C. S. Lewis’ reassuring argument for the existence of God

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.

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15 thoughts on “C. S. Lewis’ reassuring argument for the existence of God

  1. Pingback: The Anima Christi: Divine strength for hard times | Journey Towards Easter

  2. Pingback: John Henry Newman: Atheism or The Fall – the choice that lies before us | Journey Towards Easter

  3. This article that I hadn’t see before (it was on your blog as ‘related’ to your one today) is deeply moving. Moments of “darkness” hit everyone at some point(s) in their life, as even the great saints like St. Therese of Lisieux, St. John of the Cross and Mother Teresa of Calcutta discovered. It is the Devil’s greatest weapon he uses to destroy us; we must not let this happen.

    When our faith is tested, a humble clinging to the cross as we continue to pray and remain constant to our Christian duty, should eventually see us through. However, as you point out, it is also necessary to use our God-given REASON too (^), so that combined with the virtue of ‘faith’ (that appears to have vanished in these moments of the ‘dark night of the soul’) we can open our eyes to the Truth: God is; God exists; God loves us… and nothing in the world will separate us from the One Who is Love.

    • Thank you for your comments Kathleen!

      I am glad you came across this post, as Lewis’ argument here has proved very helpful to me personally in the past. As you say, for the most part placing ourselves before the Cross in prayer is the means to get us through these dark moments (which, as you point out, were the experience of many great saints, who managed to use these moments to grow even closer to God), but there are times when everything can feel just a bit too bleak, and I have found Lewis’ line of reasoning here very helpful, as it serves as a good reminder what we lose into the bargain if we reject God.

      I also think that this is a good means of getting non-believers, whose main reason for rejecting God is some kind of protest against the injustices of the world, to see what the cost of their atheism is – i.e.; by rejecting God in the name of justice, they reject the source of all Justice Himself. It doesn’t always convince (c.f.; Toad for a good recent example of this!) but is a good means of getting people to think about who God is and where their ideas of justice, right and wrong, etc, come from.

      But the main thing is that, as you also point out, once this basic premise (that God is the source of all Good) is accepted, it should then act as a stepping stone to embracing what we know from revelation – that God is Love, and is so eternally. Once we embrace this, the ‘Promethean Fallacy’ continues to be useful as a back-up for extreme situations, but it is the Cross of Christ, where the Love of God is displayed most supremely, which is our firm anchor day to day.

      • Yes Michael, Lewis’ insightful line of reasoning is indeed very helpful – and so is your interpretation of his (sometimes) rather old-fashioned language. 🙂
        Yet he makes some irrefutable points.

        Suffering, and the world’s injustices, do certainly appear to be the most common ‘tools’ atheists use in this day and age to ‘disprove’ the existence of a loving Creator. Through revelation we have been given such a solid and reasonable Judeo-Christian explanation (i.e., God’s perfect Creation, Man made in God’s Image and Likeness, Free Will, the Fall, Original Sin, etc,) making such good sense as to how and why suffering came into the world, but there will always be those who simply choose ‘not to see’. By using their well-worn argument and refusing to acknowledge Man as the predominant undoer of God’s perfect world, they do not realise they are ‘biting off their nose to spite their face’ – in a manner of speaking. IOW, the meaninglessness and futility of their vision of the world comes back to accuse them: that to even ask such questions must therefore be futile!

