During the Second World War, C. S. Lewis, at the invitation of Dr Henry Tizard, President of Magdalen College, Oxford, gave an address to that same college entitled De Futilitate. In this address he engages with the growing sense of futility felt by those living under the shadow of the war, and after establishing some grounds for a belief that life in all times and places can feel futile, sometimes unbearably so (making the picture as dark as possible basically) he then, in typical Lewis fashion, begins to use the assumptions behind this feeling of futility to ask what grounds we may have for criticising anything at all – i.e.; if all life is indeed purposeless and irrational, why trust our judgements at all?
I shan’t rehearse the ins and outs of his analysis here – it is, in an adumbrated form, very similar to his argument against Naturalism in Miracles. The aspect of De Futilitate I would like to focus on here is what follows – in the address he continues his analysis by asking what value our moral judgements can have in a meaningless, random and indifferent world, and in doing so produces an argument for God’s existence that I find to be extremely reassuring in times of distress or lack of faith:
‘If a Brute and Blackguard made the world, then he also made our minds. If he made our minds, he also made that very standard in them whereby we judge him to be a Brute and Blackguard. And how can we trust a standard which comes from such a brutal and blackguardly source? If we reject him, we ought also to reject all his works. But one of his works is this very moral standard by which we reject him. If we accept this standard then we are implying that he is not a Brute and Blackguard. If we reject it, then we have thrown away the only instrument by which we can condemn him. Heroic anti-theism thus has a contradiction in its centre. You must trust the universe in one respect even in order to condemn it in every other…The defiance of the good atheist hurled at an apparently ruthless and idiotic cosmos is really an unconscious homage to something in or behind that cosmos which he recognises as infinitely valuable and authoritative: for if mercy and justice were really only private whims of his own with no objective and impersonal roots, and if he realised this, he could not go on being indignant. The fact that he arraigns heaven itself for disregarding them means that at some level of his mind he knows they are enthroned in a higher heaven still.’
taken from Christian Reflections (1981), pp.91-2 and 95, Fount Paperbacks.
Lewis first developed this argument via a paper presented to the Philosophical Society at Oxford in January 1924 (see All My Road Before Me: The Diary of C. S. Lewis, 1922-1927) and referred to it there as the ‘Promethean Fallacy in Ethics’. He would also return to it at a time of deep personal suffering, recounted in A Grief Observed, and I too find that during times when I am undergoing a ‘dark patch’ and am angry at God – for all intents and purposes the ‘good atheist’ mentioned in the passage above – when I am finding that the world looks very futile and uncaring indeed, this argument has great practical use. I find that time and again, it is the best means I have for recalling myself to my senses when the idea of a good, let alone loving, God, seems a million miles away.
In these moments, Lewis’ argument helps me to see both the absurdity of simultaneously railing against God and questioning His existence, and of the great cost involved in a proper rejection of Him, the source of and grounds for all the articulations of goodness and justice we have. From this I am then eventually able to remember who God really is – One who has gone to the utmost depths of our experience and suffered with us, who accepted and endured the greatest possible price to display to us His boundless, ceaseless love. Contemplating the suffering humanity of Jesus Christ is, as Pope Francis has said recently, the only way to give us strength when striving to live the Christian life, as well as (I would add) in decisively confronting feelings of desolation. But sometimes it is hard to get to the foot of the cross from where we are in life, and in my own darkest moments, I have found C. S. Lewis’ ‘Promethean Fallacy’ a strong anchor and a light to lead me back home.