C. S. Lewis: Christianity, Historicism and the Enlightenment Narrative

In an essay from October 1950 entitled Historicism, C. S. Lewis critiques the various schools of thought that would confidently proclaim a defined ‘inner meaning’ to history. In the essay, which first appeared in Volume IV of The Month, Lewis begins by distinguishing between actual historians, who may indeed infer a certain meaning related to a series of events based on known facts (and may even go on to infer the correct sense of future or past events in relation to the known data), from the historicist, who claims to be able to infer from the same historical premises conclusions that have a much wider import – conclusions that are metaphysical, existential, theological or (as Lewis makes sure to add) a-theological. The historian speaks in terms of cause and effect or grounds and consequences; the historicist talks in terms of ultimate necessity, based on a prior theory of the way history is going (according to his particular theory of history).

Examples of such would be Hegel, Marx or Novalis, and Lewis also cites Keat’s Hyperion, as an example of historicism (in this instance evolutionism – the idea that things inevitably march or lurch towards a more perfect future) embodied in verse. After noting some of these examples, Lewis also goes on to rescue Christianity from the range of historicist schools – he notes that even though the Old Testament contains some passages which suggest calamities have befallen Israel because of a divine judgement, we have in these cases a guarantee only that judgement was afforded because of sin in these cases; we do not have the authority to attribute the same meaning to all calamities we see in life. Lewis also notes that, although the Old Testament has this feature in common with the contemporary pagan cultures, it is also contains many correctives to it that the pagans do not – the Book of Job and the Suffering Servant in Isaiah for instance.

Furthermore, for the Christian, we have dominical authority that not every disaster is the result of divine judgement in Luke 13:4 and John 9:13, so surely this kind of historicism is not allowed us. It is also often said that Christianity is unique in having a sense of linear history, in contradistinction to the pagans, but whilst this may be true of the Greeks, Lewis points out that both the Norse culture and the Romans had a keen sense of history, expressed vividly in the story of Ragnarok and the Aeneid respectively. When Saint Augustine wrote his De Civitate Dei, he was indeed engaging in historicism, but he was doing it to refute a pagan historicism that attributed the fall of Rome to the anger of the rejected pagan gods. What then should the Christian view of history be; and how legitimate is it for us to indulge in historicism? Lewis answers thus:

What appears, on Christian premises, to be true in the Historicist’s position is this. Since all things happen either by the divine will or at least by the divine permission, it follows that the total content of time must in its own nature be a revelation of God’s wisdom, justice, and mercy. In this direction we can go as far as Carlyle or Novalis or anyone else. History is, in that sense, a perpetual Evangel, a story written by the finger of God. If, by one miracle, the total content of time were spread out before me, and if, by another, I were able to hold all that infinity of events in my mind and if, by a third, God were pleased to comment on it so that I could understand it, then, to be sure, I could do what the Historicist says he is doing. I could read the meaning, discern the pattern. The question is not what could be done under conditions never vouchsafed us in via, nor even (as far as I can remember) promised us in patria, but what can be done now under the real conditions. I do not dispute that History is a story written by the finger of God. But have we the text?

taken from Christian Reflections (1981), p.136, Fount Paperbacks.

Thus we see the problem clearly – it is one thing to recognise the fact that all that has ever happened and ever will stems from God (from whom else could it come?) and that therefore the whole historical process must be revelatory; but for us to get the sense of what that whole process is revealing, we would have to not only know it all, but be advised by God Himself as to its proper interpretation. This is a situation that we will never be in – thus historicism, in its truest sense, is off limits for the Christian, precisely because of our prior recognition that God is God and we are not. Having established this, Lewis then goes on to examine how it is that various men of distinction have come to believe that they are able to divine an ‘inner meaning’ to history without having anywhere near the full realm of knowledge that would be required to do so.

