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.

Is Learning Really Secondary?

War is all around us indeed. The lives of millions of people are in jeopardy each and every day, and often for reasons they do not even know about. But their earthly lives are not the greatest problem, according to CS Lewis. In his essay “Learning in War-Time,” Lewis reminds us that each person holds a piece of eternity within them, an never-ending spirit that will live on either in heaven or in hell, and that is the real tragedy of war. Death without the knowledge of God leads to eternal damnation, and the premature death of a non-believing soldier in wartime is thus infinitely tragic and eternally sentenced.

As Lewis draws our attention to this tragedy, he draws us also to think about our own situation as students and scholars outside of this war. He raises a throbbing and uncomfortable question: Should we really be studying literature and history and biology when death is at our doorstep? Is a useful, worthwhile use of time? Should we not use every effort make to stop these wars and this death and witness to the ones who are not yet saved? The answer would seem to automatically be “Yes, we are filling our heads with knowledge and savoir-faire, but this ought to be secondary in our list of priorities; our utmost priority is to serve our suffering brethren.”

This reaction is not necessarily wrong, but as Lewis sees it, it cannot be the entire response. Yes, we need to practice service, especially to those whose life might depend on it. And yes, this ought to be a very high priority in our lives. But the fact of the matter is that we cannot give what we do not have; we cannot expect to be of much real help if we do not know what “real help” looks like or how it is administered. As Lewis and Plantinga both say, learning is one of our godly callings in life, and through it we draw closer to Christ and His Word, and so we have a strong duty to learn. As Lewis so cleverly points out, we would never start learning if we waited until all the ailments of the earth were purged. With this knowledge, we can then go out into the tormented world and be of real assistance: nurses on the battlefields, diplomats between warring nations, aid workers in the slums torn by poverty and violence. Through such learned service, we can then attempt to witness to these people and work on their spiritual life, but we will be far more affective if we know how to do it and do not simply want to do it.

Learning, however, does come with a warning. As Lewis says, if you are so self-absorbed by your learning and abilities, then the time has come to “pluck out your right eye.” When learning becomes an idol, it is void of any value to anyone other than the detainer. The slippery slope of self-adoration and narcissism is fatal, and leads to inaction and wasting of skill, which God certainly did not intend.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Fall and Common Grace

The Fall of humanity, as we are told, is the loophole that sin used to enter God’s perfect world. Without it, we would supposedly be living in blissful communion with our Creator and the rest of His creation, but alas we were not capable of upholding such standards. Since then, sin has taken up dominion in this world, pervading all parts of life, as Plantinga brings to light in chapter 3 of Engaging God’s World.

One element Plantinga develops is the notion of “sin” versus the notion of “evil.” As he says, “All sin is evil, but not al evil is sin.” This shook my perception of what evil is, as I would throw both terms around loosely and interchangeably, not thinking that one could be divorced from the other. Evil, however, is something more vast than sin. Evil is the cause of the fallenness of the world, through both human and non-human ways. Only humans are capable of actually sinning, as we were created with a conscience and a soul, but animals too are capable of evil. Plantinga’s example is that of cruelty and savagery, particularly as is pertains to the food chain; animals slaughter, maul, and maim each other, and this is apparently a result of evil in the world. Since evil is the perversion, in any shape or form, of God’s perfect world, it does indeed have a hold of the earth and blocks our connection with the One that truly is in charge of it. Although it is difficult to say whether carnivores are actually a result of the Fall, it still seems evil in many circumstances.

Just like many things throughout the rest of creation, though, evil has its opposite to balance it out: good. Plantinga shows us that “evil needs good in order to exist,” as it is a relative term and must be compared to something to determine its “evilness.” This then leads into the topic of “common grace” (a term I previously had not understood), and the idea that God created good in the world, and it is spread not only by Christians but by all parts of creation. Indeed, it would be foolish (if not downright scary) to think that all good in this world was of Christian doing, since Christians have had such a negative impact on much of history (e.g. the crusades, the Spanish Inquisition). To think that they only can give off goodness means that their power of corrupting it is as great as their potential to spread it, and would thus be a very tenuous single source. Also, there is so much good attributable to people of all faiths (or, in many cases, people of no faith at all) that common grace must indeed be a part of the whole concept of good and evil on this earth.

