Monday, May 27, 2013

C. S. Lewis's Argument from Desire and the Crisis of Meaninglessness

On this rainy day in Chico, I'm working on the third chapter of my upcoming book, C. S. Lewis in Crisis, and this is the opening section of that chapter. Since it's a draft--and thus incompletely articulated--let me know what you think. There's still time to make it better.

Speaking with a friend as I described my work on this book, we mused about dissatisfaction in life. Since we both love books, he recounted an experience of discontent: “You know when you see that title that you just know is going to be perfect.  It’s going to be the next ‘thing.’ You can hardly wait to have it in your hands. So you order it on Amazon and when it arrives it’s just not what you thought it was going to be. It’s an anticlimax. You sit with it for a bit. You wish it were different. And then you remember: no earthly event or thing seems as good as the expectation…. Greg, I think that experience is the basis of Lewis’s argument from desire.” 
      Admittedly, this is a tame example of discontent with the things of this world. And yet this experience of disgruntlement can bubble into a crisis… at least according to C. S. Lewis. If we continue to seek meaning in this world, we will never be satisfied. We will move from one experience, or even thrill, to the next.
      Lewis knew this sense of poignant longing. He described this as the search for joy, which forms the major theme of Surprised by Joy. “Joy” for Lewis represents an intense longing for something more. Sometimes he employed the German term Sehnsucht, which is “longing,” “yearning,” or more broadly, a form of “intensely missing.” Lewis described Sehnsucht as the “inconsolable longing” in the human heart for “we know not what.” In the afterword to the third edition of The Pilgrim’s Regress, he provided examples of what sparked this desire in him particularly. (I cite this as a reminder that Lewis’s imagination was always decidedly literary):
That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.
      Lewis knew personal moments of such intense longing. For example, there was a moment of poignancy that Lewis remembers from his childhood (in what he calls, the “very early days” of childhood). His brother, Warren, and he constructed a toy garden on the lid of a biscuit tin. There beauty led him to Sehnsucht.
That was the first beauty I ever knew. What the real garden had failed to do, the toy garden did. It made me aware of nature—not, indeed, as a storehouse of forms and colors but as something cool, dewy, fresh, exuberant…. As long as I live my imagination of Paradise will retain something of my brother’s toy garden. And every day there were what we called ‘the Green Hills’; that is, the low line of the Castlereagh Hills which we saw from the nursery window. They were not far off but they were, to children, quite unattainable. They taught me longing—Sehnsucht….
I am stuck on this phrase “my imagination of Paradise.” This early experience of joy or Sehnsucht formed what he would later imagine in his books at the fulfillment of life, in other words, Heaven. Later this experience of joy and longing came from a literary source: It occurred when Lewis read his favorite Beatrix Potter book, Squirrel Nutkin. By this own admission—and the content of his autobiographies Surprised by Joy and The Pilgrim’s Regress—Lewis valued these experiences above everything else and spent his early life searching for it. This forms the basis for the apologetic argument from desire.
      But he also realized that joy, by its nature, cannot be fulfilled here. Here, in his childhood, Lewis found an ache for something more. The desire did not last long, but it sent him on a lifelong journey, according to his autobiography. Indeed it was this discontentedness that produced a crisis, which ultimately led him to desire God. Lewis had to resolve this crisis for himself. Is there something beyond this world? The fourth and fifth century BC Greek philosopher Plato had to resolve this crisis too: He did so by asserting the existence of the world of the Forms, beyond all we see in the material world. And in some ways, Lewis loved Plato, probably more for the sense of longing that his philosophy evokes. But Plato gave Lewis philosophical exposition for this longing. To many readers, Lewis never fully resolves the Platonist strains in his thought with Christian belief. But he did resolve that either way his atheistic materialism—as the last argument presents—is incomplete. Once we discover that fact, Lewis argues, we know there is something more.
      Although I will focus on the places where Lewis discursively addresses joy, Lewis also employed his considerable imaginative abilities to depict this longing. The Pilgrim’s Regress makes the case that there is something beyond. He never fully leaves this concern. By the time Lucy goes through the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe about twenty years later, Lewis has used his powerful imagination to depict what this movement to something beyond looks like.
      Some, of course, give up search or consider that the quest is futile. Some base this on scientific insight. Consider Lewis’s phrase in "Is Theology Poetry?": the “meaningless flux of the atoms.” Similarly, Harvard astronomer Margaret Geller believes that it is pointless to mention purpose in our universe: “why should it have a point? What point? It’s just a physical system, what point is there?” And, if the world and thus our place in it, derives its entire meaning from its physicality, then Geller is quite correct.
      Just a few years before Lewis began formulating this argument—first in 1931, in The Pilgrim’s Regress—the famous philosopher Cambridge philosopher Bertrand Russell expressed a similar longing.
The centre of me is always and eternally a terrible pain… a searching for something beyond what the world contains, something transfigured and infinite—the beatific vision, God—I do not find it, I do not think it is to be found—but the love of it is my life… it is the actual spring of life within.
Russell, however, decided there was no solution, except the searching. As C. S. Lewis took on what he describes in Surprised by Joy as the “New Look” with its implicit “realism” and scientific atheism, he struggled to include his longing for something more, a longing that he discovered through his literary studies. Another way to put this—as Lewis himself did—is that rationality found itself in the death throes with romanticism. Lewis discovered a resolution in his Christian faith.
      At this point, I need to be careful. In the full context of Lewis’s work—or “oeuvre,” to sound a little more elevated—the relationship between “joy” and God is curious. Joy in itself, as Lewis defines it, is simply a marker. On the very last page of Surprised by Joy, he says the subject of joy “has lost nearly all interest for me since I became a Christian.” He continues—and I’m adding some italics:
[T]he old stab, the old bittersweet, has come to me as often and as sharply since my conversion as at any time of my life whatever. But I now know that the experience, considered as a state of my own mind, had never had the kind of importance I once gave it. It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer.
The “state of my own mind” fades away in the light of Heaven. Lewis’s subjective experience has the limited value when God’s objective fulfillment arises. It is like a flashlight in the dark when the sun rises.
      This second apologetic, 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.
      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.
      To be a bit more systematic, it is helpful to analyze the argument from desire, this second apologetic. It is an argument that works on two premises:
1.     No natural desire is in vain
2.     There exists in us a longing that nothing on earth satisfies
The conclusion flows from these premises:
3.     Therefore something beyond is calling us through them.
      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, “The Weight of Glory” sermon, the brief but packed chapter “Hope” in Mere Christianity, and finally “Heaven” in the Problem of Pain. I conclude with an evaluation of this apologetic, especially on the question of whether it delivers what it promises.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Notes on C. S. Lewis and Science

