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"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.

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