The first thing I should say is that I am not a Lewis scholar. The second thing is that, from what I understand of the man, he would likely be amused that there are people called Lewis scholars. There are simply those who can stop reading Lewis, and those who can’t. After a while, some of the latter find that they are thought to be Lewis scholars. The third thing I should say is that I am very much aware that anybody who knows much about Lewis might think my title—“C. S. Lewis in the Public Square”—highly improbable.
The phrase “public square” evokes images of the political arena with its partisan games and intense debates over public policy. Lewis did occasionally, very occasionally, address what are ordinarily called political issues. One thinks of his reflections on the Second World War, on pacifism and belligerency, on laws regarding obscenity, and on the nature of criminal punishment. But, for the most part, Lewis is understandably viewed as a determinedly apolitical, even private, man. Indeed, in many ways he took his stand, and encouraged others to take their stand, over against politics—especially politics as dominated by the machinations of the modern State. He was on the side of reason, myth, splendor, and virtue, in the hope that such vital elements of life might “still trickle down to irrigate the dust-bowl of modern economic Statecraft.” This might be called the C. S. Lewis trickle-down theory of politics.
His skepticism with respect to the modern State was emphatic:
Christianity, with its claims in one way personal and in the other way ecumenical and both ways antithetical to omnicompetent government, must always in fact . . . be treated as an enemy [by the State]. Like learning, like the family, like any ancient and liberal profession, like the common law, it gives the individual a standing ground against the State.
As in Augustine’s two cities—the civitas terrena and the civitas dei—Lewis insisted on clear distinctions, and was not intimidated by the risk that distinctions may turn into antinomies. Of course the City of God is not immediately available to us, and we have to make do with the earthly cities we have. Like Augustine who preferred the ancient Romans to those of his own day, Lewis recognized the need to make comparative judgments between political regimes, but insisted we should do so without delusions. “The practical problem of Christian politics,” he wrote, “is not that of drawing up schemes for a Christian society, but that of living as innocently as we can with unbelieving fellow-subjects under unbelieving rulers who will never be perfectly wise and good and who will sometimes be very wicked and very foolish.”
The kind of people we are is more important than what we can do to improve the world; indeed, being the kind of people we should and can be is the best, and sometimes the only, way to improve the world. Society is ever so much more important than the State, and mores more important than laws: “The law must rise to our standards when we improve and sink to them when we decay.” Better, therefore, to attend to standards than to laws. This overlooks, we may observe, the ways in which laws influence standards, but it reflects Lewis’ studied skepticism toward the search for political or legal fixes for human problems. His disdain for the public excitements generated by what he derisively referred to as “the news” is well known. Amidst the incessant declarations of public crises about this, that, and the other thing, C. S. Lewis looks very much like an “escapist.” After all, he spent a large part of his life writing fairy tales for children, didn’t he?
Nevertheless, there is something to be said regarding “C. S. Lewis in the Public Square.” Lewis was anything but the isolated and privatized individualist whom the Greeks called an “idiot.” If we do not think of Lewis’ work as public, it is probably because of our shriveled definition of “public” that equates “public” with the “political,” and further equates the political with the governmental. Lewis was a public man. For even the most reclusive author, to publish is to go public. The recluse or the “idiot” publishes what is private, which is a form of exhibitionism. Lewis frequently published what is personal, always in the expectation that it would engage the like experience of other persons who are, broadly speaking, the public. Lewis wrote in the service of public conversation. Throughout his writings, one detects between the lines the inquiry posed to his readers, “Is it not true? Do you not find it to be so?”
His effort was to engage, inform, and elevate what is today called “public discourse,” although I doubt he ever used the term. He was, I think, inclined to assume that his experience was the common experience. In this sense, although he cherished excellence, he was not an elitist. Anything but. One might even risk calling him a populist. Whether it was “mere” Christianity or “mere” sex or the “mere” companionship of friends, his purpose was to elicit what is already there, if only we would open our eyes to see it—the wonder disguised in the “mere.” In this he was at one with Chesterton, who declared that the only sin is to call a green leaf gray. Epiphanies did not await the occurrence of something extraordinary or out of the way. They are to be discovered in the ordinary, and ordinary people are capable of that discovery.
To elicit what is already there, and bring it to fuller and finer expression. I was recently reading Edward Norman’s magnificent history of Christian architecture, The House of God, and came across this: “The other religions of the ancient world had incorporated some sense of God’s presence but it remained latent and descriptive. Christ came among men with a simple ministry of teaching whose main purpose was to confirm that the kinds of ways in which God had been understood in Natural religion, and the very language used to express those insights, were broadly right. Yet he came also—and this was the unique gift of Revealed religion—to redeem men and the world which was their home . . . . Hence the Incarnation. God literally became a man in order that the human categories of spirituality could be recognized as truly divine, and not the mere invention of a frightened race seeking some means of converting a miserable and ephemeral existence into a dignified and permanent purchase upon the existence of the universe.” I expect Lewis would approve of that way of putting the matter.
