Archives For Obedience

On the Nature of Virtue

November 3, 2020 — 12 Comments

Are you virtuous? If you have high moral standards, there’s a fair chance you are. If you fall short of that mark, moral excellence is a goal which few completely attain in this life.

If you’d like to learn more about virtue, there is a free book I would like to recommend to you. In just a moment.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis discusses virtue in a straight-forward manner. Virtue is not simply doing the right thing. As Lewis writes, “right actions done for the wrong reasons do not help to build the internal quality or character called a ‘virtue,’ and it is this quality that really matters.”

He’s right. To do something “good” simply to receive a reward or avoid a punishment, is not virtuous. It is good. True. But when a person’s thoughts and actions are motivated without regard to consequences, they reflect their actual character. And, accordingly, genuine virtue is a rare commodity.

Lewis put it this way: “We might think that God wanted simply obedience to a set of rules: whereas He really wants people of a particular sort.”

Christians just celebrated All Saints Day on the first of November. Some ecclesiastical organizations have relegated the title “saint” to those who were exemplary disciples of Jesus Christ. In actuality, these are better referred to as “canonized” saints.

The biblical usage of the word saint includes all Christians. For example, the Apostle Paul describes his days of persecuting the church as persecuting saints.

I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them (Acts 26:10, ESV).

So, are all Christians—all saints—virtuous? Hardly. However, when we examine our own lives and confess our sins, God eagerly forgives them. And we can strive anew to live a life that brings honor to our Lord.

You see, no one is born with a virtuous character. But virtue is built, by drawing close to God. And virtue is not the domain solely of Christians. Anyone, be they theistic, agnostic or Pagan, can become virtuous. As C.S. Lewis noted, nurturing virtue is a noble process. “Virtue—even attempted virtue—brings light; indulgence brings fog.” Good people, we who are proto-virtuous, prefer to live in the light, rather than beneath the clouds.

And What about that Book?

I haven’t forgotten. I want to share with you an offer from an excellent publishing house that offers a monthly newsletter that features a free ebook. They also offer periodic sales that are uber-bargains. You can sign up here via “Stay in Touch” and perhaps receive access to a download of the current offering.

The book is written by a Finnish professor. It is simply titled Virtue, and is intended to be an introductory text.

The list of both virtues and vices is very long. It would be quite easy to list several dozen of them. It is not necessary for us to go through all virtues and vices, or even the most important, here. In this chapter we will look at the four traditional cardinal virtues (temperance, courage, justice, wisdom) and the three theological virtues (faith, hope, love).

Study of these virtues and their corresponding vices shows how they are dependent on each other, how the different virtues support one another, and how lack of one virtue prevents realization of another.

One final warning from C.S. Lewis. In the context of self-examination, Lewis cautioned a future friend not to spend much time dwelling on our spiritual state. It was 1954 and he was responding to a letter from Walter Hooper, who would a decade later assist Lewis as a secretary.

I am glad if I have been the instrument of Our Lord’s help to you: in His hands almost any instrument will do, otherwise none. We should, I believe, distrust states of mind which turn our attention upon ourselves.

Even at our sins we should look no longer than is necessary to know and to repent them: and our virtues or progress (if any) are certainly a dangerous object of contemplation.

As to Lewis’ humble statement about our progress “if any,” allow me to add that he most certainly did recognize growth in our spiritual lives as a natural result of the Spirit’s work in our lives.

Although I never penned a letter to Lewis, like many of you, I share Hooper’s gratitude for God’s use of C.S. Lewis as an instrument to bless and encourage me.

Disobeying Evil Rulers

August 4, 2020 — 25 Comments

Don’t appease evil rulers.

Have you heard the fascinating story of the successor to William the Conqueror? William, of course, is the Norman who conquered England after King Harold’s army had been battered during its victory over a Viking invasion in the preceding weeks. William’s heir was proved far worse than his father.  

William II, also called William Rufus, reigned three years. He was an impious, carnal ruler who refused to replace the Archbishop of Canterbury who died on his watch, so that he could pilfer the church’s wealth. During a serious illness, he reconsidered his choice and forced a reluctant monastic abbot, Anselm, to assume the purple.

Because of his integrity, Anselm became a thorn in Rufus’ side. It led the monarch to proclaim:

“Yesterday I hated him with great hatred, today I hate him with yet greater hatred and he can be certain that tomorrow and thereafter I shall hate him continually with ever fiercer and more bitter hatred.”

You must be doing something right if an evil ruler hates you.

The Bible records a number of stories where courageous prophets spoke unwelcome words to corrupt leaders. A wonderful example, delightfully recorded in a single chapter of First Kings,

In essence, the king of Israel (Ahab) asks the king of Judah (Jehoshaphat) to join him on a military venture. Jehoshaphat agrees, but requests that Ahab “inquire first for the word of the Lord.” Ahab brings in 400 loyal yes-men who promise God will deliver the city “into the hand of the king.”

Well, that settles that. But, wait a minute. Jehoshaphat, having his own court prophets, knows the ropes. He asks, “is there not another prophet of the Lord of whom we may inquire?”

You can feel Ahab squirming. Finally he responds, “there is yet one man by whom we may inquire of the Lord, Micaiah…”

Then Ahab offers this magnificent, self-implicating testimony: “…but I hate him, for he never prophesies good concerning me, but evil.”

The messenger arrives at Micaiah’s home and tells him the king’s prophets are unanimous, and he “warns” him, “let your word be like the word of one of them, and speak favorably.”

When Micaiah mockingly gives the desired response to the king, Ahab realizes Jehoshaphat will recognize the tone of ridicule, and he demands the prophet be honest. “How many times shall I make you swear that you speak to me nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord?” When he receives the genuine divine word, he turns to his fellow king and moans, “Did I not tell you that he would not prophesy good concerning me, but evil?”

