Monday, June 26, 2006

More material for an article I am writing: Did Lewis abandon his apologetics when he wrote A Grief Observed?

Did Lewis Abandon his Apologetic Position in A Grief Observed?
Another considerably more complex challenge to Lewis’s apologetical coherence has been the claim that in the course of grieving his wife’s death he retreated from some of the positions he had taken with respect to the relationship between God and goodness. Throughout his apologetic writings, Lewis had contended that when we say that God is good we mean something that is in some way continuous with the word “God” as applied to human beings. This doctrine of continuity is what Beversluis calls Platonism. The opposite view, which he calls Ockhamism, is the view that in calling God good we mean something completely different from what we mean when we call a person good. So, for example, if God, before the foundation of the world, were to predestine a few people for heaven and everyone else to everlasting torture in hell, this would be good in virtue of the fact that God commanded it. The fact that this action would be regarded as cruel by any humanly conceivable moral standard would be simply dismissed as irrelevant. The fact that this is an affront to reason, only shows that natural human reason is fallen and part of our desperately wicked human nature. It is not surprising that Ockhamism is popular among Calvinists, including Calvin himself.11
Now if this is correct, this would be a profound shift in Lewis’s thinking. After all, he had written an entire book of apologetics defending the claim that it is rational to believe that God is good in some recognizable sense even though there is a great deal of evil in the world. This is necessary only if there is some commensurability between our concept of goodness as applied to ourselves and the concept applied to God. If Ockhamism is true, then it is a full and complete answer to the problem of evil to say the words of Rom 9:22: “Who are you, o man, to answer back to God.” Lewis consistently condemned this Ockhamist position, at one point even claiming that such a doctrine would reduce Christianity to devil worship.
Now in order to set the stage for our discussion of A Grief Observed, we should make a distinction between the intellectual problem of evil and the emotional problem of evil. Lewis’s book The Problem of Pain is directed at the intellectual problem posed by human suffering. In the context of the discussion of an intellectual argument, it does not matter whether the sufferers are tsunami victims in Asia, or fellow American citizens who burned to death in the 9/11 attacks, or one’s nearest and dearest family members, or even one’s own suffering. From an intellectual perspective, all of these instances of suffering are of equal concern, but from an emotional perspective, the nearer the suffering is to ourselves the more difficult it is to accept. A Grief Observed is a piece of pastoral theology aimed at the bereaved, focusing on the emotional problem of evil.12 However, it doesn’t follow from this that, in facing the emotional problem of evil, one might not have to come to terms with some intellectual issues. However, the main issue in the book is how to deal with the emotional impact of grief, and is not primarily an attempt to solve the problem of evil from an intellectual perspective.
A Grief Observed is Lewis’s account of his own response to his wife’s death. Late in life he married Joy Davidman, whom he knew to have cancer. Miraculously, after a prayer for healing, Joy’s cancer went into remission and the couple enjoyed a period of wedded bliss which included, among other things, a trip to Greece. However, eventually she relapsed and died.
Lewis had been an atheist earlier in his life, and echoing that earlier perspective, he expressed deep anger toward God, calling him a “Cosmic Sadist,” an “Eternal Vivisector,” and a “very absent help in trouble.” In the latter portion of the book Lewis withdraws the charges against God and accepts God’s goodness. It is Beversluis’s thesis that in the early stages of the book Lewis insists on the Platonistic understanding of God’s goodness, and concludes that God is a cosmic sadist. However, according to Beversluis, in the latter part of the book, he retreats to an Ockhamist position in order to escape those distressing conclusions, withdrawing the protests, but also the insistence that God be good in humanly recognizable terms.
Now although A Grief Observed is not primarily address to the intellectual issue, Lewis does pose the problem of evil in forceful terms, in the context of his own grief. He writes:
Sooner or later I must face the question in plain language. What reason have we, except our own desperate wishes, to believe that God is, by any standard we can conceive, 'good'? Doesn't all the prima facie evidence suggest exactly the opposite? What have we to set against it?13
However, if we are to say that the problem of evil posed an overwhelming intellectual problem to Lewis in his hour of grieving, it must be the case that some world-view distinct from a theism which included the commensurability of divine goodness to human goodness would have to be available to him. When we read Lewis’s account of his own conversion to Christianity, we find that even though Lewis formerly defended atheism on the basis of the problem of evil, he never said that he became a theist or a Christian because he had found excellent answers to the problem of evil. Rather, he seems to have accepted theism largely because he found alternative world-views inadequate. If he his suffering really has given his cause to doubt his faith, then there must be some world-view other than theism which has been rendered plausible by his sufferings.
