About Me

"Humans are amphibians - half spirit and half animal. As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time." -- CS Lewis

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Integrative Essay

Nathan Phillips
IDIS 150-07
Profs. Ribeiro

C.S. Lewis: Integrative Essay

The Dangers of Subjectivism and Experience

            C. S. Lewis wrote from within a modernistic society. Writing in the middle of the 19th century, he complains about the infallibility that his culture attributed to science and its findings, and how personal experience is a far less reliable source of information. As Lewis describes it in “Meditations in a Toolshed,” the general trend was to look “at” things, seeing them from an outside and detached perspective, rather than looking “along” them, being involved in the process of discovery and discernment.
            The times, however, seemed to have changed since then. In our 21st century society, the emphasis has shifted towards the opposite end of the spectrum: away from looking “at” to looking “along.” The individual has the power; if it’s right for you, it’s right for you. Thus, we get the problem of moral subjectivism: the idea that each person can create his or her own legitimate interpretation of “right” and “wrong.” As Lewis sees it, “Out of this apparently innocent idea comes the diseases that will certainly end our species (and, in my view, damn our souls) if it is not crushed; the fatal superstition that men can create values” (Lewis).
            So what happens when we couple together the two ideas of moral subjectivity and looking predominantly “along” rather than “at”? From Lewis’ insight into everyday matters, we can identify multiple areas of our lives in which this pair can have truly devastating consequences, and it seems that there are three main areas of danger if the two reign side by side.
            The first danger I perceive pertains to the so-called truths people claim to glean from their personal experiences and their subjective morality: If subjectivity and “looking along” are the most legitimate ways of knowing, then it follows that the only way to determine “your truth” (i.e. the truth) about something is to experience it firsthand. Since one apparently cannot rely on other information or other sources except for one’s self, one has to be the field expert and the data analyst simultaneously.
To a certain extent, this seems like a viable method. To know the truth about whether or not you prefer strawberries to bananas, you must sample each at least once and then compare them for preference of taste, aftertaste, texture, etc., and then make your decision based off of this. To know whether or not a girl or boy could be a good potential spouse, you first need to date them for a certain period of time, evaluate your mutual compatibility, and then decide to get married once you find out that you truly can create a life and build a solid home with this person. As long as the experiences assessed are purely matters of your own taste and judgment, we can indeed form subjective truths through personal encounter and reflection.
However, certain truths are sufficiently obvious that we can surely forego experiencing them and still have an accurate idea of the truth. A broken arm will always be painful, just like standing poorly dressed in a blizzard for too long will give you hypothermia; neither of these need to be tested. Thus, the trend towards “looking along” can be a dangerous one if taken too literally, since some things we might test can be seriously damaging not only to ourselves, but also to those close to us, both physically and psychologically. In “Have No Right To Happiness,” Lewis describes two people, “Mr. A” and “Mrs. B,” who are married to separate people and have their own respective families, but decide to leave these families and get married to one another. In order to try living a romantic life outside of their dull, unsatisfying wedlock, the two need to try to find happiness with someone else; what they forget, though, is just how devastating this rash decision will be for their existing families. It is therefore evident that not all things should indeed be “looked along,” since the passion and frenzy you feel within the experience can cloud your judgment and be hard on those around you. Through such blind longings – our “too weak [desires]” (Lewis) – our subjective morality will be warped to fit the experience, and we will make false conclusions about the truth (for example, that one has a primary duty to satisfy one’s self and be “happy”). It seems that there are absolute truths in the world that cannot be subjectively written off, which the second perceivable danger deals with.
The second danger of relying on subjective morality and experience alone is the violence we do to the “Natural Law,” as Lewis calls it in Mere Christianity. This law is one that Lewis claims as intrinsically universal to all human beings, and can be best described as a common conscience. The question is, how can such a law truly exist in a world where any form of morality can be justified? According to Lewis, our subjective moralities should be based on this law, but it is obvious when observing humanity that not all people adhere to it; that is where the great danger lies. Lewis remarks that “Unless there is some objective standard of good, […] then of course the [Nazis] are as competent to create their ideology as we are to create ours,” but also that it is not a concrete law laid out in some constitution, only an overarching principle. Thus, as fallen human beings, we choose to go against the Natural Law so often that “someone observing our race from the outside could not tell that it even exists” (Lewis); we would just appear to be randomly pursuing happiness in whatever way we deem best.
The larger problem with this comes when different cultures and people groups construct clashing senses of morality. In Islam, it is considered an honor of the highest order to die while killing the “infidels,” those who do not follow Allah:

