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New Edition of C. S. Lewis as Philosopher: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty

From the Preface to the 2017 Edition of C. S. Lewis as Philosopher: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty

It has been nearly ten years now since the first edition of C. S. Lewis as Philosopher: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. That decade has seen only growing interest in the philosophical aspects of Lewis’s work. What at the time seemed to us to be a rather novel approach to Lewis has become much more common, unsurprising because by both training and temperament Lewis often exhibited the earmarks of a first-rate philosophical mind. It was likely his amazing and eclectic range of interests and talents that concealed his philosophical acumen.

Some books have taken the project further than we were able, like Adam Barkman’s excellent and wide-ranging Philosophy as a Way of Life, a trend that we think is excellent. Stewart Goetz has recently argued in his A Philosophical Walking Tour with C. S. Lewis that Lewis was first and foremost a philosopher, and he is currently writing another book in which he will explain in depth Lewis’s philosophical views.

Our original collection was the result of several philosophically themed essays read at Oxbridge 2005—including keynote addresses by the likes of Peter Kreeft and Jean Bethke-Elshtain—but almost inevitably this genealogy meant that there would be gaps in our treatment. Because we didn’t make comprehensiveness our goal, however, we didn’t let this dissuade us. The collection that resulted was, in the estimation of many, a needed contribution to the literature irrespective of its limitations. InterVarsity Academic made possible the book coming to the light of day, and it enjoyed a solid run for a decade. It has been adduced by several researchers in the literature, and some of its chapters, like David Horner’s on the Trilemma or Bethke-Elshtain’s on The Abolition of Man, have been cited prominently quite a number of times. We are deeply grateful to Liberty University Press for catching the vision of and making possible a new edition.

We do not claim that this new expanded edition fills in all the various gaps in our treatment of Lewis as philosopher. It remains only one contribution toward this ambitious living research agenda. However, we have intentionally added five major new chapters that, each in its own way, contribute to a fuller picture of Lewis the philosopher. Our goal remains not to cover all the traditional areas of philosophy, but to show more intentionally some of the rich insights of Lewis’s writing that reveal aspects of philosophy and the human condition that, too often in contemporary times, go unaddressed, or at least under-addressed.

For example, Bruce Reichenbach has written an epistemology essay that reveals the way Lewis recognized some aspects of knowledge that often go overlooked. Among such features of knowledge are the ways in which it is perspectival, value-laden, and personal, but without any of these aspects of knowing detracting from objective truth or the propriety of deeply held convictions. Lewis could adroitly integrate subtle aspects of postmodernity with those of premodernity, like perhaps no other, holding in synergistic balance insights often mistakenly conceived as contradictory or in irremediable tension.

Another example is Will Honeycutt’s chapter that discusses Lewis’s penetrating engagement with various pagan myths. Rather than gravitating toward a simple “disassociationist” model in which there is only or primarily a disconnect or dissonance between Christianity and the pagan myth stories, Honeycutt reveals the way Lewis had the mind of both a philosopher and a poet, a logician and a classicist. The resonances and points of connection between the pagan myths and the “true myth” of Christianity are just as if not more evidentially important to Lewis than the differences and disanalogies.

71O8fU4fwzLOne of Lewis’s most important and repeated apologetic arguments went unaddressed in the first edition, and we came to see that it deserved a serious and sustained treatment, namely, the argument from desire. To this end, we commissioned Sloan Lee to write an essay on it, and in his characteristic and charming zeal he ended up writing two terrific chapters. Not only does he meticulously spell out what the argument says and what motivates it; he brilliantly and carefully subjects to withering critical scrutiny no less than five significant objections to the argument.

Stew Goetz wrote the fifth new chapter, in which he discusses the hedonistic elements of Lewis’s work. He rightly points out a recurring theme in Lewis: that God’s intention is that we experience joy and pleasure. To the contrary of this lending itself to a crass sort of hedonism, however, Lewis’s understanding of our high calling in Christ elevates the kinds of pleasure that should satisfy. Rather than settling for base pleasures or ones that don’t fit our deepest nature or ultimate end, we need to undergo a transformation of character, indeed a death to self, that enables us to develop a taste for the higher and better pleasures for which we were designed.

In sum, this book has about 35,000 entirely new words of analysis and commentary on Lewis that, combined with all of the original essays in the collection, will hopefully result in a book that will feature prominently in the library of every Lewis aficionado. Once more the labor that made this edition possible was a labor of love, done in the earnest hope and prayer that the result will be a blessing to many.

Till We Have Faces, Self-Knowledge, and Learning to Die

By David & Marybeth Baggett

One important way that C. S. Lewis went about irrigating deserts and planting gardens was to be honest that the tide had turned against many of his most cherished convictions, and since he was convinced that the new direction was mistaken, he would often point backwards. To the charge that this was retrograde, he famously said, “We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.”

After accepting his new post at Cambridge, Lewis—on his 56th birthday—gave his inaugural address in 1954 called De Descriptione Temporum, a description of the times, in which he aimed to identify the central turning point in western civilization. “[S]omewhere between us and the Waverley Novels, somewhere between us and Persuasion, the chasm runs.” To make the case for his proposal, Lewis adduced germane examples from the realms of politics, the arts, religion, and technology. With respect to religion, what Lewis primarily had in mind was the un-christening of culture. Exceptions abound, but the “presumption has changed,” adding

It is hard to have patience with those Jeremiahs, in Press or pulpit, who warn us that we are ‘relapsing into Paganism’. It might be rather fun if we were. It would be pleasant to see some future Prime Minister trying to kill a large and lively milk-white bull in Westminster Hall. But we shan’t. What lurks behind such idle prophecies, if they are anything but careless language, is the false idea that the historical process allows mere reversal; that Europe can come out of Christianity ‘by the same back door as in she went’ and find herself back where she was. It is not what happens. A post-Christian man is not a Pagan; you might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce. The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past.

In 1935 Cambridge philosopher William Sorley expressed misgivings about this demotion of morality that’s bound to result in an artificially truncated worldview in which moral ideas are paid short shrift. “If we take experience as a whole,” Sorley wrote, “and do not arbitrarily restrict ourselves to that portion of it with which the physical and natural sciences have to do, then our interpretation of it must have ethical data at its basis and ethical laws in its structure.” Perhaps it’s not surprising that Sorley is a luminary in the field of moral apologetics, as the later Cambridge professor Lewis would be as well. For at the heart of moral arguments is the abiding conviction that morality can provide a vital window of insight into reality. Hermann Lotze, a 19th century German philosopher, in fact once wrote that “the true beginning of metaphysics lies in ethics,” a sentiment with which both Sorley and Lewis resonated.

Recall Lewis’s words from Mere Christianity to this effect:

These, then, are the two points I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.

This paper is about perhaps the greatest example he provided of this: his novel Till We Have Faces (subsequently TWHF), which harmoniously weaves together and integrates numerous of Lewis’s philosophical, theological, and ethical emphases. It contains, in fictional form, what Lewis thought about the import of myth and beauty, of joy and desire, of reason and imagination. This essay will cover an aspect of the novel that arguably resides at the thematic heart of the story and at the intersection of ethics and epistemology.

Lewis’s story refashions the myth of Cupid and Psyche. It is set in Glome, a barbarian kingdom on the edge of the Hellenistic world, and is told by the main character, Orual, the eldest daughter of Rom, King of Glome, step-sister of Psyche, and sister of Redival. The main story is about Orual’s indictment of the gods for failing to make their ways plain. Ostensibly the worry is wholly epistemic. The indictment comes in the form of an account of the major portion of her life, presented with the request that the reader judge her case against the gods. Her intended audience is “wise Greeks,” who, because of their philosophical education, will readily see in the events she reports puzzling epistemological problems and, therefore, will more likely see the truth of her charge.

71heAHih2wLThe events in question pertain to Orual’s central passion: her love of Psyche. The two people who give her happiness are Fox, a Greek slave her father secured as tutor for his daughters, and Psyche, who is not only uncommonly beautiful but virtuous as well. After Psyche’s mother dies at childbirth, it is Orual who brings Psyche up as her own child. What generates conflict with the gods is the demand, presented by the Priest of Ungit—Glome’s version of the fertility goddess—that Psyche be sacrificed on the Grey Mountain to her son, the Shadowbrute, supposed god of the Mountain. The sacrifice is to remove a curse that has befallen the kingdom.

After the sacrifice, Orual makes a trek to bury Psyche’s remains but discovers Psyche alive and well, radiant in fact, claiming to be living with her husband/god in a beautiful palace. Orual, though, is unable to see the palace, so she is left to figure out the truth. Skeptical the gods are good, she devises a plan to liberate Psyche, but it goes horribly wrong, sending Psyche into exile. Orual returns home to reign as Queen of Glome and tries to forget her past.

As for aspects of the novel that pertain to the question of epistemology, particularly religious epistemology, first one should note that the era and context of the story is distinctly premodern. The default position is decidedly not atheism, agnosticism, or skepticism, but one of robust religious conviction and theological interpretation of the events in question. Following Robert Holyer, we can immediately identify two major epistemological issues: whether the gods are just inventions of the priest and pandering to popular superstition, or rather that the gods are real. The Fox is of the former opinion, but Orual and Psyche of the latter. The second major epistemological question is this: If the request for Psyche’s sacrifice is genuinely Divine, how is it to be understood? Is it a malevolent request born of jealousy and intended to bring suffering not only to Psyche but also those who love her, particularly Orual? Or is there some paradoxical way in which the deed might result in Psyche’s well-being and therefore be consistent with the affirmation that the gods are good? Orual inclines to the former, always casting the holy places as dark places; Psyche, to the latter.

So a central problem of the novel is to read the signs of the Divine correctly and to find in them reasonable assurance sufficient to live faithfully in the face of the irresolvable mystery and ambiguity featured heavily in the book. Evidence is not undeniable or incorrigible, and questions remain unanswered. A related concern of the book involves Lewis’s most important innovation: Orual’s inability to see the palace of the gods. In Lewis’s key adaptation, Psyche saw it and claimed to live in it, but Orual couldn’t see it at all, except once and only briefly.

Among the various signs and signals of divine reality and goodness, perhaps the most important is the experience of the Holy. Rudolf Otto, author of The Idea of the Holy, claimed that experiences of the Holy are one of the basic sources of religious belief throughout the centuries. He distinguished and described several constituent elements of the experience of the Holy, two of which are these (both found in TWHF): (1) tremendum, a kind of dread or fear unlike our other fears—as Orual rightly describes it, a fear “quite different from the fear of my father,” and (2) fascinans, a consuming attraction or rapturous longing. Psyche is poignantly aware of both, Orual mainly only of the former. Fascinans, or “Joy,” to use another Lewisian term, is associated with the objects of the imagination, with beauty, with poetry, and above all with the Mountain—all common motifs in Lewis’s fiction.

A second sign is empirical evidence, which is ambiguous. A third sign is finding Psyche alive and well days after her sacrifice, which raises the question of how reliable her testimony is. The story Psyche recounts is remarkable, but Orual has to admit that Psyche had always been trustworthy. The final and most difficult piece of evidence is experience of divine realities—like Orual’s glimpse of the palace and Psyche’s more continuous experience of the gods.

The epistemological task in the novel is to determine the nature of ultimate reality—whether it is jealous and cruel, or mysterious and marvelous. Reason plays an important role—drawing conclusions from premises taken from a broad array of experience, but much of the reasoning that Lewis thought is called for is implicit and intuitive, requiring an equal mixture of philosophy and vision, a reconciliation of reason and imagination. Orual has to choose between rival explanations in the face of real ambiguity and mystery, a measure of hiddenness that perhaps ensures that her inquiry reveals her real motivations more than just her cognitive prowess.

