Meditations with C. S. Lewis: The Cosmic Grandfather

C. S. Lewis, best known as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, was also one of the most profound thinkers of twentieth century Christianity.  Along with J. R. R. Tolkien, he has inspired millions of people, include all of the authors at Lantern Hollow Press.  On Sundays we would like to take a moment to offer up a little Lewis for your consideration.

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We want not so much a Father but a grandfather in heaven, a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’

–C. S. Lewis The Problem of Pain 

This is indeed symptomatic not only of modern Christianity, but of humanity in general.  From the very beginning of recorded history, we see that as a race we care first and foremost about getting what we want instead of doing what is right and best.  All too often, we project that demand directly back onto our expectations of God.

The examples are too many to examine in so short a space.  Consider only a sampling:

  • In the political realm, there is the battle between secular capitalism and socialism.  On the one hand, I demand the ability to work all things around me for my own good–even other people’s lives.  On the other, I demand that the government forcibly take from someone else to insure that I can have what I want.
  • In deism and atheism we see worldviews that demand people be absolute sovereign of their own destiny and morality.  Not only can I have what I want, but no one–least of all a non-existent or irrelevant God–has grounds to even express disapproval.  I am only held accountable to myself and a standard of natural law that rarely, if ever, enforces itself.
  • Moral relativism takes it even a step farther and declares that there is no standard by which what I want can be measured at all.  Since nothing is “right,” everything is.  It is, perhaps, the ultimate example of the grandfatherly indulgence that humanity has come to expect and demand.

The problem has only gotten worse since Lewis first wrote about it.  The idea of “grandfatherly Christianity” has spread like wildfire through western churches.  We long ago abandoned the idea of “meeting people in their need” (a good thing) to “giving people what they want” (a much more questionable proposition).  The end result is a castrated faith that, in many ways, bears a pale resemblance to what the world it imitates looked like five to ten years before.

And we wonder why people don’t respect the modern church?

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Click here for the entire run of “Meditations with C. S. Lewis” so far.  Interested in more about C. S. Lewis?  Check out Passing Through the Shadowlands–an extended project where I am blogging through his life in letters, essays, and books.

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About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on May 27, 2012, in Brian Melton, C. S. Lewis, Christianity, Meditations, Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. Well said, Brian. And the first application is for me, “Lord, what would you have me do?”

  2. makes you think doesn’t it – faith to me is different than fulfilling material wants –

  3. After nearly 40 years of devout Christianity, I am now a Deist and have a little feedback for your blog post.

    Deism, along with a simple belief in God, applies profound weight to the concept of Reason. It is unreasonable to think that one might have or do anything without consequence. Moral standards are quite a normal part of human societal history. I have known many Deists/atheists with stronger moral compasses than many Christians I knew. These things have little to do with religion and much to do with society and human nature.

    In your post you state:
    “I [the Deist/atheist] am only held accountable to myself and a standard of natural law that rarely, if ever, enforces itself.”
    But your opinions here are profoundly false. We are accountable to exactly everyone and everything that you are accountable to. This includes family, friends, society, and civil laws. Ironically, the “natural law” to which you refer is described as, “natural law theory, which holds that morality is a function of human nature, and Reason can discover valid moral principles…”

    Doubtful this response will be posted to your blog. I know very well how those in faith envelope themselves in their protective cocoons. But if you or anyone else would like to have an open conversation, I may be contacted by email – [email redacted]

    One Deist Φ

    • Let’s try that email again. HumbleTruth[at]gmail[dot]com

      One Deist Φ

    • One Deist,

      Thank you for commenting. As you are aware that some Christians choose to “envelope themselves”, I am also aware that many desists/atheists stereotype people of faith. While I have no desire to let this post become advertising, I’ll be glad to respond.

