Lewis: Justice & Mercy

C. S. Lewis 11Is it really merciful not to carry out justice? Is the concept of justice too harsh? Should a Christian believe in punishment for crimes?

C. S. Lewis thought through this issue in an essay he published in 1949 called “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment.” If we go by feelings, we may think we are being humane in forgiving without real punishment. Lewis disagrees.

The essential act of mercy was to pardon; and pardon in its very essence involves the recognition of guilt and ill-desert in the recipient. If crime is only a disease which needs cure, not sin which deserves punishment, it cannot be pardoned. How can you pardon a man for having a gumboil or a club foot?

Lewis begins with the common-sense acknowledgement that a man is accountable for his actions. No one is accountable for a mere physical deformity; that’s not a moral issue. But there is a real right and wrong for which our choices determine our guilt or innocence. Humanitarians instead wish to treat any “bad” choice as merely a disease for which one is unaccountable. Lewis will not have that.

But the Humanitarian theory want simply to abolish Justice and substitute Mercy for it. This means that you start being “kind” to people before you have considered their rights, and then force upon them supposed kindnesses which no one but you will recognize as kindnesses and which the recipient will feel as abominable cruelties. You have overshot the mark.

Justice-MercyThat may seem counterintuitive to some, but what Lewis is saying is that offering “mercy” to people who never have come to grips with the injustice they have committed is no mercy at all; people need to answer for their sinful actions. That’s the only possible path toward redemption. They will only understand genuine mercy if they first feel the hammer of justice. The Law leads to the Gospel.

Mercy, detached from Justice, grows unmerciful. That is the important paradox. As there are plants which will flourish only in mountain soil, so it appears that Mercy will flower only when it grows in the crannies of the rock of Justice: transplanted to the marshlands of mere Humanitarianism, it becomes a man-eating weed, all the more dangerous because it is still called by the same name as the mountain variety.

Humanitarian mercy is a fake mercy, and dangerous because it tries to pass for the real thing. For mercy to have its full impact, justice must come first.

Lewis: The Marxist Worldview

C. S. Lewis 8As much as C. S. Lewis said he didn’t like to discuss politics, my research into his writings, both published and unpublished, reveals a deep interest in the subject of governing and political philosophy. What he didn’t like were the day-to-day mundane activities and arguments of politics—who is going to win the next election, etc. Political philosophy, though, was another matter entirely.

For instance, in a little-known but highly readable essay called “Modern Man and His Categories of Thought,” written in 1946, he had this critique of Marxism that shows great insight into the nature of the beast:

Proletarianism, in its various forms ranging from strict Marxism to vague “democracy” . . . [is] self-satisfied to a degree perhaps beyond the self-satisfaction of any recorded aristocracy.

Notice his equation of the Marxist worldview, often disguised by the word “democracy,” with aristocracy. Yet isn’t the Marxist view more of an “everyone is equal” idea, without an aristocracy? He explains further that this is an aristocracy of being an elite that is always “right”:

They are convinced that whatever may be wrong with the world it cannot be themselves. Someone else must be to blame for every evil.

In their view, this even applies to God, if indeed He exists at all:

Hence, when the existence of God is discussed, they by no means think of Him as their Judge. On the contrary, they are His judges. If He puts up a reasonable defence they will consider it and perhaps acquit Him.

Well, how generous of them. Lewis continues:

They have no feelings of fear, guilt, or awe. They think, from the very outset, of God’s duties to them, not their duties to Him. And God’s duties to them are conceived not in terms of salvation but in purely secular terms—social security, prevention of war, a higher standard of life. “Religion” is judged exclusively by its contribution to these ends.

The “vague democracy” we seem to be living under today has the same attitude: if religious beliefs help to achieve what we choose to call “social justice,” then we are willing to allow it. Our leaders may be unwilling to call themselves Marxists, but many have succumbed to the Marxist worldview.

Lewis has much to share with us on topics that we may not realize he has addressed.

Lewis, Tolkien, WWI, & Hope

Hobbit, Wardrobe, Great WarA Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War. What a great title. And what a great book. Joseph Loconte, professor of history at the King’s College in New York City, has crafted a masterpiece that weaves knowledge of the impact of WWI on a generation, and then offers an insightful analysis of how the war affected the thinking and writing of both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.

