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From the Fall 2002 issue of Knowing & Doing:  

C.S. Lewis on Absolutes

by Art Lindsley, Ph.D.
Senior Fellow, C.S. Lewis Institute


he most important issue for the culture and the church in the 21st century is the issue of truth. There has been a widespread abandoning of the idea of universal or absolute truth from numerous segments of the culture. Secular relativists, New Age, neo-pagan, and postmodern thinkers all assault by argument or accusation those who claim any certainty about truth. The number of people in the United States who believe in the existence of God, the deity of Christ, and the resurrection of Christ is staggering. Yet, they do not believe in the same way they used to believe. Although more than ninety percent believe in God, the great majority of people refuse to believe in absolutes. Within the church there is an erosion of truth as well, with about half of those who describe themselves as born again believing there are no absolutes. Among people under thirty (in the church or out), even the mention of truth or absolutes often produces a negative reaction. It’s not so much that they refuse to believe that what they hold to is “true,” but they can only, with great difficulty, call another religious or ethical opinion “false.”

  C.S. Lewis can help us to speak to our own age. He confronted relativism in his own day. In fact, he felt that it was the issue that needed to be addressed prior to preaching the gospel. He says in his Letters to Calabria:

For my part, I believe that we ought to work not only at spreading the gospel (that certainly) but also at a certain preparation for the gospel. It is necessary to recall many to the Law of Nature before we talk about God. Christ promises forgiveness of sins, but what is that to those who since they do not know the Law of Nature do not know that they have sinned? Who will take the medicine unless he is in the grip of disease? Moral relativity is the enemy we have to overcome before we tackle atheism.

  If this was the case in Lewis’s time, it is even more so in our own time. This issue of relativism and how we address it will profoundly influence our evangelism and discipleship. If we are to see any revival or reformation, we have to “tackle this enemy” as a precondition for proclaiming the gospel or living our lives for Christ.
  In a way, C.S. Lewis approached this issue of moral absolutes through the back door. For many years prior to believing, Lewis had maintained that the problem of evil prevented him from listening to the claims of Christ. “If a good God made the world, why has it gone wrong?” he would ask. He refused to listen to believers’ replies, feeling that any such arguments were an attempt to avoid the obvious. Was not the universe cruel and unjust? Lucretius had stated the problem well: “Had God designed the world, it would not be a world so frail and faulty as we see.” Lewis calls this the “Argument from Undesign.”
  However, gradually Lewis realized that his atheism had no basis for the idea of good or evil, justice or injustice. He says in Mere Christianity:

But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too—for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense.

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