September 28, 2012

Faith and Family / Sean Gallagher

Lessons can be learned during bedtime reading

Sean GallagherI enjoy reading to my sons at bedtime. At present, I’m reading C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew to my 7-year-old son, Raphael, and 5-year-old son, Victor.

In years past, my 10-year-old son, Michael, liked it so much that I probably read it to him two or three times. Raphael and Victor have been lapping it up.

And I’m glad because it teaches in an entertaining way some crucial lessons about faith and morality.

Early in the book, one of the seven volumes of Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, a boy named Digory and his friend, Polly, have an encounter with Digory’s strange Uncle Andrew. He tricks the children into being guinea pigs in his experiments with magic rings which he has made—rings that make anyone who touches them disappear into a strange world.

Uncle Andrew tells Digory that he got the material for the rings from his godmother while she was on her deathbed. She made him promise to destroy the material after she died.

“That promise I did not keep,” Andrew told Digory, at which he responded, “Well then, it was jolly well rotten of you.”

Uncle Andrew’s reply is a classic line from the book. “ ‘Rotten?’ said Uncle Andrew with a puzzled look. ‘Oh, I see. You mean that little boys ought to keep their promises. Very true: most right and proper, I’m sure, and I’m very glad you have been taught to do it.

“ ‘But of course you must understand that rules of that sort, however excellent they may be for little boys—and servants—and women—and even people in general, can’t possibly be expected to apply to profound students and great thinkers and sages. No, Digory. Men like me, who possess hidden wisdom, are freed from common rules just as we are cut off from common pleasures. Ours, my boy, is a high and lonely destiny.’ ”

Uncle Andrew here tries to justify his treachery in forcing the children to be his guinea pigs by saying how much he has to sacrifice by possessing his “hidden wisdom.” In actuality, it’s the children who make the sacrifice by being sent into some unknown place while Uncle Andrew sits quietly in his attic study.

This scene eloquently reveals the contradictions and often unacknowledged dark side of moral relativism. Many people desire to be so tolerant of moral views different from their own that they say there are no universal rights or wrongs. What is true for one person isn’t necessarily true for another.

Yet, it seems an instinctual part of the human condition to fight back against double standards. When celebrities, politicians, our bosses or even our neighbors seem to get away with doing wrong, we don’t like it. We want people like Uncle Andrew to keep their promises. In his classic Mere Christianity, Lewis uses this strong inborn moral sense as an argument for the existence of God.

But if in our tolerance we become relativists, then we have to accept such a situation, which is a logical outcome of this moral worldview. As the saying goes, “In for a penny, in for a pound.”

The acceptance of moral absolutes should not, however, make us intolerant bigots. In fact, in the same breath that we acknowledge the existence of universal rights and wrongs, we should affirm that humans are universally prone to making bad choices.

Bringing these two realities together without believing in a forgiving God who gives us the help that we need to do good and avoid evil would easily lead us to despair and even to holding to the simple but cruel principle that might makes right.

Thankfully, our belief in God—which is, I might add, a well-reasoned belief—makes all the difference and fills our days with hope and love.

If my sons can learn that lesson by listening to The Magician’s Nephew, then bring bedtime on! †

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