“Here I Am, Dressing up as Christ”

“Here I Am, Dressing up as Christ” July 12, 2010


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.

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Rek

    Leah,This post sheds considerable light on the past 3 years that we’ve been friends. I appreciate that you wrote this, so honestly and with such conviction.Anyway, I am quite sympathetic to the idea that morality is something “written on the hearts of men”, as he put it, and it is certainly this fact that allows us to exist (more or less) as a functional society. However, I would like to probe this idea a bit. What does it mean to have a moral “law” written upon our hearts? In DS, we read a number of philosophers and other writers who stressed the power of habit. As far back as Herodotus –“Custom is king”—there has been an awareness of the power of simple habit to profoundly shape the way we understand ourselves in the world, particularly in relation to other people. On the one hand, there is an evolutionary history of practically everything we do, particularly altruism, dating back not just to non-human primates, but also to more distant mammals, and non-mammals (like birds, particularly those lesbian seagulls). On the other hand, there is the understanding that our consciousness allows us to examine the world critically and, with profound self-awareness, decide what ideal is worth living—and, when it comes to it, dying—for. It is the latter idea that I’ll focus on (as it is the only one that can provide satisfying answers).Although I was often a bit socially dysfunctional in my youth (tending toward a similar arrogant disdain of others that you and Lewis describe), I also decided at some point that I was unhappy with the person that I was and so wanted to be someone else. (Here you may recall the story of name.) What is salient here is that the transition had nothing to do with a process that I was ultimately to value in a posthumous life. Rather, the entire point was that in realizing that I would die one day—perhaps not too distantly, given my lifestyle—and so I wanted to be someone who could drop dead at any moment and, despite an understandable sadness, nonetheless feel as though I had enjoyed my life and would be remembered fondly by those who knew me.Of course, my entire understanding of morality starts, as you know, from man as social, so perhaps this may seem too focused on the idea of the esteem of those close to you. However, I would posit that when we consider those things that bring the most joy and substance to our lives, they usually involve building and maintaining mutually fulfilling relationships with other people. Thus, there is no “completion”, as there is no perfection. There is only the ongoing process of ever exploring and edifying the relationships that exist for their own sake and from which we find meaning. This process necessarily ends at death, but if done well, that death is a sweet one (think Socrates or even Nathan Hale, who both died as much for their friends as for country), and your life is entirely worth its price.Morality, as I understand it, is the process of becoming a full member of an interdependent society— emotionally and psychologically, as well as economically and governmentally. It is this transformative drive that fuels our concern for impact when we give to charity or for social justice when we see others unfairly wronged or disadvantaged. It is a conviction that follows from the proposition that you, whoever you are, are someone meaningful, just like I am. If god or beast (to mince Aristotle and Moses) defines himself (and his self-sufficiency) by saying, “I am that I am.” The moral man defines himself (and his interdependence) by the principle, “I am, and so are you.”I hope all this resonates with you, but if not, I would ask, what you think is to be gained by being “perfect”? What happens then, in an ideal world, with or without an afterlife? Do you just sit around with the other perfect people and bask in how awesomely perfect you are? Do you get to have one last look at your life before you fade away? What ought to happen? What ought it all to mean?

  • My response is re the 'pretending to be' part.I find this VERY effective in my own life as well. I may not be a very charitable or merciful person, but if I CHOOSE to be, if I CHOOSE to ACT like the type of person I should be/wish I was even if I don't 'feel' it, I find over time that I become more of what I want to be. If I live what I WANT to be long enough, instead of just 'being' what I am, I become that which I want to be. It's the difference between being and choosing to be.For me, that is often 'dressing up like Christ'. I've found that Christ is WAY better a person than I am, and I become a better ME when I 'put Christ on' as it were. So yeah, I really identify with morality as a process that affects me more than the other guy in the equation… and not as an algorithm. It may make less sense in a world view with no afterlife, but it is a more 'true' definition… so if THAT is more true but lends itself to a worldview with an afterlife… where does that leave us?(I'm from the Grill btw)

  • Haven't got much to say here (not in an organized fashion, at least), except that it occurs to me that people who talk about morality in terms of virtue ethics or self-transformation and people who talk about morality in terms of consequentialism aren't really presenting two different takes on a general concept ("morality") so much as talking about two altogether completely different things.

