Faith or a House of Cards?

I’m down to the last couple of weeks now for my Southeastern University course on C. S. Lewis. I’ve had the students read many of his most revered books and essays. They’ve worked through—with love, I trust—Surprised by Joy, Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, That Hideous Strength, and The Last Battle.

This past week, they read A Grief Observed, Lewis’s most personal little book, a heart cry for the presence of God after suffering the loss of Joy, his wife. I wondered how they would receive it, seeing as how it offers a different side of Lewis—one that’s questioning God’s character and His love before ultimately coming to a resolution that shows how his faith holds in the midst of trial.

They appreciated it deeply, from what I could discern in our discussion of the book.

One might be shaken somewhat by Lewis’s doubts at this time in his life. After all, near the beginning, he complains that when you go to God in desperate need, you find “a door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.”

He then questions the reality of his own faith. The man who has spent his life strengthening the faith of others seems to fall apart in his distress:

You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it?

As a Christian, Lewis admits that he already knew that death comes to all and that sufferings were part of life. “I would have said that I had taken them into account. I had been warned—I had warned myself—not to reckon on worldly happiness. We were even promised sufferings. They were part of the program.”

Yet when hit by the loss of his wife, he was sent reeling and wondering about his faith:

It is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not in imagination. Yes; but should it, for a sane man, make quite such a difference as this? No. . . .

The case is too plain. If my house has collapsed at one blow, that is because it was a house of cards. The faith which “took these things into account” was not faith but imagination.

As Lewis stumbles toward understanding, he sees God as a surgeon with good intentions. Yet those good intentions don’t spare the patient the pain he must endure. “The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably he will go on cutting. If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless.”

Lewis then revisits that bolted door, the one he blamed God for bolting against him.

I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.

I believe the turning point for Lewis came when he realized that he had been focusing on himself—allowing his hurts, his internal angst, his needs—to drive his thinking. The order was him first, Joy second, and God last. “The order and the proportions exactly what they ought not to have been.”

It’s only when we get out of ourselves that we can see clearly once more. As his thoughts turn back to God first, he questions his motives: is he coming back to Him only as a way to reconnect with his wife eventually? Clarity returns with these words:

I know perfectly well that He can’t be used as a road. If you’re approaching Him not as the goal but as a road, not as the end but as a means, you’re not really approaching Him at all.

That’s what was really wrong with all those popular pictures of happy reunions “on the further shore”; not the simple-minded and very earthly images, but the fact that they make an End of what we can get only as a by-product of the true End.

So Lewis returned, and his letters in those final three years of his life attest to his vibrant faith. He walked through the valley of the shadow of death and emerged not with a house of cards, but with that proverbial house built on the Rock.

Onward to a Mature Faith

Elwin Ransom, C. S. Lewis’s protagonist in his Space Trilogy, tells the fictional Lewis in the novel Perelandra that he [Ranson] is about to be transported in a rather mysterious fashion to another planet. The Lewis character asks Ransom if he has any idea what to expect. Is it safe? Will he be able to breathe? What will he eat? Does he have any confidence that he will return?

“If you mean, Does my reason accept the view that he will . . . deliver me safe on the surface of Perelandra?—the answer is Yes,” said Ransom. “If you mean, Do my nerves and my imagination respond to this view?—I’m afraid the answer is No. One can believe in anaesthetics and yet feel in a panic when they actually put the mask over your face. I think I feel as a man who believes in the future life feels when he is taken out to face a firing party. Perhaps it’s good practice.”

We all probably can identify with that feeling. Our minds will tell us one thing—a thing that we believe deeply is true—while our emotions may be screaming at us, urging us not to step out onto that limb of faith. What if we fall?

This coming Wednesday evening, in my class on Mere Christianity, we’ll be covering the chapters that deal with faith. Lewis, from his own personal experience, shares how our moods are so very changeable—yet we cannot allow those moods/emotional episodes to dictate truth. He explains it in his typical relatable style:

Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes. I know that by experience.

Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable.

It’s particularly interesting to me that Lewis confesses even atheists have doubts about their atheism. Don’t we sometimes think that it’s only those of us who have professed the faith who have those doubts? No, doubting is common to all. What is the solution?

