Sunday, April 17, 2016

Permanent things

I am approaching the end of George Marsden's C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity: A Biography. The final chapter considers "The Lasting Vitality of Mere Christianity." The first reason he cites is "Lewis looks for timeless truths as opposed to the culturally bound." From that section:
.... As a young man he [Lewis] had been so enthralled by modern thought that he had become a deeply disillusioned atheist. Then, during years of searching, he came to recognize the passing and ephemeral character of modern dogmas. During his quest for truth as a young man at Oxford in the 1920s, he took to heart his friend Owen Barfield's observations regarding "chronological snobbery." Many of the most heralded "advances" in modern thought, he came to see, would appear to later generations to be quaintly naïve. As he explained in a later essay, he rejected the "Great Myth" that had captivated him in his younger days. That was the modern myth that regarded history as basically an evolutionary progression from earlier, more primitive times of relative ignorance toward the triumph of modern scientifically based illumination. ....

As a literary scholar with immense learning about human thought and imagination from other eras, Lewis was eminently positioned to be a guide in sorting out the perennial from the time-bound. His works of literary criticism are exemplary in explaining how the assumptions of earlier ages differed from his own. Each time and place has characteristic insights from which we may learn but also blind spots and misleading mythologies. So, for instance, in Lewis's English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (1952.), his contribution to The Oxford History of English Literature, he titled his introductory chapter "The New Learning and the New Ignorance," a title he might have assigned to twentieth-century thought as well.

Lewis offered one of his most memorable expositions of the value of the wisdom of the past in gaining a proper perspective of modern times in a lay sermon, "Learning in Wartime," that he preached in Oxford in September 1939. Britain and France had just declared war on Germany, and students were asking why they should study the ancients at a time when there were so many urgent present needs. Lewis's answer was that, rather than being impractical, learning from great writers of other eras was one of the needs of the hour. Especially in times of crisis, people need perspective from the past in order to recognize that "much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion," One who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone pnone or his own age. ....

Lewis has sometimes been criticized for making the Gospel too individualistic. He was, nonetheless, clear about his priorities. If perennial Christianity was true, one's eternal relationship to God was the overwhelmingly preeminent question. As Lewis said in "Learning in Wartime' "Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself." Humans must recognize that they are on a pilgrimage toward "a permanent city satisfying the soul" and should not expect to build a Heaven on earth. So "a man may have to die for his country, but no man must, in any exclusive sense, live for his country. He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, belongs emphatically to God: himself." ....
"Learning in Wartime" (Word doc., pdf).

"All that is not eternal, is eternally out of date."
C.S. Lewis