      On what real grounds do you find my opinions “profoundly false”? You’ve given a response that doesn’t actually address the point I was making–I was speaking about ultimate morality and you responded by pointing to emotional societal pressure. On what grounds are those moral opinions based? If society changes it’s mind and begins to pressure you to act in ways that I think both of us would agree are immoral, why would you resist? If morality is based on societal opinion then a Nazi (and no, I’m not calling you a Nazi) would be perfectly justified in supporting the holocaust because that is what his society supported and said he should support. What do we say to someone who realizes that morality is based only on others’ opinions and they suddenly say, “I don’t care!” There has to be something more or the structure of morality is really nothing more than a house of cards that falls apart at the merest breath of inquiry.

      As for nature, I don’t think you want to go there. In addition to what we normally call “normal” morality, nature also exhibits murder, rape, mass murder, genocide, cannibalism, etc. etc. just as often as it does “good” morality. If nature itself (Natural Law) is our ultimate standard, on what grounds do you discern between them? It invariably gets back to simple opinion–something that is ultimately only binding on yourself.

      The atheist (if he/she actually is an atheist) must look at an amoral (or even immoral) cosmos that he/she believes was ultimately created by random, mindless chance, and then insist that we can pull from it usable moral truth. As a deist, you do have an advantage–you can posit that there is a moral law that has been written into nature by whatever God exists. Of course, since, as a deist, you believe (or I presume you believe, given the label you’ve chosen) that God has had no meaningful, direct interaction with human history, you can still believe whatever you like. Who will gainsay you? Who has a more direct or correct connection to God than yourself? No one, obviously, and therefore in terms of morality, deism quickly degenerates into practical atheism. There is, in theory, an object standard, but how do you propose to measure it? Nature won’t work, and God isn’t listening. With no way of knowing, it is everyone for themselves. You may not choose to exceed traditional moral guidelines that you’ve come to know and love, but someone invariably will. On what grounds do we critique them–nature and society being ultimately nonstarters?

      Unfortunately, I have to agree with you on a practical level. I know a number of atheists that I would trust sooner than I would trust some Christians. But that is beside the point we’re discussing. Humans are free entities, and therefore they can live in complete contradiction with their own views. Christians, who have a reason to behave morally, can ignore those reasons. Atheists, who have no compelling reason to believe in ultimate morality, can live lives of worthy of emulation. Neither have any particular bearing on the ultimate question of where morality comes from or why we should care about it.

      Sorry for the wall of text! 🙂 As you know, these are not small problems.

      Best Regards,
      Brian

  4. Curious. Others making Brian’s point have said that Christianity has been reduced for most of its adherents to “moralistic therapeutic deism.” Now we have an actual deist in the conversation–who is preferable to those reduced Christians in many ways, I must say!

    But I am curious. Why Deism? Historically, it has not been a sustainable position, but only a way station on the road from robust theism to secularism. The place it holds for Reason seems to be an attraction. But I have to point out that it is only a caricature of Christianity that has been rejected in favor of it if that is the motive.

    Popular American Christianity can certainly give the impression that reason and faith are a zero-sum game–the more you have of one, the less you get of the other. But the history of Christian faith is full of people who were Christians precisely because of their rigorous logic. From Augustine (credo ut intelligam) to Anselm to Ockham (who gave us Ockham’s razor) to Aquinas to C, S. Lewis himself: All of these men not only believed and reasoned with all their might, but they believed precisely because they saw that Christian theism was the only philosophy that could give a transcendent grounding for Reason. If the God who revealed Himself in History and in Christ turns out to be a rational Being, that’s one thing. How does an abstract deity who never acts or shows himself going to compete with Him?

  5. Brian,
    Thank you for your response. Sorry … was not trying to advertise, but give reference to my perspective. You have given quite an expanded reply and I’ll respond as simply and succinctly as I can.

    I was not describing “emotional societal pressure” but man’s incredible ability to Reason. I now know that it is not God, but man who has and does create morality and laws. It is our brain, our intellect, and Reason that propels us to these ideas and ideals. These rules are variable and change with time and culture. You may point to your religion, denomination, Bible and God, but there are innumerable others now and throughout history. If you would have been born in a different time and place your reality would be quite different. Reference to the Nazis is just so tired, and the events that led to the holocaust are so complex … the truth is that it was led by a pathological dictator who held absolute control. Most Germans were appalled and ashamed. But we could talk about the Maya if you’d like a change of time, place and culture.

