Mere Depression, Lewis the Agnostic? (commenting on ‘A Grief Observed’ by C. S. Lewis)
I have respected Clive Staple Lewis for many years now. I had moved to Oxford, UK from Portsmouth because of my fascination with him. The man was remarkable. His presentation of what a Christian is meant to be is what inspires me. I do not wish to adopt his Christianity. I wish to adopt his overall love of language and philosophy and thinking that promoted mental health in people during and after the catastrophe of the Second World War. His Christianity however is not a hindrance in my appreciation of it. If anything I respect that he stuck to his own ideology despite what other people were teaching. There are things to appreciate in his faults.
In A Grief Observed we witness a great reality of the individual’s life: with great happiness there must come immense pain. Where you once love so deeply, that’s where you feel the most empty when it is taken away. And it works the other way as well, if you do not experience isolation you will never be able to fully understand an individual. That is essential to everything we should think and care about. Not the self-promotion and praise of self that our culture has adopted, but the loss of self and a celebration of honesty and authenticity. These are values that we should aspire towards.
And that is where Lewis helps me. He resonates deeply with his readers because he is completely honest with himself. He says: “I dread the moments when the house is empty” (15). He speaks of the “consolations of religion” and comments that there is none to be found (37).
This comes across most clearly when he proclaims: “Where is God? . . . Go to him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face” (6). Perhaps I possess a bias, but I must say that this statement is what I imagine to be the fulfillment of religion, whatsoever it’s doctrines — a coming to terms with the absurdity of the universe, that there is no answer and that there can not be an answer to the unending questions and subsequent anguish. This is the truthfulness of religion — that in the end not even God cares about you.
The Dilemma of Happiness
As we will see, these are Lewis’ thoughts and conclusions, not mine. He makes surprising statements on Christianity despite being one of the leading Christian apologist in the world: “When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to heel His claims upon you as an interruption . . . go to him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? . . . You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?” (17–8) ”
Where is God in this struggle? It is his absence that leads us to conclude that he may not have even existed. “Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms.inside” (17). Where is God? That is the question. Where is God when people are cast to Hell for doubting his existence, potentially because of predispositioned states of mind caused by God himself (see Romans 3,8.9).
What do we say about the illnesses? A serious question is: what about all this pain? Similarly he makes this point about cancer: “Cancer, and cancer, and cancer. My mother, my father, my wife. I wonder who is next in the queue” (24).
So did Lewis stop believing in God?
I started re-reading this book with the thought in mind that I wanted to discover whether Lewis was actually an agnostic/atheist towards the end of his life. We tend to over-romanticize our heroes, Lewis has especially been guilty of this. But I have officially come to the conclusion that he does not completely identify with my agnosticism, he says: “Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer’ ” (18–9). Then the philosopher asks if this is not a horrible God to believe in. And this is my take on it.
He does come to a very Kierkegaard-like conclusion: God is undiscoverable. His face is hidden. His door is locked. We can not find Him. He, if he so desires, will discover us. But we will not discover Him. I personally can not celebrate such a creator as the Christian God. And why should we? Why is it that people have this inner desire to worship something?
I would not argue that Lewis felt like this all the time. This seems to be his lowest moment, coming to grips with the death of a loved one, especially a spouse, must be extremely difficult. We see this within the pages, he says “either God is not god or there is no God . . . or in the only life we know He hurts us beyond our worst fears and beyond all we can imagine” (40). So why do you follow this Lord, Lewis?
What is this Reality? — Are we living in a Laboratory?
And when we think about it we agree. This reality we live in is “unbearable” (40). But it is only unbearable if there is something else to compare it to. If there is nothing else supremely beautiful such as Heaven, then why should we be discouraged? Life is consisted of happy moments and sad or painful moments. This is a part of it. We should not be surprised. But if God is the author, how could he let this world become the present reality? “Why did such a reality blossom (or fester) here and there into the terrible phenomenon called consciousness?” (40) This is what he terms ‘Extreme Calvinism’ (44). He suspects that all of us live in laboratories and compares human beings to rats being tested by scientists (41).
As I was reading through the book this is one of the reasons I wanted to argue Lewis’ agnosticism. We all want our heroes to be on the same ideological path as us. And when I read Lewis say: “When He seemed most gracious He was really preparing the next torture” (43), I could only imagine him struggling incredibly with his beliefs. It must have been so.
What does God deem as ‘good’?
All this bleek cruelty leads him to suggest the following, “Now God has in fact — our worst fear are true — all the characteristics we regard as bad: unreasonableness, vanity, vindictiveness, injustice, cruelty. But all these blacks (as they seem to us) are really whites. It’s only our depravity makes them look black to us” (44).
This is one of the best arguments against God, I’d say. I do not know why Lewis did not notice this counter-statement. I suppose that when you are so invested in a belief-system you come to align everything with reasons for happening, things begin to happen for specific purposes and then it is hard to come back to a mysterious existence. I prefer the latter. I prefer the mysterious existence where God is a reality, but in essence not understandable. How could he be? And this is what Lewis comes to as well.
He concludes that we do not have any reason to “believe that God is . . . ‘good’ ” (42). We question with him, yes what are the reasons for this? What is our evidence for believing in his ‘goodness’? Do we transcribe our feeling of joy or occasional happiness with his character? How do these two correlate? They are not in the same caliber. It is like saying that because I am a good person, God must be good as well. Or because I am a bad person, God must be bad as well. “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. . . . 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” (45). Lewis at his best.
