C.S. Lewis’s Concern for the Future of Humanity - page 1


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From the Spring 2006 issue of Knowing & Doing:  

C.S. Lewis’s Concern for the Future of Humanity

by James M. Houston
Senior Fellow, C.S. Lewis Institute
Founder of Regent College (Vancouver, B.C.) and Professor of Spiritual Theology (retired)

 

etween 1947 and 1956, I was privileged to meet with C.S. Lewis in a group convened by Nicholas Zernov, Spalding Lecturer of Russian History at Oxford. I shared an apartment with Nicholas for seven years, and we entertained the group in our home together. After he published his novel, Till We Have Faces, I asked Lewis on one occasion, of all the books he had written, what did he consider the most important Christian message he had given? With no hesitation, his reply was, “the three lectures I gave at Newcastle on The Abolition of Man, in 1942-43, together with my recent novel, Till We Have Faces” (1956). I think he already sensed disappointment that the latter novel was being scarcely noticed. Certainly, there was no reprint as long as he lived—another seven years. Nor did his three lectures to the Faculty of Education in the University of Newcastle make any headlines. If anything, they seemed an exaggeration on the threat of technology in society. Only later, did the popular book by C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures, as that of science and the humanities, arouse more popular debate. Part of the apathy over Lewis’s topics was the reputed traditional bias of Oxford colleges as the bastion of the classical humanities, unlike Cambridge, with science having only marginal influence until World War II. So it could be argued that Lewis’s science fiction, especially That Hideous Strength, was what an entrenched, traditional Oxford don would write about; the intrusion of young science fellows entering into college life. Ironically, Winston Churchill selected an Oxford scientist, Lord Cherwell, to intensify the role of science into warfare, as it had never been exploited before. England might not nationally have survived without this new penetration of technology into society. But Lewis was aware and alarmed by the wholesale acceptance of technology. He saw it was becoming a new threat to our humanum. As he observed: “Each new power won by man is a power over man. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger.”1 The notion of “Man’s Power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.” It remained later for Jacques Ellul to further see the entrapment of modern society within the relentless growth of “technique for technique’s sake.”

Why Myth?

  One early reviewer described his novel Till We Have Faces as “brilliantly offbeat.” Only Chad Walsh, in the New York Herald Tribune, declared it to be “the most significant and triumphant work that Lewis has yet produced.” But Lewis was already dead by then. The deliberate choice of pagan mythology as his genre in his novel Till We Have Faces was to suggest that a good classical pagan was closer to the apostle Paul than a liberal secularist is today. For, at least, there was the dominating presence of the “sacred,” the awareness of good and evil, the sense of mystery, an after-life, and of moral accountability. Myth is associated with the lack of differentiation, of earth and heaven, man and beast, with scope for the heroic which leaves the human and the divine indeterminate. This is cause for chaos and violence. But at least mythopoeia leaves space to see that things are not as they might appear, for multiple layers of meanings, and thus always a challenge to our over-confident claims to “know” what is “reality.” It is a sphere beloved of the literary critic. So it was left to later novelists such as William Golding and Saul Bellow to complain against the loss of all mystery in a technical society, because with this loss no “space” was allowable to what is indeterminate in myth. Yet we cannot be “human” without it.
  In this context, often in our discussions, Lewis would speak about the tension required to see through the clean window, without losing the perspective of also looking at the view. A culture dominated by psycho-analysis, would end up seeing nothing. You simply cannot afford to explain everything away. So Lewis would challenge us today, how much mystery has been lost in a secular society? As I write, it is ironic that in the same month (January 2006), we have the Encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI on the love of God, and the National Geographic article on the brain chemistry of love, as a clash of two mindsets, about the realm of God, and the materialist realm of sex, that is of “mystery” and of “no mystery!”

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