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Archive for October, 2011

Happy All Hallows’ Eve everyone!  Tonight is a good example of why I set this project up as a public blog:  otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting down to think on a little Lewis at all tonight!  A long day at work and then Trick or Treating with the family means I want to be curled up in bed, but since I haven’t posted since Thursday, I don’t want to let another night slip by.

I’ll try to keep this one short, since I still have more to do this evening.  In Surprised by Joy, right after explaining his attraction to the grand argument from Undesign, Jack notes that there is an obvious contradiction between the “Occultist fancies” he had absorbed from his beloved matron and the high, austere, and tragic atheism he had begun to adopt as a matter of philosophy.  They would seem to be mutually exclusive propositions, of course.  Like many of us, Lewis didn’t take the time to think it all out with perfect clarity and he “swayed” between them based entirely on his mood at a given moment.   The one common point between them was that they both pulled him away from his Christian faith, a bit at a time.  (65-66)

This tendency to ignore, indulge, or even to embrace paradox was a well established human trait long before Carl Barth systematized it into a theology or the postmodernists idolized it with their self-refuting descent into rhetorical nonsense.  I’ve seen it displayed as recently as this afternoon, when I was looking at the news.  In a story about the decision by Shorter University (a Christian school) to have its faculty sign a conduct agreement where they renounced sex outside of marriage and homosexuality, a random student contributed this gem of logic to the discussion:

“Who is one person to judge what somebody else does?” said one student, who spoke anonymously to the station. “It’s none of their business.”

And presumably the student made this statement with a straight face.  He/she is actually handing down a very obvious judgement against someone else (the school), condemning them for possibly judging someone else!  I have trouble understanding how some people’s heads don’t explode from the contradictions they have floating around inside their heads.  Perhaps it’s their abnormally thick skulls keep everything contained.

Of course, the point to observe here is that this is, indeed, entirely human.  Snark aside, I’m afraid I’ve been guilty of just such an intellectual sin far more often that I would like to admit.  To see it in C. S. Lewis, it is a clear and present reminder that, for all his considerable brain and potent imagination, he was as “real” as you or I.

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The final significant point of explanation C. S. Lewis offers in Surprised by Joy concerning his path away from faith and into unbelief is related to the pessimism I discussed in my post on Tuesday.  Jack’s father, Albert, had been in the habit, as perhaps many working men are, of repeatedly lamenting the hardness of the world and the difficulty of making ends meet.  It had reinforced Jack’s own pessimistic outlook and encouraged him to think of life as “an unremitting struggle in which the best I could hope for was to avoid the workhouse by extreme exertion” (64).  Even while at Cherbourg, Jack had already boiled all of life down to unavoidable drudgery.  As he said he described it to a friend, all they had to look forward to was “Term, holidays, term, holidays, till we leave school, and then work, work, work till we all die” (65).

Albert Lewis, Father of C. S. Lewis

Lewis later saw the same strand of laughable unreality in all this that he also saw in his general pessimism.  His father was quite comfortably and securely well off, especially by “our present tax-ridden standards” (64).  Really, he had no more business complaining about the difficulty of the universe than Jack did about the existence of Eton collars.

Of course, it’s easy to lose focus on the objective reality of what’s really going on around us when we’re submerged in the day-to-day grind of even generally enjoyable work.  That is especially true if that work begins to take on unreasonable proportions.  It devours your time, drains you, and leaves you feeling as if you have the weight of a very unfair world on your shoulders, particularly when it may seem that you have no recourse for relief.  I know I catch myself snapping unexpectedly at my family due to the stress I have had to deal with at work over the past year.  Even when I’m not being snippy, I find that I want to talk about the problems I face ad nauseum, because there is something in me that wants everyone to understand my plight and to sympathize.  Of course, I’m not so benighted as to think that there aren’t people out there who have it far worse than I, but it doesn’t always lessen my own particular burden to know that someone else’s is heavier.

We also have a tendency to overstate points to our children–I know I do.  We are so concerned that a stranger might kidnap Little Susie that we instill a pathological fear of all strangers in them when they are young.  (Not that it’s a bad thing…)  I suspect that at least some of Albert’s colorful descriptions of “real” life probably had their origins in a similar, kindly-meant motive.

Whatever the case, it is a reminder to me to take more care about what I say in front of children.  From Albert’s perspective, it was probably just a small thing–some complaining about work and a few strong words about the value of work–but it contributed to the complete loss of his son’s faith.  It prepared the ground for Jack’s pessimism, and his pessimism laid him open for what Jack himself calls atheism’s strongest siren song:  The “Argument from Undesign.”  He thought Lucretius put it well.

