Wednesday, January 28, 2009

"The Sermon and the Lunch"

In this essay, Lewis talks about a friend of his, a pastor who preaches about living in harmony with your family. He talks about home being a sanctuary where you can kick back and “be yourself.” He makes life at home sound easy, relaxing, and almost heaven-like. However, when Lewis goes to eat lunch with the pastor and his family, he finds a very different story at home. He discovers that the pastor is very unpleasant, very prone to gossip and rude to his family. Lewis is disappointed that the pastor painted such an easy picture of “society” at home when his own at-home life is so different from the peaceful, safe, environment it should be.

Lewis proposes instead that life at home is not at all easy. He argues that because of the Fall, no place can be a little “heaven” away from the rest of the world. Our private life is just as tainted as any other facet of life. He says that family life is not easy. In a family, love cannot mean just the natural affection we have for one another because at times that affection is not present. Love is a decision – something we must make a conscious effort to do each moment of every day. Lewis also argues that not only should our homes have the same rules as the public does, they should have more rules about treating one another with respect. “There is nowhere this side of heaven where one can safely lay the reins on the horse’s neck. It will never be lawful simply to ‘be ourselves’ until ‘ourselves’ have become sons of God.”

"The Inner Ring"

“Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”

In this oration at the University of London, Lewis talks about our craving, our need, our desire to be included. He describes the phenomenon of “Inner Rings,” (or today we’d call them cliques), and how our want to be a part of a group will drive us to do awful things. While Inner Rings may start as a natural and innocent aspect of human sociology, according to Lewis, they are not the prettiest aspect of our culture. He says that the goal of Inner Rings has to do with building your public image. The main goal in getting into a certain Inner Ring or clique is not friendship, but to make sure that others around you see you at this social level and that certain people are excluded from the group so as to distinguish your own social status. We are driven both by an intense desire to be well-liked and an equally intense fear of being an outsider to become a member of one of these small, close-knit circles. Also, Lewis points out that because it is popularity and not friendship which drives us to become a part of a clique, we quickly become bored with our “friends” and want to move on to the next higher Inner Ring. In this process of climbing the social ladder, the desire to belong and the fear of not belonging are often so strong that we are willing to do almost anything to become a part of it. We are willing to stab a true friend in the back or to do something perfectly awful to an outsider just in order to retain the division between yourself, one of the included and the other, the excluded. This, according to Lewis, is what happens when we do not reign in and control our passion to become a part of an Inner Ring.

If, however, we are able to get over our fear of exclusion, we can stop worrying about how we look to others and start to care about them not because of where they stand socially, but because of who they are. It is when we focus only on our work here on earth and on knowing people for who they are as God’s image-bearers, that we obtain (almost by accident) that for which we are truly looking. God gives us what we have really desired all this time – a close and intimate relationship with a few other people, and a place where we really belong.

“…you are indeed snug and safe at the centre of something which, seen from without, would look exactly like an Inner Ring. But the difference is that the secrecy is accidental, and its exclusiveness a by-product, and no one was led thither by the lure of the esoteric: for it is only four or five people who like one another meeting to do things that they like. This is friendship.”

God desires for us to have a solid group of true friends. It is important to have close relationships with those around us and God has placed in our hearts a desire for intimacy. However, we often make the mistake of looking for the fulfillment of this desire through the wrong types of “friendships.” It is only after we learn to care less what others think, to become comfortable in our own skins, and to focus on God alone, that we will be blessed with true and intimate friendship.

Friday, January 23, 2009

"The Problem of Pain - Human Pain"

Lewis begins this essay by defining the type of pain to which he will be referring for the rest of the essay. He refers to pain not just in the physical sense, but also in the sense of anything which is unpleasant or brings discomfort to a person. Lewis sees pain as the most tangible evil. While we can fairly easily ignore other things such as sinful habits and stupidities, when we are in pain, it is something which cannot help but be addressed.

