Wednesday 11 May 2011

"Honest opinions, sincerely expressed" - the creed of an intellectual...


From The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis, 1946.

The scene: Heaven.

A group of ghostly souls from Hell are visiting to have another chance of salvation. A liberal Anglican Bishop is one of the visitors. He meets an old college friend, Dick, a Spirit who now inhabits Heaven.

Dick is speaking first:


"Is it possible you don't know where you've been?"

"Now that you mention it, I don't think we ever do give it a name. What do you call it?"

"We call it Hell."

"There is no need to be profane, my dear boy. I may not be very orthodox, in your sense of that word, but I do feel that these matters ought to be discussed simply, and seriously, and reverently."

"Discuss Hell reverently? I meant what I said. You have been in Hell: though if you don't go back you may call it Purgatory."

"Go on, my dear boy, go on. That is so like you. No doubt you'll tell me why, on your view, I was sent there. I'm not angry."

"But don't you know? You went there because you are an apostate."

"Are you serious, Dick?"


"This is worse than I expected. Do you really think people are penalised for their honest opinions? Even assuming, for the sake of argument, that those opinions were mistaken."

"Do you really think there are no sins of intellect?"

"There are indeed, Dick. There is hidebound prejudice, and intellectual dishonesty, and timidity, and stagnation. But honest opinions fearlessly followed-they are not sins."

"I know we used to talk that way. I did it too until the end of my life when I became what you call narrow. It all turns on what are honest opinions."

"Mine certainly were. They were not only honest but heroic. I asserted them fearlessly. When the doctrine of the Resurrection ceased to commend itself to the critical faculties which God had given me, I openly rejected it. I preached my famous sermon. I defied the whole chapter. I took every risk."

"What risk? What was at all likely to come of it except what actually came-popularity, sales for your books, invitations, and finally a bishopric?"

"Dick, this is unworthy of you. What are you suggesting?"

"Friend, I am not suggesting at all. You see, I know now. Let us be frank. Our opinions were not honestly come by. We simply found ourselves in contact with a certain current of ideas and plunged into it because it seemed modern and successful. At College, you know, we just started automatically writing the kind of essays that got good marks and saying the kind of things that won applause. When, in our whole lives, did we honestly face, in solitude, the one question on which all turned: whether after all the Supernatural might not in fact occur? When did we put up one moment's real resistance to the loss of our faith?"

"If this is meant to be a sketch of the genesis of liberal theology in general, I reply that it is a mere libel. Do you suggest that men like ..."

"I have nothing to do with any generality. Nor with any man but me and you. Oh, as you love your own soul, remember. You know that you and I were playing with loaded dice. We didn't want the other to be true. We were afraid of crude salvationism, afraid of a breach with the spirit of the age, afraid of ridicule, afraid (above all) of real spiritual fears and hopes."

"I'm far from denying that young men may make mistakes. They may well be influenced by current fashions of thought. But it's not a question of how the opinions are formed. The point is that they were my honest opinions, sincerely expressed."

"Of course. Having allowed oneself to drift, unresisting, unpraying, accepting every half-conscious solicitation from our desires, we reached a point where we no longer believed the Faith. Just in the same way, a jealous man, drifting and unresisting, reaches a point at which he believes lies about his best friend: a drunkard reaches a point at which (for the moment) he actually believes that another glass will do him no harm. The beliefs are sincere in the sense that they do occur as psychological events in the man's mind. If that's what you mean by sincerity they are sincere, and so were ours. But errors which are sincere in that sense are not innocent."

"You'll be justifying the Inquisition in a moment!"

"Why? Because the Middle Ages erred in one direction, does it follow that there is no error in the opposite direction?"

"Well, this is extremely interesting," said the Episcopal Ghost. "It's a point of view. Certainly, it's a point of view. In the meantime . . ."

"There is no meantime," replied the other. "All that is over. We are not playing now. I have been talking of the past (your past and mine) only in order that you may turn from it forever. One wrench and the tooth will be out. You can begin as if nothing had ever gone wrong. White as snow. It's all true, you know. He is in me, for you, with that power. And- I have come a long journey to meet you. You have seen Hell: you are in sight of Heaven. Will you, even now, repent and believe?"