He lists six ‘senses’ of history, before concluding that historicists speak of it in what he lists as number six of the senses – ‘that vague, composite picture of the past which floats, rather hazily, in the mind of the ordinary educated man’ (ibid, p.137). To try and give their case as much room to prove itself as possible though, he credits that they may, in theory, and not knowing the future, be working with the second sense of history – the ‘total content of past time as it really was in all its richness’ but goes on to observe that this does not really help the historicist’s case much either:

It would surely be one of the luckiest things in the world if the content of time up to the moment at which the Historicist is writing happened to contain all that he required for reading the significance of total history. We ride with our backs to the engine. We have no notion what stage in the journey we have reached. Are we in Act I or Act V? Are our present diseases those of childhood or senility? If, indeed, we knew that history was cyclic we might perhaps hazard a guess at its meaning from the fragment we have seen. But then we have been told that the Historicists are just the people who do not think that history is merely cyclic. For them it is a real story with a beginning, middle, and an end. But a story is precisely the sort of thing that cannot be understood till you have heard the whole of it…

…But even if it were possible, which I deny, to see the significance of the whole from a truncated text, it remains to ask whether we have that truncated text. Do we possess even up to the present date the content of time as it really was in all its richness? Clearly not. The past, by definition, is not present. The point I am trying to make is so often slurred over by the unconcerned admission “Of course we don’t know everything” that I have sometimes despaired of bringing it home to other people’s minds. It is not a question of failing to know everything: it is a question (at least as regards quantity) of knowing next door to nothing.

ibid, pp.138-139.

Lewis expands on this by remarking that in each individual life every second is filled to bursting with data (sensations, emotions, thoughts), and that we cannot possibly grasp all of it; that ‘a single second of lived time contains more than can be recorded. And every second of past time has been like that for every man that has ever lived’ (ibid). Not only is it nigh on impossible to access the preserved history of each and every peoples that have ever lived, but those recorded histories do not contain anything like the full range of experiences that have actually occurred to all human beings – thus only a tiny fraction of lived human experience (i.e.; of history) is available to us. Again, this is not to denigrate the role of the historian, as pattern and meaning can be perceived within that fraction of experience we have available to us; all Lewis is insisting on here is that we cannot possibly uncover some grand narrative or inner meaning to all history – we simply do not have the data.

Lewis then pre-empts a possible reply from the historicist, namely that they know enough – they may not have access to every single piece of lived experience that has ever occurred, but they know the important parts. This, for the historian, would be a perfectly reasonable thing to say – for example, the military historian, specialising in the Napoleonic Wars, could legitimately say that he has access to enough of the relevant facts pertaining to that period to form a consensus about the meaning of certain events within that period, or even the period over all; moreover, the undertaking of a study of that particular period presupposes that such relevant facts exist, otherwise it would never have been studied. The historicist however, is making the claim that he knows the ‘important facts’ which reveal the inner meaning of all history – aside from the issue of the heterogeneity of the data that actually does survive, how would the historicist be able to judge which are the significant facts and which are merely historical detritus?

Clearly, the facts selected as being of significance are chosen based on the prior conviction that they fit in with the historicist’s philosophy of history – it will always result in being a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, and the historicist will always be making a somewhat prejudiced selection from amongst the data of recorded human experience in order to fit his prior theory. This can be simply an act of self-glorification, but as Lewis goes on to point out, it can also be used for more nefarious means:

On such a small and chance selection from the total past as we have, it seems to me a waste of time to play the Historicist. The philosophy of history is a discipline for which we mortal men lack the necessary data. Nor is the attempt always a mere waste of time: it may be positively mischievous. It encourages a Mussolini to say that “History too him by the throat” when what really took him by the throat was desire. Drivel about superior races or immanent dialectic may be used to strengthen the hand and ease the conscience of cruelty and greed. And what quack or traitor will not now woo adherents or intimidate resistance with the assurance that his scheme is inevitable, “bound to come”, and in the direction which the world is taking?

ibid, p.143.

Herein lies the real danger of historicism – it is not only bad history (in truth, it has little to do with the real task of the historian at all), but it gives support to those who wish to subvert either small groups under their influence or culture as a whole to their own ends. In the former case, there have been a number of groups, spawned by the emergence of Protestant fundamentalism in the mid-to-late 19th Century, who have claimed to be able to apply passages from Scripture to history and predict the immanence of the end-times; in most cases this has only led to a narrow grasp of both Christianity and Western culture, but in some cases (those involving a personality cult of some kind) it has led to great psychological harm and sometimes tragedy. It is the latter case though – that of wedding a certain view of history to one’s own political ends, and of subverting the surrounding culture to those ends – that is most damaging.

