Friday, June 23, 2006

A Scattered Review of The Pilgrim's Regress

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

There are a couple of things I need to address in this dialog. First, I want to talk a little bit about "The Pilgrim's Regress", by C.S. Lewis, which Ernie recommended I read (along with two other books). Second (and in a later post) I want to attempt to describe the view from 30,000 feet of my reasons for rejecting Christianity. And then I will try to flesh out the details of those reasons.

So: "The Pilgrim's Regress". According to the book jacket, this was the first book written by Lewis following his conversion. It was originally published in 1933 and the copy I read contains an afterword written for the third edition, published in 1943. As one might guess from the title, the book is an allegory roughly in the style of Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress". It details the journey of John, originally from Puritania, as he attempts to find a way to The Island, which he has seen in a sort of vision. In the course of this journey he encounters a number of characters which represent different philosophical and theological positions. This journey reflects, in a general way, the progression of Lewis' beliefs "from 'popular realism' to Philosophical Idealism; from Idealism to Pantheism; from Pantheism to Theism; and from Theism to Christianity" (taken from the Afterword).

I am certain that more meaning could be extracted from the book by someone more intimately familiar with the various philosophies, theologies and personalities represented in the book. In fact, without the explanatory headlines at the top of each page (like "Marx really a Dwarf; Spinoza a Jew; Kant a Puritan"), I would often have been hard pressed to recognize many of the allusions being made. Whether or not I understood enough to help me understand Ernie's beliefs, I am not sure.

Before I get to anything else in the book itself, I have to comment on Lewis' method, that is, the method by which he arrived at Christianity. (Again, this is taken from his afterword.) As I mentioned, the goal of the main character is to reach The Island, which he first glimpsed as a child. This represents "a particular recurrent experience which dominated my childhood and adolescence" and this experience was one of "intense longing". Then he says:

It appeared to me therefore that if a man diligently followed this desire, pursuing the false objects until their falsity appeared and then resolutely abandoning them, he must come out at last into the clear knowledge that the human soul was made to enjoy some object that is never fully given - nay, cannot even be imagined as given - in our present mode of subjective and spatio-temporal experience. This Desire was, in the soul, as the Siege Perilous of Arthur's castle - the chair in which only one could sit. And if nature makes nothing in vain, the One who can sit in this chair must exist. I knew only too well how easily the longing accepts false objects and through what dark ways the pursuit of them leads us: but I also saw that the Desire itself contains the corrective of all these errors. The only fatal error was to pretend that you had passed from desire to fruition, when, in reality, you had found either nothing, or desire itself, or the satisfaction of some different desire. The dialectic of Desire, faithfully followed, would retrieve all mistakes, head you off from all false paths, and force you not to propound, but to live through, a sort of ontological proof.

This seems a very dangerous road, to take an intense longing and from that longing infer that a fulfillment of that longing simply must exist. "If nature makes nothing in vain, the One ... must exist." Perhaps nature does make some things in vain. And he also admits "how easily the longing accepts false objects" but claims that by following the desire faithfully the false objects will be rejected. I reject the idea that because he has some desire, the fulfillment of that desire must exist, and I am skeptical about how reliably he is able to identify what is false and what is true.

One of the first characters that John (the main character) meets is Mr. Enlightenment, a "big man with red hear and a red stubble on all his three chins". The headline describes this character as nineteenth-century rationalism, and Lewis evidently has a rather low opinion of him. Naturally, Mr. Enlightenment rejects the idea of "the Landlord", who represents God. But Lewis puts some interesting words into his mouth:

"Well, as to that... I see that you have a very crude notion of how science actually works... Hypothesis, my dear young friend, establishes itself by a cumulative process: or, to use popular language, if you make the same guess often enough it ceases to be a guess and becomes a Scientific Fact."

Really? This is a gross mischaracterization of science. While science may not be able answer all of the questions that Lewis would like answered, the fact that he does not understand how it does answer what questions it can answer does little to inspire trust in his own approach. And later, while speaking with Reason about what science says about religion, she says "They pretend that their researches lead to that doctrine, but in fact they assume that doctrine first and interpret their researches by it." Even if that were true (and I take it as a skewed description of methodological naturalism), I think the same charge could be leveled against some religious thinkers, and Lewis' statement that "the One ... must exist" comes immediately to mind. That is, he starts by assuming what will be found.

It is my understanding that Lewis saw in various pagan mythologies precursors and foreshadowings of the story of Christ, which was a sort of archetypal fulfillment of those mythologies. The Hermit describes something like this (but not exactly like this) to John. While there are many similarities in the stories of Jesus to the stories in other religious/mythological traditions, one coud just as easily say (and most skeptics do) that this is merely a reflection of recurring themes that people find compelling in these stories. Some Christian apologists (but not Lewis) have claimed that these others were in fact demonically-inspired stories intended to cast doubt on the true story of Christ. Who assumes their doctrine first, again? No more the skeptics than the believers, at least.

