Commentary Magazine


Topic: C.S. Lewis

“When all the mud has been flung every man’s views still remain to be considered”

In an exchange with the evolutionary biologist and Marxist J.B.S. Haldane, C.S. Lewis found his motivations under assault. Lewis offered this marvelous reply:

The Professor has his own explanation … he thinks that I am unconsciously motivated by the fact that I “stand to lose by social change.” And indeed it would be hard for me to welcome a change which might well consign me to a concentration camp. I might add that it would likewise be easy for the Professor to welcome a change which might place him in the highest rank of an omnicompetent oligarchy. That is why the motive game is so uninteresting. Each side can go on playing ad nauseam, but when all the mud has been flung every man’s views still remain to be considered on their merits. I decline the motive game and resume the discussion.

Now it needs to be said that motivations aren’t always irrelevant or unimportant. They matter, for example, in a court of law (see perjury trials). And if the classmate of your son hurts him (or vice-versa), motivation certainly needs to be taken into account. We punish in part based on intent.

But in the context Lewis is describing–public debates over public matters–he’s quite right. Impugning the motivations of those whom we disagree with should be kept to a minimum. For one thing, it’s hard enough to honestly assess our own motivations, let alone those of others. Every human heart is divided against itself, tainted to one degree or another. Altruism and pride, selflessness and selfishness, mix like salt and water in the ocean. They are nearly impossible to separate out.

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In an exchange with the evolutionary biologist and Marxist J.B.S. Haldane, C.S. Lewis found his motivations under assault. Lewis offered this marvelous reply:

The Professor has his own explanation … he thinks that I am unconsciously motivated by the fact that I “stand to lose by social change.” And indeed it would be hard for me to welcome a change which might well consign me to a concentration camp. I might add that it would likewise be easy for the Professor to welcome a change which might place him in the highest rank of an omnicompetent oligarchy. That is why the motive game is so uninteresting. Each side can go on playing ad nauseam, but when all the mud has been flung every man’s views still remain to be considered on their merits. I decline the motive game and resume the discussion.

Now it needs to be said that motivations aren’t always irrelevant or unimportant. They matter, for example, in a court of law (see perjury trials). And if the classmate of your son hurts him (or vice-versa), motivation certainly needs to be taken into account. We punish in part based on intent.

But in the context Lewis is describing–public debates over public matters–he’s quite right. Impugning the motivations of those whom we disagree with should be kept to a minimum. For one thing, it’s hard enough to honestly assess our own motivations, let alone those of others. Every human heart is divided against itself, tainted to one degree or another. Altruism and pride, selflessness and selfishness, mix like salt and water in the ocean. They are nearly impossible to separate out.

In addition, the tendency to focus on motivations can be a sign of intellectual laziness. It’s just much easier to attack other people’s motivations than it is to answer their arguments (especially when the arguments are difficult to refute). And even if the motivations of others are suspect, that’s still not an excuse to avoid dealing with the other side’s reasoning. The merits of an argument don’t depend on the character of those advancing them.

When we do move from the realm of divining motivations to examining facts and premises, there’s a temptation to focus on the other side’s less formidable advocates and arguments. Professor Alan Jacobs, writing on his New Atlantis blog, cautions that we shouldn’t go in search of 

the crowd-pleasers and rabble-rousers from outside your typical group (unless you’re trying to understand sociological phenomena). If you’re a conservative who wants to understand liberalism, don’t bother with Michael Moore; if you’re a liberal who wants to understand conservatism, don’t bother with Sarah Palin; if you’re an unbeliever who’s curious about Christianity, ignore Joel Osteen; if you’re an orthodox Christian trying to get a fix on atheism, steer clear of Bill Maher. 

If we follow this counsel–if we seek out impressive and intelligent individuals among those with whom we disagree–Jacobs argues that several things can happen: (a) our views might be altered based on the encounter; (b) we’ll find that people who disagree with us are in all likelihood the moral and intellectual equals of those who agree with us; and (c) we’ll realize “that any question that is fiercely debated is fiercely debated because there aren’t simple and obvious answers to it.”