Lewis cites the example of Mussolini (and alludes to Hitler); to this we could also add Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao Zedong and many other statesmen beholden to the Marxist view of history. In their fervent belief that history was tending towards an earthly utopia, one free of both want and of risky liberty, rid of the interference of religious faith and objective morality, and of which they would be the primary agents in implementing, they committed acts of violence still unrivalled in both quantity and kind. Lenin’s famous saying that ‘if you want to make an omelette, you have to break a few eggs’, whilst doing a great disservice to the intense suffering caused by these regimes, pretty much sums up their ethos – history was on their side, so they were justified in doing whatever it took to bring its ends about.

Not unrelated to this view of history is the narrative which has its roots in the Reformation period (where solid groundwork was done to tar the name of both the Catholic Church and anything that the prior medieval period may have achieved) but is most commonly associated with what came afterwards – the Enlightenment. In the 17th and 18th centuries particularly, we read more and more of the idea that reason (unchained from faith of course) and science will set us free, that all we need to be happy is to cast off the religious and cultural shackles of old, embrace naked liberty and decontextualised empiricism and let ‘history’ take its course. Because of course history is on our side, and thus anything new, anything ‘progressive’ is a step in the right direction – be that in the realm of experimental science or in faith and morals.

Improvements in science and technology have of course been made, but the ideas that a.) we had to implement a divorce between faith and reason to achieve this, and b.) that we can see morals and philosophical categories in the same way have no foundation other than in the narrative forged during and after the Reformation and fully unleashed during the Enlightenment period – it is based not on history (which, as this thorough review outlines, actually undermines such a view; see also here) but on historicism. And, as we see more and more ethics being cast aside in the name of ‘progress’ (e.g.; easy-access abortion, legalisation of euthanasia, the eagerness that the UK government has to approve methods of genetic engineering that could have any number of disastrous short and long term consequences, and which raise significant ethical questions) as well as the speed with which Western culture seems to be gutting its own sense of identity from within, it is justifiable to wonder whether the Enlightenment narrative is not actually quite a damaging one as well.

For the Christian though, what does Lewis’ negative assessment of historicism mean for how we view history – clearly we must believe that everything is in some sense providential, so how do we reconcile this with not being able to actually assess the ultimate significance of past events in our life? Well, it is important to remember that rejecting historicism does not mean rejecting history, let alone God’s revelation of Himself within it – we can still have great confidence, based on both faith and the careful work of real historians, that the great events embodied in the Creeds are sound, and that we can appeal to a correct interpretation of sacred history via the voice of the Church.

For other events though, we are in the same position as anyone else, and it is only really to the present moment that we can reliably look for signs of divine import. What task is put before us now, in this moment, is something to which we can always apply the call to love both God and neighbour, and thereby discern its significance. It is also the only place where, in this life, we can touch Eternity. Furthermore, knowing that we do not, indeed cannot, have access to the inner meaning or big picture of God’s intentions in history means that even the smallest acts of charity we perform may well have a significance far beyond anything we can imagine – in preventing us from the belief that the way of things is ‘on our side’, humility before history also ensures that we recognise the worth of every contribution to it, no matter how small.

John Keble: The Conversion of Saint Paul

This is a re-blog of a post from last year’s Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul – John Keble’s magnificent poem detailing the events of the Apostle’s encounter on the road to Damascus.

Journey Towards Easter

John Keble’s The Christian Year is a wonderful resource for reflecting on the feasts and memorials of the liturgical year. It seems to me to be a work that can provide great spiritual edification in a structured way that is deeply rooted in Scripture, and so is something I would recommend to Christians of any stripe. It is also a good example of the notoriously hard to pin down ‘Anglican patrimony’ that Anglicanorum Coetibus was created to try and preserve within a Catholic context. This patrimony has more to do with the textures and character of a lived heritage of music, poetry and liturgy than with any theological distinctiveness, and so Keble’s work speaks more eloquently of what is unique about Anglicanism than any doctrinal formulations proffered could do.

