Well, it’s been a million years or so since I last posted to this blog. It’s not that I haven’t been thinking about you—just insanely busy. My colleagues and I in the History Department here at Wheaton have been running a job search, revising our general education curriculum, and generally trying to enlighten young minds and spread light in the darkness, and there are just so many hours in the day. Things have finally lightened up here a bit, and I am glad to be back.
Wheaton was privileged to host Professor Alister McGrath here on campus last week. Formerly professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University, McGrath is now professor of Theology, Ministry, and Education at King’s College London. He is a formidable scholar, a prodigious writer (author of more than fifty books), and as it quickly became evident when he spoke in chapel, an engaging and inspiring speaker.
In his chapel remarks McGrath drew from his just released biography of that “eccentric genius” and “reluctant prophet,” C. S. Lewis (C. S. Lewis: A Life, Tyndale House, 2013). In sharing some of the many ways that Lewis challenges us today, McGrath stressed, among several things, Lewis’s skill at translation, by which he meant Lewis’s knack for conveying profound truths in simple language. This was one of his greatest talents, a gift that is rare in today’s academy, which neither encourages nor rewards scholars who communicate with broad audiences.
Because Lewis was such a well-known apologist, most of us are aware of his success at explaining the basic tenets of the Christian faith—what he liked to call “mere Christianity.” His knack for translation was not limited to the realm of theology, however. Indeed, I have encountered several passages in Lewis’s writings that memorably communicate profound truths about history. In the next few posts, I’d like to share some of the passage that I treasure most.
The first comes from one of Lewis’s lesser known essays, his introduction to the book De Incarnatione (“On the Incarnation”) by St. Athanasius, a fourth-century Alexandrian apologist for the Christian faith. Reading between the lines, it is clear that Lewis expected a certain skepticism among his readers. Why waste time on a book nearly seventeen centuries old? What could this obscure Egyptian possibly have to say worth hearing? Aren’t such ancient books better left to the experts? Interestingly, Lewis doesn’t begin by making a case for Athenasius’ work specifically. Rather, he launches a much broader assault. As a rule, he insists, we benefit much more from old books than from newer ones. His explanation, crafted with the study of literature in mind, is simultaneously a compelling argument for the power of the past to enrich our lives. Writing in 1944, Lewis begins by noting that
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. . . . 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.
Lewis here pinpoints one of the haunting truths of the human condition. As I stress to my students in every course that I teach, many of the values that profoundly shape our outlook on life are invisible to us. How this is possible is simple to explain: we become blind to anything we take for granted. The values that divide our culture are hard not to notice; the values that unite us gradually disappear, precisely because they are so pervasively accepted. We come to see them as natural, and then we eventually cease to see them at all. The nineteenth-century English essayist Samuel Taylor Coleridge anticipated Lewis’s insight with a memorable metaphor. “In every state,” Coleridge wrote, “a philosophy, good or bad, there must be. . . . Nor is this the less true, because the great majority of men live like bats, but in twilight, and know and feel the philosophy of their age only by its reflections and refractions.” Like bats in twilight—how easy it is to go through life blindly guided by values that we feel more than see!
One of the ways to avoid such blindness, Lewis realized, is to reject the provincialism of our own particular moments in time.
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 . . . 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 . . .
Lewis goes on to write that the only way to do this is by “reading old books.” Here I would disagree with him slightly, broadening his prescription to include the study of history in all its diversity of voices. If history is “a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live” (in the words of historian David Harlan), we can hear the voice of those who have gone before us not only from their books but also from their diaries and memoirs, newspapers and correspondence, legal records and census data, architecture and archaeological remains. Lewis is dead on in his basic point, however. We cannot understand ourselves by ourselves. We cannot think deeply about our own time without knowledge of what has gone before. It is not that the past itself has authority over us, or that the dead were necessarily wiser than we are. But they can help us to see our own world more clearly, and unless we see our world clearly, we can neither think deeply about it nor act effectively in it.
Lewis concluded his broad case for the “clean sea breeze of the centuries” with a testimony to the value of history that he had earlier articulated, in slightly different language, in his famous 1939 sermon “Learning in Wartime.” I find that earlier language more powerful, so I’ll conclude this post with it:
We need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man 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 of his own age.
As my wife loves to exclaim, “You can say that two times.”