journey post 18–C.S. Lewis meets Charles Dickens: Mankind was my business!
We all kick ourselves from time to time for missing things we later realize were important. That kick has been an oft repeated thematic note in my life. I hear that note now as I write….
I learned a lot from reading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity in 1970. This little volume played an important part in my becoming a Christian in 1971. Regrettably, there was much that I paid scant attention to, chiefly a statement I’ve quoted twice before on this blog. The statement is his summary of the “Law of Human Nature”: “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). The “curious idea” is delivered via conscience, and generally concerns our relationships with others.
As I read in 1970, I was so focused on investigating Christianity that I assumed Lewis was using this law of human nature as a back way in to telling us about God’s law, e.g., the Ten Commandments; so I read into his words all the list of sins that young men think about. While I accepted his statements about right and wrong as a given (this is no longer the case in our post-modern world), I was unable to distinguish basic right and wrong from my legalistic list of sins. I see now that he was doing just what he said he was: using the familiar—conscience and guilt and our questions about who or what is behind it all—to help us get a clue to the unknown: the meaning of the universe. My long-established performance mindset blinded me so that I was mostly concerned with how not to get myself clobbered by God while not appearing to be a fanatic. I missed his point about this law of human nature being the foundation of all clear thinking. Had I done so, I might have saved myself much grief and many zigzags.
Let me pick up here where I left Scrooge and Marley in Journey Post 13.
When Scrooge inquires about the enormous chain that specter carries, Marley explains it is the chain he had made in life though selfish greed. We get the point right away, of course, though Scrooge is left puzzling over how such a great man of business could be faulted for his acumen.
“Mankind was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The deals of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
These words are wonder-filled, carefully crafted by Dickens, whose Christian values were prominent subtexts in his works as he tried to awaken his fellow Englishmen to the plight of those around them. Scrooge is left wondering at the words and terrified by his vision. He climbs into his curtained bed that Christmas Eve with nary a vision of sugar plums dancing, only great dread and unease.
Dickens and C.S. Lewis share a sense of the dramatic, albeit Lewis works it out a bit more cerebrally. They both recognize that a healthy sense of fear, of dread and unease, is good for us from time to time—as long as it concerns the right thing.
My fellow Evangelicals might wish that Dickens had made his Christianity a bit more explicit, with Scrooge coming to understand that Jesus had paid for his sin of self-centered greed, but Dickens was here more focused on how Christian values work out in life than on giving a formula for how to secure a ticket to heaven. Lewis, by his exposition of the “law of human nature” with right and wrong being a clue to the meaning of the universe, was seeking to bring us to clearly think about just what is our business, and about who or what might also be concerned and what that means….
Scrooge’s life was in some ways a parable of my own. I may not have been chasing every penny and farthing, but my life has been assuredly as self-centered as his. His sense of dread was marvelously resolved in that single eve. Mine took a more lengthy and zigzaggy route to resolution.
Here is why it was right for Lewis to begin his book with right and wrong: I, like many, confused Lewis’ “law of human nature” with my own thinking then about religious do’s and don’ts. Lewis’ concern (and God’s, in my understanding from Scripture) is much deeper. The law of human nature is written on the conscience by God to help us understand how to live in a world of others. It also intuitively teaches us something about our creator: how he cares about people (his business) and how we are to do so as well.
We misinterpret God when our primary picture of him is the great, fierce King and Judge sitting on a throne, surrounded by a sea of adoring worshippers. The Bible does paint such a picture—he is King and he is Judge—but that is only one aspect. Were that the whole picture, then I would have to say that Mark Twain had it right when he said we should take a good book along to heaven so we don’t get bored….
Marley’s cry that mankind was his business, charity (i.e., sacrificial love that gives and serves others), mercy, forbearance, benevolence, and, I might add, justice, reflect the values that Jesus himself taught. Such was not incidental but central in his teaching. For example, when he spoke of the “golden rule” (a part of the law of human nature), he said that that “is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). The religious teachers of his day taught conformity to tradition, to outward duty and action; Jesus was concerned with action emanating from a holy heart—a heart in line with his Father’s perspective.
The law of human nature reflects what conscience tells us as members of the human community. To abide by this law does more to show our love for God than much else: it reflects his chief concern and will as expressed by Jesus when he was asked what was the greatest commandment: “’You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40, NLT).
This is God’s business. Scrooge would learn that on that dreaded Christmas Eve.