Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Twenty-One

This chapter, Chapter Twenty-Nine, is all about courage. The Patient is making preparations for the bombings that are likely to come soon. Screwtape is worried for the Patient’s soul; it is far too moral and Christianly for him to die right now. Wormwood has no idea how to use the situation to his advantage. It’s a dark time for our… heroes?

Screwtape observes that the fear the Patient is experiencing can work to their advantage in one of two ways. First, the Patient can be made to act cowardly. Fear alone is not cowardice, of course. It is only when fear leads a person to act foolishly, dangerously or selfishly that the fear itself is to any advantage of the demons. Unfortunately the Patient is in a very bad state of mind to be lead that way. He is too focused on bettering himself. The only method Screwtape thinks would stand a chance is to make the Patient obsess over ways to protect himself from the worst happening. Screwtape advises making the Patient devise plans A, B, and C, which of course will only make him wonder what he will do if C fails. The longer he is kept in a state of obsessing over the danger, the more vulnerable he will be to fear.

The second method is to make the Patient feel hate. This will be difficult with the Patient at this time as well, because he is keenly aware that Christians are called to forgive their enemies. Screwtape’s best solution for a remedy is this; “If conscience resists, muddle him. Let him say that he feels hatred not on his own behalf but on that of the women and children, and that a Christian is told to forgive his own, not other people’s enemies. In other words let him consider himself sufficiently identified with the women and children to feel hatred on their behalf, but not sufficiently identified to regard their enemies as his own and therefore proper objects of forgiveness.”

I’m actually not sure what I think about that. Now, in this specific example, any hatred the Patient feels towards the bombers will likely be at least somewhat based on his own fear for his own well being, so telling himself, “I’m only hating them for other people’s sake” is obviously an excuse. That said, is it actually true that “I feel hurt and anger and hatred on someone else’s behalf” means “I have the right to forgive them in my own heart, regardless of whether or not the somebody else has”? I don’t know. Please leave a comment if you have any thoughts on this.

He goes on to describe the advantages of hatred over cowardice.

“Cowardice, alone of all the vices, is purely painful – horrible to anticipate, horrible to feel, horrible to remember; Hatred has its pleasures. It is therefore often the compensation by which a frightened man reimburses himself for the miseries of Fear. The more he fears, the more he will hate. And Hatred is a great anodyne for shame.”

Screwtape also suggests that the Patient’s bravery could be turned to pride, but he gives no advice on how to pull this off. Instead, he spends a good deal of this chapter whining, which is actually fairly amusing to read. Times of danger are apparently of great advantage to God, because while demons can make people enjoy and even take pride in many vices, cowardice is completely unpleasant to experience and impossible to boast of. Because of this, times of danger make people assess their courage, and while love might be the greatest virtue, courage is the one demons fear most. It’s meaningless to say you have principles when you don’t have the courage to hold to them when they cost you something. As Screwtape so succinctly puts it, “Pilate was merciful till it became risky.”

He even suspects that God allows a dangerous world precisely because it allows virtues to be put to the test of courage. Screwtape also seems to think that even cowardice, when it is displayed, is somewhat disadvantageous to demons, because it can lead to redeption. “We have made men proud of most vices, but not of cowardice. Whenever we have almost succeeded in doing so, the Enemy permits a war or an earthquake or some other calamity, and at once courage becomes so obviously lovely and important even in human eyes that all our work is undone, and there is still at least one vice of which they feel genuine shame. The danger of inducing cowardice in our patients, therefore, is lest we produce real self-knowledge and self-loathing with consequent repentance and humility. And in fact, in the last war, thousands of humans, by discovering their own cowardice, discovered a whole moral world for the first time.”

I do like the idea of cowardice as a means of redemption, but I am also bothered by this justification for a deadly world, particularly in light of the rest of the universe that has been described throughout the book. Now, if it was just an image of God using suffering as a means of making us into something better than we would be in a perfectly comfortable world, before going on to the next, happier life, I think there’s actually something quite nice about it. Not nice enough to make me believe it, but I could move it into the category of things I don’t personally believe in but do think they are sort of cool as concepts, like reincarnation. But when you combine it with the fact that everyone gets one chance before they are condemned to either eternal bliss or eternal agony, it becomes much uglier.

Consider, for example, child soldiers and the Hitler youth. Consider sociopaths, who are born with neurological defects that make it very difficult for them to ever develop a moral sense (not necessarily impossible, but it seems that those who don’t grow into full sociopaths had extraordinarily good environmental circumstances; people who were very loving and patient. In other words, not because they had free will and could just choose to not be sociopaths, but because somebody else was willing to take the work to teach them how to empathize). Do those people deserve to go to hell, if they were in circumstances that pressured them so heavily into doing wrong? Do they deserve heaven? I don’t know, but I’m not okay with some God deciding it was all right to make a dangerous world, and then condemning those who were bad because of the danger to an eternity in hell. I think saying he makes it dangerous so those who are good despite the danger can go to heaven is deliberately ignoring half the picture.

Growing up, I was often told that God never tests us beyond what we can handle. In other words, if you grew up in a concentration camp, because Kim Jong-il decided it was a good idea to imprison not only your father for sedition but also any children he had and any children his children will have, and you were beaten every day and barely fed, because that’s what the soldiers guarding you were commanded to do and if they disobey they’ll just be condemning their children to the same fate, you don’t get any slack for being a bit messed up by that environment. You can still go to hell for stealing and lying and betraying others to survive, nevermind that your world is so awful your capacity to empathize is shutting down from early childhood as an act of psychological self-defense. God is just testing you, and for some reason he is testing you with hell on earth while he tested me with a moderately crappy childhood, in a privileged suburban kind of way. If you failed his test, that counts against you just as much as it would against me. Nevermind that your test was obviously a thousand times harder and you were taking it from infancy. He wouldn’t test you beyond what you could handle, right?

Sorry, got a bit ranty there. Suffice to say I don’t find this justification very plausible anymore. Apart from my issues with that one point I actually liked the rest of the chapter quite a lot. I think he’s right about the importance of courage. I think he’s right about the mechanics of hatred and cowardice, and I like the idea of cowardice leading to honest self-evaluation and real character growth.

Only two more posts to go before the end of the book!

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