The God of Theology or Reality? (Or, The Value of Spiritual Cartography)

desertTowards the end of Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis tackles the doctrine of the Trinity as well as salvation. Before he does so, he gives a bit of an apologetic for the task of teaching and studying theology to those who would say its unnecessary or dry in light of the reality of God that they’ve experienced in nature, watching a sunset, hiking in the woods, or in those dark moments where we’ve “felt” him.  This is easily among my top 5 favorite passages in Lewis’ works. And really, it’s so good, I don’t think it even needs more comment than to say that it’s as relevant today as it was 60 years ago. Take this passage to heart and meditate on it:

Everyone has warned me not to tell you what I am going to tell you in this last book. They all say “the ordinary reader does not want Theology; give him plain practical religion.” I have rejected their advice. I do not think the ordinary reader is such a fool. Theology means “the science of God,” and I think any man who wants to think about God at all would like to have the clearest and most accurate ideas about Him which are available. You are not children: why should you be treated like children?

In a way I quite understand why some people are put off by Theology. I remember once when I had been giving a talk to the RA.F., an old, hard-bitten officer got up and said, “I’ve no use for all that stuff. But, mind you, I’m a religious man too. I know there’s a God. I’ve felt Him: out alone in the desert at night: the tremendous mystery. And that’s just why I don’t believe all your neat little dogmas and formulas about Him. To anyone who’s met the real thing they all seem so petty and pedantic and unreal!”

Now in a sense I quite agreed with that man. I think he had probably had a real experience of God in the desert. And when he turned from that experience to the Christian creeds, I think he really was turning from something real to something less real.

In the same way, if a man has once looked at the Atlantic from the beach, and then goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic, he also will be turning from something real to something less real: turning from real waves to a bit of coloured paper. But here comes the point. The map is admittedly only coloured paper, but there are two things you have to remember about it. In the first place, it is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. In that way it has behind it masses of experience just as real as the one you could have from the beach; only, while yours would be a single isolated glimpse, the map fits all those different experiences together.

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

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

You see, what happened to that man in the desert may have been real, and was certainly exciting, but nothing comes of it. It leads nowhere. There is nothing to do about it. In fact, that is just why a vague religion—all about feeling God in nature, and so on—is so attractive. It is all thrills and no work; like watching the waves from the beach. But you will not get to Newfoundland by studying the Atlantic that way, and you will not get eternal life by simply feeling the presence of God in flowers or music. Neither will you get anywhere by looking at maps without going to sea. Nor will you be very safe if you go to sea without a map.

In other words, Theology is practical: especially now. In old days, when there was less education and discussion, perhaps it was possible to get on with a very few simple ideas about God. But it is not so now. Everyone reads, everyone hears things discussed. Consequently, if you do not listen to Theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones—bad, muddled, out-of-date ideas. For a great many of the ideas about God which are trotted out as novelties today, are simply the ones which real Theologians tried centuries ago and rejected. To believe in the popular religion of modern England is retrogression—like believing the earth is flat.
Mere Christianity, Bk. 4.1 (Making and Begetting)

While I might like to say a little bit more about the role the Bible plays as the authorized set of interpreted experiences of God, this passage gives the lie to the idea that studying theology is of no practical value, or a discipline divorced from reality. If your goal is to actually know God, love God, worship God, as he is and not merely feel some vague fluff of a religious sense, then theology, or spiritual cartography, is necessary and vital.

Soli Deo Gloria

How Royal Baby Fever Points to a Royal Longing (Or: Yes, This is a #JesusJuke)

unionSo, in case you weren’t on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or seen every tabloid from here to kingdom come, Prince William and Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, had a healthy little baby boy (name unannounced at the time of this writing) yesterday–and people have completely lost it. Royal Wedding fever was one thing. Royal baby fever is quite another.

Now, there are a lot of different social factors at work. For one thing, babies are adorable. I see them and I instinctively start making ridiculous noises and faces no matter where I am—even at peasants. Also, British people are fascinating to Americans. I mean, it doesn’t matter how stupid a statement may be, if it’s uttered in a British accent, Americans are likely to think it’s brilliant. (Think Richard Dawkins.) Finally, and closer to the point, our obsession with celebrities—their doings, controversies, health-food purchases—whatever it is, we eat it up.

But why are we so obsessed with celebrities? Simply put, it’s because we have no royalty.

Find out how I drop the #JesusJuke over at Christ and Pop Culture.

