Anfractuosity: The Case against Christianity as Wish Fulfillment

A common criticism levied against religion generally and Christianity specifically is that it is simply wish fulfillment, a human invention to help us manage our anxiety in the face of a chaotic world and eventual death.  Wanting something to be true doesn’t make it true.  And Christianity is just whistling in the dark to keep our hopes alive.

Some answer such arguments by saying that just because we desire it to be true, doesn’t mean we are inventing it.  Starving people didn’t invent the idea of food.  Human longing could be an indicator of truth as opposed to falsehood.  Others counter that advocates of wish fulfillment desire Christianity to be untrue and therefore, using the same criteria, their position can equally be falsified as wish fulfillment.  To my mind, the most satisfying answer to this objection, an answer that honestly deals with the objection rather than obfuscate or accuse, comes from C.S. Lewis’s work The Problem of Pain. 

In the 1st chapter, Lewis argues for the truth of Christianity in four steps:

  1. The awareness of a spiritual dimension to life, which he calls the “numinous.”
  2. The awareness of a moral law.
  3. The connection of the moral law with the “numinous,” a step which Lewis describes as awareness of “the Something which is at once the awful haunter of nature and the giver of the moral law.”
  4. The incarnation of Jesus Christ, which is the fullest expression and greatest fulfillment of this third step.

After arguing why his reasons to believe are good, he admits that his evidence is inductive and therefore leads not to proof but assurance.  He then comments on the effect if one rejects these assurances:

“It does not amount to logical compulsion. At every stage of religious development man may rebel, if not without violence to his own nature, yet without absurdity. He can close his spiritual eyes against the Numinous, if he is prepared to part company with half the great poets and prophets of his race, with his own childhood, with the richness and depth of uninhibited experience. He can regard the moral law as an illusion, and so cut himself off from the common ground of humanity. He can refuse to identify the Numinous with the righteous, and remain a barbarian, worshipping sexuality, or the dead, or the lifeforce, or the future. But the cost is heavy.”

In his final analysis of the Incarnation, he includes a defense of how we can know the difference between true things which fulfill real longings and human invention which helps us cope with anxiety. His answer can be summed up in one word, a word he uses towards the end of the paragraph: Anfractuosity.

 “And when we come to the last step of all, the historical Incarnation, the assurance is strongest of all. The story is strangely like many myths which have haunted religion from the first, and yet it is not like them. It is not transparent to the reason: we could not have invented it ourselves. It has not the suspicious a priori lucidity of Pantheism or of Newtonian physics. It has the seemingly arbitrary and idiosyncratic character which modern science is slowly teaching us to put up with in this willful universe, where energy is made up in little parcels of a quantity no one could predict, where speed is not unlimited, where irreversible entropy gives time a real direction and the cosmos, no longer static or cyclic, moves like a drama from a real beginning to a real end. If any message from the core of reality ever were to reach us, we should expect to find in it just that unexpectedness, that willful, dramatic anfractuosity which we find in the Christian faith. It has the master touch – the rough, male taste of reality, not made by us, or, indeed, for us, but hitting us in the face.”

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