Lewis suggests looking within, as part of an epistemic quest predicated on the traditional idea that at the foundation of all knowledge is self-knowledge. Thales thought the hardest thing to do is “to know thyself,” employing a phrase that invokes the specter of what would be on the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Plato would write that the essence of knowledge is self-knowledge. Centuries before Plato, the Hindu Upanishads confirmed, “Enquiry into the truth of the Self is knowledge.”

In the Apology, Socrates, at the precipice of his own death, asked, “Are you not ashamed to spend so much trouble upon trouble heaping up riches and honor and reputation, while you care nothing for wisdom and truth and the perfection of your soul?” Socrates did not claim to have attained to great wisdom, but the most important knowledge of all, he thought, is self-knowledge. Other speculative matters of alleged knowledge aren’t likely to conduce to greater perfection of the soul than authentic knowledge of the self. And perfection of soul far exceeds in importance anything else, which is why this ancient approach to epistemology, focused on self-knowledge with the goal of moral maturation, resides at the intersection of epistemology and ethics.

TWHF assumes that who we are shapes what we see, but rather than culminating in a radical subjectivism, for Lewis it leads to something like a virtue epistemology, according to which there’s a reality to be seen. Admittedly it’s seen through a glass darkly, but how much of it we can genuinely grasp remains a function of who we are. Understanding who and what we are, then, is foundational to knowledge. For Lewis, poetry—and art more generally—though vitally important, was penultimate, hardly anything like a compensation for lost faith.

In Part II of TWHF, Orual augments her original book—her original complaint against the gods—by writing that “I know so much more than I did about the woman who wrote it.” Interestingly, she says that what began the change was “the very writing itself.” The writing itself—the art—enables the growth in self-knowledge, but this is only the beginning: to prepare her for “the gods’ surgery.” “They used my own pen to probe my wound.” Lewis didn’t think that the epistemic quest was over once we looked within, practiced art, or saw the world under some fresh aspect, but that by growing in self-knowledge we can begin to see the world more accurately, we can apprehend more of reality, and the world will begin to look quite different from how it did before.

Orual had written her complaint against the gods. Ostensibly her complaint is epistemic, but when she adds to the book later, she admits things aren’t as they seem. How does her writing probe her wound and reveal to her the truth about herself? Primarily by a close and brutally honest examination of her various relationships—and the past she has tried so hard to veil. For example, she has had no pity in her heart for her sister Redival, but, after writing her original complaint, she encounters a former servant of her father’s named Tarin, who says, of Redival, “She was lonely.” This catches Orual by surprise, the “first snowflake of the winter I was entering.” She comes to admit as a certainty that she had not thought at all how it had been for Redival when she, Orual, first turned to Fox, then to Psyche, because “it had been somehow settled in my mind from the very beginning that I was the pitiable and ill-used one. She had her gold curls, hadn’t she?”

Next comes insight concerning her treatment of Bardia, her servant whom she loves. He is married, though, and always out of reach. After she finishes her book, she hears he is sick, and within a few days, he dies. She goes to visit Ansit, his widow, but Ansit is bitter toward the Queen, accusing her of working Bardia to death. “After weeks and months at the wars—you and he night and day together, sharing the councils, the dangers, the victories, the soldiers’ bread, the very jokes. . . .” And “I do not believe, I know, that your queenship drank up his blood year by year and ate out his life.”

The Queen replies with incredulity that Ansit should have spoken up, but Ansit says she never would have deprived her husband of his work and “all his glory and his great deeds.” Should she make a child and dotard of him? “I was his wife, not his doxy. He was my husband, not my house-dog. He was to live the life he thought best and fittest for a great man—not that which would most pleasure me.”

Ansit is suggesting that her love for Bardia means she had to give up some of her own desires, not make it all about herself, which begins to prick the Queen’s conscience because this very pattern has always been her own modus operandi. This raises a most important thematic element in the book: a recurring question of what real love means and looks like. Lewis was of the view that we can convince ourselves that our motivation is one of the purest love, when it might be far from it. The point here is that, sometimes when we think we are at our moral best, we may well be at our worst.

Lewis, like Kant, saw such moral darkness as powerfully suggestive that it’s altogether rational to believe there are resources beyond our own to close this moral gap.
Orual long thought of the gods as indulgent and selfish, and is now accused by Ansit of being “gorged with other men’s lives, women’s too: Bardia’s, mine, the Fox’s, your sister’s—both your sisters.” Now, Orual writes, “the divine Surgeons had me tied down and were at work.” At first she is angry, but then Orual admits to herself that it is all terribly true, more than Ansit could even know. And she confesses her horrific treatment of Bardia, finally concluding, “Did I hate him, then? Indeed, I believe so. A love like that can grow to be nine-tenths hatred and still call itself love.” She adds, “I had been dragged up and out into such heights and precipices of truth, that I came into an air where [her love for Bardia] could not live. It stank; a gnawing greed for one to whom I could give nothing, of whom I craved all.”

Next, she has to reexamine her relationship with Batta, who had been a servant Orual had executed. Now she remembers that Batta had her loving moments. Yes, she was a busybody and tattletale and rumormonger, but now she recalls Batta’s warmth and humanity. Orual is inexorably forced to face the truth of who she was and is and of what she’d done—none of which she wanted to hear, all of which she needed to hear.

Having long thought of the gods as ugly in character, Orual now sees this as projection; now she comes to think that she herself is like Ungit: ugly in soul. In despair, she plans to kill herself before she’s stopped by the voice of a god: “You cannot escape Ungit by going to the deadlands, for she is there also. Die before you die. There is no chance after.” Earlier Lewis availed himself of the Socratic dictum “Know Thyself,” and now Lewis makes reference to the Socratic notion that true wisdom is the skill and practice of death. Reflecting on Socrates, the Queen writes, “I supposed he meant the death of our passions and desires and vain opinions.”

Philosophy, properly understood, trains us how to die, and not just physically. That part of us that most needs to die is our vainglory, our self-aggrandizement, our pride, our inordinate passions. She then reasons, “[I]f I practiced true philosophy, as Socrates meant it, I should change my ugly soul into a fair one. And this, the gods helping me, I would do. I would set about it at once.” The Queen resolves to be “just and calm and wise in all my thoughts and acts; but before they had finished dressing me I would find that I was back (and know not how long I had been back) in some old rage, resentment, gnawing fantasy, or sullen bitterness. I could not hold out half an hour.” She writes, “I could mend my soul no more than my face. Unless the gods helped. And why did the gods not help?”

In her angst and emotional tumult the Queen comforts herself with her complaint against the gods, and with obstinate tenacity holds on to one last consolation. Namely, at least she had cared for Psyche, taught her, and tried to save her, even wounded herself for her. And then comes a vision. In the vision she has a chance to read her indictment against the gods. The book/indictment/complaint has, however, now become much shorter. She is reluctant to read it, but she does, and in fact, without realizing it, reads it over and over again. We can identify three closely related salient highlights.

First, on the evidential score, she admits that she had been shown a real god and the house of a real god and should have believed; the real issue isn’t that. She admits she could have endured belief in the gods if they were like Ungit and the Shadowbrute. In truth she resents their meddling, their wooing of Psyche, their failure to follow through and devour Psyche as promised. “I’d have wept for her and buried what was left and built her a tomb. . . . But to steal her love from me!” The beauty of the gods—the fascinans she’d heretofore resisted and rejected—didn’t make things better, but worse. For it enables the gods to lure and entice, leaving Orual nothing. Second, she’d have rather Psyche remain hers and dead than the gods’ and made immortal. She has prided herself for her profound love of Psyche, but now the truth is revealed: it isn’t Psyche’s well-being she wanted to secure, but her own comfort. Psyche was hers.

Third, Orual insists that had she been the one to whom the gods had made themselves known, she would have been able to convince Psyche of their reality and goodness. Instead it was Psyche made privy, and Orual resented it. “But to hear a chit of a girl who had (or ought to have had) no thought in her head that I’d not put there, setting up for a seer and a prophetess and next thing to a goddess . . . how could anyone endure it?” Orual only wanted Psyche to be happy on terms she dictated. “What should I care for some horrible, new happiness which I hadn’t given her and which separated her from me? Do you think I wanted her to be happy, that way? It would have been better if I’d seen the Brute tear her in pieces before my eyes,” and “Did you ever remember whose the girl was? She was mine. Mine. Do you not know what the word means? Mine!” The sober truth about who Orual is has now been revealed, its dregs poured out. The complaint is the answer. She now has knowledge of herself, and what it reveals is a horrible malady, a problem in need of a solution.

Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?

The death of most importance in TWHF is not Orual’s physical death in the final chapter, but rather the death to which she’s called after coming into a deep knowledge of herself and her moral malady. When Orual faces who she is, her initial response is one of despair, and rightly so when she sees the distance between where she morally is and where she thought she was, when she sees that at her best she is actually at her worst, when she sees that what she thinks is her love is actually mainly hate. Lewis, like Kant, saw such moral darkness as powerfully suggestive that it’s altogether rational to believe there are resources beyond our own to close this moral gap.

The solution called for in TWHF, however, is radical. What’s needed is nothing less than death—not physical death, though. What philosophy, rightly understood, can teach us is how to die—to experience the death of our moral malady, our self-righteousness, our pride, our predatory natures, our possessiveness, our self-consumption. What such moral desperation reveals is the need for radical transformation—far beyond what we can do on the strength of our own meager moral resources alone. And if we “die before we die,” before it’s too late, as Orual is told to do, then perhaps the sting of death can be removed, its inevitability not entail fatalism, and its aftermath be full of hope. For the longest time Orual had hardened her heart and resisted intimations of something more, whereas for Psyche such a longing constituted the “inconsolable secret” of her heart. Psyche’s longing for the Mountain and the imaginary gold-and-amber castle of her youth, rather than a groundless hope or vacuous wishful thought, was the “sweetest thing” in her whole life.

The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S. Lewis Onstage, Part III

By David Baggett 

Part I 

Part II

We had been told to wait in the lobby of the second floor for Max McLean to arrive, which he did about fifteen minutes later. After one performance and before another, with a Q&A sandwiched in between, I marveled in advance at his generosity of time. We didn’t want to waste his energies, so we dove right in after quick introductions. He’d freshly turned 64 a week before, as it happens, which happened to be the age Lewis was when he died, but McLean exudes vitality and shows every appearance of being able to keep going like this for quite a while.

To prepare to interview him, we’d read all the interviews he’d done we could get our hands on, and in so doing we discovered that, from a young age, he’d suffered from a fear of public speaking, a severe form of social anxiety, sociophobia. As a certified introvert I wanted to ask about this because, seeing him on the stage performing, nobody would ever imagine this. He had actually turned to theatre originally in college to overcome his fears; we wanted to know if the fears were gone or if he’d simply learned to manage them.

“I think that if I’m not prepared the anxiety will come back. The fear makes you really prepare. I find that there’s an enormous fear of failure. I don’t think I’ve gotten over that.” Asked whether he considered himself an introvert or extrovert, he said he is definitely an introvert, getting his energy from reading and his quiet time. “Absolutely,” he added for emphasis.

After college McLean studied acting in London, always having been impressed by British actors and their use of language. Interesting to note, too, are the various English thinkers and writers who have left an impression on McLean—from Shakespeare to Shaw, Eliot to Chesterton, Spurgeon to Lewis. He will be returning to England this summer for Oxbridge, a triennial Lewis conference held at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, and doing some of this performance there.