That Time C.S. Lewis Got ‘Total Depravity’ Wrong (Like Everybody Else)

Yes, Gollum is a Tolkien character, not Lewis. I don't care.

Yes, Gollum is a Tolkien character, not Lewis. I don’t care.

Cliché Evangelical confession: I love C.S. Lewis. Probably too much. His influence on my life and intellectual development as a disciple is hard to gauge. For a while there in seminary, next to the Bible, you were apt to hear me quoting “St. Clive” (as one of my professors dubbed him) more than any other thinker. This is why it pains me to admit that he was slightly misleading about something in his writings, namely Calvinism.

Actually, let’s make that more specific. He got one letter wrong of the Anglo-American acronym that has come to represent ‘Calvinism’ in the minds of most people who have heard the term: the ‘T’ in T.U.L.I.P. , standing for ‘total depravity.’

In his work The Problem of Pain, Lewis discusses the nature of our moral knowledge, and the distance between our judgments and God’s. After making the case that the term ‘good’, when applied to God, is apt to mean something a bit different than we usually think of, he doubles back to say that it can’t be completely different:

On the other hand, if God’s moral judgement differs from ours so that our “black” may be His “white”, we can mean nothing by calling Him good; for to say “God is good,” while asserting that His goodness is wholly other than ours, is really only to say “God is we know not what”. And an utterly unknown quality in God cannot give us moral grounds for loving or obeying Him. If He is not (in our sense) “good” we shall obey, if at all, only through fear – and should be equally ready to obey an omnipotent Fiend. The doctrine of Total Depravity – when the consequence is drawn that, since we are totally depraved, our idea of good is worth simply nothing – may thus turn Christianity into a form of devil-worship. –The Problem of Pain, pg. 29

While Lewis is making a very a good point about our analogical knowledge of good and evil, he happens to do so by trading on a widely-popular caricature of the doctrine of total depravity.

Most people are introduced to the teaching by hearing something along the lines of, “That John Calvin, he was such a pessimist. Did you know that he taught that we were totally depraved? That all of us are about as awful as it gets, none of us knows right from wrong, and we’re born simply and utterly wicked? No wonder he was a downer.” Or something like that.

The problem is that is neither what total depravity, properly understood, nor John Calvin teach with respect to human nature. (Although, I do grant that Calvin probably was kind of prickly.) Actually, as a matter of history, Calvin nowhere mentioned the acronym ‘TULIP’. Being dead at this point, he didn’t even know about the Canons of Dordt, the 17th century document that the 19th century acronym is trying to summarize.

So what do Calvin and total depravity teach? Richard Muller sheds some light for us:

Calvin’s references to the utter deformity or depravity of the human will and human abilities were directed against forms of synergism or Semi-Pelagianism and refer to the pervasiveness of sin — reducing this language to the slogan “total depravity” endangers the argument…“Total depravity,” at least as understood in colloquial English, is so utterly grizzly a concept as to apply only to the theology of the Lutheran, Matthias Flacius Illyricus who an almost dualistic understanding of human nature before and after the fall, arguing the utter replacement of the imago Dei with the imago Satanae and indicating that the very substance of fallen humanity was sin. Neither Calvin not later Reformed thinkers went in this direction and, to the credit of the Lutherans, they repudiated this kind of language in the Formula of Concord. What is actually at issue, hidden under the term “total depravity” is not the utter absence of any sort of goodness but the inability to save one’s self from sin.

-Richard Muller, Was Calvin a Calvinist? Or, Did Calvin (or Anyone Else in the Early Modern Era) Plant the “TULIP”?, pp. 8-9 (HT: Alastair Roberts)

As you can see, Muller isn’t much of a fan of TULIP, mostly because of the easy tendency towards caricature (I mean, even Lewis didn’t explain it properly.) Still, his explication of Calvin’s thought on the subject also serves for the better articulations of total depravity taken up by current Reformed theologians.

To be clear, the doctrine does not teach that all humanity is as “depraved” as possible. “Total” refers to the scope, not depth, of the problem of sin. It affirms that there is not a single area or part of our nature that has not been subject to sin’s corrupting influence; though created good, not our mind, will, reason, bodily instincts, or anything else that could be singled out, remains untouched by the Fall. As such, there is no leverage or foothold in human nature whereby it might reach up to God, or present any merit, without having first been enlivened by the Holy Spirit’s power. As Michael Horton says, “there is no Archimedean point within us that is left unfallen, from which we might begin to bargain or restore our condition” (The Christian Faith, pg. 433). Nor is there any impulse or instinct that is not subject to correction from God’s Word.