The Poison

CS Lewis’ writing has had a rather firm tone in his last few passages. Mere Christianity is very systematic, building up the argument for a divine Being behind the Moral Law; “The Weight of Glory” clearly but calmly denounces the kind of vainglory that we oftentimes seek. However, in “The Poison of Subjectivism,” he seems to simply be fed up with the supposedly destructive moral subjectivism pervading society.

From his point of view, “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.” And indeed, Lewis may very well be right. In a sense, we are playing God by adhering to such a school of thought, believing that we hold the reins of justice, morality, and even sin in our own hands. Our reason can lead us down so many different paths by merely observing reality around us, making it a shaky foundation to base absolute truth on. Surely when one person says that “abortion is wrong,” and the other that “abortion is right under certain circumstances,” one of them must be right and the other wrong. In such ambiguous cases, where two opposite views can ostensibly be justified, it would seem that something higher up than our personal reason is governing the “right” and “wrong” of a situation, as Lewis discusses in Mere Christianity; as a result, one cannot assume that they can make the moral law for themselves, and must be in tune with this Moral Law to determine what is just.

The real danger, as Lewis describes it, is that we will begin to start justifying anything and everything if we believe to heavily in moral subjectivism. As he notes, “Unless there is some objective standard of good, […] then of course the Germans are as competent to create their ideology as we are to create ours.” There are definite rights and wrongs, and they must not be bent around to accommodate our own views (or Hitler’s views). Because we are fallen creatures, our reason cannot fully discern the world and its intricate patterns of justice and morality, and therefore we must adhere to Something separate from the human world. Indeed, “Unless the measuring rod is independent of the things measured, we can do no measuring.”

Thus, in playing God by inventing new morals for humanity (such as “all religions lead to heaven”), we are treading in dangerous waters, since we are dealing with a God who created the Moral Law and who also does not change, unlike us. How, then, can we expect that morality can evolve in such circumstances? As Lewis says, “All idea of ‘new’ or ‘scientific’ or ‘modern’ moralities must therefore be dismissed as mere confusion of thought.”

Friday, January 14, 2011

Corrupting the Quarrel

CS Lewis’ thought process seems impenetrable. Never will he start on some shaky, unsupported premise and build precariously from there; he lays down the foundation of his argument carefully and elaborately before coming to his bottom line. This intensely systematic methodology is most evident (and, indeed, appreciated) in Lewis’ Mere Christianity, in which he masterfully puts together the case for a “Moral Law” and its intricacies that reigns over all of humanity, but that is often contested. He then goes even further, explaining that for such a thing to exist, there would need to be Something behind it, creating it and planting it in us.

 As Lewis points out, an interesting byproduct of this overarching Law is “quarreling”:

Quarreling means trying to show that the other man is in the wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are; just as there would be no sense in saying that a footballer had committed a foul unless there was some agreement about the rules of football.

This seems to often be neglected in argument and debate, especially as it pertains to religion. I certainly am guilty of doing so. I remember getting into the middle of an argument between a Jewish friend and a Muslim friend of mine as they fought over the rights women should have in society; my Muslim friend, for example, thought it natural to prohibit women from revealing more than just their faces in public. As the quarreling raged on, I finally attempted to stop the ruckus by throwing in that “It all depends on your culture, anyways.”

What a useless thing to say.