To which I would add this: Truth exists and it needs to be pursued, but each individual can at best apprehend only part of the whole. To be sure, some see it better than others and some live their lives more in accordance with the moral good than do others. All honor is due them. But it is also the nature of life in this world that even those who strive to live in the sunlight cannot fully escape the shadows.

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C.S. Lewis and the Power of Imagination

Fifty years ago tomorrow–on November 22, 1963–C.S. Lewis passed away. His death then, like the anniversary of his death now, was overshadowed by the assassination of President Kennedy. But Lewis–a medieval and renaissance scholar, professor, poet, novelist, a writer of children’s fantasy stories, and the most important Christian apologetics writer of the 20th century–was quite an extraordinary figure. And he, too, is worthy of remembrance.

There’s no disputing that Lewis was blessed with a brilliant mind. At a young age he studied under William T. Kirkpatrick, “a hard, satirical atheist who taught me to think,” according to Lewis. He learned, supremely well, the art of argumentation from Kirkpatrick. And Lewis, a gifted and elegant writer, authored such books as The Abolition of Man, Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, and A Preface to Paradise Lost. He was president of the Oxford Socratic Club and a long-time participant in The Inklings, an informal literary group whose members included Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams. 

The English literary critic and poet William Empson said Lewis was the best-read man of his generation, one who read everything and remembered everything he read. “He seemed constitutionally incapable of allowing an assumption, or premise, to pass undissected,” is how one writer, James Como, put it.

But what made Lewis so unusual and significant is that he understood the power and importance of imagination, and not simply reason, in people’s lives. In a letter to a friend, Lewis wrote, “No one is more convinced than I that reason is utterly inadequate to the richness and spirituality of real things: indeed this is itself a deliverance of reason.”

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Fifty years ago tomorrow–on November 22, 1963–C.S. Lewis passed away. His death then, like the anniversary of his death now, was overshadowed by the assassination of President Kennedy. But Lewis–a medieval and renaissance scholar, professor, poet, novelist, a writer of children’s fantasy stories, and the most important Christian apologetics writer of the 20th century–was quite an extraordinary figure. And he, too, is worthy of remembrance.

There’s no disputing that Lewis was blessed with a brilliant mind. At a young age he studied under William T. Kirkpatrick, “a hard, satirical atheist who taught me to think,” according to Lewis. He learned, supremely well, the art of argumentation from Kirkpatrick. And Lewis, a gifted and elegant writer, authored such books as The Abolition of Man, Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, and A Preface to Paradise Lost. He was president of the Oxford Socratic Club and a long-time participant in The Inklings, an informal literary group whose members included Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams. 

The English literary critic and poet William Empson said Lewis was the best-read man of his generation, one who read everything and remembered everything he read. “He seemed constitutionally incapable of allowing an assumption, or premise, to pass undissected,” is how one writer, James Como, put it.

But what made Lewis so unusual and significant is that he understood the power and importance of imagination, and not simply reason, in people’s lives. In a letter to a friend, Lewis wrote, “No one is more convinced than I that reason is utterly inadequate to the richness and spirituality of real things: indeed this is itself a deliverance of reason.”

All of this is covered with great skill by Michael Ward, who contributed an essay in the book Imaginative Apologetics. Lewis described reason as “the natural organ of truth” but imagination as “the organ of meaning. Imagination … is not the cause of truth, but its condition.” This helps explains why Lewis was able to use imagination so effectively in his apologetics, why he advanced his faith through fiction, and why for him doctrine was subordinate to the primary language, the “lived language,” of Christianity (for Lewis this meant the incarnation, the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus). 

“In Lewis’s view,” according to Ward, “reason could only operate if it was first supplied with materials to reason about, and it was imagination’s task to supply those materials. Therefore apologetics was necessarily and foundationally imaginative.” It was through imagination, according to Ward, that Lewis’s reason and, ultimately, his will were transformed. Reason and imagination were twinned. Both were essential to his faith.