With respect to the piece below, today is the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, and Keble’s poem reflects upon…

View original post 746 more words

C. S. Lewis on ‘Bad Christians’ and the Raw Material God Works With

Towards the end of Mere Christianity, where he discusses the impact that Christian faith should actually have in one’s life, C. S. Lewis draws attention to a very important point, and one which provides a compelling defence against the oft-heard argument that Christianity can’t be true because there are so many bad Christians. This argument does indeed have some truth to it – if Christianity is true, and the grace of God can transform people’s lives, we should expect to see some evidence of this in the sort of behaviour we find coming from individual Christians. However, it is also true that a good deal of Christians don’t actually practise what they preach, do not pick up their cross daily and allow their wills to be converted to Christ – their faith remains either a mere intellectual assent or a nominal affiliation for the purposes of identity.

With respect to this point – that, as Chesterton said, Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, but has barely been tried at all – one cannot therefore judge the truth of Christianity on the fact that a lot of people either find it too much of a challenge and prefer to stick with the various comforts and routines they have gotten used to, or that in countries with a Christian heritage a lot of people who identify with Christianity never actually undergo any sort of conversion to Christ. Lewis makes a different sort of counter to the ‘bad Christians’ argument though, which is that we do not all start from the same place – God has to work with a vastly differing range of personalities, and so the ‘raw material’ that He starts with must be factored in when assessing the end results:

Christian Miss Bates may have an unkinder tongue than unbelieving Dick Firkin. That, by itself, does not tell us whether Christianity works. The question what Miss Bates’ tongue would be like if she were not a Christian and what Dick’s would be like if he became one. Miss Bates and Dick, as a result of natural causes and early upbringing, have certain temperaments: Christianity professes to put both temperaments under new management if they will allow it to do so. What you have a right to ask is whether that management, if allowed to take over, improves the concern. Everyone knows that what is being managed in Dick Firkin’s case is much “nicer” than what is being managed in Miss Bates’. That is not the point. To judge the management of a factory, you must consider not only the output but the plant. Considering the plant at Factory A it may be a wonder that it turns out anything at all; considering the first-class outfit at Factory B its output, though high, may be a great deal lower than it ought to be…

…But if we left it at that, it would sound as though Christ’s only aim was to pull Miss Bates up to the same level on which Dick had been all along. We have been talking, in fact, as if Dick were all right; as if Christianity was something nasty people needed and nice ones could afford to do without; and as if niceness was all that God demanded. But this would be a fatal mistake. The truth is that in God’s eyes Dick Firkin needs “saving” every bit as much as Miss Bates. In one sense (I will explain what sense in a moment) niceness hardly comes into the question.

Mere Christianity (1982), pp.175-176, Fount Paperbacks.

            At times of the year such as Advent and Lent, when we make a concerted effort to focus on purification of the will, on readying ourselves to remember the great acts of God and receive His graces anew, it is very easy to become dispirited – we realise just how little progress we seem to have made and become downhearted at how selfish, greedy, lustful and proud we still are. But we often neglect to remember where we started off, and that, compared to ten years (or even ten months) ago, we might (and, if we are steadfast in our devotions, usually will) have changed in ways that, for us, are significant. Just because we are not like Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, this does not mean the grace of God is not operative and effective in our lives; and this is something that it is just as important for us to remember as it is for the critic of Christianity.

In the second paragraph quoted above though, Lewis alludes to a further point that is worth remembering – that, whilst authentic faith should indeed produce fruit in our lives, salvation is not about ‘niceness’, and that the ‘good atheist’ needs saving just as much as the ‘bad Christian’. In fact, Lewis argues, those whose ‘raw material’ consists of a good upbringing, a stable temperament and keen conscience may be more in need of salvation than those with obvious faults – the latter awakens one to our need for redemption, whereas the former state can lull us into a state of self-sufficiency such that we are unable to hear the voice of God:

There is a paradox here. As long as Dick does not turn to God, he thinks his niceness is his own, and just as long as he thinks that, it is not his own. It is when Dick realises that his niceness is not his own but a gift from God, and when he offers it back to God – it is just then that it begins to be really his own. For now Dick is beginning to take a share in his own creation. The only things we can keep are the things we give freely to God. What we try to keep for ourselves is just what we are sure to lose.

