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Showing posts with label C.S. Lewis. Show all posts
Showing posts with label C.S. Lewis. Show all posts

Monday, July 13, 2015

Want to Draw Closer to God? Use a Map!

In book four of Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis tells of having a conversation with an old air force officer who believed in God, but felt that the theologies we teach somehow diminish his reality. The officer proclaims, "I know there's a God. I've felt Him: out alone in the desert at night: the tremendous mystery. And that's just why I don't believe all your neat little dogmas and formulas about Him."1

This "all I need is Jesus" concept has only grown since Lewis' writing that story, and I can understand why. For those that have been delivered from a life of misery or the effects of addition, the real changing presence of the Gospel is powerful and moving. Theology seems to be about somehow deconstructing God, making him more distant than He is experientially. Lewis agreed with that assessment, yet he cautioned against abandoning learning theology simply because it is less experientially powerful than the direct witness of the Spirit. He used the analogy of an Englishman learning about the Atlantic Ocean by walking along the beach. Surely this experience, too, has a feel that informs the man in a far more powerful way than seeing the ocean drawn upon a map. Yet, the map is important. Lewis explains:
The map is admittedly only coloured paper, but there are two things you have to remember about it. In the first place, it is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. In that way it has behind it masses of experience just as real as the one you could have from the beach; only, while yours would be a single isolated glimpse, the map fits all those different experiences together.

In the second place, if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary. As long as you are content with walks on the beach, your own glimpses are far more fun than looking at a map. But the map is going to be more use than walks on the beach if you want to get to America.

Now, Theology is like the map. Merely learning and thinking about the Christian doctrines, if you stop there, is less real and less exciting than the sort of thing my friend got in the desert. Doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of map. But that map is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God—experiences compared with which any thrills or pious feelings you and I are likely to get on our own are very elementary and very confused. And secondly, if you want to get any further, you must use the map.2

A Map to God's Character

I like Lewis' analogy. The study of theology is perhaps drier than the experiential aspects of the Christian life, but it informs us about God as he is, not simply the small sliver we experience. Further, when difficulties come into our lives, we can refer back to our learning of who God is and how he works and have confidence in his character. We grow in our devotion to him as we grow in our understanding of him.

The writer to the Hebrews rebuked those Christians for not moving beyond the pure milk of the word. He expected them to mature in their relationship with God as Christians. He wanted them to deal with more complex theological ideas than "repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment" (Heb. 6:1-2, ESV). Those are all important foundations of the gospel, but there is so much more to learn.

If we wish to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, we need to learn more about his essential nature and his character. We need a map to guide us on our journey in understanding him better. We will need to be shown those hidden treasures that can build us up as believers. After all, what lover doesn't want to know everything he can about his beloved?


1. Lewis, C. S. "Mere Christianity." The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002. 127-128 Print.
2. Lewis, 128.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

WALL-E, Morality, and Men Without Chests

In the 2008 Pixar film WALL-E, humans are not the hero. The movie portrays people as very advanced technologically: they can create space ships that house the population of the planet. They can build robots that will function autonomously for hundreds of years. They have floating chairs and auto-changing clothes. Work seems to be passé.

Even with accomplishing the things that we toady dream about, the film doesn't want you to think humans are in a better position. It wants you to realize that they've traded an important part of their humanity for their comfort and convenience. They've lost the idea that work, exercise, struggle, and the natural order are part of the human condition. In the consumerist culture of WALL-E, humans' drive to satisfy every desire has made their bellies so fat they can no longer stand on their feet.

Our Growing Bellies and Shrinking Chests

It should be no surprise that the comment on humanity in WALL-E wasn't about the distant future, but about our culture today. We're the ones who are driven so much by our desires that we've grown fat and forsaken the richness that denial of pleasure offers human beings, and that fatness is not only physical. We've let out appetites overwhelm us on questions of morality, too.

The fatness of our bellies was famously noted by C.S. Lewis in his short book The Abolition of Man. Lewis, drawing from Plato, extends the idea. Human beings have two centers of motivation: his reasoning and his appetites. We can come to a decision that X is the right thing to do by weighing the pros and cons, and looking at the consequences of the outcome, not only for ourselves but for others and for society in general. This is reasoning, or being ruled by the head.

The other source of motivation is our appetites. Appetites and desires are universal, but they really don't require much thought. You feel them and seek to satisfy them. Appetites are pictured to be ruled by the belly, that is the stomach and genitals. They are not constrained to only sexual or gastronomic satisfaction, though. Desire to get the "next new thing" or the desire to avoid work, like in WALL-E would qualify.

