Monday, October 5, 2015

What are you, a Man or a Rabbit?

I love C.S. Lewis’ writings, from his children’s fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia to his Science Fiction Trilogy (particularly Perelandra) to his Faustian, dark-humored epistolary novel The Screwtape Letters. His nonfiction writings are equally as well-written, perhaps more so.  I won’t deny, however, that his theological and philosophical arguments sometimes go over my head. So in reading the collection of essays, interviews, etc. compiled in God in the Dock, it was a bit of a mixed bag. One chapter might be deep and dry and incomprehensible to me, the next would be illuminating and fun and a challenge to my character and growth. This book definitely gave me plenty of food for thought, so much that I took several months between reading it earlier this summer before attempting to write about it now. I just re-read it, trying to find what nugget of wisdom I initially thought of interest. I found much more merit the second read around.

In the essay Man or Rabbit? Lewis poses the question “Can’t you lead a good life without believing in Christianity?” It’s a conflict between Christians (most of whom would say, “No”) and the rest of humanity, whom Lewis refers to as Materialists. There’s another conflict here, which Lewis poses as a question as whether we’re Men or Rabbits. (I’ll try to unwrap that conflict later.)

As for the first question, Lewis addresses how Materialists might rationalize answering, “Yes” to it: 

“ 'All I’m interested in is leading a good life. I’m going to choose beliefs not because I think them true but because I find them helpful.' ” This is the rationale that allows people to believe in a moral relativity: if there’s no such thing as right or wrong, then whenever someone messes up there’s an excuse of “Well I believe this to be right, so you can’t judge me on it.”  

Our society suffers so much as a result of this today, with families fractured by affairs and divorce and children being raised with no sense of self-discipline, not to mention celebrities getting away with illegal actions like violence or drug use. If Lewis was concerned about this mass self-deceit back when he wrote this essay, I wonder what he’d think of Postmodernism?

Lewis isn’t trying to force-feed his audience with dogmatic arguments. He accounts for whether Christianity is true or not: If it’s not, then any good person is right NOT to believe it. But what if it is true? Then every good person will WANT to believe it, even if that truth is unhelpful and “not in their favor.” Because that’s what Christianity is. By believing that Jesus died for our sins, that presupposes that there was sin in the first place. Flaws, messing up, downright evil existing inside us from our very birth. And that’s a hard pill for many humans to swallow.

“If Christianity should happen to be true, we realise something else. If Christianity should happen to be true, then it is quite impossible that those who know this truth and those who don’t should be equally well equipped for leading a good life. Knowledge of the facts must make a difference to one’s actions.”

Lewis gives this analogy to illustrate his point: that an ignorant man and a doctor, when faced with a starving person, will both have the best intentions to make the starving person well.  But an ignorant man will give the starving person a big meal, which will kill him. Ignorance doesn’t mean bad intentions—many people live decent lives and are upstanding citizens without believing Christ rose from the dead. However because they lack that moral Constant, they’re literally aspiring for goodness in the dark.

Not that the Materialist and Christian are in disagreement over many actions which are generally considered “good.” Certain crimes are definitely considered as such, and certain laudable actions are trumpeted on the nightly news as acts of ordinary heroism. To a Christian, their conscience must have an eternal perspective even if that sometimes puts them at odds with the Materialist’s, so that the defining difference is that

“To the Materialist things like nations, classes, civilizations must be more important than individuals, because the individuals live only seventy odd years each and the group may last for centuries.  But to the Christian, individuals are more important, for they live eternally, and races, civilizations, and the like, are in comparison the creatures of a day.”  

But where does the rabbit come in? Lewis uses this metaphor between Men and Rabbits to demonstrate the sad, embarrassing concept that we cannot do it on our own. Goodness is not achievable without the constant aid of a good God. 

“…Christianity will do you good—a great deal more good than you ever wanted or expected. And the first bit of good it will do you is to hammer into your head (you won’t enjoy that!) the fact that what you have hitherto called ‘good’—all that about ‘leading a decent life’ and ‘being kind’—isn’t quite the magnificent and all-important affair you supposed. It will teach you that even if you were, you still wouldn’t have achieved the purpose for which you were created. Mere morality is not the end of life.”

We might be moral Rabbits, but the constant aspiring and constant failing to be truly perfect is an unbearable weight to place on our mortal and fickle shoulders. Try if for just one day, and before lunch you’ll find that not only is righteousness is a lot of work, it’s downright impossible to maintain. To be truly good is to have God’s goodness applied to our lives, and 

“All the rabbit in us is to disappear—the worried, conscientious, ethical rabbit as well as the cowardly and sensual rabbit…. [Then], surprisingly, we shall find underneath it a thing we have never yet imagined: a real Man, an ageless god, a son of God, strong, radiant, wise, beautiful, and drenched in joy.”

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