The Screwtape Letters: Six Through Twelve

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through three books by C. S. Lewis, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer-reading-project-2018. The schedule is online.

This week’s reading (letters six through twelve) was simultaneously short and full of insightful observations.

A few of Lewis’s comments stood out to me:

Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden. (Letter Nine, page 210)

Lewis is spot-on here. Pleasure is a gift from God. As James 1:27 reminds us, “every good and perfect gift is from above.” Truly internalizing this is transformative. The pleasures of God are premium, grade A stuff. It is true that Satan is a skillful knockoff artist, and this means that the opportunities he lures us with can seem as good as (or even superior to) God’s pleasures at first, but at the end of the day they are still knockoffs. The pleasures they produce don’t last. Hebrews 11:25 calls them “the fleeting pleasures of sin.”

The upshot: few things disrupt Satan’s schemes for your life like a fierce love of wholesome pleasure. One of the best ways to resist temptation is to be full of godly joy.

Moving on, letter ten seems especially helpful to Stanford students.

[When trying to impress new, sophisticated friends] he will be silent when he ought to speak and laugh when he ought to be silent. He will assume, at first only by his manner, but presently by his words, all sorts of cynical and sceptical attitudes which are not really his. But if you play him well, they may become his. All mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be. This is elementary. (Letter Ten, pages 212–213)

Boom! Not much to add to that except pray for all the frosh heading to Stanford in a few weeks.

Also of relevance to the Stanford culture:

But flippancy is the best [source of laughter] of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. (Letter Eleven, page 217)

Again, little commentary is needed. You will find it worthwhile, though, to pay attention to the things that are simply assumed to be false by your community. What Lewis calls flippancy is an indication that there might not be solid arguments against the opinion being mocked. Internet culture is especially prone to this sort of superficial commentary. Social media, in particular, incentivizes it. There may very well be good reasons that your community believes what it does about the good life, the problems facing society, the true religion, and right-thinking politics… but perhaps there are not. Seek out the non-flippant opinions before you allow the juvenile banter to sway you unduly.

Anyway, I hope you derived as much benefit from this week’s reading as I did. Enjoy the book!

The Screwtape Letters: Preface and the First Five Letters

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through three books by C. S. Lewis, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer-reading-project-2018. The schedule is online.

This week we begin our final summer bookk, The Screwtape Letters. Before I give some thoughts on this week’s reading, I have some general observations.

On to the main course:

Demonic correspondence in a hellish bureaucracy is a genius idea for a book and I assumed it would have been fun to write, but Lewis said “Of all my books, there was only one I did not take pleasure in writing.” The Screwtape Letters “were dry and gritty going. At the time, I was thinking of objections to the Christian life, and decided to put them into the form, ‘That’s what the devil would say.’ But making goods ‘bad’ and bads ‘good’ gets to be fatiguing.” (source)

I’m glad Lewis put up with the fatigue. The result is tremendous. Let me begin with one of my favorite quotes from the book (from the preface):

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.

This paragraph has special meaning to me as a Pentecostal. Some corners of the Pentecostal world seem to believe there is a demon behind every headache and traffic jam. But much of our society has a hard time acknowledging that there is anything demonic about something as overt as Satan worship. There is a more sensible position which Lewis here describes and which the Apostle Paul modeled: Paul was comfortable with the spirit realm and demons recognized that he was a force to be reckoned with (Acts 19:11–16), but he did not obsess over it. He was not an easy man to distract. Once a demon was harassing him, but it took several days before it got on Paul’s nerves enough for him to respond to it (Acts 16:16–18). Strive to be like Paul — deal with the demonic realm without becoming consumed by the demonic realm.

In the first letter, Screwtape writes to Wormwood about how modern trends have made demonic work easier:

Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily “true” or “false”, but as “academic” or “practical”, “outworn” or “contemporary”, “conventional” or “ruthless”. Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.

Reading this paragraph reminded me of the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau. He once famously answered a question about his cabinet composition by saying, “Because it’s 2015!” This is the kind of thing Screwtape is talking about. It’s the kind of answer we have been conditioned to respond to, and so it’s the kind of answer a skillful politician gives.

Later in the same letter, Screwtape makes a good point about science:

Above all, do not attempt to use science (I mean, the real sciences) as a defence against Christianity. They will positively encourage him to think about realities he can’t touch and see. There have been sad cases among the modern physicists. If he must dabble in science, keep him on economics and sociology; don’t let him get away from that invaluable “real life”. But the best of all is to let him read no science but to give him a grand general idea that he knows it all and that everything he happens to have picked up in casual talk and reading is “the results of modem investigation”.

