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C.S. Lewis and Public Life Book

Foreword by George Weigel Original Article



By George Weigel


There is an irony in asking C.S. Lewis how Christians should talk about political issues. As A.N. Wilson recently wrote in a newspaper, "C.S. Lewis never read a newspaper in his life. It did him no harm, though it did lead to some confusion–as when he had a passionate argument with his brother, ruefully admitting at the end of it that he had always thought Tito was the king of France."

A further irony: For all his accessibility and popularity as a writer, all of his accomplishment as a scholar, and all of his charm, C. S. Lewis would surely be regarded as hopelessly out-of-it by bien-pensant America today

Put another way, we should not think of C. S. Lewis as a kind of Christian Mr. Chips, a kindly old duffer with little edge on his thought. On the contrary, we should recognize at the outset of this collection of essays that Lewisis unavoidably counter cultural:

Against elite secularism, Lewis believed that fellowship with God was the destiny for which humanity was created, and that to fall short of that destiny (or to deny it) was to dehumanize -in otherwords, the true humanist is the Christian humanist, not the genteel and tolerant secularist.

Against the hedonism of contemporary American life–the triumph of the pleasure, if you will–Lewis insisted that we have no worldly security, nor was any to be found in the pleasures and goods of this world, pleasurable and good as they may be.

Against the acquisitiveness of this age, and the relentless activism of our Lewis counterposed the model of what we might call the "wordly contemplative": a basic receptivity toward creation, a commitment to living by faith rather than by management-theory or career-planning, an enjoymentof the goods of creation and yet a steady refusal to identify the possession of those goods as the telos of human existence.

Against the Supreme Court’s celebration of radical personal autonomy as the be-all and end-all of the decent society, Lewis taught that human beings are made for community, for companionship with, love of, and service to "the other"–thus the greatest sin, for Lewis, is "the pride which would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven" (Meilaender,The Taste for the Other, p. 6). Put the other way around, in losing ourselves as radically autonomous agents–in unburdening ourselves of the imperial autonomous I–we find our true selves. For Lewis; therefore, love involves "that mystical death which is the secret of life" (Meilaender, p. 63), and the realization of our humanity is in self renunciation (Meilaender, p. 263).

Against egalitarianism, that denial of the different and the particular, and much of the world and into us, hierarchy is the "truth about life" (Meilaender, p. 155) for reality is hierarchy "all the way up" (Meilaender, p. 158). To sharpen this point even further, Lewis argued that the demand for radical egalitarianism is a function of an undisciplined ego in which the besetting sin of pride has not been broken:for the demand that all others be equal to me (or I to them) is, in Lewis’s judgment, a denial of our need for others, and, ultimately, for the Other. Thus hell, for Lewis, is a "heavily bureaucratic state in which `everyoneis perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement’" (Meilaender,p. 89).

Against the claims of the sexual revolution, Lewis believed that "love is the conqueror of lust" (Meilaender, p. 84); that the detachment of sexuality from marriage and transformation into a kind of contact sport would result in a society "adverse to women" (Meilaender, p. 142), and that marriage was not a contract but rather a covenant community of love in which headship should be exercised by thehusband in a Christ-like fashion. Put another way, for Lewis, marriage is "a school in which we learn the requirements of self-giving love and practice the steps required by the dance of obedience" (Meilaender, p. 158).

Against the moral relativism or an ethic of utlitarianism, Lewis insisted that an objective moral order was hard-wired into human beings (see Meilaender, 149, for Tao list of moral universals); that we could know that moral order; and that moral judgments can therefore be true or false ("It’s right for me" is a claim C. S. Lewis would find incomprehensible.) The basic principles of morality, Lewis argued, were embedded in reality, not invented by human design; they are discovered by our being reminded of them, not by our being "clever." Moreover, Lewis believed that to turn against this view of morality was "the abolition of man" and the antithesis of any humanism. Lewis also believed that the point of morality was not rule-keeping as an end in itself, but rather living in our freedom so that we can become a certain kind people ("We do not wish either to be, or to live among, people who are clean or honest or kind as a matter of duty; we want to be, and to associate with, people who like being clean and honest and kind. The mere suspicion that what seemed an act of spontaneous friendliness or generosity was really done as a duty subtly poisons it . . . . What really matters is not to obey moral rules but to be a creature or a certain kind." (cited in Meilaender,pp. 231-32). Thus God must be seen, not as the Commander but as the Father (or, more provocatively, the Lover)–a salient warning of what happens when society becomes unfettered from moral law: "the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means . . . the power of some mean to make other men what they please" (cited in Meilaender, p. 220)

I believe that Lewis, for all that he is undoubtedly a sign of contradiction, is the kind of counter-cultural challenger of received wisdom that our society needs today. Why? Because in these seven points, Lewis has identified a program for the reconstruction of our moral culture. And that reconstruction is the absolute prerequisite to any revitalization of the democratic experiment. Tens of millions of Americans now know, in their homes, that virtually all of our social pathologies find their basis in the collapse of family life, and in the radical uncoupling of rights from responsibilities. But attempts to bring that often-inarticulate sense of moral implosion into our public discourse usually produce howls of outrage about Christians (for it is Christians who are largely raising these issues) "imposing their values on others." But here, too, Lewis can help.

In his fine essay, "Politics from the Shadowlands," Dr. John West identifies what I would call "Lewis’s Rules" for Christian engagement in public life–which includes, but is not reducible to, politics:

Public morality should be founded on the publicly-accessible principles of the natural law (the fundamental moral principles noted above), which provide what I have called elsewhere a "grammar" for genuinely public argument about how we ought to live together. Deploying that natural law moral logic in the public square would help us achieve pluralism–a disciplined argument–out of the cacophonous plurality that is now our lot.

Prudence is the chief of the political virtues; put another way, being a fool for for Christ, as St. Paul enjoins us, does not mean being a damn fool. Thus the Christian in the public square will, on Lewis’s model, be resolutely anti-utopian; will be attentive to the ever-present danger of unintended consequences arising from the best of intentions (cf. AFDC and its impacts on the collapse of the family); and will have limited expectations of what can be accomplished in the realm of politics, narrowly defined. Put another way, the Christian in public life will understand that a morally-vibrant civil society is the condition for the possibility of a democracy that does not destroy itself like Weimar.

Christians in the public square must be anti-dogmatic. Christianity provides no political or economic blueprint for the realization of a just society, and the orthodox Christian should be profoundly skeptical, precisely on religious grounds, of claims (from liberation theology or from some parts of the religious right) that there is a "Christian position" on virtually every issue of public policy. Our Lord has other things to worry about than the marginal tax rate, and we demean His Gospel by suggesting that it instructs us in these technical matters.

Christians should remind their fellow-citizens that limited governmentis not simply a luxury: it is a moral necessity. Niebuhr’s aphorism still holds true: "Democracy is possible because of man’s capacity for justice; democracy is necessary because of man’s inclination to injustice. "It is precisely because we know ourselves as fallible, limited, myopic creatues that we trust no one with absolute power.