Nequaquam nobis divinitus esse paratm
Naturam rerum; tanta stat praedita culpa
Had God designed the world, it would not be
A world so frail and faulty as we see. (65)

And so, Jack Lewis, feeling that he had never truly met God in all of his forcibly manufactured prayers and certain that no good God could exist in such a universe, melted into a warm, contradictory haze of atheism, “dropping [his] faith with no sense of loss but with the greatest relief” (66).

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The Inklings (the writers group that meets at our house, patterned after the original) are incoming tomorrow night for the sixth annual “Dessert for Dinner” episode.  Presuming I survive the sugar and caffeine fueled antics, I’ll try to blog a little tomorrow too.  After that, I’ll see everyone again on Monday.


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No time tonight to really sit down, read, and ponder–I had to write this week’s contribution to While We’re Paused.  As a result of my studies over here, I decided to review John Cleese’s version of The Screwtape Letters (check out WWP Thursday for the review, if you like).

That did put me to mind of something I’ve really been thinking about off and on this week: Screwtape prefigures Surprised by Joy in some pretty significant ways.  Much of what I read of Wormwood’s attempt to wrest his patient out of “the Enemy’s” grasp lines up almost perfectly with Jack’s own description of his fall from grace.  The feelings of intellectual superiority and the forced manufacturing of emotion as a sign of the efficacy of prayer are very clear points.  In fact, even the very language in one is reminiscent of the other.

That makes me wonder precisely how much of Screwtape is really disguised biography–though not in the postmodern sense.  Lewis used his own life as the theoretical springboard for much of the fodder Screwtape and Wormwood discuss.  That means that there is a virtual treasure-trove of insight into Jack himself hidden in the wit and irony that is The Screwtape Letters.

Of course, due to the method of production, that trove is hidden throughout a mass of completely imaginative information, and there may be no clear way to tell the one from the other at this point in time.  I don’t know of anyone who has made a specific study of the topic, but I think it would be a worthy one for the students of Lewis to consider–with care.  I know that when I first started this project of blogging through Lewis’s life, I didn’t not think of Screwtape as any more useful than I did Narnia for identifying specific biographical facts about Lewis.  That was clearly a mistake.

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Tonight’s examination of the next factor in C. S. Lewis’ original falling away from the faith will be relatively short, for the simple reason that there really isn’t much to say about it–legitimately, at least.  So, I’ll have to clam up after the explanation part of the discussion.  It has to do with Jack’s pessimistic outlook and how he came about acquiring it.  It is covered on pages 63-64 of Surprised by Joy.

Lewis notes that already at the ripe age of thirteen or fourteen, he had become convinced that the world was predisposed to making things difficult for its inhabitants, and that his pessimism was “much more of intellect than of temper.”  In short, he had difficulty believing that there was any significant power in the universe that wished anyone any good.  He had trouble communicating the idea, as it appeared to him ridiculous as he looked back on it, but at the time it was quite weighty glory.  For all his apologizing, I think his approximation quite good:

Perhaps I had better call it a settled expectation that everything would do what you did not want it to do.  Whatever you wanted to remain straight, would bend; whatever you tried to bend would fly back to the straight; all knots which you wished to be firm would come untied; all knots you wanted to untie would remain firm.

And that line of thinking, of course, would make Christianity seem more absurd by the day.  What hope had a negative universe of producing a positive savior or of sustaining a loving God?

The point of his life that he had reached with the writing of Surprised by Joy had given him some perspective, and there is a notable tone of embarrassment to his explanation.  After all, he is explaining why a boy, well-fed, well-provided for by his father, living at a good school that gave him many advantages, could look around at the universe and complain that it was being “unfair.”  Certainly the Eton collars they all had to wear were something to complain about (he did so, after all, by implication in the opening to The Magician’s Nephew), but there was nothing particularly significant in that.  All Jack could do in Surprised by Joy was apologize and insist that the feelings were, in some manner, very real and very effective in changing his outlook on his faith.

In this section Jack describes two factors that he thinks led him toward such a pessimistic view of life.  First, and perhaps most obviously, there was the loss of his mother at such an early age.  She had loved and provided for him, and her loss shattered his world, removing the supports he had expected to last forever.  Even before than that, though, he references his problems with his thumbs that made him clumsy as both a child and an adult.  It added another layer of difficulty to everything he tried, and, it may be that contributed to an expectation that everything must be out to get him.

All of that, of course, sounds perfectly reasonable.  And there, for now, at least, I think I must leave that point.  The historian in me constrains further wanton speculation for the simple reason that this is an entirely internal matter, entirely inside Jack’s own head.  It isn’t even a larger question of abstract truth–he isn’t arguing that he had proof for his pessimism, only that he felt it.  Therefore, the only evidence we can rely on is Lewis’s own explanations.  Anything more is simply uncalled for.  We should make no claims to know a man better than he knows himself, especially when so much time has passed.