As the 50th anniversary of Lewis's death is looming this November (the 22nd, to be exact), and because I'm writing a book on Lewis, C. S. Lewis in Crisis that I'll be finishing this October, I'm musing about an article on the three ways that Lewis faced off against scientific materialism that still resonate today. 
Undoubtedly writing on 1 of these 3 themes

Here they are 
  1. The first one is materialism. The basic question is this: Are we just material stuff, or are we something more? In Miracles, Lewis argued that naturalism is self-defeating, and consequently faced off against the scientific materialism of his day, which seems to be enjoying a sort of resurgence today. (Think Dawkins, Dennett, Pinker.)
  2. The second is meaninglessness, you know, Dawkins's "blind, pitiless indifference" and Weinberg's "pointless" universe: Why do human beings seek something transcendent, something (or Someone) beyond this world? Lewis maintains that we desire God more than anything we can find on earth.
  3. The problem of anomie: Why do we have an innate sense of what’s right and wrong? This is Lewis’s argument from natural law and God as the Lawgiver. (Lewis presented this argument most forcefully in Mere Christianity.) Justin Barrett argues, from neuroscience--against others in his field--that this argument makes a great deal of sense in the ways our brains have evolved.
I have no interest in creating a hagiography of Lewis, but I would like to see in what ways his insight resonate, or need to be reworked, today.

Any comments?

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Katie's Last Wedding (A "Reprint")

I found a blog entry tonight that I penned exactly one year after I performed a wedding on the Today Show in September 2005. For whatever reason (probably because it brought back good memories, perhaps because these were happier days at the Today Show), I decided to repost it.

The introduction by Al Roker defined the moment as unusual. “The wedding will be presided over by the Reverend Greg Cootsona….” Until then, I had tried to ease my jangling nerves that it was just another nuptial in my pastoral life.

You see I wasn’t immediately convinced about performing a Today Show wedding. A friend and producer on the show (whose wedding I had performed in New York City) called, with “an unusual opportunity.” Not sensing Amway in my future, and bolstered by her assessment that I “would be perfect,” I pondered. And balked. But eventually, I accepted the assignment. 
Smiling for the cameras at the reception

Two nights before my introduction by Al Roker, a driver met me at BWI’s baggage claim with a sign and (surprise!) bearing my name. This doesn’t happen often on my way to nuptials in Chico (although I could get used to it). Two days and two cars later, at the 5:15am call for the show (2:15 California time), a stretch limo transported me. As I entered the car, the driver phoned the show saying, “The Reverend is in the car.”

