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Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.”  I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

 Plato started a lot of conversations that he couldn’t finish.  He was trying to find the universal and the absolute by looking in the wrong place.  He sought well, but the final answer was beyond his grasp.  But he sets the questions up better than anyone.  What if there was someone who could come into Plato’s Cave from the outside world of the sun?   What then?

Plato

REFLECTIONS FROM PLATO’S CAVE

The fleeting shadows flow across the wall;

That’s all we know.  We think they may arise

Outside our minds, and bring before our eyes

Some glimpse of Truth–but by the time they fall

To us, a faint and hieroglyphic scrawl

Is all that’s left.  We try to analyze,

Deduce from patterns what the shapes disguise–

They’re hard to catch and harder to recall.

 

We think reflections of Reality

Are cast by Sunlight shining–how we crave

To turn and look–but still we strive in vain.

No merely mortal man will ever see

Whether the Door behind us in the Cave

Is there, so firmly Fate has bound our chain.

 

So many years we strove against the chain

That gradually some gave up, and hope was dead.

“There is no Door; there is no Cave,” they said,

“No explanation, nothing to explain.

It’s just a game you play inside your brain:

All the poetry you’ve ever read

Makes chemical reactions in your head;

That’s all that Pleasure is, and also Pain.”

 

What of the Beautiful, the True, the Good?

“They’re all illusions; they are all the same,

Sounds upon the wind, an empty name,

And that is all that can be understood.”

But then the rule that says that nothing’s true

Must be applied to their denial too!

 

So hope could not completely be denied.

Yet still the shadows flicker on the wall,

And we’re not certain what they mean at all

In spite of every theory we have tried.

If only one of us could get outside

Into the Light that fills that vaster hall

And not go blind, but come back and recall

For us the land where the True Shapes abide!

 

If only–but the ancient Grecian knew

No way that it could be.  It seemed absurd

To hope or to despair.  So still the True

Was but in shadows seen, in echoes heard–

Until the birth of a barbaric Jew

Who was in the Beginning; was the Word.

The Word

Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  And look for Williams’ very latest book, Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis, from Square Halo Books!

Donald T. Williams, PhD

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IS GOD GOOD?

Is God good?  What does it mean to claim that He is good?  Can a case for a good God be made in a world so permeated by evil and suffering as ours seems to be?  For many people who doubt God’s existence, the issue is not really His existence as such, but really His goodness.  There is after all no successful argument against God’s existence, for that would be proving a negative. But many people think they have a compelling argument against His goodness from the suffering He permits in His world—and if He is not good, why bother with faith in Him anyway?  So one step toward restoring our ability to have faith in Him must be to examine more carefully the idea of His goodness.  Is it even a coherent claim for Christian theists to make?

Let’s begin by assuming for the sake of argument that God exists and created the world as Genesis teaches.  When God created the universe He obviously gave it being and form; He also gave it value by calling it “good” (Gen. 1:4, etc.).  Goodness then flows from God as much as being or design does.  It is therefore also one of His essential attributes.  As C. S. Lewis summarizes it, “God’s will is determined by His wisdom which always perceives, and his goodness which always embraces, the intrinsically good” (Problem of Pain 88).

But what does this mean?  Is it simply circular to say that the good comes from God because God is good?  It is hard to talk about goodness and God without Plato’s “Euthyphro Dilemma” coming up:  Is something good because God says it is, or does God say something is good because it is good?

Plato

Plato

Lewis understood that the dilemma is of course a false dilemma.  The correct answer to it is “neither.”  God’s attribution of goodness to His creation is not an arbitrary decision, nor is it based on some standard external to Himself.  Rather, his own character is the standard for goodness, and we see that this standard is not arbitrary but necessary once we ponder His identity as the Creator alongside Augustine’s analysis of the nature of evil as a privation or perversion of the good.  For creation is inherently a constructive, not a destructive, act.  Creation is creative, not destructive; giving, not taking; orderly and purposeful, not chaotic.  How else could it produce a world that could hold together?  And what else do we mean by “good’?  Evil, on the other hand, is always a perversion of some prior good; otherwise it could not exist at all.  So Lewis asks,   “Is it rational to believe in a bad God?”  No, he concludes: such a God “couldn’t invent or create or govern anything” (A Grief Observed 27).