As I progress, I can come back to this as new data becomes available–I can weigh Jack’s own words against one another; I can weigh his words against his actions; I cannot allow myself to weigh Jack against my own biases or against what I would have wanted him to be.

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” –Sherlock Holmes, “A Scandal in Bohemia.”

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The next point brought up in Surprised by Joy deals with paganism and myth.  My friend Rachel ironically prefigured this whole question in the post she wrote today for the other blog I contribute to, While We’re Paused.  This issue was the first one that Lewis says gave rise to specific, conscious doubts about his faith:  If all other religions were simply rot, why should he believe Christianity to be any different?

Jack noted that in all of his classes and studies at Cherbourg, he was being presented with a slew of religious ideas from all sorts of places and times. Virgil was first among these in providing a “mass of religious ideas.”  All of this was presented to him as universal rubbish–all except, conveniently, the particular belief system prevalent in England at the time.  Jack wondered, and rightly so, what made Christianity so different that it shouldn’t be held to be in the same crowd as all the others?  His teachers never gave him any answer to that question.  Indeed, they likely didn’t know themselves.  In Lewis’s words:

No one ever attempted to show in what sense Christianity fulfilled Paganism or Paganism prefigured Christianity.  The accepted position seemed to be that religions were normally a mere farrago of nonsense, though our own, by a happy fortunate exception, was exactly true. […] But on what grounds could I believe this exception? It obviously was in some general sense the same kind of thing as all the rest.  Why was it so differently treated?  Need I, at any rate, continue to treat it differently?  I was very anxious not to. (62-63)

From the perspective of history and philosopy, there are a couple of points that strike me:

First, I’ve noticed, and I teach my classes, that there is always a time lag that is evident between the time a new idea (or ideas) are thought up and the moment when people really, truly begin to believe it and act on it.  Until practice catches up to theory (and indeed for quite a while afterward), people tend to act only on certain parts of an idea, while ignoring others.  Put simply, they take the idea only so far as “makes sense” based on their current ideas and previous sense of morality rather than take it to its logical conclusion.  We often see a few decades pass before people really begin to do what a philosophy demands.  We must allow time for a new generation to be raised up with fewer of the old inhibitions intact.

Naturalism and evolution is a good example.  Darwinism was in existence for decades before anyone actually tried to manage the human herd.  It was a gradual process of younger people continually asking “Why not?” again and again and realizing that, if naturalistic Darwinism was correct, there was no sufficient answer that could be given.  Slowly, that led us first to the eugenics movements and eventually to the Nazi purges.  Each step towards the conclusion would have given pause to the ones that went before–and the ends would seem unconscionable to those at the beginning–but to someone “forward thinking” enough, it just made sense.

I think what we see in Jack’s Cherbourg is a society in the middle of such a transition.  Jack is observing a period of English history were, in fact, many people have ceased to believe in Christianity in any real sense–they just haven’t all realized it yet.  It is left to the younger generation (Jack, in this case) to take the older one at their word and therefore to carry their ideas to their logical conclusion.*

Second, something else that might be coming into play is the tendency for us to teach what we are taught, regardless of whether or not it is consistent with our larger belief system in any meaningful way.  I know I’ve seen multiple professors who I know believe strongly in standards of right and wrong, in the truths of Christianity, stand up in class and teach philosophies that they themselves would not espouse if they really took the time to think about them.  Unfortunately, they’ve compartmentalized their lives to the point that they cannot understand how one part of their life might affect the other.  They teach the history that was taught to them (either by professors in person or in books) without really critiquing it from even their own perspective let alone a consistently Biblical worldview.  Perhaps some of Lewis’s teachers were in similar straights.  Perhaps not.  Without a closer look at them (diaries, lectures, etc.) it remains speculation.

Jack’s situation also demonstrates why my wife and I choose to homeschool our daughter.  Teachers exercise a tremendous amount of influence over children, and when a system clearly inculcates the idea that religion (particularly Christianity) is rot on virtually every level, it is often only by happy accident that someone emerges from it not only with their faith intact, but educated in the process.  It is certainly true that few, if any, come out as educated Christians.  I see no reason why we can’t have both–at least we’ll try.

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*From my own observations, this is an analogous period to American education in the 1970s, 80s, and perhaps a bit of the 90s.  America is always behind the curve when compared to Europe–and in this case it isn’t a bad thing.  I simply wish were weren’t trying so hard to catch up!  I see no reason to rush the handbasket on its way to Hell.