For me, as a professional historian, the book was a delight on two fronts.

First, WWI has not been a particular focus of my studies. Yes, I know the basics, but I’ve never delved into the kind of detail Loconte provides here. So this book has deepened my bond with the generation that endured that horror.

Second, even though I knew that Lewis and Tolkien had served in the Great War (as it was called at the time), and I am familiar with Lewis’s account in Surprised By Joy, Loconte’s description of what he experienced expands on the barebones treatment Lewis gives. As for Tolkien, this was my first encounter with what he suffered during the war.

Tolkien was a faithful Catholic at the time, and remained so for the rest of his life. Lewis was an atheist, sometimes bordering on agnosticism. They didn’t know each other while the war was going on, but when they met at Oxford for the first time in 1926, their shared experience, not only of literature, but of the war as well, created a deep friendship.

Lewis-TolkienLoconte shows how this Great War dashed the utopian hopes of Progress in the 1920s generation and replaced those hopes with cynicism. Then he concentrates on how Lewis and Tolkien bucked that trend in their writing. Once Lewis converted to the faith (helped along by key conversations with Tolkien), he became the most noted Christian apologist of his time.

Lewis’s works—from the Screwtape Letters to his science fiction novels to The Chronicles of Narnia—recognized evil for what it was, yet always offered the Christian remedy for that evil. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings painted a horrible portrait of evil, and the descriptions he offers of the terrible battles derived directly from his WWI experiences. Lewis drew on that same background for his works.

A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War is eminently readable. I breezed through it in less than three days. As the cliché goes, I couldn’t put it down. My next goal is to figure out how to use it in one of my courses because it is that good.

This is not a book for Lewis and Tolkien admirers only. It is for anyone who seeks to understand the false hopes humanity tends to cling to, the awfulness of human evil, and the way in which Christians can communicate the truths of the Good News to any “lost generation.”

The current generation is just as lost as the one Lewis and Tolkien addressed; the solution to that lostness has not changed. God’s truth is still the message that must be trumpeted to a world that has exchanged the truth for a lie.

Lewis: Loving God, Loving Others–A Matter of Priority

The Great Divorce CoverWhat is the proper relationship between one’s love for God and love for others?

C. S. Lewis warns us that it’s very easy to want to see someone else as the focus of our love, but that we will always be disappointed. As he puts it in The Great Divorce,

Human beings can’t make one another really happy for long. . . . You cannot love a fellow-creature fully till you love God. . . .

No natural feelings are high or low, holy or unholy, in themselves. They are all holy when God’s hand is on the rein. They all go bad when they set up on their own and make themselves into false gods.

Certainly God wants us to have deep, lasting, and loving relationships with others, but it’s a matter of priority. How can we really know how to love someone else unless we first grasp God’s love for us and have the proper love response to Him?

Lewis Letters Volume 3Writing to Mrs. Johnson (that’s all we know about this American correspondent) in 1952, Lewis expounds further on this same theme:

When I have learnt to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now.

In so far as I learn to love my earthly dearest at the expense of God and instead of God, I shall be moving towards the state in which I shall not love my earthly dearest at all.

When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased.

Have you ever heard someone say they want to go to heaven so they can be reunited with a person or persons they loved here on earth? If that’s their main preoccupation with going to heaven, might I suggest they may be disappointed with their eternal destination?

Unless we love God above all else and are more excited about seeing Him face to face than anyone else we have lost, our hearts are not truly His. In Him we live and move and have our being, not only now, but in eternity.

Lewis: The Real “Love Wins”

The word “love” is being tossed around these days in a loose manner. We’re now informed we have to apply it to same-sex marriage, even while the Scripture is perfectly clear that depravity is not to be equated with love.

Love is not a fleeting emotion, nor even a lifelong affection. Yes, you might differentiate between types of love, as C. S. Lewis does in his book The Four Loves, but when we are talking about God’s love—the kind of love we are supposed to mirror—there is only one way to explain it.

