Screwtape Letter #1: Faith

[Click here to read the introduction to this series.]

The first letter that Screwtape writes to his under-study, Wormwood, boils down to one thing: the use of jargon and appetites to undermine science and reason. Screwtape wants Wormwood to keep his “patient” (the unnamed man in our story) preoccupied with ordinary, everyday “real” life—not arguments or science. Those are the paths that lead to a man engaging in the use of reason. Wormwood is to deaden his patient’s mind with jargon and distractions. Thought about things beyond human experience is to be discouraged by any means necessary.

How is Wormwood to accomplish this? Screwtape explains (emphasis mine):

I note what you say about guiding your patient’s reading and taking care that he sees a good deal of his materialist friend. But are you not being a trifle naïve? It sounds as if you supposed that argument was the way to keep him out of the Enemy’s clutches. That might have been so if he had lived a few centuries earlier. At that time the humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and if it was proved they really believed it. They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning. But what with the weekly press and other such weapons we have largely altered that. Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily “true” or “false,” but as “academic” or “practical,” “outworn” or “contemporary,” “conventional” or “ruthless.” Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous–that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.

He goes on to explain:

You begin to see the point? Thanks to processes which we set at work in them centuries ago, they find it all but impossible to believe in the unfamiliar while the familiar is before their eyes. Keep pressing home on him the ordinariness of things. Above all, do not attempt to use science (I mean, the real sciences) as a defense against Christianity. They will positively encourage him to think about realities he can’t touch and see. There have been sad cases among the modern physicists. If he must dabble in science, keep him on economics and sociology; don’t let him get away from that invaluable “real life.” But the best of all is to let him read no science but to give him a grand general idea that he knows it all and that everything he happens to have picked up in casual talk and reading is ‘the results of modern investigation’. Do remember you are there to fuddle him.

info overloadAnd fuddled, you are. Remember that Lewis wrote The Screwtape Letters over 75 years ago. Since then you have seen an explosion in news and entertainment outlets competing for your attention in ever more outlandish and brash ways. Ironically this has only served to isolate you more than ever from differing viewpoints as you make time only to read or listen to those outlets that support your viewpoint. You are not growing more diverse (ironic in this golden age of diversity über alles) but instead are increasingly intolerant of other viewpoints (again, the irony).

Basically the opening salvo advised by Screwtape is to sway the individual away from genuinely seeking truth. Here we see an attempt to keep the man from developing an authentic faith with an emphasis on keeping the human mind continually preoccupied with things outside of reality and with the trivial.

Rather diabolical, no?

Lewis alludes to the importance of having developed a strong faith through the use of your reason in order to avoid the distractions of our moods in his book Mere Christianity:

Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes. I know that by experience. Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable. This rebellion of your moods against your real self is going to come anyway. That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods “where they get off,” you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion. – Mere Christianity, Book III, Ch. 11

It has just been whispered in your ear (and indeed it has been whispered on many occasions before) that materialism is courageous and true. A quick glance around you as you observe the people, the media, and the things around you would seem to reinforce that false claim. You have heard it said there is no truth, let alone an absolute truth. Doctrine and dogma are words spoken in chilled tones by tongues dripping with condescension. When confronted by dozens of false alternatives by the media or friends who haven’t taken the time to think too deeply (they, too, are parroting what is told to them) you’ve shrugged your shoulders and busied yourself with the routine of your daily “real life.” The ordinary and the familiar occupy all your reflexes except those of your mind. Your faith, the belief in things seen and unseen, is being slowly stolen from you.

How is this being done? By throwing an overwhelming flood of alternatives to the truth at you all at once. Accomplished author Walker Percy interviewed himself on the subject in a 1977 Esquire magazine article:

Q: Are you a dogmatic Catholic or an open-minded Catholic?

A: I don’t know what that means . . . . Do you mean do I believe the dogmas that the Catholic Church proposes for belief?

Q: Yes.

A: Yes.

Q: How is such a belief possible in this day and age?

A: What else is there?

Q: What do you mean, what else is there? There is humanism, atheism, agnosticism, Marxism, behaviorism, materialism, Buddhism, Muhammadanism, Sufism, astrology, occultism, theosophy.

A: That’s what I mean.

In a 2005 homily delivered at the Mass for the Election of the Supreme Pontiff, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger said:

Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine”, seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.

Attempts have been made to erode your faith (and quest for truth) while programming relativistic tendencies. Yet inherent within all men and women is the continuous search for truth. And here pride, that age old nemesis, is being used against you. Take the Creed of the Church for example. Also known as The Apostles’ Creed, it consists of many “I believe” statements. But how can this be? How can one be so bold (or so ignorant) as to recite these statements of supposed truth to ourselves or (horror of horrors!) communally? Has not relativism discredited faith as a reasonable way to answer any questions? The world will tell you “yes.”

The Apostles Creed

I believe in God,
the Father almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried;
he descended into hell;
on the third day he rose again from the dead;
he ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty;
from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting.

Saint Anthony of Padua described earthly riches as being “like the reed. Its roots are sunk in the swamp, and its exterior is fair to behold; but inside it is hollow. If a man leans on such a reed, it will snap off and pierce his soul.”

Saint John Chrysostom went further when he said that “our condition needs much endurance; and endurance is best produced when doctrines are deeply rooted. For just as there is no wind that is able to tear up an oak tree by its assaults because it sends down its root deep into the earth, so too the soul that is nailed by the fear of God—not just rooted but nailed—will not be able to be overturned.” (St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of John 54.1.)

Doctrine, by its very nature develops for the purpose of discovering deeper truth from the original source. These truths are discovered through the use of thinking and of reason. They are not discovered in the mundane distractions of reality television or social media.

You are free to choose which you wish to be: a reed or a mighty oak. Hollow and easily snapped in the breeze, or able to withstand the winds of popular opinion, materialism, and relativism by having roots deeply embedded in the truth…roots nailed to the cross itself.

You are free to choose. But if you choose poorly you will no longer be free.

Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31-32)


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