Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Eleven

A bit of my own background; by the time I was eleven, the number of churches I had been to probably outnumbered the years I had existed. Moving from church to church frustrated me, because as a homeschooler my main social outlets were always at church and I was never good at making friends in a new place. Furthermore, I began to suspect that the church my father was looking for did not actually exist. Anywhere we went, he would start out praising it as “exactly like our old one, but with all the problems fixed!” and before long he would decide the music was too loud or the sermons were too repetitive or that he absolutely could not go somewhere where the pastor did not believe speaking in tongues was a thing. So, when I first read Chapter 16, I found the opening almost smugly vindicating.

“You mentioned casually in your last letter that the patient has continued to attend one church, and one only, since he was converted, and that he is not wholly pleased with it. May I ask what you are about? Why have I no report on the causes of fidelity to the local church? Do you realise that unless it is due to indifference it is a very bad thing? Surely you know that if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the city looking for the church that ‘suits’ him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches.”

This is one of those chapters that is a bit hard to review, because, as Lewis goes on for a while about how God uses churches, I’m sure his intent was to say something about churches and not communities in general. My intent in writing these reviews is not to talk about why I became an atheist or criticize religion in general, but to comb through a book that I loved as a religious homeschooled kid and see whether it still holds any meaning for me as an adult atheist. When he says things that are anti-atheist I’ll comment on them, but if he says things that are just pro-religious I’m not going to bother. Nowadays, I don’t have a church. On the other hand, I haven’t stopped talking with people about moral issues and the art of self-improvement. If anything, I’ve started talking about these things more; there’s a lot more to say when you aren’t starting the conversation with the assumption that all the answers are in a particular book. So I can either ignore this chapter, or ignore Lewis’ intent and apply what he says to moral and intellectual communities in general. Even though I feel like I’m stretching the applicability, even by my own standards, there’s a lot here that I think can apply, so stretch I will.

The whole theme of this chapter is finding ways to disrupt the Patient’s practice of church-going so that it is of little use to him, and as much good to the demons, as possible. Screwtape describes three things Wormwood can do to break down the Patient’s commitment to the church. First is keep  him moving, as described in the opening, second is send him somewhere with a poor pastor, and third is get him worked up over divisions between the churches that are trivial. It’s easy to see Screwtape’s reasoning in all of these, but harder to figure out how to avoid his traps. How do you leave a poorly lead church if you also believe that it’s important to be loyal to your community, or cultivate feelings of loyalty to a community without caring somewhat about the little things that separate it from other ones? Not to mention that telling the difference between trivial and doctrinal issues isn’t as easy as he makes it out to be. I was always taught that such and such a practice was profoundly symbolic of significant doctrine X or that we follow this tradition because it’s a way of reminding us of important thing Y.

But just because it’s hard to negotiate this advice, that doesn’t mean the points aren’t good. Much of life is about finding a good balance between good ideas that sound contradictory. There is a middle ground between insisting on impossible perfection and being unable to recognize that the bad of a particular environment outweighs the good. There are ways to care about your own symbols while recognizing that others can use different symbols to reach equally noble ends.

Screwtape believes the worst way for a person to attend church is with an attitude that is “critical in the sense of rejecting what is false or unhelpful, but which is wholly uncritical in the sense that it does not appraise – does not waste time thinking about what it rejects – but lays itself open in uncommenting, humble receptivity to any nourishment.” I like the beginning of that statement, and I like the end, but I have to pick at the middle for a little bit. How do you reject what is false without thinking about what is being rejected? I suppose what he may be trying to say is that you don’t dwell on what you have rejected beyond the amount of thought needed to decide it was worth rejecting. Even if I believed that was possible, I’m not sure it would be a good practice. I like going back and thinking about the parts of a particular person’s message or ideology that I disagree with. For one thing, it can be useful to notice trends of bad advice in a particular advice giver. It can help me recognize whether I am dealing with a human being who will occasionally say things I disagree with, or someone with a serious flaw in how they approach a particular issue. For another, if I never revisit ideas I have rejected, I never give myself the opportunity to reconsider whether I was right to reject them in the first place.

Here’s where I agree, though; I think he’s trying to make the point that when you set yourself up as a judge, you take from yourself the ability to be a scholar. A judge is stuck between good and bad, guilty and innocent, winner and various degrees of loser, but a scholar gets to investigate and pick the good out from a message, no matter the flaws of the messenger, and use the good for their own edification. That, I think, is a point worth remembering.

Screwtape’s next suggestion for corrupting the Patient’s church-going habits (stick him with bad churches) comes with two specific recommendations; the church of Fr. Spike or an unnamed pastor. Fr. Spike is easily inflamed and his messages, wildly contradictory, tend to come from a place of hatred of what is different rather than love of what is good. The pastor is almost painfully lukewarm and limits himself to a handful of reworded sermons calculated more to avoid offending anybody than to actually teach anything. These two types of bad teachers can be found anywhere. One is bad because they encourage you to use the ideals they are preaching in harmful, destructive ways. The other is bad because, while their message is all right, it is limited. Listen to them for too long and you stop learning anything. If you never risk saying something wrong or offensive, you will never challenge anyone to grow. Putting the first and second points together, what I take away is this; don’t force your teacher to be perfect before you accept their teachings, but it’s another thing entirely to move away from a teacher who no longer has anything to teach you, or whose influence has become toxic.

His third point is to some degree a repetition of what was said earlier about factionism. In that chapter, he talked about dividing people broadly, into radicals of one sort or another who can’t stand to speak to each other. Here he talks about something even more common and insidious; the attacks between people who belong to the same general group, but have some little habits or rituals that separate them. He talks about high and low churches, in other words the more orthodox and traditional vs more casual worship practices. In my life, there’s the vegans vs. the vegetarians, or people who get really hung up over whether you say you’re “bisexual” or “pansexual.” The antidote Screwtape fears Christians discovering is “what that pestilent fellow Paul used to teach about food and other unessentials – that the human without scruples should always give in to the human with scruples. You would expect to find the ‘low’ churchman genuflecting and crossing himself lest the weak conscience of his ‘high’ brother should be moved to irreverence, and the ‘high’ one refraining from these exercises lest he should betray his ‘low’ brother into idolatry.”

I think that goes a bit far. There’s something very paternalistic and demeaning in the attitude he describes there. I’d be pissed off if, for example, people who are normally carnivorous started only ordering vegetarian dishes around me because they don’t want me to lose my resolve from all the yummy bacon smells. However, if I tone down the advice a little bit, I end up with the vegetarians bringing hummus to the potluck to maximize options for their vegan friends, while the vegans bring a make-your-own salad with everything from sliced ham to cheese to walnuts as protein, and the carnivores pick up some black bean patties to grill along with the hamburgers. I end up with everyone using each other’s preferred identifiers and pronouns without a lot of grumbling over pan vs. bi or singular they vs. zie. I end up with a Muslim woman complimenting her friend’s miniskirt while her friend admires the print on her hijab, because they both want each other to feel pretty and comfortable instead of judged.

I like that world. I like it a lot.

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