Screwtape Plays Chess

Beneath Screwtape and the Temptational Synod, my friend Jo wrote this:

I found this letter very challenging, for which non-relief much thanks. Could you, or Screwtape, whichever finds it easier, spell out a bit more about maintaining a faith that is both sufficient unto itself and rigorous, with the proper amount of logical defence but not too much? I’m referring to this section:

“Then we teach them that any warrior of the Enemy’s who persists in maintaining a simple faith  – by which we mean a faith that is more than sufficient unto itself – cannot possibly maintain a ‘rigorous’ one, a faith defensible solely on logical grounds. You might wonder that we can get away with this, Ragwort, but we can, we can! You and I – and any human with more than half an ounce of wit, though they are becoming increasingly rare – know that Faith is not susceptible to logic alone. If it were, it would not be called ‘faith’.”

Clearly Screwtape would like us to believe it’s not possible, and equally clearly, you think it is. Answers on a postcard?

Jo’s personal demon, discovering the avenues of thought his patient was pursuing, quickly sent a horrified letter to Screwtape. Sadly no copy of that letter has yet come into my possession, but I have managed to obtain Screwtape’s reply…

Screwtape Plays Chess

Dear Fleabane,

So, Ragwort’s being showing you his mail, has he? I wondered if I hadn’t been too fulsome in my praise and now I am sure of it. I remember when the little toerag was no more than the least prepossessing in his class, and with his new promotion his self-belief seems to have exceeded its justification. No matter: I shall deal with him as necessary later on. It is to your concerns it now seems I must address myself. Has Slubgob really lost his appetite for teaching you young fools, or is there actually some conspiracy to fill my time with the plaintive bleatings of inadequate underlings?

You write that your patient has begun to ask precisely those questions we want them to avoid, about faith, reason, and the interaction of the two. Very well. Clearly your efforts in blinding her have been insufficient to the task at hand. That is a serious matter, and one that does not reflect well on your own chances for promotion. Nevertheless, you have before you a soul to tend, and Our Father Below makes very clear that all souls, no matter who is responsible for them, are of concern to our entire host. Therefore, as our standing orders state, I am bound to help you. But do not fool yourself into believing I enjoy it.

Your patient is, I assume, ignorant as to the nature of the soul? Hell knows, that ignorance is a precious thing. It represents one of the really solid triumphs we have secured in the last few hundred years. We encouraged a popular misconception that is now so rooted as to be almost impervious to correction. I trust your patient subscribes to it? By which I mean, I assume she says ‘soul’ when what she really means is ‘spirit’?

This peculiar semantic shift is one of the victories our Philological Department has won for us. They fought for years to overcome the specificity (or, alternatively, inclusivity) of the Hebrew word Nafesh. You and I know it to mean the soul, naked and unadorned. We have, however, worked hard to bury that word in inadequate translations, and we have succeeded. Nafesh means ‘soul’, but ‘soul’ incorporates ‘mind, body and spirit’. We have slowly been excising that knowledge from the body of Western thought, even among the Christians themselves. Thanks to our efforts, it is now considered politically incorrect to determine the number of passengers aboard a sinking ship by informing the authorities of the number of ‘souls on board’, even though the term is perfectly (and even irreligiously) accurate.

The point to which I am making my way ought now to be perfectly clear. While reason is solely the province of the mind, faith sustains the entire soul. Human beings are multifaceted creatures – spiritual amphibians infused with an intellect. An intellectual defence of faith cannot long be mounted because it cannot adequately comprehend, let alone describe, the needs and requirements of the spirit or even the body. That is why, for both components, the Enemy has given the little malignancies instinct. There are spiritual instincts just as there are physical ones, and our job is to stand between them and what they seek, providing destructive alternatives. Let those searching for reassurance concerning the afterlife turn to Ouija boards, mediums, clairvoyants and séances – anything but that which might draw them nearer to the Enemy. Equally, let those who are thirsty continue to thirst, and those who are hungry find no nourishment.