And what would that world-view be? It would certainly not be materialism. In language reminiscent of the argument from reason, he once again affirms that he finds that worldview thoroughly unbelievable.
If H. 'is not,' then she never was. I mistook a cloud of atoms for a person. There aren't, and never were, any people. Death only reveals the vacuity that was always there. What we call the living are simply those who have not yet been unmasked. All equally bankrupt, but some not yet declared. But this must be nonsense; vacuity revealed to whom? Bankruptcy declared to whom? To other boxes of fireworks or clouds of atoms. I will never believe — more strictly I can't believe — that one set of physical events could be, or make, a mistake about other sets.14 Notice his argument that he cannot believe that one cloud of atoms can make a mistake about other clouds of atoms. He offers no detailed defense of this kind of argument, the way he did in the face of Anscombe’s criticisms, but here he is answering himself, not Anscombe. He is indicating, in his own mind, why materialism is unbelievable.
In fact, if you think about it, Lewis’s complaint against God makes sense only if you attribute a supernatural cause to Joy’s recovery. If what God did was simply let nature take its course and there was no miraculous recovery for Joy, then there cannot be a case against God. If materialism is true, then both Joy’s remission and her recovery would be simply a matter of nature taking its course. In Miracles Lewis said that we should not expect miracles on an everyday basis. So one way for Lewis to resolve his problem with God would be to accept a “materialist” explanation of the events related to Joy’s cancer. (Of course, non-materialists can accept materialist accounts of various phenomena without inconsistency). What Lewis seems angry with God about is that God gave him “false hopes” and “led him up the garden path.” But if God was not directly involved, there would be no problem.
So Lewis considers instead the thesis of the Cosmic Sadist. He writes:
No, my real fear is not of materialism. If it were true, we — or what we mistake for 'we' — could get out, get from under the harrow. An overdose of sleeping pills would do it. I am more afraid that we are really rats in a trap. Or worse still, rats in a laboratory. Someone said, I believe, 'God always geometrizes.' Supposing the truth were 'God always vivisects'?15
However, Lewis has some things to say about the thesis of the Cosmic Sadist. He writes:
I think it is, if nothing else, too anthropomorphic. When you come to think of it, it is far more anthropomorphic than picturing Him as a grave old king with a long beard. That image is a Jungian archetype. It links God with all the wise old kings in the fairy-tales, with prophets, sages, magicians. Though it is (formally) the picture of a man, it suggests something more than humanity. At the very least it gets in the idea of something older than yourself, something that knows more, something you can't fathom. It preserves mystery. Therefore room for hope. Therefore room for a dread or awe that needn't be mere fear of mischief from a spiteful potentate. But the picture I was building up last night is simply the picture of a man like S.C. — who used to sit next to me at dinner and tell me what he'd been doing to the cats that afternoon. Now a being like S.C., however magnified, couldn't invent or create or govern anything. He would set up traps and try to bait them. But he'd never have thoughts of baits like love, or laughter, or daffodils, or a frosty sunset. He make a universe? He couldn't make a joke, or a bow, or an apology, or a friend.16
Now Beversluis’s commentary is as follows:
The shift occurs the moment Lewis begins to suspect that the hypothesis of the Cosmic Sadist is too anthropomorphic. According to such a view, God is like the man who tortures cats, and that is unbearable. Lewis recoils from this view and assures himself (and his readers) that when he called God an imbecile, it was “more of a yell than a thought.” After that, we hear no more about the Cosmic Sadist.17
In short, Beversluis supposes that Lewis is recoiling from the thesis of the Cosmic Sadist for emotional reasons.
But is this all it is, an emotional recoil? It is at this point that my interpretation of A Grief Observed parts company with Beversluis’s As it happens, the thesis of the Cosmic Sadist had already surfaced in Lewis’s apologetics, in his discussion of Dualism in Mere Christianity. Although there are many types of dualism that have been discussed in philosophy and religion, the Dualism Lewis is referring to is the kind of Dualism which says that the world was created jointly by eternally existing beings, one good and one evil. But Lewis argues that the idea of an evil creator, or even an evil co-creator, is incoherent. He wrote:
If Dualism is true, then the bad Power must be a being who likes badness for its own sake. But in reality we have no experience of anyone liking badness just because it is bad. The nearest we can get to it is in cruelty. But in real life people are cruel because they have a sexual perversion, which makes cruelty cause a sensual pleasure in them, or else for the sake of something they are going to get out of it—money, or power, or safety. But pleasure, money, power, and safety are all, as far as they go, good things. The badness consists in pursuing them by the wrong method, or in the wrong way, or too much. I do not mean, of course, that the people who do this are not desperately wicked. I do mean that wickedness, when you examine it, turns out to be the pursuit of some good in the wrong way. You can be good for the mere sake of goodness, you cannot be bad for the mere sake of badness. … In other words badness cannot succeed even in being bad in the same way in which goodness is good. Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. And there must be something good first before it can be spoiled.18 This argument, if correct, refutes the possibility that the world was created by an evil being, or even co-created by an evil being. A close reading of the passage from A Grief Observed shows that Lewis is there making exactly the same point. If Lewis is making or even referencing this argument, then it should be no surprise that we hear no more of the Cosmic Sadist. We should expect nothing else. This is why Lewis says that the name-calling that he directed toward God was “more of a yell than a thought,” and why he accuses himself of not thinking clearly when he criticized God in the earlier passage.
