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C.S. Lewis Shrugged

August 19, 2013 — 25 Comments

csl & randI just watched another documentary about the controversial Ayn Rand, who wrote Atlas Shrugged. The program, “Ayn Rand & the Prophecy of Atlas Shrugged,” claimed that book is the number one selling hardcover in history (following the Bible, of course).

Although I haven’t read it, I witness it’s growing influence as it becomes more frequently referenced in political discussions. It is a favorite (sometimes even referred to as the “gospel”) of Libertarians.

Rand was a Soviet refugee, and much of what she anticipated, has come to pass. Unbridled government regulations, she predicted, would strangle creativity and production. The welfare state would collapse upon itself as it eroded the incentive to work. In her call for less government interference and oversight, she echoes the concerns of growing numbers of Americans on both the left and the right.

This reflects a reversal of her argument’s reception when it was published. In 1957, the dystopian novel apparently did not receive a single positive review. After William F. Buckley published a scathingly negative review, she never spoke to him again.*

And that raises one of the problems with Rand’s work. In actuality, this flaw is a failing common to all literature. It is difficult to separate what is written from its author. This is especially true when the person who wields the pen possesses a unique or outlandish personality. This was certainly the case with Rand. One of her primary goals was to be provocative.

The title of this column was inspired by a recent post I read entitled, “Ayn Rand Really, Really hated C.S. Lewis.” You can read it at First Things.

In the article, Matthew Schmitz provides excerpts of Rand’s underlining and marginalia (notes) in her copy of Lewis’ Abolition of Man. His opening paragraph says it all, though. [Warning: Those offended by rude language should skip the next paragraph.]

Ayn Rand was no fan of C.S. Lewis. She called the famous apologist an “abysmal bastard,” a “monstrosity,” a “cheap, awful, miserable, touchy, social-meta­physical mediocrity,” a “pickpocket of concepts,” and a “God-damn, beaten mystic.” (I suspect Lewis would have particularly relished the last of these.)

Lewis’ indomitable spirit, as hinted at in Schmitz’ parenthetical comment, is precisely what inspired the title of my post.

So, why am I discussing Rand’s work at all, if she so despised Lewis? Well, because I want to explore just why she was so offended by his philosophy.

There is great irony present here. While Rand devotees and serious Christians would share many fears about oppressive governments . . . they are ill-suited allies.

Despite this commonality, the basic reasons for distrusting secular institutions, and more expressly, their solutions to the problem are diametrically opposed.

For Lewis, the atheist turned Christian apologist, hope comes only from God, not from a laissez faire government. While most Christians do not believe in the “coerced compassion” of unlimited taxation to support people unwilling** to work, we utterly disagree with Rand’s elevation of selfishness as virtue.

And that last phrase is not hyperbole. Rand actually wrote a book entitled The Virtue of Selfishness. She viewed altruism as inherently illogical, and thus, essentially immoral.

So, it’s no surprise she disliked Lewis. He had been delivered from a self-centered worldview, and recognized that we have been created by a loving Father for a grand, and eternal purpose.

In the Christian worldview, selfishness provides evidence of our corruption by the Fall. Our disobedience—our selfish desire to have things our way—is at the root of humanity’s problems.

Altruism, giving of oneself for the welfare of another without anticipation of benefit, is—for the disciple of Jesus—a genuine virtue.

We’ll end this brief discussion of a complex subject with a passage from C.S. Lewis. It is a discussion of altruism (in the context of Moral Law) drawn from Mere Christianity. One can only imagine what Ayn Rand would write in the margins, but I’ll take my stand with Lewis.

Some of the letters I have had show that a good many people find it difficult to understand just what this Law of Human Nature, or Moral Law, or Rule of Decent Behaviour is. For example, some people wrote to me saying, “Isn’t what you call the Moral Law simply our herd instinct and hasn’t it been developed just like all our other instincts?”

