C.S. Lewis and the Case Against Subjectivism - page 2

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From the Summer 2009 issue of Knowing & Doing:  

C.S. Lewis and the Case Against Subjectivism

by Jerry Root, Ph.D.
Adjunct Professor, Christian Formation and Ministry, Wheaton College

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  Furthermore, reality is more complex than one’s best thoughts about it. Consequently Lewis wrote, “All Reality is Iconoclastic.” One may have an image of reality formed directly by observation or indirectly: by the reported observations of others from books, lectures, conversations, and the like; or by inferences; and so forth. These may be true impressions, but they must be held loosely. If one holds too tightly to what is currently known, that knowledge will begin to compete against the possibility of growth. God always kicks out walls of temples built for Him because He wants to give more of Himself. Augustine said, “Narrow is the mansion of my soul; enlarge Thou it, that Thou mayest enter in.” Any truth known can always be plumbed more deeply; it can be applied more widely; and it can be seen in coherent relation with other truths. In a growing process, truths known do not have to be discarded as understanding increases any more than trees must give up interior rings just because they add new ones. Reality is not dynamic, but it is complex. A true understanding of reality, on the other hand, must be dynamic. Lewis is adamant that all images must be discarded images wherever growth in understanding is occurring. The subjectivist ceases to be responsive to the real world. Furthermore, subjectivists can be found in any intellectual camp.
  Certainly the materialist who is unwilling to consider the possibility of the existence of the supernatural is a subjectivist. He cannot be open enough to consider the possibility that a supernatural explanation may best fit certain situations. The supernaturalist, on the other hand, may conclude that a natural or supernatural explanation works best to describe some events; therefore, being open to the facts wherever they lead, he can be more open-minded than the materialist.
  Nevertheless, Lewis understood that those with a religious inclination could also become subjectivists. He noted that of all bad men, the worst of bad men are religious ones. The sooner one is willing to die for his faith, the sooner he may be willing to kill for his faith. Lewis was offended by those forms of religious fundamentalism that are quick to paint a “Thus saith the Lord” across any particular opinion held. Once the religious zealot has ceased to consider the possibility of deficiency in his own interpretations, he can no longer enter into the realm of dialectically safe engagement. He has become a subjectivist, and worse for the wear; he has made his word equal with God’s, and all positive engagement ceases; who can argue with someone such as this?
  Subjectivism can occur in any camp. No one is free from the possibility of pushing a point beyond what is reasonably sustainable; the habit of doing so can move subjectivistic self-referencing towards evil. Lewis believed subjectivism was likely to lead to the justification of evil.
  In what is perhaps the most important statement in Lewis’s most overt book on objectivity, The Abolition of Man, he wrote, “Only the Tao [“the doctrine of objective value”] provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.” He also wrote, “An accusation always implies a standard.” So it is with any judgment. An architect seeking to communicate dimensions to a contractor by means of a “blueprint” assumes that the two of them will be using standards of measure common to them both. Consequently, they will be using objective standards that transcend, so to speak, the whims of feet and inches either of them might have apart from the benefit of a tape measure. Without such objectivity, the society relative to construction—not to mention law, mathematics, physics, history, and the like—would be utter chaos. One could imagine that a society arbitrary about such things would become chaotic; anarchy would prevail. On the other hand, if one anarchist achieved control, a tyranny of the most powerful would be likely to prevail.

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