Mere ChristianityAs Lewis notes in Mere Christianity,

Love, in the Christian sense, does not mean an emotion. It is a state not of the feelings but of the will; that state of the will which we have naturally about ourselves, and must learn to have about other people.

God’s love also is a willful thing toward us. It is not sappy; it does not simply accept us as we are and not expect change. True love seeks the best for the one loved. Lewis continues,

Love StoryThough our feelings come and go, His love for us does not. It is not wearied by our sins, or our indifference; and, therefore, it is quite relentless in its determination that we shall be cured of those sins, at whatever cost to us, at whatever cost to Him.

The cost to Him was the ultimate sacrifice on the Cross. The cost to us is a heart of repentance and eternal gratitude for His willingness to do whatever it took to heal the breach and unite us to Him.

The “love wins” hashtag making the rounds is more properly “lust wins.” True love already has won, and He is offering us—the most unworthy of recipients—an eternity of love that we don’t deserve.

Lewis, Learning, & War (Part 3)

C.S. Lewis 9C. S. Lewis’s essay “Learning in War-Time” concludes with some sobering thoughts on the subject of death. We all know death comes to each of us, but we don’t often face up to that reality.

Those who are without Christ are without hope in eternity, and they tend to ignore the fact that they will have to answer to the One who is the Ultimate Judge.

Christians have hope, yet don’t always think seriously about the moment they will enter eternity because they are too focused on the things of this world.

Lewis’s observations, written in his inimitable style, awaken us to the reality of our approaching death:

CemeteryBut there is no question of death or life for any of us, only a question of this death or that—of a machine gun bullet now or a cancer forty years later.

What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent; 100 percent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased.

Written during WWII, this essay had that backdrop to make readers more alert to his message. Today, we have the threat of terrorism and a terrorist state developing nuclear weapons. While we may attempt to make a distinction and say we are not “at war,” we close our eyes to the truth. War is a constant in the human experience. What can it teach us? Lewis continues:

War makes death real to us, and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right.

War gets in our face and lets us know that life on this earth is only temporary. It gets our attention.

All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centred in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realise it. Now the stupidest of us knows.

We see unmistakably the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it. If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered.

If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.

This life is a pilgrimage. As the old gospel song says, “This world is not my home; I’m just passing through.” Permanence is not the nature of this world. Rather, we await the eternal city where the pilgrimage will be over and real life will begin.

That is the reality we need to embrace.

Lewis, Learning, & War (Part Two)

C. S. Lewis 2C. S. Lewis’s ruminations on the need for learning, even during times of war or other periods of great stress, in his “Learning in War-Time” essay, are so fulsome that it requires more than one post to cover his key points. This installment focuses on the life of the scholar, so it has special meaning to me.

“The intellectual life,” Lewis explains, “is not the only road to God, nor the safest, but we find it to be a road, and it may be the appointed road for us.” He then points out the greatest danger on this road:

Of course, it will be so only so long as we keep the impulse pure and disinterested. That is the great difficulty. As the author of the Theologia Germanica says, we may come to love knowledge—our knowing—more than the thing known: to delight not in the exercise of our talents but in the fact that they are ours, or even in the reputation they bring us.

Let me interject here that I realize this danger clearly in my own life. It’s so easy to write something and hope that it will get published and solidify one’s reputation as a scholar “with something important to say.” I have to go back to the Lord continually to keep my heart right on this point. Sometimes, when we achieve our goals, we are at the height of the danger. As Lewis notes,

Every success in the scholar’s life increases this danger. If it becomes irresistible, he must give up his scholarly work. The time for plucking out the right eye has arrived.

Yet we are not to allow the threat to keep us from pursuing God’s call on our life, as long as we keep our hearts right before Him. And God does want His people in this field, able to answer challenges and help direct the thoughts of others:

To be ignorant and simple now—not to be able to meet the 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.

Then comes the phrasing I have seen others refer to most often in this essay:

Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.

As a historian, I appreciate, in particular, his next few thoughts:

History CloudMost 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 which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.

Probably the second-most quoted portion of this essay comes next:

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.

Shall we now add “the Facebook postings and Twitter tweets” of this newest age?

Yes, we need a sense of history to see the full context of the drama playing out in our day. Thanks to Lewis, we have that reminder today.