A to Z

A to Z with C.S. Lewis: Z is for Zeitgeist

by Lou Markos on July 17, 2013

CS LewisZeitgeist is a German word that means “spirit of the age.”  The zeitgeist of Periclean Athens was self-knowledge (supremely embodied in the thought of Socrates), while that of the Middle Ages and Victorianism was hierarchy (Dante) and progress (Tennyson), respectively.  As for the darker zeitgeist of modernism, marked by relativism and subjectivism, though Lewis did not embody it, he understood it better than many of its most ardent supporters.

In a sense, all of Lewis’s books offer a critique of modernism, but the one that does so with the deepest insight and the greatest prophetic power is The Abolition of Man.  In this brief book, which bears the rather intimidating subtitle of “Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of School.” Lewis predicts (with woeful accuracy) what the outcome will be for a society that trains its youth in accordance with the principles of aesthetic subjectivism and moral and ethical relativism.

At the core of the modern zeitgeist, Lewis locates a refusal to abide by any fixed, transcendent standards of the Good, the True, or the Beautiful.  Everything now is subjective.  The old verities are up for grabs.  No longer do our beliefs point back to a divine law code or an essential, in-built sense of good and evil; they exist only and solely in the eye of the beholder.

Lewis begins his analysis of this deeply-entrenched relativistic zeitgeist by highlighting an elementary textbook that teaches children that the so-called sublimity of a waterfall does not rest in the waterfall itself but in the perceptions of the one looking at it.  Though this distinction may seem unimportant, Lewis shows how such a subjective view of the power of a waterfall leads in time to a subjective view of all judgments of value.

What happened in the 20th century is that we went from relativizing all matters of beauty and sublimity (not only in nature but in the arts as well) to relativizing all matters of right and wrong.  Thus, whereas modern schools revel in scientific facts and sociological statistics, they ridicule “old fashioned” notions of courage, patriotism, and honor.  And yet, ironically, at the very moment we have thrown out traditional values, and the super-natural standards on which they rest, we cry out desperately for the very duty and self-sacrifice that such values make possible.

“In a sort of ghastly simplicity,” warns Lewis, “we remove the organ and demand the function.  We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise.  We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.  We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

For thousands of years, parents and teachers have ensured the maintenance of civilized life by training their children and students not only to understand and obey the God-given, conscience-approving standards of right and wrong, but to nurture proper feelings vis-à-vis those standards.  Thus, we teach young people to feel an inner sense of pride and self-respect when they perform a virtuous action and an inner sense of shame and disgust when they chose instead the way of vice.

The sign that our society is disintegrating is not to be found in the wildness of teenagers (that has always been with us), but in the fact that when those teens commit immoral actions, they feel neither guilt nor remorse.  Such chest-less young people are the vanguard of a new Dark Age.

A to Z with C.S. Lewis: Y is for Youth

by Lou Markos on July 10, 2013

youthC. S. Lewis dedicated the first of his Narnian fairy tales, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, to Lucy Barfield, the daughter of his good friend, Owen.  In the dedication he offers this sage advice: “My dear Lucy, I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books.  As a result you are probably already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still.  But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”

Near the end of That Hideous Strength (a novel to which Lewis added the wonderful subtitle, “A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups”), the male hero, Mark Studdock, comes within inches of selling his soul to a demon-run secret society with plans to take over the world.  As part of the initiation rite, he is thrown into a lop-sided room which is intended to destroy within him any last vestige of his belief in goodness, truth, and beauty.

Mark almost gives in, but then a still small voice within him rises up and asserts the existence of something normal and right and whole, of which the lop-sided room represents the perversion.  Saved by that sudden illumination, Mark runs for his life.  In his flight, he hides out in a small country hotel, where he rests for a moment in a quiet sitting room.  In the room, Mark notices two shelves filled with bound copies of a periodical known as The Strand.

“In one of these he found a serial children’s story which he had begun to read as a child but abandoned because his tenth birthday came when he was half way through it and he was ashamed to read it after that.  Now, he chased it from volume to volume till he had finished it.  It was good.  The grown-up stories to which, after his tenth birthday, he had turned instead of it, now seemed to him, expect for Sherlock Holmes, to be rubbish.”