Now I do not deny that we may have a herd instinct: but that is not what I mean by the Moral Law. We all know what it feels like to be prompted by instinct—by mother love, or sexual instinct, or the instinct for food. It means that you feel a strong want or desire to act in a certain way. And, of course, we sometimes do feel just that sort of desire to help another person: and no doubt that desire is due to the herd instinct. But feeling a desire to help is quite different from feeling that you ought to help whether you want to or not.

Supposing you hear a cry for help from a man in danger. You will probably feel two desires—one a desire to give help (due to your herd instinct), the other a desire to keep out of danger (due to the instinct for self-preservation).

But you will find inside you, in addition to these two impulses, a third thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away.

Now this thing that judges between two instincts, that decides which should be encouraged, cannot itself be either of them. You might as well say that the sheet of music which tells you, at a given moment, to play one note on the piano and not another, is itself one of the notes on the keyboard. The Moral Law tells us the tune we have to play: our instincts are merely the keys.

Another way of seeing that the Moral Law is not simply one of our instincts is this. If two instincts are in conflict, and there is nothing in a creature’s mind except those two instincts, obviously the stronger of the two must win. But at those moments when we are most conscious of the Moral Law, it usually seems to be telling us to side with the weaker of the two impulses. You probably want to be safe much more than you want to help the man who is drowning: but the Moral Law tells you to help him all the same.

And surely it often tells us to try to make the right impulse stronger than it naturally is? I mean, we often feel it our duty to stimulate the herd instinct, by waking up our imaginations and arousing our pity and so on, so as to get up enough steam for doing the right thing. But clearly we are not acting from instinct when we set about making an instinct stronger than it is. The thing that says to you, “Your herd instinct is asleep. Wake it up,” cannot itself be the herd instinct. The thing that tells you which note on the piano needs to be played louder cannot itself be that note.

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* “Big Sister is Watching You,” written by a former atheist Soviet spy turned Quaker capitalist, is available online here.

** By “unwilling,” I am referring to people capable of supporting themselves, but consciously choosing to live off of the produce of others. While some Christians feel morally compelled to support even these, most would follow the guidance found in II Thessalonians 3:

As for other matters, brothers and sisters, pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored, just as it was with you. And pray that we may be delivered from wicked and evil people, for not everyone has faith. . . . May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance. . . .

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it.

On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate.

For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat.

csl and kingAuthor Stephen King surprised quite a few fans during a recent PBS interview when he expressed his belief in the universe’s intelligent design. In nature and the cosmos, like theist C.S. Lewis before him, he views a creation so complex and wondrous that he thinks it makes more sense to believe in a divine power than to dismiss faith.

During the interview, King said,

I choose to believe it, yeah. I think that . . . there’s no downside to that, and the downside—if you say, well, OK, I don’t believe in God, there’s no evidence of God—then you’re missing the stars in the sky, and you’re missing the sunrises and sunsets, and you’re missing the fact that bees pollinate all these crops and keep us alive and the way that everything seems to work together at the same time.

In an essay, “Christianity and Culture,” C.S. Lewis alludes to the “Theist” phase of his own life. He points out how limiting a faith that recognizes God only abstractly, in his handiwork, can be.

There is an easy transition from Theism to Pantheism; but there is also a blessed transition in the other direction. For some souls I believe, for my own I remember, Wordsworthian contemplation can be the first and lowest form of recognition that there is something outside ourselves which demands reverence.

To return to Pantheistic errors about the nature of this something would, for a Christian, be very bad. But once again, for “the man coming up from below” the Wordsworthian experience is an advance. Even if he goes no further he has escaped the worst arrogance of materialism: if he goes on he will be converted.

King is, of course, far from what one would properly call a “person of faith.”** Still, it may be that he is presently moving in a positive direction. The following words reveal his yearning for hope, criticism of institutional religion, and his as yet unanswered questions about why God allows suffering in our world.

