Against Pious Nihilism: C.S. Lewis on Natural Law
by R.J. Snell *
For many, the Narnia stories were their first exposure to the goodness of God and his creation. While they called us to move “further in and further up” to things that were more real and solid than these Shadowlands we now inhabit, they did so by calling us to attend to the traces of the divine already present in the created order.
That Hideous Strength, the final volume of C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, contains a bizarre and somewhat horrifying episode in which a formal dinner erupts into chaos and bloodshed. At the headquarters of the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.), various luminaries are settling into their port—since fortified spirits are a necessary aid for lengthy after-dinner speeches—and for the first few minutes everything proceeds as expected. But then, says Lewis, there was “a change” as one could see “face after face look up and turn in the direction of the speaker,” first with curiosity, incredulity, then “something between fascination and horror.”
The reason for this sudden attention is the odd behavior of Horace Jules, the speaker, who begins to utter sentences with all the right intonations and cadences but entirely without content, strewn with small errors of syntax and pronunciation. Someone begins to laugh hysterically. Shouting matches and fights break out before the noise is pierced by the terrified screams of guests who are being attacked by predatory animals released from the testing laboratories in the N.I.C.E. basement. In the carnage, in the middle of the Babel, stands a large man loudly intoning that “they that have despised the word of God, from them shall the word of man also be taken away.”
The scene is awful, memorable, and not at all subtle. But why? What is going on?
While many consider Lewis apolitical, a new and very good book, C. S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law, by Justin Buckley Dyer and Micah J. Watson, makes the case that Lewis, though he was largely uninterested in elections and political parties, “spent his life wrestling” with the fundamental questions of the polis. He may have avoided the “hurly-burly maelstrom” of the hustings and Parliament, but as a moral realist and natural law theorist he knew more than most about human flourishing and the various social disorders threatening “the word of man.” That Hideous Strength is about the loss of that word—the loss of reason Lewis discerned in his time and would think obvious in our own.
Reason, Natural Law, and the Order of the Cosmos
Though modern, Lewis was nonetheless steeped in the ancients, thoroughly at home with “Old Western men,” and one of the few remaining “specimens” of these “dinosaurs.” So trained, Lewis thoroughly resonated with classical-Christian anthropology. Consequently, he had little patience for the reductionism plaguing so many of his contemporaries, and he defended the human, properly understood, against reductive materialism and psychologism. As Dyer and Watson explain, Lewis felt it his “painful duty to wake the world from an enchantment,” or, perhaps better, the disenchantmentof viewing humans as no more than biological entities seeking comfort and security. Such a gloomy vision leaves no space for the classical-Christian understanding of reason as naturally oriented to truth, goodness, beauty, and God. Instead, it jettisons the governance of reason for technical calculation, the inner tyranny of one’s own ungoverned will, and the social and political tyranny that inevitably follows.
Whether due to a stinging debate loss to G.E.M. Anscombe about his arguments against naturalism, or because he became convinced that a people skeptical about reason could no longer ascertain the power of argument, Lewis turned to imagination to convey the moral structure of the cosmos. Despite the change of genre, his commitment to a high view of reason remained constant. For Lewis, the universe was a “constitutional monarchy,” with a rational and good God creating and sustaining an ordered, hierarchical cosmos, knowable by humans who could order their lives in keeping with the moral law. While skeptical of unchecked government and of revolutionary promises to perfect the human lot, Lewis, a classical liberal, knew that God had given us “the natural light” and so could leave “to us” the business of governing ourselves as individuals and citizens.
As a result, Lewis warned that an unchecked state emboldened by technological prowess unmoored from moral truth was a cause for concern. Committed to both the universality of moral knowledge and the universality of original sin, Lewis rejected notions of human perfectibility through the power of the state, even a Christian state, although he worried most about the aspirations of scientific technocracy. Interpreted by Dyer and Watson as a Lockean liberal, Lewis acknowledged the need for collective action but rejected the Aristotelian view of the political common good as constituting an intrinsic aspect of human flourishing. He feared that collective action aided by specialized expertise would give rise to “solutions” worse than the problems they sought to correct. In Dyer and Watson’s view, his desire to check state power included suspicion of attempts to make men virtuous through the law. A largely non-Christian society, as he judged Britain even then to be, could not impose the high ideals of religion on an unbelieving public.
In Lewis, we find a modern natural lawyer. On the one hand, he was a moral realist who believed the moral law was universal and intelligible. On the other hand, he seems to have conceded, in Dyer and Watson’s interpretation, that the natural law was a blunt instrument in a disenchanted, skeptical, and unbelieving technological culture. Added to this was his strong sense of original sin and the fallen human condition.