What Lewis offered his readers, then, were not just arguments but a vision of what is good and beautiful and true–and he did so through the use of analogy, simile and metaphor. “All our truth,” he said, “or all but a few fragments, is won by metaphor.”

Lewis touched people’s minds by engaging their imaginations; and in the end, he won over not just minds but hearts as well. Mine included.

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Whose Morality?

In this interview with Relevant magazine the journalist Peter Hitchens, a Christian, was asked what he says to people who would say–as a good many people do these days–“Who are you to tell me that your morality is more right than mine?” To which Hitchens responded:

I would say the source of morality is not me. I’m merely informing you of another authority that seems to have a good deal more force than I could ever command. But in the end, of course, the illusion of self-authority—which has been one of the major developments of the past 100 years—has persuaded people that they need no such thing. And not only that they don’t need the concept of the deity, but that they actively want there not to be such a thing, which is one of the reasons the new atheism is such a passionate, intolerant and in many cases, rather unpleasant phenomenon. The people who have adopted it actively want there not to be a god. They know that if there is a god then that god must be a source of authority. If a purposeful creator made the universe in which we live, it would be idle to imagine that you could ignore that creator’s desires as to how you should live.

Mr. Hitchens is quite right. For some time now one of the most powerful currents of thought in the West is the belief that morality is subjective, that ethical norms are human inventions, and that it’s up to each individual to determine which standards we’ll live by.

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In this interview with Relevant magazine the journalist Peter Hitchens, a Christian, was asked what he says to people who would say–as a good many people do these days–“Who are you to tell me that your morality is more right than mine?” To which Hitchens responded:

I would say the source of morality is not me. I’m merely informing you of another authority that seems to have a good deal more force than I could ever command. But in the end, of course, the illusion of self-authority—which has been one of the major developments of the past 100 years—has persuaded people that they need no such thing. And not only that they don’t need the concept of the deity, but that they actively want there not to be such a thing, which is one of the reasons the new atheism is such a passionate, intolerant and in many cases, rather unpleasant phenomenon. The people who have adopted it actively want there not to be a god. They know that if there is a god then that god must be a source of authority. If a purposeful creator made the universe in which we live, it would be idle to imagine that you could ignore that creator’s desires as to how you should live.

Mr. Hitchens is quite right. For some time now one of the most powerful currents of thought in the West is the belief that morality is subjective, that ethical norms are human inventions, and that it’s up to each individual to determine which standards we’ll live by.

But as C.S. Lewis put it in Mere Christianity, while some of what we learn is mere convention (like whether we drive on the left or right side of the road), much of what we learn is (like mathematics) based on real truths. “If no set of moral ideas were truer or better than any other, there would be no sense in preferring civilized morality to savage morality,” Lewis wrote, “or Christian morality to Nazi morality.”

Over the years I’ve asked acquaintances of mine (including Peter’s late brother, Christopher) the grounds on which a person who doesn’t believe in God makes the case for inherent human dignity. How does one make the case against injustice if you begin with two propositions: the universe was created by chance and it will end in nothing? How do you derive a belief in a moral law that is binding on you and others apart from theism? How do you get from the “is” to the “ought”? And just what is the response to someone who says, “Your belief is fine for you but it’s irrelevant to me. God is dead and I choose to follow my own path. It happens to include gulags and gas chambers. You may not agree, but there is no philosophical or moral ground on which you can base your claim.”

It’s never been clear to me, then, on what basis we can argue that people can have intrinsic or attributive worth if we deny God and His transcendent truth. 

To his credit, this question troubled even Friedrich Nietzsche (though it doesn’t seem to much trouble the so-called New Atheists). Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, author of American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas, has written, “From time to time, Nietzsche put down his hammer as he tried to imagine a world after moral absolutes. Even he wondered what would happen once every article of faith had been shed and every claim to universal truth exposed as a human construct.”