Most modern academics who read the above paragraph would criticize, if not ridicule, Lewis for his “puerile sentimentality.”  They would, of course, be wrong to do so.  Lewis was unique in the academia of his day for championing (along with his good friend, J. R. R. Tolkien) children’s literature and fantasy novels as serious genres deserving serious consideration.

Rather than dismiss youthful innocence and joy as immature emotions to be cast off on the road to adulthood, Lewis treasured (as did Jesus!) that child-like view of the world that opens itself to faith and hope and that can discern magic and wonder in even the most mundane of things.

Lewis found nothing wise or mature or even realistic in the cynicism and skepticism of his academic colleagues.  Indeed, because he was not too proud to look for them there, Lewis discovered great insights in Aesop’s Fables, The Wind in the Willows, The Tales of Beatrix Potter, Alice in Wonderland, and the children’s stories of George MacDonald and E. Nesbitt.

In fact, though it is not well known, we have Lewis and Tolkien to thank for the post-1950’s resurgence of children’s literature and fairy tales.  Both genres, which were strong and healthy during the late Victorian Age, had fallen out of favor in the first half of the 20th century.  The success of The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings helped restore the reputation of these discredited genres, thus enabling moderns to draw on their innocent wisdom.

A to Z with C.S. Lewis: X is for X-Ray

by Lou Markos on July 3, 2013

Pilgrim's RegressOf all the books that Lewis wrote, the most difficult and obscure must surely be The Pilgrim’s Regress.  In this strange, esoteric allegory of his journey to faith, Lewis introduces us to an everyman character named John who grows up in the legalistic, pharisaical land of Puritania, where everyone wears masks and the people are burdened by laws they cannot follow.

One day, however, John catches a glimpse of a distant island populated by bearded enchanters in a deep state of meditation.  The vision provokes in John a sweet desire for goodness, truth, and beauty, and he sets off on a pilgrimage to find the source of that desire.  Sadly, in seeking out the source of his joy, John continually takes wrong turns and falls off the true path.

As in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, each of the temptations that John faces along the way is allegorized as a person or place.  The difference between Bunyan and Lewis’s versions of the road to faith—and the thing that makes the former infinitely easier to comprehend than the latter—is that whereas Bunyan’s pilgrim faces such spiritual traps as sloth, despair, and vanity, Lewis’s pilgrim faces a score of intellectual dead ends (stoicism, idealism, materialism, aestheticism, scientism, and so forth) that lie outside the experience of the average reader.  Indeed, what makes Lewis’s work particularly challenging is that many of the “isms” he critiques have been abandoned, even by the secular humanists who once championed them.

Generally speaking, John faces two types of dangers—a cold rationalism (identified with the north) that kills joy and desire, and a hot hedonism (identified with the south) that causes joy to sicken and desire to grow perverse.  In his journeys through the north, John is taken into custody by Sigismund Enlightenment, who, in the manner of Sigmund Freud, tries to convince him that his desire for the island is an illusion, an adolescent form of wish fulfillment.

John is then thrown into a dungeon where he must face a giant whose eyes pierce through him like a merciless x-ray machine.  The giant’s eyes, writes Lewis, “had this property, that whatever they looked on became transparent.  Consequently, when John looked round in to the dungeon, he retreated from his fellow prisoners in terror, for the place seemed to be thronged with demons.  A woman was seated near him, but he did not know it was a woman, because, through the face, he saw the skull, and through that the brains and the passage of the nose.”

Lewis shows great insight in comparing the giant to an x-ray, for the enlightenment theories of Freud, Marx, and Darwin have had just that effect on modern man.  Though the writings of these founding fathers of modernism vary widely, they are alike in being, at their core, reductive.  By reducing human love, joy, religion, and art to a product of unconscious urges, or economic forces, or the struggle for survival and reproduction, the theories of Freud, Marx, and Darwin have emptied humanity of its freedom, its dignity, and its purpose.

Meditating on the destructive force of the Enlightenment X-ray, Lewis closes his book, The Abolition of Man, with these prophetic words: “You cannot go on ‘explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. . . . If you see through everything, then everything is transparent.  But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world.  To see through all things is the same as not to see.”

