Lewis: The Equality-Pride Connection

After C. S. Lewis wrote his enormously popular Screwtape Letters, he often said he never wanted to go back to that style of writing, putting himself into the mindset of hell to explain heavenly things. But in 1959, sixteen years after Screwtape appeared in print in the US, he consented to pen an addendum of sorts to his famous book.

“Screwtape Proposes a Toast” was an article Lewis wrote for an American publication, the Saturday Evening Post. It took the form of an after-dinner speech by Screwtape to the Tempters’ Training College. It was just as witty and biting as the original.

The themes in the article showed up in earlier Lewis essays, particularly “Equality” and “Democratic Education,” but in an obviously different format. In one of the passages on equality, Lewis adds to what he said in the previous essay, illustrating that those who press the most for equality may actually have more pride than those we might suspect of that sin. Here’s how “Screwtape” puts it:

No man who says I’m as good as you believes it. He would not say it if he did.

The St. Bernard never says it to the toy dog, nor the scholar to the dunce, nor the employable to the bum, nor the pretty woman to the plain.

The claim to equality, outside the strictly political field, is made only by those who feel themselves to be in some way inferior. What it expresses is precisely the itching, smarting, writhing awareness of an inferiority which the patient refuses to accept.

And therefore resents. Yes, and therefore resents every kind of superiority in others; denigrates it; wishes its annihilation. Presently he suspects every mere difference of being a claim to superiority.

Do you see what Lewis has done here? Normally, we think those who have everything are the ones most infested with pride. And certainly there is the temptation to lord it over others if you are capable of doing things well—are “superior” in some way.

However, looking deeper, Lewis sees that those at the bottom—whether it be in the social scale, in economic terms, or just in outward appearance—may be the ones with the greater pride problem. They seek to drag others down to their level out of resentment and/or bitterness. “We deserve more,” they seem to be saying, and make their own claims to superiority. They do it, though, in the name of “equality,” thereby making it acceptable, for who doesn’t believe in equality, right?

As always, Lewis offers insights well worth pondering.

Lewis on the Old Books

“Every age has its own outlook,” C. S. Lewis instructed. “It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.” Amen to that. “We all, therefore,” he continued, “need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”

Image: Dublin Library. The WSRL is a humble and intimate gathering ...Was Lewis saying that only old books are worthwhile? Was he so anti-modern that he believed nothing written in the last century could conceivably offer us wisdom? After all, in his inaugural lecture at Cambridge, he famously referred to himself as a “dinosaur,” one of the last specimens of those who live comfortably in their native land of previous epochs.

That’s hardly his intention. What he was doing in this quote was attacking the oh-so-modern fallacy (found in every age, by the way) that we have progressed so far that we understand things much better than previous ages and generations.

I teach historiography. Part of the course delves into different schools of historical interpretation. One common mistake for historians is to believe that progress is inevitable, that each succeeding generation is wiser than the last one.

I ran into this perspective in my doctoral program. One book used in a course on American colonial history was infused with a sneeringly condescending attitude toward those so-called primitive early Americans. They were just so backward, the book implied. Not like the new generation that has come so far.

Of course, in the view of that author, to “come so far” meant that we have set aside all those outmoded ideas about God that seemed to drive many of the early settlers. The hubris in the book was astounding.

c-s-lewis-2All Lewis was saying in this quote is that each era has its truth emphases and each also has its own characteristic mistakes and/or falsehoods that it believes. How do we guard against this arrogance? Return to the thoughts and beliefs of earlier times and keep in mind that whatever faults they had, they also might have contained truths that we, in our pride, have foolishly abandoned.

The “old books” are not error-free, but they do put a check on our runaway love affair with ourselves. They remind us of things we may have forgotten as a society.

There is one old book, though, that is error-free and never leads us astray. If we take it seriously, our pride is leveled and we recognize our true place in the universe.

As I survey the mess our current society has devolved into, I’m reminded of another Lewis quote: “Moral collapse follows upon spiritual collapse.” If we are disturbed by what we see happening morally in our day, we must acknowledge the real reason for this development. We have allowed our Christianity to be compromised to the point that it no longer is the salt and light it was intended to be.

We must return to the one Old Book that puts things right again.

Lewis on Gnat-Straining & Camel-Swallowing

I’m not a seminary-trained theologian. Everything I’ve learned about Scripture is the result of deep personal interest inspired by a desire to get closer to the One behind the Scripture. That’s why, as a young man just out of college (with a degree in radio, TV, and film production), I spent countless hours with a cassette-based course learning Koine Greek. (Anybody remember cassettes?)

Some might say that I shouldn’t be so theological in my commentary because I don’t have the official stamp of approval from an institution that grants degrees in religion. I prefer C. S. Lewis’s perspective when he noted, “One is sometimes (not often) glad not to be a great theologian; one might so easily mistake it for being a good Christian.”