This is true of the vilest criminal, or the sweetest, kindest neighbor that most of us would describe as a “good guy.” None has a chance of saving themselves by drawing on their own inner, moral resources. But, as we said, that doesn’t mean that they’re as bad as they can be. We are “not incapable of any justice or good before fellow humans” (Horton, ibid, pg. 433). No, in fact, we do have an active, if defective, conscience that points to right and wrong, as well as accuses and defends us before God (Rom. 2). Calvin himself quoted pagan philosophers approvingly, at times, when they concurred with Scripture’s moral judgment. We are able to do relatively good, yet not saving, acts through common grace and common virtue. Good of this sort is nothing to be sneered at and is a testimony to the permanence of the Image of God as well as the gracious, restraining work of the Holy Spirit.

Where does this little crash course in one, highly-misunderstood, aspect of Reformed anthropology, leave us? Well, for one thing, you can say you know something that C.S. Lewis didn’t about the history of Christian doctrine. But seriously, it serves as an important lesson against making any theologian, pastor, or author, even someone as wonderful as Lewis too authoritative in your intellectual life. As great as someone might be, if you’ve never disagreed with them, you’re probably not reading them critically enough.

Most of all though, it serves as a reminder of God’s redeeming, regenerative grace. For every inch of you that’s been ‘depraved’ or, rather, bent through sin, is being restored and resurrected whole and new in Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

Karl Barth and C.S. Lewis on the Birth of ‘Chronological Snobbery’

progressivismIn assessing various arguments across over the years, I’ve found C.S. Lewis’ notion of the fallacy of “chronological snobbery” to be extremely helpful. He describes this flawed thought process as the “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.” (Surprised by Joy,  p. 207) In other words, “That’s what people a hundred years ago believed, surely you can’t expect me to agree to that?”

Although writing off an idea simply because it is old is a fairly common move in our context, ancient philosophers, theologians, and moralists regularly appealed to the antiquity of a doctrine in order to establish its authority for the present. Somewhere along the line the witness of history ceased to be a source of credibility for an idea, and in some cases, became a liability.

I was reminded of this after writing the other day about Barth’s characterization of eighteenth century man as “the absolute man.” His attitude towards life, the natural order, politics, philosophy, the inner and outer self is that of an autonomous master who has come, or is coming, fully into his own such that his power and potentiality is increasingly limitless. It is an impulse that can be traced throughout various spheres of life including, as Barth points out, his attitude towards history.

Barth and the ‘Absolute’ Historians

Barth notes that the Enlightenment is often unfairly criticized as being historically “deficient.” He recognizes that it was during the birth of the modern academy and the proliferation of the various fields of academic discipline which accompanied the time that much careful research into ancient history was conducted.  At the same time, and it is here that Barth sees the force of the accusation, it is at this point that the problematic “critical study of history” began:

But what else can this mean but that it was in the eighteenth century that man began to axiomatically to credit himself with being superior to the past, and assumed a standpoint in relation to it whence he found it possible to set himself up as a judge over past events according to fixed principles, as well as to describe its deeds and to substantiate history’s own report? And the yardstick of these principles, at least as applied by the typical observer of history living at that age, has the inevitable effect of turning that judgment of the past into an extremely radical one. For the yardstick is quite simply the man of the present with his complete trust in his own powers of discernment and judgment, with his feeling for freedom, his desire for intellectual conquest, his urge to form and his supreme moral self-confidence.

What historical facts, even, can be true except those which to the man of the age seem psychologically and physiologically probable, or at any rate not improbable? How, in face of such firm certainty about what was psychologically and physiologically probable and improbably could eighteenth century man conceive of the existence of historical riddles and secrets? And what else in fact could the past consist of than either of light, in so far as it reveals itself to be a preparation and mount for the ever-better present ‘You’ll pardon me–it is my great diversion, to steep myself in ages long since past; to see how prudent men did think before us, and how much further since we have advanced’–or simply of darkness–a warning counter-example and as such, if you like, a welcome counter-example–in so far as the past had not yet sense the right road to the future, or had even actively opposed it.

The third thing which this attitude precluded was that the historian should take history seriously as a force outside himself, which had it in its power to contradict him and which spoke to him with authority. One way or another the historian himself said that which he considered history might seriously be allowed to say, and, being his own advocate, he dared to set for both aspects of what he alleged history to have said, its admonitory and its encouraging aspect.