Lewis continues by hypothesizing about God’s reasons for allowing pain to exist in this world. He sees pain as a tool which God uses to awaken us from our sin and draw us closer to himself. He uses pain to take down the guard of the hard and calloused and remind them of their need for him. More often, however, God uses pain to correct those who seem to have their lives pulled together. Lewis says, “We ‘have all we want’ is a terrible saying when ‘all’ does not include God. We find God an interruption.” Many, including myself, find it very easy to fall into an illusion of self-sufficiency when life is easy. We think we owe our success and ease of life to our own accomplishments and hard work. We forget that it is God who is the source of all good things. God often uses pain to remind his people that they are not to owe for the goodness in their lives. It is a method He has of building a stronger relationship with us.

I have seen this phenomenon in my own life. When I was in sixth grade, my grandfather died of colon cancer. In watching his health deteriorate to the point of death, I saw the courage and faith with which he faced every new development of the disease. God used my time of pain and my grandfather’s witness to develop my faith from being something my parents always told me to a real and personal relationship with God. Since that time, I have faced the sudden death of a 17-year-old friend, my grandmother’s stroke and open-heart surgery, a health scare of my own, roommate problems, and the death of my best friend’s mother. All of these experiences have strengthened my faith, and while I can’t say I’d ever want to repeat any of these experiences, I can say that God has used them to bring me into a closer relationship with himself.

Lewis develops this idea even further in saying that pain actually may even be a blessing: “Let me implore the reader to try to believe, if only for the moment, that God, who made these deserving people, may really be right when He thinks that their modest prosperity and the happiness of their children are not enough to make them blessed…” He says that it is often only through pain which we learn true obedience to God. After all, it is easy to obey God if our will agrees with his. It is much harder to obey God’s will when it may mean subjecting ourselves to pain and suffering.

Lewis ends the essay with a challenge: we are not to become like puppies that have just had a bath – they run as quickly as possible away from their “suffering” and find the nearest possible dirt in which to role away their cleanliness. We cannot miss the lessons we should be learning from our suffering. When our relationship with God grows through a period of pain and agony, we must work to maintain this level of intimacy when the storm clouds have blown over.

Plantinga Ch 4: "Redemption"

I found that Plantinga’ s chapter on redemption relates very well to what Lewis is talking about in “Man or Rabbit.” For it is Christ’s gift of redemption to us which creates the life-transformation of which Lewis speaks – with redemption comes the ability to “fly.” Christ’s death and resurrection is the foundation to our faith. Redemption is what gives our life meaning beyond simply trying to live ethically.

In this chapter, Plantinga walks the reader through many of the basic Reformed beliefs about redemption. He explains how God humbled himself to become human (he was incarnated). It is only through the perfect life, sacrificial death, and resurrection of Christ (God incarnate) that we are saved from our enslavement to Sin. Plantinga also talks about the double blessing of atonement. When we are redeemed, we are made “at one” with God. We are simultaneously justified and sanctified. Justification is somewhat like our legal standing with God. God sees us no longer as guilty, but as holy instead. He decides to credit us with Christ’s holiness and credit our sins to Christ himself. Sanctification is a life-long process which begins at the moment of justification. This is the transformation of which Lewis spoke in “Man or Rabbit.” It is our gradually becoming more and more holy as we grow in our relationship with God. Sanctification is fully realized when we die and live again in heaven. Plantinga describes this process of atonement as the death of our old and sinful selves and the resurrection of a new child of God; a person who has realized the potential with which he has been created. Plantinga closes the chapter by talking about the brokenness of all creation and our responsibility as stewards on this earth to restore all things to their original state of shalom. In giving us redemption, God has called us to care for this world which he has given to us.

As I mentioned in class, when I first read this chapter, I didn’t think very much of it. I was much more excited about reading the Lewis assignment for the day and I usually think of reading Plantinga as more of a chore. I quick skimmed through the chapter and ended it a little disappointed, feeling I hadn’t learned anything and that I had just wasted time reading it. The whole thing seemed routine, basic, and obvious to me. During class the yesterday, however, I started to really think about what I had read. I was humbled to think about the weight of what I had casually skimmed through the night before. Yeah, I had heard the story before, but shouldn’t I, no matter how many times I’ve heard the story of redemption, stand in awe, meekness, gratitude, and faith at the sheer magnitude of what Christ has done for me and for all of humanity?

