Friday, August 1, 2014

C. S. Lewis: The Poison of Subjectivism

christian reflections“Shortly after his conversion in 1929, C. S. Lewis wrote to a friend: ‘When all is said (and truly said) about the divisions of Christendom, there remains, by God’s mercy, an enormous common ground.’ From that time on Lewis thought that the best service he could do for his unbelieving neighbors was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times–that ‘enormous common ground’ which he usually referred to as ‘mere’ Christianity.” Thus begins Walter Hooper’s preface to his collection of C. S. Lewis’ essays entitled Christian Reflections, published in 1966, just three years after Lewis’ death.
The essays concern sundry topics, but are united under the banner of Lewis’ pristine logic and unswerving commitment to the Christian faith. Here’s an excerpt from the essay, “The Poison of Subjectivism":

If “good” and “better” are terms deriving their sole meaning from the ideology of each people, then of course ideologies themselves cannot be better or worse than one another. Unless the measuring rod is independent of the things measured, we can do no measuring. For the same reason it is useless to compare the moral ideas of one age with those of another: progress and decadence are alike meaningless words.
 All this is so obvious that it amounts to an identical proposition. But how little it is now understood can be gauged from the procedure of the moral reformer who, after saying that “good” means “what we are conditioned to like” goes on cheerfully to consider whether it might be “better” that we should be conditioned to like something else. What in Heaven’s name does he mean by “better”?
 He usually has at the back of his mind the notion that if he throws over traditional judgement of value, he will find something else, something more “real” or “solid” on which to base a new scheme of values. He will say, for example, “We must abandon irrational taboos and base our values on the good of the community” – as if the maxim “Thou shalt promote the good of the community’ were anything more than a polysyllabic variant of ‘Do as you would be done by’ which has itself no other basis than the old universal value judgement that he claims to be rejecting. Or he will endeavor to base his values on biology and tell us that we must act thus and thus for the preservation of our species. Apparently he does not anticipate the question, ‘Why should the species be preserved?’ He takes it for granted that it should, because he is really relying on traditional judgements of value. If he were starting, as he pretends, with a clean slate, he could never reach this principle. Sometimes he tries to do so by falling back on “instinct.” “We have an instinct to preserve our species”, he may say. But have we? And if we have, who told us that we must obey our instincts? And why should we obey this instinct in the teeth of many others which conflict with the preservation of the species? The reformer knows that some instincts are to be obeyed more than others only because he is judging instincts by a standard, and the standard is, once more, the traditional morality which he claims to be superseding. The instincts themselves obviously cannot furnish us with grounds for grading the instincts in a hierarchy. If you do not bring a knowledge of their comparative respectability to your study of them, you can never derive it from them.
The essay is only 10 pages long but ought not be despised for its brevity. Its main thesis revolves around an assertion of Natural Law that is common to all men everywhere in every time. He even discusses what Reformed theologians coin the ‘noetic effects of the Fall,’ though he does not use that phrase. Near the end, Lewis discusses the fact that Christianity is trinitarian and how this correct understanding of the God who is helps us reconcile the relationship between ‘God’ and ‘good.’ He surmises “that God neither obeys nor creates the moral law. The good is uncreated; it never could have been otherwise; it has no shadow of contingency..”

Lewis concludes with some examples of the practical fallout of subjectivism:
God is not merely good, but goodness; goodness is not merely divine, but God.

These may seem fine-spun speculations: yet I believe that nothing short of this can save us. A Christianity which does not see moral and religious experience converging to meet at infinity, not at a negative infinity, but in the positive infinity of the living yet superpersonal God, has nothing, in the long run, to divide it from devil worship; and a philosophy which does not accept value as eternal and objective can lead us only to ruin. Nor is the matter of merely speculative importance. 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 eugenics, psychological manipulation of infants, state education and mass propaganda. Because he is confused, he does not yet fully realize that those who create conscience cannot be subject to conscience themselves. But he must awake to the logic of his position sooner or later; and when he does, what barrier remains between us and the final division of the race into a few conditioners who stand themselves outside morality and the many conditioned in whom such morality as the experts choose is produced at the experts’ pleasure? If “good” means only the local ideology, how can those who invent the local ideology be guided by any idea of good themselves? 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 creation.
Follow this link to Amazon to buy Christian Reflections by C. S. Lewis.

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