One final observation on all this: The reason Real Morality exists isn’t based on divine censoriousness, arbitrary and capricious, whose intention is to stamp out pleasure wherever it is found. It’s to create moral norms that are based on the design of human nature. The purpose is to advance human flourishing–for us as individuals to lead more fulfilled lives and to repair the brokenness that exists in all of our lives. In the debate about moral truth this fact is too often overlooked.

It probably doesn’t help that over the years some of those who have been vocal advocates for Real Morality are less winsome than they are “wound tight with anger,” in the words of the author Philip Yancey. Nonetheless the moral law within us, like the starry sky above us, exists; and its Author, who created us, cannot be wished out of existence by any of us.

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The Clean Sea Breeze of the Centuries

One of C.S. Lewis’s main endeavors as a teacher was to persuade young people that first-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but it is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire. And so, Lewis wrote, a student would do better to read Plato than to “read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about ‘isms’ and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said.”

But in making the case for reading old books Lewis made another argument that had never before dawned on me.

Every age has its own outlook, Lewis said. “It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.” He went on to say that all contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook–”even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it.” And when reading about the controversies of the past, Lewis said, nothing strikes him more than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we would now absolutely deny.

“We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century — the blindness about which posterity will ask, ‘But how could they have thought that?’ — lies where we have never suspected it.”

Lewis went on to write this:

None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.

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One of C.S. Lewis’s main endeavors as a teacher was to persuade young people that first-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but it is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire. And so, Lewis wrote, a student would do better to read Plato than to “read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about ‘isms’ and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said.”

But in making the case for reading old books Lewis made another argument that had never before dawned on me.

Every age has its own outlook, Lewis said. “It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.” He went on to say that all contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook–”even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it.” And when reading about the controversies of the past, Lewis said, nothing strikes him more than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we would now absolutely deny.

“We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century — the blindness about which posterity will ask, ‘But how could they have thought that?’ — lies where we have never suspected it.”

Lewis went on to write this:

None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.

I cite Lewis at length for a couple of reasons. One is because I’m interested in the concept of how we bring to every important human subject (theology, philosophy, politics, et cetera) certain biases and prejudices, assumptions and subconscious thoughts that shape our interpretation of reality. “There is, of course, no such thing as a presupposition-less observer,” the Irish historian Eamon Duffy once said. And so we all need help to examine our presuppositions and identify our blind spots.

Old books can also help counteract what Lewis, in his autobiography Surprised by Joy, called “chronological snobbery”–the “uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.” For an idea to be out of fashion doesn’t mean it is per se out of alignment with truth and reality. And this period, like all periods, has “its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”

I understand that none of us can fully escape the shadows. But I also believe that we can, now and then, rise above ignorance and error; that we can take strides in the direction of the sun; and that great books, and old books, can aid us in that journey. 

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Apologetics, Politics, and Our Moral Imagination

Michael Ward, Chaplain of St. Peter’s College, Oxford, has written a marvelous essay (which can be found in this collection) on the centrality of imagination in the apologetics of C.S. Lewis. Lewis’s friends J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson showed Lewis that Christian doctrine was subordinate to “narrative theology.” Doctrine is about translating concepts and ideas, which is vital; but the primary language of Christianity is a “lived language,” meaning incarnational. 

Reason and imagination, then, are essential–but Ward argues it was only through imagination that Lewis’s reason, and ultimately his will, were transformed. Of course Lewis himself engaged in apologetics through the works of imagination (most famously in The Chronicles of Narnia). One person commented on Lewis’s writings by saying this: “We think we are listening to an argument, in fact we are presented with a vision; and it is the vision that carries conviction.”

I mention all this because in a recent dinner conversation with friends, I observed that what is missing in our politics is the ability to touch people’s moral imagination. My point was that too often in politics, we present our case with facts and figures, with appeals to logic and abstract reasoning. These things are important, but they are not enough. It is in the nature of human beings that we are often moved less by the power of an argument than by the power of a story and a cause. “The heart has its reasons which reason knows not,” is how Pascal put it.

