Peter Kreeft’s Between Heaven & Hell

One of the books I recently got from What the Book? was Between Heaven & Hell by a fellow named Peter Kreeft.

The concept of the book is a dialogue between three famous men who all died within hours of one another on November 22, 1963: Aldous Huxley, John F. Kennedy, and C.S. Lewis. Well, now, it’s supposed to be a lively and informative dialogue between three men are actually figures for three positions: JFK is modern humanism, Huxley Eastern pantheism (at least, as understood by a Westerner), and C.S. Lewis stands for mainline Christian Theism.

However, the book is such a disappointment that I don’t know where to begin. For one thing, Lewis’ own writing is far better than Kreeft’s attempt at imitation. If I want to be bombarded by Lewis’ beliefs, I’d rather do so with the entertainment value of reading his own writing.

Secondly, it’s pretty obvious that, although the characters within the dialogue agree they’re striving for truth, in fact Kreeft is rooting for Lewis and his view from page one. While I understand that every author writes with a kind of message he wants to get out, and that in this one, the dialogue isn’t supposed to exhaustively list all the possible contradictions to Lewis’ arguments.

But consider the assumptions of the the dialogue carefully. First of all, the three men are dead, and have survived death. This is significant in a few ways, not the least being that it makes impossible the view that Kennedy could more easily take if he were willing to: it makes atheism (apparently) impossible. Now, survival of death and the existence of an afterlife doesn’t actually prove the existence of a God, any more than the existence of bacteria on Mars would prove (as some people would claim) that the Grey big-eyed aliens of pulp-fiction fantasy are real. Just because they’re usually sold as a package deal doesn’t mean that they’re inextricably entangled, and I see no good reason to imagine that they need be.

Still, for most people, the experience of an afterlife would sell them on the whole “religion is true” package deal. Fine, then. And Kreeft has stacked the deck, by using only figures who were all, to some degree, theists. This forces them to accept the starting principle that there is God, and that at least perhaps that God exists. An enlightened atheist’s presence during the discussion would have produced radically different results, of course. The case gets more and more slanted as we go along.

For one thing, Lewis claims that Jesus is God because he’s the only non-evil, non-insane wise man who ever claimed to be the God of the Bible. Now, the more you know history, the more you know that many, many people claimed this throughout history. Some of them, like Hong Xiuyuan in China who led the Taiping Rebellion, did this with awful consequences; others, like Louis Riel who claimed Prophethood (if not Godhood) led rebel Metis in Canada rather effectively. Hell, the heads of many states in the past did this, so much so that we really ought to recognize the fact that the Medieval notion of The Divine Right of Kings is a Christianized descendant of the older principle of The Divinity of Kings. God-kings abound in history—not that I believe they were God-Kings, but perhaps they did.

Lewis gives too much credit to “Christians” as well. His assumption are manifold:
(a) That millions of Christians have not been misled by the Orthodox leadership of the religion, but that millions of non-Christians have been misled in their understanding of religion. (I would expect the majority of both groups to have been misled.)
(b) That the old Latin phrase aut Deus aut homo malus is actually definitive; the phrase is “Either God, or a bad man”, and explains how Medieval Christians looked at the question of Jesus’ divinity. The problem is that, if one does not believe in God, the first option is out the window; yet almost nobody is willing to see Jesus as a bad man. The whole spectrum of other possibilities that exist are swept under the carpet by Lewis—or, rather, by Kreeft, though I believe Lewis did the same sometimes in his writing. Why must it always be Either/Or? I love Kierkegaard to pieces, but even he got beyond Either/Or. There’s a whole spectrum of other possibilities available to you, if you’re willing to look at Jesus in terms not dictated by Lewis and the Medievals; that he was muddling things a bit to make them clearer for some uneducated country people with an elaborate religion already in place… that he was, as Huxley said, doing his best to teach people within the tradition they had been raised. Or that he actually believed he was the Son of God, but wasn’t. Or that Gospel accounts were amplified, exaggerated, or even falsified (after all, two three of the four accounts were likely based on one earlier text, and one came nearly a century later). Or that he was speaking about mystical ideas, and people misinterpreted him a little at first, and increasingly as time went by.
(c) Kreeft leaves so many “fine points” by the wayside, along the way, that I cringe every time I run across them. Each of them is quite important to the tract at hand, but each one was set aside for a less than worthy reason.

All in all, reading this book was interesting because it was an attempt to create a modern version of a Socratic dialogue, and for the fact that it was a kind of literary puppetry, but I found it frustrating and more than a little disingenuous. It makes me want to write my own dialogue where a fourth character, an atheist, shows up, flips a switch and turns off the Rising Sun/Rising Son gimmickry at the end of the book, and sits down to get into a real, serious discussion of the question at hand with Lewis, Huxley, and Kennedy.

Anyway, as for making the dead speak, I found this a lot more interesting: an interview with Karl Marx, postmortem, in 2003. Now that was well-written.

7 thoughts on “Peter Kreeft’s Between Heaven & Hell

  1. Peter Kreeft is well known in orthodox Catholic circles. He’s a convert. His book Catholic Christianity was very helpful after my own conversion.

    An excellent and thoroughly enjoyable article by Prof. Kreeft is The Politics of Architecture. I consider it a classic of granola conservatism. (For another, see Birkenstocked Burkeans by Ron Dreher.)

    He also wrote The Apple Argument Against Abortion, a 13-step logical sequence that argues that only under a dogmatic belief in the non-personhood of the fetus could abortion be a “reasonable, permissible, and responsible choice.” (step 13 has the crux of the argument).

  2. Joshua,

    Perhaps you didn’t notice, but I panned the book. I hated it. I won’t be reading anything more by Kreeft, whose “Logic” is pathetically constructed. He makes so many starting assumptions, stacks the deck so heavily, and you know, I think he even misrepresents CS Lewis, who probably wouldn’t say some of the dumb crap Kreeft has him saying. (His Mere Christianity is actually an alright book, even for an atheist.)

    But in an area like “logic” I’m sorry but Kreeft just isn’t up to snuff. In fact, I’m going to post a refutation of the Apple Argument on my philosophy-related website in the next day or so. Keep an eye out for it.

  3. I did notice you didn’t like his book. We Christians are not as dumb as the media makes us out to be.

    I’m afraid you’ve side-stepped Prof. Kreeft’s argument, as I noted on your other blog.

  4. I wasn’t implying you were stupid, I was noting the strangeness of finding an adulatory comment full of links and recommendations appended to a post in which I castigated a writer whose work I now abhor.

    I’m afraid his argument is so poorly constructed as to be fraught with holes. While my own attempt may fall short, my blogpartner Marvin astutely explains on the same other blog.

  5. Gord,

    I’ve read the comments. If you folks honestly believe that “human rights are a human cultural construct that have no objective universal origin” and “that morals are social constructs of purely human origin,” I’m afraid there is very little common ground for us to maintain a discussion.

    I’ll just say the implications that thinking are very, very scary. Dostoyevsky was right: “Without God anything is persmissible.”

    Anyhow, if you’re looking to get rid of Peter Kreeft’s book, I propose a book exchange. I’ll send you Ralph Miliband’s Marxism and Politics, Wright, Levine, and Sober’s Reconstructing Marxism, and Bernard Russel’s The Conquest of Happiness. If interested, drop me a line by email.

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