Prior to McLean’s conversion to Christian faith, he admitted that he’d tried to read the Bible but it made no connection; he couldn’t find a way of getting into it. “It was just a flat book. It could have been an engineering book, but it wasn’t a book that captured my imagination. Once Jesus became alive to me, I read the Bible differently. I read John’s Gospel; I thought Jesus was going to come out of the pages. He was a story, a human being that was a hero and an overwhelming one. So my emotions were engaged.”

So why are theatre and story so powerfully effective at capturing the imagination of people, and why is that important? McLean replied, “Well, that’s the critical thing, because the imagination serves up the raw material of what we think about. Romans 1 tells us we all have the knowledge of God. There’s that thing about how we all have eternity in our hearts. And these things are intact—like I mentioned in the Q&A that people want to talk about these things but they don’t know how to talk about them—so I think that the theatre captures people’s imagination and stirs the imagination—which then asks, could this be true? And then a person is more willing to invest intellectual capital. You know, you’re not going to invest intellectual capital unless your imagination is engaged, unless you want to know more. So I think theatre is an extraordinary tool for that.”

There’s that thing about how we all have eternity in our hearts.

In pursuing this goal, by what intentional steps does the FPA strive to engage a diverse audience? “People make their own choices about their entertainment options. So essentially we don’t do it in a church. We do it in a theater. We advertise in the New York Times, we advertise in the subway. We advertise at NPR. I think the main thing is this: our best audience is somebody . . . who’s able to use relational capital to say, ‘Okay, come with me to see this play, because you’re not going to be embarrassed. It’s going to be a safe space, and you’re going to enjoy it.’ And if they don’t want to engage, no harm done. You know, you go out to dinner, and when they have questions, that’s great, and when they don’t have questions, that’s great too.”

McLean thinks the theatre can do great good, but only if it’s done well. We’d been struck by the plethora of rave reviews his work had consistently garnered, by reviewers both sacred and secular. Accolades and awards are commonplace—from the DC Metro Arts to the Washington Post, the Chicago Critic and Splash, the Indianapolis Monthly to World Magazine to Stagebuddy and The Weekly Standard. Adjectives among reviewers describing his work abound like “fascinating,” “smart,” “brilliant,” “masterful,” “winsome,” “delightful,” “captivating,” “satisfying,” and “moving.” We asked him to talk about the importance of striving for excellence in his work.

“Doing it in New York . . . New York is kind of hyper in that way. To do theatre in New York is such a challenge, and if you make it known that it comes from a Christian worldview the bar just gets really much, much higher. And then to consider doing it in such a way as to engage a diverse audience in this highly polarized world that we’re in right now, it’s almost impossible. So you depend on these kind of things: the writing, the acting, the stagecraft . . . you don’t want it to be turned off at that level or you won’t get a fair hearing. And a fair hearing might be ‘I’ve heard it, I listened to it, I think it’s rubbish, but it was really well executed.’ As opposed to what mostly happens: the execution is terrible, and nobody even bothers . . . or the message is so trite that it’s just immediately dismissed. So what we do, in order to accomplish our mission, we spend a lot of time thinking about what material has the best possibility to reach a diverse audience, then we have to execute it to the highest levels that our budgets will allow. Which means that we hire all our designers. They’re professionals. Just like you go to the best doctor, the best dentist, we hire the best sound designer, the best set designer . . . because you don’t want it to be dismissed at the execution level. You want the message to be heard, and you don’t want anybody to say, ‘Oh, I’m not going to listen to the message because the messenger just doesn’t care.’”

We thought it particularly interesting that one of the most recurring descriptions we’d read of his work was “funny,” and especially all the references to self-deprecating humor. Why, we asked, does this seem to function so well as an ice breaker and bridge builder with his audience?

“Well, humor is a reaction. It doesn’t lie. I mean, there are things you can do to create it, depending on your sense of humor. So much of modern comedic humor is based out of anger, and putting somebody down. Lewis’s humor is based on wit, and surprise, and also his own making fun of himself. He didn’t take himself that seriously. He did, but he tried to act like he didn’t. So I think that humor does tear down barriers, that if you can get to it, that if you’re good enough to find the humor, theatre is built on it. . . . I do think it’s a very high priority. Chesterton thought humor was the bloom of his argument.”

Having seen McLean at work, I must say: if anybody can demonstrate that life is a comedy and not a tragedy, McLean’s channeling Lewis can. Still, he admits to mixed results among certain atheist reviewers. Plenty of “generous atheists” have accorded his work accolades because they enjoy a good time. Still, particularly among those who seem to think they have a stake in the game, there’s resistance. “A real true blue atheist is one for whom the possibility of the supernatural world breaking into the material world is just considered impossible. So any other possibility is more probable than the supernatural. That’s really hard core.”

When up against that level of settled conviction that theism isn’t so much as possibly true, perhaps McLean’s work is exactly what’s needed to chip away at the wall. Rather than just more discursive argument that only heightens defense, something that’s engaging, entertaining, and aesthetically pleasing might be what’s needed to break down the barriers. McLean agrees, adding: “People have these moments of joy, moments where the supernatural breaks in. Because there are two spheres. There’s the sphere of love, which isn’t just biochemistry.”

Using performance art to wake people up, stir curiosity, and generate conversation is what McLean and the FPA are all about. This summer this show will hit the road; readers are encouraged to find out if it’s showing near you; and if so, sell all you have and see it! It’s a world-class production, and it’s eminently worth it, irrespective of your worldview. And this fall in New York a new production will begin, again based on Lewis: “Shadowlands.” I think this may necessitate another death-defying trip to the City.

McLean has written, “I’m keenly aware that, despite the best of intentions, as soon as the word ‘Christian’ appears within an artistic context, red flags go up. That, obviously, creates a challenge.” He continues:

During our first season of four plays in New York City, several reviewers expressed misgivings. Realizing that the work was from a Christian perspective, one critic wrote “my heart sank.” Another made the understatement that “presenting what is unequivocally come-to-Jesus fare to a general audience is no easy thing.”

In both cases, it was the play itself that turned them around. The first declared, “I expected a preachy bore, not the deliciously witty, theatrical treat that still resonates and amuses the day after.” He went on, “I expect that, like the first, [the next production] will be entertaining, very well staged, canny, and imbued with serious Christian thought and an earnest invitation to introspection.”

The second reviewer began by clarifying his background: “I’m Jewish by birth, liberal by conviction, and an atheist by observation and introspection.” He went on to say “how much I admire the approach of Fellowship for Performing Arts. . . . They do their work through a careful combination of good story-telling—craft comes first—and avoiding overt preachiness, allowing any message implicit in the material to take care of itself.”

Such feedback is reassuring. Art hints at the deeper structures of reality. FPA desires to create theatre that contributes to a better understanding of it. To do that requires honest, clear-eyed storytelling that entertains and engages its audiences. If a work doesn’t do that, regardless of intent, it really doesn’t matter what else it does.

It’s inspiring to see a faithful worker in this field, laboring in the hardest of venues, speaking truth and spreading light. He and the FPA deserve our admiration, support, and prayers. He’s someone who knows, like Orson Welles knew, the power of story and the importance of the imagination to wake people up, evaluate their assumptions, and generate conversations worth having. For McLean, though, the message to look up is not one of fear, but of soaring hope.

In that connection, one might wonder what C. S. Lewis was doing in jolly England when Welles did his radio performance. I don’t know. But I do know that, just hours before, Mars came up in some of his correspondence. Evelyn Underhill, famous for her works on mysticism and a convert to Anglicanism in 1921, had written a letter to Lewis that arrived on October 26th of 1938. He replied to her on October 29th, the day before Welles’ American broadcast. Here is what Underhill had written to Lewis:

May I thank you for the very great pleasure which your remarkable book Out of the Silent Planet has given me? It is so seldom that one comes across a writer of sufficient imaginative power to give one a new slant on reality: & this is just what you seem to me to have achieved. And what is more, you have not done it in a solemn & oppressive way but with a delightful combination of beauty, humour & deep seriousness. I enjoyed every bit of it, in spite of starting with a decided prejudice against “voyages to Mars.” I wish you had felt able to report the conversation in which Ransom explained the Christian mysteries to the eldil, but I suppose that would be too much to ask. We should be content with the fact that you have turned “empty space” into heaven!

In chapter 5 of Out of the Silent Planet, Ransom is in the spaceship on the way to Mars: “He had read of ‘Space’: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds . . . now . . . the very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for the empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam . . . it was the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even from the earth with so many eyes—and here, with how many more! No: Space was the wrong name. Older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply the heavens.”

Lewis’s reply to Underhill, written on October 29th, after expressing his alarm and delight at hearing from such a notable writer as she, went like this: “I am glad you mentioned the substitution of heaven for space as that is my favourite idea in the book. Unhappily I have since learned that it is also the idea which most betrays my scientific ignorance: I have since learned that the rays in interplanetary space, so far from being beneficial, would be mortal to us. However, that, no doubt, is true of Heaven in other senses as well!”

True to form for a guy who recognized that a convert must gravely count the cost.

The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S. Lewis Onstage, Part II

By David Baggett

Part I 

Like others who have been privileged to see what next transpired, I was thrilled and transported. It was as if C. S. Lewis himself walked onto the stage. The makeup was exquisite, and the resemblance to Lewis uncanny. Even the voice was near perfect—I remember having listened to one of the few extant recordings of Lewis a year ago. McLean intentionally didn’t aim at enunciating quite so thick an accent as Lewis actually had, explaining why after the play in a Q&A session. For an American audience, in particular, this was a smart decision to avoid it becoming a distraction. McLean’s classical training in voice paid its dividends.

Most people are likely familiar with what happens when watching an inferior performance, show, or movie; it’s hard not to hold it at arm’s length because there’s something mildly insulting and off-putting about the shoddy craftsmanship. In patent contrast, we also know what it’s like when we watch a particularly excellent performance: we’re drawn in, we lose ourselves in the story, we become thoroughly engaged. This was my experience as I sat and watched FPA’s production. A virtuoso performance, it was by turns instructive and convicting, insightful and hilarious, poignant and memorable.

The crisp monologues by the pipe-wielding Lewis recounted the tale of his conversion, chronicling how, step by methodical step, he traversed a path from skepticism to belief. Included in the account were the seminal figures of his life: his father, his brother, his teacher the “Great Knock,” and literary influences from Yeats to Chesterton to George MacDonald, whose Phantastes “baptized” Lewis’s imagination prior to his conversion.

Lewis’s aversion to Christianity was hard for him to square with the fact that so many of his favorite writers, whose writing tasted most real, were Christians. His hard-thinking friend Owen Barfield’s conversion to Christianity upset Lewis, yet Lewis found Barfield’s logic unassailable. Too many aspects of life, to be taken seriously—from consciousness to morality to reason itself—require rock bottom reality to be intelligent. Coghill helped Lewis see the virtues as relevant to understanding reality; Tolkien enabled him to see that Christianity is the True Myth; and gradually Lewis became open to the Absolute, then to Spirit, then to God, then to the Incarnation, each incremental step ineluctably inching toward greater and greater concreteness. Acutely mindful that it took God’s initiative to draw him, Lewis finally relented to the Hound of Heaven, admitting defeat, allowing himself to be vanquished by love, and not the least bit happy about it.

In contrast with any theology of “cheap grace,” or an accommodating Christianity that readily capitulates to swirling cultural whims, blithely smearing the name “Christian” on views conditioned by secularity rather than scripture, Lewis seemed intuitively to grasp from the start that real Christianity would be costly, that its implications were radical, that its demands were all-encompassing. Little wonder he counted the cost, and, after finally relenting—first to theism, then to Christianity—he was, by his own admission, the most reluctant and dejected convert in all of England. Far more quickly than most, he was able to apprehend the paradox of Christianity: to find life we must lose it, to live we must die, and that ultimately we can’t hold anything back.

