Lewis: False Equality

What could possibly be wrong with the concept of equality? C. S. Lewis shows us that it has its boundaries, and he also reveals its darker underside. Here are his thoughts, taken from two separate essays:

When equality is treated not as a medicine or a safety-gadget but as an ideal we begin to breed that stunted and envious sort of mind which hates all superiority. . . .

The demand for equality has two sources; one of them is among the noblest, the other the basest, of human emotions. The noble source is the desire for fair play. But the other source is the hatred of superiority. . . .

Equality . . . is a purely social conception. It applies to man as a political and economic animal. It has no place in the world of the mind. Beauty is not democratic; she reveals herself more to the few than to the many, more to the persistent and disciplined seekers than to the careless. Virtue is not democratic; she is achieved by those who pursue her more hotly than most men.

Truth is not democratic; she demands special talents and special industry in those to whom she gives her favours. Political democracy is doomed if it tries to extend its demand for equality into these higher spheres. Ethical, intellectual, or aesthetic democracy is death.

Lewis: The Learned Life Is a Duty

For me, as a university professor, this quote from C. S. Lewis is one I would think of framing and putting on my office wall. Please don’t skip over any of it; each sentence is truly weighty, if you stop and ponder as you should. I’m particularly drawn to phrases about “good philosophy” answering “bad philosophy,” our need for an “intimate knowledge of the past” (well, I am a history professor, you know), those trendy ideas that Lewis terms “temporary fashion,” and the “nonsense” that emanates from the press. Give this one a few minutes out of your busy schedule and see if you might agree with me.

If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were uneducated. But, as it is, a cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now—not to be able to meet enemies on their own ground—would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defence but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen.

Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered. The cool intellect must work not only against cool intellect on the other side, but against the muddy heathen mysticisms which deny intellect altogether.

Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods, and that much that seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.

A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.

The learned life then is, for some, a duty.

I’ve been trying to shoulder that duty for quite some time. There are others with a greater intellect than mine; I know that without a doubt. Yet those of us who have been tapped on the shoulder by the Divine Tapper to teach must remain faithful and continue to seek His grace to work with our efforts. This is really not an onerous duty; it is a privilege.

Screwtape’s Education Formula

C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters remains one of his most admired and imaginative books. In the later editions, Lewis added a little essay called “Screwtape Proposes a Toast.” In it, the master devil shares his insights into how to undermine the human race. One of his methods is to destroy education. If his formula sounds familiar, there might be a good reason. Here’s a portion of Screwtape’s speech at the “Annual Dinner of the Tempters’ Training College for Young Devils”:

What I want to fix your attention on is the vast overall movement towards the discrediting, and finally the elimination of every kind of human excellence—moral, cultural, social, or intellectual. And is it not pretty to notice how “democracy” is now doing for us the work that was once done by the most ancient Dictatorships, and by the same methods?

The basic principle of the new education is to be that dunces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils. That would be “undemocratic.” . . . Children who are fit to proceed to a higher class may be artificially kept back, because the others would get a trauma . . . by being left behind. The bright pupil thus remains democratically fettered to his own age group throughout his school career, and a boy who would be capable of tackling Aeschylus or Dante sits listening to his coeval’s attempts to spell out A CAT SAT ON A MAT.

In a word, we may reasonably hope for the virtual abolition of education when I’m as good as you has fully had its way. All incentives to learn and all penalties for not learning will vanish. The few who might want to learn will be prevented; who are they to overtop their fellows? And anyway the teachers—or should I say, nurses—will be far too busy reassuring the dunces and patting them on the back to waste any time of real teaching. We shall no longer have to plan and toil to spread imperturbable conceit and incurable ignorance among men. The little vermin themselves will do it for us.

Lewis on Education

As we survey the vast wasteland of modern American education, C. S. Lewis can help us see the root of the problem. From his essay “On the Transmission of Christianity” he offers this bit of wisdom:

This very obvious fact—that each generation is taught by an earlier generation—must be kept very firmly in mind. . . . Hence the futility of many schemes for education. None can give to another what he does not possess himself. No generation can bequeath to its successor what it has not got. . . .

If we are sceptical, we shall teach only scepticism to our pupils, if fools only folly, if vulgar only vulgarity, if saints sanctity, if heroes heroism. . . . We shall admit that a man who knows no Greek himself cannot teach Greek to his form: but it is equally certain that a man whose mind was formed in a period of cynicism and disillusion, cannot teach hope or fortitude.