What I had just done was contradicted the whole concept of a universal Right and Wrong. In a way, I had “Bulverized” on behalf of both sides: “You’re right because you adhere to the standards of Judaism, and you’re also right because you adhere to Islam.” Where did that get us? Nowhere. The fact that the two were quarreling in the first place was because they wanted to call on “some kind of Law or Rule of fair play or decent behaviour or morality,” as Lewis puts it, and awaken the other to the fact that they were breaching the boundaries of said Law in this or that way. But simply stating that they were both right by virtue of being from different backgrounds just sent the argument into a circle: “I’m right because I’m right.” They never got closer to the truth of the situation because both had decided that they needed not listen to the other any further. This is the danger of not recognizing that we all quarrel under the same umbrella; we turn off our sensitivity to the other and dismiss their claims as being foreign and completely detached from our own claims. We are basically claiming that the other is a different kind of human being altogether, which certainly does not help to hinder the spread of “racism.”

Quarreling is surely a good thing, a necessary thing, as it allows us to test our views and values against each other and against the Law; such misguided quarreling, however, leads to dissention and “Bulverism,” and must be called to our attention if we ever wish to work together on finding out more about the One behind the Law.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

For What I Want to Do I Do Not Do

Our lives are more corruption-prone than we think they are. It’s incredible how the Devil can use our inability to recognize our true spiritual situation to gradually whittle away at us until we are eternally his. Such is the subject matter of The Screwtape Letters, Lewis’ fictional documentation of letters from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his junior tempter nephew, Wormwood, who is in charge of his first human “patient” and seeking advice from his experienced uncle. The downright ordinariness of the patient’s life and the subtle angles from which the devils act on it come together to create a truly disturbing description of the Hell’s methods, and Lewis helps us to draw our attention to some of these ways.

Although we generally seek refuge from such demons by ostensibly following Christ and communing with other fellow Christians, Lewis points out that we can still be up to our ears in sin without even realizing it. In Letter XII, Screwtape’s main tool of choice is the “dim uneasiness” that comes after having lived the Christian life for some time. He says something rather astonishing to Wormwood, that he is “almost glad to hear that your patient is still a churchgoer and a communicant.” It would seem intuitive that Hell would want to extract humans from the church as quickly as possible in order to remove that field in which “the Enemy” (God) can act, but Lewis argues that the church can be the demons’ battle ground, too. Screwtape says that “as long as [the patient] retains the habits of a Christian he can still be made to think of himself as one”; in other words, he must trick himself into believing he is still favorable in God’s eyes, but actually be gradually turning away from Him. The patient can focus on the awkwardness of someone’s hat or look condescendingly on others, as Screwtape suggests in earlier letters, and miss out on the real point of being in church altogether. This sort of subconscious behavior can cause our faith life to plateau, and bring us into a state of oblivious indifference that our “tempters” can use.

The grave danger of this situation is that if it goes unexamined, it could turn from a plateau into a flatline. We can be so unaware of our “dim uneasiness” – the humdrum spiritual state that the patient is in – that we do not even call it into question. This is precisely what Screwtape prescribes, since “if it gets too strong it may wake him up and spoil the whole game.” Thus, we can wallow in our mediocrity until it numbs our desire to engage in spiritual nourishment.

We can even develop an aversion to the thought of our religious practices or of God Himself. This can then cause a downward spiral; since we will replace the thought of Christ with anything on hand, the tempter can supply useless, time-consuming ideas that we can entertain for hours if not days. “Now you will find him opening his arms to you and almost begging you to distract his purpose and benumb his heart,” says Screwtape. I think Lewis’ power of insight is at its peak here, because so often I find myself hiding God in the recesses of my mind, hoping that He will not need to be brought forward, and all of this just for the sake of not wanting to think about it. It’s painful to think about Him, it’s almost infuriating, because you always know that He is there and that you should be engaging Him, but the will is not there.

Thus, we waste our time and our lives covering God up with “anything or nothing” due to our longing for distraction. We then ultimately realize (and, alas, maybe too late) that “I spent most of my life doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.” It is against this squandering of life that we need to be on our guard against, even in seemingly safe environments like a Bible study group or church.