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Michael Ward, Chaplain of St. Peter’s College, Oxford, has written a marvelous essay (which can be found in this collection) on the centrality of imagination in the apologetics of C.S. Lewis. Lewis’s friends J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson showed Lewis that Christian doctrine was subordinate to “narrative theology.” Doctrine is about translating concepts and ideas, which is vital; but the primary language of Christianity is a “lived language,” meaning incarnational. 

Reason and imagination, then, are essential–but Ward argues it was only through imagination that Lewis’s reason, and ultimately his will, were transformed. Of course Lewis himself engaged in apologetics through the works of imagination (most famously in The Chronicles of Narnia). One person commented on Lewis’s writings by saying this: “We think we are listening to an argument, in fact we are presented with a vision; and it is the vision that carries conviction.”

I mention all this because in a recent dinner conversation with friends, I observed that what is missing in our politics is the ability to touch people’s moral imagination. My point was that too often in politics, we present our case with facts and figures, with appeals to logic and abstract reasoning. These things are important, but they are not enough. It is in the nature of human beings that we are often moved less by the power of an argument than by the power of a story and a cause. “The heart has its reasons which reason knows not,” is how Pascal put it.

The greatest political figures of the 19th and 20th centuries, Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, understood something about this reality. They possessed remarkably impressive analytical minds–but they understood, too, the role of imagination in politics; that great statesmen have the capacity to present a compelling vision of a better world and can place a particular moment in time in the arc of a larger story. (Both Lincoln and Churchill were powerfully shaped by the King James Bible and Shakespeare.)

In his essay, Michael Ward points out that in C.S. Lewis’s last novel, Till We Have Faces, a character called the Fox, a rational teacher, comes to learn at the end of the story that mere reason is “glibness … a prattle of maxims … all thin and clear as water.” It was Lewis’s way of saying that reason was utterly inadequate when it comes to apprehending what he called “the richness and spirituality of real things.”

The most important things in life–beauty, grace, redemption, compassion, loyalty, love–are beyond the reach of reason. Which doesn’t make them any less real.

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When Man Puts God in the Dock

In response to a piece I wrote on Nietzsche and intrinsic human worth, I heard from a college student, who wrote me this:

We read Nietzsche in philosophy last semester, so it was fun to hear him strongly taken to task. However, while this is a terrific argument about why atheism/agnosticism is an unsustainable world view, my problem with it is that I’ve heard it used too often … as a rebuttal to the Problem of Evil, despite the fact that this doesn’t really do anything to defend our worldview from the Problem of Evil. As a believer, one of the hardest philosophical questions for me to overcome is how can God be perfectly benevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent and allow for evil in the world. So, I guess my question is: how do you deal with this problem philosophically as a believer?

That is a very important, difficult, and age-old question, and one I’m planning to respond to in short order. Suffice to say the matter of theodicy is among the more challenging ones for people of faith to grapple with. I should add that as someone whose own pilgrimage of faith has often been marked by intellectual struggles and even, from time to time, doubt, I have great sympathy with the question posed by this student. (C.S. Lewis once referred to the “incurable intellectualism of my approach,” which he meant as no compliment.)

My own view has been to never discourage honest inquiries from anyone, either believers or those who have no religious faith at all. The words of the Lord found in the book of Isaiah — “Come now, let us reason together” — have been something of a touchstone for me. And the examples of anti-intellectualism, and even obscurantism, that one finds within some strands of Christianity have long troubled me.

But over time I have come to some preliminary (and thoroughly unoriginal) conclusions, one of which is that faith, while certainly not at odds with reason, goes well beyond reason. Faith is, after all, “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see,” in the words of the author of Hebrews. Jesus put it blunter still: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

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In response to a piece I wrote on Nietzsche and intrinsic human worth, I heard from a college student, who wrote me this:

We read Nietzsche in philosophy last semester, so it was fun to hear him strongly taken to task. However, while this is a terrific argument about why atheism/agnosticism is an unsustainable world view, my problem with it is that I’ve heard it used too often … as a rebuttal to the Problem of Evil, despite the fact that this doesn’t really do anything to defend our worldview from the Problem of Evil. As a believer, one of the hardest philosophical questions for me to overcome is how can God be perfectly benevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent and allow for evil in the world. So, I guess my question is: how do you deal with this problem philosophically as a believer?