Far from being private and idiosyncratic, Lewis’ métier was the public, as in universal. He was in the fullest and finest sense a humanist. He was a Christian humanist, to be sure, but he could say with the pre-Christian Terence, “I am a man: nothing human is alien to me.” Being a Christian humanist was in no way a limiting factor. Quite the opposite is the case, if Christ is the Logos who informs, sustains, and fulfills all that is. Lewis frequently used “humanism” and “humanitarian” as pejoratives, but only because in common usage those terms reflected smug liberal prejudices that were not nearly humanistic enough. For Lewis, the great fact is that God became a human being, and you cannot get more humanistic than that.
In discussions of the universally human, the universal is frequently pitted against the particular, but this was not the case with Lewis. This is underscored by Gilbert Meilaender, one of the most insightful readers of Lewis, in his essay “The Everyday C. S. Lewis” (FT, August/September 1998). He cites John in The Pilgrim’s Regress, who has finally made his way back to Mother Church and sings:
But Thou, Lord, surely knewest Thine own plan
When the angelic indifferences with no bar
Universally loved but Thou gav’st man
The tether and pang of the particular.
“The tether and pang of the particular.” Although it is not Meilaender’s point, and perhaps not Lewis’ point in the verse quoted, I would suggest that it is through this particular that we discern the universal. The experience of the particular is itself universal. The experience of the particular is the tether that ties us to the universal, even as there is the pang of its remaining particular, of its not being fully shared with others—at least for now. One day that sharing, that communion, will be consummated. With respect to the tether and pang of the particular, one detects again the implicit inquiry to the reader: “Is it not true? Do you not find it to be so?”
Meilaender notes that in his religious writings Lewis frequently drops the aside that he is not a theologian and that what he says is subject to correction by real theologians. Meilaender suggests that we should “recognize this for what it is: a smart rhetorical strategy that gets the reader on his side over against the presumably elitist theologians.” He notes that, in fact, Lewis had read more theology than many theologians but, nonetheless, his writing is better described as “religious” than as “theological.” Religious language, he notes, is closely related to poetic language, as distinct from both “ordinary” language and “scientific” language. I do not disagree with Meilaender on that, but there is a trap here that should be clearly marked.
Theology, at least in the great tradition, claims to be about truth. It makes cognitive claims about the way things really are. It is one of the great secularizing achievements of modernity to have created the category we call “religion.” Questions about God, judgment, purpose, sin, and redemption are all put into a sandbox labeled “Religion,” leaving the rest of the public square for the deliberation of questions dealing with “the real world.” This is evident in our universities, where theology has long since been replaced by—at best, or perhaps at worst—“religious studies.” For two hundred years, theologians retreating from the advance of scientific and philosophical debunkings have taken refuge in the sphere that modernity graciously set aside for religion as a subcategory of poetic expression. Lewis is sometimes viewed as joining that retreat, and there are elements of his work that can be cited in support of that view, but I think that was not his intention. On the contrary, he wanted to call a halt to the retreat. He wanted to persuade us that the religious, and particularly Christian, construal of reality is more encompassing, has more explanatory power, and is, in a word, true. While presenting himself as a religious thinker rather than a theologian, he was attempting to do the authentically public thing that many theologians had lost the nerve to do.
Alan Jacobs of Wheaton College is another close reader of Lewis, and he suggests that the Lewis project is of limited usefulness today (“The Second Coming of C. S. Lewis,” FT, November 1994). “Lewis wrote in a time when, among the educated British public if not among their professional philosophers, there was considerably more agreement than there is now about what constitutes a valid and rational argument for a given case.” He says Lewis might have paid more attention to Screwtape in the very first letter where Screwtape says that the time has passed in which “the humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not.” Lewis’ apologetic works, writes Jacobs, “presuppose, and rarely make any argument for, the criteria for rationality.” Almost fifty years later, “deconstructionism” and “anti-foundationalism” have done their wasting work. Under the tutelage of today’s academy, unbelievers are skeptical about the very notion of “evidence,” and they chatter cleverly about “plausibility structures” and “paradigm shifts,” leading them to offer the relativistic response to the most convincing of arguments, “That’s great if it works for you.” Or as it is said in England, “Right you are if you think you are.”