We must not, therefore, be surprised if we find among the Christians some people who are still nasty. There is even, when you come to think it over, a reason why nasty people might be expected to turn to Christ in greater numbers than nice ones. That was what people objected to about Christ during His life on earth: He seemed to attract such “awful people”. That is what people still object to and always will. Do you not see why? Christ said “Blessed are the poor” and “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom,” and no doubt He primarily meant the economically rich and economically poor. But do not His words also apply to another kind of riches and poverty? One of the dangers of having a lot of money is that you may be quite satisfied with the kinds of happiness money can give and so fail to realise your need for God. If everything seems to come simply by signing cheques, you may forget that you are at every moment totally dependent on God. Now quite plainly, natural gifts carry with them a similar danger…

…“Why drag God into it?” you may ask. A certain level of good conduct comes fairly easily to you. You are not one of those wretched creatures who are always being tripped up by sex, or dipsomania, or nervousness, or bad temper. Everyone says you are a nice chap and (between ourselves) you agree with them. You are quite likely to believe that all this niceness is your own doing: and you may easily not feel the need for any better kind of goodness. Often people who have all these natural kinds of goodness cannot be brought to recognise their need for Christ at all until, one day, the natural goodness lets them down and their self-satisfaction is shattered…

…God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind, but to produce a new kind of man. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better, but like turning a horse into a winged creature. Of course, once it has got its wings, it will soar over fences which could never have been jumped and thus beat the natural horse at its own game. But there may be a period, while the wings are just beginning to grow, when it cannot do so: and at that stage the lumps on the shoulders – no one could tell by looking at them that they are going to be wings – may even give it an awkward appearance.

ibid, pp.178-181.

            Why drag God into it? This sums up the attitude of the self-sufficient man described by Lewis above, but also perhaps describes one of the underlying assumptions that the proponent of the ‘bad Christians’ argument is beholden to – namely that they are quite happy getting along with life, and all that stuff about God and ultimate meaning is a hindrance to doing things on their own terms. In other words, the argument that reasons from bad behaviour amongst Christians to the falsity of Christianity itself is a means of distracting from the question of whether Christianity is objectively true or not – because if it is, then we have to change our lives, and that means all of us.

As Lewis says, this is not really about morality – the good conscience and good works that flow from faith are, whilst very important, secondary to the conversion of heart effected by God and the ongoing conversion of our wills to His. He is trying to ‘turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind, but to produce a new kind of man’, and, quite frankly, a good deal of us do not want this – as I argued (via Karl Barth) in another post, our desire to be left alone by God is more of a hindrance to faith (and more destructive of it when it exists) than we would commonly like to admit. I’m getting on fine with my (good and respectable, we implicitly add) life, so why drag God into it?

Furthermore, this point can be extended to those Christians in traditions that repudiate the necessity of the sacraments. They too will argue that they see people in churches where the sacraments are offered and received, and do not see those people as being any better Christians than they are. This is of course something very difficult to prove either way (though the lives of the saints are a most excellent defence against the critique), but the point no doubt has some validity – we all know of people (most of all ourselves) who regularly communicate and yet whose behaviour is often put to shame by people without the benefit of sacraments (or sometimes without any faith at all). Once again we are led to wonder whether there is any truth to this sacramental business if we can’t see the immediate effects in people’s lives.

However, Lewis’ points about ‘raw material’ and the true end of sanctification are again relevant – we do not know what kind of person God is working with in each case, and the point of the sacraments is not primarily to generate ‘niceness’ but to unite us to Christ at a deeper level, changing us from creatures into His children. One might be able to be a good and even holy person without the sacraments, but the objective truth is that without them you are missing out on the fullness of all God wants to offer you, and that what He wants for you is primarily to draw you closer to Him, not just to make you good. Similarly, being a Christian at all doesn’t guarantee goodness – it should make us better than we are already, but first of all it is about relationship with a God who wants to save our souls, and in the process make us happier and more glorious than we can ever imagine.

Jesus of the Scars: the Kingship of Christ is not of this world

This is a re-blog of a post on Christ’s Kingship from the same time last year

Journey Towards Easter

Today is the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King, where we both mark the end of the liturgical year and celebrate Jesus’ lordship over all earthly powers and authorities. On this day we remember to whom we owe our true allegiance, and that He whom we acknowledge as King is the Lord of all time (indeed, of eternity as well).