    In the next paragraph you describe the need for the ability to critique and measure morality – presumably according to your holy text, and thus of course your denomination’s interpretation of that text. But there are just so many others that claim to be absolutely true, unerring, and inspired by or directly from God – how shall we choose?

    Consider this: There are about 7 billion people on Earth, and only about 2 billion are of Abrahamic faiths. How is it that the world is not imploding with godless reckless abandon? How is it that 5 billion humans are not running around murdering, raping and otherwise constantly committing profound sin?

    One Deist Φ

    • One Deist,

      Thanks for engaging. Let’s go ahead and dispense with the idea that differing opinion automatically means a necessary diversity of truth. Prior to Galileo, every living being on the planet, except for one, thought that the sun revolved around the earth. What difference did that make to objective reality? So, let’s forget the “peer pressure arguments” and focus on the ideas.

      Before we go further, can you simply answer this: Do you believe in any objective moral standards and, if so, where do you think they originate? So, far you seem to be contradicting yourself. You first say that deism and atheism allow for objective morality and then you say that your morality is based entirely on the collective human mind, which is–for those purposes at least–indefensibly subjective if naturalism is true.

      No problem leaving the Nazi’s behind–the principle is the same with the Maya or the Aztecs. (I personally find that most secularists find the Nazi’s “tired” mainly because they are a very embarrassing application of their principles. I suggest you read up a bit more on Hitler. He wasn’t “crazy” in the sense that his ideas were illogical–they were the systematic application of social darwinism. Check out Richard Weikart’s “Hitler’s Ethic.”) Switch the analogy and answer the original question: The Aztec culture believed in human sacrifice on a gigantic scale. If morality originates in culture, on what grounds can you say that it was “wrong”? What higher standard makes your culture “right” and theirs “wrong”?

      For your final point, I never said that non-abrahamic faiths forced anyone to do anything immoral–I never even said that about deism and atheism. We are talking about whether or not deism or atheism are philosophically comprehensive enough as systems of thought to support morality that makes sense. So far, you’ve mainly made the point that there’s nothing in them that forces you to commit “profound sin.” I agreed with that. What I disagreed on is their ground for explaining why you should not commit “profound sin.” Deism and atheism only serve as an effective moral guides for people, like yourself (or Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin, etc.), who have already absorbed their practical morality from other sources and have a sufficient baseline. They last only as long as no one asks the question of a hard moral problem, “And why not?”

      Best Regards,
      Brian

  6. gandalf30598,
    Deism, for myself, is completely sustainable and allows me to share a belief in God without the trappings of man-made religion. I know of Deists who maintained Deism’s basic tenets for a lifetime. The idea that Deism is merely a stepping stone to secularism/atheism, although a common theme, is not assured.

    What I have found in conversations with Christians concerning Reason and Scripture is this: That profound Reason may be applied to Scripture until there is a conflict, then it must by default be Scripture that is paramount – then Reason is used to support that stand. It’s called apologetics. Apologetics is necessary in every religion to justify and rationalize the parts that lack Reason.

    One Deist Φ

  7. Brian,
    I understand your direction here – this road is well traveled. Here is what I believe…

    — That the rules by which we humans live, whether they are presented as holy text or civil law, are a product of man.

    There are innumerable sets of laws from innumerable sources, of which some are simply civil and others claim divine origins. They almost all have a common thread, no matter their place and time: don’t murder, don’t steal, etc; and especially the Golden Rule. Even the Code of Hammurabi, rules which the King claimed were sent from the Gods at about 1800 BC, had things such as “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.”

    Objective morality, subjective morality, moral relativism … these all have been debated for millenia. What shall we gain here?