C. S. Lewis 8Knowledge about theology is not the same as knowledge of God. Lewis details the temptations that can come to those who feel they have attained some type of exalted status:

The temptations to which a great philologist or a great chemist is exposed are trivial in comparison. When the subject is sacred, proud and clever men may come to think that the outsiders who don’t know it are not merely inferior to them in skill but lower in God’s eyes; as the priests said (John 7:49), “All that rabble who are not experts in the Torah are accursed.”

How ironic that devotion to learning about the God of love and unrivaled humility should lead us to the opposite end of the spectrum. Lewis notes that “as this pride increases, the ‘subject’ or study which confers such privilege will grow more and more complicated.” He goes on:

The list of things forbidden will increase, till to get through a single day without supposed sin becomes like an elaborate step-dance, and this horrible network breeds self-righteousness in some and haunting anxiety in others.

PhariseesThose who consider themselves the elite theologians, like the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, will burden people down with externals, ignoring the essence of the faith. Lewis concludes:

Meanwhile the “weightier matters of the Law,” righteousness itself, shrinks into insignificance under this vast overgrowth, so that the legalists strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.

We do this gnat-straining and camel-swallowing in other areas of life as well, such as in politics. I see it all the time in that realm. To avoid that, we need to look at ourselves and make sure we are putting first things first, being careful to make loving God and mirroring His character our primary goal.

Lewis: Modern Man & the Sense of Sin

C. S. Lewis 11C. S. Lewis’s “God in the Dock” essay exposes one of the biggest obstacles we face in transmitting the Gospel message: the unwillingness of people to acknowledge they are guilty of anything and are in need of a savior. What Lewis says in this essay has become even more conspicuous in our day.

He writes of what he learned when he spoke to Royal Air Force (R.A.F.) audiences during WWII. One of the first things he learned was that they were skeptical of anything historical. They knew about “the pseudo-scientific picture of the ‘Cave-man'” and had some “picture of ‘the Present.'” But between these, there was nothing. I can affirm that the current generation of students is somewhat similar to this, except they perhaps have no knowledge of the ancient as well. They kind of know what happened during their own lifetimes, and that is all.

Then we come to his discussion of the awareness of sin, or rather the lack of awareness:

The greatest barrier I have met is the almost total absence from the minds of my audience of any sense of sin. . . . The early Christian preachers could assume in their hearers . . . a sense of guilt. . . . Thus the Christian message was in those days unmistakably the Evangelium, the Good News. It promised healing to those who knew they were sick. We have to convince our hearers of the unwelcome diagnosis before we can expect them to welcome the news of the remedy.

HumilityThis is a great deception, of course, and one we actively cultivate. I believe everyone does realize the problem, but we do our best to convince ourselves that we are, nevertheless, acceptable to God regardless of our shortcomings. We love to use words like “shortcomings” and “mistakes” rather than “sin.” They sound much less accusatory.

Even though we are the ones who are to be condemned for our rebellion, we use all manner of twisted logic to make God the one who should be ashamed of Himself. As Lewis notes,

The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge: if God should have a reasonable defence for being the god who permits war, poverty and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that Man in on the Bench and God in the Dock.

What hubris. What obnoxious vanity. What utter illusions we create. What we really need to do is humble ourselves before the Lord of all, devastated by the knowledge of our supreme selfishness, and earnestly plead for His mercy. For some reason, He loves us anyway and pours out that mercy on the most undeserving. He is not a God who should be in the dock, rebuffing our accusations. We should be eternally grateful He is willing to listen to us at all.

Scriptural Admonitions for Our Time

The Lord nullifies the counsel of the nations; He frustrates the plans of the peoples. [Psalm 33:10]

Hear, O earth: behold, I am bringing disaster on this people, the fruit of their plans, because they have not listened to My words. And as for My law, they have rejected it also. [Jeremiah 6:19]

Sky Fell

Panic and pitfall have befallen us; devastation and destruction. [Lamentations 3:47]

Everyone who is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord; . . . Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling. [Proverbs 16:5,18]

Walks on Water

He who walks in integrity walks securely, but he who perverts his ways will be found out. . . . The integrity of the upright will guide them, but the crookedness of the treacherous will destroy them. [Proverbs 10:9; 11:3]

The Rot Doesn’t Start at the Top

Have you ever felt like this: so sickened by the ocean of dishonesty, lack of integrity, and arrogance of the majority of humanity that you just want to seal yourself off from the ugliness of it all? If not for the mercy I’ve received personally from the Lord, and His forgiveness for my own past dishonesty, lack of integrity, and arrogance, I would be tempted to find a nice isolated corner of the world where I could simply let the parade pass me by.

As if anyone can find such a corner.

There’s no escape from the pervasiveness of sin in our society. For me, the two most distressing places to find sin are among those who claim the name of Christ and in those who presume to lead us politically. The first—the church—is supposed to be the light in this dark world. When we act like the world, we snuff out the light. The second—our government—is supposed to be a servant of God, carrying out His will in the public sphere. When it decides to become its own miniscule god, it does the opposite of what the real God intended.

In my study of church history, I’ve often been grieved by the manner in which so many have dishonored the God they claim to serve. As a student of the history of politics and government, I’ve been almost as dismayed by the pride of politicians who believe they are bringing us utopia and by the outright lies they offer to achieve their goals.

