Review of “The World’s Last Night and Other Essays” by C.S. Lewis

“The World’s Last Night and Other Essays” collects together seven of C.S. Lewis’ short pieces on significant issues in Christianity.  They include prayer, belief vs. science, the role of culture, evil, the importance of quality, the possibility of extra-terrestrial life, and the Second Coming.  Of course, his writing is excellent.

Lewis, as usual, makes some important points about Christianity and faith in general that are often missed by contemporary religious leaders and groups.  At the same time, some of his reasoning is hard to square which, of course, is often difficult in matters of belief.  A few points are noted below.

“The Efficacy of Prayer” – Lewis writes, “’God,’ said Pascal, ‘instituted prayer in order to lend to His creatures the dignity of causality.’  But not only prayer; whenever we act at all He lends us that dignity.  It is not really stranger, nor less strange, that my prayers should affect the course of events than that my other actions should do so.  They have not advised or changed God’s mind—that is, His over-all purpose.  But that purpose will be realized in different ways according to the actions, including prayers, of His creatures.”  Lewis here is bringing out something very, very important.  Many Christians believe they can simply rely on prayer for the answers.  They will meditate on God for direction, they will offer up pleas and supplications and thanksgivings.  But one could argue that prayer is over-emphasized to the exclusion of action and reason, decisions and rational, critical thinking.  All of these things matter though because we are holistic creatures and we are impacted by everything we do, to include prayer and not to exclude all else.  Is prayer effective?  The skeptic looking for the direct causal relationship might correctly say “no.”  Our free will wielded in a variety of ways, including prayers and meditations, however, clearly has causal relationships with our own lives and those of others.  If even for the fact that the person who engages in prayer is changed in their mind and attitude, this is sufficient to create a real impact on the world.

“On Obstinacy in Belief” – Here, in a paper read to the Oxford Socratic Club, Lewis takes on the issue of Science vs. Belief.  He points out, successfully, that obstinacy of belief in any strongly held view is a human trait, and not merely one that exists among the religious.  At some point, however, the scientist or the priest must give way when the evidence is overwhelmingly against their position.  Yet, Christianity is rightly criticized for viewing obstinacy in the face of convincing evidence as something noble or godly.  The problem here, as with any belief, is that Christians are warned in their texts that “apparent evidence against it will occur—evidence strong enough ‘to deceive if possible the very elect.’”  Wrongly used, this position can be and has been used to encourage people to believe the unbelievable or clearly incorrect.  Lewis points to two ways in which the Christian can address the problem of counter-evidence.  First, external events such as seeming “coincidences” time and again demonstrate what appear to us as the inscrutable workings of God.  The uncanny, remarkable events that defy statistics are experienced by people a number of times in their lives, and lend credence to the ingrained human trait of a belief in a Timeless Other.  This is similar to the notion of trust in someone we claim to “know.”  We know the people in our lives and hope to trust them; the same, Lewis argues, applies to the God that we claim to believe in.  Second, he argues that if we have come to a belief, and we wholeheartedly believed in the Truth of it, it understandably would take a great amount of evidence to overcome that belief.  To this he adds the factors of relationship and love between the believer and the One in whom he believes.  When we love someone, we will not easily believe allegations against someone.  Of course, these factors are not present in science unless, I posit, we accept that a scientist or theorist can become so enamored with an idea or finding that it becomes an obsession, in which case something similar may occur.  Here, Lewis is asking for a certain amount of grace for the believer.  The believer is to be treated as a husband, wife, father or mother when faced with an accusation about the truth of a partner or child.  Obstinacy of belief is to be admired.  But the problem is that this form of obstinacy of belief is not Truth, and in this case Christianity gets to set up an unassailable defense by warning its adherents that there will be strong evidence against it – but do not believe it.  If this is legitimate, any ideology could do just the same and firmly believe in the rightness of its doctrines and practices.  But that does not make it Truth.  Through Creation (which continues to this day and will continue) we are given reason and intellect.  Using them we have made incredible discoveries with still more on the horizon.  They are given to us to use wisely, and any belief or faith that is True can withstand any legitimate probing and questioning.  I do not for one moment discount the reality of the emotions of love and trust that a person feels; what I question is why Lewis permits the religious person to rely on them for their lens on reality in determining what is Truth, when it is clear that the scientist may not.  To Lewis, it is because faith is a relationship with a person rather than a fact.  But that Person claims to be the author of all facts.

“Good Work and Good Works” – Lewis takes aim here at the disease in Christianity that seems to accept the notion that things (work) in The Church need not be done as well because The Church is about the business of doing good (works).  And rightly so.  “The idea of Good Work is not quite extinct among us, though it is not, I fear, especially characteristic of religious people.”  His criticism includes society as a whole, however, with “[b]uilt-in obsolescence” and products that do not last.  A degraded form of commercialism has developed so that wants have to be created to keep people employed.  It has more important that people are employed at useless tasks than that they do not work.  Such a system, Lewis notes, “cannot be permanent….”  We seemed determined then to make it so as long as resources will hold out.  That is certainly the case almost 55 years since he wrote this.  He could have been writing this today, and it should be read today.

“The World’s Last Night” attempts to tackle one of the biggest problems in Christianity – The Second Coming.  As Lewis notes, “this generation shall not pass till all these things be done,” Mark 13:30, “is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.”  One significant problem of early Christianity was a belief that Christ’s return was imminent, within a generation of His Ascension.  Lewis attempts to sidestep this issue with the fact that in Mark 13:32 the Christ states that no one but the Father knows the day or hour of this event.  He then goes on to address the question about how the Father can know the day of the Son’s return, but the Son not know it.  He does not address the basic problem that the Bible seems to state, and early Christians certainly believed, that the Christ’s return would be in their lifetimes.  Ultimately, Lewis is in the position of having to defend either an error by God in the person of Christ, or an error in the text – the latter of which would raise all sorts of additional questions.  He chooses ignorance on the part of Christ in his temporal form as a man, which serves to preserve the notion of the Bible as a text with complete integrity (on this question, volumes have been written both for and against).  The Christ’s arrival in first century Palestine, Lewis contends, was not random.  Nor, in fact, should we marvel at his arrival as a temporal being that was united with the Timeless, but subject to the physical laws of that time and place.  Indeed, just as Lewis states, “[a] generation which has accepted the curvature of space need not boggle at the impossibility of imagining the consciousness of incarnate God.”  Indeed, we now better understand the nature of all Creation in its forms of energy and mass that can transmute between one and another through the simplicity of E=mc2.  Pure energy (light) can become timeless (because the speed of light is the speed limit of Creation) and without mass.  If something has mass, it is not timeless – thus, to be Incarnate is to step into Time.  Lewis departs from this line, however, and launches into a discussion about why the Second Coming is in conflict with certain thoughts on evolution “as popularly imagined” and not as a biological science.  Here, he contrasts the notion of the sudden end with a Second Coming and Judgment with a belief that, through evolution, Man is continually progressing toward improvement or, by some external force, will progress to decay.  He views life as a play, and that we are the players on the stage, but we do not know the script.  In fact, through free will, we make it up as we go along heavily influenced by our genetic makeup and upbringing (see “Freewill” lyrics by Rush).

There is much to say about this piece, but in the end Lewis notes that we can not remain in an emotional state concerning the end of the world – however it may come about.  We may believe that all humanity is transitory, and that the issue here and now is ultimately unimportant in light of this.  His call, however, is for us to be at our post in any given moment.  “No matter; you were at your post when the Inspection came.”  And, perhaps, this is the best advice for any belief (or non-belief), that one is doing what one is meant to be doing come what may.