A society which is predominantly Christian will propagate Christianity through its schools: one which is not, will not. All the ministries of education in the world cannot alter this law.We have, in the long run, little either to hope or fear from government.

So, once again we come face to face with the undeniable truth that our society—government, education, and all—is only a reflection of who we are as a people, and the only way to salvage the society is to salvage individual souls first. The propagation of the gospel remains our top priority because only through relationship with God can our souls be salvaged.

Dying to Self

One reason I devote Saturdays to commentary from C. S. Lewis is that he always seems to say something in a unique way. For instance, when writing about the necessity of dying to self, he is able to make us think about it from a different angle. In one of his essays, “A Slip of the Tongue,” he explains what it really means to die to one’s selfishness:

It is not so much of our time and so much of our attention that God demands; it is not even all our time and all our attention: it is our selves. For each of us the Baptist’s words are true: “He must increase and I decrease.” . . .

He cannot bless us unless He has us. When we try to keep within us an area that is our own, we try to keep an area of death. Therefore, in love, He claims all. There’s no bargaining with Him. . . .

“If you have not chosen the Kingdom of God, it will make in the end no difference what you have chosen instead.” Those are hard words to take. Will it really make no difference whether it was women or patriotism, cocaine or art, whisky or a seat in the Cabinet, money or science? Well, surely no difference that matters. We shall have missed the end for which we are formed and rejected the only thing that satisfies. Does it matter to a man dying in the desert, by which choice of route he missed the only well?

Wood, Hay, & Straw

Jim Wallis, one of the leaders of what might be termed the Christian Left, has now come out in favor of same-sex marriage. Ever since his days as a member of the 1960s radical group Students for a Democratic Society, which was grounded in socialist/communist philosophy, Wallis has tried to walk a fine line in an attempt to marry [pun intended] Biblical principles with a humanistic, atheistic worldview. It has been as spectacularly unsuccessful as the same-sex unions he now supports.

Wallis is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. He’s only the most obvious spokesperson for a phenomenon that threatens to split evangelicalism while it simultaneously destroys our Biblical basis for morality, law, and government. Can such views really coexist with what C. S. Lewis has called “mere Christianity”?

Genuine Christians can disagree on doctrine. They can disagree on how the Christian faith is demonstrated in society. There certainly is room for liberty of conscience. Yet when does liberty become licentiousness?

I disagree with Christians who espouse pacifism, but I don’t count them out of the kingdom; I merely consider them incorrect in their understanding of Scripture. I profoundly dissent from those who believe the government should follow policies of redistribution of wealth to achieve “fairness.” Many who promote this do so out of concern for the poor, yet they don’t realize how this vision of “helping” violates a number of Biblical principles and ultimately fails in its goal. They haven’t learned the lessons of history. Their hearts may be right in their desire to help, but all they accomplish is to spread the misery around.

It gets dicier when those who claim the name of Christ begin to advocate for positions that are directly contradictory to basic Biblical morality. Can someone really be a genuine Christian and promote abortion, or at least not be concerned about it? Is it simply a mistake when a professed Christian finds reasons to excuse homosexual behavior or is it rather a manifestation of a deeper rebellion against God’s call for holiness? I have my opinions on that, but, thankfully, God will be the final judge.

Thinking about this led me to a particular passage of Scripture, found in 1 Corinthians 3: 11-15. Here the apostle Paul speaks of how the Lord will judge the actions of His disciples:

For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.

The clear teaching is that in order to be a Christian, our foundation must be nothing else than absolute faith in Christ as Lord and Savior. As long as we have repented of sin, received His forgiveness, and are now motivated by His love, we are part of His kingdom. However, not all our works for Him have the same value. Some are described as especially fruitful—gold, silver, precious stones—while others are virtually useless for building the kingdom—wood, hay, and straw.

I submit that when those who seek to build God’s kingdom with ideas that undermine the very kingdom they seek to build, their works will be shown to have been nothing more than wood, hay, and straw. They will have done more damage than good. We should all examine our motives and our actions continually. I know I don’t want to feel shame when that “day” comes.

The Great Deceiver

In the preface to his Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis points out the problems with man’s perception with respect to the existence of Satan and his minions:

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.

Later in the book, the “senior” devil, Screwtape, tutors his “junior” charge, Wormwood, giving him advice on how to deceive the man he is supposed to lead into hell:

The fact that “devils” are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in his mind, suggest to him a picture of something in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that (it is an old textbook method of confusing them) he therefore cannot believe in you.

“The Great Deceiver” is a name Satan has well earned.