Excerpt: "The Language of God"

The book was "Mere Christianity" by C. S. Lewis. In the next few days, as I turned its pages, struggling to absorb the breadth and depth of the intellectual arguments laid down by this legendary Oxford scholar, I realized that all of my own constructs against the plausibility of faith were those of a schoolboy. Clearly I would need to start with a clean slate to consider this most important of all human questions. Lewis seemed to know all of my objections, sometimes even before I had quite formulated them. He invariably addressed them within a page or two. When I learned subsequently that Lewis had himself been an atheist, who had set out to disprove faith on the basis of logical argument, I recognized how he could be so insightful about my path. It had been his path as well.

The argument that most caught my attention, and most rocked my ideas about science and spirit down to their foundation, was right there in the title of Book One: "Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe." While in many ways the "Moral Law" that Lewis described was a universal feature of human existence, in other ways it was as if I was recognizing it for the first time.

To understand the Moral Law, it is useful to consider, as Lewis did, how it is invoked in hundreds of ways each day without the invoker stopping to point out the foundation of his argument. Disagreements are part of daily life. Some are mundane, as the wife criticizing her husband for not speaking more kindly to a friend, or a child complaining, "It's not fair," when different amounts of ice cream are doled out at a birthday party. Other arguments take on larger significance. In international affairs, for instance, some argue that the United States has a moral obligation to spread democracy throughout the world, even if it requires military force, whereas others say that the aggressive, unilateral use of military and economic force threatens to squander moral authority.

In the area of medicine, furious debates currently surround the question of whether or not it is acceptable to carry out research on human embryonic stem cells. Some argue that such research violates the sanctity of human life; others posit that the potential to alleviate human suffering constitutes an ethical mandate to proceed. (This topic and several other dilemmas in bioethics are considered in the Appendix to this book.) Notice that in all these examples, each party attempts to appeal to an unstated higher standard. This standard is the Moral Law. It might also be called "the law of right behavior," and its existence in each of these situations seems unquestioned.

What is being debated is whether one action or another is a closer approximation to the demands of that law. Those accused of having fallen short, such as the husband who is insufficiently cordial to his wife's friend, usually respond with a variety of excuses why they should be let off the hook. Virtually never does the respondent say, "To hell with your concept of right behavior."

What we have here is very peculiar: the concept of right and wrong appears to be universal among all members of the human species (though its application may result in wildly different outcomes). It thus seems to be a phenomenon approaching that of a law, like the law of gravitation or of special relativity. Yet in this instance, it is a law that, if we are honest with ourselves, is broken with astounding regularity.

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