This rebellion of your moods against your real self is going to come anyway. That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods “where they get off,” you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion.

When we allow our moods—our emotional ups and downs—to determine what we believe, we are, in effect, telling God we really don’t trust His character: His love for us through Christ; the ultimate Sacrifice He paid; the forgiveness He has offered; the new life He has granted us.

The apostle James tells us,

Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.

I want to persevere. I want to be mature. I seek the kind of faith that sets aside all doubts about God’s goodness and trusts Him implicitly. May that faith grow in us all.

Holding to the Faith

I have a rather large tome called The Timeless Writings of C. S. Lewis, which consists of The Pilgrim’s Regress and two of his essay collections: Christian Reflections and God in the Dock. Prior to my sabbatical back in 2014-15, I had read, over time, all of those essays.

I’m the kind of person who marks up his books, putting stars next to key passages and underlining the most significant sentences, in the hope that I can go back when needed and find the best parts more readily.

As I’ve pored over those essays again, I’m actually quite surprised by how detailed my earlier markings were. I’m also grateful I did that if, for no other reason, I cannot even recall now that I’d ever read some of those essays—they all seem so new to me. I trust that’s not Alzheimer’s.

For instance, one of Lewis’s essays in Christian Reflections, “Religion: Reality or Substitute?” caught my attention this morning as he explains the necessity of holding fast to the faith. Sometimes we question—we waver—but that is the nature of life itself. Lewis experienced that phenomenon not only as a Christian, but even when he had been an atheist.

Just as the Christian has his moments when the clamour of this visible and audible world is so persistent and the whisper of the spiritual world so faint that faith and reason can hardly stick to their guns, so, as I well remember, the atheist too has his moments of shuddering misgiving, of an all but irresistible suspicion that old tales may after all be true, that something or someone from outside may at any moment break into his neat, explicable, mechanical universe.

Believe in God and you will have to face hours when it seems obvious that this material world is the only reality: disbelieve in Him and you must face hours when this material world seems to shout at you that it is not all.

No conviction, religious or irreligious, will, of itself, end once and for all this fifth-columnist in the soul. Only the practice of Faith resulting in the habit of Faith will gradually do that.

Even though Lewis was quite strong in his apologetic writings, he acknowledges that pure reason and/or argument is not what normally leads a person into or out of faith. “It is always assumed,” he opines, “that the difficulties of faith are intellectual difficulties, that a man who has once accepted a certain proposition will automatically go on believing it till real grounds for disbelief occurs. Nothing,” he counters, “could be more superficial.” Then he offers an example from his own environment.

How many of the freshmen who come up to Oxford from religious homes and lose their Christianity in the first year have been honestly argued out of it? How many of our own sudden temporary losses of faith have a rational basis which would stand examination for a moment?

I don’t know how it is with others, but I find that mere change of scene always has a tendency to decrease my faith at first—God is less credible when I pray in a hotel bedroom than when I am in college.

It isn’t, at bottom, a conflict between faith and reason, Lewis concludes. It’s more of a conflict between faith and sight—what we see around us at a particular moment. Reason may be divine, he reasons, but “human reasoners are not.”

The sort of arguments against Christianity which our reason can be persuaded to accept at the moment of yielding to temptation are often preposterous. Reason may win truths; without Faith she will retain them just so long as Satan pleases.

We need to pray for that gift of continuing faith, Lewis urges, “for the power to go on believing not in the teeth of reason but in the teeth of lust and terror and jealousy and boredom and indifference.”

He ends the essay with a question/warning about what might really be going on inside us when we waver in faith:

And the answer to that prayer will, perhaps, surprise us when it comes. For I am not sure, after all, whether one of the causes of our weak faith is not a secret wish that our faith should not be very strong. Is there some reservation in our minds? Some fear of what it might be like if our religion became quite real?

I hope not. God help us all, and forgive us.

Prophet? Priest? Both?

As a Christian, what am I supposed to be when commenting on politics? Am I to be the prophetic voice, warning against the dangers of voting wrongly and following wrong policies? Am I to be the compassionate voice that draws people to God by staying away from controversy?