Protestant Thought: Rousseau to Ritschl, pg. 36

Apparently if we’re looking for the birthplace of chronological snobbery as a dominant intellectual instinct, we need look no farther than eighteenth century man. At root, the impulse to chronological snobbery is the absolute one; it is the confident assurance that history has been in motion leading moral and historical thought to culminate in the worldview or cultural assumptions of the critical historian. Like nature, history was the raw material of time upon which the absolute historian could impose his moral will to reshape and retell the story of his own understanding of greatness. It must be understood, not on its own terms, but from the historian’s own, critical standpoint–one which at no point could be challenged by the object of its study.

Barth draws out a number of deleterious effects this mode of historical inquiry had on this generation of historians, one of the most instructive and damning of which was that, “although as a race they were very learned in historical matters, they were at the same time singularly uninstructed, simply because their modern self-consciousness as such made them basically unteachable.” (pg. 37) When you come to believe that the judgments of this age are inherently superior to those of prior generations simply because they are further down the time-stream, you’ve rendered yourself unteachable; you can’t be corrected or called to account or caused to question any of your own assumptions by any other age than your own.

On Avoiding Snobbery

Unfortunately, the Enlightenment’s absolutist instinct towards history is alive and well in popular Western culture. The myth of progress, and the unconscious tendency to assume a posture of historical maturity and superiority towards our benighted forbears is part of the intellectual air we breathe. Of course, 200 years on some of the details are different; a certain postmodern fuzziness enters into the equation. A touch of historicism or relativism may prevent some of us from judging the past too harshly, and yet the basic structure of thought, in which our ancestors cannot speak a real word of correction or instruction to the present still dominates.

How might we avoid rendering ourselves unteachable by the past? Lewis gives us some sound advice at this point. He says that whenever we encounter an idea or an assumption that we deem regressive, passe, or “out of date”:

You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.

–ibid, pg. 208

In the words of Tim Keller, be prepared to “doubt your own doubt.” Be “radical” enough to question the assumptions of the present age–even the radical, progressive ones–in order to listen to ages past, which, at times, had a better feel for what life in the “age to come” is to be.

Soli Deo Gloria

C.S. Lewis: “Failure On This Paper Should Mean Failure On The Whole Exam.”

Lewis thinkingDifficult translation sections are included in the ordination exams of various denominations. Candidates are required to show their proficiency in both Greek and Hebrew, in order to demonstrate their competence in handling the texts they are to preach from the Word of God.

C.S. Lewis thought translation sections were a good idea, but recommended a different sort:

In both countries an essential part of the ordination exam ought to be a passage from some recognized theological work set for translation into vulgar English–just like doing Latin prose. Failure on this paper should mean failure on the whole exam. It is absolutely disgraceful that we expect missionaries to the Bantus to learn Bantu but never ask whether our missionaries to the Americans or English can speak American or English. Any fool can write learned language. The vernacular is the real test. If you can’t turn your faith into it, then either you don’t understand it or you don’t believe it.

— C.S. Lewis, ‘Version Vernacular’, The Christian Century vol. LXXV (31 December 1958) pg. 1515, reprinted in God in the Dockpg. 338

Nearly 60 years ago, before all the talk about contextualization was hip, and Lesslie Newbigin taught everyone that Western Culture was a mission-field too, Lewis was advocating for training in basic cultural literacy on the part of pastors and preachers. He saw the need to learn how to speak “American” and  “English”.

This is one of the two or three keys to understanding his appeal and genius: Lewis was a brilliant translator. It’s only years (and a number of heavy theological treatments of the subject) after reading Lewis’ treatment of the Trinity at the end of Mere Christianity that I can appreciate its disguised brilliance. It’s plainly-stated Athanasian and Nicene orthodoxy for beginners. As an absolute statement, it might be bit of a stretch to say that if it can’t be put in the vernacular, it probably isn’t understood or believed (cf. certain finer points of trinitarian doctrine such as the filioque, etc.). Still, as a general test for how well you actually grasp most of your professed theology, I’ve found it quite helpful. Teaching basic catechetical courses to youth or new believers is often a more challenging proposition than writing a paper for grad-level seminary courses.

Theologically-minded Protestants especially need to take heed of this. It’s fine to celebrate Luther, Calvin, Tyndale and the rest of the Reformers for giving the Bible back to the congregation through their vernacular Bible translations and worship. We need to be careful we don’t take it away from them again in rarified preaching filled with abstract, unexplained theological jargon. I have no problem with doctrinal preaching or using big words like ‘justification’ or even ‘perichoresis.’ They are good and fine and necessary. We just need to be careful we regularly use a lot of little words to explain them for those folks without seminary training. To insist that our hearers always come up, unaided, to your theological level is “shameful”, and an implicit denial of the Gospel of a Word who comes among us by taking on our flesh–1st Century Jewish flesh, to be exact.