That is a very important, difficult, and age-old question, and one I’m planning to respond to in short order. Suffice to say the matter of theodicy is among the more challenging ones for people of faith to grapple with. I should add that as someone whose own pilgrimage of faith has often been marked by intellectual struggles and even, from time to time, doubt, I have great sympathy with the question posed by this student. (C.S. Lewis once referred to the “incurable intellectualism of my approach,” which he meant as no compliment.)

My own view has been to never discourage honest inquiries from anyone, either believers or those who have no religious faith at all. The words of the Lord found in the book of Isaiah — “Come now, let us reason together” — have been something of a touchstone for me. And the examples of anti-intellectualism, and even obscurantism, that one finds within some strands of Christianity have long troubled me.

But over time I have come to some preliminary (and thoroughly unoriginal) conclusions, one of which is that faith, while certainly not at odds with reason, goes well beyond reason. Faith is, after all, “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see,” in the words of the author of Hebrews. Jesus put it blunter still: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

There is, in other words, something about the nature of faith that requires a leap of faith. One can believe Judaism and Christianity are historical faiths, for example, while also acknowledging that they cannot be proven to be true in an indisputable, scientific, empirical way. That will never happen – and it was never meant to happen.

The second insight into the matter of faith and doubt was underscored to me once again while re-reading Lewis. In one of his essays, when asked to write about the difficulties that people must face in trying to present their faith to modern unbelievers, Lewis said this:

The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man, the roles are quite reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge; if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty, and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the bench and God is in the dock.

Lewis, perhaps the greatest apologist for the Christian faith in the 20th century, would have been the last person in the world to denigrate a person for asking tough questions about the nature of God. (Lewis, in fact, helped found The Oxford Socratic Club, whose guiding principle came from Socrates, who exhorted men to “follow the argument wherever it led them.” The purpose of the Club was to apply that principle to one particular subject matter – the pros and cons of the Christian religion.)

Still, Lewis was making an important point, which is that questions about faith are one thing; calling into question the fundamental character of God, or acting in arrogant judgment of Him, is something else again.

These are not easy matters to sort through. After all, if one believes some of the actions of God are unjust – for example, God calling for the complete destruction of the Canaanites, including children — that will, for some people, reflect on how they perceive the character of God. Lewis himself, besieged by grief after the death of his wife, gave voice to his own fears. “Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not, ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but, ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’”

Some theologians I know found Lewis’s book, and his struggles, to be troubling. I never have and, in fact, I appreciate his candor and honesty. I also took some comfort in the fact that even Lewis was not immune to doubt and to struggles. We shouldn’t pretend these things are virtues; but neither should we deny that they are fully understandable, and in some respects entirely predictable. There is no shame in wrestling with doubt.

In the end, Lewis regained his faith. At the conclusion of A Grief Observed, Lewis quotes his dying wife Joy as telling a chaplain, “I am at peace with God.” She then smiled, but not at Lewis, who ends his book with these words: Poi si torno all eterna Fontana (the words come from Dante and translated mean, “Then unto the eternal fountain she turned.”)

Man was no longer on the bench, and God was no longer in the dock.

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Challenging Sacred Assumptions

Shortly after first arriving in Washington, D.C., I had conversations with friends in which I made this observation: Assume that they and I hold completely different views on an issue. Assume, too, that we engaged in a debate on the issue and that they pulverized me based on their superior knowledge and logic. And let’s stipulate a third assumption: I knew, deep in my bones, that I was bested. Still, the odds are that I wouldn’t revisit my opinion; instead, I would probably get angry that my case had been demolished. What this would indicate is that my positions were ones I held not primarily based on reason and empirical evidence but because of certain predilections, biases, and intuitions.

