Commentary Magazine


Topic: C.S. Lewis

Faith and Doubt

The New York Times recently published an op-ed by Julia Baird praising Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, for telling an audience at Bristol Cathedral that there are moments in which he asks, “Is there a God? Where is God?”

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The New York Times recently published an op-ed by Julia Baird praising Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, for telling an audience at Bristol Cathedral that there are moments in which he asks, “Is there a God? Where is God?”

When pressed if he harbored doubt, Welby answered, “It is a really good question…. The other day I was praying over something as I was running, and I ended up saying to God, ‘Look, this is all very well, but isn’t it about time you did something, if you’re there?’ Which is probably not what the archbishop of Canterbury should say.”

I’m not so sure. Many people I know, including some very gifted ministers, have struggled with such doubts. So did C.S. Lewis, the greatest apologist for the Christian faith in the 20th century. (The doubts came in the immediate aftermath of the death of his wife Joy Davidman.) And one of the formative figures in my own Christian pilgrimage, Malcolm Muggeridge, told William F. Buckley, Jr., “I rather believe in doubt. It’s sometimes thought that it’s the antithesis of faith, but I think it’s connected with faith – something that actually St. Augustine said – like, you know, reinforced concrete and you have those strips of metal in the concrete which make it stronger.”

“The only people I’ve met in this world who never doubt are materialists and atheists,” Muggeridge added. “But for me, at any rate, doubt has been an integral part of coming to faith.” That is certainly the case for me, which might explain, in part, my early affinity for Muggeridge. The journey to faith was not a neat and tidy affair for me.

The author Philip Yancey points out that the Bible includes many examples of doubt. In some cases, like Job, God honors doubt. And for Christians, of course, there are the words uttered by Jesus on the Cross: “My God, My God, why hast though forsaken me?”

“Evidently God has more tolerance of doubt than most churches,” Yancey writes. He adds that artificially suppressing doubts, you don’t really resolve them. They tend to resurface in a more toxic form.

Here it’s worth inserting a caveat. In our post-modern culture, it’s often fashionable to celebrate doubt, to declare oneself always a seeker and never a finder. Yet there are plenty of people who serve God with faithfulness and joy, who never find themselves struggling with existential and intellectual doubts and spiritual uncertainty. For them faith has always come easily. There’s no reason such people should be viewed in a less flattering light.

It’s important to recognize that faith isn’t a synonym for reason, even though it’s not intrinsically at odds with it. (Pascal said the supreme function of reason is to show man that some things are beyond reason.) Faith doesn’t rest on logical proofs or material evidence. If it did, there wouldn’t be (as there is) an element of trust involved in it. God’s existence can’t be proved, and wasn’t intended to be understood, like a mathematical equation. It’s the nature of faith, then, to leave room for doubt. And faith itself, a friend recently reminded me, involves a relationship, and there is mystery in any profound relationship.

In the end, however, the cornerstone of faith isn’t doubt. It rests on hope, on believing in an unseen reality, and on what C.S. Lewis called “true myth” (by which he meant ancient pagan myths revealed the natural human longing for a true God). On creation bearing witness to a Creator. On being filled with awe by the starry heavens above us and the moral law within us. And on the materialist explanations of life not being able to explain the most important things about life.

It rests on the belief that we’re part of an unfolding story, a drama, that God is the author of and has entered into. And that when the story is finally written, broken areas of our lives will be repaired and redeemed; that all things will be made right; and that grace will bring us home.

 

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Erick Erickson’s Callous Comments

Via Mediaite, the conservative blogger and editor-in-chief of RedState.com, Erick Erickson – while guest hosting for Rush Limbaugh – declared that most people who are getting minimum wage have “probably failed at life.”

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Via Mediaite, the conservative blogger and editor-in-chief of RedState.com, Erick Erickson – while guest hosting for Rush Limbaugh – declared that most people who are getting minimum wage have “probably failed at life.”

According to Mr. Erickson, “The minimum wage is mostly people who failed at life and high school kids. Seriously, look. I don’t mean to be ugly with you people. … If you’re a 30-something-year-old person and you’re making minimum wage you probably failed at life.” He went on to add “It is not that life dealt you a bad hand. Life does not deal you cards. It’s that you failed at life.”

This is wrong and offensive on several levels, starting with this one: Since when does a humane and decent society judge the quality and worth of one’s life based on how much money one makes? Mr. Erickson’s philosophy is a shallow materialism; this is certainly not a criterion a professing Christian (which is what Erickson is) would use. What matters in judging how people live their lives is the content of their character, not the size of their paycheck.

Let’s assume you’re in your mid-20s or early 30s and earning the minimum wage. In addition to that, you’re a loving and devoted daughter, regularly volunteering at a crisis pregnancy center, helping coach youth soccer, and treating others with respect and kindness. Have you really “failed at life”?

What if you’re a young man who was raised in the inner city, in a broken family, and received a miserable education. Still, you work hard, earning the minimum wage, and your word is good and you keep out of trouble. You’re even something of an example to your younger brother, who you’re trying to keep on the right path, away from a life of drugs and crime. Are you therefore a failure? And what if you’re a single mother who, instead of receiving welfare, works for the minimum wage? Do you deserve to be mocked by Erick Erickson?

Beyond this, the argument being advanced by Erickson that the circumstances you face aren’t to be taken into account – that it doesn’t really matter whether you’re born in Anacostia or McLean, whether your father works at a Georgetown University or is an inmate at the Central Detention Facility in D.C., whether you have an intellectual disability or an IQ of 120, whether you suffer from depression, autism, or OCD or you’re blessedly free of them – is foolish and callous.