        (Am I making sense? Toad would definitely not think so! 😉 )

        • Yes, I certainly see what you mean. Toad may well not, you are right there, but I am starting to wonder if he can be appealed to with reason at all, or whether his defences are built too high and too well planted! 🙂

          I think the key phrase here is when you say that there will always be those who ‘simply choose not to see’. I made the mistake today of commenting on an atheist response to an article that had been written about Dawkin’s recent comments about Down’s Syndrome, and found the same old wilful misunderstandings of what I thought were pretty clear objections to his points (accompanied by another commenter who produced some frankly quite bizarre objections, and presented the most extreme case of moral relativism I’ve ever seen, right after saying that it was ‘wrong’ to abort children because of their sex – she didn’t happen to mind other ‘reasons’ for abortion incidentally!). I don’t mind atheists disagreeing with me, and in fact would be amazed if they were to do a sudden about-face just because of something I wrote, but what gets me is the reluctance to even engage with what I’ve actually written or to (seemingly) deliberately misunderstand clear statements and arguments. I’m coming to the conclusion more and more that the majority of atheists just don’t want to engage critically with what is said by theists (particularly Christians, and even more particularly Catholics), and so prefer to misrepresent or get the wrong end of the stick of what is said, because deep down, they see the force of our conclusions, and want to hide themselves from the Truth. At the end of the day, no matter how many objections are presented, the real reason for unbelief is the same as it ever was – a preferring of the will of the individual over the will of God – and atheists/agnostics (generally speaking) do not want to see that, so they choose ‘not to see.’

          • Michael, that is so true. You have really hit the nail on the head explaining why atheists (and even agnostics, who tend to be rather less bellicose) just do not, or CAN NOT, engage with calm reason against the well set out arguments of believers, especially Catholics. (And I have my theories as to why they hate the Catholic Church above all others… but that will be left for another day. 😉 )

            Like Toad, they might follow you down the line for a while, only to suddenly balk at the ‘gates’, when they realise that all their former ideas are being held up for what they truly are i.e. arguments made of straw men!! The obvious about-turn their whole lives would have to take were they to follow the reasoning to its conclusions, is something not many are willing to do. This is why the non-believers who do courageously take that giant final step always have such amazing and fascinating conversion stories to tell.

            God – “Who will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4) will pour abundant blessings on all those who humble themselves sufficiently to be open to His grace working in their souls.

            • Very much agree with all the above! Re the reason the Church is hated more than all others, I personally think it is because deep down everyone knows that it doesn’t represent just some truths, but the Truth, and also that, at the end of the day, is the only institution that will not be able to be conformed to whatever worldly ideas happen to be in vogue. Basically I think the Church is hated for the same reason people hated Christ, because ‘every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed’ (John 3:20). This verse sums up a lot of what we’ve just been talking about actually!

              I am reminded now of something that Evelyn Waugh said about his conversion, that when he realised God really did exist, and that He had fully revealed Himself in Christ, that it was obvious for anyone to see that the Catholic Church was the true Church, and so once one decided to become a Christian, one must also decide to become a Catholic. A lot of blinkers are put on to avoid this fact, but I think this is as plain to see now as it was in Waugh’s time!

              • Exactly! That is the very reason the Catholic Church is hated by so many (sadly, even by other Christian churches sometimes) for She is the only one standing up for those Eternal Truths symbolised in those ‘keys’ Our Blessed Lord passed on to Her alone through Peter and his successors.

                That is not to say that all Catholics have always been worthy witnesses of that Truth… but then back we would have to go with distinguishing between the HOLINESS of the Church and the SINFULNESS of her members. (Even the great saints stumbled sometimes!) But the true Bride of Christ has never altered, diluted, or (worst of all) denied any of her Teachings on Doctrine and Dogma no matter how strong the world’s secular pressure has been for her to do so.
                But we should not be surprised by any of these attacks on the Church – including the scandalous amount of misinformation that roams around about her – for it is in the Book of the Apocalypse that this would be so till the end of time when the ‘Woman’ will crush the head of the ‘Serpent’.