Let those fight in the way of Allah who sell the life of this world for the other. Whoso fighteth in the way of Allah, be he slain or be he victorious, on him We shall bestow a vast reward. (Qur'an 4:74)

Thus, the issue of moral subjectivism gives rise to another problem: moral relativism. This principle is largely the same as moral subjectivism, except that it claims legitimacy based on different cultures and their beliefs. A young Muslim man will have grown up seeing Christians and Jews as the enemy, and might even aspire to die harming them some day. This is a direct contradiction of the Christian commandment “Thou shalt not kill” (Exod. 20:13), but following moral relativism, both can be in true. The danger can thus extend to critical life-or-death subjects such as this, proving that there is something very wrong with its premises.
If, however, this young man were to engage in a civil conversation with one of the “pagans” about respective theologies, this we be equally futile in a world of subjective “looking along”: Both men will be arguing from their points of view, having only “looked along” their own religion and never along the other’s, and the argument will therefore be on completely subjective grounds. This will inevitably lead to “Bulverism,” which Lewis defines as “assum[ing] without discussion that [the other] is wrong and then distract[ing] his attention from this by busily explaining how he became to be so silly” (Lewis, Bulverism); in other words, the two men will contradict each other by saying “You’re wrong because you are not a part of my religion.” The scary part about this is that in today’s society, with our post-modernistic thinking, the two men will be more ready to accept that the other’s view is true for them, since subjectivity is so valid. Bulverism is a result when we couple subjectivism and “looking along,” a result that will keep everyone thinking that atrocities are commendable if you only believe so.
The Third and final danger I see with the two ideas is that they are highly egotistical. The self becomes the most important source of knowledge and wisdom. It would seem, at first, that Lewis almost condones this attitude to a certain extent; when it comes to scholarly learning, he writes that we need to engage the world and decide for ourselves what right and wrong are disconnected from what we learn from professors and other teachers, and ask the question “What do I most want to know?”
This, however, is not to be applied to all areas of life. As Plantinga and Lewis both say, we need to be able to discern for ourselves and not rely on others to shape our views, but at the same time, we cannot allow ourselves to believe that we are learning and discerning completely on our own terms. Subjectivism would have us believe so, and the fact that we are the active participant in a “looking along” situation also points towards this conclusion. But as Plantinga says, “Learning is […] a spiritual calling” (Plantinga, xi), and God is the one who endowed us with intellects and reason, and our learning should be focused on giving Him glory. As Lewis also points out in “Our English Syllabus,” we learn in order to be better equipped to serve our Creator in the fallen world He gave us, but we must indeed put our learning into practice in order to bring God glory through it. In “Learning in War-Time,” Lewis says that if we become too proud of our knowledge, or completely inactive with it, then “The time for plucking out the right eye has come.” And just as he also says in “The Weight of Glory,” we must recognize that we do not truly want to gain vainglory through our achievements and pursuits, but we actually want to give Him the glory; this will satisfy our longings beyond what earthy pleasures can. Learning through subjective reasoning and experiencing must therefore be put in their place and seen as the broken, human instruments they are.
So if learning is a heavenly mandate, and we are told to learn using our own discernment and reason, how can we expect to ever find truth? These tools are so corruptible and so often lead to hurting others through our perceived “truths,” violating the Natural Law, and claiming glory for ourselves; how do we go about redeeming them and using them in a rightful way? The simple answer is that we will never truly be able to use them in a completely “correct” way of our own efforts, but we do have some guiding lights to measure ourselves against as we go. The first is God’s Word itself, the special revelation of God’s character and his will for us humans. Secondly, we have the Holy Spirit and the Natural Law to help guide our consciences. Lastly, we have fellow Christians who can help us by staying accountable to them, and checking in every once in a while to check that our subjective nature and experiences are not getting the better of us. And as far as “looking at” versus “looking along” is concerned, we must remember Lewis’ words: “We must, on pain of idiocy, deny from the very outset the idea that looking at is, by its nature, intrinsically truer or better that looking along,” and vice versa.

