C.S. Lewis was not Catholic, much less a theologian who teaches with an authority Catholics are obliged to recognize. As an eloquent proponent of natural law and the close colleague of important Catholic writers like J.R.R. Tolkien and Elizabeth Anscombe, however, the Anglican Lewis is surely someone whose significance we must acknowledge. Unfortunately, among some there is a tendency to celebrate an imaginary Lewis, a tame conservative establishmentarian who opposes atheism, abortion, and human cloning but would otherwise fit nicely into a post-1960s dispensation of multiculturalism and working mothers. Such sanitizing of Lewis is unfortunate not because he was always right, but because we cannot possibly benefit from our conversations with the finest minds of the past until we are ready to listen to what such minds actually have to say.
“By learning to drink and smoke and perhaps to tell risqué stories,” observes Lewis, the supposedly emancipated modern girl has not really “drawn an inch nearer to the men than her grandmother.” Moreover, he adds, “her grandmother was far happier and more realistic. She was at home talking real women’s talk to other women and perhaps doing so with great charm, sense and even wit.” There are “sensible women,” but at a mixed party such women are wont to “gravitate to one end of the room and talk women’s talk to one another,” for they know full well that “it is only the riff-raff of each sex that wants to be incessantly hanging on the other.” So much for co-ed dorms. Or, for that matter, co-ed colleges.
Lewis’s first principles regarding sex are starkest when he addresses—and unambiguously rejects—the prospective ordination of women by the Anglican Church. To those who assert “that the equality of men and women is a Christian principle,” Lewis retorts as follows: “I do not remember the text in scripture, nor the Fathers, nor Hooker, nor the Prayer Book which asserts it.” What is pretty plain, Lewis continues, is the fact that “as the State grows more like a hive or an ant-hill it needs an increasing number of workers who can be treated as neuters,” and in his view this trend toward an androgynous culture is what drives calls for female clergy. In Lewis’s estimation, such calls rest upon the unexamined assumption that “sex is something superficial, irrelevant to the spiritual life.”
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No, Lewis would not have denied the merits of female scholars like his friend Dorothy Sayers, much less those of the prophetesses we encounter in Scripture. For Lewis the issue was not the existence of exceptions, but of norms, and it is in light of this that we read Lewis’s fantasy adventure That Hideous Strength, wherein the hero Merlin proposes beheading a young married woman because she has used the witchcraft of Sulva—i.e., birth control—to keep her academic career from getting derailed by a baby. Even more indicative, perhaps, is that when one of the more chivalrous protagonists criticizes Merlin for his “appalling” “bloodthirstiness,” the ancient wizard doubles down.
Cruelty, rumbles Merlin,
is a charge I never heard before. A third part of my substance I gave to widows and poor men. I never sought the death of any but felons and heathen Saxons. As for the woman, she may live for me. I am not Master in this house. But would it be such a great matter if her head were struck off? Do not queens and ladies who would disdain her as their tire-woman go to the fire for less?
In other words: Relax! It was just a suggestion.
If there is an issue even more fraught with tension today than that of sex, it is nationality, and here too Lewis reveals himself as “deplorable.” In his short but brilliant essay “The Dangers of National Repentance,” Lewis analyzes a phenomenon which has more than merely political significance: The liberal guilt complex. “When a man over forty tries to repent the sins of England and to love her enemies,” Professor Lewis notes, it means something, as “he is attempting something costly; for he was brought up to certain patriotic sentiments which cannot be mortified without a struggle. But an educated man who is now in his twenties usually has no such sentiment to mortify.” Instead of having traditional patriotic sentiments, the typical Christian intellectual is an extreme cosmopolitan who has nothing but “contempt for the manners, pleasures, and enthusiasms of his less-educated fellow countrymen,” so “the first and fatal charm of national repentance is the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing—but, first, of denouncing—the conduct of others.”
Such remarks are apropos to many of today’s controversies, from the tearing down of Confederate monuments to attacks on the legacy of Christopher Columbus. To what extent the Old South or the Admiral of the Ocean Sea warrant criticism is beside the point, which is that it is sheer knavery to pass off as noble, self-sacrificing, and penitential the act of censuring people who mean little or nothing to us. When Christian intellectuals profess their commitment to “reconciliation” vis-à-vis imperialism or slavery or prejudice, it often looks very much as if all they are actually doing is throwing someone else—long-dead historical figures, their own ancestors, their redneck neighbors next door—under the bus of unconditional condemnation.
In any event, patriotism really is a virtue, contends Lewis in The Four Loves, a virtue best expressed by
love of home, of the place we grew up in or the places, perhaps many, which have been our homes; and of all places fairly near these and fairly like them; love of old acquaintances, of familiar sights, sounds and smells. Note that at its largest this is, for us, a love of England, Wales, Scotland, or Ulster. Only foreigners and politicians talk about “Britain.” […] With this love for the place there goes a love for the way of life; for beer and tea and open fires, trains with compartments in them and an unarmed police force and all the rest of it; for the local dialect and (a shade less) for our native language.
Such simple patriotism, adds Lewis, “asks only to be let alone” and “only becomes militant to protect what it loves.” So “it would be hard to find any legitimate point of view from which this feeling could be condemned.”
He goes on to observe that when patriotic sentiment declines, politicians are more inclined to invoke “justice, or civilisation, or humanity” rather than national interest. According to Lewis, such hyperbolic idealism “is a step down, not up,” for while the basic recognition of justice and other high principles is surely necessary, it is “insufferable” nonsense to pretend that we operate in the world as “some neutral Don Quixote.” And “nonsense draws evil after it. If our country’s cause is the cause of God, wars must be wars of annihilation.” In short Lewis contends that the most humane and sane policy would put England first, instead of waging war on behalf of Democracy or Freedom. It is also worth noting that until 2016, the American two-party system was more or less hardwired to exclude from the political process precisely those “nativist” impulses which Lewis commends as being almost beyond reproach.
Although candidly put forth by Lewis in his day, most of the preceding views can now be expressed in the public square only with the most careful delicacy, lest uncharitable misrepresentation, ostracism, and career-ending sanctions ensue. And ironically enough, those who help marginalize as untouchable views like Lewis’s are often the very people who purport to regard Lewis as a kind of Christian Socrates. If self-identified Lewis-admirers such as Bradley Birzer of Hillsdale give any weight to Lewis’s views on either sex or patriotism, or share his fear of “enslavement” to an “omnicompetent global technocracy,” I find little evidence for it in their de facto endorsements of globalism.
For better or for worse the current, supposedly extremist occupant of the Oval Office has never critiqued female police and military service by declaring that “battles are ugly when women fight.” Nor has he advocated the dismantlement of the welfare state, much less dared voice “the horrible suspicion that our only choice is between societies with few freemen and societies with none.” Compared to today’s decidedly pragmatic US President, the tradition-minded Cambridge medievalist proves to be more exclusive and more provincial, for it is the creator of the beloved Narnia series who would resist tenaciously any attempt to flood his country with Norwegians, however law-abiding and productive. So before preaching the Benedict Option or crusading for pro-life feminism, let the Christian intelligentsia first admit one inconvenient fact, which is that Professor Lewis stands several degrees to the right of Donald J. Trump.