But then this got me thinking. How often is this a fairly typical story for Christians, especially those who have grown up in the church as I have? I think that in America, the church in general has lost her enthusiasm for the Gospel. We have heard the story of Christ’s life, death and resurrection so many times that we hardly give it a second thought anymore. As a result, we do not live as though we have been saved. We do not live in the awe, gratitude, and faith in which we need to live. The Christian life should be one which is exciting, involved, and joyful. Instead, we are bored. We need to fervently pray that God brings a revival to the North American church and do what we can in our own lives and church families to facilitate this change.

"Man or Rabbit"

“Can’t you lead a good life without believing in Christianity?” Lewis opens “Man or Rabbit” by posing this question and then focuses the remaining pages on answering it. He starts off by arguing that any person who is asking this question is neither someone who has never heard of Christianity, nor someone who has found that they cannot believe the Gospel message upon thorough consideration of Christianity. It is the question of a person who wants to know whether they should even bother learning more about Christianity. He responds by asking why a person wouldn’t find out for themselves whether the Christian message is true or not. He points out the implications of what could happen were we to disregard the Christian faith if it turned out to be true. He asks, “Are we ready to run the risk of working in the dark all our lives and doing infinite harm, provided only someone will assure us that our own skins will be safe, that no one will punish us or blame us?”

Lewis states that this mentality of laziness – this unwillingness to look further into Christianity for fears it may be true – as being in a state of dishonest error. This dishonesty, according to Lewis will then spread throughout all of a person’s life, making him a worried and mentally-dulled person.

Next, Lewis argues that should Christianity turn out to be true, then one would have no choice but to serve its purpose. If, however, Christianity turned out to be false, then you would be obligated to tell the world about the fraud which so many people seem to be buying hook, line, and sinker. So in both situations, it is irresponsible and lazy to remain focused only on living a moral life as an individual. Lewis points out that it is important to realize that there is so much more to life than living with good moral standards. “Mere morality is not the end of life.” He talks about our calling to becoming a new creation. When we become truly human and we are no longer mere “rabbits,” morality is “swallowed up.” Our calling is to realize the full and radiant potential with which God has created us. It is when we have finally gotten over our pointless goal of living a decent moral life (for it is impossible to do of our own power) that we are able to fully experience the joy of living in the Lord.

I personally loved the imagery of the last paragraph:

“Morality is a mountain which we cannot climb by our own efforts; and if we could we should only perish in the ice and unbreathable air of the summit, lacking those wings with which the rest of the journey has to be accomplished. For it is from there that the real ascent begins. The ropes and axes are ‘done away with’ and the rest is a matter of flying.”

Lewis so beautifully describes God’s purpose for us in life. While we may think we are making headway by living a “good life” on our own, we are mistaken. We are merely struggling over stones and rubble, tied to the ground by gravity. But if we lift our eyes, we can see a whole sky above us. A life of beauty, joy, and freedom awaits us if we learn to leave this life bound by gravity and answer the call of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

"The Abolition of Man"

This is probably the most difficult C.S. Lewis piece I have ever read. I had a hard time understanding a lot of it the first time I read it through because the content is so thick with meaning and philosophical thought. Reading this really impressed me. As Professor Paulo Ribeiro suggested during class, I feel I could read this a hundred times over and still learn more from it.

The foundation on which Lewis builds this essay is the argument that in our mission of conquest of all of nature, humans are, in the process, ruining themselves. He explains this further by showing that as we learn to control more and more of nature, we also increase the domination of man over himself – we are dehumanizing ourselves. I thought that the analogy Lewis uses of the contraceptive was an especially good way to help us understand what he means. He says that on one hand, the discovery of contraceptives was a huge conquest of nature. We now understand a lot more about all of the science behind pregnancy and what causes and prevents it. On the other hand, however, we are faced with the fact that we can now almost selectively breed a new generation. We have a new dominance over people in the future by influencing who is born now. Also, when we discover more and more about how contraceptives and other things in nature function, we tend to see ourselves and others as less human and more as just glorified test tubes: nothing more than containers housing various chemical reactions.

