June 4, 2009

Between Heaven and Hell

Category: Apologetics :: Permalink

On November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated.  On that same day, C. S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley (author of Brave New World) also died.  In Between Heaven and Hell, Peter Kreeft presents an imaginary dialog between these three men, located in a sort of holding area “somewhere beyond death.”  Lewis, of course, was a Christian.  Huxley was something of a pantheist and monist, infatuated with eastern religions.  Kennedy was Roman Catholic, but, Kreeft argues, was functionally a humanist.

The dialog itself is a lot of fun, and Kreeft gets in some great lines:

Kennedy: Well, I find it a lot easier to believe in the goodness of man than in the badness of God.

Lewis: The badness of God?

Kennedy: Yes; can you imagine a worse God than one who claps human beings into hell for all eternity?

Lewis: Yes, I can imagine a much worse God than that.

Kennedy: What God?

Lewis: One who would put people in hell who didn’t deserve it.  An unjust God (p. 18).

Also insightful is Lewis’s (and when I say “Lewis” or “Kennedy” or “Huxley” here, I’m referring to the characters, of course, not the real people they’re based on) response to Huxley’s claim that Jesus didn’t do miracles but did go around doing good things:

But what good did he do?  Did he visit prisoners?  Did he clothe the naked?  Did he clean up local politics?  No.  He did miracles.  Eliminate them and there’s not much left that he did (p. 79).

Kreeft also gives us three good lines about mysticism and Huxley’s belief that all religions are one.  The first is borrowed from Chesterton:

Lewis: It seems to me you are saying that Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike, especially Buddhism (p. 83).

The second is an old standard, and I don’t know who said it first:

Huxley: You’re probably one of those suspicious fellows who thinks mysticism begins in mist, centers in “I,” and ends in schism.

To which Lewis responds:

Lewis: Actually, I had a different quip up my sleeve: Ronald Knox’s remark about “comparative religion.”

Huxley: What’s that?

Lewis: That it makes you comparatively religious (p. 84).

That kind of stuff is fun and made the book enjoyable to read.  But in the end, I found Kreeft’s dialog disappointing.

In an interview on the very first Mars Hill Audio Journal, Kreeft mentions that C. S. Lewis once tried writing Socratic dialogs, found them difficult, and gave up.  Kreeft thought he would try and the book practically wrote itself.  Having read the book, however, it occurs to me that perhaps the reason Lewis found dialog difficult to write is because it’s too easy to make the characters say what you want them to say instead of what they might really say.

It’s rather like having an argument with your wife or your boss in your own mind, or like Robert Benchley’s essay “Take the Witness!“: In your fantasy arguments, you control the questions people ask and you pretend that they’re convinced by your replies, but in real life, the people may ask questions that embarrass you or find your strongest arguments uncompelling.

In Between Heaven and Hell, Aldous Huxley actually defeats one of Lewis’s arguments.  Lewis is arguing that, in claiming to be “Son of God,” Jesus was affirming that he was himself fully God.  The son of a wolf is a wolf, says Lewis, and the son of an oyster is an oyster.  Therefore, it must follow that the son of God is God.  But, says Huxley, the Bible calls angels and other people “sons of God,” and yet they aren’t themselves God on Lewis’s view.  That’s true.  In fact, the term “son of God” is applied in the Bible to Adam, Israel, and Israel’s king, none of whom are members of the Trinity.

So what does Lewis say in response?  Nothing.  He moves on.  That’s convenient, but it’s not satisfying.  It means that Lewis’s argument has been overthrown, and yet we, as  readers, are not supposed to notice.

Later, Lewis presents a number of verses which, he thinks, establish that Jesus claimed to be God.  But several of the verses don’t make that identification explicit.  For instance, how is “I am the bread of life” a claim to be God?  Lewis never explains.  A bit later, he argues that Jesus said “I am” and “Only I AM can say ‘I am'” (p. 45).  But on the face of it, that sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it?  We say “I am” all the time without identifying ourselves as Yahweh.

So why don’t Kennedy and Huxley go after Lewis when he blunders around like this, in the midst of trying to establish the crucial premise (“Jesus claimed to be God”) of his central argument for following Christ?  The answer appears to be simply that Kreeft didn’t want them to.  Kreeft controls the dialog, and so when Kreeft’s Lewis slips up, even if Kreeft’s Huxley catches it, Kreeft himself can just move the dialog on.

I don’t doubt that the real C. S. Lewis could have written a dialog.  But, unlike Kreeft here, Lewis might have thought that writing a good dialog is too hard precisely because it’s too easy to make your imaginary opponents say and do what you would like them to so that you can get in some good lines in response.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:19 pm | Discuss (0)