If we were to be ruled by only our appetites, we are no better off than animals. It is our head, our ability to reason and curb appetites that make us civilized. But how do we do this, when our appetites are so powerful within us? Lewis says we have traditionally allowed the head to rule over the belly through the chest. He explains the chest is the center of magnanimity. It is:
emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment — these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.1

We are in the World of WALL-E Right Now

Our culture has given itself over completely to its appetites. Individuality has trumped reason. We are told that sex doesn't matter in marriage, the only institution recognized as the appropriate to rear children. We're told that biology has nothing to do with gender although it has everything to do with sexual orientation. We care more about finding self-fulfillment in whatever our desires may be than we do to upholding the time-tested pillars that uphold society for all. Owen Strachan believes the Obergefell ruling demonstrates this: "Our self-obsessed society has made good on its orientation. We now care more about personal feelings and rights we deemed are owed to us than we do about duties to God, family, country, and community."2

Because we no longer value magnanimity (does anyone even know what the word means today?), the belly has his way and becomes more and more engorged. We are, as Lewis claimed, Men without Chests. But it also makes us men without feet and men without a natural home. We are adrift on a craft built entirely of comfort and we've forgotten how to walk. The problem is, sooner or later we are going to fall out of our lounge chairs and we won't be able to get up again.


1. Lewis, C. S. "The Abolition of Man." The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002. Print. 704.
2. Strachan, Owen. "5 Implications of the Supreme Court Same-Sex Marriage Decision." ThoughtLife. Patheos, 26 June 2015. Web. 30 June 2015.

Friday, June 26, 2015

C.S. Lewis on the Drive for Sexual Happiness

For today, in the wake of the expected but still tragic Supreme Court ruling regarding homosexual unions, I offer two C.S. Lewis quotes. The first, taken from God in the Dock, is Lewis’ expounding on our drive for the erotic concept of love above all else. He was concerned with the rise in divorce rates and the ever-present excuse that people "deserve to be happy." Yet, by reducing love to erotic passion, it paved the way for this morning’s decision by the Court. Lewis explains:
If we establish a "right to (sexual) happiness" which super­sedes all the ordinary rules of behaviour, we do so not because of what our passion shows itself to be in experience but because of what it professes to be while we are in the grip of it. Hence, while the bad behaviour is real and works miser­ies and degradations, the happiness which was the object of the behaviour turns out again and again to be illusory.1
Such a view coincides with the plans of the Devil, who seeks to corrupt and usurp the institution of marriage and the blessings it holds. In his famous The Screwtape Letters, Lewis in the voice of the demon Screwtape, explains to his young apprentice that the forces of evil cannot create pleasures in and of themselves. Thus it has always been the objective of the Evil One to twist and malign marriage until it becomes something unrecognizable:
Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfy­ing form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy's ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not OURS. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the plea­sures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden. Hence we always try to work away from the natural condition of any plea­sure to that in which it is least natural, least redolent of its Maker, and least pleasurable. An ever-increasing craving for an ever-diminishing pleasure is the formula. It is more certain; and it's better style. To get the man's soul and give him nothing in return—that is what really gladdens our Father's heart.2
My country has now crossed a threshold where we have taken the natural good that is marriage and shaped into that in which it is least natural and least redolent of its Maker.


1. Lewis, C. S. God in the Dock: Essays on Theology. Cambridge: Eerdman’s, 1970. Print. 351.
2. Lewis, C. S. "The Screwtape Letters." The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002. Print. 210.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Geometry, Morality, and Suffering in the World

What's the definition of a straight line? Anyone who's taken high school geometry should be able to answer that question with ease. A straight line is simply the shortest distance between two points. The definition is descriptive and concise.

Now, what's the definition of a crooked line? That's a little more difficult. If I tell you that a line I've drawn is crooked, you could imagine many possibilities. The line could be comprised of several angles or it could have a soft radius. It could zigzag or simply fall away from the second point, never actually reaching it. We would say the Tower of Pisa is crooked even though the building's sides are perpendicular to each other. It's simply crooked in relation to the state of being vertical.

Because there are many ways lines may be considered crooked, it would be hard for you to tell just what kind of shape my crooked line actually is simply be me describing it to you as crooked. But there is one thing you would know: it is not the shortest distance between the two points I had in mind. A crooked line is not straight.