My arguments might be exposed as weak, but my faith in my position would likely remain strong.

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Shortly after first arriving in Washington, D.C., I had conversations with friends in which I made this observation: Assume that they and I hold completely different views on an issue. Assume, too, that we engaged in a debate on the issue and that they pulverized me based on their superior knowledge and logic. And let’s stipulate a third assumption: I knew, deep in my bones, that I was bested. Still, the odds are that I wouldn’t revisit my opinion; instead, I would probably get angry that my case had been demolished. What this would indicate is that my positions were ones I held not primarily based on reason and empirical evidence but because of certain predilections, biases, and intuitions.

My arguments might be exposed as weak, but my faith in my position would likely remain strong.

I thought of these conversations after watching this interview with Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. Professor Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, argues that reasoning is “post-hoc and justificatory.” Reasoning is not good at finding the truth, according to Haidt. He argued that “conscious verbal reasoning is really good at confirming.” We’re like good lawyers or press secretaries; we seek out information to reinforce our existing opinions and try to justify everything. Once we sacralize something, we become blind to counter-evidence.

I know precisely what Haidt is talking about. It’s extremely easy to spot the weak arguments, hypocrisy, and double standards of those with whom I disagree; it’s much harder to see them in myself. And many of us, having arrived at comfortable, settled positions, go out in search of evidence to support our arguments. That is quite a different thing than assessing evidence in order to arrive at an opinion. What most of us do, to one degree or another, is self-segregate. We search for studies and data that confirm our pre-existing beliefs. And we tend to ignore the strongest arguments against our position.

This is a complicated matter. Our underlying views are not necessarily sub-rational; they are often grounded in moral intuitions and attitudes that are entirely legitimate. What we do in political debates is to extend what we take to be true – and in the process, we reach for evidence that conforms to what Edmund Burke referred to, in an uncritical way, as our prejudices.

We channel facts in a way that reinforces views that are based on something different than – something deeper than – mere empirical evidence. None of us, then, are completely open-minded; and we’re all understandably reluctant to alter deeply-held views. The question, really, is given all this, how open are we to persuasion, to new evidence, and to holding up our views to refinement and revision? How do we react when our arguments seem to be falling apart? And what steps can we take to ensure that we don’t insulate ourselves to the point that we are indifferent to facts that challenge our worldview?

According to Haidt, individual reasoning is not reliable because of “the confirmation bias” – and the only cure for the confirmation bias is other people. “If you bring people together who disagree,” he argues, “and they have a sense of friendship, family, having something in common, having an institution to preserve, they can challenge each other’s reason.” We’re not very good at challenging our own beliefs – but we’re quite good at challenging the beliefs of others. Our task is (to borrow from William Saletan’s review of Haidt’s book) “to organize society so that reason and intuition interact in healthy ways.”

That makes great sense to me. There’s a natural tendency to seek out a community of like-minded individuals who can offer support and encouragement along the way. In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis writes that a friendship is born when two people discover they not only share common interests but see the same truth, who stand not face-to-face (as lovers do) but shoulder-to-shoulder. There’s an important place for intellectual fellowship, just as there is for religious fellowship.

Still, it’s important to resist the temptation to surround ourselves exclusively with like-minded people, those who reinforce our preexisting views and biases. It becomes much too easy to caricature those with whom we disagree. (In those rare, self-aware moments, and sometimes with a gentle assist from others, it becomes obvious when I’m guilty of this.)

In the White House in particular, where you have access to more information than is available to most people and are surrounded by some of the leading experts in the country, it’s tempting to think that you and your colleagues are all-wise and your critics are all-foolish. And before long you can find yourself in an intellectual cul-de-sac. That’s a dangerous place to be. We need at least a few people in our orbit who have standing in our lives and who are willing to challenge what we claim and how we claim it. That is, I think, an important, even essential, element when striving for intellectual honesty.

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