Sunday, December 19, 2010

Good Without Aslan?

One of the latest salvos in the seasonal squabbles between atheists and Christians came as more "good without god" ads have gotten pasted onto the sides of buses in Texas. This is a reprise of ads run last year in London, but given that Texans gets a bit more riled when they think you're messin' with their Jesus, it's been testier.

The default response from certain wings of Christianity when asked if you can be good without God is, of course, no.  Typically, our response has to do with folks not being saved, that nothing good can exist in folks who haven't proclaimed Jesus as Lord and Savior.  Unless you fall at the foot of The Bleedy Bloody Cross All Spattered With Gore (Hymn number 42 in the Really Old Hymnal), you're just S.O.L.  That's Salvation Out of Luck, kids.

More smugly erudite Jesus folks get into the philosophy of it, going back to teleology, ontology, and the purpose of Plato's Euthyphro Dilemma to make the case that without an noncontingent ground, there can be no meaningful definition of the good.  Lord have mercy on me, a smug and erudite sinner.

Whether you get all orthodox with the former, me...tend to obscurely think the latter, things can still get testy and self-righteous.  Which defeats the purpose of the whole Jesus thing.

What strikes me, in this season when yet another Narnia movie has been released, is how far the faith has wandered from the openness to the Good you can find on the green fields of Narnia.  I don't intend to see the latest movie, not in the theatres.  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was passable, even if it leaned too heavily on the CG.  Prince Caspian just plain old bit as a movie.  Portraying Caspian as a smoldering Latin studmuffin was waaaay too much.  And it was appallingly dull, both loud and plodding.

Now the whole franchise has been sold off by Disney, with the rights transferred over to Fox.  The reviews don't make it seem worth my while, particularly given that for the first time, some significant liberties have been taken with C.S. Lewises narrative.  As a Narnian fanboy, I find this annoying.  The point of those liberties is to make it more overtly "faith-oriented," and to fold in even more martial imagery.  Given that Rupert Murdoch now owns the rights to the story, that's no surprise.  So...I'll wait until it's on BluRay.  Or not.  More likely I'll catch it in snippets as I pan through the channels on cable in six months.

In the Narnia books, though, it's clear that C.S. Lewis understood that goodness and overt statements of faith weren't always the same thing.  Narnia is a place far more willing to see the good in folks who might not have an orthodox grasp on Aslan.  Three characters from Narnia typify this attitude.

There is, for instance, the noble-if-a-tick-snooty war charger Bree, the eponymous horse from The Horse and His Boy.  Bree is quite convinced that Aslan the Lion is some sort of metaphor, certainly not a lion, representing some greater truth or reality or person, about which not much can be definitively known.  He'd be quite comfortable in an Episcopalian stable.   He is proven wrong, of course, and ends up feeling like an idiot.  But even in his liberal erudite smugness, he remains firmly and incontrovertably in the camp of the good.

Perhaps there's hope for me yet.

There is the red dwarf Trumpkin, who makes an appearance in Prince Caspian, is referenced in Dawn Treader, and is still kickin' around in The Silver Chair.  In Prince Caspian, Trumpkin is an atheist.  Or an "A-Aslanist."  Or perhaps..because "humanist" doesn't work for dwarves...just plain old "Narnian."  He believes that Aslan is a myth, an old wife's tale, and a superstition.  From his dwarvish practicality, he can see no reason that such a being actually ever existed, and he repeatedly and explicitly says as much.  He is, nonetheless, a strong, hearty, tireless, and cheerful supporter of Narnia.  When Aslan does arrive, Trumpkin gets tossed in the air a bit, but with love.  Even before Trumpkin's tossing, he's one of the good guys.  He's on the right side.

Finally, there is Emeth, the honorable young Calormene Lord from The Last Battle.   Emeth is an infidel, who worships the great and terrible Tash.  Here, Lewis makes his most pointed defense of the existence of the good outside of the bounds of the orthodox "us."  Even though Emeth has his whole life only ever worshipped Tash, his encounter with Aslan does not end up with him being kibble.  Instead, C.S. Lewis tells us that Emeth's noble life, while done in the service of Tash, nonetheless count as a life lived to the honor of Aslan.

