“I never yet knew how it felt to think I stood in the presence of my superior.—If the presence of God were made visible immediately before me, I could not abase myself.”
“The real test of being in the presence of God is, that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object” (p. 125).
Now isn’t that interesting? One man, imagining the presence of greatness, feels the same about himself. Another man, imagining the greatness, feels unworthy and unclean. Same contemplated being — completely opposite reactions. What explains this?
Part of the explanation can be personal and autobiographical. Some people think and act well, building up a healthy confidence in their abilities and character. Others do badly and knowingly do bad things, undercutting their confidence and coming to dislike themselves.
But it’s more than that. Whitman speaks only of himself in the first person, while Lewis speaks in the second person, implicitly generalizing to the human condition. Lewis is not saying merely that he, personally, through some quirk or weirdness of personal development, came to feel himself to be a loathesome being; Lewis is saying that that’s what it is to be a human being.
He does sometimes speak autobiographically: “In my most clear-sighted moments not only do I not think myself a nice man, but I know I am a very nasty one” (p. 117). But he sees himself as being in the same condition everyone else is. And no one, he thinks, can get to God without the same negative self-belief: “he cannot get into the right relation [to God] until he has discovered the fact of our bankruptcy” (p. 145).
So here’s my question: What is the psychological order for Lewis (and by extension, Christianity)? Is it that first we have a personal sense of nastiness, then we turn to Christianity and generalize that bankruptcy to the human condition? Or is it that we start with a generalized view of the bankruptcy of humanity and see ourselves as part of the package?
Lewis’s book opens up another possibility through his presentation of Christian ethics. That ethic demands chastity, obedience, humility, forgiveness, and so on. But trying to live according to the Christian ethics, Lewis reports, always leads to repeated failure and consequent guilt, which drives home to us our bankruptcy, which is an important learning step: “It is the change from being confident about our own efforts to the state in which we despair of doing anything for ourselves” (146).
So it could be that the self-despising comes indirectly via first adopting the Christian ethic and trying to take it seriously.
So which of three possible routes is the Lewisian Christian one?
1. One first develops a self-loathing for personal reasons. Christianity then is an after-the-fact confirmation and consolation, as well as incorporating a negative generalization to all human beings.
2. One first comes to believe that humans in general are loathsome. Christianity then both confirms this belief and personalizes it.
3. One starts off as a standard decent person who wants to be good. One then comes to believe sincerely that the Christian ethics are good, and one experiences repeated failure when trying to live according to them. So one consequently comes to think of oneself and others as by nature weak and guilty.
Or to put it in starker terms: Does one begin feeling that one is loathsome and then turn to Christianity for affirmation? Or does one start by committing to Christianity and consequently come to despise oneself?
[Related post: Why C. S. Lewis gives me the creeps.]