Lewis argues that as we conquer nature further and further we are only digging humanity a hole. He says that as the general public (the conditioned) loses more and more of its humanity, the Conditioners (a select number of scientists, teachers, political leaders, etc.) will become more and more able to manipulate our natural moral law (the Tao). This means that the Conditioners will have increasing power over all of humanity until, “They are not men at all: they are artifacts. Man’s final conquest has proved to be the conquest of Man.”

I agree with Lewis when he says that our new discoveries in science and our new uses of nature are often dehumanizing and lead to our demise as thinking and independent beings. I was especially struck in class when we talked about some of the dehumanizing changes in language which have taken place as our scientific knowledge and conquest of nature has increased. One of these “euphemisms” which has always bothered me is calling an unborn baby a fetus. We make the practice of abortion (“pro-choice”) something seemingly more acceptable by denying the humanity of the new life which is growing inside a mother.

As I read this essay, I couldn't help but think about some of the conversations I've been a part of in some of my science courses over the past year and a half at Calvin. We've talked about our responsibilities as God’s image-bearers on earth towards the physical world around us. God created the physical world and it was good. When he called us to rule over the earth, he called us to care for his creation. While subduing nature includes using and studying nature, it also includes trying to preserve and restore some of the original goodness with which it was created. This is where I think I disagree with Lewis. I do not want to understate the problem of dehumanization which is a definite presence in society. But I believe that another part of our problem is that we not only are underestimating the value of man by “making” him into nature; we are also underestimating the value of the nature into which we are making him.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

"The Four Loves: Eros"

As I read the “Eros” chapter of The Four Loves, a few things really stood out to me. First, I really liked how C.S. Lewis makes the distinction between Venus (sexual desire) and Eros (being in true love). On the first page of the chapter, he says, “I am inquiring not into the sexuality which is common to us and the beasts or even common to all men but into one uniquely human variation of it which develops within ‘love’ – what I call Eros.” He talks about Venus as simply an animal-like desire for another person. For men, it is "the want of a woman." It doesn’t matter who she is; it is simply the desire to satisfy the sexual urges of the body. According to Lewis, Venus fits inside of Eros and there is a time and place for Venus (within marriage), but any relationship started with a sexual desire on the part of one or both of the members of the relationship is bound to end. Lewis says that Eros is something stronger; it is to be “in love” with another person. Eros is "the want of the woman." It is not only a sexual desire, but a love for the other as a person and not a means of satisfying physical yearnings. Lewis states that most lasting relationships will start with simple Eros, an interest in someone as a person. After some time Venus for that person will start to develop, but overall it is the Eros which is lasting. Venus is coming and going, but Eros is something stronger and more enduring.

I really liked how Lewis described Eros on the third page of the chapter. He says,

Very often what comes first is a delighted pre-occupation with the Beloved – a general, unspecified pre-occupation with her in her totality. A man in this state really hasn’t leisure to think of sex. He is too busy thinking of a person. The fact that she is a woman is far less important than the fact that she is herself.

I love how beautifully Lewis says this. I also appreciated what was said in class about this being a standard for us to keep in our relationships. We are to see ourselves and others as valuable and indispensable sons and daughters of God. When we look at someone with mere sexual desire without a presence of Eros, we are not treating that person with the respect we are called to have for others. One cannot base a successful relationship simply off of Venus. It is important that in a relationship, one's focus remains on God and his will for their life. Both members of the relationship must keep their eyes focused on God and continually do their best to follow his guidance in that relationship. As soon as we lose sight of God, or as Lewis mentions at one point, as soon as we fall in love with the idea of "true love," and put this love before God; our relationships will suffer.

I also really liked Lewis’ garden analogy towards the end of the chapter. I think that many people, including myself, share a misconception that loving someone is going to be easy (or at least a lot easier than it actually is). This is far from true. Lewis tells us that in giving us the Eros kind of love for someone, God has given us an indescribably beautiful garden. However, in order to maintain their beauty, gardens require a lot of sweat, blood, and tears. Likewise, says Lewis, love requires work. We can’t expect that loving someone will always be something which happens effortlessly. Lewis tells us that to be married means to be constantly working and struggling in both our human relationship and also our relationship with God.