaning to my life; my stories are better when I can compare them to others).  To abominate them is pointless (since hating the stories of others does not make mine any better).  To worship any of them as literal truth is dangerous (because each ignores as much truth as it creates: you cannot get too many perspectives on a problem as difficult as living well--picking a single story as your "one and only" is about as smart as deciding to use no tool but the hammer for the rest of your life).   

There are many more things I could say about Lewis.  The outlook expressed in his works is by and large a valuable one that I am glad to carry with me, even when I find it too simple to handle complex reality: in particular, I regret not being able to say more here about the really interesting portrayal of divinity in his space trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength), a portrayal that I find aesthetically and philosophically compelling on many levels.  For now, I conclude by saying that I love learning from C. S. Lewis as I love learning from Christianity: both are sources for good ideas, but neither offers the last word on the the astonishingly rich and complex thing that is the universe.


  1. I agree that many Christians fall into the trap of thinking unquestioningly about the absolute truth of their professed faiths and doctrines -- and therefore of asserting the falsehood and immorality of others'.

    I also think, however, that your repeated metaphor of a single religion equating a sledgehammer is itself a false dilemma, in a way: while some people do approach religion exclusively (that is, to the exclusion of any other available truths or principles), others find a more inclusive reality in their faith.

    Does that make sense?

  2. It is true that the metaphor of the sledgehammer fails to do justice to the kind of flexibility that many Christians achieve within the confines of Christianity. I still think it works well enough to show the flaws in a particularly narrow, literalist Christianity such as I find sometimes in C. S. Lewis and (more often) among Mormons.

    Maybe a better metaphor would be that of a tool-kit that includes more than hammers. In theory, anything could be added to the kit. Some Christians, however, decide to place an arbitrary limit on the tools that are "allowed," declaring some to be off limits merely because they cannot see why anyone might find them useful. From my point of view, the individual person should be free to take up any tool that he finds useful, understanding that he must tread lightly and trust nobody else's owner's manual over his own practical experience.

  3. I think Mormonism is very accepting of other traditions. They recognize that truly good people will all have an opportunity to accept the "right" way (perhaps after death) and so they can withhold judgment about their differences.

    However, I think the word "inclusive" is not totally appropriate because when Mormons talk about the "goodness" of other religions they typically think that that goodness is overlapping with what they already know. It falls under the category of "truth" but most Mormons believe they somehow already have the "fullness" of truth (as though the concept of truth is something that can be owned).

    So, essentially they are claiming ownership of every good and useful principle about morality without even knowing beforehand what they are claiming ownership of. On the surface this seems accepting because you have common values with other faiths but the problem is that Mormons expect the others to look to them for the fullness and they feel they have nothing really to learn from other religions (at least nothing that really matters). It seems very arrogant to me.