As Aslan puts it, "...I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and no service which is not vile can be done to him."   That which is self-evidently good, noble, right and true belongs to God.  Period. Given that that name "Emeth" means "Truth" in Hebrew, Clive Staples is clearly making a point here. 

Despite many conservative Christian's embrace of Lewis for the wonderful, joyous and articulate way he proclaims Christian faith, his is not the stuff of rigid orthodoxy.  Lewis speaks a more gracious truth, one a far sight better than the shrill and closed-hearted literalism that seems to govern this benighted age. 

Ah well.  Even if he's wrong, I can imagine fewer folks I'd rather share a circle in the fundamentalist hell with than C.S. Lewis.


  1. I applaud your agreement with the message of the "good without God" billboard campaign. It's motivation is to contradict the slander that atheism somehow necessitates nihilism and amorality. I also liked the Christmas campaign last year (?) that relevantly said something like "Be good for goodness sake!"

    It would be interesting to talk about your take on Euthyphro. You've alluded to it in previous conversations. From what I gather, your take on it is that the dilemma is false, because God's ethics and goodness are one an the same, therefore neither can precede the other. Thus, God does not derive his ethics from what is good (saving you from an objective independent morality to which God is subject like everyone else). Nor is goodness determined by God's ethics (saving you from the charge the God's ethics are arbitrary). Does that sound about right?

    When I think about this though, this just seems like a semantic papering over the same two objections that tend to keep wrestling beneath the surface. Okay, let's say that God's ethics (G) and Goodness (G) are ontologically identical, such that it's incoherent to ask which precedes the other. It's just G, and G=G.

    But then G still seems to me as though it must be arbitrary, and that worries me. If it just is what it is without reference to any external factor, then there is no way to question any claims about it. "So, wait, why is it good to mutilate the genitals of infants?" "Because God said it, I believe it, end of story." Serious conflicts continually arise as myriad Euthyphros hold forth with utter conviction their competing theories of what God wants (G).

    Very well, you say, let's check our theories of G against the measure of our human capacities for empathy and reason (g), which God, according to his G, has given us. When we do so, how does that make us different from the virtuous pagan, or atheist, or dwarf, who is doing the same, such that Lewis's Lion will surely smile on him?

    By the way, Merry Christmas!

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  3. Wow, what a dick thing to say, Browning. Not the first post, the second. This page left intentionally blank? You harping on the blogger? Wow, what a prick.

    Also, there is no difference between the virtuous pagan, the noble atheist, and the devout Christian. We all look for good. It's all the same. That's basically what Beloved Spear is saying. Good is good, no matter what you believe.

    So stop trying to tear down a good man, Browning. Your posts are pedantic and childish. " Why aren't yoooouuuu an atheist?"

    Because fuck you, that's why. Because it's a choice. It's as annoying as evangelicals running around yelling " Why aren't yoooouuu a Christian?"

    Because fuck them, that's why! Judge not on belief but on good.

  4. You're reading WAAAAAAAAAAAY too much into that second post.

    What happened: I just forgot to request an email notification for any posts to the thread the first time around, and I got tired of going back to check to see if David wanted to reply. (No pressure. Seriously. I just didn't want to miss anything.) So made the second post to correct that oversight on my part, just in case he or someone else ever found occasion to reply.

    Maybe that was slightly mysterious, but frankly I don't see how you can construe that as anything worthy of of profanity-laced tirade, Mr. We-All-Look-For-Good. Apparently, in your world, them's fightin' words. Whatever.

    But also, I think you are wrong on several counts. I think what David via Lewis is saying is that when we "look for good" we are all Christians, whether or not we know it. And I respectfully disagree. As I often do. But I wasn't even disputing that in my comment. I was merely asking him if he wanted to converse further about his take on the Eurhytmics dilemma. "Is it true that sweet dreams are made of these? Or, rather, are these made of sweet dreams?"

