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Review: The Abolition of Man

I read The Abolition of Man for the first time about 30 years ago and consider it amongst the most important books I have ever read. It’s a tough little book, but worth the time.

It was a tremendous relief for me as a young Christian to discover that Christianity not only made sense, but could be approached critically throughout. Lewis’ particular gift was to expose the facile nature of much of what passes for modern intellectualism, and demonstrated for me that informed Christian belief is intellectually rigorous. If we take into account all we experience in life, it gives a sounder explanation of our world than anything else on the market.

The Abolition of Man begins by examining a book on English grammar in which Lewis notes a disturbing trend; not in how grammar is taught, but in the philosophy of its authors.

Morality is based on the idea that creation is inherently good; that it possesses real value. It is only by dismissing half of what we experience as mere sentiment that modern thinkers can pass a materialistic reductionism off as the whole truth. This is the view Lewis warns us against in Lecture One; the authors of the Green Book would inculcate not better grammar in young minds, but a skeptical outlook that brushes off value statements as emotional, subjective fluff. In debunking experiences that better men considered profitable, humane and generous, they undercut even concepts of justice and truth, cutting out the heart of all it means to be human. They would make us “men without chests”.

And where does that lead? In Lecture Three the author takes this worldview to its logical conclusion, examining its inconsistencies and the danger it poses.

Lewis sensibly points out that we cannot go on seeing through everything; there has to be some sort of objective truth at the bottom of things for anything to make sense. Yet the true skeptic must (if he is to be consistent) discredit all value statements; they are to be viewed only as natural phenomena to be managed with no overarching morality – the “Tao”, as Lewis calls it – to inform them. Such a world would be incapable of any sensible or actually moral action. The debunker has become the blindest of all, for he sees through everything – and gazes into a void.

And should a group of skeptical Conditioners arise with the power to determine the course of subsequent generations, what motives could they have? Having denied value – and hence moral thought – as objective, all that is left is raw utilitarianism and their own fallible desires: both dangerous grounds for any program of conditioning. We may (for instance) consider how the discredited science of eugenics worked in the value-free world of the Third Reich. Having decided that certain races and types of people were a drag on humanity, Hitler’s government set about – albeit in very modern, scientific ways – to eliminate them. By deeming justice a mere sentiment, they became in practical fact the embodiment of evil.

It is not Lewis’ purpose to defend Christian belief in particular with this book, but to rather demonstrate the nature of moral thought, its reality in our lives, and the terrible danger of trying to get around it. Morality is necessarily transcendent, and Lewis cites a number of sources to demonstrate that most religions and cultures share, and always have had this understanding. Morality must, if it is objective fact, be something that originates outside ourselves if it is to make any genuine claims on our lives; and in this we may allow that no religion is entirely wrong – though some are closer to the truth than others.

But it is the modern materialist who strays the furthest, with his truncated, wilfully ignorant worldview denying at least half of the reality he encounters. This is the position Lewis shows untenable: by trying to interpret reality on his own terms, the skeptic winds up with exactly nothing – at least nothing of value. In their quest to be their own masters, they would emasculate humanity. To borrow from the book’s title, they seek nothing less than the abolition of man.

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Hope

“They shall still bear fruit in old age; They shall be fresh and flourishing, To declare that the LORD is upright; He is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in Him.”
‭‭Psalms‬ ‭92:14-15‬ ‭NKJV‬‬

As long as we’re breathing we can honour God with our lives. This is a great comfort as one enters mid life with its typical existential angst and thoughts of mortality.

There’s a wonderful little song written by Annie Herring of 2nd Chapter of Acts fame:

Fly away little burden
Fly away off my shoulder
Yesterday was a burden
Yesterday I was older

Clouds of grey will fly away
And wait on me no more
I threw the looking glass away
He’s at the door

We serve a God who values us, who is Love itself. We were made for this: a life of love, meaning and service. There will always be others we can encourage, someone to love and help and tell them they matter because God made them. We have a real hope: in this world and in the resurrection to come, because Jesus has defeated death, and we will be like Him.

So take heart! Despair is not an option for those who belong to the King.

Why Did Jesus Have To Die?

A lot of folks these days want to emphasize Jesus’ teachings as if that was the main reason He came. This demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Bible actually says about His mission. What He taught was important, but the centre lies in what He came to do: to die an atoning death, and then to resurrect. But why did Jesus have to die before God could forgive?

Justice is a balancing of accounts. We’ve all seen the statue of Justice in front of courthouses. Blindfolded and holding scales, the image suggests the evening of accounts (the scales) and impartiality before the law (the blindfold).

The Moral law is at its heart a value system. The Law says people possess inherent value that goes beyond their usefulness or beauty: that everyone matters just because God made them.

But we have a problem. When I decide what I want is more important than someone elses’s rights and I act on it, I am basically saying that they don’t matter as much as my agenda. I offend against their worth as human beings. The Bible calls this sin.