Is it possible to be so prophetic in one’s approach that people are turned away from the truth? Likewise, is it possible to be so open and compassionate toward those with differing views that you never lead them to the truth, for fear of offending?

For those of us who believe that the Lord is the be-all and end-all of life, that nothing is more important than a relationship with Him, it may appear unseemly at times to get embroiled in the criticisms of the political scene. After all, isn’t this life just a temporary waystation on the way to eternity?

Yet God has put us in this world to make a difference while we are here. What we do–and how we do it–will influence the future of this nation as well as the eternal destiny of individuals. And there can be a link between the two. In a nation that honors God and follows His principles, there is liberty to teach His ways openly to all. If that nation instead passes laws that shut down those who teach the Gospel truths, more people will remain lost in spiritual darkness.

How do we combine the prophetic role with the priestly one? I look at the example of Jesus, who welcomed all who came to Him, whether prostitutes or Pharisees. Yet He was direct and harsh at times with those who set themselves up against the ways of God. He called some Pharisees whitewashed tombs, pretty on the outside, but full of dead men’s bones within. He did turn over the moneychangers’ tables in the Temple.

We can speak forcefully and directly. Being a Christian does not mean you have lost a backbone; in fact, it means you have finally found one. Yet we are always admonished to speak the truth in love. Notice both parts of that: we are to be loving in everything we say, but we speak the truth simultaneously. And that truth can be pointed and contain dire warnings. We must continually check our hearts to be sure we have the proper attitude. This portion of Psalm 51 jumps out at me today:

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your presence and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of Your salvation and sustain me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners will be converted to You.

The New Paganism & the Christian Response

American Christians have had it pretty easy for the past few centuries. Whether or not the majority of the population was actually Christian at any time (only God knows for sure), the society, as a whole, always recognized the value of Christian belief and held a certain degree of respect for it.

Even during the debate over slavery that led to the Civil War, both sides were claiming to be following Scripture and used the Bible to argue their points.

That appeal to Scriptural authority no longer appears to be operative in the mainstream of American culture. The disdain for and rejection of Christian morality has now come to the forefront. It is most painfully obvious in the militaristic (I use that term advisedly) agenda that attempts to force everyone to embrace homosexuality as normal and legitimate.

I was teaching a Bible study last week where I used a passage from the Old Testament prophet Hosea, chapter 4, as he chastised his people for their faithlessness, and I believe it speaks to what we’re experiencing now:

Hear the word of the Lord, you Israelites, because the Lord has a charge to bring against you who live in the land: “There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land. . . .”

My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge. “Because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you as my priests; because you have ignored the law of your God, I also will ignore your children.”

That last line is not God being callous; rather, it’s simply pointing out that the faithlessness of the people has led to no real knowledge of Him, with the consequences naturally falling on the next generation.

The sins of the fathers definitely do reverberate through the generations. As I look at America as a historian, I can see the beginnings—the first generations—where knowledge of God was pervasive in the culture. Then I survey what has happened since. Here’s how I explain it:

  • First Generation: The nation began with vision and zeal based on Christian faith, whether we are referring to the early settlers or the Founders who fought for independence and set up the government.
  • Second Generation: The knowledge of God and the true faith continued in the society, but that initial vision and zeal began to abate. America still believed that Christianity was the bedrock of the culture, but the heart was not the same—head knowledge, not as much from the heart. When did this occur? I place it as starting after the Civil War with the introduction of new philosophies like evolution and new movements like progressivism.
  • Third Generation: This is when the true knowledge of the faith began to diminish and society operated primarily on the tradition that had been handed down. We continued to think certain things were moral and others were immoral, but we lost our rationale for why that was so. We stopped explaining morality from a Biblical foundation and just declared that some things were right and others were wrong. We had “Biblical memories” without Biblical knowledge.
  • Fourth Generation: As things progressed (regressed?), we then began to toss aside even the traditions that kept a certain morality in place. We lost our moorings and constructed different foundations with an entirely new concept of right and wrong.

That Fourth Generation is what we are now entering with a vengeance. “Who says that abortion and homosexuality are wrong? Sin? What an outmoded term. Those who continue to harbor those old ideas are narrow, bigoted, and need to be coerced into accepting our new enlightened age that rejects those silly restrictions.”