"I'm not sure that I've got the exact point you are trying to make," said the Ghost.

"I am not trying to make any point," said the Spirit. "I am telling you to repent and believe."

"But my dear boy, I believe already. We may not be perfectly agreed, but you have completely misjudged me if you do not realise that my religion is a very real and a very precious thing to me." (...)  Oh, must you be going? Well, so must I. Goodbye, my dear boy. It has been a great pleasure. Most stimulating and provocative. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye."


The Bishop returns to Hell.


The Bishop's attitude is very familiar to me since I used to share it.

After all, what could be wrong with 'honest opinions, sincerely expressed'?


Oblique reference:

In the old days Church of Scotland ministers did not mince matters.

In the course of a sermon one said: Ah hed a dreem, an in that dreem Ah saw a vision o' better folk than you, efter they were deed, in the place where the wurm dieth not and the fire is not quenched, callin' out tae the Lord in their agony, callin' out:

'O Lord, we nivver kent it wud be as bad as this.'

And the Lord, out of His love and tender mercy looked down on their agony and He spoke and answered:

'Weel... ye ken noo.'



Anonymous said...

Lewis is showing here a character who is not honest and sincere but is using intellectual arguments as a mask for other motives.Truly honest questioning/doubts are not dangerous but essential to faith (see Job 42: 7-8 where Job,who has cursed God for whole chapters,is upheld while his friends who have given all the `right answers` are told off).

Alex said...

Let us be frank. Our opinions were not honestly come by. We simply found ourselves in contact with a certain current of ideas and plunged into it because it seemed modern and successful.

This is a quandary in which thoughtful people find themselves in every time and place. There's always a 'spirit of the age' towards which the intelligentsia pays its respects. In every society, there's always an orthodoxy of ideas with which all right thinking people believe they must conform.

How does one acquire 'honest opinions' which are independent of and not contaminated by the ethos of the hour?

Bruce Charlton said...

Anon "Truly honest questioning/doubts are not dangerous but essential to faith"

Not really true. Simple, humble faith is perhaps the best or at least the surest way; but certainly faith is *compatible* with honest opinions, sincerely, expressed - Lewis's point is that THIS IS NOT ENOUGH.

Bruce Charlton said...

Alex "How does one acquire 'honest opinions' which are independent of and not contaminated by the ethos of the hour?"

By connecting with The Church - but of course most of the Church does more harm than good - so one must discern the true, mystical Church - and I suppose this is where some kind of spiritual quest comes in. There must be some degree of humility and love...

Then there is divine Grace (humans can't do this alone, so they must ask for help).

But as Blaise Pascal emphasized there is the ultimate assurance from Christ that he who seeks WILL find; so all true seekers will find what they seek for, although maybe not in this life...

My personal 'solution' is that I feel that Seraphim Rose was a modern man (in essentially the same situation as we are now) and (by his personal contact with St John Maximovitch) got in touch with the true stream of the mystical Church, and transmitted it by writing for the modern era; so I have (very feebly, it must be emphasized) tried to follow his guidance and read the sources he provided, translated and recommended.

dearieme said...

ragtime news

Wm Jas said...

Our opinions were not honestly come by. We simply found ourselves in contact with a certain current of thought and plunged into it

Surely this is just as true of most orthodox believers as it is of apostates. How many people really come by their religious opinions honestly?

Brett Stevens said...

Honest analysis scares most people because in it one can be very wrong, and one has to take a stand.

It is much easier to follow an archetype, as was described with writing papers to get the grades. If you know what is expected, let it fly and then reap the reward.

In the meantime, in order to accept that way of living as valid, you have had to deny the seriousness of the question, the importance of life and the need for reverence.

If we had to pick a starting point for all human error, it's when we stop seeing ourselves as part of the cosmos, and instead see ourselves as opposing it.

Bruce Charlton said...

WmJas - I think the difference is that religious people do not seem to use the 'honest opinions, sincerely expressed' argument which Lewis is critiquing here.

The Crow said...

We wake up to find ourselves living in an age where nobody remembers what honesty is, and sincerity is a facial expression one wears to give an impression of something vaguely supportive.