If God is just, He must punish sin; the account must be settled. If He just lets it slide, He denies the value of the wounded party. We see this in everyday life when a criminal gets a slap on the wrist for some heinous crime. The outrage we feel at injustice is real and appropriate; it would be unfair to the victim for the Creator of the moral law to turn a blind eye to their hurt. And God is fair.

We all sin, in big and small ways, everyday. History gives ample proof that no utopian system of education or philosophy can change the human heart; our history is filled with guns and whips and wars. Granted that as moral beings, there are many instances of nobility and goodness, but we can’t get around the fact that none of us keeps the moral law perfectly. Humanity’s history is, to say the least, chequered.

And since we sin, God must judge us. Our actions have made Him our enemy. How then can God be just and yet show mercy? We’re in a hopeless position.

But what if another took our punishment? One who was sinless, and somehow suffered for us? Justice would be served, the value of the victim upheld, and God could then forgive.

That is why Christ’s atoning death is important.

People misunderstand if they think that in doing so God turns a blind eye to suffering and evil. This is where Christ’s atoning death is key: nothing less than the death of God incarnate was enough to account for the sin of humanity. He paid what we couldn’t pay so He could offer forgiveness to all.

And there is sort of a wonderful symmetry to it all: we were separated from God when we decided not to trust Him – that we knew better, and chose to ignore His law. But His atoning death only becomes effective when we decide that He knows better: that we accept our guilt and decide to trust in His justifying work for us instead of our our own attempts to justify ourselves through good works and religious acts. To choose to trust him is the exact opposite of what got humanity into its bind in the first place. It’s quite humbling.

And both Justice and mercy being satisfied, the choice to trust God changes our hearts in real ways; it’s the work of a lifetime, but we are being remade from the inside out. We look to Him, not our own selfish attempts to justify ourselves: and in doing so become sons and daughters of God in practical fact.

The Opposite of Religion

“For the LORD takes pleasure in His people; He will beautify the humble with salvation.”
‭‭Psalms‬ ‭149:4‬ ‭NKJV‬‬

What is humility? It’s not, the saying goes, so much as thinking less of yourself but of thinking of yourself less. The humble look outside themselves, past their own abilities and agendas in concern for others and to seek grace to live lives that please God.

Religion seeks God on its own terms; I put God in my debt by my good works. Then I get bragging rights and can feel superior to others. But Christianity says there’s nothing I can bring to the negotiating table: I am accepted only by God’s raw grace.

The defining mark of God’s people is a conscious dependence on their Saviour. It’s not so much a prerequisite as it is a structural necessity: we have to be humble to look for help beyond ourselves.

Tolerance, Love and Politics

C. Everett Koop was Surgeon General during the Reagan administration. A social conservative and evangelical Christian, he took exception to the gay lifestyle at a time when the AIDS epidemic was ravaging the gay community in the 1980s.

But he fought to change society’s views of the disease and for federal support to find treatment options; gay or not, as Americans they formed part of his constituency and he fought for their good while educating Americans about the disease and its prevention. He remained unapologetic about his personal views, but he gained the respect of AIDS activists around the world.

His actions were consistent with his Christian faith.

Real tolerance is based on love. The civil person can disagree and should be able to say so (Koop certainly did), but must still strive for the good of the person who holds the opposing view, as Koop also did.

But how to define good? To promote acceptance of something you disagree with? That could go against conscience and would amount to tacit agreement with what one consider the other’s poor choice. On my own idea of good? The help will probably be rejected.

I conclude that the good to be shown happens on common ground. Both side agreed on the danger of the disease, and Koop saw that good as managing the AIDS epidemic even as he maintained his view that the best prevention was to be married and straight. In the same way, I won’t give an alcoholic another drink because he asks for it; but perhaps I can feed him or give him a blanket.

Tolerance do not have to mean an acceptance of all lifestyle options. It does mean discussions of differences should be civil (hence the term “civilization”) but in a liberal democracy all differences must be allowed and discussed. In fact, the right to have the discussion must be vigorously defended. The vitriol displayed in debates about alternate lifestyles is breathtaking; dissenting voices are automatically prejudged haters and bigots. There seems to be little sense of irony amongst some progressives, and their attempt to silence dissenters strikes at the heart of liberal democracy.

My love for my son is unconditional; but it does not mean I would support his becoming a crack addict. I’d be very frustrated to have someone tell me I was wrong to disagree with his choice; in fact, to just condone the thing that’s killing him would be a sign of indifference, of non-love.

Christian Freedom Part 2

I saw this saying on a fellow blogger’s site, beautybeyondbones, and thought it summarized God’s grace and our freedom beautifully:

Living FOR acceptance and love is bondage.
Living FROM acceptance and love is freedom.

The reason there is a cross in Christian freedom is that we are radically insecure. We seek to justify our existence based on what we and others think of us. It never quite works, though, and we try to dull the pain with toys and distractions.

But if we realize this soul-sickness for what it is, we can put it behind us by turning to God for our justification. What greater statement of our worth could there be that the very Son of God would die to secure our forgiveness and to give us a real hope?

But there has to be a letting go of self: it’s not just enough to turn over a new leaf, to force ourselves into moral compliance. The illness is such that the only cure is for is to come to the end of ourselves and our self-justification.