A to Z with C.S. Lewis: W is for War

by Lou Markos on May 9, 2013

purple heart

The eighteen-year-old C.S. Lewis was hardly what one would call an athletic young man.  He was a failure at sports and spent his school days avoiding the company of upper-class athletes.  And yet, in 1917, the bookish Lewis chose to enlist in the First World War.  I say chose because Lewis, as an Irish citizen (he grew up in Belfast), was not subjected to the draft.  Nevertheless, he served and fought in the trenches, returning to England a year later as a wounded veteran.

Though he was too old to fight in WWII, he supported the war effort in every way he could, including speaking over the BBC radio and giving live talks to the RAF.  In 1940, he even addressed a pacifist society in Oxford on the reasons why he (Lewis) was not a pacifist (his speech is anthologized in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses).

In his talk, Lewis respectfully reminds his audience that when Christ instructed his followers to turn the other cheek, he likely meant the command to refer to personal situations between people and their neighbors.  There is no indication that the command was meant to apply to all situations at all times.  Surely, Lewis argues, “turn the other cheek” does not forbid me from coming to the rescue of someone who is being chased down by a maniac with a knife!

Christ calls upon us not to harbor a spirit of self-righteous hatred and retaliation toward those who have injured us.  But that does not mean that magistrates, parents, teachers, and soldiers should suffer themselves to be struck by citizens, children, students, or enemy combatants.

Besides, Christ himself showered his greatest praise upon a Roman military officer (Luke 7:9).  Likewise, when John the Baptist was approached by soldiers in search of spiritual advice, he did not tell them to quit their jobs—he merely told them not to extort money or accuse people falsely (Luke 3:14).  Both Peter (1 Peter 2:14) and Paul (Romans 13:4) called upon the early church to obey magistrates, who do not bear the sword in vain.

In Mere Christianity (III.7), Lewis makes some of the same arguments, though this time he calls on his readers to examine their own hearts carefully.  All killing, Lewis insists, is not murder: a proper translation of the Ten Commandments would read “Thou shalt not murder,” not “Thou shalt not kill.”  Still, if we ourselves hear about the death of enemy soldiers or the execution of a criminal and rejoice in the loss of life, then we have fallen outside the high call of Christ.

“We may kill if necessary,” writes Lewis, “but we must not hate and enjoy hating.  We may punish if necessary, but we must not enjoy it.  In other words, something inside us, the feeling of resentment, the feeling that wants to get one’s own back, must be simply killed.”

Yes, Lewis knew and felt that war was a dreadful thing.  No one who fought in the killing fields of WWI could doubt that.  Still, Lewis believed that if we could remove the hatred and resentment from our soul, if we could free ourselves from brooding on revenge, that war could be approached courageously with “a kind of gaiety and wholeheartedness.”

Lewis was no fan of war, but he was unashamed to champion the beauty of the knight, of the medieval Crusader, of the “Christian in arms for the defense of a good cause.” 

A to Z with C.S. Lewis: V is for Virtue

by Lou Markos on May 2, 2013

Raphael [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It is a sad thing that our modern world has redefined virtue in negative terms.  Rather than define a virtuous man as someone who actively practices the positive virtues of prudence, courage, justice, and temperance, we turn things on their head and celebrate the goodness of those who don’t succumb to folly, don’t betray an excessive amount of cowardice, don’t violate anyone’s rights, and don’t drink or smoke.

Such is the case with the four classical virtues, but it is even more so with the three theological ones.  We celebrate those who stay true to the course, who press on, who don’t give up, not those who have put their faith in an unseen Creator and their hope in his promises.  Even when we do praise faith and hope, it is generally a vague, non-creedal faith in humanity or fate or the universe and a hazy, content-less hope in, well, something or other.

As for love, Lewis was fond of critiquing his age for replacing the positive love (caritas, agape) of the Bible with a negative form of unselfishness.  Although the highest pagans (Aristotle) and the great Christian ethicists (Aquinas) taught that virtue is a habit gained by practicing virtuous actions, we of a more “enlightened” age have embraced a distinctly “hands off” ethos.

Rather than actively love our neighbor, we unselfishly allow him to live whatever way he wants to, even if his life choices are self-destructive.  Had Lewis lived today, I think he would have said that the reigning virtue is not unselfishness but tolerance—a pseudo-virtue that also manifests itself, not in active charity, but in a negative acquiescence to the “rights” of others.