Lewis was certainly right about this.  We often ask why a good God would create such an imperfect and often painful world.  The answer is that He didn’t.  He permitted the Fall of His world.  But if He had been destructive rather than creative, harmful rather than beneficent, chaotic rather than intelligent and purposeful, there would and could have been no world to fall in the first place.  Creation is of necessity an act of superabounding goodness.  A world that continues to exist and to be redeemable simply cannot have Satan as its source.

"And God saw that it was good."

“And God saw that it was good.”

Lewis confirms the biblical teaching that God is good—or, perhaps more accurately, perceives its necessary truth—by performing two different thought experiments.  The first was trying to imagine an evil god and finding that the idea just won’t work, as we saw above.  The second involves the difficulty of knowing God as evil.  If God were evil, how would we ever know it?  Lewis reasons,  “If a Brute and Blackguard made the world, then he also made our minds.  If he made our minds, he also made that very standard in them whereby we judge him to be a Brute and Blackguard.  And how can we trust a standard which comes from such a brutal and blackguardly source?” (“De Futilitate” 66)

An evil god by definition then is not a knowable god; but we do know something about God.  At least, we have some idea of God.  And so once again we see that to affirm His goodness is not to spin a logical circle but to bow to the necessity of who He is and must be.  Logically, then, God’s goodness is just as necessary a concept as His existence.  And this is consistent with the way Scripture presents Him: as Creator, Judge, Shepherd, and ultimately as the One whom Jesus called Father.  What could be better than that?

Donald T. Williams, PhD, is R. A. Forrest Scholar at Toccoa Falls College and President of the International Society of Christian Apologetics.  For more of his apologetic work see his book Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012) or his other Lantern Hollow books.  Order them ($15.00 + shipping) at https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.

A book that fights back against the encroaching darkness.

A book that fights back against the encroaching darkness.

Beauty and the Eye of the Beholder

The question was raised on a C. S. Lewis listerv I belong to, “What is beauty?” One answer, from Lewis scholar Jim Prothero, was that beauty is “holiness made visible.” Another correspondent questioned the adequacy of that formula: a Prostitute may be beautiful but is hardly holy; Jesus’ mangled body on the cross was holy but hardly beautiful. How do we sort through all this complexity? It would be impossible to attempt an answer in a short essay that anyone would be willing to plough through. But I will attempt to steer my way between the Scylla of adequacy and the Charybdis of silence by offering a few random thoughts, inadequate (this I know) as they are tantalizing (this I hope).

Truth is the reflection of God’s mind, Goodness of His character, and Beauty of His glory, as they are found in the world He has made. Thus I try to summarize the matter in my longish scholarly essay on the topic, “A Tryst with the Transcendentals: C. S. Lewis on Goodness, Truth, and Beauty,” now published as a series of chapters in Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012).

Interested in the case for God?  For more on the Christian world view, check out Dr. Williams' book REFLECTIONS FROM PLATO'S CAVE, in the Lantern Hollow E-store.

Interested in the biblical view of beauty? For more on the Christian world view, check out Dr. Williams’ book REFLECTIONS FROM PLATO’S CAVE, in the Lantern Hollow E-store.

Because the world is cursed and our minds fallen, we can be mistaken about all three. But it hardly follows from this either that they are not real or that we are utterly incapable of recognizing them truly. In the case of Beauty, our minds can be, as I put it in one of my poems, “abused / By surface prettiness the eye can see” (Stars Through the Clouds 353). Even the surface prettiness partakes of some faint hint of the real thing, however twisted. For, as Augustine teaches us, Evil is always a parasite on the Good. But true Beauty in its deepest form must be consistent with Truth and Goodness. The surface prettiness of the Prostitute is thus a perversion of Beauty, related to it by the real presence of good form and proportion, but not partaking of its fullness. And the surface ugliness of the Crucifixion hides the beauty of God’s holiness from those who do not penetrate deeper to see the meaning of His love. Instead of that they see only “cosmic child abuse.” Thus they miss the Beauty of Christ’s sacrifice precisely by missing also its Goodness and its Truth.