Insecurity and self-centredness are two sides of the same coin. We constantly crave affirmation, to be told we’re all right. But the praise fades and like addicts, we need more.

It’s a big step to realize this, and a bigger step to be willing to let it go, to die to it, finding our justification – our reason to live – outside ourselves: God Himself loved us enough to die for us. But when we finally do let it go, what freedom! Worry and striving evaporate, and for the first time we can live deeply: not trying to drug ourselves with distractions and toys, but to live life down to the roots, secure in His acceptance and living for Him, not because we have to but because it is perfect joy to do so.

THAT is real freedom. That is what we were made for.

Christian Freedom

“Whom the Son sets free is free indeed” (John 8:36)
“Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17)

We hear a lot about how Christians have been set free, and it’s gloriously true. But we need to think about what that freedom really means.

Christian freedom has a cross in it. We are free because we have died to our old lives with its desires and pride, and our new lives are bound up in His. That means the Christian admits Christ’s primacy in and over every area of their lives.

Many take the gospel to mean they can do what they want because Christ has taken the consequences of our sin. But how can we be truly Christian if we remain centred on the self and its desires?

The gospel is far more radical than we are sometimes willing to consider. We are called to a complete humility: my old life with its desires and self-seeking is dead, and I am called to look to God for my affirmation. I don’t have to prove anything to myself or others because my identity and my future rests in His hands.

Our new lives, then, are entirely in Christ. Until we are willing to give ourselves completely to Him – to follow Him to the cross in practical fact – dare we call ourselves His followers?

Parallels

2 Cor 4:7-18

Sometimes life is hard. Bad stuff happens to good people, even those who want to do their best to please God. And this troubles us.

But nobody wanted to please His Father than Jesus Himself, and He suffered more than anyone. And everything in the Christian life has to do with our identification with Him, of our being “in” Him, part of Him, part of His body.

Jesus suffered on earth and died – and rose again.

So do we. This should hardly surprise us. If our Lord suffered on earth, do we think we shouldn’t? And if we suffer the same way – suffering injustice, trial and mortality – we are also promised we will also share in His resurrection.

Jesus endured, for what followed was greater. Likewise our “light affliction is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory”. So must we endure, for what lies ahead is greater. We have been promised nothing less than an eternal, physical existence with Him: this is the hope of every Christian.

Marriage and the Culture of Heaven

In the same way that Heaven demonstrates the other-centredness of love, it’s not a leap to see this at work in functional relationships. Lovers are not mercenary when they love their mate; it’s only when they think about what’s in it for them that they become so, and at that instant they cease to love in practical fact.

And this, by the way, explains why cohabitation and casual sex are disapproved of in the Bible.

Marriage is the binding of oneself by an oath to choose to love in spite of feeling; an admission of the fickleness of our hearts, and the taking of a vow to do acts of humility and love – to put the other first in practical fact even when it no longer serves personally or satisfies.

And there is perhaps an important point to make here: Love is a choice and an act before it is a feeling. Many will jettison a marriage because they don’t have the feelings they used to.

But did we expect otherwise? You can’t make yourself continue to feel something by force of will. Your feelings can change as quickly as your digestion or the minute a pretty skirt walks by.

Common law relationships make it easier to reduce love to a consumer relationship since there is no binding vow. They just move out when the relationship gets uncomfortable. That marriage is not honoured as much as before is not that there’s anything wrong with it; people just don’t believe in making a vow they don’t intend to keep. That’s at least honest, but it still puts self before the other; it’s still a consumer relationship instead of a promise.

Love is humble: humility is not thinking of how bad you are, but if thinking of the other before oneself. And that is what a marriage vow is about: that you will put the other first even when it no longer serves. It is love as a positive moral choice, rather than merely a reaction to how the other person makes us feel.

Heaven

“There is nothing in Heaven that the mercenary soul can desire”. CS Lewis

Is it selfish to desire Heaven? I think not, and a moment’s thought makes this plain. Let’s unpack it. A few quick thoughts:

a) God is love.

b) If you think about it, the nature of love is to look outwards, to the other. The Father loves the Son; the Son honours the Father. The Holy Spirit exalts all. God sends His Son for us; Jesus lays aside His glory, is born in a barn and is killed on a cross. He puts us first.

c) This self-abandonment, so evident in the Trinity, is essential to the nature of love. A letting go of ourselves is not so much a requirement as a structural necessity if we are to know God as our Redeemer and Friend. We can’t see Him when our own lives block the light; when God commands love, He invites us to the kind of self abandonment that has always existed in the Trinity.

The culture of Heaven is love and is therefore essentially other-centred. Nobody there seeks their own advancement since they are focused completely on living for and glorifying God.

When Jesus said there was no greater love than the laying down of one’s life for another, He illustrated this and then demonstrated His total commitment to us on the cross. If that’s the kind of love we must have to dwell in Heaven, it’s not hard to imagine there are many who wouldn’t like it there. Those who do desire it already display God’s work on their hearts.