I’ve ministered at Stanford since 2002, and in my experience mathematicians and students of the hard sciences have an easier time embracing the gospel than do students of the social sciences or the humanities. In part, it seems to me, it is because social scientists tend to look for answers that “explain away” whereas hard scientists tend to look for explanations. 

The final sentence, though, is the real kicker. We assume something is true because a lot of people keep saying it and thereby mistake repetition for reason. When someone tells me “the Bible is full of contradictions” I often discover they don’t have any to offer. They’re not lying — they are merely repeating something they have heard so often that they assume it must have a solid foundation.  Sometimes there’s more cognitive dissonance, such as when someone assumes the sexual revolution has been a net positive for society. In that case my interlocutor is usually ignoring or discounting evidence they have personally observed. But again, they’re not consciously lying. The sexual revolution is nearly always presented as progress, and people assume that there must be something to that since it keeps getting repeated.

I am not saying we should mistrust the consensus of experts who are speaking to us about something we have no knowledge of. Deferring to expert consensus is an excellent heuristic, except when the consensus conflicts with something we know. In that case we humbly return to the evidence and think things through again, with openness to the idea that we might be wrong but so might the experts. Here’s the rub: when it comes to things like morality and religion we will almost always have some direct knowledge which we need to consider. And especially with subjects like morality and religion we need to remember that both the experts as well as ourselves have powerful motives to not think things through all the way. All that to say: trust the experts, but not too much. Furthermore, don’t assume our cultural consensus is the same thing as the expert consensus. If that was always the case, we wouldn’t need experts!

I’ll content myself with sharing one final quote from the reading, this one from Letter Four:

It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.

Distraction is one of the chief enemies of spiritual growth, and we live in an age that is full of it. Sustained and slow thought is one of the chief instruments in our transformation. If Lewis is right and one of the infernal legion’s goals is to keep you distracted and prevent you from focusing, let that inform your use of apps and the internet. Just a thought.

The Four Loves: Charity

The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through three books by C. S. Lewis, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer-reading-project-2018. The schedule is online.

I hope you’ve been enjoying the readings as much as I have. I send these weekly reminders out both as a little nudge to remind you to pick up the book and also as a quick overview of some of Lewis’s best insights in case you’re hopelessly busy and unable to get to this week’s reading.

This week we finish up The Four Loves with Lewis’s thoughts on agape (ἀγάπη — benevolent love). Older Bible translations sometimes rendered this word as charity, as does the King James in 1 Corinthians 13.

Interestingly to me, Lewis does not use the word agape at all in this chapter. He assumes his audience is well-educated enough to know that agape is the word underlying his commentary on charity.

I’m feeling a little under the weather today, so I’ll content myself with three quotes from the chapter and some very brief commentary on them.

I’ll begin with what may be Lewis’s most famous observation in The Four Loves — the inherent riskiness of love. If you read nothing else, read this and ponder it. It’s straight fire and stands on its own apart from the chapter.

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell. (pages 823–824)

I also found this observation both helpful and challenging.

It remains certainly true that all natural loves can be inordinate. Inordinate does not mean “insufficiently cautious.” Nor does it mean “too big.” It is not a quantitative term. It is probably impossible to love any human being simply “too much.” We may love him too much in proportion to our love for God; but it is the smallness of our love for God, not the greatness of our love for the man, that constitutes the inordinacy. (page 824)

Whenever I love someone or something more than God it is very likely the case that I do not love the rival too much but that I love God too little. There are exceptions, of course. There are some broken impulses which I might mistakenly label love and the solution there is not merely to love God more but also to repent of my aberrant attraction.

And I thought his observation on what the rare Biblical commands to hate mean was quite insightful:

Consider again, “I loved Jacob and I hated Esau” (Malachi I, 2–3). How is the thing called God’s “hatred” of Esau displayed in the actual story? Not at all as we might expect. There is of course no ground for assuming that Esau made a bad end and was a lost soul; the Old Testament, here as elsewhere, has nothing to say about such matters. And, from all we are told, Esau’s earthly life was, in every ordinary sense, a good deal more blessed than Jacob’s. It is Jacob who has all the disappointments, humiliations, terrors, and bereavements. But he has something which Esau has not. He is a patriarch. (page 825)

The entire section from which this last excerpt is taken is quite good — I recommend it highly even if you skim the rest of the chapter.

Next week we begin The Screwtape Letters!

 

The Four Loves: Eros

The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through three books by C. S. Lewis, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer-reading-project-2018. The schedule is online.

