I picked up a copy of The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis tonight, and found a part that I’d read a few weeks ago, and was surprised by. Specifically, it’s where Lewis says this:
Any consideration of the goodness of God at once threatens us with the following dilemma.
On the one hand, if God is wiser than we His judgment must differ from ours on many things, and not least on good and evil. What seems to us good may therefore not be good in His eyes, and what seems to us evil may not be evil.
On the other hand, if God’s moral judgment differs from ours so that our ‘black’ may be His ‘white,’ we can mean nothing by calling Him good; for to say ‘God is good,’ while asserting that His goodness is wholly other than ours, is really only to say ‘God is we know not what.’ And an utterly unknown quality in God cannot give us moral grounds for loving or obeying Him. If He is not (in our sense) ‘good’ we shall obey, if at all, only through fear – and should be equally ready to obey an omnipotent Fiend. The doctrine of Total Depravity – where the consequence is drawn that, since we are totally depraved, our idea of good is worth simply nothing – may thus turn Christianity into a form of devil-worship.
What has drawn me back to this point is simply how strongly he makes his case. Lewis was generally careful to avoid overstating a point, and he tended to understate his point more often than the converse. In all of his writing, he chooses his words carefully. And more than perhaps any other Christian writer since the Reformation, his public writings have bridged denominational bounds without sacrificing orthodoxy. Yet here, in a book intended for publication, he calls the doctrine of total depravity potential “devil worship.” It seems to me that when an author as irenic and as respected as C. S. Lewis makes such a bold claim, it seems to warrant an answer, or at least, discussion.
That said, there’s not anything which I feel I can add of worth to the discussion. Personally, I find Lewis’ particular formulation of this argument completely compelling.* It’s devoid of argument from emotion – no “how could a loving God do that?” In its stead, he poses the simple thesis that if we are so depraved we can’t know what goodness is, we have no way of saying that God is morally superior to the devil: only that we prefer Him, or that He is more powerful.
Lewis explains further in the chapter (it’s chapter 3, by the way) that the proper solution to this is that the difference between God’s understanding of good and evil and our own is a difference of degree and not of kind. An analogy which helped me was this: a calculator is far better at addition and subtraction than a child working alone. There may even be times when the child fails to understand how the calculator is right and his is wrong. But at base, what the child is doing is simply an imperfect form of what the calculator does perfectly. The calculator, for this child, is a helpful guide, and a ready source of necessary correction. On the other hand, if what the boy called addition the calculator called multiplication, or vice versa, the difference would not be one of the calculator performing a task better than the boy, but of the two performing different tasks, but calling it by the same name. The child would not even be able to say that the calculator was better at addition than he was — only that the calculator was doing something too far beyond his grasp to understand. The first example is a difference of degree, the second is a difference of kind.
As recent technology, like HD and Blu-Ray, has evolved, what we once thought of as “crystal clear TV” has revolutionized. What once looked crisp and white now looks faded and dulled by comparison. That’s how even the greatest of saints will look by the Perfect Goodness of God. But this isn’t because what we think of as good is really evil, but because sin taints. But this notion of tainting is the difference between a red stain on a white shirt, and a red shirt. Again, a difference of degree v. kind.
Perhaps put more succinctly. God, being Perfect, will surpass our understanding of the Good; but if He instead is wholly distinct from our understanding of the Good, then He’s not “Good” within any human meaning of that term. So to say we worship God because He is Good becomes misleading. Rather, we worship God because He says He is good. But from 2 Corinthians 11:14, we know that Satan mimics God’s goodness, even masquerading as an angel of light.
So if both God and the devil say that they’re Good (even Perfect, and worthy of emulating), and we’re too depraved to have any accurate sense of right and wrong, we have no way to evaluate their claims. By what standard then can we say that God is truly perfect Goodness, while the devil is merely aping that goodness in a fatal deception? Lewis concludes that we’re left with merely worshipping God because He is more powerful, and that it could just as well have been the devil had he had held the upper hand.
What’s more, and this goes beyond Lewis’ argument, is if we worship God and obey Him only because we fear His power, and because we think He’s going to triumph, we’re not really moral. We’re simply opportunists. We’re simply siding with the side we suspect is the winning team: there’s nothing morally redeemable about making that choice for that reason.
Anyways, I don’t intend for this to be the last word on the subject, but hopefully, this can spark some dialogue on the issue. I’m interested in what anyone else has to say on the subject.
*I am, perhaps, not Lewis’ target audience for such an argument, as I have no particular inclinations towards total depravity as he has articulated it. I should note as well that within Calvinism, the term “total depravity” has much more flexibility than most people let on. For some, it means exactly what Lewis has identified – this is, I understand, the historical usage; for others, it seems to mean no more than “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), a sentiment with which all Christians would (or should) readily accede.