Pastors, as you prepare to teach and preach to your people, work on your Greek, brush up on your Hebrew, but please, please, for the sake of the Gospel and your people, make it a priority to practice your ‘American.’

Soli Deo Gloria

Is Christianity Individualistic or Collectivist? “Yes” – C.S. Lewis and J. Gresham Machen

Americans like feeling unique and special--being one innovator who sticks out from the crowd.

Americans like feeling unique and special–being one innovator who sticks out from the crowd.

People have often wondered whether Christianity was more of an individualistic religion, with an emphasis on the person, or collectivistic, with a emphasis on the whole race or community. At different points in history the church has emphasized one over the other and then had the pendulum swing turn back on them within a generation or two. In fact, we’ll probably see something like that happen in our own day as churches begin to realize they need to stop feeding into the rampant, modern individualism of our consumer culture. In any case, the answer, as usual, lies somewhere in-between, or rather, off the grid.

With characteristic clarity J. Gresham Machen and C.S. Lewis both answered the question for their own generations in ways that are still relevant to ours.

I offer you Machen’s answer first with an important note–the ‘liberalism’ he is speaking of is not the current, political liberalism, but rather the theological liberalism of the early 20th Century:

It is true that historic Christianity is in conflict at many points with the collectivism of the present day; it does emphasize, against the claims of society, the worth of the individual soul. It provides for the individual a refuge from all the fluctuating currents of human opinion, a secret place of meditation where a man can come alone into the presence of God. It does give a man courage to stand, if need be, against the world; it resolutely refuses to make of the individual a mere means to an end, a mere element in the composition of society. It rejects altogether any means of salvation which deals with men in a mass; it brings the individual face to face with his God. In that sense, it is true that Christianity is individualistic and not social.

But though Christianity is individualistic, it is not only individualistic. It provides fully for the social needs of man.

In the first place, even the communion of the individual man with God is not really individualistic, but social. A man is not isolated when he is in communion with God; he can be regarded as isolated only by one who has forgotten the real existence of the supreme Person. Here again, as at many other places, the line of cleavage between liberalism and Christianity really reduces to a profound difference in the conception of God. Christianity is earnestly theistic; liberalism is at best but half-heartedly so. If a man once comes to believe in a personal God, then the wow ship of Him will not be regarded as selfish isolation, but as the chief end of man. That does not mean that on the Christian view the worship of God is ever to be carried on to the neglect of service rendered to one’s fellow-men − ”he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, is not able to love God whom he hath not seen” − but it does mean that the worship of God has a value of its own. Very different is the prevailing doctrine of modern liberalism. According to Christian belief, man exists for the sake of God; according to the liberal Church, in practice if not in theory, God exists for the sake of man. But the social element in Christianity is found not only in communion between man and God, but also in communion between man and man. Such communion appears even in institutions which are not specifically Christian.

J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, pg. 137-138

And now C.S. Lewis on the twin errors of ‘Totalitarianism’ (Collectivism) and individualism:

The idea that the whole human race is, in a sense, one thing —one huge organism, like a tree—must not be confused with the idea that individual differences do not matter or that real people, Tom and Nobby and Kate, are somehow less important than collective things like classes, races, and so forth.

Indeed the two ideas are opposites. Things which are parts of a single organism may be very different from one another: things which are not, may be very alike. Six pennies are quite separate and very alike: my nose and my lungs are very different but they are only alive at all because they are parts of my body and share its common life. Christianity thinks of human individuals not as mere members of a group or items in a list, but as organs in a body—different from one another and each contributing what no other could. When you find yourself wanting to turn your children, or pupils, or even your neighbours, into people exactly like yourself, remember that God probably never meant them to be that. You and they are different organs, intended to do different things.

On the other hand, when you are tempted not to bother about someone else’s troubles because they are “no business of yours,” remember that though he is different from you he is part of the same organism as you. If you forget that he belongs to the same organism as yourself you will become an Individualist. If you forget that he is a different organ from you, if you want to suppress differences and make people all alike, you will become a Totalitarian. But a Christian must not be either a Totalitarian or an Individualist.