Now out of the car and walking toward the stage in front of the Cheasapeake Bay, I patted the tube of Recapit Cement safely in my pocket. The pressure of such a large audience squeezed out a strange neurosis: that the recently applied veneer on my front tooth covering a discoloration (itself a wedding honorarium from my dentist) would pop out in medias homily. I’m just not sure how I would have applied the bond in front of the TV audience, but such thoughts never occur to the neurotic.

Following the introduction, I walking on the runner set on smooshy grass and recalled the previous day and worries of an impending rainstorm (as a hurricane brewed to the south with Matt Lauer sent to the scene). That day of rehearsals, I had expected diffidence and attitude from the crew. Instead it was also fun and encouragement. On the stage for Trisha Yearwood’s concert following the wedding, I spied a gorgeous drum set (their petrified wood shells unearthed from the depths of Lake Michigan), and asked if I could take it for a ride. The crew encouraged me. After a brief solo, the soundman offered his assessment: “You might have missed your calling.” Perhaps not totally encouraging the day before the Big Event. Speaking of the sound man, the show’s attention to detail astounded me: The multiple camera men, sound techs, and general assistants making everything work flawlessly. That was change for me—I’m happy in church when the mic’s on. (Why can’t we have several professionals making sure the church’s sound works and the lights are on like The Today Show? That’s right. Congregations don’t gross half a billion dollars a year.)

The night before, I was eating pizza and drinking Cokes with the mostly 20something under-producers, pages, or whatever they were, and we discussed my former church, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian (which was in the midst of a scandal so it was pretty interesting). We sat out on the back porch of the Chesapeake Bay Beach Club (in Stevensville, Maryland, by the by), talking about life, about a homosexual brother, about faith, about the show the next day. Behind their words I saw the same ambitious eyes of youth that want to make a mark on the world and maybe to glimpse a bit of fame themselves.

Transported in the stretch limo, I arrived on the wedding set (that’s on odd combination of words) at 5:30 am. (Did I mention that that’s 2:30am California time?) As I walked in along a wooden ramp, I glimpsed some bright lights above the clubhouse. Katie Couric was already working with lights on and cameras rolling. Knowing that she had trained down from Manhattan the night before, it struck me as imminently tiring and a high price for fame.

But no one at the event would have ever know she was tired. Wearing her flip-flops on the set, cracking jokes with the wedding guests on commercial breaks. It was pretty charming. I finally met her for a brief moment, at the reception. Every moment she was mobbed by people, with barely a moment to herself. The price of fame, I suppose. And I asked her, “Could I do the fan-thing and take picture with you?” She was pulled away. And then a moment later, turned back to me, “I’m sorry. What did you ask me?” It was a moment of humanity. (And she hadn’t yet received my gift, a t-shirt from the church.) So I was sold.

Oh yes, how about the wedding? Once it started, the cameras disappeared. (Like a friend and TV producer prepped me: “Just imagine they’re video cams—you’ve seen those before.” Amazingly it worked.) Mark and Sarah were the most focused couple I’ve ever married. They had spent so many hours in front of the camera that they actually looked me in the eye as I talked of passion and commitment in the improvisations of marriage and jazz. Mark, this big, studly guy cried as he vowed his love, and Sarah serenely wiped his tears. (People, I’m told, were also crying from Times Square.)

Afterward, as I rode in the longest of four limos back to airport, I saw the moment fading fast. So I asked the driver to stop at a gas station and bought a San Pellegrino. I looked out from the convenience store and thought, “A stretch for me—that’s pretty cool.” With no more tricks up the sleeve, I begrudgingly headed toward the airport, and soon was in the United gates. I’d never waved goodbye to a limo before. Slowly I was slipping back into obscurity. Off to the plans for that weekend: Monterey Jazz Festival (the last one we attended with her mother before the latter suffered an acute stroke)—in my mind, a pretty sweet consolation prize.

My brother, during a brief sojourn with an Episcopalian church group, edited their newspaper, which he called “The Highly Parishable.” In that spirit: those three minutes and forty-five seconds of fame (and the days surrounding it) were certainly parishable fruit. One realization was, given the seven million or so who would view that day, I would preach to more in those minutes than I probably throughout my lifetime. But the fruit had been picked and was half eaten. My shelf had a few days more: two radio interviews on the Monday I returned. At one point a few weeks later, I was visiting a member in the hospital and someone in the next bed blurted out, “Weren’t you the guy on The Today Show?” It finally got to this: “I saw a little bit of your head in the picture of the wedding in US Magazine.”

Sarah and Mark have thankfully kept in touch as they entered post-TV life. Several months later would reveal that this was Katie’s last Today Show wedding. (Luckily, I grabbed a picture with her at the reception.) I’m doing hospital visitation, numerous church committee meetings, teaching and preaching, and yes, the occasional wedding without, of course, an introduction by Al Roker.