It’s certainly a subject that’s interested me, and I think it interests me more the older that I get. And I think we’d all like to believe that after we shuffle off this mortal coil, that there’s going to be something on the other side because for most of us, I know for me, life is so rich, so colorful and sensual and full of good things, things to read, things to eat, things to watch, places to go, new experiences, that I don’t want to think that you just go to darkness. . . .

But as far as God and church and religion and . . . that sort of thing, I kind of always felt that organized religion was just basically a theological insurance scam where they’re saying if you spend time with us, guess what, you’re going to live forever, you’re going to go to some other plain where you’re going to be so happy, you’ll just be happy all the time, which is also kind of a scary idea to me. . . .

Everything is sort of built in a way that to me suggests intelligent design. But at the same time there’s a lot of things in life where you say to yourself, well, if this is God’s plan, it’s very peculiar. And you have to wonder about that guy’s personality, the big guy’s personality. . . . What I’m saying now is I choose to believe in God, but I have serious doubts.

For many intelligent people, like C.S. Lewis and Stephen King, coming to faith cannot be severed from their reason. They desire to make sense of the world. Some, sadly, determine that human beings perish forever with their final breath. With that worldview, using King’s words, “you just go to darkness.”

Fortunately many others—brilliant and simple people alike, for God shows no partiality—possess true wisdom and heed the words of Jesus, that he is the way, the truth and the life. Both of these writers experienced an ineffective exposure to the church when they were young. Unfortunately, it served as more of an inoculation than a foundation.

Eventually C.S. Lewis followed that path from theism to Christianity. It’s not impossible that Stephen King may, as well.

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* A full transcript of the PBS interview is available here.

** In the interview, King “commends” the entertainment value of enthusiastic, emotionally-charged preaching, while disparaging his own mainline upbringing.

I went to a Methodist church for years as a kid, and Methodist youth fellowship on Thursday nights, and it was all pretty – you know, think of a bottle of soda with the cap off for 24 hours. There weren’t very many bubbles left in that stuff by then. It was pretty – it was Yankee religion, Terry, and there’s really not much in the world that’s any more boring than that. They tell you that you’re going to go to hell, and you’re half-asleep.

I haven’t forgotten. Well, I have forgotten far too many things in recent years, but I didn’t forget my recent “promise” to address the challenging subject of the distinction between agnosticism and atheism. Last week I wrote: “I suspect that the intimately personal nature of God’s love for us is one of the things that moves some people from agnosticism to atheism.”

It’s not my desire to offend anyone with the discussion which follows. After all, God loves the “lost” just as much as he loves those who have surrendered their lives to him. In fact, there’s an amazing passage that hints at how the rescue of one of those who has “strayed” is even more exciting to the hosts of heaven than the faithfulness of his dedicated disciples. (Check out verses 12-14 in chapter 18 of the Gospel according to Matthew . . . and remember what I have said in the past about how eager any of your Christian acquaintances will be to provide you with a copy of the Bible if you don’t already have one.)

Every soul is precious to God. And yet, many don’t recognize that fact. Many worship false gods (religious and secular). Among those who deny the existence of supernatural deities, there are essentially two camps. Agnostics who (technically) do not deny God’s existence, but merely profess that it is unknowable. Thus they personally remain unpersuaded. Atheists, on the alternative hand, are more adamant about denying God’s existence. Some, in fact, make a living by stridently refuting God himself and all things holy.

Intuitively, most people assume agnostics are not quite as distant from faith as are atheists. After all, agnostics are generally more polite and respectful toward those of us who naively cling to such superstitions . . . right? Atheists, by contrast, tend to ridicule those who would worship a God who laid down his very life, and died a human death.

Take, for example, what is arguably the earliest surviving illustration of Christ’s crucifixion. The illustration above was carved on an ancient plaster wall near Palatine Hill.

It’s a bit difficult to discern, but historical consensus sees the graffito as a pagan insult directed towards a Greek Christian. The scribbled inscription reads: “Alexamenos worships [his] god.” The crucified figure on the cross clearly bears the head of a donkey. The Church Father Tertullian wrote in the second century of slanders alleging Christians followed just such a deity.

