In 1943, C. S. Lewis published The Abolition of Man in an attempt to warn the world about the Innovators, educators who were corrupting the minds of children, turning them into “men without chests.” If Lewis were to write again in 2019, he would find a formidable set of new Innovators to warn us about.
Lewis begins The Abolition of Man by commenting on an English textbook, written by two misguided authors whom he calls Gaius and Titius:
In their second chapter Gains and Titius quote the well-known story of Coleridge at the waterfall. You remember that there were two tourists present: that one called it ‘sublime’ and the other ‘pretty’; and that Coleridge mentally endorsed the first judgement and rejected the second with disgust. Gaius and Titius comment as follows: ‘When the man said This is sublime, he appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall… Actually … he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings. What he was saying was really I have feelings associated in my mind with the word “Sublime”, or shortly, I have sublime feelings.‘
As Lewis observes, Gaius and Titius have reduced all statements of value to “statements about the emotional state of the speaker.”
Gaius and Titius’ perspective fails to reckon with what we might call the grain of the universe, the natural order, or as Lewis calls it, “the Tao.” It fails to account for the way the world really is: the fact that some waterfalls truly are sublime apart from any assertion or human opinion about them. This reality-denying individualism (known in technical circles as “emotivism”) is the calling card of the Innovators.
Lewis warns where this way of thinking, oblivious to the created world, will lead: nihilism.
The practical result of education in the spirit of “The Green Book” must be the destruction of the society which accepts it…. The Tao therefore is the basis of all value systems. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. No new value system can be erected except on the basis of the Tao. All such efforts will merely be fragments from the Tao itself … If he had really started from scratch, from right outside the human tradition of value, no jugglery could have advanced him an inch towards the conception that a man should die for the community or work for posterity.
Apart from the Tao, all that is left is one’s own preferences and those preferences are only as meaningful as the power of the person to enforce them. Everything becomes utterly arbitrary, so that talk about justice, goodness, and beauty is meaningless. These concepts amount to no more than opinion enforced by strength or numbers.
In abandoning the Tao, “it is not that [the Innovators] are bad men. They are not men at all. … They have stepped into the void … they are artifacts. Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man!”
A similar abandonment of the created order is working its way through American Christianity in our own century, masquerading itself as Christian truth. This time the Innovators are not emotivists like Gaius and Titius, reducing every value statement to an opinion, but they are liberal individualists, reducing real flesh-and-blood human beings into isolated abstractions. These Innovators of the third millennium are the preachers of the atomic individual, the man who thinks for himself and is responsible to no one. We can find these Nietzchean Ubermen in the excesses of libertarianism and in the fiction of Ayn Rand. Far more worrisome, though, is that we can find these self-made men praised in the pulpits of many a respectable Christian church.
Where the Christian gospel insists “you are not your own; you were bought at a price,” these Innovators and their libertarian gospel say, “you are your own; whatever you have bought is yours.” Where Scripture speaks about salvation as being united in Christ and becoming Christ’s body on earth, the libertarian gospel speaks of salvation as inviting Jesus into your heart (that is, Jesus entering your individual body, not you and all Christians together entering his). Although this kind of pathology runs against the grain of the universe, against the scriptural witness, and even against the weight of Christian thought across two millenia, still somehow that does not stop Christian ministers from clinging to it.
Last summer, John MacArthur and some other prominent Christian leaders drafted and signed a clumsy document known as The Statement on Social Justice. While the drafters claim that the statement is motivated by “[a deep concern] that values borrowed from secular culture are currently undermining Scripture,” every single error among the statement’s pronouncements comes from the drafter’s own confusion of the gospel of liberal individualism with Holy Writ.
Yes, John MacArthur and the other signers of the Statement on Social Justice are the Innovators that C. S. Lewis warned us about.
The Statement, which aspires to address the “onslaught of dangerous and false teachings that threaten the gospel, misrepresent Scripture, and lead people away from the grace of God in Jesus Christ,” is itself culpable of seriously distorting Christian teaching. There is a frustrating insistence on individualism in its paragraphs.
By individualism, I here and above mean the sense that all that matters morally is the heart and intention of the individual. That is, a perspective that zooms so entirely in on the individual so as to obscure, and even deny, any larger realities. I think here of the benighted souls (and I myself have been one) who think it possible to fly a Confederate flag simply for pride of Southern culture. The moral framework necessary to justify this action is one that focuses solely on the individual and his or her heart towards African Americans. As just one example of its shortcomings, this framework denies granting any significance, except in a secondary sense, to the historical re-adoption of the flag in the Civil Rights era as a symbol of Southern defiance against federally-mandated integration.