I do not disagree with all that Lewis writes. He critiques a variety of beliefs and I think some of those critiques, like those of Freudian wish-fulfillment and of Fascist and Communist revolutionaries, are well-founded. John's conversation with Wisdom about the source of moral rules contains what is essentially a description of The Euthyphro Dilemma. While John encounters Wisdom relatively late in his travels, and while the character is given a name that is generally "positive", Lewis does not agree with all that he has Wisdom say, so I am not absolutely sure how Lewis himself felt about this issue, whether God is the author of morality or simply an advocate of it, but when the topic came up later as John was speaking with the Man (Jesus), the Man does not contradict Wisdom.

You heard from Wisdom how the rules were yours and not yours. Did you not mean to keep them? And if so, can it scare you to know that there is one who will make you able to keep them?

From Ernie's description of Psi and Omega, I would guess that he views moral rules as intrinsic to the fabric of reality and as inseparable from divinity. I am not sure if that is an accurate description of Ernie's beliefs, nor am I certain that I have correctly understood Lewis. Perhaps Ernie can clarify, it it seems important.

Since Ernie and I spent a fair amount of time talking about hell and Ernie has expressed his general agreement with Lewis' view of hell as explained in "The Great Divorce", I was curious to see how Lewis treated the problem of hell in this book. Hell is represented by the Black Hole. John first hears of the Black Hole from a Steward.

However, it all ended with pointing out that the Landlord was quite extraordinarily kind and good to his tenants, and would certainly torture most of them to death the moment he had the slightest pretext.

Of course, the Stewards represent a sort of Christianity that Lewis believes is quite mistaken. After John crosses the chasm (becomes a Christian), he has a conversation with the Guide about the Black Hole. According to the Guide, there is a black hole and he offers up the free will defense.

"... The Landlord has taken the risk of working the country with free tenants instead of slaves in chain gangs: and as they are free there no way of making it impossible for them to go into forbidden places and eat forbiddden fruits. Up to a certain point he can doctor them even when they have done so, and break them of the habit... You must not try to fix the point after which a return is impossible, but you can see that there will be such a point somewhere."

"But surely the Landlord can do anything?"

"He cannot do what is contradictory... it is meaningless to talk of forcing a man to do freely what a man has freely made impossible for himself."

"I see. But at least these poor creatures are unhappy enough: there is no need to add a black hole."

"The Landload does not make the blackness. The blackness is there already wherever the taste of mountain-apple has created the vermiculate will. What do you mean by a hole? Something that ends. A black hole is blackness enclosed, limited. And in that sense the Landloard has made the black hole. He has put into the world a Worst Thing. But evil of itself would never reach a worst: for evil is fissiparous and could never in a thousand eternities find any way to arrest its own reproduction. If it could, it would be no longer evil... The walls of the black hole are the tourniquet on the wound through which the lost soul else would bleed to a death she never reached. It is the Landlord's last service to those who will let him do nothing better for them."

This does seem consistent with what Ernie has described. But I still do not buy it, as there remain a number of problems. Those I am saving for my own story. I did find it amusing that Lewis would attempt to turn the existence of hell into a demonstration of God's mercy.

I suppose that so long as one views this work as a description of Lewis' journey and as an explanation of some of his views, it did passibly well. (Lewis himself says it was needlessly obscure.) As Ernie expected, I do not find it convincing. I am not sure how much it illuminated my understand of Ernie's beliefs. Ernie, is there anything to which you would draw my attention, or wish to clarify?


ed knudsen said...

Hey so i am reading through your blogs about you and ernie, and i see you to talking about c.s. lewis. If his books pose for good arguement between the two of you then you two should lookinto the works of Alvin Plantinga. His books stand as interesting and well composed.

Theoketos said...

I think that your arguement of not buying it is unsatifying. How can any one clarify further without telling us why? Thanks for the text though!

Alan Lund said...


The statement "I'm not buying it" is not and was not intended to be an argument itself, just a statement of disagreement. I had intended at the time to return to that, among other things, in the larger context of an enumeration of my reasons for disbelieving Christianity. Unfortunately, I have not really gotten back to that, so even if you had read everything I have written since this post, this question would remain unanswered. For that I apologize.

Anonymous said...

I think you have misunderstood Lewis' intent in giving words to Mr. Enlightenment with respect to the nature of science.

Lewis is not at all claiming that this description of "science" is correct! Which is why he gave these words to Mr. Enlightenment instead of, say, to Reason, or to Wisdom.

Indeed, Lewis elaborates this point later in the book when he describes the conclusions of an anthropologist who "knows" that stories of the Landlord simply cannot be true because all cultures have stories of the Landlord and the anthropologists have found that some are merely legend and therefore by extrapolation all such stories are false. So the pseudo-scientist would wrongly claim.

The point Lewis is making here is that science has overstepped its bounds. In other works (e.g. Screwtape Letters) Lewis reserves the word "hard" to describe science like Physics or Chemistry at the same time as diabolically encouraging us to view, for example, sociology as "science".

Mr. Enlightenment is not as enlightened as he believes himself to be. Be careful not to read truth into all his words. Discovering the error is game here.

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