In Screwtape Letters (#26), junior tempter Wormwood is counseled by his more experienced uncle to teach his human patient “to surrender benefits not that others may be happy in having them but that he may be unselfish in forgoing them.”   Though this strategy of replacing love with unselfishness may look the same on the outside, it has a very different effect on the soul of the one surrendering the benefits.  Far from moving out of himself toward the other (which is what love calls us to do), the practitioner of the negative virtue of unselfishness uses the other person as a way of bolstering his own sense of piety and self-righteousness.

Actually, if truth be told, love and unselfishness are also received in a radically different way by the object of the proffered charity.  In the former case, the recipient is assured that another human being cares deeply about him; in the latter, he feel manipulated and used.

G. K. Chesterton once defined a humanitarian as someone who loves humanity but hates human beings.  The person who is on the receiving end of unselfishness knows instinctively, to paraphrase a line from Letter 26, that he is being treated as a sort of lay figure upon which the would-be humanitarian exercises his petty, self-centered altruisms.

When the virtues are enacted in a positive, healthy spirit, they draw us closer to God and our neighbor.  But when they are turned back upon themselves as a method for bolstering our ego and self esteem, they ensnare and isolate us.  The false humanitarian ends up feeling contempt for his fellow man because he cannot move outside his own desperate need to feel good about himself.  But the virtuous man who practices true love comes to truly love the people he serves.

A to Z with C.S. Lewis: U is for Universalism

by Lou Markos on April 25, 2013

Near the end of The Last Battle, a noble Calormene soldier named Emeth dies and comes before Aslan, the Christ of Narnia.  Although Emeth hails from a distant land that worships a false god named Tash (rather than the true Aslan), and although Emeth has served Tash all his life, when he meets Aslan, he is welcomed by the Great Lion and invited into heaven.

Of all the passages in the voluminous writings of C. S. Lewis, none has caused more controversy and confusion than this suggestion by the orthodox Christian Lewis that salvation can be attained outside of Christ.  Indeed, when I speak about Lewis, the most common question that I am asked is whether or not the episode with Emeth reveals Lewis to be a Universalist in disguise: that is, someone who believes that all who practice their religion faithfully—whether they be Christians or Jews, Muslims or Hindus—will be saved.

It does not.  Had Emeth come before Aslan and requested directions to the Tash part of heaven, and had Aslan obliged, then Lewis would be a Universalist.  But that is not what happens in the episode.  Quite to the contrary, when Emeth stands before Aslan, he realizes and accepts that Tash is false and Aslan true, and that the deep spiritual desire he has followed all his life has found its fulfillment in Aslan.  He proves this by falling to his knees in worship.

Like the Magi of the Christmas story, he recognizes that Aslan (not Tash) is the end of his journey.  In response, Aslan assures him: “‘unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly.  For all find what they truly seek.’”

Now, it must be admitted that though this is not universalism, it does border on a concept that the vast majority of believers would reject (rightly) as unbiblical: post-mortem (“after death”) salvation.  Orthodox Christian teaching states that all decisions for or against Christ must be made before we die.  Once we pass to the other side, all bets are off.  Though many Protestants think that the Catholic belief in purgatory allows for a second chance at salvation, it does not.  In Catholicism, those who reach purgatory are already saved; they just need to be sanctified.

So is Lewis an advocate of post-mortem salvation?  This time I must be a bit more nuanced with my answer.  Yes, Emeth is technically dead when he accepts Aslan’s offer of salvation, but that does not mean he is being given a “second chance.”

As Lewis explains in a number of his works, God lives in eternity, not in time.  Too often, people think that eternity means time going on forever, when what it really means is that time itself does not exist.  The closest we come to a perception of eternity, Lewis writes, is our experience of the present moment.  For the present is the point where time touches eternity.

The moment Emeth dies is an eternal moment—and that eternal moment contains all the other moments of his life.  He accepts Aslan (Christ) in that eternal moment, because all of the other moments have been building up to that acceptance.  And once he does, all the other moments become reoriented around that moment of decision.  That is why, in The Great Divorce, Lewis says heaven and hell work backwards.  For those who accept Christ in that eternal moment, it will seem, not that they have just entered heaven, but that they have always been there.