Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Bevesluis on Desire

For today's entry I once more pass the pen to Tekton ministry associate Nick Peters, who has written a critique on John Beversluis' analysis of Lewis' argument from desire. An important caveat is that Nick's critique is directed towards Beversluis' arguments as presented in his time as a Christian (that is, Beversluis') when he wrote the first edition of C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion.

At a later date we'll look at what changes, if any, Beversluis made when he addressed the claims as an atheist, writing for Prometheus Press. It should make for an interesting comparison. For now, here's Nick....


Beversluis has started off with a distinction between God in a more general theistic idea in the thought of Lewis and the specifically Christian God as well. (Pages 5-6) For instance, an argument like the Kalam Cosmological Argument can demonstrate the existence of a deity. Whether this is the god of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or maybe even some unknown god we don’t know, that cannot be established by Kalam. A valid Kalam does not prove that God is a Trinity or that Muhammad is a prophet. General theistic arguments however can be used by any of the three Abrahamic faiths easily.

To know that the Christian God is the true God cannot be a matter that is established by reason alone. The great Christian thinker Thomas Aquinas agreed stating in Question 1, Article 1 of the Prima Pars of the Summa Theologica that:

It was necessary for man's salvation that there should be a knowledge revealed by God besides philosophical science built up by human reason. Firstly, indeed, because man is directed to God, as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason: "The eye hath not seen, O God, besides Thee, what things Thou hast prepared for them that wait for Thee" (Isaiah 64:4). But the end must first be known by men who are to direct their thoughts and actions to the end. Hence it was necessary for the salvation of man that certain truths which exceed human reason should be made known to him by divine revelation.

Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors. Whereas man's whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of this truth. Therefore, in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation. It was therefore necessary that besides philosophical science built up by reason, there should be a sacred science learned through revelation.

What Aquinas is saying is that supposing we did not have special revelation, few of us would get to the truth about God and even then, it would be only truths that could be discovered by reason alone. How hard would it be? Just picture this: How many thinkers can reach the level of someone like Aristotle? That’s how hard. Aquinas does not deny that much can be known via general revelation, but it takes special revelation to know God is the Christian God.

Why do I bring this up? Because Beversluis makes this mistake when he critiques the argument from desire. What is this argument? It is not saying “I want there to be a God, therefore there is a God.” That would be an argument that would be foolish and one Lewis would condemn immediately. The argument from desire goes much deeper.

I want you to imagine a time you have been truly incredibly happy in your emotional state and yet, it was at a time you knew you were lacking something. However, this emotion did not cause you pain. Even though it was unfulfilled, you would love to have that feeling again that you did have. These moments are few and far between for most of us and when we get them, we seek them again only to find we cannot catch them. They seem to jump up on us unaware.

Lewis sees this as a natural desire that we have and probably his best proponent of this is the modern philosopher Peter Kreeft who wrote the book “Heaven: The Heart’s Deepest Longing.” An MP3 and written version of the argument from desire can be found at Kreeft’s web site. (Interestingly, in the audio, he refers to Beversluis’s book as the worst biography he has ever read of C.S. Lewis.)

For instance, on page 18 of Beversluis, he makes the point that Lewis says that since we all have hunger as a natural desire, it demonstrates that we all have food. Beversluis says that this is not so, but I wonder upon what grounds he could say this. Kreeft would ask us to imagine such things as a world of creatures with stomachs and no food or a colony of ants with several Romeos and no Juliets. Even as I try to picture them, the concepts are just bizarre.

Lewis also realizes that for each natural desire that we have, there is a fulfillment of this desire. If we desire food, well there is food. If we desire sleep, then there is rest. If we have thirst, there is drink. We have sexual desire and there is sex. What if I have all these natural desires fulfilled except for one? Could there be a fulfillment for that one?

I believe Beversluis confuses this with an artificial desire such as fear in a graveyard meaning there is something there. The problem is that we are not all born with fears of graveyards nor do all have a fear of death necessarily. A Christian also would not say that fear is natural to man, but rather a result of fallen man for a fallen man would have lived in relationship with God and trust with him.

Beversluis also wants us to wonder how Lewis could know that every natural desire has an object and thus joy has one? The way is quite simple and as Kreeft points out, a first semester logic student could point it out. Ask yourself this question. Barring the return of Christ, do you know that you are doing to die someday? Do you know that all around you are going to die someday? How?

You have not done any scientific tests to prove this, but you have great evidence. Every human before you has died and you are a human, therefore you rightly believe that you will die. (Unless you think for some reason you will be the next one like Enoch or Elijah) This is inductive reasoning. It is perfectly valid to believe this desire has fulfillment because all others do.

Beversluis asks however why Lewis would be so scared to come to God if God was the object of his desire? At this point, I do not believe that it is Beversluis’s theology that is the problem so much as his psychology. Is he going to tell me that he has never wanted something that he has been at the same time frightened of?

All Beversluis needs to do is talk to most any married man about the day of his wedding. I know I barely got any sleep the night before. I was looking forward to what my life would be like, but at the same time, I was also very frightened because of all the inadequacies I saw in myself and still see. Indeed, this is where we get the joke about cold feet coming from.

