Monday, August 5, 2013
C.S. Lewis on the Blindness of Our Age
In a recent conversation with my friend Elora Shore, we talked about the sins of particular eras. Some, racism in particular, we found hard to pardon. How could anyone be so blind to such an obvious fault? I paused. After all, why shouldn't the entire world, and all of history besides, think like me? I realized that that was precisely what I was thinking, and the arrogance and ethnocentricity of it surprised me. We went on to talk of other things, but the question stuck in the back of my head.
When 24th Century historians look at us, what will they find impossible to understand? With a paranoid conception of the future, I imagined invisible time travelers peering in my window and felt slightly panicky. Will they think I'm old-fashioned? Is it possible to find out now? How can we see ourselves without the skewed lens of what C.S. Lewis called chronological snobbery? I want to be ahead of my time.
I believe, of course, that the Holy Spirit can act as the mirror. Often, though, when we are shoved face to face with the hideousness of ourselves, we shut out eyes. "Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember?" (Mark 8:18, ESV) Some are intellectually honest. With William Wilberforce, the gaze into this fearsome mirror forced him off the path to glory and forced him to see Africans as human beings. He put principle over party. The world still resounds. Wilberforce invented the idea of noblesse oblige.
Like I said, I didn't spend much time chewing the idea over, but while browsing to find which is the best C.S. Lewis book to send to my grandma, I came across a site quoting him (from this text) on the very problem:
There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books....
This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.
Now this seems to me topsy-turvy....
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny.
They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, "But how could they have thought that?"—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth.
None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.
Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.
Lewis wasn't the first to notice. While Lewis's solution was to keep in touch with thinkers from other ages, G.K. Chesterton's solution was, in typically Catholic fashion, tradition. Chesterton (who was subject to a few of his own age's flaws) writes, "Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”
Chesterton even expanded the idea to include Christianity and Man himself, expounding on both themes in his book The Everlasting Man. Western civilization is so used to living and thinking and operating in a world forged by a Christian worldview that we don't even know it. And we're so used to thinking of human beings as being so remarkably similar to apes, that we forget to be surprised at our differences. He writes:
Now the best relation to our spiritual home is to be near enough to love it. But the next best is to be far enough away not to hate it. It is the contention of these pages that while the best judge of Christianity is a Christian, the next best judge would be something more like a Confucian. The worst judge of all is the man now most ready with his judgements; the ill-educated Christian turning gradually into the ill-tempered agnostic, entangled in the end of a feud of which he never understood the beginning, blighted with a sort of hereditary boredom with he knows not what, and already weary of hearing what he has never heard.
I'm sure there are other mirrors that haven't occured to me. Any suggestions? The common thread between Lewis, Chesterton, and Wilberforce is that we need a mirror outside ourselves and unbiased by our current sensibilities. In the end, a good rule of thumb is to cease believing our view is the only view.
Now you might be thinking I'm just taking a long time to say, "you're not right about everything." Well, yeah. And it is fairly obvious. Why, then don't we have ears to hear? Maybe I can't answer that question.