How though is Christ our King and Lord? Earthly rulers of all times and places have exercised and displayed their authority over their subjects by acts of power and proclamations of their own greatness. Not so with Jesus Christ, who, though co-equal in substance and honour with the Father, ‘did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant’ (Philippians 2:6-7) and ‘being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even…

View original post 273 more words

C. S. Lewis: Modern Ignorance of the Sense of Sin

After I published my post of yesterday (in which I wrote about the tragic consequences of Original Sin and the equally tragic embracing of self-will that often stems from it), I came across a passage in C. S. Lewis’ Problem of Pain which seemed applicable to what I had discussed. In this passage, Lewis points out that the Apostles (and every other generation of Christians after them until very recently) could assume that their audiences had a keen sense of having transgressed the moral law and were, spiritually speaking, ill. Nowadays this sense of sin has largely been either repressed or explained away, and Christianity must ‘preach the diagnosis – in itself very bad news – before it can win a hearing for the cure.

The question of whether we can meaningfully talk about salvation or redemption without any sense that we have so transgressed – that we have gone wrong and are deserving of condemnation, correction or punishment – is one that I have explored in an earlier post here, and the results of our repression of that sense is something I have also written about here. Today though I would like to focus on Lewis’ words alone, in which he gives an insightful account of how this ignorance has come about, based on the way his own age conducted itself and spoke about such things. What he wrote then seems to be even more relevant to our own age:

There are two principal causes. One is the fact that for about a hundred years we have so concentrated on one of the virtues – “kindness” or mercy – that most of us do not feel anything except kindness to be really good or anything but cruelty to be really bad. Such lopsided ethical developments are not uncommon, and other ages too have had their pet virtues and curious insensibilities. And if one virtue must be cultivated at the expense of all the rest, none has a higher claim than mercy – for every Christian must reject with detestation that covert propaganda for cruelty which tries to drive mercy out of the world by calling it names such as “Humanitarianism” and “Sentimentality”. The real trouble is that “kindness” is a quality fatally easy to attribute to ourselves on quite inadequate grounds. Everyone feels benevolent if nothing happens to be annoying him at the moment. Thus a man easily comes to console himself for all his other vices by a conviction that “his heart’s in the right place” and “he wouldn’t hurt a fly”, though in fact he has never made the slightest sacrifice for a fellow creature. We think we are kind when we are only happy: it is not so easy, on the same grounds, to imagine oneself temperate, chaste, or humble.

The second cause is the effect of Psycho-analysis on the public mind, and, in particular, the doctrine of repressions and inhibitions. Whatever these doctrines really mean, the impression they have actually left on most people is that the sense of Shame is a dangerous and mischievous thing. We have laboured to overcome that sense of shrinking, that desire to conceal, which either Nature herself or the tradition of almost all mankind has attached to cowardice, unchastity, falsehood, and envy. We are told to “get things out in the open”, not for the sake of self-humiliation, but on the ground that these “things” are very natural and we need not be ashamed of them. But unless Christianity is wholly false, the perception of ourselves which we have in moments of shame must be the only true one; and even Pagan society has usually recognised “shamelessness” as the nadir of the soul. In trying to extirpate Shame we have broken down one of the ramparts of the human spirit, madly exulting in the work as the Trojans exulted when they broke their walls and pulled the Horse into Troy. I do not know that there is anything to be done but to set about the rebuilding as soon as we can. It is mad work to remove hypocrisy by removing the temptation to hypocrisy: the “frankness” of people sunk below shame is a very cheap frankness.

A recovery of the sense of sin is essential to Christianity. Christ takes it for granted that men are bad. Until we really feel this assumption of His to be true, though we are part of the world He came to save, we are not part of the audience to whom His words are addressed. We lack the first condition for understanding what He is talking about.

The Problem of Pain (1980), pp.43-46, Fount Paperbacks.

George MacDonald: Obedience, Duty and Love

The aim of the Christian life is, when we get down to basics, to conform our will to the will of God – to gradually allow our rebellious, self-oriented wills to be aligned with the will of the One who is Love, that we might will what He wills and love the way He does, and that in this way we may become ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4). Thus the ideal situation will be one where we do things out of a pure love of God, living out His will for us simply because it is His will, and delighting in it because of the intimate relationship with Him that has developed over the years of grace-enabled discipleship.

