Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Great Divorce

Ebon Muse has posted a book review of The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis.

HT: Victor Reppert.

Let me begin by saying that, at an artistic level, I think The Great Divorce is one of Lewis's lesser efforts.

Lewis was both a man of ideas and a man of imagination. When the two come together, the fusion is ideal. But sometimes the ideas overpower the story.

I also think that there are some serious deficiencies in his theology. And his treatment of hell does disclose some tensions in his theological outlook. That said, let's consider Ebon's objections:

"Regrettably, Lewis has fallen into the same trap many proselytizing Christians fall into when they attempt to speak on behalf of nonbelievers: the black-and-white, us-against-the-world view of fundamentalism that recognizes no similarities between those who believe and those who do not, the mindset that will not for a second entertain the idea that anyone who believes differently might do so for honest or intellectually convincing (even if only to them) reasons, or that such people can ever be moral. In the pages of this book, all born-again Christians are portrayed as noble, kind-hearted, selfless and honest, while all nonbelievers are portrayed as evil, selfish and insincere. Well-poisoning, ad hominem attacks, and other fallacious tactics are frequently deployed, and the sincerity of non-Christians' motives is constantly questioned and slandered. Few converts will be won by such a distrustful attitude. Until Christian proselytizers recognize that those who disagree with them are still human beings with their own thoughts, feelings and honestly held opinions, no meaningful dialogue between the two groups will ever be possible."

http://www.ebonmusings.org/atheism/books/greatdivorce.html

There are a couple of problems with this criticism:

1. One problem with this characterization is the way it overlooks the well-known fact that Lewis had been on both sides of this fence. He knew atheism from the inside out. So this is not a caricature.

One might also compare Lewis with a couple of his contemporaries, such as T. S. Eliot, both before his conversion (The Waste Land; The Hollow Men) and afterwards (Ash Wednesday; the Four Quartets). Or the early novels of Hemingway, reflecting postwar disillusionment.

2. Another problem is the way Ebon ignores the fact that this is a depiction of the afterlife. So it does accentuate the extremes of virtue and vice. Believers become their best selves while unbelievers become their worst selves.

It isn't meant to be true to life here and now. In the afterlife, the mixed motives and moral ambiguities are gone.

Moving along:

"I would also point out one further injustice of Lewis' conception: there is no real punishment in his Hell. Even the damned who were truly evil during life, those who deserve to be there as much as anyone does, are not made to pay for their deeds in any meaningful way - they are not made to see the wrongness of what they did."

But how does this square with Ebon's other accusations?

"As well, it might be argued that Lewis' Christianity itself - its gloomy and stifling claims about universal depravity and the inevitable damnation of the majority of humankind, its cruel and vengeful God."

"In essence, he is saying, the good people in Heaven should not be troubled by the suffering and misery of the damned."

"It further reinforces the facts that any god who would create Hell would be a monster."

Ebon can't seem to make up his mind. On the one hand, he objects that, in Lewis' depiction of hell, the damned suffer no real punishment. They don't get what they deserve.

On the other hand, he objects that, in Lewis' depiction of hell, the damned endure so much misery and suffering that only a cruel, vengeful, and monstrous God would condemn people to hell.

So which is it?

Another problem, which is all too typical of those who oppose the doctrine of hell, is a traditional conception of hell which owes more to Dante, Hieronymous Bosch, Jonathan Edwards, and horrific B-movies than it does to the actual teaching of Scripture.

The opponent of hell has inherited a literary and artistic tradition of hell, and what he spends his time attacking is this extrascriptural tradition rather than the scriptural depiction.

We need to take a few paces back an exegete Scripture, making due allowance for a degree of figurative imagery.

On the one hand, I think that sound exegesis rules out universalism, annihilationism, and postmortem evangelism.

And hell is certainly a place of punishment, where retributive justice reigns supreme.

On the other hand, once you bracket the picturesque metaphors, the Bible doesn't have a whole lot to say about how justice is exacted on the damned.

This has been filled in over the centuries by literary license and artistic imagination. But let's not confuse that extrascriptural overlay with the core teaching of Scripture.

Finally, Ebon wraps up his attack on this hortatory note:

"What is the solution? Shall we dream up a universalist afterlife where all human beings, perhaps after undergoing a punishment commensurate with the harm they caused to others during life, will be admitted to an eternity of happiness? There is nothing stopping us from inventing such pleasant fantasies, but the problem is that all afterlife scenarios suffer alike from the same lack of confirming evidence. At best, such beliefs inspire complacency in the face of the world's troubles; at worst, they encourage people to throw away what may be the only life they will ever have in futile pursuit of a mirage. Rather than waiting for Heaven to come to us, we should seek to create it ourselves, and make this world a place where hopes of an afterlife where all injustices will be put right are unnecessary. We can only hope that when humanity finally matures, both the pleasing daydreams and the dark nightmares of theism will finally be set aside."