Lewis next turns to the possibility that, because of human depravity, his understanding of what is right and wrong is simply mistaken. If this is the case, then perhaps God really is a sadist, only sadistic behavior is really right because it is God who does it. Lewis had attacked this position in very harsh terms in his previous writings, including The Problem of Pain.
It has sometimes been asked whether God commands certain things because they are right, or whether certain things are right because God commands them. With Hooker, and against Dr. Johnson, I emphatically embrace the first alternative. The second might lead to the abominable conclusion (reached, I think, by Paley) that charity is good only because God arbitrarily commanded it—that He might equally well have commanded us to hate Him and one another and that hatred would then have been right. I believe, on the contrary, that "they err who think that of the will of God to do this or that there is no reason besides his will."19
However, in A Grief Observed he presents what in my estimation is his most forceful anti-Ockhamist argument. If God’s white can be our black, if our standards of good and evil mean nothing, then we cannot count upon God to do anything whatsoever, including follow through on his own threats. Thus if Ockhamism is true, and God says “Turn or burn,” he could just as easily burn us after we turn (and reward all the ones who didn’t turn) just because, after all, his white could after all be our black.
And so what? This, for all practical (and speculative) purposes, sponges God off the slate. The word good, applied to Him, becomes meaningless: like abracadabra. We have no motive for obeying Him. Not even fear. It is true we have His threats and promises. But why should we believe them? If cruelty is from His point of view 'good,' telling lies may be 'good' too. Even if they are true, what then? If His ideas of good are so very different from ours, what He calls Heaven might well be what we should call Hell, and vice-versa. Finally, if reality at its very root is so meaningless to us — or, putting it the other way round, if we are such total imbeciles — what is the point of trying to think either about God or about anything else? This knot comes undone when you try to pull it tight.20
Rene Descartes, in order to raise skeptical doubts about even our firmest certainties, imagined that we might be under the influence of an omnipotent evil demon whose goals is to deceive us as much as possible, and more recent philosophers have speculated about the possibility of our being brains in vats. The epistemic upshot of Ockhamism is essentially the same as the upshot of these hypotheses. According to Ockhamism, we are under the complete control of a being whose motives are either wicked or incomprehensible, and we will believe the truth only if this being arbitrarily chooses that we shall believe the truth. According to Lewis, Ockhamism is every bit as self-refuting as naturalism. If it is true, then we cannot believe the truth of Ockhamism, or of anything else, in a way that gives us any rational confidence that it is true.
Beversluis argues that in A Grief Observed Lewis begins by insisting that God’s actions be good by standards that are commensurable with the standards we use to judge human behavior. Employing those standards, according to Beversluis, Lewis rightly came to the conclusion that God would have to be a Cosmic Sadist. To escape these unpleasant consequences, however, Beversluis claims that Lewis abandoned his long-held Platonism in favor of Ockhamism, accepting God’s goodness only in virtue of accepting a vacuous standard of good and evil.
But this overlooks the fact that in A Grief Observed Lewis presents arguments against both the thesis of the Cosmic Sadist and the thesis of Ockhamism. Of course, Beversluis is not the only person to have overlooked these arguments; favorable commentators like Richard Purtill have overlooked them as well.
What do Lewis’s critics expect; that as a safeguard against grief he should rehearse his intellectual grounds for belief? But Lewis had no intellectual doubts about his faith, and no new data which might give him intellectual grounds for doubting his faith…There is in fact no evidence at all that Lewis was moved to any intellectual doubts at all by his personal loss, and thus there was no need to renew or rehearse his arguments.21
The difficulty with Purtill’s claim here is that is assumes that it is introspectively obvious to a sufferer whether or not the doubts are intellectual or emotional in nature. This is far from the case. One of the pastoral needs of a bereaved person might be to understand that their grief experience in now way changes the evidential situation. That is why I would not call A Grief Observed a book of Christian apologetics, since it has other functions to be sure, but it nevertheless did perform an apologetic role. Contrary to what Purtill suggests here, Lewis did rehearse at least some of the reasons he had for being a Christian, and found them to be still standing.