Lewis seemed intuitively to grasp from the start that real Christianity would be costly, that its implications were radical, that its demands were all-encompassing.

The play was simply spectacular, and we loved it. Most of the audience stayed for the Q&A, and about ten or fifteen minutes after the play was done, McLean re-emerged, this time as himself rather than Lewis. It was a remarkable metamorphosis! Donning salmon slacks and a coal shirt, his hour as Lewis was clearly over, and now it was time to hear from the actor and writer himself. He joked about his pants, exuded confidence, showed relaxed body language, sat in the chair, and patiently fielded questions from the audience. His answers were perspicacious and trenchant, revealing him to be well read and often quite eloquent and erudite.

Asked about obstacles doing a play like this in New York, he said that theatre is a great venue to have these sorts of conversations. He’s convinced that people want to have such dialogues, but are often unsure how to do it. He spoke of his admiration for Lewis, despite admitting that some of Lewis’s writings were an acquired taste, demanding effort to apprehend them well. He had largely relied on Lewis’s own words for this play, but had to work hard to thin out some of Lewis’s diction and elaborate explications to make the ideas more widely accessible and understandable.

The result, to my thinking, was a veritable “greatest hits” woven together masterfully. I had enjoyed the play immensely, and the Q&A only enhanced my appreciation for McLean, and in a few moments Marybeth and I would get the chance to speak with him personally.

Part III

The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S. Lewis Onstage, Part I

 

by David Baggett

It was Halloween Eve, Mischief Night as it’s often dubbed, the penultimate day of October in 1938. At a time when the radio was the main source of news and entertainment, the big draw that evening was the legendary Edgar Bergen and his ventriloquist dummy Charlie McCarthy. Popular lore says that a musical interlude in Bergen’s performance led many radio listeners to surf the channels and tune in to what would subsequently be called the most famous radio broadcast of all time.

Perched high in the Columbia Broadcasting Building on Madison Avenue, a precocious 23-year-old impresario Orson Welles was orchestrating a coup of the airwaves. Already reputed as Broadway’s most brilliant rising star, Welles made this particular Sunday anything but restful, directing the terrified eyes of his rapt listeners to quite the ominous October sky. It was a scant nine years before, almost to the day, that Black Tuesday had initiated the Great Depression, whose painful ripple effects were still felt. With Hitler’s foreboding rise to power and Europe so susceptible to his domination and imminent encroachment, the future was uncertain; people were already on edge and accustomed to hearing bad news.

That night, by the time they started listening to this storied adaptation of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (1898), much of the audience had missed the opening introduction identifying it as a dramatization. Welles’ magisterial depiction of an alien invasion in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey induced panic in lots of quarters, accounts varying as to its extent. The show was strategically punctuated by realistic breaking “news bulletins”; by a sudden impromptu and pregnant, protracted and deafening silence initiated by Welles himself; and by another voice actor emulating the rhythm and cadence of Herbert Morrison’s immortal heart-rending eyewitness radio report of the Hindenburg’s fiery destruction just a year before.

For a few hours, the show simply terrified a nation already fraught with fear. Amidst subsequent media outrage and furious calls for greater FCC regulation, Welles feigned shock and dismay over the tumult his broadcast had produced. In truth the whole scenario would catapult him into the stratosphere of international fame, issuing him his ticket to Hollywood.

On the one hand, the remarkable episode furnishes a cautionary tale against the power of propaganda; on the other, more positively, it’s a reminder of the remarkable ability of drama and story to capture and mesmerize the imagination and move the will. The broadcast was a production of the Mercury Theatre, founded by Welles and John Houseman (later of Paper Chase fame as Professor Charles Kingsfield), located on West 41st Street in New York City, a mere half mile from where my wife and I recently watched a different drama unfold—one more tethered to actual history.

H. G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds in 1898, forty years before the Mercury Theatre’s radio adaptation. The year of Wells’ book in England also marked the birth of C. S. Lewis in Belfast, Ireland, and it just so happens that the play that we recently saw was a one-man show about the great Oxford don’s reluctant conversion to Christian faith.

Inexplicably navigating the frenetic, frantic Manhattan traffic by sheer force of will and a deft defiance of physics, our taxi driver dropped us off at the Acorn Theatre on West 42nd Street. Until then we’d assumed the Amtrak train hurling along in northern Virginia at breakneck speed might be the most terrifying part of our journey, feeling suspiciously like the Knight Bus in Harry Potter’s London. The Acorn Theatre is part of “Theatre Row,” headquartered in the heart of NYC’s Theater District.

Surviving that harrowing freak show of vehicular congestion made receptive our hearts to the transcendent and miraculous, and indeed a magical afternoon at the theatre was about to ensue. It was less than an hour to the matinee show time. We were excited to relish the performance we’d heard so much about already, and just as enthused at the prospect, afterwards, of meeting its star, Max McLean, who co-directed the show with Ken Denison. His publicist had neatly arranged our post-show interview.

After procuring our tickets, we made it to the third floor theatre, its set smartly arranged as a cozy book-lined office replete with desk, virtual pictures on the back wall, and a requisite cushy chair—just the sort of environment for the bookish Lewis to make an appearance. The ostensible location is Lewis’s study at Magdalen College, Oxford, 1950. While we admired the décor and became acclimated to the surroundings—feeling more than a little giddy as quite the sophisticated NYC theatre-goers—I perused the play’s brochure.

The performance, it was explained, is a production of the Fellowship for Performing Arts (FPA), which was founded by McLean in 1992, and which aims to create theatre from a Christian worldview that engages a diverse audience. It has developed and presented award-winning plays such as The Screwtape Letters, which I saw in North Carolina some years ago, never imagining at the time I’d later get to meet McLean personally, aka Screwtape. Other productions—staged in theatres and performing arts centers in New York, London, and across America—have included The Great Divorce, Mark’s Gospel, Martin Luther on Trial, and of course this one: C. S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert. The outfit has also produced critically acclaimed audiobook narrations of classic Christian works, predicated on the power of not just reading scripture, but hearing it.

I read with particular interest the brochure’s “Note about the Play,” which helpfully explains the subtitle. In 1950, Lewis received a letter from a young American writer expressing his struggle to believe Christianity because he thought it “too good to be true.” Lewis responded, “My own position at the threshold of Christianity was exactly the opposite of yours. You wish it were true; I strongly hoped it was not. . . . Do you think people like Stalin, Hitler, Haldane, Stapledon (a corking good writer, by the way) would be pleased on waking up one morning to find that they were not their own masters . . . that there was nothing even in the deepest recesses of their thoughts about which they could say to Him, ‘Keep out! Private. This is my business’? Do you? Rats! . . . Their first reaction would be (as mine was) rage and terror.”

The Note goes on to say that this was Lewis’s mindset before he “gave in,” as he put it. Lewis had embraced ideologies like materialism, atheism, naturalism, determinism, and reductionism—views that hold in common the conviction that all of life, every action, emotion, or perception, is susceptible to deflation. Each can be reduced to pre-existing physical causes all the way back to the Big Bang. There is no need to appeal to a supernatural source. God is not required to explain or define origin, meaning, ethics, or destiny. “For many years, Lewis was a defender of this view. And given his rhetorical gifts and love of debate one could see him fit into the ‘New Atheist’ camp with the likes of the late Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris.”

This play, it was explained, would explore Lewis’s dramatic conversion from this position to Christianity. McLean, the author of the Note, adds that he thinks Lewis’s vibrancy and resonance as a Christian apologist is rooted in this experience. The primary sources for the play, the Note continues, would be Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy, as well as his Collected Letters, a three-volume veritable treasure trove of insights and rich historical nuggets. McLean wrote the script by carefully cobbling together Lewis’s disparate words into a seamless tapestry and compelling narrative with a readily discernible and inherently fascinating trajectory. In addition to the primary sources, McLean also relied on several of Lewis’s books and essay collections, including The Problem of Pain, The Weight of Glory, Mere Christianity, God in the Dock, Present Concerns, and Christian Reflections. And he acknowledges his debts to various biographies and critical insights by Douglas Gresham (Lewis’s stepson), Walter Hooper (editor of Lewis’s literary estate), Devin Brown (from Asbury University), Tim Keller (whose church McLean attends in NYC, a church that has several pastors with specific ministries for the artists in the congregation), Alan Jacobs (Wheaton), Jerry Root (who’s written a book on Lewis and the problem of evil), Andrew Lazo, George Sayer, David Downing, Oxford’s Alister McGrath, Armand Nicholi (author of a book comparing and contrasting Lewis and Freud), Sheldon Vanauken, Kenneth Tynan, and A. N. Wilson, among others.

Finally, I read that the play takes place prior to the publication of Lewis’s first Narnia story and well before he met his wife, Joy Davidman—which introduces the tantalizing possibility of a sequel. My appetite thus whetted, I was primed to see the show.

Part II

Jesus, the Bible, and Moral Knowledge (Part 2: Aristotelian, Kantian, and Christian Accounts of Moral Knowledge)

Part I

By Jonathan Pruitt

Non-Trinitarian Accounts of Moral Knowledge

There are a variety of non-Trinitarian accounts of moral knowledge, but perhaps the most popular and viable are Aristotelian and Kantian accounts. Before briefly laying out these accounts and showing some of their short comings, we should note that Aristotelian and Kantian accounts have different targets. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle is not primarily concerned with spelling out the conditions for right action or the framework for moral duties. Rather, his aim is to provide an explanation of the human good.[1] What will make human beings happy; what realizes eudaimonia? Kant, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with accounting for the existence of the moral law  and its applicability to us.[2] A rough way of seeing the difference is this: Aristotle is concerned with the good and Kant is concerned with the right.[3]

Aristotle’s Ethics 

Aristotle begins with the a priori premise “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.”[4] Any rational endeavor seeks some good. If human beings want to live rationally, they ought to seek after the good. But what is the human good? Whatever it is, it must be something chosen for its own sake and not for the sake of something else. Aristotle thinks that only happiness (eudaimonia) meets this requirement; “happiness is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action.”[5] But saying simply that “happiness is the chief good seems a platitude.”[6] Therefore, Aristotle seeks to specify exactly what characterizes happiness. Aristotle suggests that the human good consists in proper function according to a telos. What a human being is will determine what counts as proper function as well as the conditions and nature of happiness.

Aristotle thinks that the essential nature of human beings can be discerned by empirical means. Through observation, Aristotle thinks he can detect two kinds of proper function or virtue. First, one can see the difference between man and lower animals. Man possesses a rational element which beasts do not.[7] Aristotle argues that a life of contemplation is the highest good because it is “the best thing in us” and reason is either “itself divine or only the most divine element in us.”[8] The virtues that allow for full utilization of the rational faculty (contemplation) are the intellectual virtues. But in addition to these, Aristotle says there are also the ethical virtues, or virtues of character.[9] Traditionally, the Greek virtues include, according to Thomas Aquinas, “temperance, justice, prudence, and fortitude.”[10] Aristotle thinks that these virtues of character can be discerned through the “doctrine of the mean.” A virtue is the balance between two vices. Temperance, for example, is the mean between self-indulgence and insensibility.[11]  Aristotle further thinks that the human good needs the right environment. Aristotle holds that it can be observed that man flourishes best when he lives in the Greek polis. The human good also requires certain material conditions, like physical health and monetary wealth. Happiness is not merely a matter of inward reflection and self-discipline; it also requires the right physical setting.

