Guinness sucked me in with riptide force by the people referenced, their historical milieu and their life experiences which created a “cognitive dissonance” forcing them to reconsider their view of reality—worldview.
Issues like death, suffering, evil, justice, truth, and joy are often the necessary “triggers” that awaken people to rethink their dearly held worldview presuppositions and as a result, it leads them to Christian conversion. Two of the many examples Guinness considers are W.H. Auden and C.S. Lewis, both former atheists who converted to Christianity.
Consider W.H. Auden, one of the 20th century’s most influential English speaking poets, whose worldview was jolted by the gruesome reality of Nazi Germany and their death camps. Previously, he thought people were generally good, God was a crutch, and there were no moral absolutes. However, Auden now faced a two-fold conundrum: first, how could he make sense of the undeniable evil he encountered, and second, how could he justify rightly condemning Hitler for the evils perpetrated if there are no moral absolutes? These “pebbles” in Auden’s soul caused him to raise this question to his friends and later to a reporter:
“The English intellectuals who now cry to Heaven against the evil incarnated in Hitler have no Heaven to cry to.” And, “Unless someone is ready to take a relativist view that all morals are a matter of personal taste, one could hardly avoid asking the question: If, as I am convinced, the Nazis are wrong and we are right, what is it that validates our values and invalidates theirs? ” (Pg.133)
Auden’s desire for justice in the face of egregious evil could not be realized if relativism was true. He concluded that the only way to combat such evil was to renew “faith in the absolute”. Here Guinness explains that although Auden had not yet converted to Christianity, these “signals of transcendence” propelled him to leave his atheism and to become a seeker. His life experience and the horrors of the holocaust jarred him into reality like no argument could.
Guinness goes on to explain that such jarring experiences act as “signals of transcendence” that cause us to transcend our present awareness to think more deeply, broadly and honestly. He notes:
“The signals message is a double one: it acts as a contradiction and a desire. It acts as a contradiction in that it punctures the adequacy of what we once believed. It arouses in us a desire or longing for a new answer that is surer, richer and more adequate than whatever it was we believed before—which has patently failed ” (Pg.134)
These signals are pointing to an end that is hopefully more satisfactory then the present state of affairs. Auden, the former atheist turned into a seeker because existentially his worldview could not satisfy his desire for justice, truth and moral knowledge.
Death is the horn-blast that something’s wrong! The signal (I.e. the horn-blast) however is not the end but the means through which an answer can be had; it does not conclusively determine the destination. When the signal is confused for the goal, the search for meaning stops and some commit suicide— seeing no point to life.
Guinness goes on to consider the issue of desire and longing in light of the truth. Depending on the religious persuasion, desire and longing can be viewed either negatively (Buddhist and Stoic position) or positively (Jewish and Christian tradition). Negatively viewed, desire needs to be transcended and escaped, positively considered the object of desire determines whether it is negative or positive.
For example, the reason we have desire according to Plato is because we are incomplete essentially because we’ve been “cut-in half” and we long for our other half. Again, in the Classical Greek and Roman paradigm there’s four major passions: desire, fear, joy and grief. Desire is yearning for that which we don’t possess; fear is the aversion to the undesirable; joy is the possession of what we desire, and grief is undergoing what we fear.
However, in the Judeo-Christian perspective desire is positive or negative depending on the object desired. There’s no need to deny, escape, or transcend desire itself (I.e., Buddhism & the Stoics). However, when it’s directed ultimately toward the creature instead of the Creator, something called “The Fall” occurred (Genesis 3). As a result of God not seen as our highest good, it’s not that we’ve been cut-in-half (I.e., Plato) but we’ve been cut-off from God, ourselves, each other, and nature itself. Guinness says,
“So now we live east of Eden…We are all prodigals now, and we are all in a far country. Yet however far away we go there is always a longing for home that will not go away” (Pg.136-7)
We are aware that something is missing and there must be something more. Apologetically, we must prick the soul in its desire factory for “something more/better” secondly, we must appeal to what we know is wrong “fear grief”. That is, we must point to the desire for joy and the fear of grief, these immaterial drives that trigger a hunger for the transcendent, as evidence for an object that can satisfy such longings, even though some would suppress that truth of God in unrighteousness.
Guinness contends that a strategy to combat such suppression is to use an existential presuppositional approach which presses people to the logic of their own assumptions and shows them that their faith (whatever it may be other than in the Creator) is neither true nor adequate. In other words, what they profess to be “true” can’t be lived and this realization leaves them thinking, maybe even perturbed. This happened to Auden, it can happen to our loved ones.
Consider C.S. Lewis, a former atheist and 20th century Christian apologist who was captivated by joy as retold in his biography. He recalls that this joy was aroused by a flowering currant bush which brought back childhood memories with his brother. Lewis describes joy not as pleasure or happiness which is conditioned by circumstances or the senses, but as something other worldly. That is, if this joy could be possessed it was not attainable in this life, but how he knew it was indeterminable. Regardless, to possess such joy would be incomparable to any experienced pleasure (E.g., The Pearl of Great Price parable).
Here was a signal of transcendence not the attainment of faith, says Guinness, although for Lewis that was its end. Although joy raised questions it supplied no answers (pg.144). Among Guinness’ many points, the one made here is that sometimes nonbelievers come to faith as a result of the horrors or joys of life that contradict their present worldview. This causes a person to search through transcendent signals that point to a reality of life’s true meaning. Sometimes this pursuit ends in conversions, sometimes in suicide.