  • Thanks for the post, Rek. I’m going to come back to the question of what the end point looks like next week, when I plan to write up Mere Christianity (also by Lewis), but here are some preliminary thoughts:When I am talking about perfect, end-stage people, I am talking about people who have completely oriented themselves toward moral behavior. People who have built up moral memory in the same way athletes build up muscle memory. In both cases, we change who we are by repeated practice and training. We put a great deal of effort into making a certain behavior effortless. This isn’t a case of ‘the journey is more important than the destination.’ The journey was taken for this purpose. The reward for seeking to live morally is being able to do so. And then, we keep doing it.

  • NFQ

    Leah, I'm confused by what you're saying here about an absolute morality. I suspect that you don't mean it in the same way that C.S. Lewis and many Christians mean it, but I don't know. What do you think is included in this absolute morality you feel exists? I agree that there are some general principles that just about every person would agree on, and I would be okay with saying poetically that these ideas are "written on their hearts," but I would not go so far as to say that all moral questions have absolute right or wrong answers — and I'm skeptical that you would actually say this as well. In different cultures, people factually do disagree on nuances (and more) of morality, so clearly we do not all have exactly the same thing "written on our hearts."I also don't understand why "thinking of morality as an incomplete transformation" is a "gaping problem in your atheism." Like the characters in musicals who whistle in order to push away fear, anyone can decide what a good person is like and then try to become a person with those attributes. Everybody makes mistakes, so undoubtedly this is an ongoing, lifelong process. The difference between an atheist and C.S. Lewis is the name they give to that good person one is aspiring to be. So what?Moreover, I don't know if it makes sense (grammatically, or whatever) to talk about morality *as* this process of transformation. Are you saying that a moral person is one who attempts to transform, regardless of what one's trying to transform into? Morality, I'd think, is the principles, the attributes of good behavior one is aspiring to. It just doesn't parse for me, this way.

  • NFQ: I can't speak for Leah, but I can say that Lewis' initial arguement is not for a particular content of morality. Rather, he argues that the idea of an absolute morality ingrained in us (which could simply mean that we evolved to think that there is an absolute morality, but there isn't), and that there is in fact an absolute moral code somehow a part of reality, much like mathematical proofs. Mathematics is part of reality, but on the other hand it is awfully hard to locate. Ditto morality.This means that people can disagree about what ethical behaviour is (just as there can be debate about proofs in advanced logic and mathematics) but if there is disagreement than at least one person would be wrong. The observation that there are different ideas about what is right or wrong is not sufficient arguement for cultural relativism.

  • NFQ

    Hmm. It seems like you and Leah are both still saying that we know there is an absolute morality because it is "ingrained in us," "written on our hearts," and so on. But if we each have different things ingrained in us, and we disagree about what is ethical based on the variety of sentiments written on our hearts, in what sense is that morality absolute? It seems that it is absolute for each of us ourselves — a sort of extreme version of cultural relativism.I'm not arguing for relativism per se. Just trying to understand what you're talking about when you say "absolute."

  • @NFQIt might be helpful to take a look at this summary of Lewis's arguments for objective morality (written by a Lewis scholar).But, in very brief, I believe that moral questions have right or wrong answers (even if sometimes right is only equal to less wrong). People can be honestly mistaken (i.e. it is moral to prosecute witches as you would murderers if you honestly believe they exist and do harm) but you can be guilty of negligence if you don't do due diligence when the stakes are high (c.f. witches again).Is this clarifying?