In short, it is suggested that Lewis has no standing in the deconstructed public square. His arguments have no public purchase. It is not that the cleverly educated of today disagree with his arguments. On the contrary, they agree with his argument that modernity’s methodological skepticism logically leads precisely to where he says it leads. Except the endpoint that he views as catastrophe they welcome with a frisson of nihilistic delight. Consider one of the most rhetorically admirable passages in the entirety of Lewis’ work. It comes at the very end of The Abolition of Man:
But you cannot go on “explaining away” forever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on “seeing through” things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to “see through” first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To “see through” all things is the same as not to see.
To which today’s clever academic says with patronizing glee, “Exactly, old man. Except for your last line, for to see through all things is to see precisely what is to be seen, precisely what is there, which is to say—nothing!” It is hard to know how seriously we should take the fashionable nihilism of our time. In The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom called it “debonair nihilism,” which might be described as a flirtation with nothingness that has nothing as a consequence. Bright young things look over the edge into the abyss and gigglingly pronounce it to be “intriguing.” It has been remarked that suicide is the most sincere form of self-criticism. With respect to the nihilism so enthusiastically embraced by today’s herd of independent minds, one might take it more seriously if more of them leaped over the edge. Of course there are such as Michel Foucault who follow the lethal illogic to its end, but there are many times more who, like Richard Rorty, declare that “truth” (in quotation marks) is socially constructed “all the way down,” yet go on living in pleasantly genteel irony, just as though the quotation marks were not there. That Hideous Strength did anticipate, in somewhat apocalyptic terms, our present circumstance. “It was different now. Perhaps few or none of the people at Belbury knew what was happening; but once it happened, they would be like straw in fire. What should they find incredible, since they believed no longer in a rational universe? . . . The time was ripe. From the point of view which is accepted in Hell, the whole history of our Earth had led up to this moment.” What could not have been anticipated is the way in which, unlike the earnest evil of the people at Belbury, the story from Hell has been embraced with such cavalier insouciance.
In today’s intellectual climate, self-contradiction is deemed a small price to pay for liberation from the limits of reason. It is no surprise that Richard Rorty’s heroes are—contradictorily, as one might expect—John Dewey and Walt Whitman. Rorty and his votaries respond with Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself (I am large, I contain multitudes).” One might say that Lewis has addressed multitudes, but he did so one reasonable person at a time. I expect he would be somewhat at a loss—as are we all—when faced by postmodernist interlocutors quite unembarrassed by being caught in self-contradiction. To the most conclusive of knockdown arguments, they cheerfully respond, “Right you are if you think you are, Mr. Lewis.”
The self-described “madness” of postmodernists who have domesticated Nietzsche to the comforts of the faculty lounge may be dismissed as being simply silly. But, as Richard Weaver understood, silly ideas, too, have consequences. Postmodernism may be a temporary aberration, but “temporary” may be a long time. It is an intellectual posture well suited to the well situated in a time of affluence and relative tranquility. In circumstances of personal crisis, we may be sure that the most ironic of Rorty’s liberals will insist upon the most foundational of rationalities. Nobody wants a postmodernist surgeon in the operating room. Slight comfort can be derived, however, from such occasional reversions to sanity. No point is scored. The retort is ready at hand: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself.”
As Dr. Johnson said of the prospect of being hanged, so some great social, or political, or military crisis might concentrate the minds of our intellectual elites, shocking them back into sanity. But hard-core postmodernists are, for the most part, securely ensconced in the academy, where the reality principle has long been suspended and real-world irruptions short of the cataclysmic cannot penetrate. In a circumstance of real social crisis, however, the irrationalists might be isolated and prevented from spreading the poison of debonair nihilism throughout the culture, as they do at present. But I expect that for the foreseeable future the indulgence of intellectual decadence will hold sway. At least we should be braced for that prospect.
Given this circumstance, what might C. S. Lewis do today? I rather hope that he would continue to do what he did so very well; that he would persistently, persuasively, and winsomely make his arguments, engaging people one by one with the questions, “Is it not true? Do you not find it to be so?” One keeps at this in the confidence that there is such an irrepressible thing as human nature, and people may at some point be shamed into not denying—maybe even admitting—the obvious. Or at some point they may be faced by a question of great personal consequence that requires a yes-or-no, true-or-false, answer. Or, best of all, they may weary of trashing their own dignity as creatures endowed with the divine gift of reason.