Yes, we’ve come a long way.

Many Christians are shocked by what they see developing. We have to fight for civic rights that we once thought inviolable. Businesses run by Christians are under attack for not bowing to the New Enlightenment.

Is there a Fifth Generation coming? If so, what will it be? Are we going to get even further from God’s truth in the next generation, or will there perhaps be a backlash as the consequences of accepting immorality as normal become more evident?

Like you, I would prefer a society that respects Christian faith. However, we need to see this time of spiritual stress also as an opportunity. As those who enter into the New Paganism (which is the more correct description) begin to suffer for it, we need to be ready to offer the hand of healing and direction back to Biblical truth.

Are we ready to do that? Rather than spending our time bemoaning the loss of what once was, are we willing to follow our Lord into this new field of harvest for Him?

A Witness, Not a Testimony

The most fascinating autobiography of the 20th century was Whittaker Chambers’s Witness. I’ve re-read it numerous times, particularly in tandem with the course I teach on him and his writings.

Why did Chambers decide to call his book Witness? His testimony before HUAC was an accounting of what he knew about the underground—but that is all a testimony is. It tells what happened; it provides facts. Chambers saw what he was doing as something more, something deeper. A witness is someone who goes beyond simply providing testimony. He describes it in this way:

A witness, in the sense that I am using the word, is a man whose life and faith are so completely one that when the challenge comes to step out and testify for his faith, he does so, disregarding all risks, accepting all consequences.

With his mouth, a man testifies; with his life, he makes a witness.

The opening section of Witness was slightly unorthodox, but that kind of thing could be expected from Chambers. He chose to begin with his own foreword that he called “A Letter to My Children.” Family was the highest priority for him. That was why he bought Pipe Creek Farm. It was why he sought to shield his children from everything connected to his past for as long as possible. The Hiss Case changed that; now he wanted to leave them a personal witness as a prelude to the rest of the book.

His Time associate Craig Thompson had seen him the day after his first testimony before HUAC. ‘“Boy,’ I said, ‘you’ve sure dropped an A-bomb this time.’ For once he couldn’t even grin. ‘Yes,’ he said heavily, ‘And now I’m going home to see what my children think of me.’” His “Letter” was intended as a guidepost for them:

My children, as long as you live, the shadow of the Hiss Case will brush you. In every pair of eyes that rests on you, you will see pass, like a cloud passing behind a woods in winter, the memory of your father—dissembled in friendly eyes, lurking in unfriendly eyes.

Sometimes you will wonder which is harder to bear: friendly forgiveness or forthright hate. In time, therefore, when the sum of your experience of life gives you authority, you will ask yourselves the question: What was my father?

I will give you an answer: I was a witness.

The foreword is powerful as a concise essay on what to expect in the rest of the book: the two irreconcilable faiths; the commitment of the communists to their cause; the communist vision of man without God; the proper way to break with communism; the need for the West to renew its faith in God or be destroyed.

“There has never been a society or a nation without God,” Chambers instructed. “But history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that became indifferent to God and died.” The “Letter” ends with a highly personal passage:

My children, when you were little, we used sometimes to go for walks in our pine woods. In the open fields, you would run along by yourselves. But you used instinctively to give me your hands as we entered those woods, where it was darker, lonelier, and in the stillness our voices sounded loud and frightening.

In this book I am again giving you my hands. I am leading you, not through cool pine woods, but up and up a narrow defile between bare and steep rocks from which in shadow things uncoil and slither away. It will be dark. But, in the end, if I have led you aright, you will make out three crosses, from two of which hang thieves. I will have brought you to Golgotha—the place of skulls.

This is the meaning of the journey. Before you understand, I may not be there, my hands may have slipped from yours. It will not matter. For when you understand what you see, you will no longer be children. You will know that life is pain, that each of us hangs always upon the cross of himself. And when you know that this is true of every man, woman and child on earth, you will be wise.

