Here's the second half of my current draft on C. S. Lewis's argument from desire. Let me know what you think.
C. S. Lewis’s argument from desire is simple, yet potent because I have found this discontentment with the world and the desire for something beyond it to be well-nigh universal: We have a desire for something that cannot be satisfied by this world. But our hunger demonstrates that we need something beyond this world.
|Lewis, likely talking about the argument from desire|
Imbedded in his comments on the theological virtue of hope, Lewis writes this:
Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find within myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.
This citation is embedded in Mere Christianity’s section on our hope for Heaven to which I return below. But it is worth noting from the outset, that joy and hope are pointers to God’s fulfillment.
In order to grasp the progression of this argument, I will first outline that desire—and thus pleasure—can be trusted as a good. Then I will fill out more fully the three principal places that Lewis addresses the argument from desire. I conclude with an evaluation of this apologetic, especially on the question of whether it delivers what it promises.
Pleasure comes from God
Before we see how Lewis unfolded this apologetic argument, we must grasp what is implicit: for Lewis pleasure is ultimately good because it ushers from a God who loves to give good gifts. This may strike us as contradictory because almost every use of pleasure we see is against Christian faith. Either Christian moralists warn us about money, sex, and power as things that lure us away from God, or secular culture presents the argument that all the best things are sinful.
Lewis moves in an entirely different direction. Lewis is drawing on an older tradition, which he does so effortlessly that the reader might miss how much scholarship lies in the background of his satirical wit in the citation below. (Lewis always carries his considerable scholarship lightly.) At any rate, this older tradition tells us that God is the ultimate good. The first chapter of the book of James (1:17) enunciates the connection between goodness and God quite clearly: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” Similarly, God is the source of beauty because God is beautiful, “And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us” (Psalm 90:17). “From Zion, perfect in beauty, God shines forth” (Psalm 50:2). And beauty gives us pleasure. Therefore to know God is to experience what is best and what is most pleasurable. Lewis sets this best in the mouth of the tempter, Screwtape, as he talks about his adversary, God:
He’s a hedonist at heart. All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a façade. Or only like foam on the sea shore. Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it; at His right hand are “pleasures for evermore.” Ugh! I don't think He has the least inkling of that high and austere mystery to which we rise in the Miserific Vision. He's vulgar, Wormwood. He has a bourgeois mind. He has filled His world full of pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without His minding in the least—sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working, Everything has to be twisted before it's any use to us. We fight under cruel disadvantages. Nothing is naturally on our side.
Implicit in that word twisted is Lewis’s understanding of evil as a privation—that only good exists, and that evil is parasitic on good. As Screwtape puts it: “Everything has to be twisted before it’s any use to us.”
For that reason, Lewis can argue that God can be food as we seek true pleasure, and the truest pleasure of all, God Himself, or glory. This, in the famous triad of Platonic transcendentals, Good, True, and Beautiful, is an apologetic for the Beautiful. And beauty lures us. It is what we desire. It is what makes truth interesting. In some ways, beauty—as a synonym for joy—constitutes the goal of human life. As he phrases this in his magnificent sermon, “The Weight of Glory” at Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, on 8 June 1942:
We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else that 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.
This desire for beauty leads to our feeling an emptiness.
Desire leads to glory
As Lewis preaches his sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” to a crowded congregation of Oxford undergraduates, he describes his own discovery: At first he was shocked to find that great Christian writers as different as Milton, Johnson, and Aquinas depicted heavenly glory as approval by God. Lewis had rejected this previously as simplistic, but when he took in this connection, he also resolved the relation between desire and glory:
If I had rejected the authoritative and scriptural image of glory and stuck obstinately to the vague desire which was, at the outset, my only pointer to heaven, I could see no connection at all between that desire and the Christian promise. But now, having followed up what seemed puzzling and repellent in the sacred books, I find, to my great surprise, looking back, that connection is perfectly clear. Glory, as Christianity teaches me to hope for it, turns out to satisfy my original desire and indeed to reveal an element in that desire which I had not noticed…. welcome into the heart of all things. The door on which we had been knocking all our lives will open at last.
This longing for something greater leads us to desire its consummation. In his sermon “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis argues that joy leads us to glory. “The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last.” And “No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.” Our yearning for something more will be satisfied by God’s promise of heaven.
Conversely, to reject joy is to live in hell, as the Dwarf Ghost does in The Great Divorce even when beckoned toward the joy of heaven by his wife on earth, Sara Smith, who could “awaken all dead things of the universe into life” with her unmitigated joy. I will have more to say on heaven as the fulfillment of human life in chapter nine; for now I am emphasizing the way this leads us to God. It is in fact the direction this argument takes us.
Evaluation: The connection of crisis
I offer myself as Exhibit A for engaging with this crisis. As I searched for meaning in the first year of college, I knew at some level that there had to be more. There had to be something beyond this material world. In Lewis I met a fellow discoverer.
This apologetic certainly worked for me, but does this it work generally? Not if we believe this is a logical, deductive argument. And sadly, I have often heard Lewis presented as one more logical, evidentialist apologist. This is simply not his approach. Instead, his apologetics are better seen this way: When Lewis described what he was doing with Narnia, he steadfastly denied that these stories were allegories, where each particular element had an exact meaning. Here I’m thinking of Lewis’s own The Pilgrim’s Regress, but even more of John Bunyan’s landmark The Pilgrim’s Progress, where the Pilgrim, Christian, meets the Slough of Despair, which is not surprisingly about facing despair in the Christian life. Or Lewis points to the giant who represents despair:
If Aslan represented the immaterial Deity in the same way in which Giant Despair represents Despair, he would be an allegorical figure. In reality however he is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, “What might Christ become like if there were a world like Narnia and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours. So in “Perelandra.” This works out a supposition. (“Suppose, even now, in some other planet there were a first couple undergoing the same that Adam and Eve underwent here, but successfully.”
Lewis is drawing then a supposition, not an allegory or deductively logical argument. Indeed, as the citation above suggests, it is based on imagination. If it is an apologetic argument, it is an imaginative one. And I believe that makes it more powerful because it “baptizes” our imagination, just as George MacDonald’s Phantastes baptized Lewis’s imagination in February 1916.
Does this apologetic work? It works for Lewis because of his formidable imagination. In many ways, this is a literary more than philosophical argument. It is important here to recall his preaching in that University chapel:
In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each of you—the secret that hurts to much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolesence….
This task—to open up our latent desire for something more than this world has to offer—is one I took up with a worship team in which we started with that beautiful Harold Arlen tune with lyrics by E. Y. Harburg from the playbook of American movies, Somewhere Over the Rainbow:
Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream,
Really do come true.
We played the song to remind our congregation that Lewis was right: we desire heaven almost as naturally as we breathe. It doesn’t even take Scripture to evoke those thoughts. They lie close.