Works Cited:

Lewis, C. S. "Bulverism." God in the Dock; Essays on Theology and Ethics. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970. Print.

Lewis, C. S. "Have No Right to Happiness." God in the Dock; Essays on Theology and Ethics. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970. Print.

Lewis, C. S. "Learning in War-Time." Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford. Lecture.
Plantinga, Cornelius. Engaging God's World: a Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002. Print.

Lewis, C. S. "Meditations in a Toolshed." God in the Dock; Essays on Theology and Ethics. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970. Print.

Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002. Print.

Lewis, C. S. "Our English Syllabus." Rehabilitations and Other Essays. Philadelphia: R. West, 1978. 81-93. Print.

Lewis, C. S. "The Poison of Subjectivism." God in the Dock; Essays on Theology and Ethics. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970. Print.

Lewis, C. S. "The Weight of Glory." Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford. Lecture.
Plantinga, Cornelius. Engaging God's World: a Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002. Print.

Plantinga, Cornelius. Engaging God's World: a Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002. Print.

The Qur'an: Translation. Trans. Abdullah Yusuf Ali. Elmhurst: Tahrike, 2000. Web.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Pain to Produce Love?

Those who would most scornfully repudiate Christianity as the mere ‘opiate of the people’ have a contempt for the rich, that is, for all mankind except the poor. They regard the poor as the only people worth preserving from 'liquidation,' and place in them the only hope of the human race. But this is not compatible with the belief that the effects of poverty on those who suffer it are wholly evil. It even implies that they are good. The Marxist thus finds himself in real agreement with the Christian in those two beliefs which Christianity paradoxically demands – that poverty is twice blessed yet ought to be removed. (Lewis)

Such is the contradiction that CS Lewis presents at the end of the chapter entitled “Human Pain” from The Problem of Pain. The physical and emotional suffering which invariably accompany poverty are indeed most commonly perceived as a form of great evil in the world, afflicting the innocent and obliterating the meek. However, as this “pain” often can dig up the longing for God we so often bury beneath our earthly longings, it can be seen as a positive spiritual tool.

The initial problem I had with this chapter, however, was not directly related to this paradox. My problem had to do with the idea behind the creation of pain itself, and the way Lewis believes that God uses it in Christianity. He defines its purpose as this: “to render back the will which we have so long claimed for our own.” It seemed to me that this kind of threat was ungodly and uncharacteristic of the God of the Bible, since He gave us free will and wants us to come to Him willingly; that He should use pain to draw us to Him and surrender our “will” to Him seemed out of line.

Furthermore, this also felt like a throwback to Lewis’ Weight of Glory, when he describes many of our desires as “mercenary” and misguided. In the same way, it would seem to me that obeying God and giving over our will to Him would be a form of mercenary comfort-seeking, since we would only want to do so in order to avoid suffering the pain that God would bring on us. How can we possibly expect to want to love such a Creator? It certainly wouldn’t produce such a desire in me. This confused me greatly, and Lewis words for once do not sit very well with me this time.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Rabbits Can't Get to Heaven

Can we truly live good lives devoid of Christianity? Is being “good” and leading a “good” life truly sufficient? CS Lewis doesn’t think so.

In “Man or Rabbit,” Lewis makes the distinction between two type of people: the Christian and the Materialist. He says that the Materialist has this life ideology:

All I’m interested in is leading a good life. I’m going to choose beliefs not because I think then true but because I find them helpful.

