Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Imagine There's No Heaven

Debates over the rightness and wrongness of theism are well-worn, and even for one who likes to engage in them they can be occasionally tiresome. Kudos to C.S. Lewis for taking stabs at an original argument. Having once been an unbeliever himself, he is aware of how much his book makes the unsympathetic reader's eyes roll:

'I know exactly what this man is going to do,' he murmurs. 'He is going to start explaining all these mythological statements away. It is the invariable practice of these Christians. On any matter whereon science has not yet spoken and on which they cannot be checked, they will tell you some preposterous fairytale. And then, the moment science makes a new advacne and shows (as it invariably does) their statement to be untrue, they suddenly turn round and explain that they didn't mean what they said, that they were using a poetic metaphor or constructing an allegory, and that all they really intended was some harmless moral platitude. Were are sick of this theological thimble-rigging'. Now I have a great deal of sympathy with that sickness and I freely admit that 'modernist' Christianity has constantly played just the game of which the impatient sceptic accuses it.

Lewis takes the most unusual tack not of defending the Bible's more outlandish episodes or dismissing them as mere metaphor, but making a virtue of their being metaphors. For figurative language is not simply a poet's indulgence but crucial to everyday speech:

But very often when we are talking about something which is not perceptible by the five senses we use words which, in one of their meanings, refer to things or actions that are. When a man says that he grasps an argument he is using a verb (grasp) which literally means to take something in the hands, but he is certainly not thinking that his mind has hands or than an argument can be seized like a gun.... [A]ll speech about suspersensibles is, and must be, metaphorical in the highest degree.

A characteristically sharp observation, albeit one that mistakes the tree for the forest. Figurative speech plays a strong role (see?) in our speech and writing, but always to augment meaning, never to replace. The terminology is always well-defined, and the imagery is not taken literally: no one thinks the wave of democratic protests spreading across the Middle East is the same kind of wave that just hit Japan (well, almost nobody). And yet, Jesus Christ is regularly taken to be the son of an old man in the sky. More than that, a considerable chunk of the United States's population believes, for instance, that God created man as is, no evolution involved.

Lewis rightly dismisses such crude thinking, but argues that the wild stories and images are necessary because God is so far beyond our comprehension that only metaphor will suffice, and to this end enlists a number of them in his cause. In a particularly clever metaphor-within-a-metaphor (a meta-phor?), humanity are like erudite limpets in an aquarium who, having glimpsed their owner/God outside the tank, can only describe him in relation to his not being a limpet.

This is all interesting as far as it goes, but it's still an evasion of what God is actually supposed to be, if he exists (a mighty if Lewis takes entirely for granted). Again, we know democracy--self-governance by a given population--"exists," but as an idea, as a concept. What is God, then? What is Jesus and the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection supposed to be? Lewis will have nothing of the abstraction of God that I considered when reading The Screwtape Letters. Definite God must be, yet this is the closest we get to a definition:

....[I]n addition to the physical or psycho-physical universe known to the sciences, there exists an uncreated and unconditioned reality which causes the universe to be; that this reality has a positive structure or constitution which is usefully, though doubtless not completely, described in the doctrine of the Trinity; and that this reality, at a definite point in time, entered the universe we know by becoming one of its own creatures and there produced effects on the historical level which the normal workings of the natural universe do not produce; and that this has brought about a change in our relations to the unconditioned reality.

This is still maddeningly vague: an "uncreated and conditioned reality" with "a positive structure or constitution." Small wonder that metaphor and the erudite limpets are so useful to Lewis's purposes, for they are quite lively, lovely images. But they are not convincing to one not already persuaded of God's existence. I think this is probably true of any argument on such matters; that many theories and ideologies are post hoc justifications for ideas we have already come to. But to someone who doesn't already believe in God, a sentence like "Even our sexuality should be regarded as the transposition into a minor key of that creative joy which in Him is unceasing and irresistable" is just so much pretty verbiage.

Again I stress how much I appreciate the originality of Lewis's argument. Rather than the emperor having no clothes, as happens when Biblical literalism crashes up against scientific progress, after Lewis, one is left looking at clothes in search of an emperor.


  1. I like it. I haven't read Miracles in a long time and plan to reread it and my other favorites of Lewis's (nonfiction) this year. I'm bookmarking your blog (came here from TNC). -rahab

  2. This is exactly why I tend to think of faith as being non-rational. Not (necessarily) irrational, but something beyond reasoned arguing. Induction can never prove something beyond a doubt. It simply explains, through the best means available, what reality is as far as we can measure it. Absolute statements, either positive or negative, are ultimately bunk when backed up by inductive logic. On the other hand, deductive logic will never be able to tell you more than whether or not a particular set of conclusions are in agreement with a particular set of assumptions. Unless both sides in an argument can agree on the axioms in play (which almost never seems to happen outside of math), any extensions will be meaningless to the other side. As a number of philosophers and theologians have noted, faith requires a leap beyond the realm of the rational. Hence why there will always be a gap between believers and non-believers that cannot be bridged purely by reason.

  3. Thanks for the bookmark, rahab!

    Jordan: Quite true. This makes it seem, though, as if deductive logic has nothing to offer, since the answer is inherent in the premises. Surely it has value beyond its own cleverness?

  4. Deductive logic certainly has uses. It's the entire system that mathematics is built upon and that's served us pretty well. And since the axioms are by definition fairly simple, the elaborations are usually anything but obvious (there is no phrase related to math that I hate more than 'it should be obvious'). But like I said, that's all premised on people agreeing with the axioms.

    There are also people who reject the validity of inductive logic because it can never 'prove' anything. I think that's why there are people who criticize science, as there is always a certain amount of ambiguity built into the system.

  5. You missed the crux of his argument. He says some things in the bible are metaphoric, but not other things. To make the point he differentiates between 'my heart is broken' being a metaphor, but 'my lace isn't broken' isn't. He was clear in that he literally believes in the virgin birth, the literal resurrection of Jesus and the christian miracles in the rest of the book. Hence he wasn't being evasive.
    More importantly his justification of the the beliefs in these miracles is the 'fitness of things' in the universal order. Hence sexuality being a minor key theme of the divine pattern is part of his justification for his beliefs. Of course it's not conclusive justification, but nonetheless interesting and self -coherent.