Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Inexplicable Popularity of C.S. Lewis

When I was a child, my familiarity with the religious writer C.S. Lewis was through his best-selling Narnia books, which – like most children – I enjoyed quite thoroughly. At the time, however, I was quite unaware that this deceased Irishman – who wrote compellingly about lions, witches, and wardrobes – was also the most prominent Christian apologist of the twentieth century. If there was a religious message to the Narnia series, I regret to say that I missed it quite thoroughly.

Eventually, at the age of 19, I was confronted with Mr. Lewis’ real legacy. During my junior year of college, my girlfriend at the time told me she was reading Mr. Lewis’ autographic work, Surprised by Joy. In that book, C.S. Lewis recounts his conversion from atheism to full-faith, no-doubt-about-it Christianity. She was intrigued by the content of the book, since, like myself, she was a person who hungered for a spirituality she was unable to acquire as a youth. Ultimately, when she finished reading the book, she declared that it was “disappointing” (although that didn’t stop her spiritual quest). As for me, I never bothered to read the book, although it’s been on my Amazon.com Wish List for oh, about nine years or so.

Why am I bringing up C.S. Lewis’ book? Well, because of my book. Overall, my book, The Mustard Seed: A Story of Life and Faith, is about the spiritual journey of a young man named Brian Raines. In Chapter 2, he recounts the early stages of his journey.

"In a last-ditch attempt to salvage my fledgling faith, I started reading a couple of C.S. Lewis’ books. Supposedly, Lewis was the most important Christian thinker of the 20th Century, and what made him especially interesting was that he started off as an atheist. I heard on a radio show that his books were the best medicine for skeptics like me. Since he had such an appealing background, I started to devour his books – Surprised by Joy, The Problem of Pain, Mere Christianity, etc.

"But I have to say, Lewis’ books weren’t very unconvincing. His arguments were circular, embarrassingly simplistic, and contained more holes than a gangbang video. If this was the best the Christian elite could come up with, the search for faith was pointless. Overall, the whole experience left me feeling drained and empty inside.

I won’t spoil the rest. The point is…in my book, I had criticized (or at least Brian Raines had criticized) C.S. Lewis’ world-famous work.

Considering that I had never bothered to read ANY of C.S. Lewis’ books (the Narnia books excepted), was that criticism fair?

Well, yes, for the most part. I had a reasonable understanding of C.S. Lewis’s philosophy through I another book called The Language of God by Dr. Francis Collins. I had read this book while writing The Mustard Seed, and after completing it, I added the two paragraphs bashing C.S. Lewis. Why did I find Mr. Lewis so objectionable?

Well, up until recently, I couldn’t remember. After all, I read the book almost three years ago, and my memory – besides the overall negative judgment – was faulty. So I decided to be a good little lad and actually BUY C.S. Lewis’ book, Mere Christianity.

I thought that was the only fair thing to do.

Boy, was I mistaken!

I read through the first 50 pages of Mere Christianity before I realized that no page in this piece of drivel would be informative or useful to me in any way whatsoever. Eventually, in the interest of fairness, I read the Wikipedia page on Mere Christianity just to be 100% certain I hadn’t missed anything. I didn’t.

Under the section, The Case for Christianity, there are 2 main points.

First, according to the Wikipedia article…

C.S. Lewis “bases his case on a moral law, a ‘rule about right and wrong’ commonly known to all human beings, citing the example of the Holocaust; even atheists believed that Hitler's actions were morally wrong. On a more mundane level, it is generally accepted that stealing is violating the moral law. Lewis argues that the moral law is like the laws of nature in that it was not contrived by humans. However, it is unlike natural laws in that it can be broken or ignored, and it is known intuitively, rather than through observation. After introducing the moral law, Lewis argues that there must be ‘something behind’ it; namely, God.”

So that’s the first argument.

Very often, a gifted writer will mask his fraudulent arguments with so many half-truths and humbug that the reader will be forced to think and re-think the argument several times in order to proclaim its falsehood. But in Mr. Lewis’ case, the argument is so poor that it can never be seriously considered.

Let’s break this down Dr. Jack-style.

First, according to Mr. Lewis, every human being is born with an “intuitive” understanding of “right and wrong.” This is just plain false. Every mother and father will confirm that NO child is born with an “intuitive” sense of “right and wrong.” Rather, those children must be TAUGHT to understand the difference – and the best way to understand THAT difference is through REASON (although, especially in the early years, social conformity and a few spankings might help).