    One Deist Φ

    • One Deist,

      At this point we gain insight into whether my initial point was “profoundly false.” I had said, in my article that in “deism and atheism we see worldviews that demand people be absolute sovereign of their own destiny and morality.” You challenged that. From what you say here, it seems you basically agree with me: in deism and atheism human laws “are a product of man,” which would, by definition, make people the arbiters of morality.

      I do appreciate the discussion and wish you the best. Have a great week!

      Best Regards,
      Brian

  8. Hello Brian,
    Sorry, but could you indulge me just a bit longer?

    Actually my challenge was with this statement from you:
    “I [the Deist/atheist] am only held accountable to myself and a standard of natural law that rarely, if ever, enforces itself.”

    My initial response:
    “We are accountable to exactly everyone and everything that you are accountable to. This includes family, friends, society, and civil laws.”

    My further response now:
    As a Deist I do not believe God reveals Himself to man, so it would be impossible to have ever had what you are referring to as “objective morality” or God’s law. My point of view allows that there only has ever been “subjective morality” or man’s law.

    Accountability, therefore, is no more or no less for the Deist as it is or has ever been for anyone else. As mentioned previously, the natural law you refer to, “which holds that morality is a function of human nature, and Reason can discover valid moral principles” is all there ever was and all there ever will be, and enforced as always by nature or by man, whether or not ascribed to God.

    In every instance morality is a reflection of man’s desire and intelligence, whether selfish or selfless, a summary of the society and culture in which he lives.

    Hopefully, Brian, I have stayed more on point this time, and you are not weary of me. As you have for me, I also wish you the best.

    One Deist Φ

    • One Deist,

      Fair and clear enough. 🙂 It doesn’t actually move the argument away from the question of moral relativism. Reason does not exercise itself, and it is not an end in and of itself. To historical Christians and deists alike, reason is a means by which the human mind can conform itself to a greater Truth–the revealed Truth of God and discovered truth of nature for Christians and the discovered Truth of Nature (written into it by a God) for deists.

      If you concede the point to the postmodernists that morality is relative to the society in which it originated and does not reflect any standard higher than humanity itself–whether natural or supernatural–then you have in fact conceded humanity’s right to “reasonable” morality. You have no basis on which to claim one version of morality (ours, for example) can be enforced over another (the Aztec’s, perhaps). Who is to say that God doesn’t like a good few hundred human sacrifices now and again, eh? In actuality you have no reasonable ground to call one person’s action or position “right” and another’s “wrong” (both of which imply that you are holding them to an objective standard), an essential point of any practical attempt at morality. It would be more consistent to speak of them as “preferences” since they are based on what a specific person or culture wants to be true rather than what they actually have proof to believe is true–the latter of which would once again imply outside objective evidence which you have denied by definition.

      In that sense, we could say that we “loathed” the Aztec ritual murder and be consistent with your position, but we could never say that it was “wrong.” I would suggest that there is a significant, qualitative difference between the two. The one represents a mere statement of opinion that can simply be ignored. The other–if a correct representation of reality–is binding whether we feel like agreeing or not.

      So, what you’re describing isn’t really the historical deism of men like Jefferson and Franklin–which I was referencing in my post. You are describing moral relativism (my third point), and are contradicting yourself while doing so. On the one hand, you insist that all cultures create their own moral truth and that there is no higher standard by which they can be measured, while on the other you are calling the product of mine “profoundly false” because, apparently, your societal construction is “true” (there’s that objective standard again…).

      Until that point is hashed out, the question of accountability is moot. If your entire point is that there is no objective morality, then society has no standard of substance to enforce–and actual Reason, as exercised by historical deists and Christians alike, has nothing to do with it.

      Best Regards,
      Brian

  9. Brian,
    It’s curious that an “objective morality” was already chosen – the “Christian … revealed Truth of God,” but there are numerous others that might have been chosen. Perhaps the Pyramid texts, the Code of Hammurabi (mentioned previously), the Rigveda, the Avesta, the Tanakh, the Gospels, the Koran, the Maya and Aztec religious practices, the Book of Mormon, ad infinitum. These all claim to be revealed Truths of God.