This is what comes to the core of my problem with Christianity. There are assumptions about God’s goodness, but as Lewis describes we have nothing to base his goodness and our badness on. What is the point of describing God as good since our idea of good is so very often different from that which is described in the Bible? Our idea of the moral is so often distorted by personal bias, and our experience and situations make us mistakenly believe that ‘holiness’ is the reason for our suffering, when in fact it is our own incapability with acting in accordance with the structured Universe. Sinfulness is not, in the end, only the things that are bad for us. There are many things in the Bible that are deemed as sinful that are not bad for you, such as: sex outside of marriage, getting tattoos, not envying your neighbor’s property, swearing, doing addictive activities. All of these are activities can be done and have no major significant effect on the mind and/or our well-being. But of course that is a statistical claim and does not bear a lot of significance by just proclaiming it.
To come back to Lewis’ thoughts on the paradox of God’s character, Albert Camus comes to the same conclusion as he was discussing the Russian philosopher Chestov. He says: “Chestov discovers the fundamental absurdity of all existence, he does not say: ‘This the absurd,’ but rather: ‘This is God: we must rely on him even if he does not correspond to any of our rational categories.’ So that confusion may not be possible, the Russian philosopher even hints that this God is perhaps full of hatred and hateful, incomprehensible and contradictory; but the more hideous is his face, the more he asserts his power. His greatness is his incoherence. His proof is his inhumanity” (Myth of Sisyphus, 34).
It is incredibly interesting for me that Lewis and Chestov come to the same conclusions. I am leaning in this direction as well and I have seen Kierkegaard do the same, he went so far, similar to Ignatius of Loyola, to sacrifice all of his intellect in order to follow God, and this is what he was famously regarded for, because he believed God to not be understandable. The more you try to understand him the less sense he would make.
The Stoic Lewis
Lewis then proceeds to a sort of stoicism. He reasons that a man needs to accept the fact that there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it (45). Or later he reiterates the same: “It doesn’t really matter where you grip the arms of the dentist’s chair or let your hands lie in your lap. The drill drills on” (46). Pain is unavoidable no matter how you try to persuade yourself otherwise.
Lewis’ Happy Ending?
As much as I would love to have Lewis on my side philosophically, I need to come to terms that his reality was very distinct from my own. He comes towards this conclusion, towards the end: “And so, perhaps, with God. I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear” (58–9).
This is where my path disconnects from Lewis’. He says that all nonsense questions are unanswerable. I agree. Yes they are unanswerable, but also their premise is non-existent. If we ask, “How many hours are there in a mile?” or “Is yellow square or round?” (examples provided by him), then we need to assume that yellow is an imaginable object. But that is not the case, or that an hour is the same measure as a mile. But we know these to be different. So this is not a helpful example.
If we ask the question, why have you created this world, God? Then our presupposition in this statement is moral more than anything. We count God as a moral creature that needs to hold up to our standard of morality, at least. The question is, if I am more moral than God, why is it that I should aspire to be him? Maybe in the past he has been a valid role model. But now he seems irrelevant and inconsistent. He adds: Probably half the questions we ask — half our great theological and metaphysical problems — are like that” (81–2). I would like to suggest that that is not the case. Our great theological and metaphysical problems need answers. And if they are not answerable by God, the creator of these problems, then how IN ALL OF HEAVEN does he expect of us to blindly follow him? To trust him? How could God expect this if he is real.
I understand that many throughout history have advocated a spiritual agnosticism. We do not need to possess the answers. The argument is, do you have the answers as an atheist? The response is: no, but I do not assume things about the universe that are not associated with it. I ‘believe’ not in metaphysical claims but in materialistic claims about the Universe. Even if these materialistic claims are incompatible with knowing things absolutely, they are assumptions. To emphasize again: they only claim material truth, not metaphysical.
The Meaningful Life for the Christian
And that is where Lewis stops his philosophising. He finds some sort of peace in the end. We see that he comes to the conclusion of the problem of living a great Christian life. That is that of sacrifice living up to the a) loving god part of the commandments and b) loving your neighbor as yourself (82). It is possible to accomplish these without having Joy with him (his deceased wife) and so he decides that that should be his meaning in life.
He goes through a couple of turns to come to his conclusion. It is interesting how this had unfolded. This is a big reason for me to recommend this work. It could be one of my favorite books by Lewis because of it’s honesty and authenticity. You discover things about Lewis that you wouldn’t from a regular biography. You just need to look deeply and analyze the words he says and the underlying reality beneath them.
Other Substantial Quotes
Here are some more passages that I really enjoyed:
“Reality never repeats. The exact same thing is never taken away and given back” (37).
“When He seemed most gracious He was really preparing the next torture” (43).
“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?” (42).
“And now that I come to think of it, there’s no practical problem before me at all. I know the two great commandments and I’d better get on with them. Indeed, H.’s death has ended the practical problem” (82).
“They say an unhappy man wants distractions — something to take him out of himself” (17).
“It’s easy to see why the lonely become untidy; finally, dirty and disgusting” (17).
“Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand” (37).
“ ‘Because she is in God’s hands.‘ But if so, she was in God’s hands all the time, and I have seen what they did to her here. Do they suddenly become gentler to us the moment we are out of the body? And if so, why? If God’s goodness is inconsistent with hurting us, then either God is not god or there is no God: for in the only life we know He hurts us beyond our worst fears and beyond all we can imagine. If it is consistent with hurting us, then He may hurt us after death as unendurably as before it” (39–40).
“When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘No answer.’ It is not locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.’ ” (81)