The reality-bending individualism of the Statement on Social Justice is on full display when its drafters claim that while it is possible for families, groups, and nations to “sin collectively” or be “predisposed to particular sins,” “subsequent generations share the collective guilt of their ancestors only if they approve and embrace (or attempt to justify) those sins.” Here they have reduced morality to the thought-life of a solitary individual.
Like the drafters’ account of the gospel, which is simply about affirming Christ as the Lord who has atoned for the world’s sins (a good start though it is something which “even the demons believe, and shudder,”) their account of ethical action is about right belief and fails to acknowledge the way we are implicated in one another’s lives. True, “the child will not share the guilt of the parent” (Ezekiel 18:20) but to consider the matter settled by that verse is to miss the biblical picture of what it is to be a human being.
There is no sense in the drafters’ pronouncements that I might bear responsibility for my family, children, or ancestors, other than not to “approve and embrace” their sins. This is far afield from the biblical picture, which insists that in one man all sinned and will die (1 Corinthians 15:22); that I am my brother’s keeper (Genesis 4); that if my brother sins I have a duty to confront him (Matthew 18); that my body is a member of Christ and that my sexual immorality can unite the body of Christ and other members of that body with a prostitute (1 Corinthians 6).
In the drafters’ fear of the social nature of the gospel, they mis-read Scripture and fail to see the full glory of the gospel. They, and other followers of the libertarian gospel, miss the reality on display in the body of Christ, the truth that John Donne captured so elegantly: “No man is an island entire of itself … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”
This fear of our corporate nature, this radical individualism is not just a failure to understand who we are as human beings; it also manifests itself in a failure to understand how we know and learn to believe things. The libertarian gospel paints a picture of humankind as atoms and monads, totally separate from everything around them, brains on sticks that can merely either “approve and embrace … sins” or reject them. Their ‘repentance’ is one of the mind, so that they can earnestly claim that “implications and applications of the gospel, such as the obligation to live justly in the world … are not definitional components of the gospel.”
The drafters and the proponents of this caricatured gospel fail to consider the abolition of man that has been carried out through the individualism they champion. In their isolation, they have lost sight of that partnership “between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born,” as Edmund Burke puts it. They have lost their place in the great communion of humankind.
This is another way of getting at the same thing as Donne’s poem, and, in part, what Christians mean when they profess belief in the “communion of saints.” Christ unites in his own body that which is separated by time and distance. And it is also a recognition of what is so evidently true of reality: we are not our own; we come from somewhere and are indebted to a history, apart from which we cannot even articulate who we are. We first learn to speak and reason through others who cared for us when we could not care for ourselves. The very nature of human beings requires this.
Rather than try to “be our own man,” as the individualists would have it, only taking responsibility for the sins and failures which we directly and explicitly embraced, to be fully human is to take responsibility for things, actions, and people outside our immediate experience and, in turn, to be dependent upon the responsibility and care of others. This is to embrace the biblical picture of human nature and to live out the fully human life of Christ. It is the antidote to this individualism run amok.
To enter into and embrace the responsibility and dependence of human community is to recognize, with awe, that Christ took on flesh, not as a fully-formed, independent adult, but as a baby within Mary’s womb. To embrace this Tao, this natural order, is to acknowledge our dependence on those around us and those before us, those who bore us, as well as our debt to those who will come after us.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is that we have been united in Christ, brought into God’s chosen people of Israel as wild branches are grafted into an olive tree. We are not our own. We are members of Christ’s one body, sharing in the unity of the Spirit one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Ephesians 4:3-6).
Sharing as we do in this one body, it is then our business to be our brothers’ keeper, lest in denying our brother we deny the one body we are a part of. Our business is to step into our true nature as human beings and manifest the reality of the world in our fellowship. We must become participators in that reality, not the Innovators that Lewis warned us about.
John Schweiker Shelton is a congressional staffer with a master’s degree from Duke in theological ethics and political theory. He is also a proud Virginian and alumnus of Thomas Jefferson’s university. You can follow him on Twitter @jayshelt for odd musings about theology, philosophy, and fantasy literature.