To be clear, the issue here isn’t the merits of the minimum wage; it’s the cast of mind and disposition of heart that would lead Mr. Erickson to say what he did and how he did. That is to say, it’s not simply that the arguments Mr. Erickson advances are misguided; it’s his condescension and mocking tone toward those who are “flipping burgers” or “making my beloved Chick fil A biscuit in the morning” that compounds the offense. What Mr. Erickson is expounding isn’t conservatism; it is a crude and soulless attitude masquerading as conservatism. And it is these kinds of statements that both distort and damage conservatism.

It’s perhaps worth considering the words of another individual that serve as something of a contrast to what Mr. Erickson said earlier today. “There are no ordinary people,” C.S. Lewis wrote.

You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.

Lewis would never have said that a person’s worth or contributions, whether their life was a failure or a success, was based on their income or educational level or social status. He wouldn’t have argued that because his faith would not allow him to argue that. Lewis believed that everyone, no matter at what station or season of life, has inherent dignity because we are made in the image of God and because we are valued by God. Even adults who make the minimum wage.

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Why Grief Can Exist Alongside Hope

Throughout my life I’ve mostly been shielded from dealing with the death of people whom I love. But since the end of last year some very important people in my life have passed away, or now look to be near death.

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Throughout my life I’ve mostly been shielded from dealing with the death of people whom I love. But since the end of last year some very important people in my life have passed away, or now look to be near death.

The fact of death isn’t new to me, of course; but the subject has necessarily become less abstract.

How each person processes such a thing is highly and properly personal. But what I did want to touch on is how a person of faith–in my case the Christian faith–tries to make sense of things.

When I was still sorting through my belief system, there was something about Christianity that drew me to it. It was (among other things) that Christianity made sense of pain, loss, and sorrow in ways that nothing else quite did, at least to me, and in ways that seemed to me most true. That is, it didn’t deny suffering happens; it didn’t promise that good and faithful people wouldn’t suffer; and it didn’t pretend that suffering and the death of those whom we love won’t be searing. Jesus never told us that those things should be minimized in any way. He wept, after all.

And yet even in the midst of valleys and heartache, we believe God is present. The notion that joy and peace can transcend circumstances, that there is a reality beyond our senses and that there are blessings to be found even in mourning, were things that had resonance with me. I came to believe that the Lord can redeem and restore all things, including areas of brokenness. I was captivated, even then, by the thought that our life here on earth is intensely real–we’re not talking about shadows on the walls of caves–but also, in the full scheme of things, momentary. That it’s part of a very meaningful and authentic story, but it’s not the full story, and it’s not the end of the story.

This past weekend I was in the company of someone I’ve written about before, Steve Hayner, who earlier this year was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and whose life on this earth is now likely to be counted in weeks or months. In struggling to find a way to express some of these sentiments, I found myself recalling the movie Shadowlands.

C.S. Lewis, played by Anthony Hopkins, is shattered by the death of his wife, Joy Davidman. Near the end of the movie he’s told he must talk to Douglas, the young son (by another marriage) of Davidman. “I don’t know what to say to him,” Lewis admits.

The next scene is of Lewis and Douglas talking.

“I don’t know why she had to get sick,” a grief-stricken Douglas says.

“No, nor me,” Lewis replies. But you can’t hold on to things, he says; you have to let them go.

“Do you believe in heaven,” Douglas asks Lewis.

“Yes, I do,” Lewis replies. (By this time Lewis’s faith, which had buckled a bit in the aftermath of Joy’s death, has recovered.)

Douglas, who at that point says he doesn’t believe in heaven, tells Lewis, with tears in his eyes, “I sure would like to see her again.”

“Me, too,” Lewis replies. And he and Douglas embrace, weeping.

One can believe, as Lewis wrote in The Last Battle (the last book in his Chronicles of Narnia series), that our lives in this world are only the cover and the title page; that with death we begin “Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

Yet when cancer struck down the person Lewis most loved, he understood that future chapters are not present ones; that covers and title pages matter, too; and that grief, to paraphrase the essayist Chad Walsh, is the price of the knowledge–the knowledge of love and affection, of intimacy and friendship. Those who live in the glow of people’s love eventually live in the shadow of grief. That’s the nature of things in this broken world, and why grief can exist alongside hope.

One final thought struck me in reflecting on this past weekend. Now and again there is in my estimation some confusion within Christianity on the relationship between the eternal and the temporal. They are hardly synonymous; but neither are they inverse or antithetical, which is how they are sometimes cast. Nor is the demarcation between the two quite what we might think. This world is surely a vale of tears. But it can also pre-shadow the glories and joy that awaits us. It is also home to people like Steve and his wife Sharol who are, in the words of St. Paul, “imitators of God.” They offer intimations not of immortality but of divine grace and love.

Death is not the way things were meant to be. But it is, for now, the way things are. That doesn’t make accepting it any easier. But here’s what does: Finding individuals who, in the face of a terrible ordeal, choose to trust God and offer their fears to God; who are dignified and transparent in recounting their journey; and who, when facing the prospect of death, can still say (and mean) that “everyday has always been an opportunity for attentiveness, gratitude, and living into God’s call” and admit to having much less of a desire to “seize the day” and a greater desire to welcome it with all it’s twists and turns, surprises and disappointments, moments of delight and sorrow. To live joyfully and faithfully, come what may.

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“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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