Brazilian Prostitute Preparing for the World Cup

Brazilian Prostitute Preparing for the World Cup

Prothero wants us to pursue “something higher and more beautiful than beauty, which, like joy, is not an end (a frequent mistake made in our culture) but a sign of higher things.” Yes; I see what he means. I think I agree, though I would not say it quite like that. I would put it this way: We only see Beauty in a partial and distorted way unless we see it as related to Truth and Goodness and see their unity as abiding in God. The Prostitute’s beauty is not unreal but it is partial and therefore distorted; physical only. Because Beauty in its fullness is related to Truth and Goodness, it cannot be seen with the eye alone, but only with the mind—and only fully by a mind renewed and enlightened by grace. The Prostitute still has the part that the eye can see—but only that. And the mind enlightened by grace can see the deeper Beauty in something like the Crucifixion where the eye’s part is missing.

GordonsCalvary2

Gordon’s Calvary

So Prothero’s formula, “Beauty is visible Holiness,” is I think true in an ultimate sense, but it is not a truth that we can hope to see on first inspection, and never when the inspection is made by the eye alone. I don’t ever expect to see Mother Teresa’s face gracing the cover of Cosmo; but I’ll bet she was very beautiful to the poor of Calcutta, and I’ll bet they saw that beauty even in the specific features of her face: the compassion in her eyes, the love in her smile.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Inadequate? Surely. Tantalizing? We shall see. You can always still read the larger discussion in Reflections from Plato’s Cave.

Order Stars through the Clouds ($15.00) or Reflections from Plato’s Cave ($15.00) at https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.

Donald T. Williams, PhD

THE JUSTICE OF HELL?

THE JUSTICE OF HELL?

Can one really write devotionally about Hell?  Yes, because all topics of theology reflect the glory and the goodness of God.  Even this one.  Especially this one?  Let’s see.

Many atheists (and some Christians) object to the doctrine of Hell on the grounds that it is inherently unjust.  How, they ask, can it be right for a good and just God to impose an eternal punishment for temporal sins?  How, in other words, can it be just for Him to impose an infinite punishment for finite sins?  For it is hard to see how human beings, being temporal and finite creatures, could commit any other kind.  But unending conscious punishment is . . . unending.   The atheist who pursues this line of reasoning finds support for his suspicion that the Christian concept of a good God is simply incoherent; the Christian seeks to revise or soften or eliminate altogether the traditional doctrine of eternal punishment.  And one must admit that the argument has a certain surface plausibility.  People thus persuaded might well question whether traditional Christian belief really takes the goodness and justice of God with sufficient seriousness.

Dante-Satan

But what if it is actually the Questioners who do not really understand or take seriously the goodness of God?

The goodness of God!

How could that be?

Well, what if a maximally and eternally good, wise, powerful, and holy Being who was the Creator and Sustainer of the world actually existed?  He would, in other words, be more good than Frodo, wiser than Gandalf, stronger than Treebeard, more faithful than Sam, more committed to all that is right and good than Faramir.  He would in fact be the inexhaustible Well from which characters like those, to the extent that they exist in the real world, draw their goodness, wisdom, power, and righteousness.  He would possess such attributes infinitely, i.e., inexhaustibly, by virtue of being their eternal and uncreated Source, the One who in the beginning first said, “Let there be light.”

It's not a star, but it's a pretty cool photo!

“Let there be Light!”

Would such a Being then not be infinitely worthy of all our worship, all our obedience, all our devotion, and all our adoration?  Would such a Being then not infinitely deserve all our worship, obedience, devotion, and adoration?  I mean infinitely deserve these responses from us, not just be in a position to demand and coerce them.  That is, just by His being who and what He is, those responses would be not just nice or even desirable on our art but inherently appropriate, indeed, inherently owed to Him.  To fail to see or accept this obligation would be to be complicit in a truly pernicious lie about the real nature of things; to refuse it would be morally culpable.   And I mean by infinitely that there would be no conceivable limit to that worthiness and that desert on His part, and hence to that obligation and culpability on ours.  He would be eternal and uncreated, hence unbounded by space or time; so there would be no limits to His possession of the attributes that justify such responses from us.  All this seems to follow inexorably.

