It is the modern assumption that we project our deepest desires on the universe. We long for God, so we conjure up an image of God. We want moral order, so we create values. We feel homeless, so we imagine an eternal home. Our desires, in this view, discredit the reality of our hopes. Dissected and analyzed, they are irrational emotions, socially conditioned sentiments or electrical impulses in the brain.
Lewis called this “the poison of subjectivism” and he drew out the consequences unsparingly. In the realm of ethics, it makes the determination of right and wrong impossible, which hardly seemed an abstract matter in the midst of World War II. “Unless there is some objective standard of good,” said Lewis, “overarching Germans, Japanese and ourselves alike whether any of us obey it or no, then of course the Germans are as competent to create their ideology as we are to create ours.”
C.S. Lewis died the same day as John F. Kennedy.
Everyone remembers Kennedy, and if they remember Lewis at all, it’s as an afterthought. (Ditto Aldous Huxley, who will get my Nov. 22 post next year).
Kennedy’s death was a traumatic event, so it’s understandable that it overshadows everything else. The day itself has become a historic event, and will remain so for at least as long as those who were affected by the day remember it – and probably beyond that, also. I think that day is one of the “lives in infamy” Hall of Famers.
But as the writer of this article points out:
…it is often noted that he died on the same day that President John F. Kennedy was murdered. Beyond a confusing congestion at St. Peter’s gate, this signifies little — except that lasting influence comes in varied forms.
The eternal flame at Arlington Cemetery is far from the small plaque commemorating Lewis that was recently placed in Poets’ Corner. But many will make their pilgrimage to the South Transept of Westminster Abbey to honor not just an author but a man who changed the course of their lives.
Lewis has had an impact on my life: he gave me back hope….the hope that believing in such quaint childish notions as God, life, right & wrong, and hope itself is not necessarily illogical, and doesn’t make me hopelessly unsophisticated (later on I realized I was doomed to be hopelessly unsophisticated anyway, but that’s for entirely different reasons.)
In fact, if you examine carefully, you see that sophistication is itself an equally illogical position.
Here Lewis applies the first twist, applying some skepticism to modern skepticism. What if the common attempt of Babylonians, Egyptians, ancient Jews, Confucians, Stoics and so many others to discover a moral order — which Lewis calls the “massive unanimity of the practical reason in man” — was perfectly rational, approximating (with typical human failings and limits) the “absolute reality of elementary moral platitudes”?
I have argued with those who believe in the “random creation” myth, and one thing they can never answer is this: if evolution is inevitable (and therefore presumably good), then wouldn’t that mean it – not some evil group of conspirators (whether calling themselves The Patriarchy or merely Organized Religion) – created Christianity? (Or Judaism or whatever religion is being dissed)
And if evolution created Christianity – and it’s because of evolution that Christianity outlives Nietzsche – doesn’t that suggest Christianity might have within it something useful? Something that human beings need, or at least benefit from?
Even if you’re convinced it’s all delusion, how do we know delusions aren’t helpful? Post traumatic stress disorder appears to be nothing more than the inability to sustain the delusion that the world is safe (after coming too close to the reality that we mortal, fragile beings are in fact very easily snapped and yet living in a cruel universe). None of us could get into a car if we could feel car mortality statistics the way we can know them intellectually. What if the same is true of life itself?
I ask questions like this because it seems like the thing everyone hates about religion are the rules, the “right & wrong” and “thou shalt” parts – but it seems to me the rules are precisely the part of religion that are most defensible logically, especially now that the Sexual Revolution has given us solid data proving that in fact most of the things moralists predicted about irresponsible “free love” is in fact a real concern.
So far, this involves the rescue of moral standards, which most of us find a mixed blessing. But Lewis goes further, or, as he liked to say, “further up and further in.” His second twist is more ambitious: What if all the ancient, recurring myths of the human race, all the yearnings of prophets and sages for the touch of God, for a visit from God, were not just the lies of poets, but the hints and rumors of another world? In this account, our deepest, unsatisfied desires for joy, meaning and homecoming are not cruel jokes of nature. They are meant for fulfillment. What we desire most, said Lewis, is “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
If anyone has ever found Narnia to have a “magical” feel about it, this here is the source of the magic – this belief (which Lewis really believed) that maybe yearnings are themselves indicative of potential.
To his own considerable surprise, Lewis came to believe that Christianity fulfilled and completed the ancient stories. “The old myth of the Dying God,” he said, “without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. … By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.”
Having found truth in myths, Lewis decided to produce his own — not as pleasing distractions but as reminders that we actually inhabit a world of fantastical, eternal creatures, with noble quests to perform and stories that do not end. And when we discover our true citizenship, he says, it comes with a “happiness … so great that it even weakens me like a wound.”
“I have come home at last!” says a stunned unicorn at the end of “The Chronicles of Narnia.” “This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.”
This is the achievement of Lewis: to restore the dignity of our desires, which leave us homeless in this world and lead us home.
There are some really nice Lewis tributes out there. A few I enjoyed: