A severe empiricist reveals his deepest longings.
SEEING THAT FIRST SENTENCE in the first paragraph of the first chapter of Peter Kreeft’s book Heaven: The Heart’s Deepest Longing is a quote from C.S. Lewis, my suspicions were aroused right away. Kreeft hastened to confirm them, quoting Lewis again four pages further on, and again eleven pages after that, then four pages on from that, then two pages on from that, then forty-one more times in the following hundred pages.
The metaphor that comes to mind is the one about conversing with the monkey when the organ grinder is at hand. I knew, by the time I reached that second quote, that I had signed up for 152 pages of Lewisian woo. (No, Mister Editor, I didn’t read the Introduction, nor the Appendices. How much can you ask of a man?)
And in fact I am pretty well acquainted with the organ grinder. If you write for conservative American magazines and websites, and reveal yourself to be an unbeliever, concerned readers will quickly direct you to C.S. Lewis, with many earnest beseechings. If I had a dollar for every email I have received that contained the injunction, “Do please read Mere Christianity,” I might be able to afford the guided pilgrimage around Lewis’s childhood haunts on offer from the Northern Ireland Tourist Board.
Lewis’s writings have been a major inspiration for untold numbers of American Christians. In the United Kingdom of his birth he has not much honor, as I suppose is fitting for a prophet. He is respected around British university Eng. Lit. departments as a literary critic of insight, and remembered fondly by some among the general public as the author of some quirky children’s stories, but Lewis otherwise occupies very little space in the British (or Irish: his first confession was Church of Ireland, which is to say the Irish chapter of the Anglican Communion) imagination.
American Christians by contrast have taken him to their bosoms as a seer of the first magnitude. St. George’s Episcopal Church of Dayton, Ohio, has actually immortalized him in a stained-glass window. Nor is his appeal restricted to Anglicans: I know devout Roman Catholics who swoon over Lewis, and no doubt there are Baptists, Congregationalists, Lutherans, and Methodists in the fan club too. It is in fact an interesting question, though one I shall leave for readers to ponder in their own time, why Lewis’s powers are great enough to excite such admiration while yet not great enough to persuade the admirers into his own sect of choice.
I attended services of the ECUSA myself for some years before losing the sliver of faith I had. Our minister here on Long Island was a sturdily conservative fellow who did not deviate far from the Scriptures and the Book of Common Prayer. He used the 1789 text of the latter, of course; I think I should have fallen into unbelief even sooner than I did but for the satisfaction of hearing him prompt us to the Lord’s Prayer with “we are bold to say…” (Cranmer’s translation of audemus dicere) rather than the slatternly modern option “we now pray…”
I can’t recall hearing that minister mention Lewis. From time to time, however, the dear man would be absent on some clerical business and a substitute would be drafted in. These peripatetics all seemed to be full of Lewis, leaving me squirming and grimacing there in my pew as they gigglingly retailed some vapid Lewisian parable, populated by creatures with names dredged from the lowest sediments of Edwardian nursery-room whimsy: Puddleglum, Reepicheep, the pfifltriggi.
And ever eager to give my polite emailers the benefit of the doubt—you need to have endured the long-serving blogger’s acquaintance with im-polite emailers to understand this impulse—I actually did give Mere Christianity a try.
What stuff! All right, I am a rather severe empiricist, deeply unimpressed with introspection as a means for discovering anything about the world of nature, including human nature. Even after cutting the guy as much slack as I could, though, and setting aside the hearty-sober tone of the thing (ported over intact from every mid-20th-century British schoolmaster’s standard lecture on the perils of self-abuse), Lewis’s arguments seemed feeble. I got as far as the famous trilemma in Chapter 4 of Book II:
[Jesus of Nazareth] either was (and is) just what He said or else a lunatic, or something worse. Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.
My reaction to that passage was: Why couldn’t Jesus just have been mistaken? Answer, after a few more pages of bogus analogies and unsubstantiated assertions, came there none, and I never did finish the book.
(I did, though, receive as a gift from one of the kind beseechers a nice boxed set of the Narnia stories, which my kids had read to them at bedtimes—all but the last book, which I myself could make no sense of, and so spared them. The only lasting effect has been a taste for Turkish Delight, which I still buy as a family treat at Christmas.)
BUT ENOUGH OF THE organ grinder: what does the monkey have to tell us about heaven? I follow Kreeft in not capitalizing that word, and am glad to have been spared the decision. William F. Buckley, Jr. was of the opposite persuasion, explaining that: “It’s a place,” a thing he certainly believed.
Is it, though? The fundamental conception of heaven always has been, and in the minds of the great majority of Christians still is, of a place the individual personality migrates to after death. Some irreducible core of one’s personhood, of one’s self, survives the destruction of the body and goes to heaven. Or not: Entry into heaven is commonly regarded as conditional, though the nature of the conditions varies from sect to sect. So do the alternatives, which come down to either blank extinction or an anti-heaven, a place of suffering.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?