I feel a strong desire to tell you—and I expect you feel a strong desire to tell me—which of these two errors is the worse. That is the devil getting at us. He always sends errors into the world in pairs—pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one. But do not let us be fooled. We have to keep our eyes on the goal and go straight through between both errors. We have no other concern than that with either of them.

-C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Bk. 4, 6

So, is Christianity collectivistic or individualistic? Machen and Lewis answer: Yes, and so much more.

Soli Deo Gloria

C.S. Lewis on “Counting the Cost”

Mr. T

Mr. T…just because.

There’s really no point in trying to pick which passage in Lewis’ Mere Christianity is the most helpful or more insightful than any other. Usually they all help with some particular point or question. Still, as I was perusing through it again today I ran across this section towards the end of the book where Lewis is describing the process of sanctification–he doesn’t call it that, but that’s what it is–and he goes into the subject of the ‘cost of discipleship’. I figured it’s worth a share and it doesn’t really need any commentary:

I find a good many people have been bothered by what I said in the last chapter about Our Lord’s words, “Be ye perfect.” Some people seem to think this means “Unless you are perfect, I will not help you”; and as we cannot be perfect, then, if He meant that, our position is hopeless. But I do not think He did mean that. I think He meant “The only help I will give is help to become perfect. You may want something less: but I will give you nothing less.”

Let me explain. When I was a child I often had toothache, and I knew that if I went to my mother she would give me something which would deaden the pain for that night and let me get to sleep. But I did not go to my mother—at least, not till the pain became very bad. And the reason I did not go was this. I did not doubt she would give me the aspirin; but I knew she would also do something else.

I knew she would take me to the dentist next morning. I could not get what I wanted out of her without getting something more, which I did not want. I wanted immediate relief from pain: but I could not get it without having my teeth set permanently right. And I knew those dentists; I knew they started fiddling about with all sorts of other teeth which had not yet begun to ache. They would not let sleeping dogs lie; if you gave them an inch they took an ell.

Now, if I may put it that way, Our Lord is like the dentists. If you give Him an inch, He will take an ell. Dozens of people go to Him to be cured of some one particular sin which they are ashamed of (like masturbation or physical cowardice) or which is obviously spoiling daily life (like bad temper or drunkenness). Well, He will cure it all right: but He will not stop there. That may be all you asked; but if once you call Him in, He will give you the full treatment.

That is why He warned people to “count the cost” before becoming Christians. “Make no mistake,” He says, “if you let me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in My hands, that is what you are in for. Nothing less, or other, than that. You have free will, and if you choose, you can push Me away.

But if you do not push Me away, understand that I am going to see this job through. Whatever suffering it may cost you in your earthly life, whatever inconceivable purification it may cost you after death, whatever it costs Me, I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect—until my Father can say without reservation that He is well pleased with you, as He said He was well pleased with me. This I can do and will do. But I will not do anything less.”And yet—this is the other and equally important side of it— this Helper who will, in the long run, be satisfied with nothing less than absolute perfection, will also be delighted with the first feeble, stumbling effort you make tomorrow to do the simplest duty. As a great Christian writer (George MacDonald) pointed out, every father is pleased at the baby’s first attempt to walk: no father would be satisfied with anything less than a firm, free, manly walk in a grown-up son. In the same way, he said, “God is easy to please, but hard to satisfy.”

The practical upshot is this. On the one hand, God’s demand for perfection need not discourage you in the least in your present attempts to be good, or even in your present failures. Each time you fall He will pick you up again. And He knows perfectly well that your own efforts are never going to bring you anywhere near perfection. On the other hand, you must realise from the outset that the goal towards which He is beginning to guide you is absolute perfection; and no power in the whole universe, except you yourself, ca prevent Him from taking you to that goal.

That is what you are in for. And it is very important to realise that. If we do not, then we are very likely to start pulling back and resisting Him after a certain point. I think that many of us, when Christ has enabled us to overcome one or two sins that were an obvious nuisance, are inclined to feel (though we do not out it into words) that we are now good enough. He has done all we wanted Him to do, and we should be obliged if He would now leave us alone. As we say “I never expected to be a saint, I only wanted to be a decent ordinary chap.” And we imagine when we say this that we are being humble.

But this is the fatal mistake. Of course we never wanted, and never asked, to be made into the sort of creatures He is going to make us into. But the question is not what we intended ourselves to be, but what He intended us to be when He made us. He is the inventor, we are only the machine. He is the painter, we are only the picture. How should we know what He means us to be like? You see, He has already made us something very different from what we were. Long ago, before we were born, when we were inside our mothers’ bodies, we passed through various stages.