This is boilerplate humanism. And it suffers from two or three problems:

1. It disregards the many arguments for the truth of Christianity.

2. Ironically, it substitutes a secular millennialism for scriptural eschatology.

What is the source of all the world's injustices? Us. Human beings.

That is why human beings can never roll up their shirtsleeves and put an end to injustice. That's like asking the Gambinos to crack down on organized crime. The source of the problem cannot be the source of the solution.

In the end, it's Ebon Muse who pursues a utopian mirage. And that's been tried before.

3. Notice how angered and offended he is at Lewis' rather tame novella. Clearly Lewis hit a raw nerve. Cut too close to the bone of Ebon's insecurities.

In The Great Divorce, Lewis is, to some degree, the anti-Macdonald, opposing the universalism of his literary mentor.

Yet he is also the anti-Dante. The Great Divorce is the anti-Inferno. Lewis is trying to take the sting out of hell. Remove the stigma. Make hell more morally, emotionally, and intellectually respectable to modern sensibilities.

But even his kinder, gentler vision of hell is too threatening to Ebon Muse. Ebon fears the very thing he denies. Denies it because he fears it.

9 comments:

  1. Steve says:

    "Ebon fears the very thing he denies. Denies it because he fears it."

    LOL!!! I can always count on you to brighten an otherwise slow day. Thanks Steve!

    ReplyDelete
  2. "Lewis was both a man of ideas and a man of imagination. When the two come together, the fusion is ideal."

    So, the fusion between "a man of ideas and a man of imagination" is "ideal"? I never knew this about you, Steve.

    ReplyDelete
  3. 1. One problem with this characterization is the way it overlooks the well-known fact that Lewis had been on both sides of this fence. He knew atheism from the inside out. So this is not a caricature.

    Can you elaborate on this a bit? Specifically which type of atheist was Lewis before his conversion? There are numerous kinds of non-theistic worldviews out there. Which kind was Lewis?

    ReplyDelete
  4. Conoibinar said...

    "Can you elaborate on this a bit? Specifically which type of atheist was Lewis before his conversion? There are numerous kinds of non-theistic worldviews out there. Which kind was Lewis?"

    According to Victor Reppert, "Lewis was some kind of philosophical naturalist, because he was persauded to reject naturalism by argument (and thereby became an absolute idealist)," (private email).

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hmmm... That's not very helpful. I'm wondering what specifically Lewis's philosophical views were before he converted to Christianity. "Atheist" does not tell us this, and "some kind of philosophical naturalist" is just as vague. Was he just someone who didn't believe in any gods, not really knowing what he believed positively, or did he have a fully worked out worldview at that time?

    ReplyDelete
  6. Its popular for christians to claim that the mighty CS Lewis was an 'atheist.'

    However, there is no indication that Lewis was an 'atheist' the way the term is generally used today. He had not rigorously examined the evidence, and come to conclusions based on that. He simply wasn't a Christian. Personal tragedy in his life caused him to be an 'atheist,' but he came back to the faith readily enough.

    All kinds of current believers claim to have been 'atheists' before converting, but that term is so vague, that its useless.

    Of course, T-bloggers love to accuse anyone that isn't a Christian of being 'atheists,' but then on the other hand, bloggers like Manata also claim that 'atheists' don't really exist anyway, since we all have a knowledge of God in our 'hearts,' whatever that means...

    ReplyDelete
  7. Anonymous said:
    Its popular for christians to claim that the mighty CS Lewis was an 'atheist.'

    However, there is no indication that Lewis was an 'atheist' the way the term is generally used today. He had not rigorously examined the evidence, and come to conclusions based on that.

    ******************************

    Lewis was a student of philosophy. So he knew his way around the usual arguments. Read his Pilgrim's Regress.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Lewis was a student of philosophy. So he knew his way around the usual arguments.

    Could you give a brief overview of what specifically Lewis believed as an atheist, before his conversion? People on both sides of the fence qualify as students and even teachers of philosophy, and many on both sides know their way around the usual arguments as well. But what specifically Lewis held as an atheist is what interests me.

    Read his Pilgrim's Regress.

    Thanks for the tip. Are you able to give just a brief Cliff's notes summary?

    ReplyDelete
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