Alright, here’s the next step:  If all of that is true, then would stubbornly and persistently withholding those responses, indeed, stubbornly and persistently yielding them to something—to anything—else, not then make us in a sense infinitely guilty of rebellion?  And would that rebellion not be infinitely ungrateful and inexcusable?  For there could be no limit to how wrong it was.  By what possible moral calculus could we then judge Hell to be unjust?  From this perspective, God’s goodness is not in conflict with the justice of eternal punishment; it is the very consideration that makes its justice and rightness inescapable!

There are further questions that have to be considered.  If such a Being existed and we were His creatures, absolutely dependent on Him for our existence, would worship, obedience, devotion, and adoration of Him not then be the ultimate fulfillment of our existence?  Would refusing them, or giving them to anything else, not be the ultimate frustration of our nature?  Would that frustration not be itself the very definition of Hell—even if no retributive justice as such were involved?  For, having rejected the Source of all that is good, what could our existence then be?  It would be an existence cut off from the Well from which flows the water of life: goodness, knowledge, wisdom, strength, justice, and love.  It would therefore be by its very nature an existence devoid of those things and full of evil, folly, impotence, futility, and every kind of wickedness.  What could such an existence be but Hell?   And if retributive justice were involved (it cannot be excluded as part of the picture if we are to be faithful to Scripture), who would be in a position to complain that it was unjust or undeserved?  For by refusing worship, obedience, devotion and adoration to God, by giving them anything else, we would have received precisely what we had chosen: a life in which our aspiration for anything that is good and noble is fully and finally frustrated.

One might well object that hypothetical questions like these do not prove the existence of such a God.  No.  They do not.  But they do clarify what the Christian claim about God is, and hence show that the traditional Christian claims about the afterlife are not inconsistent with it—indeed, are wonderfully coherent.  And they can also lead to further questions:  If this Being does not exist, how does it come about that anything exists?  If naturalism and materialism are true, where did concepts like goodness and justice (and evil and injustice) come from?  For in a naturalistic world there is no evil and no injustice—merely certain situations we do not happen to like.  If naturalism is true, where did the concept of truth come from?  If naturalism is true, how could naturalism (or anything else) be true?  If naturalism is true, how could naturalism (or anything else) be true?  For in such a world all ideas (and their antitheses) would equally be nothing more than chemical reactions in the brains of organisms which evolved to have them by chance.

Such questions might well lead to the realization that the existence of God is, at minimum, a not unreasonable hypothesis in trying to account for the fullness of the reality we experience by living in this wondrous world. For it is a world that does contain goodness, justice, and truth, along with evil, injustice, and lies, whether a secular philosophy has room for them or can give meaning to them or not.  If God makes sense, then Heaven and Hell make sense:  If the world contains real and not just imagined goodness and evil, then it makes sense that there should somewhere be ultimate fulfillments of both—that is, Heaven and Hell.  Then the realization that God’s existence actually makes sense of the world (and is the only thing that does) might put us in a position to receive the life, death, and resurrection of Christ in history as a solid basis for faith in the God who, the disciples were convinced, was revealed to them there in His Son.

space-sunrise

“Let there be Light!”

Well, one might also object, I cannot imagine such a God.  No.  You cannot.  Not fully, if anything I have said about Him here is true.  In fact, we are warned that it can be dangerous to try.  We can only safely conceive of God by sticking to the pictures of Him we are given in Scripture, culminating in the only perfect Image, His Son Jesus Christ.   If we tried to imagine Him outside of that framework we would only create false and corrupted images of Him and worship them.  They are technically known as idols.  Because of the rebellion of our first ancestors we have become constitutional rebels and constitutional manufacturers and worshipers of idols.  They do not have to be made of literal wood or stone to be horribly real and destructive—and to render us horribly guilty.

Now, what if this good God loved us so much that He was not content to leave us in such a state of idolatry and rebellion and futility but had offered us a way back to Him?  What if He had provided it by the sacrificial and atoning death of His Son, who had offered to absorb all the consequences due to our guilt in our place?  You could never find God; as a constitutional rebel, you don’t even want to.  But if He cut through all of your resistance and revealed Himself to you in such a way that He opened the eyes of your heart, so that you could get even the vaguest apprehension of what He really is as described above, would you not then want to give Him all your worship, obedience, devotion, and adoration?  Such at least is the testimony of many who have had such an experience.  And you will find yourself beginning, stumblingly and fitfully at first, to do so too if you are ever granted to see even the faintest glimpse the Image He gave us: of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

