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C.S. Lewis: Violence and Suffering

May 12, 2011

Guest Contributor, Ryan Mullins, offers this review of Part II: Thinker (chapters 14-15). Stanley Hauerwas, “On violence,” 189-202; Michael Ward, “On suffering,” 203-222 from Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis, edited by Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 2010.

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Chapters fourteen and fifteen focus on violence and suffering. Michael Ward’s chapter on suffering examines Lewis’ views on the problem of pain. Ward’s contention is that Lewis’ views on suffering develop between the end of WWI and Lewis’ conversion in 1931. After Lewis’ conversion he explores his ideas in various writings, but Lewis never changes his position on the nature of suffering. Several aspects of Lewis’ views on suffering are discussed as they appear in The Problem of Pain, Five Sonnets, and A Grief Observed. I’ll mention three. First, pain and suffering can have a positive effect in one’s life. One may recall Lewis’ idea that pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world. Second, despite the potential benefit of suffering, pain is something that we should seek to avoid and relieve. Suffering is not a good in itself. Third, the suffering of Christ is something to be imitated. The cross of Christ, however, can only be understood by the miracle of the resurrection. The vindication of Christ on the 3rd Day allows us to reinterpret Christ’s sufferings. When one looks at the cross, we see the agony of Jesus. He is despised by all, condemned by the authorities, and put on a cross as one forsaken by God. But the miracle of the resurrection demonstrates that Jesus is not forsaken.

In the chapter on violence, Christian pacifist Stanely Hauerwas delves into Lewis’ views on war. Hauerwas examines and rejects Lewis’ arguments against pacifism. For Lewis, war is a fact of life that must be dealt with. As Hauerwas points out, Lewis never explicitly defends just war theory, but Lewis does hold many of its common elements. For instance, war is always a last resort that must be declared by a lawful authority. A just war must be a defensive act and never imperialistic. In order to be just, the war must have limited aims with a substantial chance of success. Also, the combatants must have a willingness to take responsibility for their actions and seek to protect civilians. For Lewis, a just war can only be fought by people who exemplify virtues like justice, goodness, chivalry, and honor.

During WWII Lewis presented a paper called “Why I Am Not a Pacifist” to the Oxford Pacifist Society. Part of Lewis’ argument depends on his version of natural law ethics. For Lewis, moral reason must work from principles. One starts with moral intuitions and self-evident truths. A moral intuition is a basic principle that no rational moral agent would doubt. Then one must arrange these intuitions with a possible moral task in such a way that they yield a proof (a deductive argument) that can be judged as true or false. This process of moral reasoning is always open to correction by argument and authority. As Lewis sees it, certain moral principles are derived from the authority of common sense which reflects the natural law that constitutes our human nature. For instance, the notion that one should act benevolently is obvious to everyone. As one moves from culture to culture she can find differences in customs, etiquette, and laws, but she will not find a difference in basic moral principles. (For Lewis fans, you may recall Lewis’ doctrine of the ‘Tao’ found in The Abolition of Man.)

One of his objections to pacifism is that it rests on a moral intuition that it is always wrong to take a human life. This is connected with another moral belief that persons can do good for someone without harming others. Lewis objects to these principles on the grounds that they are not obvious. In fact, they are obviously false. There seem to be instances where we cannot do good to person X without causing harm to person Y. Say a homicidal maniac is attacking an innocent victim. It may not be possible to save the victim without using force against the maniac.

Hauerwas’ finds Lewis’ objection unpersuasive. He notes that Lewis is arguing against a version of pacifism that was popular in England after WWI. Hauerwas does not think that the objection refutes his version of Christian pacifism. However, Hauerwas concedes that Lewis’ argument could be used to establish a peaceable police force, but denies that it could be used to justify a war. Why could it not justify a war? Hauerwas doesn’t say. I suspect that his reasons derive from a fundamental difference that he has with Lewis. For Hauerwas, ethics is not based primarily on principled reasons. Ethics is based on virtues that appear in narratives. The basis of Christian pacifism is not the moral principle that it is always wrong to kill a human person. Instead, Hauerwas holds that the basis is the entire character of Jesus’ life.

Space does not allow me to examine the arguments over which are more fundamental—principles or virtues. Nor does it allow me to ask if Hauerwas’ ethical theory is a plausible option for Christians to take amongst the available ethical theories. Instead, I will end with some reflections on the agreement between Hauerwas and Lewis.

For both thinkers, our imaginations must be baptized. Out entire way of thinking about reality must be reinterpreted by Christ’s resurrection. Until Christ returns we will have poverty, natural disasters, and war. Instead of trying to eradicate all evil, Christians should be engaged in small specific tasks such as ending the slave trade. One aspect of apocalyptic writing that Lewis and Hauerwas agree upon is that it teaches us that the way the world at present is not the way things have to be. Violence and suffering are facts of life, but they do not have to be. Pain is God’s megaphone that tells us that something is wrong with the world. Suffering can be good for us in some instances, but on the whole it is to be resisted. Christians ought to engage in non-violent activities that demonstrate God’s goal for the world.  “We live as though the world is as it should be, to show it what it can be.”