This is the ideal situation, but of course ideals are things we work towards, yet seldom attain. We need them to look to and to lift us up, to give us something to reach towards and inspire us to greater things, but we do not often reach those goals, and when we do it is rarer still that we persist in living on that higher plane. This is why the virtue of obedience is so important. C. S. Lewis collected and edited an anthology of excerpts from the writings of the Scottish poet, novelist and minister George MacDonald, and in that collection MacDonald shows a great deal of insight into our need for this particular virtue, and of the difficulty we find in accepting that need. For example:

Man finds it hard to get what he wants, because he does not want the best; God finds it hard to give, because He would give the best, and man will not take it…

…These relations are facts of man’s nature. He is so constituted as to understand them at first more than he can love them, with the resulting advantage of thereby the opportunity of choosing them purely because they are true: so doing he chooses to love them, and is enabled to love them in the doing, which alone can truly reveal them to him and make the loving of them possible. Then they cease to show themselves in the form of duties and appear as they more truly are, absolute truths, essential realities, eternal delights. The man is a true man who chooses duty: he is a perfect man who at length never thinks of duty, who forgets the name of it.

George MacDonald: An Anthology (1983), pp.58&83, Fount Paperbacks.

            We know in theory that the more we allow our wills to be conformed to God’s will, the more we obey His commandments, the more we will grow to love them and then be like the man who no longer does things simply for the sake of duty, but ‘forgets the name of it.’ However, to jump ahead and attempt to do God’s will because of what we think is a pure disposition of love for Him, will inevitably result in either disappointment (because we realise we are not there yet), or in a paradoxical combination of complacency and self-righteousness, where we presume to be doing things out of a pure motive (becoming puffed up in the process), whilst unnoticeably reducing the amount of obligations that we actually fulfil.

It is an unavoidable fact that we must first learn to love the will of God, and this means going through a long process where it is obeyed for the sake of duty alone, even (and perhaps, for some periods, often) though the tasks that are set before us appear distasteful or dull. It is this schooling in duty for duty’s sake that helps us to lose ourselves that we might find our true self in Christ (c.f.; Luke 9:24; Galatians 2:20) – if we do not go through this process of faithful obedience our wills will continue to assert themselves and we will never be able to be brought in to that divine pattern of life where we can freely choose the will of God for love’s sake. It is thus most important to continue in obedience when the temptation to re-assert our will is greatest:

The highest condition of the human will is in sight. I say not the highest condition of the Human Being; that surely lies in the Beatific Vision, in the sight of God. But the highest condition of the Human Will, as distinct, not as separated from God, is when, not seeing God, not seeming to grasp Him at all, it yet holds Him fast.

ibid, p.18.

            This is a recurring theme in MacDonald’s writings (at least in those presented in Lewis’ anthology) and yet is certainly not original to him. The holding fast to God even when (especially when) all delight in His will is gone and all sense of His presence has left us, is the essence of faith. This is not blind faith – we place our trust in Him for good reasons, but once having accepted the reasons we have for our belief, we then must live them out, and that means continuing to trust when our emotional state or personal circumstances make us feel like giving in. Doing this can involve reminding oneself why one did choose to believe in the first place, but the end result must involve an act of the will – to obey or not to obey, to choose His will or our own:

Do you ask “What is faith in Him?” I answer, The leaving of your way, your objects, your self, and the taking of His and Him; the leaving of your trust in men, in money, in opinion, in character, in atonement itself, and doing as He tells you. I can find no words strong enough to serve for the weight of this obedience.

ibid, p.73

            Whilst it is hard enough to accept this, especially as we live in an age where obedience and the relinquishment of self-will is tantamount to heresy, harder to accept still is the fact that there is no method for this – whilst there are manifold spiritual disciplines available which can help dispose us towards obeying God (and also towards loving Him), the actual act of choosing to follow His will can only be learned by doing it, by just biting the bullet and obeying:

By obeying one learns how to obey.

ibid, p.135

            The good news is that the Church offers many means of grace (pre-eminently the sacraments) to help us along the way, and also that gradually, if we continue to immerse ourselves in the life of grace, allowing ourselves to be shaped by Scripture, the Eucharist, prayers and spiritual disciplines, the lives and intercessions of the saints, our disposition will change – we will grow to like, and eventually to love, the will of God. But this requires our dedication and the commitment of our will – there are no magic wands to be waved, and we must cooperate with what is offered; that is we must trust that as the One we obey is Love, and that He promises to draw us into His very life, we will certainly taste of that love as well, and in the end, ‘forget the name’ of duty.