  • Great post, Leah. My current doubt has led me to some real difficulties in particular explanations as well. Morality is also a big one for me. As is what to do about the origination of life and the cause of the big bang. Althoug with the last two I'm fairly comfortable with, 'We just don't know yet.'Re. morality I struggle with the relative vs. absolute argument. One thought I've had is that even if there is a god who has inscribed an absolute morality upon the universe… it still amounts to a sort of subjective/relative translation through humans and into practice. In other words, how do you 'discover' what that absolute morality actually is? Slavery, being the easiest that comes to mind, is a perfect instance to display that even if god does have an absolute stance on the morality of slavery… it's still up to humans to discover valid reasons motivating enough to do something about the practice and make it immoral.In this sense, I really do wonder if we are striving for a scientific method type of moral system which allows for revision and improvement based on better ways of analysis and thinking as well as incoming evidence.Abortion is an example of this. Having been a strong Catholic as of 7mos ago, I have not gotten to thinking about this issue. From a soul-existence standpoint the Catholic stance will never update and lies in the validity of a human existing since conception with an immortal soul and right to life.A secular morality may be 'absolute' but in a sense it seems that we discover and enact it in a relative way. In the past, cultures considered it moral to commit infanticide based on means of provision for young ones or in favor of gender. We have updated this. Now the discussion often focuses on when one can define the entity as 'human' and many argue that this may center on when a nervous system is developed.In any case, say that there is an absolute moral definitive action with respect to abortion. Do we know what it is in an absolute sense with confidence?Anyway, just some thoughts. I liked the post a lot.

  • I found a book that helped me realize who God is not…it's called The Misunderstood God by Darin Hufford. It's now in my top ten best read books. I used to see God as the fundamentalist Christians view Him, but He showed me differently..by viewing Father through the eys of people who really get who He is…Agape.

  • @Sisterlisa: interesting. I read some reviews and it definitely has quite high reviews, though few in general for a book (only 31). The one lower-than-5 rating was given by someone who said it was an appealing presentation but wondered if it was true. It doesn't sound like the book dealt much with the OT.When you say that the book helped you to view the "Father through the eyes of people who really get who He is", are you perhaps looking at the god people want him to be rather than the god actually described in the whole of the Bible? I don't see agape in a land-conquering death fest in which the only offense of those killed is sometimes their worship of another god…

  • BRL

    I so clearly remember the evening when a girl in Hebrew high school surprised me by asking, "Hey, how are you? How was your weekend?"I wondered why she was asking me that, since we weren't friends. Why would she care about my weekend? I certainly didn't care about hers. No hard feelings; I simply did not expect her to be any more interested in me than I was in her. (Also, I had not yet realized that the average teenager's weekends were much more eventful than mine!) It's unfortunate, because hers was a gesture of kindness and inclusion.As you know, my reticence gave me a gentler middle/high-school experience than yours. The outcome, though, was similar in some ways (though not all) . . . In middle school, especially, I think I cared even less about other classmates than I might have under the circumstances. I was not interested in analyzing the workings of their social structures. I was not interested in studying the mechanisms of "popularity." There were a few who annoyed me by disrupting class, but generally speaking, I was not interested in them at all.Oddly enough, I felt a bit more like an outsider in high school, even though I was more socially integrated at that time. Prior to 9th grade, I did not feel like an "outsider" because I had no awareness of any "inside." By senior year, I had established a friendly rapport with some classmates and liked several others–but at 2:26 pm I fell off the radar, and I knew it. They had their collective memories and were making more together, and I was not going to share them. Oh well.(A notable exception was when I received a completely unexpected and much-appreciated invitation to join a limo group for the prom.)Where am I going with all this? Maybe I'm just indulging in some self-disclosure (which, to this day, comes more naturally in text than aloud). Oh, and the fake-it-till-you-make-it strategy does wonders for me as well. Small talk is a chore. Worse, I often feel I'm doing something unnatural when I express disagreement aloud–a fact that won't surprise you, though I cannot imagine you share the experience! :)I really ought to say something about your actual main point here. Um – I'm not sure if I understand the difficulty with "morality as an incomplete transformation." So what if you don't achieve perfection by the time you die? You will have spent your life becoming a better person, perhaps the best person you could be. Success is facing a moral challenge similar to one you once failed — and this time making the right choice. (Relevant Tanakh story: Joseph and his brothers.) Meanwhile, the process itself enriches life with meaning, something humans yearn for.3 am, better quit while I'm ahead. Cheers…