Our current political leader, though, has set a new standard for arrogance and deception. Just when I thought no one in public life could ever top Bill Clinton for blatant dishonesty and love of self, along comes Barack Obama.

I don’t really want to go through a litany of all the dishonest statements he’s made or the growing list of things for which he denies all knowledge or responsibility, but some cartoonists have encapsulated them for me, so I’ll let them speak:

Didn't Know

Knows Nothing

He won’t even admit when he’s been wrong. Previous presidents have taken responsibility for failures and have won back public confidence: Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs fiasco; Reagan in the Iran-Contra affair. But this president? He won’t even acknowledge that his “guarantee” that everyone would be able to keep their health insurance policies if they liked them was a complete sham. He invents a new narrative of what he “actually” meant by words that could only be taken in one way. It’s obvious he lied to get Obamacare passed into law; it’s just as obvious his overall goal is to force everyone in the country into his system eventually.

It’s difficult for me to contain the disgust I feel for this man. I’m ashamed he’s the president of my country. Yet how did he get to be that leader? He didn’t just grab the title and run with it. He convinced enough of our fellow citizens that he was their savior—and I use that word advisedly, as he has always held himself up as larger than life. I mean, who else would ever say that their election was “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal”?

I expect people with outsized egos to dominate our politics. The lure of power draws them. What’s most distressing is how easily fooled the people can be as they continue to believe the big lies:

Great Pumpkin

The rot doesn’t start at the top. It rises from the masses who are an unhealthy combination of ignorance and selfishness. At this point, there’s no excuse for ignorance about Obama or his agenda. The selfishness at the root of it all—we want the goodies government promises—can only be dealt with at the personal level. It’s back to the basic Gospel: recognition of our sinfulness, repentance, acceptance of the forgiveness offered through the Cross, and the development of a renewed mind so we can see the world more clearly—through the principles found in Scripture—and not be fooled again.

Les Miserables, Whittaker Chambers, & Delayed Revelation

One of the best movies I’ve seen in some time and one of my favorite historical subjects of study come together. First, the movie.

I saw Les Misérables a couple of weeks ago and have intended to write about it. Too many other pressing topics intervened. Yet it’s still around in theaters, so if I can encourage anyone else to see it who has neglected to do so, I will have performed a public service.

At first, I wasn’t quite sure what to think of it, due to its graphic depiction of prostitution and the deeply seamy side of life. Yet even in the midst of all the depravity, it was clear the filmmakers were not glorifying that life. Anne Hathaway’s performance here was heartrending, particularly with her song. No one could come away from those scenes thinking this was the “high life.”

I concluded that it was essential to, in some way, make it clear how sin dehumanizes everyone involved with it. Only in that way could the real message of the movie—the wonder of God’s grace—be so starkly realized. The presentation of the good news always must begin with the problem, which is sin and its destructiveness. The contrast between the utter selfishness of the sinfulness portrayed in the film with the self-sacrificing love of Jean Valjean is breathtaking. For me, the high point of the movie was Valjean’s death, as we are led to understand he is being received into God’s presence through the love and mercy of Christ.

I also recall that the book itself by Victor Hugo made a deep impression on Whittaker Chambers, who grew up in a household with no genuine Christian influence. Chambers, for those who don’t know, later became a communist, then broke from communism to speak prophetically about the loss of the knowledge of God in Western civilization. He found the book in the attic when he was no more than nine years old, and it opened a new world for him.

I read and reread Les Misérables many times in its entirety. It taught me two seemingly irreconcilable things—Christianity and revolution. It taught me first of all that the basic virtue of life is humility, that before humility, ambition, arrogance, pride and power are seen for what they are, the stigmata of littleness, the betrayal by the mind of the soul, a betrayal which continually fails against a humility that is authentic and consistent.

I agree completely. That is what stood out in the movie as well—the centrality of humility to counter all the pride of man. Chambers continued:

I scarcely knew that Les Misérables was teaching me Christianity, and never thought of it that way, for it showed it to me, not as a doctrine of the mind, but in action in the world, in prisons, in slums, among the poor, the sick, the dying, thieves, murderers, harlots and outcast, lonely children, in the sewers of Paris and on the barricades of revolution. Its operation did not correspond to anything I knew as Christian in the world about me. But it corresponded exactly to a need I felt within myself.

My only quibble is that I don’t see the Christian worldview in the revolutionaries of the era; they were more incipient Marxists than Christians. But that is a quibble in comparison to the overall value of the dominant Christian theme. I always rejoice when the Christian message can be conveyed in a major production such as this, in a film that is not meant to be self-identified as a Christian movie, but one that reaches beyond to a much wider swath of the population. Chambers didn’t know he was being taught Christianity, and though that revelation was delayed many years, eventually he came to grips with the reality of God in his life. May the same happen to moviegoers today who are just seeking a good story. May the central message of that story—salvation through Jesus Christ—come as a revelation to them also, even if delayed.