Die Heretic

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”
He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What denomination?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too!”
Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.”
I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

We’re not Puritans anymore

David Brooks, writing about Penn State in the NYT

In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged this weakness. These systems emphasized our sinfulness. They reminded people of the evil within themselves. Life was seen as an inner struggle against the selfish forces inside. These vocabularies made people aware of how their weaknesses manifested themselves and how to exercise discipline over them. These systems gave people categories with which to process savagery and scripts to follow when they confronted it. They helped people make moral judgments and hold people responsible amidst our frailties.

But we’re not Puritans anymore. We live in a society oriented around our inner wonderfulness. So when something atrocious happens, people look for some artificial, outside force that must have caused it — like the culture of college football, or some other favorite bogey. People look for laws that can be changed so it never happens again.

Commentators ruthlessly vilify all involved from the island of their own innocence. Everyone gets to proudly ask: “How could they have let this happen?”

Led into temptation by their very goodness

Ross Douthat, writing about Penn State in the NYT:

Bad and mediocre people are tempted to sin by their own habitual weaknesses. The earlier lies or thefts or adulteries make the next one that much easier to contemplate. Having already cut so many corners, the thinking goes, what’s one more here or there? Why even aspire to virtues that you probably won’t achieve, when it’s easier to remain the sinner that you already know yourself to be?

But good people, heroic people, are led into temptation by their very goodness — by the illusion, common to those who have done important deeds, that they have higher responsibilities than the ordinary run of humankind. It’s precisely in the service to these supposed higher responsibilities that they often let more basic ones slip away.

The demise of Wither and Frost

Finished That Hideous Strength – a wise and strange book – in many ways I was continually surprised by the strangeness of it. I believe Alan Jacobs wrote that Lewis was very influenced by Charles Williams when writing it, and whether or not I’m remembering that correctly, it has the ring of truth. It is distinctly Lewis – his philosophy, his style, his sense of humor. But especially in the early chapters I was continually reminded of Williams’ novels, and his interweaving of the spiritual, the bizarre and the modern.

But That Hideous Strength is still Lewis through and through, and bears the marks of his cohesive philosophy. Many talk about his picture of hell as populated by people who choose to be there, and point to his treatment of that idea in The Great Divorce or in The Problem of Pain. But he depicts that same idea here in it’s most frightening form. He does so in depicting the deaths of the academics Wither and Frost, acting heads of NICE (the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments). In both cases their descent into death (and quite truly, hell) is a direct result of their life-long choices, their basic life orientation and their deepest beliefs.

For Wither (who dies first), the realization that he is going to die is incapable of moving him. “He had willed with his whole heart that there should be no reality and no truth, and now even the imminence of his own ruin could not wake him.

So how indeed do the damned go to their damnation? Lewis continues:

The last scene of Dr. Faustus where the man raves and implores on the edge of Hell is, perhaps, stage fire. The last moments before damnation are not often so dramatic. Often the man knows with perfect clarity that some still possible action of his own will could yet save him. But he cannot make this knowledge real to himself. Some tiny habitual sensuality, some resentment too trivial to waste on a blue-bottle, the indulgence of some fatal lethargy, seems to him at that moment more important than the choice between total joy and total destruction.

There it is, same as in The Great Divorce. After a lifetime of choices, in the final, fatal moment of last opportunity, the person chooses a “tiny habitual sensuality”, a trivial resentment, or the indulgence of lethargy rather than surrender to God and true joy. And so:

With eyes wide open, seeing that the endless terror is just about to begin and yet (for the moment) unable to feel terrified, he watches passively, not moving a finger for his own rescue, while the last links with joy and reason are severed, and drowsily sees the trap close upon his soul. So full of sleep are they at the time when they leave the right way.”

Frost likewise faces a final moment of choice, a small glimpse of clarity, and yet is damned by his own choice and firm belief. A thorough-going materialist, Frost believes there is nothing but matter and that his own self is merely a projection of his body. It is a matter of fundamental faith for him that the soul and all transcendant values, morals and meaning are merely material phenomenon which disappear when seen “objectively”. And so at the end of his story the full ramifications of this belief play out. Nearing death, he is allowed:

“to suspect that death itself might not after all cure the illusion of being a soul – nay, might prove the entry into a world where that illusion raged infinite and unchecked. Escape for the soul, if not for the body, was offered him. He became able to know (and simultaneously refused the knowledge) that he had been wrong from the beginning, that souls and personal responsibility existed. He half saw: he wholly hated. The physical torture of the burning was not fiercer than his hatred of that. With one supreme effort he flung himself back into his illusion.

Here it is again, in full. The opportunity to escape damnation – to say to God, “Thy will be done” – was offered. He glimpses this alternate world, the real world of the immaterial that he had denied (souls, personal responsibility), and rather than accept it, he denies it with heroic effort. It doesn’t matter if it is true – he hates the very idea of such a world. “He half saw: he wholly hated.”

And so, his demise is also sealed.

In that attitude eternity overtook him as sunrise in old tales overtakes and turns them into unchangeable stone.

Here is a frightening depiction of humans rejecting God and instead of surrender choosing damnation. Here too is a depiction of the deeper caverns of volition. What if, prior to reason, prior to evidence, prior to logic, humans are most fundamentally subject to our desires? 

And what if our desires are deeply bent? What hope is there for us, if we don’t want, won’t accept, the only heaven and more importantly the only God that there is?

No hope, outside of the deep regenerating work of the Holy Spirit.

The horror when beauty becomes too weak a stimulant

From That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis:

Suddenly…desire (salt, black, ravenous, unanswerable desire) took him by the throat.

…[This desire] disenchants the universe. Everything else that Mark had ever felt – love, ambition, hunger, lust itself – appeared to have been mere milk and water, toys for children, not worth one throb of the nerves…

…It is idle to point out to the perverted man the horror of his perversion: while the fierce fit is on, that horror is the very spice of his craving. It is ugliness itself that becomes, in the end, the goal of his lechery; beauty has long since grown too weak a stimulant.