So I would hope that in the postmodern wilderness Lewis would keep on making his arguments, in the confidence that people can be brought to recognize that the rules of reason such as the law of noncontradiction are not the iron cage of outmoded rationalism but reason’s royal road to discovering what is true. Like solipsism and related sophomoric indulgences, the hermeneutical skeptic’s dalliance with nihilism soon becomes tiresome. “Yes, my dear,” one is inclined to say, “we see you playing on the edge of the abyss. Now either jump or come away and let’s get on with the conversation. It is really most annoying when you keep interrupting by announcing your discovery of nothing. Everything either is or is not nothing; and if it is, it is nothing. So, whatever you may say, you really cannot have discovered it.”
In addition to making arguments, I expect that Lewis today would continue to tell stories. In fact I am certain he would, for it was central to his thought that discursive reason is inseparable from myth as a medium of truth. One recalls that decisive September evening in 1931 when J. R. R. Tolkien explained that “the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way.” Of course, in today’s postmodernist climate “stories” are very popular; you have your story and I have my story, and we both know that we are just making it up as we go along. Lewis knew no such thing. As he then insisted that discursive reason is inseparable from myth, he would today, I expect, insist even more emphatically that myth is inseparable from discursive reason.
Lewis’ confidence in human nature, with its capacity for reason and susceptibility to myth, gave him a measure of patience with those who did not see the truth or saw it only dimly. It is a patience, premised upon confidence, that might well be emulated by admirers of Lewis who too much relish him in his courtroom style, when he smites the unbelieving opponent hip and thigh, delivering knockdown arguments with a forensic brilliance that leaves the audience breathless. It is true that Lewis could be wickedly clever with liberals who stripped the faith of its substantive truth claims while still thinking of themselves as Christians. But, unlike some of his admirers today, Lewis did not insist that such liberals should fish or cut bait. Rather, he encouraged them to hang around the Christian thing, so to speak, in the hope that it might edge them toward the truth in ways better than they could understand.
A man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who assented and did not think much about it. The modernist—the extreme modernist, infidel in all but name—need not be called a fool or hypocrite because he obstinately retains, even in the midst of his intellectual atheism, the language, rites, sacraments, and story of the Christians. The poor man may be clinging (with a wisdom he himself by no means understands) to that which is his life.
Myth and fact are inextricably entangled, and a person is not necessarily a more authentic Christian by being more firmly grasped by the one or the other: “For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher.”
I should say that in public conversation today I do not think the word “myth” is usable, and it was probably less than helpful fifty years ago. Outside the circles of literary criticism, “myth” connotes falsehood. Speaking of a “true myth” may catch attention, but it is also misleading for most people, suggesting that the truth in the myth is something less than really true. The word “story” is better. Despite postmodernism’s story-telling games, people more readily recognize that stories can be true or false. But I expect the still better word is “narrative.” I may have a difference with Lewis here (one day, God willing, we will find out), but I wonder whether his relentless effort to open people to the truth-disclosing genre of myth did not, because of the connotations surrounding the word “myth,” obscure the truth he most wanted to be disclosed. In some contemporary writings inspired by Lewis, the reader may get the impression that the fact of Bethlehem and the myth of Narnia, the fact of Christ and the myth of Aslan, are, at the end of the day, pretty much the same thing. Of course they are the same thing in part, but in much more important part they are not. I quickly add that Lewis should not be held accountable for all that is done by writers who claim his inspiration.
I should also say that Lewis anticipated some of the concerns addressed here. Somewhere he says that imagination is the organ of meaning and reason is the organ of truth. At least according to some interpreters, after the encounter with Elizabeth Anscombe at the Oxford Socratic Club he lost confidence in reason and turned to imagination and myth. I expect it is more accurate to say that he came to more clearly recognize the interdependence of reason and imagination. He did ponder the difference between story and myth in the exercise of imagination. My modest suggestion is that, in today’s intellectual culture, there is near insurmountable resistance to proposing truth under the title of “myth.” “Story” is better, and “narrative” is better still.
In what might be called his two-pronged apologetic, Lewis employed argument and story, discursive reason and narrative, to powerful effect. In the public square of today and tomorrow, that strategy meets with even greater obstacles than it did in Lewis’ time. I have already discussed the concerted attack upon reasonable argument. In that department, Lewis could take much more for granted than we can today. But there is also an attack upon story, or perhaps it is less an attack than a trivializing of story. The story of postmodernism is the story of how, in Robert Jenson’s fine phrase, “the world lost its story” (“How the World Lost Its Story,” FT, October 1993). All too briefly, and in broad strokes, I will say what I think that means. The late Hans Frei of Yale persuasively contended that the modern world’s typical way of understanding human life was through “realistic narrative.” A realistic narrative is, as Aristotle taught, a sequence of events that, in retrospect, “had” to happen or could happen in the real world. The realistic narrative of the West—and the West has been the driving force of world-historical change for almost a millennium—was the story that the Bible tells, the story of God with His creatures, from creation, through the election of Abraham, the coming of the Messiah, and the eschatological promise of the Feast of the Lamb.
