Lewis: Do We Want Vision or Virtue?

C.S. Lewis 9Is there a moral law to which all men are subjected, or do men create whatever morality exists, according to their own lights? C. S. Lewis says that the second proposition is a disaster. Unfortunately, it’s where we are, to a great extent. In his essay “The Poison of Subjectivism,” Lewis states,

Many a popular “planner” on a democratic platform, many a mild-eyed scientist in a democratic laboratory means, in the last resort, just what the Fascist means. He believes that “good” means whatever men are conditioned to approve. He believes that it is the function of him and his kind to condition men; to create consciences by . . . state education and mass propaganda.

When we do that, here is what happens:

But if there is no Law of Nature, the ethos of any society is the creation of its rulers, educators and conditioners; and every creator stands above and outside his own creation.

In other words, the politicians and educators (may we add the news and entertainment media here?) determine right and wrong for the whole society, apart from God’s right and wrong. They, in essence, set themselves up as gods who are not subject to the laws they impose on others.

Lewis then brings this down to earth and thinks about what this means when we vote in our elections. What do we look for in our candidates?

Unless we return to the crude and nursery-like belief in objective values, we perish. If we do, we may live, and such a return might have one minor advantage. If we believed in the absolute reality of elementary moral platitudes, we should value those who solicit our votes by other standards than have recently been in fashion. While we believe that good is something to be invented, we demand of our rulers such qualities as “vision,” “dynamism,” “creativity,” and the like. If we returned to the objective view we should demand qualities much rarer, and much more beneficial—virtue, knowledge, diligence and skill. “Vision” is for sale, or claims to be for sale, everywhere. But give me a man who will do a day’s work for a day’s pay, who will refuse bribes, who will not make up his facts, and who has learned his job.

Think about it. Aren’t we much more attuned to those who promise “vision” and who come across as “dynamic” than those who simply exhibit personal virtue and have the skills necessary to the task? When we focus on the former, we get the ideologues who lead us astray. When we focus on the latter, we get the kind of people of whom God approves.

The Greatest Scandal of All

The word “scandal” is increasingly being used to describe a multitude of developments in this Age of Obama. I thought it might be helpful to define the term. After looking up a number of definitions, I think this one summarizes pretty well:

An action or event regarded as morally or legally wrong and causing general public outrage.

In order to properly identify a scandal, there must first be a standard of morality that nearly all adhere to, and there must be a commitment to the rule of law to judge legality. To complete the definition, there must also be a sense of public outrage over the event or action. For me, and others who think like me, a lot of what has been transpiring around us clearly fits the definition. The problem is there are fewer people who think the way we do: the Biblical standard of morality that once infused our society is crumbling; the rule of law, which is closely allied to that morality, is falling with it; and the public outrage, which should be universal, never touches a large segment of the population.

People do get selectively outraged. Some individuals, by their over-the-top actions, create an atmosphere of general revulsion:

Mars Colony

There are times when a systemic problem encourages and abets inexcusable actions, such as the Ft. Hood killings. The general public might still get outraged over this one, provided the media cooperates in revealing the systemic problem:

Unindicted Co-Conspirator

Some things that should be scandals become acceptable over time—they slowly creep up on us and become part of the culture before most people realize it. Of course, those very people who are slow to realize it are the ones who voted for it in the first place:

Diet Plate

The scandals that have most recently gained our attention are only symptoms of the growth of government. What most people don’t understand is that they are undermining our entire system:

We the People

Anyone who votes for a party that seeks to ignore and/or destroy the rule of law is an accomplice in scandal. It’s hard for there to be general outrage over this when half the country votes for it. If we want to locate the basic problem, and the source of all our scandals, we have to look in the mirror.

What has happened to the American character? Rejection of God and His moral law is at the root of our current political, economic, and social distresses. We will never adequately deal with those distresses until we first return to God’s truths and proclaim our fidelity to them. If we continue to dismiss God’s perfectly reasonable morality, we can only expect things to decline further. And what’s worse is we won’t even be outraged anymore by the decline. That’s the greatest scandal of all.

Finney & Activist Christian Citizens

In an article I wrote about Charles Finney’s view of Christian involvement in civil government, I drew from his Systematic Theology to show his bedrock beliefs about the linkage between God and civil government, and how such government is absolutely part of God’s plan. Finney didn’t even see government as a necessity only because of man’s sinfulness. He believed some type of government would be essential even if men were not sinners:

If all men were perfectly holy and disposed to do right, the necessity for human governments would not be set aside, because this necessity is founded in the ignorance of mankind, though greatly aggravated by their wickedness. The decisions of legislators and judges must be authoritative, so as to settle questions of disagreement in opinion, and at once to bind and protect all parties.

Ignorance is not the same as sin, Finney asserts. A man may not know what to do, but that, in itself, does not mean he is sinning. Laws describing proper action, therefore, are needed even in a hypothetically perfect society.

He goes on to note that human governments receive their authority from God. What, then, is the Christian’s obligation toward government?

Cross & FlagAs the great law of benevolence, or universal good willing, demands the existence of human governments, all men are under a perpetual and unalterable moral obligation to aid in their establishment and support. In popular or elective governments, every man having a right to vote, every human being who has moral influence, is bound to exert that influence in the promotion of virtue and happiness. And as human governments are plainly indispensable to the highest good of man, they are bound to exert their influence to secure a legislation that is in accordance with the law of God. The obligation of human beings to support and obey human governments, while they legislate upon the principles of the moral law, is as unalterable as the moral law itself.

Some very vital components of Finney’s philosophy of government are contained in this one short paragraph. First, he concludes that because God establishes human governments, men should support them. Second, he points to representative governments, and states that men who have a vote are required to use it for “the promotion of virtue and happiness.” Third, he goes one step further and calls upon men to enact specific laws in accord with God’s eternal moral laws.

