Thursday, August 11, 2011

Excerpt of the Day - Letters to Malcolm

Have you ever wondered if prayer changes God's plans? In this wonderful excerpt from an oft neglected work, Letters to Malcolm, C.S. Lewis tackles that question with his usual wit and aplomb. He begins by criticizing a common view of God's sovereignty, championed by Alexander Pope, a famous English poet, that maintains that God works like a giant manager, making sure that "everything goes according to plan". Needless to say, Lewis has other ideas:

'On Pope's view God has to work in the same way. He has His grand design for the sum of things. Nothing we can say will deflect it. It leaves Him little freedom (or none?) for granting, or even for deliberately refusing, our prayers. The grand design churns out innumerable blessings and curses for individuals. God can't help that. They're all by-products.

I suggest that the distinction between plan and by-product must vanish entirely on the level of omniscience, omnipotence, and perfect goodness. I believe this because even on the human level it diminishes the higher you go. The better a human plan is made, the fewer unconsidered by-products it will have and the more birds it will kill with one stone, the more diverse needs and interests it will meet; the nearer it will come - it can never come very near - to being a plan for each individual. Bad laws make hard cases.

But let us go beyond the managerial altogether. Surely a man of genius composing a poem or symphony must be less unlike God than a ruler? But the man of genius has no mere by-products in his work. Every note or word will be more than a means, more than a consequence. Nothing will be present solely for the sake of other things. If each note or word were conscious it would say, "The maker had me myself in view and chose for me, with the whole force of his genius, exactly the context I required." And it would be right - provided it remembered that every other note or word could say no less.

How should the true Creator work by "general laws"? "To generalize is to be an idiot," said Blake. Perhaps he went too far. But to generalize is to be a finite mind. Generalities are the lenses with which our intellects have to make do. How should God sully the infinite lucidity of this vision with such makeshifts? One might as well think He had to consult books of references, or that, if He ever considered me individually, He would begin by saying, "Gabriel, bring me Mr. Lewis' file."'

--From Letters to Malcolm by C.S. Lewis


  1. Somewhat completely unrelated, but... you and Alex inspired me to start reading the Lord of the Rings ('Cause you talked about it during chapel). And my mom even is letting me count it for British Lit. I'm reading The Hobbit first, and so far I love it!
    Emily W.

  2. Glad to hear it! The Hobbit is a classic. :)