The upshot of Aristotle’s ethic for our purposes is this: Aristotle thinks that a full account of moral knowledge is available to us through the use of common sense and empirical observation. By considering the nature of human beings and their endeavors, and by observing how humans flourish, we can determine what the human good is.

Even in this brief sketch of Aristotle’s ethic, one can see how rich and multi-valent Aristotle’s account of the human good is. It strives to include all dimensions of embodied human life, and in this way, has some advantages over more Platonic accounts. The substantial nature of Aristotle’s conclusions along with his seemingly modest epistemological commitments may be why Aristotle’s model of ethics continues to be utilized. Philippa Foot, for example, argues for a naturalistic virtue ethic that attempts to justify moral realism and moral knowledge along Aristotelian lines.[12] Erik Wielenberg in his attempt to justify value and virtue in a Godless universe, suggests that Aristotle’s ethic provides “the most powerful response” to Christian morality.[13]  For many, an Aristotelian strategy provides a promising way to account for moral knowledge outside of the Bible.

While there is much to be commended in Aristotle’s approach, like his belief in the connection of facts and values, there are still some problems. One concern is whether Aristotle’s account of virtue actually follows from his insight about human beings. Kraut suggests that Aristotle’s argument in the Nicomachean Ethics may not establish the virtues, but merely shows a reason to be virtuous: “We may conclude that Aristotle proposes flourishing as the ‘ultimate justification of morality [why we ought to be moral].’”[14] In other words, Aristotle begins with the assumption that humans ought to be moral and his project, despite his intentions, only provides motivation to be moral rather than an explanation of morality itself.  Further, Aristotle’s project begs the question about the nature of the human good and the associated virtues; these values are assumed rather than demonstrated.

John Hare brings a similar charge against eudaemonist or Aristotelian ethics.[15] His contention, following Scotus, is that the moral law, or what humans ought to do, cannot be deduced from facts about human nature. Hare’s basic contention is that Aristotle’s account of moral goodness is too narrow. One piece of evidence Hare supplies comes in the contrast of Jesus and Aristotle’s view of “competitive goods.” Aristotle often thinks of the human good as requiring wealth and power; honor and magnanimity. For one to possess these qualities, others most have them in lesser degrees; they are competitive goods. Jesus, on the other hand, advocates for the virtue of humility. This is the inversion of Aristotle’s vision of the ideal man. As MacIntyre puts it, “Aristotle would certainly not have admired Jesus Christ and he would have been horrified by St. Paul.”[16] This deep disagreement about the nature of the human good, argues Hare, highlights the inscrutability of ethical virtue from human nature.[17] What facts about human nature and how we flourish could be produced to settle the disagreement? This is one reason why Hare thinks special revelation with specific divine commands is necessary for justified moral beliefs. While Hare does not take his conclusion explicitly in this direction, one could extend his argument to say that the Word of God is necessary to supplement what we can know about the human good by reason.[18] For if divine commands are required, then the Bible would be a good place to look for those commands.

Another concern with Aristotle’s approach comes from his view of God. As mentioned above, Aristotle thought that greatest possible ways of human flourishing were intimately connected with the divine. It is not altogether clear how Aristotle conceives of this relation, however. Is contemplation the highest good simply because it is the full realization of the highest element in humanity, or because it resembles the activity of God? In support of the latter possibility, Aristotle says that the value of all things is judged by reference to “God and the good.”[19] Aristotle frames this dilemma rather directly:

It is reasonable that happiness should be god-given, and most surely god-given of all human things inasmuch as it is the best. But this question would perhaps be more appropriate to another inquiry; happiness seems, however, even if it is not god-sent but comes as a result of virtue and some process of learning or training, to be among the most godlike things; for that which is the prize and end of virtue seems to be the best thing in the world, and something godlike and blessed.[20]

Aristotle seemingly wants to gloss over the relation of God and the human good, but this relation is critical to his theory in at least two ways. First, it raises the question of the nature of goodness itself to human goodness. If God is the highest good, then should not he be the telos of humanity? If all rational endeavors pursue the good, then this question is not trivial. Second, if the human good is God-given, then what does this imply about the connection of the human telos and God’s intentions for human beings? If God is both the standard of the good and the one who gives goodness or happiness to humanity, then it would seem that the question of human virtue would be primarily theological and not philosophical (assuming there is a sharp distinction between these disciplines). Investigation into morality would be a question of who God is, what he is like, and whether or not he has revealed himself and his intentions for human beings.[21] In sum, Aristotle’s approach to ethics does not actually succeed at what it sets out to do and it leaves important theoretical questions about the nature of the good, specifically the relation of the good to God and the human telos, unanswered.

Kantian Ethics 

Kant’s approach to moral knowledge is different both in its method and its goal. Kant’s epistemology assumes a split between the phenomenal and the noumenal. There is a way that things appear to us which is determined by the mind and there is a way things actually are. We do not know external objects as they are, but only as they appear to us, as they are shaped by the categories of the mind. On the other hand, Kant says, “other possible things, which are not objects of our senses, but are cogitated by the understanding alone, and call them intelligible existences (noumena).”[22] God exists in the noumenal realm and is not directly accessible to us. Considering our epistemic situation, Kant thinks that the basis of moral knowledge must be established based on “pure reason.” Moral knowledge would not be knowledge of the Platonic forms, but knowledge of the entailments of reason. Pure reason operates only the analytic and a priori; it utilizes only those things known prior to experience and that are internal to the person. Kant thinks that one can postulate the existence of noumenal objects on the basis of practical reason. If some concept known analytically requires the postulation of some noumenal object to explain its existence, then this postulation is warranted. Seemingly, Kant thinks that the notion of the moral law is an a priori concept for in The Critique of Practical Reason, it is on the assumption of existence of the moral law that Kant, by use of practical reason, establishes the reality of human free will.[23]

Kant, like Aristotle, has an important role for God. But also like Aristotle, Kant’s search for moral knowledge does not begin with God. Rather, since God is in the realm of the noumenal, Kant says he “must, therefore, abolish knowledge [of noumenal objects like God], to make room for belief [in these objects]. The dogmatism of metaphysics, that is, the presumption that it is possible to advance in metaphysics without previous criticism, is the true source of the unbelief (always dogmatic) which militates against morality.”[24] Despite this move, Hare rightly argues that for Kant, God has three specific roles, the legislative, executive, and judicial so that for Kant “God gives us the assistance required to live according to the law. And God sees our hearts, as we do not, knows whether we are committed to obedience, and rewards us accordingly.”[25] It is based on God’s necessary judicial function that Kant develops a moral argument for God by means of practical reason. Kant held that a person was always obliged to keep the moral law. However, one’s self-interest or happiness and keeping the moral demand can seemingly conflict so that it would not be rational to follow the law. To keep this seeming contradiction from becoming actual, Kant, as a postulate of practical reason, thought that God must exist to make sure that the moral law and happiness coincide.

Kant’s understanding of human epistemological limitations shapes how he thinks of morality in general and moral knowledge in particular. The full extent of our moral obligations must be discovered a priori, without appeal to any external authority or empirical observation. According to Johnson, Kant’s method is to begin with analyzing our moral concepts, like “good will,” “moral agent,” and “obligation” and their logical relationship to one another.[26] Since the moral law should be necessary and absolute, it cannot consider any contingent features. It is these analytic considerations that lead Kant to his second formulation of the Categorical Imperative: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”[27]

This brief sketch of Kant’s account of moral knowledge does create some concern. One problem has to do with Kant’s understanding of the epistemic starting point. Hume may have awoken Kant from his dogmatic slumbers, but Kant seems to have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed. Hume’s skeptical challenge leads Kant to embrace epistemological and ontological dualism, when he should have rejected the skepticism.[28] The result is the Kant believes an implicit contradiction. He says he cannot have knowledge of God, except by practical reason. But this is an a priori theological belief which is no better established than the alternative. A better response can be found in the work of Alvin Plantinga, which takes seriously the implications of the Christian worldview.[29] Kevin Diller suggests that Plantinga and Barth have similar positions on this front. When faced with the problem of skepticism, Diller argues that traditionally philosophers have seen the problem as a dilemma. Either one can embrace the skepticism or change the definition of truth and knowledge (anti-realism). Diller argues that both Barth and Plantinga “chart an escape through the horns of this dilemma by rejecting certain core epistemological assumptions of modernity. Plantinga identifies its origins in the unreasonable deontology associated with classical foundationalism. Barth heralds the pre-engaged givenness and self-grounding of divine self-revelation.”[30] They, instead of buckling under the weight of modernism, opt for a critical realist position of knowledge that “strongly affirms the possibility of theological knowledge.”[31]

Here is a related problem to Kant’s view. If his ethical theory ends up affirming the necessity of God, then why would God be left out of the epistemic story? Surely, if God exists and he is personal in the way that Kant’s view requires, then perhaps he might, as Plantinga suggests, create us to know him, perhaps even in a properly basic way. Considering the earlier argument that all epistemology is inherently theological, it would seem to make Barthian and Plantingian accounts at least prima facie more plausible because they at least acknowledge the determinate relation of epistemology to worldview.

A Trinitarian Account of Moral Knowledge

Having now shown some reasons to be skeptical of Aristotelian and Kantian accounts of moral knowledge, we will now see how a Trinitarian and biblical account is superior. But first we must sketch out this Trinitarian account. A significant difference between a Trinitarian account and the other accounts concerns their respective starting points. We begin with theology rather than epistemological method (particularism over methodism). The first theological assumption relevant to moral knowledge is that God is the good and that, therefore, any moral knowledge we might have will in some way be dependent on him. That God ought to be identified with the good is widely held Christian belief shared among theologians from Augustine to Robert Adams.[32] If goodness is identified with God, then the goodness of all other things must be explained in terms of resemblance to God. Moral knowledge, then is a kind of knowledge of God, either of himself directly or derivatively in his creation. That moral knowledge would be available to us given the existence of God is internally coherent and plausible. Plantinga, in a discussion of the availability of knowledge of God in general says this: “[If it is true that God exists, then] the natural thing to think is that he created us in such a way that we would come to hold true beliefs as that there is such a person as God, that he is our creator, that we owe him obedience and worship, that he is worthy of worship, that he loves us, and so on. And if that is so, then the natural thing to think is that the cognitive processes that do produce belief in God are aimed by their designer at producing that belief.”[33]  The other assumption is that the God in view is the Trinitarian God of the Bible who is revealed primarily by his Word, Jesus Christ.

Considering these assumptions, the obvious concern given our aim is to say what moral knowledge God has revealed in his Word and how he has done this. God’s modes of revelation can be divided into two categories: general and special and God has made moral knowledge available through both means, though to varying degrees. God the Father, through his Word, who made all things, reveals some of morality in his creation (Col. 1:15-16; Rom. 1:18; 2:14). However, this moral knowledge is suppressed because of sin. Some limited amount of moral knowledge is available by this route, but it is fragmentary and clouded by what Plantinga calls “the noetic effects of sin.”[34] This means that the only ultimately reliable and full source of moral knowledge must come by way of divine grace and special revelation.

