futility: (n) the quality or state of being futile; uselessness or pointlessness
All of us, on occasion or often, have felt a sense of futility descend upon us like a fog. Perhaps we find ourselves overwhelmed by the evil and apparent absurdity in the world, or the tragedies and hardships in our own lives. Sickness, suffering, death, and even at times trivial inconveniences like rush-hour traffic can lead us to speak into the ether, “What even is the point of anything?”
Sometimes, this sense of futility passes quickly. Other times, it lingers and haunts our consciousness like a dripping faucet. Even when our attention is elsewhere, that steady sense of futility presses upon us and clouds our minds and chastens our affections. Many of us know the frustration of futility. With the help of C.S. Lewis, I’d like to explore the less-traveled road of the bright side of futility.
More Than Matter
As a defender of the Christian faith, Lewis was known especially for his clear and compelling use of arguments from reason, morality, and desire. He deployed these arguments primarily as a way of refuting naturalism or materialism, the view that nature or matter is all there is.
The argument from reason runs something like this: Human thought cannot merely be a fact about ourselves, but must instead, in principle, be capable of giving us real insight into reality. Lewis frequently quoted Professor J.D.S. Haldane to the effect that “If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true, and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.”
“We might say that God is as near to you as your thinking, your judging, and your desiring.”
In other words, all knowledge depends on the validity of logic, and therefore logic must in principle be more than a subjective phenomenon but instead a “real insight into the way in which real things have to exist” (“De Futilitate,” 63). If this is so, then human reason testifies to the existence of a cosmic or super-cosmic Reason in which the universe is saturated. While this argument doesn’t get you the whole way to Christian theism, it does seem to effectively refute strict materialism.
The argument from morality is similar: Human beings make moral judgments. We call certain things good and certain things evil, certain things right and certain things wrong. In doing so, we appeal to an objective standard of behavior that is outside of us. Whether we are judging our neighbors or the Nazis, the very fact of our judgment testifies to our belief in a real objective Good that stands over us and to which we ought to conform. There is a real moral law that is constantly pressing upon us.
Again, this argument doesn’t get us the whole way to Christianity, but the existence of a universal moral law does seem to imply a Lawgiver, and thus open the way for further discussion of what this Lawgiver might be like.
Finally, I’ll let Lewis express the argument from desire in his own words:
The Christian says, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” (Mere Christianity, 136–37)
Bright Side of Futility
At least two common threads run through each of these arguments. First, the existence of the defect testifies to the existence of the perfect. A belief in the existence of error entails belief in the existence of truth. A belief in the existence of evil entails belief in the existence of good. A belief in the existence of emptiness entails belief in the existence of fullness. Thus, instead of the argument from reason, we might equally speak of the argument from error. Instead of the argument from morality, we might speak of the argument from evil. Instead of the argument from desire, we might speak of the argument from emptiness.
Second, such beliefs are, outside of insane asylums, indelible and ineradicable. Whatever theories people may have, whatever philosophies people may invent, we all are going to go on identifying errors, making moral judgments, and pursuing satisfaction in something. And significantly, such indelible phenomena cry out for an explanation.
Which brings us back to that nagging sense of futility. In light of Lewis’s arguments, we are now in a position to see the bright side of futility. Our sense of futility itself, like our belief in error, evil, and emptiness, testifies to some notion of utility or purpose or meaning that we desire and yet sometimes lack. As Lewis says, “Our very condemnation of reality carries in its heart an unconscious act of allegiance to that same reality as the source of our moral standards.” Or again, “Unless we allow ultimate reality to be moral, we cannot morally condemn it. The more seriously we take our own charge of futility the more we are committed to the implication that reality in the last resort is not futile at all” (“De Futilitate,” 70).
Now again, Lewis recognized the limitations of such arguments. In themselves, they do not lead necessarily to the full truth of Christianity. For that, they must be combined with other historical, theological, and philosophical arguments. But as Christians who have already embraced the truths of the gospel, these arguments can have an additional stabilizing and edifying effect.
When we recognize the implications of our indelible belief in error and truth, in evil and good, in desire and fullness, in futility and purpose, we can see in such simple everyday phenomena a witness to God’s reality. As Paul says, “He is actually not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27). In a sense, we might say that God is as near to you as your thinking, your judging, and your desiring.
“Rather than run from God out of a sense of futility, perhaps we might see in that sense of futility an invitation.”
No matter what we think, in thinking we evidence a belief in inference, in logic, in error, and therefore in truth. And he is the Truth. In evaluating and judging, in condemning and approving, in accusing and commending, we evidence our belief in morality, in standards, in evil, and therefore in the good. And he is the Good. In desiring and pursuing satisfaction, in longing and in aching, in hoping and in feeling futility, we evidence our belief in meaning, in purpose, in fullness and in life. And he is the Life.
Of course, we can, if we choose, suppress these truths. We can invent philosophies that deny (however incoherently) the reality of truth, goodness, and beauty. But reality is a stubborn thing. Or better, God is a relentless hunter. He really does search and know us. He really does hem us in, behind and before (Psalm 139:5). We cannot successfully flee from him. If we ascend to the heavens, he is there. If we descend to the depths, he is there. If we travel across the sea, or to the farthest reaches of the galaxies, even there he is present and active and pursuing.
And so, rather than run from him out of a sense of futility, perhaps we might see in that sense of futility an invitation to come home. Perhaps our sense of futility is simply one more manifestation that God has indeed made us for himself, and that our hearts are restless until they rest in him.