C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity was the first apologetic work I read, and two elements immediately rang absolutely true to me. The first is Lewis’s defense of an absolute morality (a law written on the hearts of Men) that is neither evolutionarily or culturally contingent.
I am mostly in agreement with Lewis’s treatment of absolute morality (particularly his comment that the Law of Human Nature belongs, like mathematics to the class of real truths). I have frequently found that the mathematical metaphors and methods are the best analogues I have to the metaphysics of morality. Lewis and I diverge around the point where he claims the source of moral truth must be either inert matter or a mind and proceeds from this false dichotomy to the existence of God. I’m not persuaded by his logic, and, although I agree with Lewis on the observed properties of moral law, I remain agnostic on the mechanism by which they are brought into existence.
However, I have seen other arguments for absolute morality, and, although I appreciated Lewis’s formulation, I found the first section to be more remarkable for its clarity than the uniqueness of its ideas. When Lewis leaves this first question behind and begins to discuss what morality actually is and how it ought to be followed, Lewis’s description put into words something I had never coherently expressed on my own.
Lewis argues that the common conception of morality is quite off-base. It suggests that “God wanted simply obedience to a set of rules” missing the fact that “really he wants people of a particular sort.” For Lewis, morality is not the process of staying within the limits of the Law, but a dynamic process that transforms the moral actor, allowing us to transcend our pettiness, our fear, and all limitations. Lewis sees morality as a method of becoming Christ-like and entering into full communion with God.
Now, the moment you realise ‘Here I am, dressing up as Christ,’ it is extremely likely that you will see at once some way in which at that very moment the pretence could be made less of a pretence and more of a reality. You will find several things going on in your mind which would not be going on if you were really a son of God. Well, stop them…
This is not merely a fancy way of saying that your conscience is telling you what to do. If you simply ask your conscience, you get one result. If you remember that you are dressing up as Christ, you get a different one… It is more like painting a portrait than obeying a set of rules. And the odd thing is that while in one way it is much harder than keeping the rules, in another way it is far easier.
My current life is a testament to the virtues of pretending to be the person that you ought to be. I spent most of my early school years growing apart from all my schoolmates. In an effort to steel myself against the distaste I seemed to inspire in other middleschoolers, I let myself stop caring about them entirely, inflicting a great hurt on myself for the purpose of sparing myself a small one. In this, I behaved exactly as Lewis’s prideful man does when he avoids vanity by denying the opinion of others.
“The Proud man has a different reason for not caring. He says “Why should I care for the applause of that rabble as if their opinions were worth anything…” In this way, real thorough-going pride may act as a check on vanity, for, as I said a moment ago, the devil loves ‘curing’ a small fault by giving you a big one.”
By the time I decided I had gone wrong. I was quite out of practise at being anyone’s friend or caring much for anyone. I was impatient with small talk and had trouble treating others as ends in themselves (as discussed here). I felt empty around others, and I couldn’t find a way to interact with them that felt authentic.
So, I decided to skip authenticity. Instead of indulging my bad habits and bad feelings, I resolved to behave as a normal person would, to be as kind and engaging as possible, and simply trust that the mask might grow to fit.
Today, there are still many ways I fall short of my goals and my duties to others, but it was only this action of pretending that helped me to escape my own character flaws. If the act of being sociable still sometimes feels like an act, it certainly no longer feels like a lie.
Lewis describes morality not as an algorithm, but as a process that has more effect on the actor than the acted upon. In this, his philosophy accords with my own beliefs. However, this approach to morality makes less sense in a world without an afterlife.
If morality is good primarily because of the good it causes for others, it is possible to subscribe to some kind of utilitarianism and simply rejoice in the positive outcomes that you manage to generate in your lifetime, but if morality is a process of becoming perfect or Christ-like, it is obvious that process will not be completed by death. Without an afterlife or a deity, the project of morality as transformation feels incomplete. Instead of the possibility of full metamorphosis, there is only a kind of unrooted virtue ethics. Morality is divorced from any notion of real success or failure.
The problem of explaining the existence of absolute morality and the difficulty of thinking of morality as an incomplete transformation are the two most gaping problems in my atheism. I’ll let you know if I get them patched.