For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. (Paul in Romans 7:15-24)

The Dance of Fellowship

The second chapter of Plantinga’s Engaging God’s World, “Creation,” deals largely with the portrayal of God’s works, how He relates to them, how He acts in them, and what parts of His character He instilled in it. More specifically, Plantinga elaborates on how we, as humans, are created in God’s image (Gen. 1:24) and what exactly the characteristics we derive from Him are. From the seven-day account of creation, the fact that we are “beings of speech and silence, of work and rest, each in its place, each in its turn,” just as God spoke to create, continued to created, and rested after creation. Plantinga then describes three more common characteristics: our granted authority over nature, our conformity to the martyred lifestyle He lived on earth, and our need for relationship in our lives.

Most of the content of the chapter was fairly trivial and basic information that people having grown up in a Christian home will have inevitably heard in some for or fashion. However, Plantinga’s development on our relationships as reflections of God’s person was fascinatingly new to me. He explained that God’s perichoresis, the sort of dance of communion that God the Father, God the Son and God the Spirit do continually with each other, is why we desire relationship in our lives: relationship with God, relationship with each other, and how we view these two relationships. This, I think, is a beautiful image; the perpetual dance shows the exuberance with which God regards communion with others. It accurately portrays the fervor with which we ourselves seek after relationship, as it is one of the most fulfilling and, in its most pure form, selfless endeavors.

However, just as Lewis writes in “The Weight of Glory,” “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.” In order for our relationships to be truly godly, we have to approach them with humility and expect to treat these people with the same respect God has for them. As Lewis also points out, “you have never met a mortal person,” as each one was either an “eternal horror or an eternal splendor.” Each soul will live on long beyond its earthly shell, and will either join God in the dance or be forgotten entirely be the One that created it. We must therefore recognize each other as such, and build serious relationships that will reflect God’s relationship with us. Our communion with Him is one of our best ways to be blessings to others, and is therefore a business worthy of merriment, but requiring serious commitment and intentions.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

For Whose Glory?

Missions trips have always been a passion of mine. I love traveling to some remote part of the world’s society to a place where my team can truly make a difference – a tangible, observable difference that I supplied to the lives of the underprivileged. The feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction after a long day of painting houses or building new ones thrills me, and I would leave each trip feeling like I could live just for the look on the people’s faces once they received our kindness.

But then I heard something that rattled my perception of “service.” My youth group went to Brussels in Belgium this summer to join with other youth groups in Europe to do random acts of kindness and service to people on the streets. Just as I was about to head out deliver sandwiches we had made to homeless people on the street, however, my leader turned to us and read us an article on Christian service. It was fairly straightforward, nothing really radical or groundbreaking; nothing special, except for one line that struck me between the eyes. It read something like “We should be just as happy serving others behind the scenes as out directly helping the people being served; we should feel just as satisfied laying down bricks for a schoolhouse as finishing it and presenting it to the exuberantly grateful community.”

None of my friends reacted to this, but I was stunned.

What this had made me realize was that I might have been loving service for the wrong reason entirely. As evidence, just notice the number of first-person singular pronouns in my opening paragraph. The reason I loved serving so much was, in fact, more selfish than selfless; I loved feeling the reward of performing good deeds: recognition. This “glory” of sorts is what CS Lewis address in his sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” with its misconceptions and misleading nature.

The first thing Lewis draws attention to is the nature of the reward itself. He says that “We must not be troubled by unbelievers when they say that this promise of reward [from faithful acts of Godliness] makes the Christian life a mercenary affair,” but then goes on to address much the same issues as Plantinga addresses in the first chapter, “Longing and Hope,” of Engaging God’s World: The longings we feel and the rewards we see behind them can so easily divert us from our true divine longing, our summum bonum. Hence we create “dumb idols,” as Lewis puts it, which may give us instant gratification, but in the end detract from our vision of God and of His promises of reward to us. My love for service was (at least in part) misguided, and so I mercenarily sought acclaim and praise.