If special revelation is required for this sort of moral knowledge, which is a species of the genus “knowledge of God,” then written Word of God, the Bible, would be the place to turn. But if God primarily reveals himself in and through his Word, who is Jesus Christ, then this could create a problem. The problem arises if there is a disconnect between God’s primary and supreme mode of revelation, his Son, who is the Word, and the Bible, for as John writes, “No one has ever seen God. The only one [Who is the Word of God], himself God, who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God known” (John 1:18, NET). Carson concludes from this text that “the Word was simultaneously God and with God—has broken the barrier that made it impossible for human beings to see God, and has made him known.”[35] If this separation between written Word and Word of God were actual, then the implication would be that the only special revelation to which we have ready access would be inferior to the ideal revelation of God in Jesus Christ. To put the problem another way: If in the Bible we do not encounter the Word of God, who is the only one to make the Father known, then the Bible cannot be a reliable or full source of moral knowledge. The only sure source of moral knowledge is encounter with the Living Word, who is Jesus Christ. Therefore, if our moral knowledge is going to be the best kind possible for us, it must find its source in the Word of God; the Bible must be a revelation of Jesus Christ. Fortunately, Barth shows us the way to understand the Written Word and the Word as intimately connected.

Barth contends that Holy Scripture is composed of the prophetic and apostolic witness to Christ. In the Written Word, the Church is given “the promise of God’s mercy which is uttered in the person of Him who is very God and very Man and which takes up our cause when we could not help ourselves at all because of our enmity against God.”[36] The promise of the Written Word is “Immanuel;” it is the working out of John 1:18. Barth adds that the Bible is the word of men “who yearned, waited and hoped for this Immanuel and who finally saw, heard and handled it in Jesus Christ. Holy Scripture declares, attests and proclaims it. And by its declaration, attestation and proclamation it promises that it applies to us also and to us specifically.”[37] For Barth, then, the Bible functions on two levels. First, its subject is Jesus Christ. All of the Bible either looks forward or back to the revelation of God in his Son. Second, God is at work in the Bible. The Bible is not a static object, but has the character of “event.” God speaks in and through the Written Word and what he speaks is his Word, who is the Son. Thus, the content of the Written Word points to the Son, and in the Written Word, we encounter the Word of God. In this way, the Bible can serve as the best possible ground for moral knowledge. It is this sure ground that allows the Bible to not only supplement the limited moral knowledge available via general revelation, but also to correct misunderstandings. What is implicit in creation, is made explicit in Jesus Christ and his Written Word.

Barth’s comment about the person of Christ being “very God and very man” also shows why the Bible is especially fit to be our source of moral knowledge. Jesus as “very God,” possesses the right kind of authority to place upon us binding moral obligations for, plausibly, God as the creator of humanity would ipso facto have moral authority over them.[38] If Jesus were not God himself, then God’s revelation of himself in Christ would be deficient and not self-authenticating. On the other hand, the fact that Jesus is “very man” is also relevant, for in the life and person of Jesus, we find the ideal moral exemplar.[39] Jesus authoritatively as God not only tells us what we ought to do, but he also shows how humans ought to function. He gives us a clear picture of the human good. It is Jesus’ status as both “very God and very man” that puts him in a position to set forth authoritatively and completely moral knowledge with respect to the right and the good. And the fact that he communicates through and encounters us in the Written Word means this knowledge is accessible to us. The Written Word, as Barth says, is the concrete realization of Immanuel.

What the Written Word says about the right and the good also provide reason to prefer the Trinitarian account over the alternatives considered. With respect to the good, Aristotle’s virtue ethic is deficient in two ways when compared with the ethic of the Bible. First, Aristotle’s account of the virtues is both incomplete and in error at certain points. The cardinal virtues, discoverable by general revelation according to Thomas Aquinas, are supplemented by the Written Word. The theological virtues are beyond “the capacity of human nature” to apprehend and therefore it is “necessary for man to receive [knowledge of them] from God.”[40] Second, Aristotle’s vision of the good life is inferior to the biblical vision. Aristotle’s conception of life in in the polis is based on a truncated view of the good for man. Fully realized human flourishing only occurs in shalom, where God and man live in love with one another and harmony with the whole of the created order (cf. Zeph 3:15;19-20; 8:3-12). With respect to the right, we also see that Kant’s account is inferior. While Kant argues that one ought to always treat others as ends and never merely as means, Jesus commands that we “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk. 12:31). While Kant may have intended to arrive at a conclusion like Jesus’, his insistence on basing moral knowledge of the deliverances of pure reason deemphasizes the central role that love ought to play in the working out of our moral obligations. One advantage of a Trinitarian account should already be evident: a Trinitarian account takes seriously the finitude of man and the inescapabilty of making theological assumptions (either implicitly or explicitly) in our quest for moral knowledge, but the other primary advantage is this: The central place of love in the Christian ethic and its deep, natural connection with the Trinity shows that the biblical ethic is both internally coherent and that it confirms our highest possible vision of what the ethical life  should be. This should count as evidence in favor of the credibility of the Bible as the source of moral knowledge for us.

However, we must not forget the kind of objection raised by Peter Enns at the beginning. Throughout Christian history, readers of the Bible have found certain elements of its moral vision to be abhorrent and incompatible with their understanding of a loving God. Some have seen the picture of God in the Old Testament to be the opposite of loving; they instead seem him as violent and vindictive. If the Bible presents an ultimately incoherent vision of ethics, then this would count as a defeater for thinking of the Bible as the source for moral knowledge. Therefore, some response to this charge must be made. Here are two suggestions. First, it may be that many of the objections to the ethics of the OT are simply based on hermeneutical error. For example, Copan and Flanagan argue that texts claiming the complete destruction of the Canaanites are hyperbolic and that all that God actually commands is that Israel drive them from the land.[41] The language of “total extermination” is an ancient idiom that should not be read literally. Second, we should not expect that our moral beliefs match univocally with what is actually the case about morality. There is also no reason to think our natural moral knowledge should be totally equivocal, either. Rather, we should expect that our knowledge of the good and the right is analogical and open to revision, but not that it would be totally overturned.[42] Lewis argues this view:

Divine “goodness” differs from ours, but it is not sheerly different: it differs from ours not as white from black but as a perfect circle from a child’s first attempt to draw a wheel. But when the child has learned to draw, it will know that the circle it then makes is what it was trying to make from the very beginning. This doctrine is presupposed in Scripture. Christ calls men to repent – a call which would be meaningless if God’s standard were sheerly different from that which they already knew and failed to practice.[43]

If the Bible did not challenge, expand, and correct our moral beliefs, then would it would be superfluous to moral knowledge, but as we have seen, there are good reasons to think it is necessary. So, while this objection should be taken seriously, there are at least two promising ways of responding that will preserve the coherence of the Bible as our source of moral knowledge.

 

Conclusion

The aim was to show why the Bible is necessary for moral knowledge. It was shown that two of the most popular alternative accounts for moral knowledge beg theological questions, have internal inconsistencies, and present a relatively truncated vision of the ethical life. For this reason, these alternate accounts do not provide the best explanation of moral knowledge. However, the Trinitarian account is internally coherent, has considerable explanatory power, and presents an ethical vision that exceeds our highest expectations. This vision is communicated to us by the Word of God in and through the Written Word, which means that moral knowledge is readily accessible to us. In view of the possibilities considered, the Bible as the source for moral knowledge for us is the best explanation available.

Notes:

[1] Gavin Lawrence, “Human Good and Human Fuction ” in The Blackwell Guide to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, ed. Richard Kraut (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006). 50.

[2] John E. Hare, God and Morality : A Philosophical History (Malden, MA ; Oxford: Blackwell Pub., 2007). 138.

[3] Of course, pressing these distinctions too far would be a mistake. Aristotle’s account of the virtues is an account of right action, and Kant emphasizes the role of the “Supreme Good” in his ethic.

[4] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics trans. W. D. Ross (MIT, 1994).Book 1 chapter 1.

[5] Ibid. Book 1, chapter 7.

[6] Ibid.Book 1, chapter 7.

[7] Ibid. Book 1, chapter 9.

[8] Ibid. Book 10, chapter 7.

[9] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “Aristotle’s Ethics.”

[10] Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologiæ of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New Advent, 1920). First Part of the Second Part; Question 61. However, Aristotle in Rhetoric, extends the list: “The forms of Virtue are justice, courage, temperance, magnificence, magnanimity, liberality, gentleness, prudence, wisdom.”

[11]Aristotle. Book 2, chapter 1.

[12] See Philippa Foot, Natural Goodness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[13] Erik J. Wielenberg, Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). 31.

[14] Richard Kraut. The Blackwell Guide to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (p. 344). Kindle Edition.

[15] John E. Hare, God’s Command (New York, NY: Oxford University, 2015). 99.

[16] Alasdair C. MacIntyre, After Virtue : A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981). 181.

[17] Hare, God’s Command. 118.

[18]This does not mean that fact and value come apart, however. The problem is epistemological and not ontological. And Hare does think that some ethical facts can be discerned, but they are more limited than many Aristotelians tend to think.

[19] Aristotle. Book 1, chapter 7.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Naturalist versions of virtue ethics do not escape this problem. All virtue theories require a realist account of teleology. That is, a necessary condition of a virtue ethic is that human beings have purpose or telos. Teleology is irreducibly mental. For a thing to have a telos just is for someone in appropriate relation to that thing to have intentions or purposes for that thing. In other words, any account of virtue ethics would require a Creator. I have argued for this position in more detail here:

[22] Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason trans. J. M. D. Meiklejohn (Project Gutenberg, 2003 ). Chapter III.

[23] Immanuel Kant, The Critque of Pratical Reason, trans. Thomas Abbot (Start 2012). Kindle Location 13.

[24] Kant.

[25] Hare, God and Morality : A Philosophical History. Kindle Locations 1739-1742.

[26] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “Kant’s Moral Philosophy.”

[27] Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals ; with, on a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns, trans. James W. Ellington, 3rd ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett 1993). 12.

[28] For a discussion of this see Morrison., 38-39.

[29] See Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[30]Kevin Diller, Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma : How Karl Barth and Alvin Plantinga Provide a Unified Response (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2014). 169.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Though I take this as an assumption, that does not mean the view cannot be supported. For example, Adams ably argues that identifying God with the good has considerable explanatory power and makes sense of our moral language. See Robert Merrihew Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods : A Framework for Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). David Baggett and Jerry Walls also contend successfully that this view best explains all the moral facts in question. See David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls, Good God : The Theistic Foundations of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[33] Plantinga. 189.

[34] Ibid.146.

[35] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Inter-Varsity Press 1991). 134.

[36] Barth, The Church Dogmatics (I,1). 108.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Mark C. Murphy, An Essay on Divine Authority, Cornell Studies in the Philosophy of Religion (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002). 18.

[39] See Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski, Divine Motivation Theory (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004). 247.

[40] Aquinas. First Part of the Second Part, Question 62.

[41] Paul Copan, Did God Really Command Genocide? : Coming to Terms with the Justice of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2014). 76.

[42] Baggett and Walls. 48.

[43] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001). 86.

Moral Transformation in C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces

 

by Ashley Starnes

Introduction

If asked what morality looks like, many would say it’s listening to one’s conscience or, particularly if speaking to a Christian, following the instructions laid out in the Bible. However, C. S. Lewis describes a process of total moral transformation which is significantly more involved, including divine intervention in addition to personal choice and rule-following, and which bears a striking resemblance to plot elements found in standard fictional plot structure. Where the avoidance of evil and the effort to make good choices serves as the whole of the moral question for some, Lewis describes four separate, if sometimes overlapping, stages—self-deception, honest assessment, serious moral effort, and finally redeemed morality—that can be compared to the exposition, crisis, try-fail cycle, and climax of a story’s plot. This succession of stages can most clearly be seen in Lewis’s retelling of the myth of Psyche, his novel Till We Have Faces.

