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?
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.
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
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?
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.
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/.
Here’s an excerpt from Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy:
Homo Sapiens, they call us, the thinking people; if it is so, it is because first we are homo quaerens, the ones who must question everything. We started early, noticing and wondering about the apparent discrepancy between the earth, where everything seemed subject to the ravages of time, and the heavens, which seemed perfect and unchanging except in predictable cycles (Lewis, Discarded Image). We have been unable for long to resist the impulse to find a unity behind the diverse appearances that surround us. Accepting such surface polarities as Time vs. Eternity, Change vs. Permanence, as ultimate, has until the advent of Post-Modernity seemed like a defeat that made us less than human. But the search for a unity based on human experience alone has often led to various dead ends. One of the first was reached by the Pre-Socratics, who, in a day before the building of many bridges, apparently had to ford a lot of streams.
Men once thought that it would be nice
To step in the same river twice.
But then Heraklitus,
As if just to spite us,
Said, “No! Once will have to suffice.”
“The water is flowing away;
The new that arrives does not stay.
Therefore, my conclusion:
All else is illusion.
There is Change; that is all we can say.”
Parmenides answered, “Not so!
The stream doth eternally flow.
What is permanent’s real;
So, whatever you feel,
There’s no motion and no place to go.”
He went on, “Heraclitus, you dunce!
Why attempt such ridiculous stunts?
With no motion or change,
You can’t even arrange
To step in the first river once!”
Is the world all in flux, or immutable?
The answers both looked irrefutable.
But while they were debating,
Some children went wading
Once–twice–and it seemed somewhat suitable.
The best human thinking had reached an impasse that seemed irresolvable based on the thinking the best human thinkers were able to do. How do we find an explanation that can relate the changing and the unchanging, the flux and the permanent structure without which there could be nothing to flow and nowhere to flow to? Unless something remains unchanging, how could we ever measure–or even be aware of–change? How do we find an explanation that does not have to deny the reality of an inescapable aspect of our experience of the world as the price of the unity of thought?
Good question! To find out the answer, order REFLECTIONS FROM PLATO’S CAVE: ESSAYS IN EVANGELICAL PHILOSOPHY from Lantern Hollow Press, at https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/
PHILOSOPHY: THE LOVE OF WISDOM?
If our writings are going to communicate the biblical world view, we have to know what it is. Therefore, there is a need for Christian writers to be good thinkers, competent in philosophy and theology, as well as good creative writers. To that end, watch for my forthcoming Lantern Hollow Press book REFLECTIONS FROM PLATO’S CAVE: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy. To whet your appetite, start with the meditation below.
Philosophy: phileo plus sophia, the love of wisdom. Wisdom: not intelligence (which is just processing speed) or knowledge (which is just information) or even understanding (which is seeing how one’s bits of knowledge relate to one another), but something more. Wisdom is the knack of using one’s intelligence, knowledge, and understanding in useful and beneficial ways. For Christians, it means using one’s intelligence, knowledge, and understanding in ways that glorify God, advance His kingdom, and bring blessing to His people.
It may seem hard to find much wisdom in the technical arguments of professional academic philosophers today, but it is there for those who know how to look. (It may not be in the conclusions to their arguments!) I hope there is some to be found in the philosophical musings I have indulged in over the years, not wholly unrelated to the conclusions of my arguments. If I want you to find it, maybe I should be able to find it myself. What have I learned from thinking philosophically? More to the point, what have I learned from it that I can properly call wisdom?
Perhaps the first lesson is humility. It is the glory of man that we cannot rest until we understand the world around us and understand ourselves. We are the only species that is impelled to ask the Great Questions: What is real? Who are we? Why are we here? What is the good? How do we know? We are ennobled in that we ask, but we are brought low by our failure to find, or, finding, to live by, the answers.
To study the history of philosophy is to learn how our best thinking when unaided by revelation from above always leads to an irresolvable impasse. It does so because, apart from revelation, we end up looking for the ultimate in a place where it cannot be found: within the circles of the finite world. Hence we get the infamous false choices for which philosophy is famous: Heraklitus and flux, or Parmenides and permanence? Plato’s rationalism and realism, or Aristotle’s empiricism and nominalism? They are both right and both wrong. Forms neither as immanent in matter nor as existing on their own but as the rationes aeterna in the mind of a personal God capable of grounding them because He is the source of both form and matter—for, that we would need the operation of revelation on a redeemed and receptive mind. There is no other way to get it.