Lewis’ further explanation that the Holocaust is proof of this “moral law” that is “commonly known to all human beings?” Oh really? I would beg to differ. The fact that SS guards laughed while shooting innocent women and children in the concentration camps and then mailed photos of their crimes to their families back home certainly negates any theory that “right and wrong” is “intuitive” in human beings. The fact that even today, in most Muslim cultures, teenage girls who are raped are then MURDERED by their own parents (to cleanse the “shame” on their family) shows that there are no universal, intuitive standards of “right and wrong.” If there are no such “intuitive” standards, where can we derive such standards?” I’ll let Brian Raines explain (The Mustard Seed, Chapter 13)…

“Feelings are a part of life – but they’re ultimately unreliable. And a life philosophy that is based on feelings is equally unreliable. What is reliable? Reason. Intelligence. Judgment. The power of the mind. The individual mind.”

But you know what? I’ll suspend the “judgment” of my own “individual mind” and take C.S. Lewis’ word for it: Fine, there is a “moral law” that can be “known intuitively, rather than through observation.” But Mr. Lewis insists that there must be “something behind’ it; namely, God.”

Oh really? Why must God be behind it? Why can’t it just exist naturally? Why can’t it be Darwinian evolution (reciprocal behavior towards family members and other members of the tribe) and/or the evolution of the civilization itself (in which people must participate cooperatively in large political and economic organizations to ensure their supply of resources – whether it be food, housing, or getting National Book Awards). This argument is so easy to refute it’s almost laughable. There is NO – repeat NO – need to use God as the explanation for an intuitive “moral law” that (as we’ve already established) DOESN’T EVEN EXIST!

Let’s return the Wikipedia article…

“The other underpinning of [C.S. Lewis’] appeal for a benevolent being is his argument that we cannot yearn for something that does not exist. The fact that people thirst reflects that they naturally need water and that there is no other substance which satisfies that need.”

(Folks, that sound you hear is me banging my head on my keyboard). Umm, I thirst to be the King of the Planet Slocar in the Uriental Galaxy. Does that mean there is such a planet? Well, according to C.S. Lewis, Plant Slocar must exist since I “thirst” for it.

“Oh,” C.S. Lewis might say, “that ‘s not a reasonable thirst.”

And God is?

I know plenty of people who DON’T thirst for God (they are either agnostic or atheist), and I would argue that most young Christians in America today have NO thirst for Christianity as it’s been traditionally practiced for most of its 2,000 years (you know, the genocide, Reformations, Spanish Inquisitions, all that jazz). Bottom line: C.S. Lewis’ assertion that we “cannot yearn for something that does not exist” is patently false – because people yearn for things that don’t exist ALL THE TIME (!), and besides, that “yearning” for a “benevolent being” doesn’t even exist in many people.

Finally, I’d like to comment on something that was written under the “Christian behavior” section of the Wikipedia article. Specifically, I take great umbrage with this line:

“[C.S. Lewis] also writes about ‘the great sin:’ pride, which he argues to be the root cause of all evil and rebellion.”

Since I remembered this point from the brief part of Mere Christianity that I actually read, I decided to open my copy and scan for it. On page 49, I found this quote…

“The moment you have a self at all, there is a possibility of putting yourself first – wanting to be the center – wanting to be God, in fact. That was the sin of Satan: and that was the sin he taught the human race…What Satan put into our heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could ‘be like gods’…and out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history – money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery – the long terrible story of man.”

So, basically, according to Mr. Lewis, “putting yourself first” and “being like God” is responsible for the “long terrible story of man.” Personally, in contrast to Mr. Lewis, I recommend that ethics should be grounded in “rational self-interest,” but I won’t spend paragraph upon paragraph justifying my views (I would just recommend reading The Mustard Seed – specifically, Chapter 9).

Instead, I’d like to focus on the line, “being like God.” Why shouldn’t we aspire to “be like God?” If God is all-good, all-knowing, all-merciful, the pinnacle of perfection, then shouldn’t He be our inspiration (rather than our downfall)? I think the answer is self-evident. But what’s self-evident is of very little interest to Mr. Lewis. Rather, he wants to regurgitate the millennia-old lie that human beings should be meek, humble, reserved, and bland (whereas I firmly believe that people should be self-confident, creative, colorful, and unafraid to reach for the stars).

Now that’s a philosophy worth living.

After reviewing Mr. Lewis’ book, I have to agree with Brian Raines: it is “embarrassing simplistic.”

And to paraphrase Brian again, if Mere Christianity is the best defense of Christianity today, then that religion (at least the way it’s practiced today) is in even more trouble than I thought…


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