Exposition: Self-Justification and Self-Deception

In our flawed moral state, we naturally find ways of justifying or even completely ignoring our moral failings. Here we find the tin soldier in one of Lewis’s analogies: in the attempt to turn him into a real man he does not want to be made real, mistakenly thinks that he is being killed, and fights as hard as he possibly can to remain in his current state.[1] “Before we can be cured we must want to be cured.”[2] The preference to try and cure ourselves, or worse, the temptation to believe that there is nothing of which to be cured, keeps us in a scenario in which we are attempting to be good (or think we are) but are in fact seeking happiness as our ultimate goal, an impossible situation since, while holiness can produce happiness, the pursuit of happiness cannot produce morality.[3]

Orual spends the greater portion of Till We Have Faces in this stage of the plot. She continually justifies her own selfish actions or overlooks them completely, avidly accuses the gods of punishing her without valid cause, and both actively and passively harms those around her throughout the process, all while thinking of herself as a martyr and demanding that everything happen on her own terms. “It had been somehow settled in [her] mind from the very beginning that [she] was the pitiable and ill-used one.”[4] Even when shown the truth of situations, Orual refuses to acknowledge it for what it is, doggedly insisting that she is in the right and has been treated unfairly, even when threatening violence and blatantly manipulating or mistreating the people around her. Orual sees a glimpse of Psyche’s palace, claims the gods are mocking her, and eagerly accepts the faulty theories of Bardia and the Fox to make herself feel better, to justify her desire to control Psyche and ruin her happiness because Orual had not been the one to provide it for her.[5] She even goes so far as to suggest, when the god appeared to her, that he changed the past to make her appear guilty: “He made it to be as if, from the beginning, I had known that Psyche’s lover was a god, and as if all my doubtings, fears, guessings, debatings, questionings of Bardia, questionings of the Fox, all the rummage and business of it, had been trumped-up foolery, dust blown in my own eyes by myself.”[6] She is shown truth at this moment (and at other moments throughout the story) and dares to accuse the gods of wrongdoing rather than acknowledging her own sin. This is an excellent example of the lengths to which someone will go to avoid the realization of their own moral failure. Lewis’s description is unique but its silhouette is readily recognizable at the center of human nature. Every person contains this exposition in his own story though the specific details will obviously vary. It is where we all start in terms of morality.

 

Crisis: Honest Assessment

In the midst of all the denial and justification comes a point (or points) at which an honest voice is heard speaking the truth of our failures, sometimes a slap to the face and sometimes a gentle nudge to direct our focus. We have the choice to suppress the warning or heed it. When we choose the first option, we revert to the previous stage to begin again. This is seen in Orual’s dismissal of her glimpse of the palace, her suppression of her brief desire to let Psyche be happy, her refusal to hear that Psyche’s husband could be anything other than a villain, insisting that the gods hate her, etc. When we choose the second option, though, we turn a corner. This is the point at which Orual says that she must edit her book because

I know so much more than I did about the woman who wrote it. What began the change was the very writing itself…. Memory, once waked, will play the tyrant. I found I must set down (for I was speaking as before judges and must not lie) passions and thoughts of my own which I had clean forgotten. The past which I wrote down was not the past that I thought I had (all these years) been remembering. I did not, even when I had finished the book, see clearly many things that I see now. The change which the writing wrought in me (and of which I did not write) was only a beginning—only to prepare me for the gods’ surgery. They used my own pen to probe my wound.[7]

She begins to see the reality of her situation when she makes a legitimate effort to be honest about her story, and this attempt at sincere honesty provides clarity. “Virtue—even attempted virtue—brings light; indulgence brings fog.”[8] When our focus shifts from ourselves and our natural motives to virtue and the sincere desire to be good (and not primarily happy), we begin to make real progress and see ourselves more and more clearly. “When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him.… You can understand the nature of drunkenness when you are sober, not when you are drunk. Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.”[9] In the minds of many this stage of honest self-assessment and desire to be good, to make better choices, amounts to the peak of one’s personal moral journey. They would say that the only thing left is to follow through with those better choices and to continue being honest with oneself. For Lewis, though, this stage is more akin to the crisis point in a story’s plot; this is where the protagonist realizes the problem and attempts to effect change. Pride is identified and begins to be rejected.

Once we are in right relation to God, he will make us more like himself as well as most fully ourselves.

The Try-Fail Cycle: Moral Effort and Repeated Failure

It is at this point that sincere moral effort begins. Lewis’s recommendation at this point is to “make some serious attempt to practice the Christian virtues.… Try six weeks. By that time, having, as far as one can see, fallen back completely or even fallen lower than the point one began from, one will have discovered some truths about oneself. No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good.”[10]

da1cea3160This stage can be seen in a handful of moments in Orual’s journey. She comments directly on it at one point: “I could not hold out half an hour…. I could mend my soul no more than my face.”[11] She gives the Fox his freedom, sets out to improve conditions for the workers in Glome’s mines, gives Redival the husband she wants, and takes other steps to help the people in her kingdom.[12] On the other hand, some of these actions are more selfless than others and for every success there seems to be a corresponding moral failure—her bitterness that the Fox might choose his home and family over her, her hostility toward Redival, the execution of Batta, her possessive love of Bardia, to name a few.[13] The attempt to be virtuous is admirable in that it allows us to strengthen the desire to reach that goal and in a practical sense does improve our character. Certainly, we will make better choices when the desire to do good is present rather than only the desire for happiness, but for Lewis its primary purpose is to convince us that we need divine assistance.

Now we cannot…discover our failure to keep God’s law except by trying our very hardest (and then failing). Unless we really try, whatever we say there will always be at the back of our minds the idea that if we try harder next time we shall succeed in being completely good. Thus, in one sense, the road back to God is a road of moral effort, of trying harder and harder. But in another sense it is not trying that is ever going to bring us home. All this trying leads up to the vital moment at which you turn to God and say, “You must do this. I can’t.”[14]

According to Lewis, under the right circumstances and with a decent natural temperament, we can appear to be exceptionally moral people but even at our natural best we are caught in this try-fail cycle precisely because our focus is centered on our actions and motives while God is looking for something related but different. “[W]hat God cares about is not exactly our actions. What he cares about is that we should be creatures of a certain kind or quality—the kind of creature He intended us to be—creatures related to Himself in a certain way [and therefore related to others in a certain way].”[15] For that to happen, we must reach a point, through the try-fail cycle, at which we recognize our inadequacy and seek God himself rather than seeking only moral actions.

Climax: Redeemed Morality

The climax of moral transformation (on Earth) is reached at the point when failure is recognized and the need for divine assistance is accepted and pursued. The climax is humility before God. Moral effort is still required but now Jesus is providing what is needed to succeed. “It is a living Man, still as much a man as you, and still as much God as he was when he created the world, really coming and interfering with your very self; killing the old natural self in you and replacing it with the kind of self He has. At first, only for moments. Then for longer periods. Finally, if all goes well, turning you permanently into a different sort of thing; into a new little Christ, a being which, in its own small way, has the same kind of life as God.”[16]

Something resembling the try-fail cycle will still occur but with more and more success and less and less failure, really more analogous to the falling action of the story. “For you are no longer thinking simply about right and wrong; you are trying to catch the good infection from a Person…. The real Son of God is at your side. He is beginning to turn you into the same kind of thing as Himself…beginning to turn the tin soldier into a live man. The part of you that does not like it is the part of you that is still tin.”[17] The solution draws near and things are being put right. Now when we fail, it is not in vain. God is producing perseverance and dependence in us, moving us toward virtue with each choice and making us more into the creatures he means us to be.[18]

The final stretch of Till We Have Faces shows us this stage in Orual’s story and it occurs in a relatively brief amount of time. Once she accepts that the last virtue she thought she possessed—her love for Psyche—was not the selfless love she imagined it to be, when she sees herself and the gods accurately, acknowledges that they had been right all along and that she had no excuse for her actions, she is finally able to change in a much more significant way than her previous efforts had allowed. Once Orual accepts her own failings and the illegitimacy of her accusations against the gods, accepts their judgment and the fact that she cannot fix herself, she receives more clarity. Shown Psyche’s suffering, her response is no longer justifications and denials. Instead she asks the Fox, “Did we really do these things to her? … And we said we loved her.”[19] And when Psyche returns from her task, Orual falls at her feet and begs forgiveness, showing the new understanding she has gained in the process: “I never wished you well, never had one selfless thought of you. I was a craver.”[20]

Having tried her best to be good and failing and having recognized her actions for what they were, she finally reaches the climax: her moral redemption. When the god comes to her, she sees her reflection alongside Psyche’s. “Two figures, reflections, their feet to Psyche’s feet and mine, stood head downward in the water. But whose were they? Two Psyches, the one clothed, the other naked? Yes, both Psyches, both beautiful (if that mattered now) beyond all imagining, yet not exactly the same.”[21] This harks back to Lewis’s assertion that, once we are in right relation to God, he will make us more like himself as well as most fully ourselves.[22] Having moved through the previous stages and embraced God, Orual undergoes a radical change, not only in her actions but at her core. This is the climax of moral transformation.

 

Conclusion

For C. S. Lewis, moral transformation is a dynamic process and dramatic event with a very specific end result. It begins in a dark place and requires sincere effort, recognition of incompetence, and a turn to God—the exposition, crisis, try-fail cycle, and climax of one’s moral story. The process in reality is perhaps a bit messier than a typical plot structure but the categories fit well. Lewis assures us that the process a realistic one, that we possess the ability to become a Psyche with God’s assistance and will be if we allow God to have his way and embrace the process.

The command Be ye perfect is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were “gods” and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him—for we can prevent Him, if we choose—He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful, but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said.[23]

Lewis’s simple explanation of this moral transformation can be found in the instruction to Orual: “Die before you die.”[24] Socrates said philosophy trains us how to die—and perhaps this is what’s most true about his dictum: we need to die to our vainglory, our self-aggrandizement, all the various maladies within that only God’s grace can excise and heal.

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Lewis, C. S. The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.

Lewis, C. S. Till We Have Faces. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1956.

 

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 97.

[2] Ibid., 59.

[3] Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 105.

[4] C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1956), 256.

[5] Ibid., 132-133, 137-138, 144.

[6] Ibid., 173

[7] Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 253-254.

[8] Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 60

[9] Ibid, 56.

[10] Ibid., 78

[11] Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 282.

[12] Ibid., 207, 212, 231-236.

[13] Ibid., 207, 212, 230, 233.

[14] Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 81.

[15] Ibid., 80.

[16] Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 103.

[17] Ibid., 102.

[18] Ibid., 60.

[19] Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 304.

[20] Ibid., 305.

[21] Ibid., 307-308.

[22] Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 118.

[23] Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 109.

[24] Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 279.

Intuiting the Beauty of the Infinite: Ramanujan and Hardy’s Friendship and Collaboration

By David Baggett 

The Man Who Knew Infinity, a recent movie based on a book of the same name by Robert Kanigel, recounts the short but remarkable life story of India’s great mathematical prodigy Srivivasa Ramanujan (henceforth SR). Although what follows is a response to the film, the book is well-worth reading, filled with luscious prose such as in this sample: “The Cauvery was a familiar, recurrent constant of Ramanujan’s life. At some places along its length, palm trees, their trunks heavy with fruit, leaned over the river at rakish angles. At others, leafy trees formed a canopy of green over it, their gnarled, knotted roots snaking along the riverbank.”

The movie begins by quoting Bertrand Russell (a character in the movie itself): “Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth but supreme beauty.” It then shows SR in India, doing his mathematics (without much formal training) while trying to eke out a living for his family. His passion and talent for math are obvious; trying to describe maths (the preferred British abbreviation) to his wife, he says it’s like a painting, but with colors you can’t see. There are patterns everywhere in mathematics, he adds, revealed in the most incredible forms. Finding himself in need of someone who could understand and appreciate his ground-breaking work, SR wrote G. H. Hardy, legendary professor at Cambridge, and eventually Hardy invited SR to traverse the ocean and come work with him there.