I’m at a conference right now with a pretty packed schedule, so I’m dashing this email off quicker than normal. Apologies for typos or incoherent thoughts. 🙂

One thing I greatly appreciated in this chapter is Lewis’s discussion of how amusing human romance is. Not everyone gets this.

I remember I was once at a conference hosting a table discussion with students about romance and relationships and sex. I was making the point that sex is an objectively absurd thing. I was, if I may say so, on top of my game that day and they were roaring with laughter.

One of the students at my table suddenly stopped laughing and said, “I have a question. I just overheard the table host at the other table criticize us for laughing at sex. He said that we don’t understand how serious and sacred sex is. That laughing at it like this shows that we’re immature and we’re going to get ourselves into trouble because we don’t approach it with solemnity. What do you think about that?”

Everyone stopped laughing as though they had been slapped, for indeed they had been.

I cannot remember in detail how I went on to defend my thoughts that day (although I recall further and perhaps excessive ridicule of my critic’s perspective was deployed), but I am pleased to report that this chapter reveals that C.S. Lewis shared my perspective.

For I can hardly help regarding it as one of God’s jokes that a passion so soaring, so apparently transcendent, as Eros, should thus be linked in incongruous symbiosis with a bodily appetite which, like any other appetite, tactlessly reveals its connections with such mundane factors as weather, health, diet, circulation, and digestion. In Eros at times we seem to be flying; Venus gives us the sudden twitch that reminds us we are really captive balloons.

And later:

So the body. There’s no living with it till we recognise that one of its functions in our lives is to play the part of buffoon. Until some theory has sophisticated them, every man, woman and child in the world knows this. The fact that we have bodies is the oldest joke there is.

And again:

Nothing is falser than the idea that mockery is necessarily hostile. Until they have a baby to laugh at, lovers are always laughing at each other.

So here is my encouragement to you in your romantic journey: see the humor in it.

But romance is not just amusing — it is also profound. If it was only amusing it would not be worth so much energy and attention. It would be at most a hobby. Romance is far more than that. Lewis explains one of the spiritual dynamics at work in romantic love:

The event of falling in love is of such a nature that we are right to reject as intolerable the idea that it should be transitory. In one high bound it has overleaped the massive wall of our selfhood; it has made appetite itself altruistic, tossed personal happiness aside as a triviality and planted the interests of another in the centre of our being. Spontaneously and without effort we have fulfilled the law (towards one person) by loving our neighbour as ourselves. It is an image, a foretaste, of what we must become to all if Love Himself rules in us without a rival. It is even (well used) a preparation for that…. Can we be in this selfless liberation for a lifetime? Hardly for a week. Between the best possible lovers this high condition is intermittent. The old self soon turns out to be not so dead as he pretended—as after a religious conversion. In either he may be momentarily knocked flat; he will soon be up again; if not on his feet, at least on his elbow, if not roaring, at least back to his surly grumbling or his mendicant whine.

That’s it for this week. Next week: agape!

The Four Loves: Friendship

The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through three books by C. S. Lewis, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer-reading-project-2018. The schedule is online.

Now we turn to the second human love Lewis considers: philia (φιλία — friendship)

Even if you’ve gotten behind on the readings I encourage you to go through this chapter. While much has changed in the way we think about friendship nowadays (for instance, we value it more than did Lewis’s contemporaries), much has not. And the nature of friendship has changed not at all. Lewis’s insights will help you forge better friendships and be a better friend.

Three comments before we dive in:

On to the content! This is one of my favorite observations by Lewis:

In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s reaction to a specifically Caroline joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him “to myself’ now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald. Hence true Friendship is the least jealous of loves. Two friends delight to be joined by a third, and three by a fourth, if only the newcomer is qualified to become a real friend. (page 783)

In case you were wondering, Charles is Charles Williams (a novelist, poet, and editor at Oxford University Press) and Ronald is J. R. R. Tolkien (yes — that Tolkien). They along with Lewis were the central members of a literary discussion group called the Inklings. They would read their writings aloud to one another and critique each other. If you’re ever in Oxford you can visit the pub they used to meet in — The Eagle and Child.

Back to the main topic. This idea of two friends bringing things out of each other that allow me to appreciate each of them more is beautiful, and Lewis’s theological application of it is one that I have found helpful when thinking about the glory of heaven:

…the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. That, says an old author, is why the Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision are crying “Holy, Holy, Holy” to one another (Isaiah VI, 3). The more we thus share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall all have. (page 783)

More practically, Lewis has some thoughts on how friendships begin:

Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.” (page 785)

This is one reason why college is so exhilarating. You have so many more peers than you did in high school that you can easily find people who share your interests. Your friendships in Chi Alpha especially have the potential to become so satisfying because you’ve already got your faith in common, and on top of that Stanford itself, and on top of that your experience of Chi Alpha instead of another Christian community, and if you add on top of that just one more thing like a certain sport or a specific fandom or a shared sense of humor then the odds that a significant friendship will form are quite high. 