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I mentioned several things last night about the bearing Jack’s childhood spiritual feelings might have had on The Screwtape Letters and after my drive in to work this morning, one needs amending and another can be taken a step further:

  • I was wrong when I remembered Lewis’ comment on where he got his inspiration for Screwtape coming from.  I listened to the Prologue of the book today (read by John Cleese) on the way to work and it wasn’t in there.  I’ll most a further amendment when I remember where I read that!
  • There is a definite parallel between Jack’s experience with willfully forcing a spiritual, mystical experience in his prayers at Cherbourg and Screwtape.  In Letter 4*, Screwtape discusses the process, and in Letter 9** he says further that,
You have only got to keep him out of the way of experienced Christians (an easy task now-adays), to direct his attention to the appropriate passages in scripture, and then to set him to work on the desperate design of recovering his old feelings by sheer will-power, and the game is ours.
Apparently, I need to break out my copy of Screwtape too.  I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me to look there for insight on Jack’s personal experience of temptation away from the faith.  Some of us are, perhaps, thicker than others!
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*In the Cleese narrated audio version–it’s abridged and I don’t have a copy of the book here at work to check to make sure it is the same in the original.
**This one I found, in detail here:  C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (originally 1942; this edition: Harper Collins, 1996) 43, 45-46

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If he only knew how "surprised by Joy" he eventually would be....

The next step in C. S. Lewis’s fall into atheism discussed in Surprised by Joy actually predated and undergirded his encounters with his school matron (discussed in my previous post).   For quite some time, Jack had been wrestling with what it meant to know that his prayers and beliefs were effective.  That is the sort of thing that I would venture to guess that most Christians have wrestled with at one time or another.  How do I know that God is listening to my prayers?  How do I know that He’s answered them?  Am I really believing or am I failing miserably?  Many of us immediately jump to the (false) conclusion that the only way we could “know” any of this is by the observable, measurable presence of some emotional reaction to the process that produces some vague mystical experience.  Frankly, entire denominations of the Christian faith have been based on this one answer to this one problem.  As Jack himself put it:

No clause of my prayer was allowed to pass muster unless it was accompanied by what I called a “realization,” by which I meant a certain vividness of the imagination and the affections.  My nightly task was to produce by sheer will power a phenomenon which will power could never produce, which was so ill-defined I could never say with absolute confidence whether it had occurred, and which, even when it did occur, was of a very mediocre spiritual value. (61)

Lewis himself notes that it was a brilliant ploy of the Enemy–similar to one I saw a debate student pull on several other non-debate panel members in one of my classes today.  In that case, the student clearly and forcefully posed an answer to a hypothetical question (in his case dealing with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and then just as forcefully refused to accept anything but concrete evidence to the contrary.   The trouble was that the scenario in question was entirely abstract and therefore there was no concrete evidence that could be offered.  In short, he presented them with a question that, if they accepted it on his terms, was impossible to answer.  Jack put himself in a similar bind.  He notes that he demanded of his will power one thing that will alone could never deliver.  The result, not surprisingly, was repeated failure.

Jack’s response was to reinforce that failure.  If he could not find that feeling, it must simply be that he wasn’t trying hard enough.  So, he would spend hours up at night, repraying the same prayers over and over and hoping that this time he would get it right.  It was an incredible burden, especially for a thirteen year old boy.  He found that as time went on he “dreaded bed time” and that had it gone on for much longer, “I think I should have gone mad.” (63)

All of that built up in his mind over time and as a result, not only did he feel like he could slip away from his faith, in fact he wanted to do so.  It made him “desperately anxious to get rid of my religion.”  Atheism, then, came as a release.

My wife and daughter got me this...but its on cassette tape! 😦

I also find it interesting to see bits of Screwtape showing up in this section.  Somewhere–I believe it was in the prologue to The Screwtape Letters–Lewis remarked that he did not need to delve into any diabolic sources to research Screwtape.  He simply knew what worked with him.  He seems to be facing precisely that sort of attack that one might expect Screwtape himself to mastermind, and (at least in 1955) he understands what had happened to him.  In his descriptions I can almost see Jack’s infernal companion whispering in the young man’s ear, kneeling by his bed in the deep shadows of the night, a solitude broken only so often by the ticking of a clock and a sliver of moonlight.  The patient was tired, but the demon kept whispering his encouragement–“Keep at it!  Maybe this time!  Did you really mean that prayer?  Was that feeling real enough?”

And so it would go, with Jack’s best, most earnest efforts leading him farther into the darkness, into the halls of infernal Noise, perhaps to one day become the prey of Undersecretary of the Infernal Lowerarchy himself.

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