Without revelation and the receptive mind, we end up with people fighting over what are at best partial glimpses of the truth. And our best thinkers never quite live up even to their partial glimpses. Only as God stoops to us in revelation do we find answers that are whole; only as He stoops to us in grace do we accept those answers and find the ability to live them out. If following in the footsteps of our best unaided thinkers to see the impasses that result from their thinking helps us more clearly to see and appreciate our limitations, then the first lesson of wisdom we learn is humility—and the second is gratitude. Humility from our inability, gratitude for God’s supply: surely humility and gratitude are essential parts of a life of wisdom!
Sadly, many people who study philosophy do not learn humility or gratitude from it, but rather arrogance in the defense of one of those limited and partial viewpoints. One even finds those who are arrogant in their defense of the seemingly humbling proposition that we cannot know anything! But, then, people are fallen, prideful, and stubborn in their pursuit of other fields of study just as well (including theology). The fault therefore lies not with philosophy but with the philosophers, that is, with us. Only by God’s grace do we pursue anything wisely, that is, humbly and gratefully. Those who have been captured by God’s grace in Jesus Christ then should apply themselves to philosophy because, just as bad philosophy has to be answered by good philosophy, so sinful philosophers have to be answered by redeemed ones—by their existence as much as by their arguments.
From the best Christian philosophers, such as Augustine, Anselm, and C. S. Lewis, one can also learn this wisdom: confidence that Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are real things, objectively rooted in the nature of the God of creation and objectively imprinted by Him onto the world He has made. They are rightly called “the transcendentals”: they are supremely valuable and are their own justification precisely because Truth is the reflection of God’s mind, Goodness of His character, and Beauty of His glory. And we, created in His image and redeemed by His blood, may participate in them, yea, bathe in them. We find our purpose and our fulfillment in doing so, because thus we reflect Him to the world. If Christians do not gain confidence and boldness and indeed joy in their pursuit of these transcendental values from thinking philosophically, then they are missing the point, profoundly and colossally missing the point, as badly as the most secularized sophist on the planet, and with less excuse. If they do not promote and encourage confidence, boldness, and joy in the pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty by the way they do and teach and write philosophy, then they have betrayed their calling.
If I am on track in the last paragraph, then I have also learned that Solomon was right: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Nothing can claim to be wisdom that does not rest on, flow from, and promote in us the reverent, humble, and grateful acknowledgement of His necessary existence, His Trinitarian personality, His divine majesty, His rightful sovereignty, and His supreme worthiness of all worship and devotion. It is ultimately He who must teach us this, by revealing Himself to us in His Son, the eternal logos who enlightens every man and who came into the world. Our philosophical search for truth without that act of grace on His part is but vanity and striving after wind. Philosophy, in other words, is not the key to understanding Him; it is He who must illumine our philosophy.
(I am not affirming fideism here, by the way. I have made arguments for God’s existence in this journal. But I am recognizing that He is more than the conclusion to a logical argument; He is the reason why logical argument is possible in the first place. I am recognizing that, even so far as they are valid, those arguments will only be accepted and will only have their intended effect in leading to wisdom when they are used by His Spirit as part of His gracious work of conviction and calling, leading to regeneration, conversion, and sanctification—including the sanctification of the mind. May He graciously grant my prayers by so using them.)
When God does illumine us, philosophy can help us see things about ourselves, our need, and His grace in meeting that need, that we might otherwise have missed. It is better for redeemed sinners to wonder about who we are, why we are here, what is real and what is good, and how we know, and to find their answers in Him, than it is for them to remain ignorant. So Augustine and Anselm had it right all along: Credo ut intelligam, “I believe that I might understand.” Fides quaerens intellectum, “faith in search of understanding.”
You will know that your faith is producing understanding, you will know that your philosophical thinking has been profitable, when it leads you to the humble and grateful love of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, and to their manifestation in your life to the glory of God. Then perhaps we can redeem the etymological definition of philosophy as the love of wisdom. May God grant it by His grace, for our good and His glory.
For more of the authors own glimpses of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, go to https://www.createspace.com/2563414 and order STARS THROUGH THE CLOUDS: THE COLLECTED POETRY OF DONALD T. WILLIAM (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011).