As is now generally acknowledged, modernity fed off that realistic narrative for a long time. The myth of historical progress and ideological schemes such as Marxism were secularized riffs on the biblical story. But the story-line could not be sustained without its Author and Chief Protagonist, namely, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. What we today call postmodernism is the long-delayed general dissemination of what, in the earlier part of this century, appeared in the arts under the title of “modernism.” Surrealism, dadaism, the writings of James Joyce and, later, Samuel Beckett—all proclaimed a world that has lost its story, and, along with its story, its coherence, purpose, and promise. We no longer live in what might be called a “narratable world” (Jenson). Of course Lewis was aware of “modernism” in the arts, but it was then on the edges of the public square, presenting itself as the avant-garde. Today, under the title of “postmodernism,” it bids fair to take over the public square in its entirety.
Postmodernism dissolves the controlling master story or meta-narrative into disconnected fragments, just as modernist painting, sculpture, and fiction exulted in turning art forms into formless fragments. In the absence of the meta-narrative, other narratives are crippled in their capacity to disclose truth. Consider allegory, for instance. To speak figuratively is to assume a knowledge of that which is figured. The word “allegory” is from the Greek allos, meaning other, and agorein, to speak publicly in the agora, meaning the public square. Lewis assumed, and reasonably so, that his allegories would resonate in a public square over which and around which hovered the meta-narrative of the biblical story. He wrote allegorically in the expectation that at least the thoughtful reader would “get it.” That cannot be assumed today, and even less will we be able to assume it tomorrow. The modern world, now become the postmodern world, has lost its story.
Postmodernists are incapable of allegory because allegory requires a known story to which it is “other.” With debonair desperation they multiply the telling of stories, making them up as they go along, in the hope of finding one with which, as it is said, they are “comfortable”—at least for the time being, until they feel the need for another that will, as it is said, meet their needs. The resulting cacophony in the public square is called multiculturalism. In such a world, Lewis’ talk about a “true” story strikes many as quaint. “Right you are if you think you are, Mr. Lewis.”
So what are we to do—we who are convinced that we know the Realistic Narrative that, in the words of Dante, moves the sun and all the other stars, the narrative of God’s love with His creatures? We cannot, we must not, withdraw from the public square. I suggest that we firmly reject the counsel of those who say that we live in a post-Christian age and should prepare ourselves for a return to the catacombs. If the Narrative is true, if Christ is Lord, it follows that no age can be post-Christian. We might better say that our world is not post-Christian but proto-Christian, awaiting, whether it realizes it or not, the story by which it might, as though for the first time, know itself. Were I writing another article, I would go on to explain why the community that bears the story of the world must itself more clearly exemplify that story. The story must be told by the life of the Church, and by the Eucharist which is the source and summit of the life of the Church, and therefore of the world. Lewis had relatively little to say about liturgy and the ecclesial dimension of Christian faith. I expect he might sense the urgency of saying more today. Church and Eucharist are the story of the world, the axis mundi , the center of all that is, the recapitulation of all that ever has been, the anticipation of the promised Feast of the Lamb. The Church must more manifestly be what in fact she is, the story of the world. But, as I say, that is the subject of another article.
For the moment, and in answer to the question, What are we to do?, I suggest that we should also do what C. S. Lewis did so very well. As Christian humanists in the public square, we should persist in making the very best arguments that we can. Not in order to score points, but in order to elicit the capacity for critical thought—being confident, as Lewis was confident, that human beings are hard-wired for reason in search of truth. And we should tell better stories that winsomely, even seductively, reintroduce the Great Story; being confident, as Lewis was confident, that the pagans then and now, in the fine phrase of Edward Norman, got it “broadly right.” We must help them to tell their story, for, whether they know it or not, their story is the story of God’s ways with His creatures, the story of salvation.
In the freedom and confidence that come from knowing and being known by the Truth, we join the everyday C. S. Lewis in the public square—patiently and imaginatively engaging our interlocutors, one by one, and asking, “Is it not true? Do you not find it to be so?” As Lewis well understood, a salutary touch of polemic is in order from time to timeto catch the listener’s attention or to clear the air of cant. But the Christian humanist knows that, at its heart, the conversation with the world is a love affair; to elicit what is already there and bring it to fuller and finer expression in what is, finally and simply and wondrously, the truth.
Richard John Neuhaus is the former editor of First Things. This essay was first presented at Cambridge University at a conference celebrating the centenary of Lewis’ birth sponsored by the C. S. Lewis Foundation.
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