Lewis immediately dismisses this view for its inherit laziness. He says that “One of the things that distinguishes man from the other animals is that he wants to know things, wants to find what reality is like, simply for the sake of knowing.” Thus, he condemns those who merely seek practicality and not truth. Moreover, Lewis also denounces someone who wonders whether Christianity is the right way to go, but not for the right reasons. The one who asks “Need I bother about it? Mayn’t I just evade the issue, just let sleeping dogs lie, and get on with being ‘good’?” This kind of person, the kind who wants the comfort of knowing that he is saved without bothering with the trouble of living the Christian life to the fullest, is like the man who “deliberately ‘forgets’ to look at the notice board because, if he did, he might find his name down for some unpleasant duty.” He is a coward and not living as a full human being, but more like a “rabbit” or an ostrich with its head in the sand.

However, Lewis seems to have an interesting tolerance for those who simply choose not to disregard Christianity after having truly wrestled with it. He mentions J. S. Mill “who quite honestly couldn’t believe it,” and says that he has much more respect for this person than for a “lukewarm Christian,” since he is believing what he sees as truth. Lewis says that “Honest rejection of Christ, however mistaken, will be forgiven and healed – “Whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him.’” I have never heard such a direct affirmation on this subject, and I would certainly like to believe that Lewis is right; but how can one be saved without actually accepting Jesus, as the Bible says we must? This open question Lewis implicitly poses is almost rhetorical, for how can we truly ever know? If we can, in fact, reject Christianity with solid reasons, does this mean that we can reason or way out of serving God and into heaven? This strikes me as odd, but is good food for thought.

God's Social Network

“Vocation” is a word that incites an interesting reaction at Calvin College: all of the students groan at its mention. Its reception will surely be “Oh my goodness, don’t talk about that again!” It ranks up among the likes of “Discernment,” “Worldview” and “Agent of Renewal” on the chart of the biggest wince-inducing sayings on campus. It is thrown around so frequently and lightly that it turns into something of a cliché, a piece of a ready-made response to be spewed whenever the time seems right. (And it seems that the time is often right at Calvin; case and point: Prelude class.)

But I think it a shame that this word has lost its grandeur; there are so many beautiful ways in which God uses this concept in our world and for His Kingdom. Think about it: God hand-created each one of us, each one with a piece of His glory inside crafted in such a way that it defines how we share this splendor. This calling, as it becomes, turns into our life’s passion, which we pursue arduously and with determination to God’s great delight (if we are doing it for Him). This vocation, as Plantinga calls it, is God’s unique plan for our lives, and this is a concept I find quite fascinating and not in the least bit trivial or cliché. It seems incomprehensible that God would use such microscopic creatures to redeem the rest of creation through our vocations, but as Chaplain Dale Cooper says, “God’s other name is ‘Surprise.’”

The most fascinating part of vocation to me, however, is the sort of network that they form. God uses each of individual strands of vocation and ties them all together to give an even more exquisite picture of the advancement of shalom. Just he knit each of us together in our mother’s womb (Ps. 139:13), so too does he weave together all of our callings to form a new kind of body: the Body of Christ, each part with its particular purpose and function. By grafting ourselves onto the Tree of Life and the Body, we thus strive in our lives for the Kingdom. As Plantinga says,

A Christian’s main vocation is to become a prime citizen of the kingdom of God – and this is true of every Christian, of artist and engineers as well as ministers and evangelists. All are called to mesh their kingdoms with those of other citizens in order to work together inside the kingdom of God.

The saddening thing about this is that certain vocations have lost their legitimacy in the eyes of many Christians. In my English 101 class last semester, a girl was speaking about her interest in psychology, but she wanted to divorce that field completely from the field of business; she claim that the latter was “unethical,” and that she could never be a part of it for this reason. Being a business major myself, I was taken aback by this statement. Yes, maybe business and politics and journalism and other such professions do have a tendency to bend one’s morals and give ample opportunity for corruption, but that is precisely why Christians must pursue them. Christians must set a positive example in these fields if we ever want to advance shalom in all areas of life. This is exactly what we mean by “reform”: restoring that which was originally pure and godly to its rightful state.