    Is it “objective morality” if man has made a subjective choice of which revelation he shall practice? (Or maybe he has no choice at all, and his revealed Truth is different then yours.) If you just happened to be born in, say, Iran, what are the odds that you would ever follow the “Christian … revealed Truth of God?” And if you happened to be born in China, what chance do you have of following any Revealed Truth at all?

    Perhaps I’m going too far off point again. But as you say, some things need hashed out first.

    One Deist Φ

    • One Deist,

      For our purposes at this time, that is all beside the point–which was whether my classification of deism was correct or not. There has to exist an “objective morality” (note that at this point I have not said “Christian morality”) before you can even begin to talk about right and wrong. If there is, then we can begin to use our reason and experience to determine which of the many versions of morality comes closest to it. Until we reach that point, you have no actual standard of morality to enforce–it’s every person and civilization for itself and you have no grounds to “impose” your view over another. Without that, you have no reason to call my original points “profoundly false.”

      Let’s finish that point before we expand the discussion any farther. To do otherwise will be to distract from the original question. If you could, I would like to see you respond to some of the specific points in my previous argument rather than just resort to generic attacks on my overall position.

      If we want to continue the discussion beyond that, the objectivity/subjectivity question applies too. If everything is subjective, why are we having this conversation at all? What do you hope to accomplish even if people agree with you? If truth is subjective, I’m already as right as you are. The fact that you are still arguing along the lines that deism is “right” and Christianity is “wrong” would seem to point to a weakness in your worldview–the same one faced by all relativists–you can’t live in accord with it.

      Best Regards,
      Brian

  10. Brian,
    Perhaps, then, our conversation has reached an impasse.

    In the first place we can gain no traction for “objective morality” if defined as the revealed Truth of God. I strongly believe that man can found objective truths through Reason. And this is the only logical explanation for what we have ever called objective morality since there is no possibility of revelation. In other words, what we have credited to God throughout history – with the singular exception of the Creation – we should instead give credit to ourselves. (And I believe we should be darn proud of it too.)

    You said, “If truth is subjective, I’m already as right as you are.” Truth may be subjective, but reality is not. The reality is that I, as a Deist, am accountable to exactly everyone and everything that you are accountable to. (As stated in my first rebut.)

    You said, “… deism is “right” and Christianity is “wrong” would seem to point to a weakness in your worldview–the same one faced by all relativists–you can’t live in accord with it.” Are you referring to the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis? Short of that, I can tell you that my world view is more alive and vibrant then at any other time in my life. I find tremendous strength in the knowledge, insight and wisdom I have gained in the last several years.

    I want to thank you sincerely, Brian, for the opportunity to have this conversation with you, and I want to apologize for any shortcomings I may have put before you. It may well be evident that I have no training in debate, and I am completely self-taught in the subject at hand. You have challenged me, and for that I am truly appreciative.

    Best wishes,
    One Deist Φ

    “The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.”
    — Benjamin Franklin

    • One Deist,

      Well, we might be talking past one another — if “reality ” isn’t subjective, then you aren’t talking relativism. You are holding things to the objective standard you call “reality.” The next question is “What (or who) determines ‘reality ‘? Where does it come from?”

      Can something be true if it isn’t borne out by reality? I would suggest that in order for something to be true it must also be real.

      One last quick thought: What I meant by “weakness” had to do with truth and reality, which I believe you care about deeply. A worldview must not stop at “vibrant” or “alive”. We should also want it to be true and real. If reality forces you to live in a way contrary to your worldview, I think we should question that worldview, however good it makes us feel. I hold Christianity to the same standard.

      Anyway, I greatly appreciate your candor and spirit. Thanks for reading and engaging and I wish you the best as well.

      Best Regards,
      Brian

      PS. I wrote this on my kindle, so I can only hope the auto insert didn’t put in anything stupid!

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