Still, Lewis believed in reason. Despite our limitations, he defends the natural moral law and our ability to apprehend it. He did not fall prey to a misguided understanding of man’s depravity that eviscerates our ability to distinguish good and evil. Such total depravity would mean that we could not know ourselves to be depraved; it would involve an utter annihilation of conscience, moral intelligibility, and awareness of sin. The authors argue that Lewis believed we humans know that we are in rebellion against God, and it is the will rather than the reason that suffers the gravest effects of the fall, although neither is so depraved as no longer to be human. Further, he rejected any absolute bifurcation between reason and revelation, since “reason was itself a form of revelation, and honest Christianity . . . served only to sharpen the intellect.”
Lewis vs. Barth: The Danger of Pious Nihilism
Crucially, Lewis denied the grave error that ascribes so much sovereignty to God that he invents good and evil for no reason other than his pleasure. Not only is this a deeply misguided understanding of sovereignty, which presents God as being disordered and unintelligible in his own being. It also overlooks and fundamentally misunderstands the Trinitarian relations that are, in the Christian view, the order of truth, goodness, and beauty. God neither invents nor obeys some external moral law, for his inner life of triune relationality is the intelligible good. Nor is he some bizarre cosmic power, like Zeus on steroids. Some religious believers, Lewis held, are pious nihilists for whom the will to power is the ultimate principle of reality. According to Lewis, such nihilism ensues whenever the natural law is rejected, no matter how sincere and pious one’s reasons for doing so may be.
In the most interesting and best section of a very solid book, Dyer and Watson explicate Lewis’s distaste for the thought of Karl Barth, one of the twentieth century’s most influential theologians, but a “dreadful man” for all that, as Lewis described him. Famously, Barth took issue with natural theology, claiming that it was not only powerless but also complicit in the rise of Hitler. Moreover, Barth claimed, any dogmatic or moral theology that began anywhere other than the revelation of Christ was “a dangerous excursion away from the Gospel and a possible abyss into which the modern church might fall,” and did fall, in his view. He famously denounced the analogy of being as an invention of the anti-Christ, and branded his contemporary Emil Brunner as no better than a heretic for accepting that we could know something of God from reason’s apprehension of nature. Instead, say Dyer and Watson, Barth “maintained that evangelical theology and practical ethics (including politics) must be based solely on the commandments of God revealed in his Word.”
In August of 1941 Barth’s “Letter to Great Britain” was published and released, to much attention. It happened that Lewis was slated to give the first of his famous BBC talks, later published as Mere Christianity, on August 6. He chose in his first segment to defend the “Law of nature” which “everyone knew by nature and did not need to be taught.” For Lewis, if the Nazis were wrong, then there must be a real and knowable morality that they were wrong about.They did not merely violate some inscrutable will of God rooted in God’s (potentially capricious) choice. They violated the very essence of a moral law itself grounded in the goodness of God.
In another place, Lewis described Barthianism as “not unlike devil worship” for flattening reality into insignificance before an inscrutable God. Like the devils, such flattening did not see the world as good, instead worshiping power and sovereign will above all. In such an account, God, like Nietzsche’s Übermensch, was beyond good and evil. However pious the reasons for ascribing to God such arbitrary power, it rendered God as something other than Goodness, even while denying the probity of the created order and making God’s approval of creation despotic and untrue.
For many, the Narnia stories were their first exposure to the goodness of God and his creation. While they called us to move “further in and further up” to things that were more real and solid than these Shadowlands we now inhabit, they did so by calling us to attend to the traces of the divine already present in the created order. Every effect resembles its cause in some way, and the goodness of the world, and our just delight in all that is fair and lovely in it, takes nothing away from God. Our delight in the world is an inchoate joy in the cause of that goodness. Denying that participation, however pious, is a kind of nihilism, devoutly to be rejected and surmounted as bad theology—and bad reasoning too.
While Dyer and Watson may be guilty of a slight hyperbole when claiming that “it is arguable that C.S. Lewis has had a greater impact on Christians in the last hundred years than any other writer,” there is no doubting his influence on a great many, including, although certainly not limited to, American evangelicals. The wardrobe door, the strange thrill at Aslan’s first mention, the distaste for Eustace and his parents, and the calm magnanimity of Mere Christianity provided solace, hope, and a palpable sense of the beauty and plausibility of faith. In Lewis, one finds a bridge to the tradition and escape from the fads of the moment. It’s easy to leave it at that, to rest in the loveliness of his fecund imagination and not probe more deeply into the moral realism and commitment to the natural law grounding Lewis’s vision. In their thoughtful, engaging, and wise book, Dyer and Watson remind us of why Lewis remains so valuable and influential, and they deserve a wide reading for this service. Professor Kirk, Lucy’s defender, would approve of their book, I’m sure, and that’s high praise indeed.
* R.J. Snell directs the Center on the University and Intellectual Life at theWitherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, and is senior fellow of the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good.
His books includeThe Perspective of Love: Natural Law in a New Mode, and Acedia and Its Discontents.