Thus, the distinction between two different types of glory must be made, as Lewis discusses in his sermon. The first one can most easily be summarized as vainglory; as Lewis describes it, it is the “competitive passion” and “deadly poison of self-admiration” that he sees as being “of hell rather than heaven.” This is the definition of glory as it relates to fame, fortune, and other such combative goals in which the “I” is glorified. Glory in this form is so tempting and so dangerous sometimes because it seems legitimate and wholesome. My own example of vainglory seemed completely innocuous until I was awoken to the reality of it. Temptation in this area is subtle, since it deals with the some of the most basic human longings within each of us. This is our pursuit of “luminosity,” as Lewis calls it.

The second is the one worth pursuing: the glory that comes from serving God and receiving the satisfaction of doing so. In fact, as Lewis mentions, in serving the Lord with the right intentions, this “turns out to satisfy my original desire and indeed to reveal an element in that desire which [we] had not noticed.” This points to the fact that God made us in His image (Gen.1:26), since our longings and desires point to our sense of God, and that the pursuit of them for what they are will ultimately give us Godly glory. This form of glory is the “weightier” of the two, as Lewis describes it, and feels like an actual burden on us. As he writes,

To please God…to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness…to be loved by God not merely pitied, but delight in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son–it seems impossible, weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.

It is a glory so full of wonder and responsibility that it impresses hard on our small, feeble human frame. It must be used to further God’s Kingdom in ways that aren’t necessarily self-gratifying or radiant. In Brussels, I should have been just as happy making the sandwiches we distributed behind the scenes as I was handing them directly to the homeless people. Lewis says that “perfect humility dispenses with modesty,” not with gaudy expressions of what we consider worthy of praise, and so we need to responsibly show God’s love without drawing too much attention to ourselves.

Meanwhile the cross comes before the crown and tomorrow is a Monday morning. A cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain inside.

Redesigning Our Syllabus

Many of us probably came to Calvin College to “get a good education.” CS Lewis would have scoffed at us if he heard those words uttered. In the introductory message to his English course at Oxford University, titled “Our English Syllabus,” Lewis explores the way in which we ought to approach studying in university, and how to make the subtle distinction between “learning” and “education.” Education, Lewis quotes from Milton, serves the purpose of equipping an individual “to perform justly, skilfully, and magnanimously all the offices both private and public, of war and peace”; in other words, it bestows upon us the tools with which to make our living, in the career/life path of our choosing. From the rest of the Syllabus, it becomes obvious that Lewis, interestingly, has great contempt for an institution in which “education” is the goal.

This seems contradictory at first; are we not enrolled in an institution of higher education here at college? Indeed we are, and education is an essential part of what we should seek here: It ultimately makes us into a “human,” as Lewis puts it, by giving us the tools to dissect and decipher reality. In speaking of “humanity,” Lewis is speaking not of “kindness” or charity, as the word often denotes, but rather “the realization of the human idea,” in which we seek edification and competence. Furthermore, it allows us to “actualiz[e] that potentiality for leisure” in our lives, since we can work hard with the skills we have acquired and subsequently play hard afterwards, “which is man’s prerogative.”

However, beyond our desire for making a good living with leisure and repose tied into it, there is something more edifying, more compelling than simply acquiring skills for your trade. That something, as Lewis defines it, is learning: the act we commit when we truly are interested in what we study and pursue knowledge like a wolf ravenously pursuing his dinner. Lewis clearly states that, in his view of higher education, universities are “homes not for teaching but for the pursuit of knowledge,” where the instruction should be of much higher importance than the instructor. This pursuit is part of what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom, since the others are natural born “professionals” of their trade. We have the capacity, potential, and thirst to become more than aspiring professionals: we have an urge towards our humanity. Lewis believes that “knowledge is the natural food of the human mind: that those who specially pursue it are being specially human.” Therefore, the roles of students and professors alike must be put into question, as both sides pursue knowledge and wisdom to the best of their ability.