Not everyone acquires those friendships, of course. Some respond by looking for friends. Lewis points out why looking for friends directly is often counterproductive:

That is why those pathetic people who simply “want friends” can never make any. The very condition of having Friends is that we should want something else besides Friends. Where the truthful answer to the question Do you see the same truth? would be “I see nothing and I don’t care about the truth; I only want a Friend,” no Friendship can arise— though Affection of course may. There would be nothing for the Friendship to be about; and Friendship must be about something, even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice. Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travellers. (page 786)

So if you feel lonely — pursue something you’re interested in. And then chat with those around you who are engaged in the same pursuit. Friendship will often emerge. This will prove to be especially useful advice once you graduate and have to forge friendships without the aggressive help of Stanford Res Ed.

Lewis also addresses a perennial question among college students: can guys and girls can be just friends?

When the two people who thus discover that they are on the same secret road are of different sexes, the friendship which arises between them will very easily pass—may pass in the first half-hour—into erotic love. Indeed, unless they are physically repulsive to each other or unless one or both already loves elsewhere, it is almost certain to do so sooner or later. (page 786)

Lewis is correct, and at this juncture I refer you to one of my favorite YouTube videos: Why Men and Women Can’t Be Friends

Near the end of the chapter he gives us a helpful reminder:

…we think we have chosen our peers. In reality, a few years’ difference in the dates of our births, a few more miles between certain houses, the choice of one university instead of another, posting to different regiments, the accident of a topic being raised or not raised at a first meeting—any of these chances might have kept us apart. But, for a Christian, there are, strictly speaking, no chances. A secret Master of the Ceremonies has been at work. Christ, who said to the disciples “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,” can truly say to every group of Christian friends “You have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another.” (pages 801–802)

Thank God for your friends!

Next week, romantic love…

The Four Loves: Affection

The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through three books by C. S. Lewis, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer-reading-project-2018. The schedule is online.

YouTube has something amazing in relation to this week’s reading: the man himself delivering the radio address upon which the chapter is based. Check out The Four Loves (‘Storge’ or ‘Affection’) (or you can read the transcript). You should at least listen to a few minutes if you’ve never heard the voice of Lewis before.

In this chapter, Lewis discusses the type of love described by the Greek word storge (στοργή). In English we would talk about affection or fondness. Interestingly (at least to me), this Greek word appears only in the negative in the New Testament. In both Romans 1:31 and 2 Timothy 3:3 the word astorgos (ἄστοργος) is rendered by various translations as “heartless” or “unloving” or “without natural affection.” When your English translation of the New Testament contains the word affection it is probably representing splangxnon (σπλαγχηνον) instead. This doesn’t affect what Lewis says in the slightest. I just find it interesting.

On to what Lewis actually said.

The first thing that stood out to me was a pithy phrase: “They seal up the very fountain for which they are thirsty.” (page 769)

Lewis is speaking about people whose craving for affection is so intense that they push away the people around them. It’s something I’ve seen before, but the imagery Lewis uses is so evocative that it made me realize afresh how tragic it is. More than that, it made me pause and reflect on whether there are any areas of my life in which I am pursuing something so ineptly that I make success less likely with every attempt I make.

The next bit that stood out to me came near the end of the chapter. Lewis makes a point about our tendency to treat affection gone bad as a psychological problem.

I do not think we shall see things more clearly by classifying all these malefical states of Affection as pathological. No doubt there are really pathological conditions which make the temptation to these states abnormally hard or even impossible to resist for particular people. Send those people to the doctors by all means. But I believe that everyone who is honest with himself will admit that he has felt these temptations. Their occurrence is not a disease; or if it is, the name of that disease is Being a Fallen Man. In ordinary people the yielding to them—and who does not sometimes yield?—is not disease, but sin. Spiritual direction will here help us more than medical treatment. Medicine labours to restore “natural” structure or “normal” function. But greed, egoism, self-deception and self-pity are not unnatural or abnormal in the same sense as astigmatism or a floating kidney. For who, in Heaven’s name, would describe as natural or normal the man from whom these failings were wholly absent? “Natural,” if you like, in a quite different sense; archnatural, unfallen. We have seen only one such Man. And He was not at all like the psychologist’s picture of the integrated, balanced, adjusted, happily married, employed, popular citizen. You can’t really be very well “adjusted” to your world if it says you “have a devil” and ends by nailing you up naked to a stake of wood. (page 778)

As others have said, we live in a therapeutic age. We are conditioned to assume negative thoughts and emotions are psychological problems, but that’s not always true. I remember a quote from Carl Elliott that hit me like a thunderbolt when I was in grad school.