LambVictor

In other words, the justice of Hell is not really our intellectual problem.  The very goodness of the God we despise, disobey, ignore, and hate ironically demands it.  His goodness—the fact that He is the Wellspring and Source of all that is good and thus infinitely deserves the worship, obedience, devotion, and adoration we have withheld from Him and given to another—demands some such fate for the reprobate every bit as much as His justice does.  So the justice of Hell is not the problem.  The real mystery, the thing that we can accept but never finally explain, is the grace of Heaven.  Some of us constitutional rebels, the ones who are enabled to accept it, will be forgiven and changed and granted to see Him face to face.  I want to be one of those!  Don’t you?

Donald T. Williams, PhD, is R. A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College.  He is the author of eight books, including Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012).  To order ($15.00 + shipping), go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/

Beauty: Eye of the beholder?

The question was raised on a C. S. Lewis listerv I belong to, “What is beauty?”  One answer, from Lewis scholar Jim Prothero, was that beauty is “holiness made visible.”  Another correspondent questioned the adequacy of that formula: a Prostitute may be beautiful but is hardly holy; Jesus’ mangled body on the cross was holy but hardly beautiful.  How do we sort through all this complexity?  It would be impossible to attempt an answer in a short essay that anyone would be willing to plough through.  But I will attempt to steer my way between the Scylla of adequacy and the Charybdis of silence by offering a few random thoughts, inadequate (this I know) as they are tantalizing (this I hope).

Truth is the reflection of God’s mind, Goodness of His character, and Beauty of His glory, as they are found in the world He has made.  Thus I try to summarize the matter in my longish scholarly essay on the topic, “A Tryst with the Transcendentals: C. S. Lewis on Goodness, Truth, and Beauty,” now published as a chapter in Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012).  Because the world is cursed and our minds fallen, we can be mistaken about all three.  But it hardly follows from this either that they are not real or that we are utterly incapable of recognizing them truly.  In the case of Beauty, our minds can be, as I put it in one of my poems, “abused / By surface prettiness the eye can see” (Stars Through the Clouds 353).  Even the surface prettiness partakes of some faint hint of the real thing, however twisted.  For, as Augustine teaches us, Evil is always a parasite on the Good.  But true Beauty in its deepest form must be consistent with Truth and Goodness.  The surface prettiness of the Prostitute is thus a perversion of Beauty, related to it by the real presence of good form and proportion, but not partaking of its fullness.  And the surface ugliness of the Crucifixion hides the beauty of God’s holiness from those who do not penetrate deeper to see the meaning of His love.  Instead of that they see only “cosmic child abuse.”  Thus they miss the Beauty of Christ’s sacrifice precisely by missing also its Goodness and its Truth.

Prothero wants us to pursue “something higher and more beautiful than beauty, which, like joy, is not an end (a frequent mistake made in our culture) but a sign of higher things.”  Yes; I see what he means.  I think I agree, though I would not say it quite like that.  I would put it this way:  We only see Beauty in a partial and distorted way unless we see it as related to Truth and Goodness and see their unity as abiding in God.  The Prostitute’s beauty is not unreal but it is partial and therefore distorted; physical only.  Because Beauty in its fullness is related to Truth and Goodness, it cannot be seen with the eye alone, but only with the mind—and only fully by a mind renewed and enlightened by grace.  The Prostitute still has the part that the eye can see—but only that.  And the mind enlightened by grace can see the deeper Beauty in something like the Crucifixion where the eye’s part is missing.

So Prothero’s formula, “Beauty is visible Holiness,” is I think true in an ultimate sense, but it is not a truth that we can hope to see on first inspection, and never when the inspection is made by the eye alone.  I don’t ever expect to see Mother Teresa’s face gracing the cover of Cosmo; but I’ll bet she was very beautiful to the poor of Calcutta, and I’ll bet they saw that beauty even in the specific features of her face: the compassion in her eyes, the love in her smile.

Inadequate?  Surely.  Tantalizing?  We shall see.  You can always read the larger discussion in Reflections from Plato’s Cave.

Order Stars through the Clouds ($15.00) or Reflections from Plato’s Cave ($15.00) at https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.

Donald T. Williams, PhD