The confrontation continues and Ahab has the true prophet imprisoned on “meager rations of bread and water” until his safe return from the battle. Micaiah calmly responds, “If you return in peace, the Lord has not spoken by me.” This is not the dramatic end of the story, which is well worth reading (after you finish reading this post).

Ahab was a miserable king. It’s no wonder he hated the faithful Prophet Micaiah. If the scribes had recorded Ahab’s entire rant, it may well have gone, “Yesterday I hated him with great hatred, today I hate him with yet greater hatred and he can be certain that tomorrow and thereafter I shall hate him continually with ever fiercer and more bitter hatred.”

C.S. Lewis and Anselm

In addition to being a courageous prophet, Anselm was a gifted theologian. Lewis was familiar with his contributions to theology, and also to philosophy. In one of the most influential scenes in the Chronicles of Narnia, humble Puddleglum explains why he would still believe in Aslan even in the face of all the world’s lies.

For the philosophically minded, I commend this extended essay on the subject: “Anselm and Aslan: C.S. Lewis and the Ontological Argument.”*

Lewis used the ontological argument apologetically only once in his public writings, and it was in a rather surprising place. This most sophisticated of philosophical arguments shows up in a presentation to the least sophisticated audience: the children for whom the Narnia books were written. It is the debate between Puddleglum and the Green Witch in The Silver Chair.

Five hundred years later, philosopher René Descartes would follow Anselm’s example, providing ontological arguments for the existence of a benevolent God.

Lewis discussed the passage in a letter written the final year of his life. This was penned to a family with a son who would become a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Warwick.

Please remember me to your third son. I was very sorry the course of events separated us. He is not only a very promising scholar but the best mannered man of his generation I have ever met. I suppose your philosopher son—what a family you have been privileged to bring into the world!—means the chapter in which Puddleglum puts out the fire with his foot.

He must thank Anselm and Descartes for it, not me. I have simply put the “Ontological Proof” in a form suitable for children. And even that is not so remarkable a feat as you might think. You can get into children’s heads a good deal which is quite beyond the Bishop of Woolwich.

C.S. Lewis’ witty note about the inability of the “Bishop of Woolwich” to understand what is clear to a child, was apparently directed toward John Robinson (1919-1983). Robinson was a very liberal (possibly heretical) Anglican bishop whom Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong (definitely heretical) considered his mentor.

My guess is that whenever Bishop Robinson thought of C.S. Lewis and the unadorned “mere Christianity” that he championed, the self-satisfied hierarch thought:

“Yesterday I hated him with great hatred, today I hate him with yet greater hatred and he can be certain that tomorrow and thereafter I shall hate him continually with ever fiercer and more bitter hatred.”

It is not always bad to be spurned by those who pursue the world’s approval, and treat the truth with disdain. May God find us in the company of C.S. Lewis and Anselm.

——

* A simpler discussion of “How C. S. Lewis Put the Ontological Argument for God in Narnia” can be found here.

If you are interested in reading about Anselm and His Work, this links to a free biography available at Internet Archive.

“There is but one good; that is God. Everything else is good when it looks to Him and bad when it turns from Him.” (C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce).

I believe this thesis. I don’t expect agnostics and humanists to, though. Still, I believe the statement is true, even for them. Consider my explanation below.

What Lewis is saying is that God is the Source of all good. In the Scriptures, in fact, some of the attributes of God can be viewed as so intimately a part of his divine nature that the particular virtue is, in its purity, a facet of the Lord’s identity. Thus God the Father and God the Son are said to truly be: Love, Light, and Truth.

Christians are inclined to attribute any good fruit we see as coming from the Source of good. Thus, when secularists do something inarguably good or altruistic, we have no problem attributing its inspiration to God. Yes, they may see through the glass dimly, and may for example recognize only the beauty of nature or the magnificence of the cosmos. But these are God’s handiwork, and so we return to where we began.

It is actually the second portion of this quotation that most intrigues me. “Everything else is . . . bad when it turns from Him.”

I suppose I can illustrate this truth more effectively than I can explain it.

Patriotism is a good thing. It results in cohesive communities where individuals are willing to make sacrifices on behalf of their fellow citizens. Focus is on the common welfare. However, run amuck, patriotism can become a deformed thing. The Third Reich united and inspired a weak and demoralized nation, but at a bloody price.

Love of Family is a good thing. Most of us experience the joy of this fact. However, carried to obsessive bounds, it can result in horrendous acts. Not a week passes without the news relaying accounts of parents murdering their own children in the face of a divorce, incarceration or some other form of separation. In their depraved minds, the thought of not being together warped into something uglier than death itself.

Human Freedom is a good thing. If that weren’t so, God wouldn’t have created us with free will. It allows human to say “yes” to him and live in a relationship with our Creator as his children rather than as mindless automata. But, apart from God, is there any question that this most wonderful gift becomes a curse? Proof overflows from the pages of our newspapers.

So, Lewis reminds us that the things of this world possess no intrinsic good. When things such as generosity, courage, and creativity are imbued with a divine element, only then do they become capable of being truly good.

The strongest challenge to this belief comes in the notion that even those who do not acknowledge God are capable of doing things we all consider “good.” As I said above, Christians have no problem celebrating selfless acts of their unbelieving neighbors. The reason for this is actually quite simple. Even though secular humanitarian efforts do not look to God, since they are altruistic, they consciously look away from self. In other words, they are not intentionally turning away from God, but, ignorant of his presence, they still transcend selfish or carnal interests. And, insofar as they are free of these sinful considerations, they possess the capacity for actions rightly deemed “good.”

Ultimately I believe this is due to the truth that all women and men are created in the image of our God. Whether we acknowledge it or not, the echoes of that truth resound throughout our being.