On Prozac, Sisyphus might well push the boulder back up the mountain with more enthusiasm and more creativity. I do not want to deny the benefits of psychoactive medication. I just want to point out that Sisyphus is not a patient with a mental health problem. To see him as a patient with a mental health problem is to ignore certain larger aspects of his predicament connected to boulders, mountains, and eternity. (UPDATE: I forget where I first saw this quote — I thought it was from The Atlantic in an article called  “The Pursuit of Happiness”, but it was published too late for that to be the case)

Sometimes negative thoughts and feelings are natural (one might even say healthy) responses to our situation, sometimes they are mistaken but not especially harmful, sometimes they are sinful, and sometimes they are the result of psychological problems. Be open to the full range of possibilities.  

Before winding this down, I’d like to highlight one more of Lewis’s insights. Early in the chapter as bit of an aside, Lewis says

The rivalry between all natural loves and the love of God is something a Christian dare not forget. God is the great Rival, the ultimate object of human jealousy; that beauty, terrible as the Gorgon’s, which may at any moment steal from me—or it seems like stealing to me—my wife’s or husband’s or daughter’s heart. The bitterness of some unbelief, though disguised even from those who feel it as anti-clericalism or hatred of superstition, is really due to this. (page 767–768, emphasis added)

Some of your friends who are angry about religion are angry because they are jealous. Your friend is bent — perhaps without even realizing it — because someone’s love for God has created distance between them and your friend.  If you’re ever talking about God with someone and you can hear anger in their voice, bear this insight in mind. It might help explain what’s going on.

I’m loving the Lewis readings so far. Next week: the love between friends. 

P.S. If, perchance, you are behind on your readings then just skip ahead. Start keeping up now — you can always go back and read the parts you missed later.

The Four Loves: Introduction and Chapter One

The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through three books by C. S. Lewis, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer-reading-project-2018. The schedule is online.

We live in an area that often overvalues the love of nature and undervalues the love of country. At the end of “Likings and Loves for the Sub-human” (the first chapter of The Four Loves) Lewis makes some astute observations about each.

Concerning nature, he makes the claim that nature doesn’t teach us anything on its own.

If you take nature as a teacher she will teach you exactly the lessons you had already decided to learn; this is only another way of saying that nature does not teach.… Overwhelming gaiety, insupportable grandeur, sombre desolation are flung at you. Make what you can of them, if you must make at all. The only imperative that nature utters is, “Look. Listen. Attend.” (page 755 in The C.S. Lewis Signature Classics)

While I think his main point is sound, he words things too strongly here. If I adopted this perspective as he phrased it, I wouldn’t be able to make sense of such passages as Romans 1:20 and Psalm 19.

  • Romans 1:20, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”
  • Psalm 19:1–2, “The heavens declare the glory of God;    the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech;    night after night they reveal knowledge.”

These and other Scriptures clearly teach that there are things God expects us to learn from nature. But there are not many of these things. Lewis is right that nature gives confusing messages — we can construct clever natural arguments for cruelty as well as for mercy.

Rather than looking to nature to provide our entire system of morality and meaning, Lewis says it is enough to allow nature to give us a framework for thinking:

Nature never taught me that there exists a God of glory and of infinite majesty. I had to learn that in other ways. But nature gave the word glory a meaning for me. I still do not know where else I could have found one. I do not see how the “fear” of God could have ever meant to me anything but the lowest prudential efforts to be safe, if I had never seen certain ominous ravines and unapproachable crags. And if nature had never awakened certain longings in me, huge areas of what I can now mean by the “love” of God would never, so far as I can see, have existed. (pages 755–756)

Good stuff and well worth pondering.

Lewis goes on to make some great observations about patriotism. Patriotism is a virtue for Christians as Douglas Wilson points out in his 2016 essay American Jesus:

Patriotism, rightly developed, is a duty that falls under the fifth commandment. I am to honor my father and mother, and this extends beyond them in such a way as to include my people, my tribe. Ordinary and ordered patriotism is not just okay; it is a duty, one that needs to be cultivated.

I highly commend that essay to you. Wilson is on point and adds all the caveats you might be worried about.

