Monday, November 30, 2009

C.S. Lewis and a Theodicy of Beauty

In his article “Evil and the Cosmic Dance” for the compilation C.S. Lewis as Philosopher (edited by Baggett, Habermas, and Walls), Philip Tallon largely critiques a previous work by John Hick in which aesthetic considerations are deliberately ignored in favor of moral and ethical ones as Hick attempts to construct a theodicy of soul-making. Hick argues that we must emphasize the relational aspect of God and that His chief aim in creating humans was to have fellowship with them. As such, questions of beauty (a type of non-moral goodness), which largely fall into the God-as-Creator category of emphasis, must needs be deemphasized in favor of explicit moral goodness in order to properly engage with the God-as-Lover-of-Humans category.

Tallon, however, sees a synthesis of the two in the work of C.S. Lewis. While many theodicists, Tallon argues, use religiously neutral values and purely moral considerations in formulating their work, this can lead to an overly distant and austere God, as well as one whose goodness is too alien to understand. By considering the beautiful in nature and in the world, a more robust picture of God’s goodness can be painted.

There is a section in Tallon’s article that articulated Augustine’s theodicy, namely, that the universe is like a painting “which, though it has some black patches, is still beautiful because of the purpose these dark spots serve, to heighten the brightness of the light patches by contrast. In the Augustinian picture, then, punishment and plenitude keep the universe beautifully balanced and wonderfully diverse” (Tallon 197). However, this serves more to critique and engage with Hick’s work than to set forth anything based on Lewis, and I will not spend any more time on it here.

Tallon begins by quoting a passage from Lewis’ essay “De Futilitate,” which I encourage everyone to read. In it, Lewis writes about human interaction with reality:
We must, then, grant logic to the reality; we must, if we are to have any moral standards, grant to it moral standards too. And there is really no reason why we should not do the same about standards of beauty. There is no reason why our reaction to a beautiful landscape should not be the response, however humanly blurred and partial, to something that is really there.

Lewis, then, sees beauty as an objective property. If we are correct in assuming that we can parallel his argument from Miracles that morality is grounded in God, then we can also say that beauty has its source in the Divine. And if beauty is from God, it is worthwhile to study it. As Tallon writes, “Following Lewis here, even if we cannot precisely see where beauty fits into theodicy, we can pursue its study in the confidence that we are advancing our knowledge of God’s goodness. For any philosopher to restrict theodicy’s scope to the purely moral may be marked by a sort of distrust in the deep connections between beauty and goodness” (Tallon 200).

Tallon focuses on two main areas of Lewis’ thought in order to make his argument: eschatology and soul-making. For those not familiar with the terms, eschatology means the study of last things, such as the end of the world or the final situation of humanity. Soul-making is a process by which God develops humans into beings more like Himself. This process sometimes can involve pain and suffering, in order to bring about a higher good.

Lewis argues that “any theodicy ignoring Heaven cannot even be called Christian” (Tallon 200). The pleasures and goods of this eternity infinitely outweigh any finite suffering endured on earth. Therefore, in a cost-benefit analysis of pains and pleasures, the good always outweighs the bad for the Christian.

Tallon analyzes the tendency which we have as fallen humans to insufficiently imagine Heaven as a fitting reward for present pains. If we do not see Heaven as desirable, our theodicy suffers. Lewis, says Tallon, does an admirable job of describing Heaven in such a way that one can make a feeble guess as to what the Christian will encounter there.

The soul-making aspect of this theodicy of course states that God uses pains and struggles to shape people into more perfect beings, beings more like Himself. “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world,” says Lewis. We cannot ignore pains, so God sometimes uses them to teach essential lessons.

Tallon points out that while Hick’s emphasis on moral development through pain is right and biblical, his somewhat exclusive emphasis upon it is not as good. Tallon writes:
Defending God’s goodness solely in moral terms can lead to a picture of God that is cold, harsh, and generally not worth defending. What Lewis does so successfully, in including beauty and pain as formative parts of God’s creation . . . is not only to balance the joys and pains of God’s world but also to suggest that pain itself, in its ability to break through our self-centeredness, is thereby helping us to enjoy divine and created beauty (Tallon 205).

Lewis upholds Augustine’s view that virtue is the ordinate condition of affections. We can love things appropriately and inappropriately. Thus a proper instruction in valuing things, including beautiful things, is an aspect of the soul-making process. “If appreciation of creation is part of our development in virtue itself, then, contra Hick, upholding the aesthetic qualities of creation is fully compatible with a person-focused theodicy” (Tallon 206).

I will end with another quote from Lewis, his most famous regarding beauty and the human relationship to it.
We do not merely want to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it . . . When human souls have become as perfect in voluntary obedience as the inanimate creation is in its lifeless obedience, then they will put on its glory, or rather that greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch (Lewis, “Weight of Glory” pg. 17)

Works Cited
Tallon, Philip. "Evil and the Cosmic Dance." C.S. Lewis as Philosopher: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Ed. David Bagget, Gary R. Habermas, Jerry L. Walls. Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008. Print.

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