The ideal role of the educator is, if we adopt Lewis’ view of learning, a delicate one. Lewis writes to his English students that “we [at Oxford] are not going to try to improve you; we have fulfilled our purpose if we help you to see some given tract of reality.” In other words, educators need to recognize that they should not be teaching for the purpose of molding students according to their own view of a “good man,” but should be a resource that the students use in their learning. They can impart their knowledge and experience to their students, but be viewed by the class as (and I mean this in no demeaning way) a living textbook. Just as we discern what the author of the book wrote, checking it for bias and making an accurate judgment as to its reliability, so too we should understand our professors’ personal paradigms and leanings in order to take their teaching with a pinch of salt and check their validity against our own experience and research in the subject. Ultimately, the professor is there as a doorway into the subject they are teaching. As Lewis says, we ought to be thinking more “about the subject” and less about the instructor, if we truly are interested in pursuing knowledge.

On the other side, Lewis declares that “the proper question for a freshman is not ‘What will do me the most good,’ but ‘What do I most want to know?’” We must recognize that we are now “human,” as we have all been educated, and that we must now stand on our own feet and really want to learn, as opposed to what we think we ought to learn. According to Lewis, “nothing that we have to offer will do him good unless he can be persuaded to forget all about self-improvement for three or four years, and to absorb himself in getting to know some part of reality, as it is in itself.” The drive to learn should supersede the desire to be presentable in the job interview, and we should take full advantage of the privilege of being in an institution devoted to the continuation of our pursuit of learning.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

...And Then He Created "Longing"

I have always longed to return to the USA. Ever since my family moved to Geneva, Switzerland when I was just seven years old, I have had this feeling of “in-betweenness”: Geneva definitely grew to be my home, and I identified heavily with this new country, but some part of me always felt like a stranger there. Some part of me felt so relieved to be back whenever we would return to the States to spend the summer at the cousins’ or the grandparents’ house. And some part of me would feel like it got left behind when it was time to return back to Geneva.

This yearning I felt – that we all feel for something at some point – is the sense of “longing” that Plantinga’s first chapter of Engaging God’s World deals with. He writes of this insatiable desire for what we do not have, what we crave with all of our being. What we do not always see, however, is that our longings are pointing towards something much larger beyond their immediate target. They are, in fact, proof of our sensus divinitatis, our “sense of divinity,” of God Himself: we long for fulfillment, and we will keep searching until we find what satisfies our yearnings. Of course, being the God-breathed creatures that we are, we are ultimately longing to connect with our Creator, and thus our longings are really signs of our search for Him. As St. Augustine found, He is our summum bonum, our “ultimate good” that will satisfy our longings, and He does so through our relationship with Him.

We, however, most often cannot see the reality of such yearnings, since we also desire the petty things life has to offer. We all long for sexual fulfillment, which is a beautifully divine longing at its essence, but sex has become such a meaningless, loveless, empty treat people seek out in ways God did not intend. As C.S. Lewis remarks, God surely “finds our desires not too strong, but too weak […] We are far too easily pleased.” Even when our longings are not specifically impure or degrading, they can often be misguiding and downright confused. Since arriving in Michigan and seemingly fulfilling my craving for returning to the U.S., I now find myself very much wishing to be back in Switzerland with my family, friends, and European culture. I do not know exactly where I want to be (maybe somewhere right in the middle of the two, like the Atlantic), and thus my longings seem to point in conflicting directions. As Plantinga writes, “these longings [we try to satisfy] are unfulfillable,” leaving us aching for more, or better, or even something complete different. Only once we discover the underlying direction of these longings can we truly expect to feel lasting satisfaction and continuous fulfillment.

Of course, the element of hope also plays into this sensus divinitatis. I held on to the hope that eventually I would come to the States for university studies and leave Europe, just as I now hope to someday move back to Europe. The hope that someday our desires will be satiated is what fuels these longings, and that is why we must be careful with it. The Bible calls for a selfless kind of hope, one for all people, for all of God’s children. We must therefore be, as my missions trip leader once challenged me, “just as happy in delivering a sandwich to a starving homeless person as in making the sandwich ‘behind the scenes’ and sending it out with others.” We must long for good to befall the whole world, regardless of our part in the process. This is challenging, and the Devil tricks into believing we are doing this, when really we are being selfish once again, as Lewis demonstrates in The Screwtape Letters.