One of Lewis’s insights about patriotic love is that it allows us to love and respect people from other nations:

Of course patriotism of this kind is not in the least aggressive. It asks only to be let alone. It becomes militant only to protect what it loves. In any mind which has a pennyworth of imagination it produces a good attitude towards foreigners. How can I love my home without coming to realise that other men, no less rightly, love theirs? Once you have realised that the Frenchmen like cafe complet just as we like bacon and eggs—why, good luck to them and let them have it. The last thing we want is to make everywhere else just like our own home. It would not be home unless it were different.

And he has particularly strong words to say about those who try to replace the love of country with a commitment to higher ideals:

If people will spend neither sweat nor blood for “their country” they must be made to feel that they are spending them for justice, or civilisation, or humanity. This is a step down, not up.… If our country’s cause is the cause of God, wars must be wars of annihilation. A false transcendence is given to things which are very much of this world. (page 761)

Much of what Lewis says in this section reminds me of the way G.K. Chesterton talked about patriotism in Orthodoxy chapter 5, “The Flag of This World.” Chesterton’s point is that patriots see the flaws of their nation and grieve them. Because they love their nation they want to fix it.

Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing—say Pimlico [Glen’s note: Pimlico is part of London]. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles; Pimlico would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved. For decoration is not given to hide horrible things: but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck. If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is THEIRS, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.

So to summarize:

  • Nature is worthy of love but not worthy of worship. Our cultural celebration of environmentalism far to often runs beyond the concerns of ecology and veers into religious territory.
  • Nations are worthy of love but not worthy of worship, and we ought to cultivate a healthy and measured patriotism in ourselves whatever our homeland may be.

See you next week!

The Abolition of Man: Chapters One and Two

The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through three books by C. S. Lewis, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer-reading-project-2018. The schedule is online.

Welcome to week one of the Chi Alpha summer reading project!

Some resources that may prove useful to you:

On to Lewis’s argument. He noticed a feature in an English textbook which greatly bothered him: the authors teach that value judgments about the world are statements of feeling rather than statements of fact. Lewis points out that this is a very powerful form of indoctrination and adds that this is an enormous difference from the past.

Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it — believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt. (page 699 in our anthology)

He gives several examples and lumps them together under the common name of the Tao:

This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as ‘the Tao’.… what is common to them all is something we cannot neglect. It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are. Those who know the Tao can hold that to call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not. I myself do not enjoy the society of small children: because I speak from within the Tao I recognize this as a defect in myself — just as a man may have to recognize that he is tone deaf or colour blind. And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it). (pages 701–702)

It is worth thinking about his illustration. I suspect some of you will strongly disagree with it without quite knowing why. Here it is in bare form: not liking children is a moral defect. It is not “just the way you are.” It is the way you have become, and you have an obligation to try to become someone better. And even if your dislike of children was a matter of your genetics of something else beyond your control it would not stop being a moral defect.

But our culture rejects these moral obligations along with many others; more than that, we refuse to seriously consider that they might actually be moral obligations instead of personal choices. We teach that values are matters of opinion. And this leads to the stunning peroration of the first lecture:

In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful. (page 704)

In light of Lewis’ argument, reflect on this recent essay about an article in the prestigious publication Foreign Policy: Should Amazon tribes be allowed to kill their young? Foreign Policy editors aren’t sure (Julia Duin, GetReligion):

“In recent years, certain tribes in the Amazon region have been in the news because of their unpleasant habit of killing deformed or handicapped children as well as twins, and even offspring of single moms, soon after birth. They also may kill transgendered individuals. I thought the consensus was pretty clear that such practices were evil. But along came an article (it was a month ago, but I’m only getting around to it now) in Foreign Policy magazine that argued how saving the lives of these children was a western value that didn’t fit with the customs and lifestyle of these tribes.”

If he read that article, Lewis would not be surprised. Rejecting the Tao opens the door to madness.

In the second chapter, “The Way”, Lewis points out that many people attempt to hold on to objective ethics without admitting that they are doing so.

A great many of those who ‘debunk’ traditional or (as they would say) ‘sentimental’ values have in the background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process. They claim to be cutting away the parasitic growth of emotion, religious sanction, and inherited taboos, in order that ‘real’ or ‘basic’ values may emerge. I will now try to find out what happens if this is seriously attempted. (page 706)

The most common attempt to find a source of values apart from the Tao is to appeal to human nature. When I talk with skeptics on campus they most commonly try to ground morality in evolutionary psychology. But it doesn’t work. Lewis explains:

From propositions about fact alone no practical conclusion can ever be drawn. This will preserve society cannot lead to do this except by the mediation of society ought to be preserved. This will cost you your life cannot lead directly to do not do this: it can lead to it only through a felt desire or an acknowledged duty of self-preservation. The Innovator is trying to get a conclusion in the imperative mood out of premisses in the indicative mood: and though he continues trying to all eternity he cannot succeed, for the thing is impossible. (page 707)

In other words, the only way to derive morality is to presuppose morality. Just as the sum of two numbers will itself be a number, facts can only produce moral obligations if moral obligations are themselves facts.

