Sunday, March 01, 2009

CS Lewis: The idea of a wholly mindless and valueless universe has to be abandoned (De Futilitate, part 3)

Part 1 - Opening our eyes to the futilityPart 2 - Interrogating the futility.
Part 3. Lewis concludes his essay De Futilitate.....

Saying the universe is futile requires us to assume that our thinking, itself in the universe, isn't futile... doing this shows we think there to be some morality and value and reason in the universe. Putting the universe on trial assumes a great deal about us and the universe. We might, however, deny that the universe has a moral purpose because of the "wasteful cruelty and apparent indifference or hostility to life". But says Lewis thats the very thing we can't do! Because "unless we allow ultimate reality to be moral, we cannot morally condemn it".

The good atheist rages defiantly his accusations towards "apparently ruthless and idiotic cosmos is really an unconscious homage" - it's worship of the universe or something behind it that is of infinite value or authority. Because, if  "mercy and justice were really only private whims of his own with no objective and impersonal roots, and if he realized this, he could not go on being indignant."

Lewis suggests that such recognition is perhaps even pleasing to God. He suggests there's something holy about the one who rages in frustration, contending with the futility, not just accepting a cursed and marred and frustrated universe. We're invited to see that we need not just take the futility and certainly not deny it.

Rather we contend with it - and facing it find ourselves having to admit that the universe logically cannot quite so futile as we think. It will take theology to get to the root of futility. This essay isn't written to pursue the theology, but Lewis offers advice to the one who would pursue it. Anyone wanting to inquire can "save himself time by confining his attention to two systems - Hinduism and Christianity. I believe these are the two serious options for an adult mind."
- Materialism is a philosophy for boys. - The purely moral systems like Stoicism and Confucianism are philosophies for aristocrats.
- Islam is only a Christian heresy, and Buddhism a Hindu heresy: both are simplifications inferior to the things simplified.
- As for the old Pagan religions, I think we could say that whatever was of value in them survives either in Hinduism or in Christianity or in both, and there only they are the two systems which have come down, still alive, into the present without leaving the past behind them.
De Futilitate is much harder work to understand than The Funeral of a Great Myth, but the effort is rewarding. Lewis shows us that it would be normal to identify the futility of the universe and to find it abnormal and even contend with it. I find this deeply liberating - The Bible book of Ecclesiastes resonates with my experience of life and its strange to try and paper over that. If we're to accept that the futility is there then we begin to accept that the universe is moral, reasonable and meaningless in some sense, yet not absolutely. This confrontation with the futility we experience leads us into theology, but that's for another day.


  1. I was thinking about this the other day. Functionally atheistic scientists (particularly those in the Dawkins stream) are contradictions aren't they? They invest time, money, effort etc into something that has no ultimate meaning (according to their theology)...?

    Liked the post.

  2. It is the strange contradiction of The God Delusion... if he's right then it figures its good for people to know and have permission to be atheist, but since that is a meaningless way the moral imperative to have told people and to have them live right loses its footing... Dawkins strikes me as a classic Anglican liberal - somehow committed to a moral cause and yet trying to avoid it at every step.