journey post 12: The Haunting
He was a man of uncommon common sense, a remarkable combination of awakened mind and heart, expressing the uncommon in common words. Philosophers, generally, go down deeper and come up dryer than most, but C.S. Lewis—whose writing leavened deep thought with childlike wonder—came up fresh and sparkling with a renewed way of thinking about the old. He could be obtuse like anyone, but generally, you’d read what he says and think, “Well, that’s obvious! … Why didn’t I think of that?”
Perhaps this is why Lewis, who penned the words found in Mere Christianity in the darkest days of World War II and spoke them over the BBC to a nation seeking hope, was found relevant to people facing the Nazi onslaught, was found relevant to so many in my own post-sixties-traumatic 1970’s America, and still resonates to our postmodern age.
What he wrote about was assuredly uncommon and even unexpected. On the day I opened the book and began reading, he seemed condescendingly simple. But I was soon captured by the beauty of C.S. Lewis, who can ease you unawares into his deep simplicity. The unexpected part? He did not begin with the resurrection of Jesus, which was my big question, nor did he begin with the “question of God” or other grand question. He began with us. He began with how we relate to one another and how we expect each other to behave, things that bother us and—to those who think—haunt us.
Why he began with “right and wrong as a clue to the meaning of the universe,” I did not have a clue in 1970. I was clueless about much in my inner world in those days. I thought I knew about right and wrong—at least I clung determinedly to what I had been raised with, afraid of any assault on what I then regarded as truth. People like Sartre and thinking like existentialism were scary. No such thing as objective value? My strategy was simple: denial. “Well, that can’t be right!” I would not allow it.
Lewis, on the other hand, faced questions of truth head on. He grew up thinking he was a Christian as I did, but by age 15 he had become an atheist. He became a thinking atheist, trained in rigorous, disciplined application of logic. But logic was not for the smugly convinced: Lewis engaged in regular debate with a circle of close friends, including J.R.R. Tolkien. He was open to challenge, and devoured the works of George MacDonald, whose books helped bring him from atheism to theism, yet Lewis resisted returning to Christianity. Tolkien helped lead him back. The prodigal skeptic had come home.
As Lewis approaches explaining “mere Christianity” to others, including fellow skeptics, he begins with two points. These are: “First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in,” (p. 8)—and foundational for later posts.
One might expect him as a Christian to engage the grand systems of law or religious code such as the Ten Commandments. But he starts with simple stuff like someone cutting in line, or breaking promises, or running from the enemy, or helping someone in danger. And he distinguishes this “Law of Human Nature” from the laws of nature such as gravity. The one, we can and do ignore, the other we can’t (unless you really are Superman). We can choose not to go along with the “law,” as did the Nazis who, at bottom, knew that their “final solution” was wrong no matter how they rationalized it.
Does everyone in the world thinks exactly the same about basic morality, right and wrong? They don’t. But there is a similar strain running through all cultures.* “Think of a country,” Lewis says, “where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five.” (p 6) If you find a person who does not believe in a real right and wrong, try breaking your promise to him. People may sometimes make mistakes about what is right and what is wrong, but real right and wrong is not a matter of taste or opinion, just as sums are not.
Your brain, as mine did, is likely producing scads of exceptions about now. What about plural wives? “Men have differed,” he writes, “as to whether you should have one wife or four. But they have always agreed that you must not simply have any woman you liked,” (p. 6). Well, what about being selfish? Some societies require that you share everything—which we saw in Senegal—though this did not eliminate selfishness. Societies differ about whom one might be selfish to, but “they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first,” (p. 6). In spite of our me-centered culture, this applies.
Lewis makes a pretty convincing case. I’m sure that, in the seventy-odd years since he wrote, some have found exceptions that Lewis didn’t cover—but that only reinforces his conclusion about universality.
Some object that we cannot be wired for right and wrong, or conscience. These ideas surely stem from instinct or impulse. Lewis gives this example: suppose you heard a man in danger cry for help. Our herd or group instinct would say, “Help him.” Self-preservation would dictate, “Keep out of danger.” But a third thing, an arbiter, enters to enable you to decide, to judge between the two—something which cannot itself be instinct. This, Lewis says, is the Law of Human Nature. This law is true apart from social convention. Even though parents and society teach us such things, real right and wrong cannot be human invention or custom, like driving on the right (left, for Lewis). “We all learned the multiplication table at school,” for example, (p 12). Real right and wrong can be used as a standard for comparing moral ideas, such as yours vs. those of the Nazis.
I could not then fully appreciate what Lewis was presenting here. Part of my zigzag journey (yet to come, 20 years down the line) was to be confronted in a major way with what was really right and what was really wrong. I simply accepted this first part of his book since it seemed to fit my existing world view—that there is a right and wrong and I already know it. So let’s move on, shall we?
Top: British troops in the trenches
Bottom: Moving the wounded
I’m sure that many in Lewis’ early listening audience thought they knew, as well. But did they? Lewis and that generation were those who had been caught in the horrific trench warfare of the First World War. Nine million combatants were slaughtered, 1914-1918, many of those in the senseless and stupid and meaningless human waves through “no man’s land.” The “living” emerged as the “lost generation” of the 20s in Europe. Haunted. Right and wrong as a clue to the meaning of the universe? It was the right place to start. It was, then; it is, now. I’ll tell you why I think so in a later post.
*Lewis did his homework and details this in an appendix to his little book, The Abolition of Man.