Ultimately, however, if we entrust our hope and our longings to God, and exhort others to do the same as well, we can be hopeful for the final goal: shalom. Perfect peace, in which “death and mourning and pain will have passed away” (Plantinga) should be our objective, and this should put all other longings into their worldly perspective and help us strive for the New Kingdom, where one will not need to long for physical pleasure or a far-away continent.

The Pursuit of... What Again?

Why is that while a man is in the early stages of his love life for his wife, he feels as though this feeling of bliss and attachment is permanent? And why then is it considered normal for a man to impulsively leave his wife eventually, despite his marriage and his initial feelings, and find greater satisfaction in another woman? This strong human attraction towards happiness – that intrinsic force to justify our impulses – is what CS Lewis addresses in “Have No ‘Right to Happiness.’” Such “longings,” as Cornelius Plantinga defines them in Engaging God’s World, are supposed to be manifestations of our desire to seek God and commune with Him, since this is what He created us for. “Our [longing for] God runs in us like a stream, even though we divert towards other things” (Plantinga), and the diversion that Lewis discusses in his essay is, more specifically, sexual longing. This precious gift from God is one we distort frequently, turning it into a highly egocentric longing.

The reason for this distortion comes from the freewheeling sense that sexual desire gives us. Since the “pursuit of happiness” is one of the overarching rights we have, we tend to think that we have a right to divorce our spouses in pursuit of sexual happiness with another partner. We also give in more readily because of the strength of the desire, the “strong erotic passion” (which, ironically, was the initial reason we thought we would be swimming in bliss with the same person forever). These desires are thus given the “privilege of freedom,” and create what Lewis calls “sexual morality”: a duty, separate from conventional morality, to fulfill these longings. Lewis’ fictitious character, Clare, defends two people who each left their previous families to marry each other by using this “duty” as a legitimate cause for their actions.

Thus comes into play the issue of the “Natural Law,” as it relates specifically to the “laws of the state” regarding such duties. The concept of an unwritten canon we seem to perceive, by virtue of being human, is one that John Locke defines in his political commentary, “The Social Contract,” believing that this is the result of human reason. This concept is further explored in Sophocles’ tragedy, Antigone, where the heroine Antigone is executed for burying her deceased brother, despite being forbidden by state law to do so because of his traitorous acts before his death. Since she believed that her duty to her family superseded her legal obligations, she acted on her own view of morality. In the end, it was unclear whether she or the state was in the right, but state law was strict and unwavering regarding her case. Lewis is writing about the same kind of personal morality, where Clare maintains that Mr. A. had a duty to himself “to act as he did,” thus condoning his actions. The difference, however, between Mr. A.’s situation and Antigone’s is that the law of the state is actually on Mr. A.’s side. He is legally allowed to divorce Mrs. A. and “pursue happiness by all lawful means.” Sexual morality can therefore be highly subjective, with legal approval. (Note: domestic violence is another issue.)

The duty to pursue personal happiness, coupled with the (largely) lawful subjectivity of morality, produces a trend running though society today which epistemologists call “moral relativism”: the belief that morality, ethics, and truth are entirely subjective in all circumstances. This concept is what Lewis hints at in the closing paragraph of “Have No ‘Right to Happiness,’” bleakly remarking that “we thus advance toward a state of society in which not only each man but every impulse in each man claims carte blanche.” This post-modern mindset is a particularly slippery slope, and it could ultimately change the concept of the Natural Law as we see it. If we were to fully adopt moral relativism, each person would adhere to his or her own perception of morality, and thus the term “Natural Law” is rendered meaningless; there would be no universal standards to abide by, and it would become a happiness free-for-all. Just as a right provided by the state to one individual is “correlative to an obligation on someone else’s part,” as Lewis says, the morality-free satisfaction of one will surely infringe on the happiness of another. Mr. A., in pursuing his own happiness, surely destroyed Mrs. A.’s, but moral relativism seems to excuse this.