There is no contradiction in desiring something and being afraid of it at the same time. Most of us can easily think of situations in our lives where that happened. It could be marriage or taking on a new job or moving to a new city or maybe some purely fun endeavor such as skydiving or bungee jumping.

Beversluis wonders why if this is the God of Christianity, why do so many really not will Him? I would answer and I’m sure Lewis would agree, that they do, but they don’t know it. God is goodness, but that is not all that He is. He is justice as well. He is a God who punishes sin. He is a God who is so good He refuses to leave us as we are.

Lewis makes the point in other works such as The Weight of Glory that we are far too easily pleased. The trouble is not that our desires are too strong, but that they are too weak. They are so weak that we settle and we fail to look past them to see what the reality is behind them.

Lewis asks us to imagine a boy who is very young and thinks the greatest thing on Earth is candy. His older brother tells him that sex is a far greater joy. The boy asks if you have candy during sex. The older brother cannot begin to explain that lovers caught in this moment of pleasure do not think of candy because they have something much more enjoyable on their mind. The boy however has the idea of the ultimate good as candy and cannot think of how something can be good that does not include that. For many in our culture of course, sex would be that ultimate good. (In a sense, they are partially right however. See my article on “A Theology of sex” here.)

The reason we do not will God completely is that our wills are too weak. Those of us who are Christians know this to some extent as we constantly chase after things at times we know won’t satisfy and end up not giving God the time that he deserves. We can have our minds easily distracted in a church service. (Of course, it could be the fault of several churches for giving us shallow teaching)

The only reason however anyone can will anything is that they think it is good.

This does not just have to be moral goodness. Imagine for instance waking up in the middle of the night and you wonder if you should get up and go to the bathroom or not. That will be based on one of two ideas. You either think you must relieve yourself lest you not be able to concentrate on anything else, or maybe you can hold it in so as not to risk waking the person you’re sleeping with.

If you’re at the grocery store and you see two items for sale, you can choose to get one of them and if you choose one, you are choosing it because you believe it is a greater good to choose that one. If you do not believe me on this, then I ask you to just watch yourself for the next few days and ask when you make a decision “Why am I doing this?” and see if there is not a good you believe you are pursuing.

Now you might ask “But Nick, what about the holocaust or rapists or murderers?” Each of these are also pursuing something. It is a perceived good. I believe Hitler wanted to perfect the human race. That is a good goal. He just had a bad way of doing it. A rapist can want pleasure and/or power. Neither of those are bad things. He’s just choosing a wicked way. A murderer can want justice. Justice is not bad. He just needs to realize he doesn’t determine who gets it and who doesn’t.

The trouble with wanting some goods in the wrong way is we can want them in an immoderate amount or want them on the wrong terms. Wanting pleasure is good but hedonism that treats pleasure as the highest good is not good. There is no wrong in wanting sex, but wanting sex outside the bounds of matrimony is not good.

So is it true that some people are really running from God? Yes. Why? Because they do not see Him as He is. They believe God wants to keep them from their fun, which are the lesser goods. This is not the case however. God is not anti-pleasure. The joy of the things we enjoy such as food, drink, friendship, beauty, sex, etc. should demonstrate this to us. Any parent should know this as well. The reason you don’t give a child everything he wants is not because you want him to be miserable but you want him to have true happiness.

This is a contrast that all Christians know of. Francis Thompson had it well in “The Hound of Heaven.” One runs in fear from the hound not really realizing that the hound does not wish to harm but to help. That might mean he needs to cut, but that cut will heal. One can think of the man with the lizard on his shoulder in The Great Divorce with the angelic being asking “Can I kill it?” and when finally done, the lizard ends up becoming a beautiful horse.

Beversluis makes it a point that Lewis was a theist before he was a Christian. Yes. He had not found his fulfillment yet. I do not believe we know much about his theistic beliefs prior to becoming a Christian, but we know he found what he was seeking in God. Yes. Beversluis is right that Lewis was a reluctant convert, but then we can think to how many young men are scared before their wedding and see that the two actually go together.

In closing, let us look at one more point. Why do we desire God? Because God is the greatest good that there is. He does not just possess goodness. He is goodness. God is the exemplar cause of goodness in other things. All other goodness is based on his goodness in other words. Nothing else could be good unless there was a God who was goodness first.

The good is that which is desirable for its own sake. That is something found in the object. It is not an idea we impress on it as if having an idea in our minds alone could ever give us a knowledge of reality. Consider the parallel with beauty. I have heard many an atheist say that when you say the sunset is beautiful, you are saying something about how you feel about the sunset. If only they could find one person like that. For me, when I hear someone telling me a sunset is beautiful, they are not describing an emotional state they throw on the sunset, but they think they are describing it itself. (See Lewis’s “The Abolition of Man.”) Just tell the atheist “I am fascinated that you are admitting there is no beauty in your wife but that that is an idea you are throwing on to her” and see how long his subjectivism lasts.

What all desire is really perfection. They desire the best of the best and that is found in God who cannot improve in His being in any way. He is desired, yes. However, like many great desires, He is also feared. Both are essential.

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