    Here's the last thing he said about it to me: "Oh, and if you ever want to go at it over the Euthyphro Dilemma, I'm seriously there. Atheism really shouldn't go anywhere near that little philosophical exploration of the Good, particularly if it grasped what Plato intended it to teach. Again, another time." [March 2010, Beloved Spear, comment on Who's Afraid of the Big Bad God?] Taking him up on that rather direct challenge is hardly outside the bounds of civil discourse between friends. Your post, however...

  5. @ Anonymous: I appreciate your desire to stand up for moi, but peace, eh? Should Frere Browning choose to he can dish out far worse, creative lad that he is. But that does not appear to have been his intent here.

    @ Browning: Actually, I had gotten midway through a reply, which my aging laptop managed to fry when it crashed. Ah well. It did involve also wishing you and yours a Merry Christmas, which made it all the more a loss. Hope it was, by the way.

    I'd get to it now, but work is pressing, and there's miles to go before I preach.

  6. @ David. I did have a Merry Christmas! Hope you have as well.

    And I'm sorry to hear about your laptop!

    Eurhythmics Dilemma on another day then. And perhaps -- now that it's out -- a revisit to noted mycologist Sam Harris's latest tome, The Morel Landscape?

  7. @ Browning: It's on my list to read, and I'm sure we'll have some entertaining opportunities to chat about it.

    Oh, and my thinking on the Euthyphro was laid out in a conversation I had a while ago with an atheist I used to regularly chat with back when I blogged on xanga. I can cut and paste if you'd like, or you can visit it here:

  8. @David.

    Re: Euthyphro. Thanks. I did read the old stuff -- followed the link in the post. My original comment was kind of a follow-up to that. I get what you're saying, I think. But it does not seem to me to really solve the dilemma for reasons I already stated. (Surprise.)

    Summing up: equating God's ethics with morality is a semantic game that seems on the surface to resolve the dilemma. But this resolution, as a practical matter, comes down to a decision in favor of the irrelevance of any claims about God's ethics.

    Any claims made about God's ethics (scriptural, revealed) must be tested against our moral intuitions (or, as you would say, the "Holy spirit"). Otherwise they are arbitrary (everything from dietary restrictions, to circumcisions, to picketing soldier's funerals). Which means that our moral intuitions are really the final deciding factor, which means that belief in God is not required for morality. And this is implied by Lewis's notion as well, even though it assumes the existence of the (fictional) Lion.

  9. @ Browning: And the idea that our moral intuition is the final arbiter of the good...lies another part of the challenge Socrates is putting to Euthyphro. If the final metric of good is our moral intuition, then good is a meaningless term. What is good to Moqtada Al-Sadr's moral intuition and what is good to you and I are very different things.

    What Plato, Lewis...and, from my listening to his talks, Sam Harris...would assert is that what is good is not simply a question of what we believe to be good. Goodness has an empirical and ontological reality, one that is not dependent on the assumptions of culture or individual bias.

    From a theistic perspective, that goodness is viewed as part of the purpose and intent of being. It is not arbitrary, or dependent on the whims and caprice of individual or collective subjectivity.

    Lewis...along with other more thoughtful Christians...looks out to the noble, gracious infidel and sees that they are acting in keeping with the Good that is at the heart of our faith.

  10. You are right. The term "moral intuitions," by itself, is a sloppy way to put it. Our moral intuitions can be mistaken. We can suffer from moral illusions, the same way we suffer from optical illusions, and this is something Harris demonstrates in his book, implying that the ultimate arbiter is not our subjective intuitions, but an objective study of the issues that relies on logic and science.

    But once we clear this up, various arbitrary claims about the ethics of God, or belief in God, become irrelevant again. You are as free as ever to discover what is objectively moral without reference to the supernatural. In that sense, "God's ethics" might just be seen as a metaphor for what is objectively ethical.