-C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 4.9

C.S. Lewis and Pascal on the Problem of “Being Original”

One of my favorite Frenchmen.

One of my favorite Frenchmen.

I’ll admit, I suffer from creative constipation from time to time. You know what I’m talking about: feeling like you want to write, you have to write, but you simply can’t. I had a severe bout of it for a few years between my last blog, back in the Myspace days, and starting this one. I had a lot of fun with my old blog until I started reading good writers and deep thinkers. At that point I realized most of what I had to say had already been said by someone smarter, funnier, wiser, and generally in every way better than I ever could. (90% of the time it was C.S. Lewis.) With that, I kind of lost my will to write. It’s not so much that I didn’t like writing, but that I had trouble seeing the point–I didn’t feel like I had anything to say. I’d be surprised if I’m the only one who’s been troubled by that thought.

Two of my intellectual and literary heroes have some wisdom for those of us struggling with the problem of “being original”:

Let no one say I have said nothing new; the arrangement of the material is new. In playing tennis both players play the same ball, but one plays it better. –Blaise Pascal, Pensees

Even in social life, you will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making. Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it. –C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (IV, 11)

Pascal was writing an apologetic for the Christian faith. He readily acknowledged that the content, the point, the truth of what he was speaking was nothing new. In fact, that was the point–he was trying to convince his skeptical, intellectual friends to re-engage, to accept the very old truth of Christianity. At the same time his apologetic method, his style, the questions he asked, were different, and “original” in that sense. He had produced a new “arrangement” of the material.

Lewis makes the same point with even less of an emphasis on being consciously original. He simply advises that we ought to “try and tell the truth” as best we know how and the odds are, given our unique wiring and design, it will end up being original. In fact, that’s one of the interesting things I’ve come to see about Lewis himself.

The first time I read Mere Christianity I thought it was amazing simply because it was so new–Lewis was pointing me to insights and truths I had never encountered, in ways I couldn’t have imagined for myself. As the years past, though, the more theology I read I came to recognize a great deal of other authors, thinkers, theologians, and presentations peeking through the edges of what Lewis was doing. Lewis’ originality lay not so much in the newness of his ideas–he would have denied any originality for himself at that point–but, like Pascal, in his peculiar talent at making the old seem new and the difficult, accessible to the men and women of his own day. He didn’t do it by changing anything for them, but rather by both listening and speaking to them.

If you’re having trouble “being original”, take a lesson from Pascal and Lewis: find something you believe in, a truth you’re passionate about and strive to communicate it as best you can to those around you. If you do that, originality will take care of itself.

Soli Deo Gloria

Is it Really Bad if God Brings Something Good out of it? C.S. Lewis, Joseph, and Moral Judgments

“Is it really a bad thing if God does something good with it?” You may have heard this kind of question before. Maybe in a discussion after your philosophy 101 class, or a Bible study, or in a coffee shop, the issue of God and evil comes up. How can God still be good and powerful given the amount of evil and suffering we see in the world? Copious amounts of ink have been spilled on the subject and numerous answers have been given. I’m not going to attempt anything so bold as to hazard a definitive answer except to clarify a couple of important points we must keep straight in our thinking about this issue.

Good Enough Reasons and the Problem of Naming Evil

One commonly made point is that it’s possible for God to still be good and powerful and allow all the evil we see in the world, if he has a morally justifiable reason to such as avoiding a greater evil or bringing about an outweighing moral good. For instance, I’m morally justified in allowing my child to suffer pain while getting vaccination shots because it will prevent some later, horrible disease. In fact, at that point, I’m just justified in purposing the pain, because it is outweighed by the good of avoiding the disease.

This is somewhat common-sensical, and leaving aside some issues related to God’s power, you could see the way that the principle could apply to God. God can still be good and powerful, yet allow for some good purpose even if it’s one that only He can understand. (The epistemological issue is an important one, but I’ll deal with that in another post on another day.)

At this point our post title becomes relevant. God is justified in allowing something we think is evil because of the good that comes from it or that evil that it avoids. But, the question actually goes a bit further and says, “Well, in fact, it seems that instance of suffering and evil wasn’t really evil because of the good result that came from it. Maybe it’s just that evil is just a good that is misunderstood?”

Is that right, though?

Natural questions like these make some worry about appealing to some higher “plan.” They fear that it impermissibly justifies evil and makes moral language ambiguous. In other words, if that crime was really part of God’s plan that he used to bring about some greater good, are we allowed to call it evil? Is suffering really bad? If that’s the case, then doesn’t that remove moral responsibility and render us unable and name evil as evil since it is “justified”? To say otherwise is “nihilism.”