A businessman can use his expertise to go and help poor villages in third-world countries to create sustainable businesses and employment for the locals. A politician can use his position to help governments support these new businesses through funding. A journalist can then write about the efforts taking place there and raise further awareness about the situation to bring in more support. This is just a simple portrait of how Christians can interweave their supposedly “bad” vocations and point them towards heaven. As Plantinga says, “God uses […] institutions and groups to do some of the business of the kingdom, and Christians play their role in all of them.”

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Danger of Rings

Humans are social beings. It is in our nature, it is unavoidable. God created us to live in community, as we saw in Plantinga’s chapter on Creation, to emulate the divine dance (“perichoresis”) that the Father, Son, and Spirit delight in perpetually. Fellowship is evidently not a bad thing in and of itself.

However, CS Lewis speaks of a particular “danger” that this irresistible leaning presents, which he calls “the Inner Ring” in his speech of the same name. We find Lewis addressing the students of the University of London on the dangers of this social phenomenon, which Lewis most accurately describes as “the second or unwritten system,” the one that is culturally understood but not explicitly stated. The system is that we tend to create closed groups to which we allocate some kind of merit or prestige, and subsequently others wish to join this “inner ring” but find it difficult. It is a ring of comfort, and the members are reluctant to tack on anyone else because such an act would rupture its coziness. “Exclusion is no accident;” stipulates Lewis, “it is the essence.”

This rings so very true of high school and college life. Cliques form right and left, sealing themselves off from incoming people. I know that I myself am very much guilty of going along with this kind of mentality. High school did not present as many opportunities for this. However, coming to college in a new country entirely and entering a completely new and somewhat foreign setting, I would constantly worry that I would simply recluse and never find good friends; now that I’m here and have indeed found great friends, it is so easy just to stick with this comfortable little group and feel safe. Of course, it is definitely a positive thing to have a circle of close, supportive peers, but you must not let the group become your identity. You are you, not “you plus them.” Inner rings are not intrinsically bad, but must not be allowed to dominate your view of yourself.

The other danger that such rings present, as Lewis says, is that once you finally do break into them, you will not be satisfied in being in it forever. You subsequently begin to long for another more “important” group, one higher up on the social, professional or intellectual food chain. And this danger threatens our integrity and us as people even more than the first. Since this desire to “be in the know” is so strong in us, we will be tempted to compromise our own morals and values to join that higher inner circle. Thus, we can get into the ring, but as Lewis says, “you will be a scoundrel.” The employee so desperate for promotion in a company will go against business policy and cheat a coworker on behalf of someone in that ring to hoist himself into their ranks; a student will cheat on an exam in order to be included in the “intelligent” circle. Lewis writes that “the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad ma do very bad things,” and “The quest for [it] will break your heart until you break it.”

Such desires are detrimental not only to yourself, but also to others, and thus this inner ring destroys positive community. And in the end, “until you conquer your fear of being an outsider [to the inner ring], an outsider you will remain.” We can always continue wishing to climb the ladder higher and higher, but once we get high enough, we realize just how shaky and unstable the ladder becomes. But the ladder bids us higher still, and disappears into the clouds along with yourself.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Constructing Eros' Love

 Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, [that] the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits. (Song of Songs 4:16)

CS Lewis’ depiction of “Eros” in The Four Loves rings with the imagery of the Bible’s Song of Songs, in which the lover and the beloved are shown reveling in the pleasure of being together. They praise one another for all of their qualities, physical, intellectual and spiritual. It is a beautiful picture of the love that a husband and wife see in themselves, a godly love that blesses them boundlessly.

This seems to be the purest, most heavenly form of Lewis’ Eros: that state which we call ‘being in love’; or, if you prefer, that kind of love which lovers are ‘in.’” It is the love that wants the other in their entirety, not just for their bodily pleasures or their attractive looks. The physical aspect of the relationship is certainly a part of Eros, but is more specifically the part that Lewis calls Venus: “what is known to be sexual by those who experience it; what could be proved to be sexual by the simplest observations.” In fact, Lewis even says that this is a completely secondary desire within the relationship, as the one partner is first and foremost fascinated with the whole person that the other represents. To experience Eros fully is to delight in an earthly experience that is one of the closest illustrations of God’s holy connection with the Church, and Venus is merely a “byproduct.”