Lewis says a lot more in these chapters, but this email is already too lengthy.

Those are the things that stood out to me. What stood out to you?

Kicking off the C. S. Lewis Summer Reading Project

The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through three books by C. S. Lewis, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer-reading-project-2018.

This is the first week of our summer reading project. I’ll be sending out reminders to read along with some commentary on the readings throughout the summer. Remember that the schedule is online (you can print it out and use it as a bookmark if you find that helpful).

This week we’re reading the first two chapters of The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis: “Men Without Chests” and “The Way” (pages 693–717 in the anthology).  If you don’t have a copy of the book yet, you can hear it entertainingly presented on the C.S. Lewis Doodle YouTube channel (not all of our readings are on this channel, but some will be).

I believe this is one of Lewis’s most important books, and I am not alone in my opinion. In The Narnian, Alan Jacobs (himself an excellent essayist) calls The Abolition of Man the “most profound of Lewis’s cultural critiques” (page 174).

At first you may wonder why you are reading about a British high school textbook from 1939, but as you progress into the chapter you’ll discover that Lewis is pointing out a profound error in thinking which has become even more widespread today. I encourage you to persevere; the payoff is worth it. The last four sentences of the first chapter are among the most powerful I have read, and you will find that the second chapter seems to be addressed to your contemporaries at Stanford.

To Change The World, Week Thirteen

To Change The World by James Davison Hunter
To Change The World

I’ve very much enjoyed this book. Having said that, want to flag two reservations I have now that I’ve finished reading it.

First, Hunter has a certain quality I’ve noticed in other Christian scholars (N.T. Wright comes to mind). It’s a John The Baptist syndrome which manifests as the scholars conceiving of themselves as lone voices crying out in the wilderness, when in reality there is a broad conversation they are participating in — and there are many who substantially agree with them.

James. K. A. Smith’s review in The Other Journal How (Not) To Change The World highlights one example:

Indeed, one of the oddities of the book is the complete absence of Abraham Kuyper from the discussion. I note this, not as a failure to be comprehensive (I respect the “essay” genre), but only because where Hunter ends up is so close to Kuyper’s model (even if Hunter is rightly critical of Chuck Colson’s bastardization of Kuyper in How Now Shall We Live?).

And Andy Crouch gives several more in his Books and Culture review How Not To Change The World.

This leads to the one feature of this book that is troubling, and genuinely perplexing. Hunter is quite thorough in his documentation of both the sociological literature and primary sources from the Christian Right, the Christian Left, and the neo-Anabaptists. What you are unlikely to ascertain from the text or the notes, however, is the existence of any Christian scholar or public actor who has pursued the course Hunter recommends other than Hunter himself, along with a few of his students and associates. D. Michael Lindsay’s study of 360 Christians “in the halls of power” is waved aside as a mere cataloguing of isolated individuals, even as Hunter goes on to critique their generally pietistic and ecclesiologically deficient approach to their faith in precisely the terms that Lindsay has used in interviews about his work. Lindsay’s February 2008 article in the American Sociological Review argues for the importance of overlapping networks and models of élite agency. Hunter does not reference it at all, nor John Schmalzbauer’s People of Faith: Religious Conviction in Journalism and Higher Education, nor, in a slightly different vein, Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity. It would take nothing away from Hunter’s brilliant synthesis to acknowledge that others are doing similarly important and influential work.

When it comes to Christians attempting to do some good in the wider world, Hunter finds very few he can put in a good light. Charles Colson is dismissed as a quasi-Hegelian idealist based on his enthusiasm for worldview education, rather than recognized for his considerable network-convening savvy. Gabe Lyons’s Fermi Project comes in for sustained examination only for its sometimes glib promotional material, not for the work it is doing to build overlapping networks of young élites in some vital cultural centers. The patient and wide-ranging intelligence of Os Guinness is similarly passed over in the course of making a point about evangelical individualism. Hunter devotes several pages, rather than just an endnote, to dismissing my own book Culture Making, and some of his criticisms, as of the others mentioned, are fair as far as they go. But a reader of his summary would never guess how much my book and his overlap in their fundamental concerns and final vision

Second, at the end Hunter claims that we should not try to change the world. It seems to me he’s being a bit disingenuous. He wants Christians to be sent by the Church into every sphere of society (including the elite networks which generate cultural change) and take faith-based actions that lead to human flourishing. Hunter still believes Christians should change the world, he just likes talking about it in a more low-key way. His plan for transformation is humble, but it is nonetheless a plan for transformation.