In light of this, they would want to say that, in fact, all we can morally say is that there is no “good” reason for much of the evil that we see in the world. All we know is that God hates it, will end it someday, and make everything better.

But that seems troubling as well because if we can’t say that God had a good reason for allowing an evil, that leaves us back where we started with God allowing evil for no good reason at all.

Is there a way forward from this?

C.S. Lewis on Simple Good, Simple Evil, and Complex Good

There are a great many issues to consider here, but C.S. Lewis has a great little passage in his work devoted to the problem of suffering and evil, The Problem of Painthat begins to address the issue. He’s discussing whether Christians should seek suffering because so often it is linked to spiritual growth and moral goodness. In it he says:

I answer that suffering is not good in itself. What is good in any painful experience is, for the sufferer, his submission to the will of God, and, for the spectators, the compassion aroused and the acts of mercy to which it leads. In the fallen and partially redeemed universe we may distinguish (1) The simple good descending from God, (2) The simple evil produced by rebellious creatures, and (3) the exploitation of that evil by God for His redemptive purpose, which produces (4) the complex good to which accepted; suffering and repented sin contribute. Now the fact that God can make complex good out of simple evil does not excuse – though by mercy it may save – those who do the simple evil. And this distinction is central. Offences must come, but woe to those by whom they come; sins do cause grace to abound, but we must not make that an excuse for continuing to sin. The crucifixion itself is the best, as well as the worst, of all historical events, but the role of Judas remains simply evil.

We may apply this first to the problem of other people’s suffering. A merciful man aims at his neighbour’s good and so does “God’s will”, consciously co-operating with “the simple good”. A cruel man oppresses his neighbour, and so does simple evil. But in doing such evil, he is used by God, without his own knowledge or consent, to produce the complex good – so that the first man serves God as a son, and the second as a tool. For you will certainly carry out God’s purpose, however you act, but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John. 

So we see it is possible to speak of simple good, simple evil, God’s redemptive work, and the complex good that follows from God’s redemptive work. It is possible for both God and humans to be at work in one and the same events event–to be able to speaking meaningfully of human evil while still affirming God’s goodness in that particular event. Sounds good Clive, but is it biblical?

Joseph: A Biblical Paradigm

There are a number of events in biblical history which God speaks of as evil on the part of humans, yet part of a broader, good divine plan. The story of Joseph is often used as a paradigm for this way of thinking. In the story, he is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, is wrongfully imprisoned by his Egyptian slave-master, left in jail for many years, but through a providential chain of events is elevated to a position of power in Egypt before a time of great famine. This then enables him years later to provide food for his family that had initially sold him into slavery as well as provide for the entire nation of Egypt. Eventually, from that family, comes the Messiah, the savior of the world.

In an encounter with his brothers years later he realizes that they fear for their lives from him. Even years after forgiving them and treating them well, they still worry that he might be holding a grudge against him for their evil. Joseph calms their fears by assuring them he knows that although they did what they did for evil intentions, God intended for good (Gen. 50:20):

As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.

So, in the one affirmation we see him affirm that being sold into slavery by your own brothers is evil. Being wrongfully imprisoned is evil. At the same time, being in the right place, at the right time to avert disaster for a nation and one’s own family is good. But the humanly-intended evil and the divinely-intended good were being accomplished side by side in the same events! Examples like this could be multiplied over and over again in Scripture, whether in the prophets or the preaching of the early church in Acts. Lewis is on firm, biblical ground here.

Conclusions

So let’s put this together: First, it is not that moral evil or evil events are just good not yet understood. We don’t want to deny the evil of evil, especially of sinful human actions. At the human level, we can say of those things that God condemns them as wicked and they ought not be done. Again, Judas is morally blameworthy and an evil individual for betraying Jesus. God disapproves of his actions. They are really and truly evil.

At the same time, on another level the existence of these evils is morally-justified even if we cannot see the moral justification currently,  with respect to God.  In the case of Judas and the Cross, God used Judas’ wickedness to accomplish his good divine intention. Judas is evil in his action. God is not because he had a good enough reason for allowing this evil to occur.

Admittedly, this is just a thumb-nail sketch of an answer to one of the many questions within a much broader issue. Still, I think can help us keep a couple of points clear that ought not be confused whenever we are trying to think about or discuss the issue of evil and suffering from a biblical perspective.

In all things Soli Deo Gloria.