Would something like this be likelier to come from the mind of an agnostic, or an atheist?

Agnostics would rarely summon the energy to rail against God like this. However, atheists sometimes feel so imposed upon by God’s children that they lash out with invectives.

So, as I noted above, the gut feeling of most observers would be to say vocal atheists are farther from God than their kindred disbelievers. However—I am convinced that is not the case!

Ironically, it is the tepid individual who lacks any serious conviction who is in greater danger of perishing without seeing God. This is due to the fact that agnostics have, as a rule, come to grips with the fact that there may or may not be a God . . . but they are content to proceed through life without caring much either way. To them the issue is rather trivial, in a sense, since they rarely lose sleep over it.

This is not true of the atheist, who recognizes that the matter is of the utmost importance; that’s why he is not content to simply ignore it. If God truly exists—they comprehend in the core of their being—nothing could be of greater significance.

Agnostics typically have an unreasoned impression that if there is a God, he is probably benevolent, and most likely more concerned with other elements of the universe he created than their small life. They echo the thinking of liberal “Deists” who imagined God as a distant “watchmaker” who set creation in motion and then left it forgotten on the shelf. This Great Watchmaker is not threatening. He isn’t angry at us, because he doesn’t even deign to notice us. He remains oblivious to humanity, just as we presumably live out our lives anonymous to him.

Atheists don’t want to believe in God, because of their overwhelming doubt. Simultaneously, they recognize that the stakes of the gamble are enormous. Eternal, in fact. And they resent God for placing them in this difficult predicament. Why can’t he just make his existence undeniably evident? Faith is the leap they are unwilling to take. But, by the same rational premise, the wise among them realize that in opting against theism, they are actually placing their faith in an equally unprovable tenet. And this has a tendency to make some of them mildly cranky.

Which brings us back to my suspicion that “the intimately personal nature of God’s love for us is one of the things that moves some people from agnosticism to atheism.” You see, when someone deeply ponders the mystery of whether there is a Creator, they understand he would never have created a sentient being with this yearning to cleave to him, without possessing a compassion for them in return.

Agnostics walk about like spiritual zombies, pursuing their various interests. Atheists, though, are tormented by the nagging “fear” that a loving God just may exist. Certainly, they do whatever they can to exorcize the notion, and they publicly celebrate their liberation from ancient and medieval superstitions, but unlike their unaffected agnostic relations, they have recognized the enormity of their choice. Oh to be a blissfully ignorant agnostic, the more thoughtful might muse.

Sadly (from their present perspective), the lot of the atheist is to be closer to God than the agnostic. Atheists may rail against their Maker, but the agnostic’s spiritual indifference causes them to drift farther and farther from the Truth.

The Scriptures offer a parallel to this distinction in the description of one of the early Christian churches. Apparently the believer in Laodicea had grown lackadaisical about their faith and lived lives that differed little from their pagan and agnostic neighbors. The Lord’s judgment of them begins: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”

Strange, it seems to us, that God might prefer a militant atheistic mindset to an aimless agnostic worldview. But the amazing truth is that, in most cases, atheists are closer to the kingdom of God than their disinterested peers.

In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis describes his own pre-Christian disposition. The grandson of an Anglican priest, he had consciously rejected the faith. Yet, as the possibility of its truth grew more real to him as an adult, he reacted against it. He clearly describes his condition as differing from that of the lukewarm agnostics I’ve described above.

Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about “man’s search for God.” To me, as I was then, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat.

In the same volume he elaborates on the sentiments I’ve been describing.

I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Antitheists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating a world.

So, if you consider yourself “angry with God for not existing,” you may be closer to meeting him than you ever imagined. If you do follow C.S. Lewis’ example, heaven will host a more resounding celebration for you than it does for the ninety-nine who have always remained part of his flock. And, if you’re a dispassionate agnostic who is weakly amused by this thought . . . my sincere prayer is that you, my friend, would become either hot or cold!