Given the fact that Lewis attacks the coherence both of the Cosmic Sadist theory and Ockhamism in A Grief Observed, what do we make of Beversluis’s charge that Lewis, in understanding the pain of his own bereavement and accepting the loss in the way that he did, he implicitly accepted an Ockhamist account of God’s goodness? After all, the fact that there are anti-Ockhamist arguments in A Grief Observed shows that Lewis never explicitly embraced Ockhamism in that work. But perhaps his response to his own suffering was implicitly Ockhamistic, even though he did not realize it.
What I find puzzling, however, is that the actual content of what Beversluis says happens in A Grief Observed is very similar to his verdict on the Problem of Pain. In his discussion of The Problem of Pain Beversluis defines Ockhamism as
>(W)hen we talk about God’s goodness, we must be prepared to give up our ordinary moral standards. The term good when applied to God does mean something radically different from what it means when applied to human beings. To suppose that God must conform to some standard other than his own sovereign will is to deny his ultimacy. God is bound by nothing and answerable to no one.22 Later on, he writes that he is not going to claim that Lewis is an Ockhamist in The Problem of Pain. He says:
At this point, I should perhaps allay possible suspicions that I am going to end up claiming that Lewis was really an Ockhamist. I am not. What I do insist on, however, is that by the time his argument has run its course he no longer claims that God’s goodness is recognizable in any ordinary sense. On the contrary, he suggests that we can call God good only if we are willing to assign a new meaning to the term.23
But I thought that what it is to be an Ockhamist was that you assigned a new meaning to the term “good.” Or, looking at it from the opposite side, what it is to be a Platonist is to hold maintain that our standards of good and evil must hold firm. Beversluis culminates his analysis by saying:
How is Lewis’s view with its new meanings for good and love different from the Ockhamist view he deplores? In The Problem of Pain we are confronted with an apologist emphatically endorsing a view that he almost immediately lays aside for a position that differs only semantically from the position he claims to reject. By the time he has finished, our “black” has become God’s “white”, and moral standards have been reversed. What we call suffering, Lewis calls having our illusions shattered. What we call happiness, Lewis calls self-indulgence. What we call a moral outrage, Lewis calls a compliment. What we call kindness, Lewis calls indifference. What we call cruelty, Lewis calls love.24
When we get to A Grief Observed, Beversluis says
The God who knocked down Lewis’s house of cards is not a Platonistically conceived deity who is good in our sense, but rather an Ockhamistically conceived being who is declared good no matter what he does. Lewis’s “rediscovered” faith is a fiath in a God whose goodness is unlike our own that it can bee called good only by laying aside our moral standards together with our ordinary criteria for determining who has true faith and who does not. It is in this alarming sense that Heaven is said to “solve” our problems. Good now means “whatever God wills or permits.”25
So in his critique of The Problem of Pain Beversluis accuses Lewis of revising our moral standards, but this does not make him and Ockhamist; it only puts him in a position that differs only semantically from Ockhamism. In A Grief Observed he claims that after Lewis stops expressing anger toward God he reverses our moral standards and in so doing he becomes an Ockhamist. Quite honestly, the “semantic” difference between these two critiques escapes me. In order to argue for a profound transformation between The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed Beversluis has to forget the charges that he leveled against the former work. At one point Beversluis suggests that the evil Lewis faced in his grief experience was one that was of a kind that could not be accounted for by the explanations he had used in The Problem of Pain, since God was directly implicated, but that won’t do, since a good deal of his discussion of that book concerns his critique of Lewis’s “Shattering Thesis,” in which God brings us to knowledge of himself by shattering our illusions. At another point remembers his discussion of the Shattering Thesis, but says
The Shattering Thesis of A Grief Observed is not, of course a hitherto unheard-of idea in Lewis’s writings. It can be found in The Problem of Pain. What is new is not the thesis but Lewis’s recognition of its logical impact on the believer.26
But this won’t do either, since Lewis clearly doesn’t recognize that he has become an Ockhamist. But in fact, as Beversluis himself points out, Lewis maintained that his doubts had psychological, and not logical causes. In short I find no logical way to argue for a fundamental transformation of Lewis’s position between The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed. If Lewis is open to the charge of Ockhamism in A Grief Observed, then he was an Ockhamist in The Problem of Pain. If Lewis can be acquitted of the charge of being an Ockhmist in The Problem of Pain, then the same arguments can be used to show that he was not an Ockhamist in A Grief Observed.

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