It’s just something to bear in mind. No book is perfect, and as flaws go these are far from crippling. Hunter is generally a clear writer and is clearly a profound thinker. All in all an outstanding read.

Now a few thoughts from the closing chapters:

CHAPTER FIVE: THE BURDEN OF LEADERSHIP — A THEOLOGY OF FAITHFUL PRESENCE IN PRACTICE

Hunter thinks that we should serve God in our generation by practicing what he calls “faithful presence.” Both words matter — we must be faithful to God and present in every sphere of society.

“But the great commission can also be interpreted in terms of social structure. The church is to go into all realms of social life: in volunteer and paid labor—skilled and unskilled labor, the crafts, engineering, commerce, art, law, architecture, teaching, health care, and service. Indeed, the church should be sending people out in these realms—not only discipling those in these fields by providing the theological resources to form them well, but in fact mentoring and providing financial support for young adults who are gifted and called into these vocations.” (page 257)

There is a particular peril for those who called into the high-status vocations:

Because Christianity has lost status in the institutional centers of the modern world, those believers who work and live in the higher echelons of culture, politics, business, and finance are under great pressure to carefully “manage their identities” in part by hiding this discrediting information about themselves. In this case, the consequence of disclosure is to be excluded themselves. The temptation to be deceptive or dishonest about one’s faith in these circles is enormous. (258–259)

This is a real thing that I have seen many times at Stanford. I recall one graduate student hyperventilating when her PI found out she was an evangelical Christian. Her concern that she might experience negative consequences was not imaginary, although in her case I recall things working out just fine. But there is definite animus against Christianity in some elite circles. Look at the Senate’s disgraceful grilling of judicial nominee Amy Barrett for her Catholic faith. She openly and carefully discussed the implications of her faith for public service and had her words turned into the literal opposite of what she said (you can read more about it in item six of last week’s Things Glen Found Interesting).

But even as we recognize that our faith might at times bring negative repercussions into our lives, we need to remember that we are not allowed to hide our light under a bushel. You don’t have to report to work wearing a Christian t-shirt, but you must never pull a Peter and say, “I don’t know the man!”

In other words, don’t sacrifice faithfulness on the altar of presence. Gaining a seat at the table is not worth your soul.

CHAPTER SIX: TOWARD A NEW CITY COMMONS

In this final chapter Hunter summarizes his argument and then lays his cards on the table: he thinks changing the world is a foolish goal.

Will engaging the world in the way discussed here change the world? This, I believe, is the wrong question.… The question is wrong because, for Christians, it makes the primary subservient to the secondary. By making a certain understanding of the good in society the objective, the source of the good—God himself and the intimacy he offers—becomes nothing more than a tool to be used to achieve that objective.… To be sure, Christianity is not, first and foremost, about establishing righteousness or creating good values or securing justice or making peace in the world. Don’t get me wrong: these are goods we should care about and pursue with great passion. But for Christians, these are all secondary to the primary good of God himself and the primary task of worshipping him and honoring him in all they do. (285–286)

I appreciate so much of Hunter’s perspective throughout this book, and in particular am glad that he warns us away from focusing on what I have heard called “causes more worthy than holy.” We love God first and most and whatever social good we do (and it should be significant) flows out of that.

Hunter closes with this:

The fact is that Christ’s victory over the principalities and powers was a victory over the power of oppressive institutions—the sense that reality is what it is, that all is as it should be, that the ways of the world are established and cannot be changed; that the rules by which the world operates are ones we must accept and not challenge. We are not bound by the “necessities” of history and society but are free from them. He broke their sovereignty and, as a result, all things are possible. It is this reality that frees all Christians to actively, creatively, and constructively seek the good in their relationships, in their tasks, in their spheres of influence, and in their cities.

Against the present realities of our historical moment, it is impossible to say what can actually be accomplished. There are intractable uncertainties that cannot be avoided. Certainly Christians, at their best, will neither create a perfect world nor one that is altogether new; but by enacting shalom and seeking it on behalf of all others through the practice of faithful presence, it is possible, just possible, that they will help to make the world a little bit better. (page 286)

I hope you enjoyed the book as much as I did!

Here endeth the reading.