How Precious You Are

March 23, 2012 — 7 Comments

God loves you.

It doesn’t matter how loveable, or unloveable you are, he loves you.

It doesn’t matter whether you praise his Name or deny his existence, he loves you.

It doesn’t matter whether or not you love him. You can even hate him . . . but he still loves you.

Doesn’t make sense to our fallen human reason, but it’s true. One of the amazing revelations of the Christian Scriptures is that God loves each and every one of the people he has created.

Every human being is unique, and each is precious to God. Whether you feel like it or not . . . whether you feel undeserving or (far more dangerously) you think you are a pretty “good” person . . . you are precious to him.

I find it intriguing how some manmade religions and philosophies consciously downplay the uniqueness of each person. What is clearly evidence of God’s infinite creativity—the glorious diversity of men and women the world over—is seen as something odd. A cosmic fluke to be remedied when all essence returns to the amorphous and undifferentiated “whole.”

The elimination of what makes you and me precisely who we are, seems to be the goal of some of these worldviews. But deep within each of our souls we know that this pursuit is wrong. It’s alien to the core of our existence. Loss of identity is, in a phrase, not that for which we were created. You and I were made for a different purpose. And our distinctive personalities (and even our quirks) in this one-time-in-all-creation combination, are no accident.

In his treatise on why suffering exists, C.S. Lewis offers a powerful glimpse into the singularity of our souls. He argues that Christ’s sacrifice was no generic or blanket wonder. Rather, it was a divinely individualized miracle. Listen to Lewis:

The signature on each soul may be a product of heredity and environment, but that only means that heredity and environment are among the instruments whereby God creates a soul. I am considering not how, but why, He makes each soul unique. If He had no use for all these differences, I do not see why He should have created more souls than one. Be sure that the ins and outs of your individuality are no mystery to Him; and one day they will no longer be a mystery to you. The mould in which a key is made would be a strange thing, if you had never seen a key: and the key itself a strange thing if you had never seen a lock. Your soul has a curious shape because it is a hollow made to fit a particular swelling in the infinite contours of the Divine substance, or a key to unlock one of the doors in the house with many mansions.

For it is not humanity in the abstract that is to be saved, but you—you, the individual reader, John Stubbs or Janet Smith. Blessed and fortunate creature, your eyes shall behold Him and not another’s. All that you are, sins apart, is destined, if you will let God have His good way, to utter satisfaction. The Brocken spectre ‘looked to every man like his first love’, because she was a cheat. But God will look to every soul like its first love because He is its first love. Your place in heaven will seem to be made for you and you alone, because you were made for it—made for it stitch by stitch as a glove is made for a hand. (C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain.)

I suspect that the intimately personal nature of God’s love for us is one of the things that moves some people from agnosticism to atheism. And I think I just may address that distinction in my next post.

Christians may cease reading here.

A personal and sincere note to any unbelievers reading this column. I’m not writing this to offend you, or to push any of the buttons that may be holdovers from your days in restrictive or destructive religious settings.

If you’ve never believed, I encourage you to tune out the voices (on both sides of the issue). Go directly to the primary account(s) of Jesus’ life and read them. (There are four “Gospel” accounts of his ministry, but I encourage you to first read the Gospel according to Saint John.) Any of your Christian friends would be eager to offer you a copy of the Bible for no cost, but it’s also available for free download at various sites. For example, here you can download an entire Bible in English Standard Version (ESV) for free.

If you once believed, but have laid your faith aside, I don’t want to offer guilt. Instead, listen to this promise of grace. Just as the father of the Prodigal Son was always awaiting the return of his child, the same joyous welcome home awaits you. If ever you desire to return home, know with certainty that he’ll welcome you again, not as a servant or second class citizen, but as his son or daughter. And you’ll hear the words from that parable proclaimed over you: “It is fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother [or sister] was dead, and is alive; they were lost, and are found.” (Luke 15:32).