Friday, April 16, 2010

The Theory and Practice of Paradise

I haven't read any of C. S. Lewis's books on Christianity in a long time, so John Beversluis's book on Lewis takes me back. This passage from Lewis's book The Problem of Pain, for example, explaining why his God lets people suffer:
We are perplexed to see misfortune falling on decent, inoffensive, worthy people -- on capable, hard-working mothers of families or diligent, thrifty little trades-people, on those who have worked so hard, and so honestly, for their modest stock of happiness and now seem to be entering on the enjoyment of it with the fullest right. How can I say with sufficient tenderness what here needs to be said? ... Let me implore the reader to try to believe, if only for a moment, that God who made these deserving people, may really be right when He says that their modest prosperity has not made them blessed; that all this must fall from them in the end, and that if they have not learned to know Him they will be wretched. And therefore He troubles them, warning them in advance of an insufficiency that one day they will have to discover. The life to themselves and their families stands before them and recognition of this need; He makes that life less sweet to them. ... The creature's illusion of self-sufficiency must, for the creature's sake, be shattered. ... And this illusion ... may be at its strongest in some very honest, kindly, and temperate people, on on such people, therefore, misfortune must fall [96-98, quoted by Beversluis 241-242].
There's a lot to be said about this, and Beversluis says it quite well, so if you want a detailed discussion read Chapter Ten of C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion (Prometheus, 2007).

But I have a few things to add, among them that suffering falls not on only the self-satisfied bourgeois but on the devout and self-abasing Christian. According to orthodox Christian doctrine of course (and Lewis was very orthodox), there is none good, not one, and everyone deserves the worst misery that Yahweh can inflict on them, because we have fallen short of his glory. The most devout Christian is still harboring pride, self-love, and all the other monstrous faults that God just has to gouge out, without anesthetic. It happened to Lewis too, twenty years after he wrote The Problem of Pain, when his wife died of cancer, and in the book he wrote after her death, A Grief Observed, he admitted that he had been smug and complacent in writing so lightly about the agony his god inflicts for the crime of "insufficiency." None of this proves, of course, that Lewis was not describing the way the universe is actually organized; it doesn't, however, establish that Yahweh is just.

Beversluis also quotes one of Lewis's defenders, one Thomas Talbott, who has objected to Beversluis's argument that the world would be improved if Yahweh simply removed cancer from it, and argued that
Any such world [that is, any world with less pain and suffering and without cancer] that God could have created would have contained a less favorable balance of good over evil than exists in the actual world [quoted in Beversluis, 244].
How Talbott knows this, he apparently doesn't say. He goes further:
To begin with ... we must delete from the world (in our imagination) all the pain and suffering caused by this terrible disease as well as all the psychological torment experienced by both those cancer victims and those who love such victims; then we must delete all those goods -- such as the courageous endurance of pain - for which the cancer is a logically necessary condition; then we must delete all the free choices -- that either would have been made at all or would have been made differently if our world had been devoid of cancer ... [W]e must also add in all the options, all the free choices, and all the consequences of such free choices that would have been different. ... If in the absence of cancer, more people would have become more vicious, more likely to engage in warfare or to inflict suffering on others, the total quality of suffering might have been increased by the elimination of cancer [quoted in Beversluis, 245].
Talbott's morals are wanting, but his clarity at least is admirable. The position he holds is quite common, even standard, among theists grappling with the Problem of Evil. "Everybody's doing it" is not an excuse, but it's important to remember that he's not a lone wacko. Consider Rabbi Harold Kushner, a cozily mainstream figure, who told Newsweek after the Haitian earthquake, "The will of God is not to send us the disaster, but to send us the disaster to overcome." That's what Lewis and Talbott are saying too. It's not that God wants to hurt us, but things would be so much worse if he didn't. (It's a common move in this discourse to blame a lot of human suffering on human agents, but shouldn't they simply be viewed as Yahweh's instruments? A person's complacency can be shattered just as effectively by a course of waterboarding, rape, or being run over by a tank as it can by cancer, earthquake, or drought.)

What no one seems to notice is the difficulty this presents to the Christian hope of Heaven, an eternal state free of suffering and full of joy. If Yahweh cannot create a world without suffering because suffering makes us better by shaking our illusions out of us until our teeth rattle, then he can't create a Paradise where there is no suffering. In that case, it might be that we're living in Paradise already -- except, perhaps, that our suffering does end, sooner or later, when we die. No doubt in Paradise that little oversight will be remedied, and Yahweh and his angels will ensure that we suffer eternally. For our own good, of course, and in a loving, caring way, until every last bit of rebellion and self-sufficiency is squeezed out of us.

Which reminds me irresistibly (and mischievously) of this bit from Noam Chomsky's elegant evisceration of B. F. Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity:
Elsewhere, we learn that freedom "waxes as visible control wanes" (p. 70). Therefore the situation just described is one of maximal freedom, since there is no visible control. Furthermore, since "our task" is simply "to make life less punishing" (p. 81), the situation just described would seem ideal. Since people behave well, there will be no punishing. In this way, we can progress "toward an environment in which men are automatically good" (p. 73).
Extending these thoughts, let us consider a well-run concentration camp with inmates spying on one another and the gas ovens smoking in the distance, and perhaps an occasional verbal hint as a reminder of the meaning of this reinforcer. It would appear to be an almost perfect world. Skinner claims that a totalitarian state is morally wrong because it has deferred aversive consequences (p. 174). But in the delightful culture we have just designed there should be no aversive consequences, immediate or deferred. Unwanted behavior would be eliminated from the start by the threat of the crematoria and the all-seeing spies. Thus all behavior would be automatically "good," as required. There would be no punishment. Everyone would be reinforced -- differentially, of course, in accordance with his ability to obey the rules.
Within Skinner's scheme there is no objection to this social order. Rather, it seems close to ideal. Perhaps we could improve it still further by noting that "the release from threat becomes more reinforcing the greater the threat" (as in mountain climbing -- p. 111). We can, then, enhance the total reinforcement and improve the culture by devising a still more intense threat, say, by introducing occasional screams, or by flashing pictures of hideous torture as we describe the crematoria to our fellow citizens. The culture might survive, perhaps for 1,000 years.
There you have it -- a little bit of Heaven right here on Earth, and a beautiful prefiguring of the bliss that awaits us (not all of us, of course!) when God calls us home.