Lewis on Divine Goodness
Lewis, of course, is not content to develop the C. S. Lewis defense, and I am not even sure he would concur with Talbott that the defense is a sufficient refutation of all arguments from evil. His next task is to develop and clarify the concept of divine goodness. On the one hand, he maintains that what we mean by good in referring to God must be commensurable with what we mean by good in creatures, and that we must not allow ourselves to say that our black is God’s white. So, for example, we are not free to admit that some act of God is senselessly cruel, and then say that our black is God’s white. On the other hands, our understanding of what is right or wrong may stand in need of correction. He says:
If God is wiser than we His judgment must differ from us on many things, and not least on good and evil. What seems to us good may therefore not be good in His eyes, and what seems to us evil may not be evil.36
Does this mean, as Beversluis charges, that at the end of the day our black really does become God’s white? According to Talbott:
When considering a disagreement about the moral consequences of an act, one must distinguish carefully between two very different cases: one in which all of the relevant facts (such as the exact circumstances in which the act was performed) are known, and those in which some of the relevant facts are not known. A primitive who concludes that men in white coats bearing long needles are cruel to children need not be operating from a moral framework that differs substantially from our own; nor would it be surprising to find that a loving father in a primitive culture wants to “protect” his child from the shot of penicillin that a missionary doctor, filled with the love of God, wants to administer. The loving father simply lacks some important information.37
Lewis does maintain that the problem of evil will be insoluble so long a certain popular meanings are attached to the terms “good” and “love.” Beversluis maintains that Lewis is redefining these terms, abandoning their ordinary usage in order to defend God against the problem of evil. However, what Lewis is in fact doing is arguing that these popular meanings are in fact corruptions of the proper uses of the terms. In fact, Lewis wrote a book entitles Studies in Words in which he explained how the content of some words could be damaged or weakened in popular usage, so that their meaning has been lost.38 And Plato’s Socrates was never satisfied with “popular meanings” of words, which is why he questioned people as to whether they mean what they really meant by the words they used, concluding that they not only did not know what they were talking about, but they compounded that ignorance with the further ignorance of thinking that they did.39
About the terms “good” and “love.” Lewis writes:
By the goodness of God we mean nowadays almost exclusively his lovingness, and in this we may be right. And by Love, in this context, most of us mean kindness—the desire to see others than the self happy; not happy in this way or in that, but just happy. What would really satisfy us would be a god who said of anything we happened to like doing, “What does it matter so long as they are contented.40
Lewis then argues that God wants to give people the only happiness that he can provide, the happiness of a life in fellowship with himself, the kind of happiness that can last for an eternity. As such, God cannot be satisfied with a creaturely “satisfaction” that does not deepen a person’s connection to God. He also analyses love and discovers that the higher the love, the more the lovers expects from the beloved. The higher the level of love, the “tougher” that love is on the one who is loved. However, this does not involve any alteration of what the terms “good” and “love” mean upon reflection; it is only the recognition of defective popular meanings that have been attached to these words.
Lewis then explores the human condition, arguing that the way in which humans behave is in profound need of correction, attempting to recover what he calls “the old sense of sin.” Here he attempts to undermine a wide range of arguments people make for the claim that they are not such bad people after all. Why do bad things happen to good people? If Lewis had heard that question, he would argue against the supposition that such people are good. While many people are not outwardly bad compared to other people, He writes:
I have been aiming at an intellectual, not an emotional, effect: I have been trying to make the reader believe that we actually are, at present, creatures whose character must be in some respects, a horror to God, as it is, when we really see it, a horror to ourselves. This I believe to be a fact: and I notice that the holier a man is, the more fully he is aware of that fact. Perhaps you have imagined that this humility in the saints is a pious illusion at which God smiles. That is a most dangerous error. It is theoretically dangerous, because it makes you identify a virtue (i.e. a perfection) with an illusion (i.e. an imperfection), which must be nonsense. It is practically dangerous because it encourages a man to mistake his first insights into his own corruption for the first beginnings of a halo around his silly head. No, depend upon it: when the saints say that they—even they, are vile, they are recording truth with scientific accuracy.41
Lewis then goes on to discuss present an admittedly speculative theory about how human beings might have gone from a state of obedience to God to one of disobedience, the doctrine of the fall of man.
36 Lewis, The Problem of Pain, p. 37.
37 Talbott, “C. S. Lewis and the Problem of Evil,” p. 44.
38 Lewis, Studies in Words (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2nd ed., 1990).
39 James Petrik, “In Defense of C. S. Lewis’s Analysis of God’s Goodness, ” International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion (1994), 46-47.
40 Lewis, The Problem of Pain, p. 40
41 Ibid. p. 67.