Morality is Like Geometry

When people talk about things like good and evil, they tend to assume such ideas are understood. Yet, just like the problem with straight lines and crooked lines above, it's important to stop and think about what the concepts of good and evil entail. Evil is, as I've written elsewhere, a privation of good. It is where good is somehow damaged. Just like darkness isn't a think unto itself, but the absence of light and cold isn't a thing unto itself but the absence of heat, evil isn't a thing unto itself, but the absence of good.

In other words, evil is to good as crooked is to straight. The only way someone can identify evil is to first understand what it means to be good and to know that the evil action (or inaction) falls short of that. There are many ways to be evil, but being good is a much narrower path, just as crooked is a broader category than straight.

Of course, this idea is not at all new with me. C.S. Lewis made it famous in his book Mere Christianity. He wrote:
My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, why did I who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in violent reaction against it?1
Lewis makes some clear points here. Any objection to the "immoral acts" of the Christian God must appeal to some standard, and that standard cannot originate within the world-system the objector is trying to condemn. Any time a person holds up act A and judges it on the basis of good or bad, he or she is implicitly appealing to a standard outside of the system. There must be what we would call a transcendent reference for all actions. Lewis continued in his explanation:
A man feels wet when he falls into the water because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed, too—for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies.2
Here lies the problem with atheists who claim to offer the existence of cruelty or suffering as evidence that God doesn't exist. By appealing to such evils, they assume that an objective standard exists. But that standard must be above the creation that causes the cruelty and suffering being objected to. There must be "a law above the law" to compare the natural processes that lead to disease or death from things like earthquakes and floods.

Seeking to Straighten Crooked Lines

In geometry, it is impossible to draw a completely straight line. Even with a ruler, there are microscopic imperfections that alter your pencil's path. But that doesn't mean we cannot ever grasp the concept of a straight line or continue to try and get our lines as straight as possible. If a child draws a crooked line, we correct her and tell her to try again. The same should be true for good and evil.

Perhaps the world has gone crooked. Recognizing that doesn't mean there is no God, it only means that the world has somehow distanced itself from God's destination. The solution is therefore to find the shortest distance to the endpoint and get there right away. That's how you make the crooked straight again.


1. Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. New York: MacMillan Pub., 1952. Print. 45.
2. Lewis, 1954. 45

Saturday, January 24, 2015

C.S. Lewis on "Being Born That Way"

Much is made to day of the way people define themselves, their gender, or their sexual orientation because of their feelings. They feel they are a person trapped in the wrong body or they feel an attraction to the same sex. I don't doubt that these feelings are real; it is only the person himself that can confirm or deny such predispositions. However, just because one has a predisposition doesn't mean that the predisposition is correct or that it should be pursued.

In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis makes the same point. In speaking of the desires and mental pulls we face (Lewis uses the word "Instinct" with a capital I), he makes a great point that no person follows every desire that strikes him. That would lead to barbarism. We weigh our desires, using reason, logic, and our moral compass to guide us.

This is why while the kleptomaniac may have an overwhelming urge to steal, we don't respond by saying, “Oh, you were born that way!” and throw open the department store doors to let them have their fill. We know that stealing is wrong and we as a society tell the kleptomaniac that while his feelings are real and he may even have been born that way, he needs to seek help for his improper desire. Lewis writes:
Telling us to obey Instinct is like telling us to obey ‘people’. People say different things: so do instincts. Our instincts are at war. If it is held that the instinct for preserving the species should always be obeyed at the expense of other instincts, whence do we derive this rule of precedence? To listen to that instinct speaking in its own cause and deciding it in its own favour would be rather simple-minded. Each instinct, if you listen to it, will claim to be gratified at the expense of all the rest. By the very act of listening to one rather than to others we have already prejudged the case. If we did not bring to the examination of our instincts a knowledge of their comparative dignity we could never learn it from them. And that knowledge cannot itself be instinctive: the judge cannot be one of the parties judged; or, if he is, the decision is worthless and there is no ground for placing the preservation of the species above self-preservation or sexual appetite.1
Lewis is right. College men are coming under immense scrutiny right now if they act upon their sexual appetites. The whole “Yes means yes” law implies that a person can overcome strong natural urges to engage in sexual activity. Yet we are told by some of the same advocates that abstinence programs will never work and those with a predisposition to homosexuality should express themselves because of what they feel. How is that consistent?


1. Lewis, C. S. "The Abolition of Man." The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002. 710. Print.
Image courtesy Noel Hildalgo and licensed by the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

C.S. Lewis on the Oppression of "The Good"

"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be "cured" against one's will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals."
C.S. Lewis "The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment" AMCAP Journal Vol.13 No1. 1987. 151.
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