This incredible opportunity required SR to leave his wife behind and endure the long journey and culture shock of moving to England, which contributes to a compelling narrative, with many twists and turns I’m not discussing but that make for a terrific, sometimes heart-wrenching tale. Despite the trials and challenges (including a war), what’s amazing was how much work SR and Hardy were able to do over the next five years—publishing dozens of groundbreaking articles.

The divergent worldviews of the two men make the dynamics of their friendship particularly fascinating to chronicle. SR was a devout Hindu whereas Hardy was a committed atheist—though the first time Hardy says this to SR in the movie (“I’m what’s called an ‘atheist’”), SR replies, “You believe in God. You just don’t think he likes you.” Incidentally, this is a key structuring question in C. S. Lewis’s moving novel Till We Have Faces: whereas both Psyche and Orual believe in the gods, Psyche believed they were marvelous and loving, but Orual thought they were only dark, unkind, and mysterious. In Rudolph Otto’s terminology, Orual was familiar with the tremendum aspect of the Numinous, but Psyche with both the tremendum (the awe-inspiring mystery) and the fascinans aspect of the Numinous. Fascinans is the aspect of the Divine involving consuming attraction, rapturous longing—and is often connected to the imagination, beauty, even poetry.

The diametric difference in SR’s and Hardy’s ultimate worldviews proves to be related to a central aspect of the plot. Hardy is adamant about the need to show step-by-step proofs of SR’s conclusions, while SR is depicted as functioning on a much more intuitive level. I’m not concerned for now what artistic liberties the moviemakers might have taken in this regard, but it is true that SR would often write down the conclusions of his work and not all the intervening steps. There may be at least a partial explanation of this which is fairly prosaic: paper tended to be in short supply for SR in India. But it’s at least intriguing to consider the explanation advanced in the movie: SR possessed incredibly strong intuitive skills. Mystifying Hardy, SR could just see things that few others could and felt little need to offer the proofs.

Hardy—though incredibly impressed with SR’s abilities, likening him to an artist like Mozart, who could write a whole symphony in his head—repeatedly says that intuition is not enough. Intuition must be “held accountable.” Proofs mattered, to avoid projecting the appearance of SR’s mathematical dance or art as on a par with conjuring.

It isn’t that SR’s intuitions were infallible. His theory of primes, however intuitively obvious, turned out to be wrong. Still, though, many of his intuitions were eventually vindicated and proved right. One among other interesting questions that SR’s reliance on intuitions raises is how much discursive analysis they involve. It’s a vexed question among epistemologists whether intuitions are a lightning quick series of inferences, or something more immediately and directly apprehended. The quickness with which they come naturally lends itself to the latter analysis, but perhaps there’s something to the former option—particularly if much of the analysis is done beneath the level of conscious awareness. In the Sherlock Holmes stories, for example, Sherlock’s inferences would come so quickly that Watson characterized them as resembling intuitions; likewise, realizing it’s sometimes easier to know something than to explain the justification for it, Sherlock himself recognized the way knowledge can have features that resemble more immediate apprehendings than just the deliverances of the discursive intellect. A couple of real-life Sherlocks, Al Plantinga and Phil Quinn had a dust up some years back on whether basic beliefs are formed inferentially or not.

The difference in Hardy’s and SR’s styles, we come to see, is related to their divergent worldviews. Exasperated at Hardy’s recurring disparagement of intuition as lacking in substance, SR finally blurts out, “You say this word as if it is nothing. Is that all it is to you? All that I am? You’ve never even seen me. You are a man of no faith. . . . Who are you, Mr. Hardy?” The underlying dynamic that brought this exchange to a head was the way SR connected his own identity to those intuitions. Hardy had asked SR before how he got his ideas. Now SR gives his answer: “By my god. She speaks to me, puts formulas on my tongue when I sleep, sometimes when I pray.”

SR asks Hardy if he believes him, and adds, “Because if you are my friend, you will know that I am telling you the truth. If you are truly my friend.”

Even more than the math, this is a movie about men and their remarkable friendship and fertile partnership across radically divergent and conflicting paradigms. The humanity of the film is its best feature of all.
In Till We Have Faces, we find a similar scene. Orual can’t see the gold-and-amber castle that Psyche tells her of, but Orual also knows that Psyche had never told her a lie. One issue here is testimony, and the conditions that need to be in place to take it as reliable. Of course someone could be telling the truth, the best they understand it, and still be unreliable—for perhaps they’ve unwittingly made a mistake, or they’re delusional or confused.

At any rate, Hardy’s reply is transparent: “But I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in anything I can’t prove.”

“Then you don’t believe in me,” SR responded. “Now do you see? An equation has no meaning to me unless it expresses the thought of God.”

Hardy remained skeptical of SR’s theology, but couldn’t dispute with the results. He would go to bat for SR to get him a fellowship at Cambridge, and in his impassioned defense of SR’s accomplishments he extolled his incredible originality, by which SR could apprehend so much truth otherwise missed. On Hardy’s view, the creativity and originality, though they provided SR a lens through which to see, didn’t subjectivize SR’s findings; rather, they were a tool for seeing farther and seeing more.

This contrasts with, say, Simon Critchley’s interpretation of the poetry of Wallace Stevens. On (Critchley’s) Stevens’s view, the only reality we experience is mediated through categories furnished by the poetic imagination, rendering our perspectives products of the imagination and, thus, subjective—yet still able to be believed despite their fictive nature. This is what some might call a more “postmodern” perspective than Hardy’s more traditional view that there’s an objective reality we’re able to discern, however imperfectly and through a glass darkly.

In real life, when Hardy died, one mourner spoke of his “profound conviction that the truths of mathematics described a bright and clear universe, exquisite and beautiful in its structure, in comparison with which the physical world was turbid and confused. It was this which made his friends . . . think that in his attitude to mathematics there was something which, being essentially spiritual, was near to religion.”

Hardy didn’t believe in God, but he did believe in SR and in the objectivity of mathematical truth. He wrote of his Platonism in his Mathematician’s Apology, and the movie captures this too. In one of his defenses of SR, he related the story of the way SR said mathematical truths are thoughts of God—a view parallel to, say, Plantinga’s view that modal and necessary moral truths are also thoughts in the mind of God. Then Hardy added, “Despite everything in my being set to the contrary, perhaps he’s right. For isn’t this exactly our justification for pure mathematics? We are merely the explorers of infinity in the pursuit of absolute perfection. We do not invent these formulae—they already exist and lie in wait for only the brightest minds to divine and prove. In the end, who are we to question Ramanujan—let alone God?”

Though math, on Hardy’s view, is discovered, not invented, it may take those with prodigious talents to uncover its deepest truths. Speaking of which, near the start of the film Hardy had said, “I didn’t invent Ramanujan. I discovered him.” Even more than the math, this is a movie about men and their remarkable friendship and fertile partnership across radically divergent and conflicting paradigms. The humanity of the film is its best feature of all.

After five years of collaboration between these unlikely friends, SR returned to India, having contracted a fatal disease—likely tuberculosis. Within a year he died, at the age of just 32. Hardy was crestfallen when he heard the news, and grieved the loss deeply. Near the end of the movie, he reflected on his collaboration with both SR and another colleague, Littlewood, saying he’d done something special indeed: “I have collaborated with both Littlewood and Ramanujan on something like equal terms.”

Paraphrasing Hardy, he once commented that out of 100 points, he would give himself 30 as a mathematician, 45 to Littlewood, 70 to Hilbert. And 100 to Ramanujan. In the year SR spent in India before his death, he poured his brilliant findings into another notebook. It was lost for a while, but when found, the importance of its discovery was likened to that of Beethoven’s “10th Symphony.” A century later, these formulas are being used to understand the behavior of black holes.

Twilight Musings “Severe Mercy”

 

By Elton D. Higgs

Recently we had to make sudden arrangements for our disabled adult daughter to be removed from our home and placed elsewhere.  She had to be taken traumatically by force from our house to a hospital mental health ward, since her behavior had become very belligerent and dangerous to herself.  This came after our having cared for her from infancy, through a normal delightful childhood and the insecurities of early adolescence, to the last five years in which her psychological and physical health has deteriorated from the effects of Huntington’s Disease, which is invariably fatal after years of decline.  We had wanted to care for her until the end, but now she’s gone from our house, and she won’t be coming back.

In the few days immediately following her departure, my wife and I both commented on how radically different the house was—I described it as “eerily quiet.”  I think our feelings about the necessary removal of our daughter from our care are somewhat like the feelings one has after having had an amputation, or the removal of an internal organ.  If pain is relieved or our life is saved as a result of the operation, we rejoice; but there is also some sadness at having to give up an integral part of us that at one time functioned well and contributed to our overall health.

Without faith in God’s love and providence, we focus on what has been lost, but the eyes of faith see God’s benefit overshadowing what has been lost, and we may even recognize that sometimes the enforced loss was necessary for us to experience the benefit.

This experience put me in mind of a book from several years ago by Sheldon Vanauken, entitled A Severe Mercy, which is a phrase from one of C. S. Lewis’s letters to Vanauken.  He and his wife had close contact with Lewis for a few years, both through letters and through their visiting him in England, so he knew the couple well.  They started the relationship as unbelievers, but ended up being converted to Christ.  However, they struggled to get past what had become, according to Vanauken, an all-absorbing pagan bond of love between them, which left no room for children or even God.  When his wife unexpectedly became ill with a fatal disease, and they were forced finally to submit their love to God, Lewis was bold enough to say that it was a severe mercy, a deprivation that perhaps had saved their souls.

In the past, my wife and I have experienced a number of changes in our lives and in the lives of others which were appropriately described as “severe mercies.” The concept is definitely helpful in understanding the necessity of our daughter’s being transferred from our care to the care of others who are better able to see to her needs at this point.  The trauma of separation is severe, but God’s mercy is showing through the pain of giving her up.  The familiar hymn, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” expresses beautifully this form of God’s provision and teaching, especially in stanzas 3 and 5:

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,

The clouds ye so much dread

Are big with mercy and shall break

In blessings on your head.

His purposes will ripen fast,

Unfolding every hour;

The bud may have a bitter taste,

But sweet will be the flower.

           (William Cowper)

The writer of Hebrews also articulates this principle of profit encased in pain in speaking of God’s discipline of His children.  He first quotes from the Book of Proverbs, and then expands on that passage.  (Read in each occurrence of “son” a gender-inclusive “child.”)

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by Him.  For the Lord disciplines the one He loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” [Prov. 3:11-12].  It is for discipline that you have to endure.  God is treating you as sons.  For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?  If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons . . . .  For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.  (Heb. 12:5b-8, 11, ESV)

Here lies the core of the difference between how believers and unbelievers view the things that are taken away from them.  Without faith in God’s love and providence, we focus on what has been lost, but the eyes of faith see God’s benefit overshadowing what has been lost, and we may even recognize that sometimes the enforced loss was necessary for us to experience the benefit.

Finally, when the thing lost was a good thing from God and not something harmful to us, we have a treasury of memories of God’s blessings during that time.  In our case, my wife and I are thankful that we were able to take two long trips requested by our daughter in the last two years, which, in spite of some blips involving her behavior, were rich and rewarding times together.  The memories of those trips, and the ways in which God made them possible and fruitful, will never be taken away.  And we hope that our cognizance of God’s goodness, past, present, and future, will always absorb any sense of loss.

Image: “Grace” by R. Alexander. CC license.