The irony is that, in the end, everyone will end up unhappy, since we will have returned to our primitive “instinct for self-preservation” which philosopher Thomas Hobbes calls man’s “state of nature” in which perceived “happiness” is nothing more than survival impulses. This, obviously, is not in any way what God intended happiness to be for us; He desires, more than anything, for us to find true, fulfilling happiness by following His Word. As John Piper quotes from one of Lewis’ letters, “It is a Christian duty, as you know, for everyone to be as happy as he can,” and His Word should be our standard for morality, despite what Clare would say.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Bulverism: It's Here, Too

Ezekiel Bulver led an easy life. After all, how hard could it be to go through one's day in arrogant denial? Every time someone made a comment Ezekiel disagreed with, he would just respond with "You're wrong because you're old," or "You only say that because you have brown eyes," and they would melt and go along with his delusion. He was the self-proclaimed king of his world, unable to be disproven due to the barrier of obtuseness he so cleverly upheld around his ignorance. His mother could be credited for his rise to power; it was in hearing her dismiss his father simply "because [he was] a man" one day that Ezekiel understood the secret to debating: Present causes with no reasons and you will win automatically.

Fortunately, both Ezekiel Bulver and his world are fictitious, but how far from accurate are they, really?

In fact, the guidelines within which Bulver debates are close representations of society today, CS Lewis would have us believe. In his essay on "Bulverism," Lewis calls our attention to the infuriating belief that "refutation is no necessary part of argument," as people often seem to think today. Politicians’ campaigns focus largely on deteriorating the opposition’s public acclaim by attacking the person’s family life rather than their proposed policies or agendas. History students dismiss scientists from the time of the Roman Empire as complete imbeciles because they believed that the earth was flat. Simple, categorical, arrogant rejection of another’s point of view with little to no grounds to support this dismissal has grown in our culture, remarks Lewis, and he attributes the title of “Bulverism” to this phenomenon. Causes are presented for rejecting an opponent’s proposition, but no reasons follow it to give the argument weight or credibility.

In light of Lewis’ observation, the class was then asked a challenging question: Are we guilty, here at Calvin College, of being Bulverists ourselves? The answer, unfortunately, is yes. Of course, every person on this earth is guilty of Bulverism, but certain aspects of this cultural parasite rear their heads particularly often in a Christian college setting.

The most visible example is probably the debate between so-called creationists and theistic evolutionists here at Calvin. The creationists accuse the evolutionists of refuting the authority of God’s Word, whereas the evolutionists accuse them of being blind, closed-minded mules, too stubborn to open their eyes to the dynamic reality we live in. Both sides bicker and fight with the other, never really stepping back and discussing their different viewpoints without the brandished swords and the slinging mud. This is creating a chasm even within the circle of Christianity, and Christians are divided despite our same Lord and same desire to serve Him. God explicitly states in His Word that we must “be careful [...] that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block” to other fellow believers (1 Cor. 8:9), but this is precisely what we are doing by attacking each other from within. Calvin, being an academic institution, is highly engaged with the debate, to the point where the fight becomes an intensely personal battle of wits, and this blatant Bulverism seems to be running with little restraint through the faculty and students.

Furthermore, we must be aware of the danger of Bulverism we could create by just being Christians in a Christian environment. We must resist the temptation to refute non-Christian thought as flawed or ungodly because it originated from outside of Christianity. As Lewis says, we mustn’t discredit a thought because of the underlying wishes of its presenter, and we must therefore be open to examining all thoughts and disregard the origin of the thought, so long as the thought is valid. These areas are pitfalls that lead to Bulverism, and we must especially aware of them and bring humility to the table to create an environment of acceptance and listening, at Calvin College, in our respective communities, and in the world in general.