Our job is to persuade the humans – who are increasingly susceptible to the thought – that that which is basic about their natures is in fact base. Let them believe they have outgrown their instincts. Let them believe that they are much too sophisticated about what they consider to be ‘real life’ to be taken in by the unspoken and uncomfortable desires of the spirit. And if they must answer those desires let them look anywhere they like so long as it isn’t towards the Enemy. (It is a tragedy, Fleabane, that no human spirit is ever dead beyond all hopes of resuscitation. We try to maintain such a stranglehold that the Enemy cannot nurture, but He can in a moment undo all the work we have done in a lifetime. Sinners slip from our grasp at the very gates of Hell; the Enemy’s grace (ugh!) is such that no human is irretrievable). It does not matter where they seek their answers. We have made great progress in the last twenty years with evolutionary theory, coupled to chaos theory and the idea of emergent behaviours. Couple this to the idea that any of the old beliefs or – Hell forbid – certainties, is really just too silly, and you wind up with cast-iron atheists who do a great deal for our cause through their obstinacy and the appearance – it doesn’t matter that it’s not true – that their cleverness holds most of the answers and will determine the remainder in due course. Furthermore, you must try to convince the Christians that because Reason is the god of these atheists, any attempt to persuade them otherwise must take place on the same battleground. That is what we teach them is a ‘rigorous’ faith: one that defends itself on the same grounds on which it is attacked.

We get away with this because we have worked hard to dull the Christians’ sense of embattlement in anything other than debate. Make no mistake, Fleabane: I do not mean that the Christians do not understand themselves to be part of a struggle. But they do not want to make the conceptual leap from ‘struggle’ to ‘war’. It is increasingly uncommon to hear ‘Onward Christian soldiers’ sung in evangelical services. Even the children’s chorus ‘I’m in the Lord’s army’ has had its overtly militaristic overtones removed and replaced by comic-book themes. War, as we who know who have been fighting for so long, is unpleasant. Let the Christians believe they have outgrown the concept, matured beyond it: that way, when attacked, they will have no idea what to do. They will not understand the need to mount a defence with everything at their disposal. You should try to stop them playing chess for that reason. It is too useful a teaching tool. If Reason is the attack we mount, let the Christians respond only with reason. Let them not even pray for assistance on the grounds that prayer is itself irrational. When we threaten with a queen, let them respond solely with a queen. Let them not begin to manoeuvre their bishops, knights and rooks as well. Above all, Fleabane, try to convince the Christians themselves that theirs is not an irrational faith. That way they deny their own irrational natures. Love is not rational. The Enemy has no logical reason to love these creatures, still less sacrifice Himself for them. It is preposterous. The more unlikely it seems to them, the less likely they are to accept it as true. Attempting to convince others about it through reason alone is unlikely to succeed, and more often than not has the delightful side effect of bringing those so challenged a little further into our camp. If the Christians were really awake, they would know that the most important part of the expression “The Lord works in mysterious ways” is not that His ways are mysterious (i.e. unassailable by Reason) but that He works at all. Any defence of faith based solely on reason falls into the same most excellent error. It concentrates on the how of things rather than the who.

The unfortunate truth that must be acknowledged in the middle of all this is that the Enemy is intellectually satisfying. When the psalmist (little aesthetic horror that he was) wrote that “as the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you” he was using the word in its correct formation. His mind, as well as his heart, sought the Enemy, and that is who He found. The Enemy, with the most appallingly common inclusivity, always reveals Himself eventually to those who really seek Him. Our job, if we can’t dissuade our patients from the quest entirely, is to send them chasing after false visions. That way, if confronted by the real thing, they find themselves unprepared and even disappointed. Under such circumstances, convincing them that who they have met was unsatisfying is very easy. With only a very little help from us they will rationalise the Enemy away again.

In short, Fleabane, Reason is one of our great allies. Reason coupled to self-awareness and a willingness to trust the Enemy is, however, one of the most dangerous oppositions our cause must contend with. Humans who manage it very quickly become integrated souls, ones so permeated by the Enemy – His nauseating Spirit – that they are rendered inaccessible to us as they are permanently in communion with Him. That is why the Enemy encourages it. We must spare no efforts in our struggle to counter it. Go now and do likewise.

Yours abysmally,


Wholly Dishonourable Under-secretary for Inhuman Resources

About Gavin

I am a 32-year-old PhD student in Aberdeen, Scotland. I work in QC at an e-learning company. I'm originally Northern Irish, though I've lived here in Aberdeen for several years. I am, essentially, somebody who is very normal, yet to whom very strange things keep happening...
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One Response to Screwtape Plays Chess

  1. SOA says:

    i was thinking of trying to reason with colleagues about God and his existence. Thanks for this writeup. More please!!!

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