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Ryan Mullins holds an M.A. in Philosophy of Religion from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and is a current PhD student in Theology at the University of St Andrews working on the philosophy of time and God’s eternality.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 12, 2011 7:48 pm

    I thought Hauerwas was an interesting (and highly marketable) choice to write this piece, and I was impressed with his sympathetic treatment of Lewis’s thought. I will admit that I skipped right to this chapter because I was so curious to see how Hauerwas would handle Lewis. Unsurprisingly, Hauerwas can’t let Lewis have the last say. But I had to laugh at Hauerwas’s section title, “Why Lewis Should Have Been a Pacifist,” as if Lewis was a sophomoric undergraduate whose wide eyes just couldn’t perceive the obvious logical connections between his stated presuppositions and his conclusions.

    The difference of opinion between the two, I think, comes down to Hauerwas’s description of Lewis’s “inability to recognize the difference Christ makes for the transformation of our ‘reason'” (pg. 197). That sums it up. For Hauerwas, there is a marked difference between the “reason” employed in the World and the “reason” employed by Christianity. In Lewis’s mind, that was not the case. Reason is like mathematics, true and reasonable for all persons in all times and places. Euclid did not have to be a Christian in order to learn geometry, and Socrates did not have to be a Christian in order to learn ethics. In fact, the real answer to Hauerwas’s objections comes in the first few chapters of this book, which show how immersed Lewis was in the whole western literary and philosophic tradition. Lewis thought there was a much stronger ideological continuity between the pre-Christian and the Christian eras of European history than Hauerwas would ever allow.

    This is not to say that Hauerwas is wrong or that Lewis is right about pacifism. But Hauerwas is wrong about Lewis. Lewis should not have been a pacifist. Lewis’s implicit support of Just War Theory is, I think, inextricable from his sense of intellectual history, as well as his literary sensibilities.

  2. Ryan Mullins permalink
    May 13, 2011 9:41 am

    Steve, thank you for your comments. For those of you who have not read this paper in the Companion, I should point out that Steve hit on something that I did not discuss in my initial post. One line of reasoning in Lewis’ refutation of pacifism is that it conflicts with the vast majority of Western thought. Christian pacifism in particular conflicts with the way Christians have interpreted the Bible in the past. I did not mention this for two reasons. First, space limitations. Second, I think that is the weakest part of Lewis’ argument. It looks like an argument from authority. However, I believe Steve is right in that this explains why Lewis would not come to accept pacifism. Hauerwas’ discussion on this issue does treat Lewis like a sophomoric thinker, and I think Hauerwas’ critique of Lewis’ arguments are more dismissive than substantive.

    I think Hauerwas is dismissive because of a deeper disagreement with Lewis over ethics. Lewis has a normative and metaethical framework in Natural Law ethics. Hauerwas has a theory of normative ethics in his Narrative ethics, but I am not familiar enough with Hauerwas to know if he has a metaethical theory. What grounds morality for Hauerwas? What exactly is his version of Christian pacifism? How does his version escape Lewis’ arguments? These are things Hauerwas does not answer in this paper. Perhaps Steve, or someone else could join the discussion and help answer some of these questions.

    Or perhaps someone could give her own opinion on Christian pacifism. What is it? What justifies it? Is it a defensible position?

  3. May 13, 2011 11:41 pm

    I certainly understand the challenge of writing under space constraints!

    While not a pacifist myself, I do think that pacifism is philosophically and morally defensible, particularly from a Christian viewpoint. I have no particular expertise on the topic, but I think the best-known proponent of Christian pacifism is John Howard Yoder. I couldn’t give you a synopsis of his rationale though. Pacifism does have a fairly long tradition, at least by modern standards, going back into the Anabaptist movement. As I understand it, the stricter forms of Anabaptist thought presupposed a clear and absolute distinction between the church and the state, which competed for the loyalty of each person. The moral implication is that the Christian ought to have as little as possible to do with state affairs. Hence, the Amish and many conservative Mennonites will neither vote nor hold office, and certainly not serve in the military or on a police force. (Hauerwas has been known to refer to himself as a “high-church Anabaptist,” for what it’s worth.) Their rejection of violence is usually absolute, even in cases of self-defense or defense of one’s family members. The view may be extreme, but it thereby gains some philosophical consistency. I can’t say whether this represents Hauerwas’s or Yoder’s position, but does apply at least to conservative forms of Anabaptist theology.

    Moderate positions may well be tenable. St. Augustine, for example, ruled out the use of violence to defend one’s own person or goods, but approved of the use of violence by a civil authority to defend others. That, I believe, is how he reconciled Jesus statements such as “resist not evil” and “turn the other cheek” with St. Paul’s statement that the secular ruler “beareth not the sword in vain.”

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