On the other hand, we all know just how corrupt and damaging Venus can be in a relationship; it can leave scars that are nearly impossible to erase. This, however, may not be the whole danger. Lewis dispels the myth that sex itself is the great “moral danger” of Eros, and states that this idea is simply not biblical. Paul writes in the New Testament that Eros in whole is the threat, as it can completely consume a couple oblivious to all else but their love, detracting from their relationship with God. Even though marriage is intended to be a divine portrait, how can it possibly claim divinity if it neglects the Heavenly One? Eros assumes the role of “god” in that context, substituting the élan vital for the Giver of Life himself. Indeed, Eros seems almost to demand that we treat it as a deity, since it has such a strong grip on our meek human desires; it can thus become an idol, which God clearly forbids us from creating in our lives. As Lewis puts it, “Love ceases to be a demon only when it ceases to be a god.”

In Lewis’ recording of The Four Loves, he goes on to compare a marriage to a garden that one keeps. It is a beautiful, fragrant, wondrous thing at first, with its blossoms and its lusciousness; leave it unattended for very long, however, and it ceases to be a garden altogether. Weeds infest it and choke all that was good and lovely in it in the beginning. Such is the case in any relationship, but particularly in a romantic one that leads to marriage. If two lovers lose themselves in the heat of the initial passion, they do not build a strong foundation for their future life together, and once this once-thought eternal bliss turns into something nasty and unhealthy in the end. Lewis notes that “passion can only move us,” just as we can dive into the water, but once we hit this water we must then swim to keep from drowning. Likewise, love can create a preliminary feeling of ecstasy, but without the self-sacrifice and toil that accompanies a life-long commitment, it withers and dies out quickly. If tended to correctly, however, it produces the exquisite garden that Solomon speaks of in his Song of Songs, which both partners can cherish and frolic in and expand together for the rest of their earthly days together. That is the true picture of divine love – the best possible and most sought-after form of Eros.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Redemption is such a beautiful concept. The idea that our Father can lift a hideously fallen world, once so perfect and now so perverse, and reconcile it with himself is simply mind-blowing to me. Through justification, forgiveness, sanctification and regeneration, God draws us closer to perfection than we ever could by ourselves, and this is truly something to rejoice in, as Plantinga expresses in chapter four of Engaging God’s World.

A compelling idea in the chapter was the idea of God’s “double grace,” used for all of mankind to experience. The two graces, sanctification and justification, go back to the utterly unmerited forgiveness we experience through Christ: we are made holy by the blood of the Lamb, and as such we are made right with God and His Kingdom. Not by our actions, but by Jesus’ on the cross can we receive this double grace, and once we have, we have a duty to tell about it to the rest of the searching world.

Plantinga also writes about an interesting “rhythm” that we experience in our daily Christian lives. The idea that not only do we die and rise again with Christ at baptism but also every morning and evening of our existence was highly perceptive and representative of us as believers. Each day, we must rejoice in the burial of our old self and the resurrection of the new, reconciled, sanctified, justified child of the Lord. In this way, we are able to “identify with Christ” more and more as our lives progress, and experience a fraction (and I mean an infinitesimally small fraction) of the joy of the regeneration of Christ our Savior. As Plantinga quotes from The Canon of Dorts,

[Regeneration] is an entirely supernatural work, one that is at the same time most powerful and most pleasing, a marvelous, hidden, and inexpressible work, which is not lesser than or inferior in power to that of creation or of raising the dead.

However, as Plantinga rightly points out, “The preaching of the Gospel is a corporate event,” just as the rest of our Christian life is. We must not lose sight of the fact that we must not only rejoice in our own sanctification and justification, but in that of others as well. The body of Christ must support each member in their search for God, making the endeavor highly communal and individual at the same time, and must therefore be done with great discernment and care in order to balance the two sides correctly.