                Those words of Evelyn Waugh are so pertinent to what we were saying above. It is also what comes over time and again on those “Journey Home” programmes on EWTN… and other ‘testimonies’ you have told me about. But as we have also mentioned before, it takes a big dose of humility to recognise one’s previous mistaken beliefs and embrace fully the Truth of Catholicism. Humility is a virtue in short supply in our western society these days! 😉
                Besides, not all the Church’s teachings are easy and straightforward, but if Our Blessed Lord Himself never watered down the Truth to His Apostles and Disciples, in spite of some leaving His side: “This is a hard teaching” they said, we cannot do so either. Though some teachings might slow up some would-be converts, with patience, prayer and God’s grace, they will see the shining light of the truth in them in the end. 🙂

                • Absolutely agreed 🙂 Like you say, Our Lord did not water down the Truth, so why should we expect His Church to do so? Part of the problem here is that the Reformation had such a huge influence on Western culture in general, not just on Christianity, and has left a legacy of schism in many areas. There are the splits between faith and reason, and between nature and grace, which have had such bad consequences for Western thought, but there is also the split between Christ and the Church – this has left people not only suspicious of institutions but unable to recognise the deep sacramental reality that is Mystical Body of Christ.

                  Saint Joan of Arc said that ‘about Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know that they are just one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter’, echoing Our Lord’s saying that ‘he who hears you hears me’. The Protestant Reformation denied this reality, and in so doing effectively denied the full reality of the Incarnation. It is this denial of Christianity’s incarnational reality in its fullness that I think lies at the root of everything else that was severed, and also has led to the inability of many today to see Christ in any institution, let alone the divine institution that He founded and wedded to Himself.

                  But, no matter how dark a legacy the Reformation has left behind, the Truth is still there, shining forth through the darkness, and those who truly desire to find it will do so. God’s grace is stronger than whatever means we come up with to lead ourselves astray from it , and I do believe that wherever a sincere desire for the Truth exists, He will lead it outwards towards Him.

                  • Yes, without a shadow of doubt, the Reformation was one of the Devil’s greatest achievements in his battle to destroy God’s One Holy Church and cart off souls (gradually, with subtlety, and through the continual consequences of this division) to eternal destruction. So much of the current atheism and indifference to God, or to any religious institution, as you say, comes as a direct result from the Protestant Reformation nearly 500 years ago.

                    Yet your final paragraph is spot on! We have that hope within us, and we should never let it weaken or falter. 🙂

                    • Yes, this is very true, and I don’t think we will ever be able to recover a proper sense of Christian culture in Europe (not necessarily everyone being Christian or anything like that, but an appreciation for the Christian roots of our culture and intellectual traditions) until we admit what an enormous source of error and destructive power the Reformation was.

                      Just as an aside though, I forgot to say yesterday how beautiful that icon of Our Lady and Child was that you added to the re-blog of my post. Thank you, and thanks again for re-blogging it! 🙂

  4. Absolutely – to everything you say in your first paragraph! 🙂

    You are very welcome Michael (to the reblog of your great article). It was a daring, well argumented and insightful post… for anyone to make, but coming from a man gave it even more impact (if you know what I mean 😉 ). I just hope all the men reading it realise that the extolling of the truly feminine virtues does not undermine men, but gives great credit to the masculine ones in males in correspondence.

    Yes, the icon is truly beautiful, isn’t it? I thought it illustrated one of the main points you touched on in your article – that the sacred womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary made her the God-bearer, of Our Lord and Saviour.
    Although I am no expert on icons I am crazy about them. I often stare and stare at a certain lovely old icon (or even some not-so-old ones) and find that many hidden treasures and truths come to light in them after a while.
    Like Our Glorious Faith – the longer one buries oneself into its richness and profound depths, the more its treasures are revealed.

    (BTW, e-mail response coming soon, I promise. 😉 )

    • Thank you very much Kathleen – that means a lot 🙂

      What you say about the icon is very true – it really does resonate with the fact that Our Lady is the Theotokos, and the sacredness of her womb. I also really like the parallel you make between icons and the Church – of the way in which greater treasures are yielded the longer we bury into it/them and patiently meditate on the truths we find there. Wonderful!

  5. Pingback: Ruth Pitter: The Bridge of Faith | Journey Towards Easter

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