I was deeply moved by the elegance of the writing the first time I read Witness. That emotional connection with the book has never left me. It’s why I want to introduce students to it. I want them to grasp—as a generation seemingly removed from the grip of the Cold War and the threat of communism—the eternal truths Chambers enunciates.

Just because the outward expression of the conflict, the Cold War, has ended, that doesn’t mean the conflict is over. It’s never over, precisely because the conflict is not simply between two political or economic systems; rather, it’s the age-old conflict of faith in God vs. faith in man. That one never ends.

I highly recommend reading Chambers’s Witness. You also can get a significant part of it in my book, The Witness and the President: Whittaker Chambers, Ronald Reagan, and the Future of Freedom, from which this excerpt is taken.

Faith in God or Faith in Man?

Where does our faith reside as a nation? Simply putting “In God We Trust” on coins doesn’t really mean that we trust in God, does it? The god of America currently might be no more than a benevolent grandfather who isn’t really all that upset with what’s happening and who certainly wouldn’t want to damage anyone’s self-esteem.

However, that’s not the God of Scripture.

In my book on Ronald Reagan and Whittaker Chambers, I try to deal with the views of both men with respect to America’s spiritual perceptions and with the future of Western Civilization. Reagan and Chambers differed in their predictions for the future. What can we learn from both? Let me share some excerpts from the book:

Whittaker Chambers had no doubts with regard to the evil that resides within man. His affinity for writers and thinkers such as Dostoevsky and Niebuhr, and his own experiences in his dysfunctional upbringing, within the communist underground, at Time, and throughout the duress of the Hiss case, leave little room for debate on that point of doctrine.

Reagan, meanwhile, seemed to hold contradictory views with respect to the nature of man. As he himself noted, he tended to see the good in people. At the same time, he recognized evil in individuals and empires alike; most of his life after Hollywood was spent trying to expose and overthrow what he believed was an evil system.

Chambers helped balance Reagan’s natural tendency to see primarily the good. Witness provided Reagan with a sobering reality. He said that Witness helped him learn the bitter truth “of that great socialist revolution which in the name of liberalism has been inching its icecap over the nation for two decades.”

My book is an examination of the quintessential Reagan optimism balanced by the sometimes bleak pessimism of Chambers. Yet both built their worldview on the same cornerstone of spiritual reality:

Reagan’s optimism was based on his Christian understanding of redemption. He had experienced his own personal redemption, he spoke of Chambers’s redemption from his former life, and he fervently asserted that God was poised to redeem the world from totalitarian communism.

Chambers, from the same basic Christian worldview, could not express that degree of optimism. He believed, as Reagan did, that God redeems individuals, but had a much more pessimistic view of that redemption rippling throughout society. Chambers’s perspective can be likened to the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, who foretold disaster for ancient Judah because of its apostasy while simultaneously calling the people to repentance.

Reagan and Chambers held to the same faith, the same basics truths about life, yet they differed in their predictions of the future of freedom.

Shortly after Reagan left office, the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union disintegrated. Did this mean that the communist threat was no more? One of Chambers’s closest friends commented as follows:

Ralph de Toledano noted that when the “evil empire” collapsed, people asked him: “Would Whittaker Chambers still believe that he had left the winning side for the losing side?” He replied that Chambers, long before the collapse, had already seen “that the struggle was no longer between Communism and Western civilization, but one in which Western civilization was destroying itself by betraying its heritage.”

In essence, “Communism had triumphed, not in its Marxist tenet but in its concept of man—a concept which the West has accepted.” It goes back to Chambers’s insistence that there are two faiths and the West must make a decision: God or man?

One quote from Chambers’s classic Witness is a fitting ending for today:

God alone is the inciter and guarantor of freedom. He is the only guarantor. External freedom is only an aspect of interior freedom. Political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible. Religion and freedom are indivisible. Without freedom the soul dies. Without the soul there is no justification for freedom. …

… There has never been a society or a nation without God. But history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that became indifferent to God, and died.

Is America still open to Biblical truth? The jury is still out, in my view, but if you were to ask in which direction I lean, I would have to say that Chambers seems closer to the truth right now. We have made ourselves deaf, dumb, and blind to all the warnings God has sent us. Only a genuine reformation of thinking and practice can restore what we have lost.