All legislation should be based upon “the principles of the moral law,” and men have an obligation to pursue such laws. Clearly, Finney is championing an activist Christian citizenry.

Finney: Man’s Ability to Obey

Finney's Systematic TheologyCharles Finney, in his Systematic Theology, makes some statements regarding moral law that many find controversial. As for me, I find them eminently sensible. Here’s what he says:

Moral law is no respecter of persons—knows no privileged classes. . . . That which the precept demands must be possible to the subject. That which demands a natural impossibility is not, and cannot be, moral law. The true definition of law excludes the supposition that it can, under any circumstances, demand an absolute impossibility. Such a demand could not be in accordance with the nature and the relations of moral agents [i.e., human beings with free will], and therefore practicability must always be an attribute of moral law. To talk of inability to obey moral law is to talk nonsense [emphasis mine].

I realize this disturbs some people, but think: if you are incapable of doing what God says, you are also not accountable for your actions. There would be no reason to feel guilt or shame; we would all simply be victims. There’s enough victimology in our society already; Christians should never contribute to it. “Inability” undercuts the whole idea of man being responsible for his sins. I believe all real Christians understand, in their hearts, that they are accountable for their actions. Why don’t we allow our theology to support that obvious fact? Why don’t we line up our theory with what we know to be true in practice?

God, Reason, & C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis has popped up on this blog a number of times recently. I gave a thumbs-up to the movie Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and I commented on Sarah Palin’s reliance on Lewis for spiritual inspiration. Actually, that was more of a comment on the cluelessness of those who critiqued her for relying on an author of children’s books, thereby displaying for all to see the ignorance of the critics.

I would like those critics to read more of Lewis, so I’m going to use a few of his quotes today so they will understand the depth of his meditations. For instance, I wonder how many of those critics have pondered the issue of objective moral law vs. subjectivism. Here’s Lewis on that topic:

The very idea of freedom presupposes some objective moral law which overarches rulers and ruled alike. Subjectivism about values is eternally incompatible with democracy. We and our rulers are of one kind only so long as we are subject to one law. But if there is no Law of Nature, the ethos of any society is the creation of its rulers, educators and conditioners; and every creator stands above and outside his own creation.

We are seeing the fruit of that subjectivism in our society today.

For those who believe they have an argument with God for some reason, Lewis offers this caution:

There is a difficulty about disagreeing with God. He is the source from which all your reasoning power comes: you could not be right and he wrong any more than a stream can rise higher than its own source. When you are arguing against Him you are arguing against the very power that makes you able to argue at all: it is like cutting off the branch you are sitting on.

And finally, a very succinct observation and a word of instruction:

An open mind, in questions that are not ultimate, is useful. But an open mind about ultimate foundations either of Theoretical or Practical Reason is idiocy. If a man’s mind is open on these things, let his mouth at least be shut.

That one seems tailor-made for the Palin critics.

Finney, Government, & Politics

Charles Finney, one of the greatest of the nineteenth-century evangelists, penned a systematic theology that has too long been neglected by the church as a whole. Some people consider parts of his theology to be controversial; I say he is refreshing and bold in his explanation of the Biblical message.

Since he was primarily an evangelist, even those who are aware of his theology are in the dark on his views of politics and government. Finney lived in an era when slavery was a crucial issue, and he argued for its extinction. He also had some pertinent commentary on the role of government and Christian involvement in politics. For instance, he sees government as ordained by God and accountable to Him:

As the great law of benevolence, or universal good willing, demands the existence of human governments, all men are under a perpetual and unalterable moral obligation to aid in their establishment and support. In popular or elective governments, every man having a right to vote, every human being who has moral influence, is bound to exert that influence in the promotion of virtue and happiness. And as human governments are plainly indispensable to the highest good of man, they are bound to exert their influence to secure a legislation that is in accordance with the law of God. The obligation of human beings to support and obey human governments, while they legislate upon the principles of the moral law, is an unalterable as the moral law itself.

Finney never would have understood the modern mania for “separation of church and state,” as evidenced by these words:

In a popular government, politics are an important part of religion. No man can possibly be benevolent or religious, to the full extent of his obligations, without concerning himself, to a greater or less extent, with the affairs of human government. It is true, that Christians have something else to do than to go with a party to do evil, or to meddle with politics in a selfish or ungodly manner. But they are bound to meddle with politics in popular governments, because they are bound to seek the universal good of all men; and this is one department of human interests materially affecting all their higher interests.

In other words, Christians are under an obligation to be involved since government makes an impact on all of life. For those who would argue that Christians should abstain from lawmaking, Finney retorts,

It is admitted that selfish men need, and must feel the restraints of law; but yet it is contended that Christians should have no part in restraining them by law. But suppose the wicked should agree among themselves to have no law, and therefore should not attempt to restrain themselves, nor each other by law; would it be neither the right nor the duty of Christians to attempt their restraint, through the influence of wholesome government? It would be strange that selfish men should need the restraints of law, and yet that Christians should have no right to meet this necessity by supporting governments that will restrain them. It is right and best that there should be law. It is even absolutely necessary that there should be law. Universal benevolence demands it; can it then be wrong in Christians to have anything to do with it?

Government also has an obligation—to act in accordance with God’s moral law:

It follows that no government is lawful or innocent that does not recognize the moral law as the only universal law, and God as the Supreme Lawgiver and Judge, to whom nations in their national capacity, as well as individuals, are amenable. The moral law of God is the only law of individuals and of nations, and nothing can be rightful government but such as is established and administered with a view to its support.

So what would Finney think about overturning “Don’t ask, don’t tell”? You don’t even need to ask; he has already told us.