Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Idle Thoughts -- the Lion, the Witch, and the Bertrand Russell
There are many subcultures in America. One of them which is very strange to me is the absolutist belief system of the fundamentalist evangelical Christian culture. I do deeply believe in God, if fact, I'm fond of saying that I do not believe in God, I know him. I know my brother, so I don't need to believe in him. I don't know the Easter Bunny, so I need to believe or not believe in him.
But having said that, I do not believe that God is giving me detailed directions on how to live my everyday life. The sense that there is a set of absolute directions from a spiritual king must be obeyed his if I were his serf is very strange to me. This message is exemplified in a series of children's books which are very popular even among adults, especially adult evangelical Christians. The first book of the series is The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis.
Three English children in the World War II era find themselves transported into a magic land, Narnia. The land is been taken over by the White Which was changed everything into an eternal winter. Three of the children come into the land peacefully, and befriend the talking animals who live there, but their brother meets the White Witch when he arrives and eats some of her poisonous magic food, transforming him into her servant.
The other children don't realize this and accept the traitor among them. The four of them go out to rescue the land from the witch and return it to the control of Aslan the Lion, who is a Christ figure.
The story plays out as a children's retelling of man's fall and Christ's redemptive sacrifice. While the story seems to be just about a magic land, it is in fact the whole story of man's fall, original sin, and the redemptive nature of suffering.
The children learned that to do good in an evil world requires suffering, sacrifice, and a spirit willing to fight for that which is right. Philosophically this goes back to the City of God by St. Augustine. Man is evil and inherits Original Sin simply by existing, only the blood of Christ can wash us free of those sins. This frames the subplot in which Edmond, brother who became loyal to the witchby surrendering himself to her service in order to become a king, loses the true kingship he deserved anyway. The lesson here is if you make a bargain with evil whatever you gain will be what you would've had anyway but it is now perverted. You're always better sticking with good. The rewards of doing evil are always bad, perverted and even poisonous to you, no matter how nice they seem to be, while the rewards of doing good, for all the suffering they may cause, are always are healthy and good for you in the long run.
Making a bargain with evil is always a mistake. Making a bargain with what is good is inappropriate. If you are wise, don't make any bargains, you just do what's good. Of course this assumes an absolute state in which everything is either good or evil.There are no moral question or doubts. Everything is simple. Everything is clear. The state is unlikely to occur in real life, but the author may be excused for over simplifying. It is a children's book.
All of this is easily applied to everyday life. The book was written with the thought in mind that most of the readers would be members of a nation in which most people were Christian, and would readily recognize the symbols. In everyday life we constantly make choices. It is easy to make the choice that looks like it will benefit us in the material world without regard to right and wrong, but this is always a mistake. Even though the right way is longer and harder and more difficult in appearance, the road that follows such a course is actually more rewarding and even less harsh than the alternative. Living as a believing Christian and actually acting on Christian principles isn't just the best choice, it's the only choice that makes any sense.
So far so good. Unfortunately, this theme is carried to an extreme which is not acceptable. Ultimately, the individual's choice, as presented, is not to carefully think things through and make the correct decision. Instead, one is expected to blindly obey the righteous king. The assumption is that since he is truly righteous therefore he is always right. This is not just an artifact of this being a children's book. The same attitude is reflected in many Christians today. Christ is the king and must be blindly and totally and absolutely obeyed. End of statement.
The difficulty is obvious to to those who not take such an absolutist positions. What if you misunderstand what the King has ordered? What if the king is wrong in this particular case? Of course, such questions make no sense to the true believers. They are certain that the king can never be wrong and you can never mistake the meaning of his messages to you because after all he is sending them and he can make no mistakes, like sending a confusing message. If you misunderstand it, that suggests he has failed somehow. Since that is impossible, it simply cannot happen.
The difficulty is that in the real world absolute certainty is rarely correct. As Bertrand Russell said, "The fundamental cause of trouble in the world today is that the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt." I find this statement to be excessive. It isn't really a question of intelligence or lack thereof. The real issue is overconfidence and a willingness to stop thinking about things, not a fundamental inability to think. Nevertheless, the fundamental point is accurate. People who have no doubts whatsoever are generally those who are the least likely to be factually accurate. If you assume that God has directed you to do something, there is no need to think about it. God cannot possibly be wrong and in fact it could even be regarded as an insult to Him to take the time to consider the moral implications of the act. Who is willing to insult God?
This is the attitude that led to both of the Inquisition and the Protestant Discipline. These two brutal efforts to purify the church led to many atrocities. Of course those practicing those atrocities never had any doubts. After all, they were obeying the instructions of the King.
Let me make clear again that I truly love this series of books. It's simply that they should be taken as what they are, simple parables intended for children. All too many individuals apply these lessons literally as adults to their real lives. That is a mistake.
Adult life is complicated and difficult. Oversimplifying it only leads to error.