Christianity and the State: A Replaying of History

The early Christians found themselves in conflict with the governing Roman state because they would not offer sacrifices to the imperial cult, which was seen as an expression of treason. The reason that the Christians would not offer these sacrifices is because they saw the claims of the imperial cult as arrogating to themselves honour and powers that are due to God alone – i.e.; they believed that regardless of the earthly powers of the state (which, as is evidenced in Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17, they accepted as legitimate powers, and government as something instituted by God) that these powers were limited in scope, and that the state must itself be subject to God and His moral law.

The Roman Empire, as all cultures prior to the advent of Christianity had done, united the religious and the political – the state was itself sacral, containing within itself the source of the sacred and acting as its guarantor. Thus the Romans tolerated many different kinds of private religions, but only on the basis that they would recognise the state cult as their basis and as the supreme sacral structure. Christianity, in its central acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord, and its elevation of God’s kingship from the purely national context it had in Judaism to a universalising concept, called this arrangement into question by affirming that the state is not itself sacred but something subject to the sacred, sitting under the judgement of God and depending upon Him for its validity.

Thus, in a way, Christianity created secularism – it identified the secular sphere as something separate from the religious. It did this however in a context of God’s priority over the secular arena – that, unlike the practice of the Romans and others, which identified earthly government as the ultimate source of authority and value, this new separation would come about precisely because this was not the case, but that the state derived its authority from a higher source and all must be judged according to that higher standard, including the state itself. As Christians grew in number and the Faith grew in influence, this idea would also become more prevalent, and become foundational for Western political thought.

It seems now however, that we have returned in many ways to the earlier situation. For one, Christians are again in a minority, but the similarity is also evidenced in the requirement to do things that are contrary to central Christian beliefs. No state cult exists in theory, and no offerings are expected to be made, but it is increasingly the case that a criterion of citizenship in modern Western civilisation is adherence to certain ‘values’ which run directly contrary to the traditional morality understood and believed in by our ancestors (and done so until very recently). The real difference between our relationship with the state and that of the early Christians’ with the Romans though, is that we are asked to subscribe to doctrines that have no objective basis.

The Roman state saw itself as the ultimate authority, but it did also see that authority as somehow validated by its identity with the sacred, and it therefore aligned itself with traditional ideas about morality that had emerged from religious and philosophical reflection over centuries – i.e.; its laws and concept of virtue were far from arbitrary. Rome may have become decadent, but it still recognised the malpractices which existed within its imperial bounds as decadent – it still judged things according to an agreed objective standard, even if it saw its political body as being to some extent identical with that standard. Our age however, in its embrace of relativism, has robbed us of any such standard to appeal to.

Whereas the Romans saw the sacred and the profane as one, we have inherited the Christian idea of separating them, but have also arbitrarily placed the state above God, reducing all religious belief to the level of private hobby but gutting the state of any moral content – the state is no longer itself subject to a higher standard, and is no longer itself guarantor of any standards. Thus modern day Christians are required to ‘sacrifice’ to the altar of laws developed according to the whims of leaders, which themselves emerge from ideologies that have no more foundation than the fact that they happen to be currently in favour. If one does not subscribe to the doctrines of equality and diversity (or ‘homogeneity and license’ as it could more accurately be described) then social exclusion and possible legal consequence will often follow.

Our own experience cannot of course be compared to that of the early Christians in one other important respect, in that we are not liable to be fed to any lions any time soon. However, the fundamental relationship between Christians and the state does seem to have taken a disturbing turn for the worse, in that it places the former in a position wherein deeply held convictions about the nature of reality and of morality must be compromised if one is to be seen as a loyal citizen. Whilst the positive difference is that we do not face death if we refuse to compromise these beliefs, the negative difference is that we are subject to a state which has no objective guarantee or guidance for its position, and is thus itself subject to the changing whims of leaders and of fashionable opinion. If that opinion changes to something yet more disagreeable than exists at present, then there will be no standard, either within the state or above it, to prevent it from dominating public life.