Friday, July 3, 2020

Reflecting on C.S. Lewis—"On Ethics"

Though the world often seems very different today than it did in the middle of the previous century, the truth is that we are still in the midst of the debate between Christianity and Postmodernism that C.S. Lewis witnessed in its infancy. His thoughts in response to it are therefore still highly valuable. And in his essay “On Ethics," he reframes this debate in a way that helps bring fresh perspective to the picture.

Sharing the Starting Point

Lewis begins by lightly chastising those who wish for us to return to Christian ethics. It comes as a surprise, but serves as a way to bring attention to what he sees as the true issue at the heart of the argument between the ethical codes of Christians and non-Christians. There is, in fact, only one ethical code. It is expressed most clearly and comprehensively in the Bible, but all other scriptures and philosophies express largely the same ideas.

This is because morality is part of the common inheritance of mankind. No matter where we are from, what we believe, or when we have lived, we have all been able to grasp that there are goods to be pursued and evils to be avoided. Though Lewis balks a bit at the term here, the shorthand for this concept is the Natural Law. The truth available to reason shows all of us the way we ought to behave.

Don’t get me (or Lewis) wrong. I am not saying all systems of belief are equally valid. Rather, where ethics are concerned, all systems of belief start from the same point and then diverge. We need to focus on the divergence at times. That is part of what allows us to recognize Christianity as the best belief system. But morality is not created by Christianity. Morality already existed when Jesus lived, died, and rose again. Christianity makes sense of morality, it completes it. That means there is not, in this sense, such a thing as “Christian morality.”

The debate goes wrong, therefore, when people talk about returning to or abandoning Christian ethics. The problem as Lewis describes it is in the assumption that we can enter a moral vacuum in which we have the opportunity to choose from a variety of ethics like flavors at an ice cream parlor. The only reason to choose an ethical system would be because you already believe it is important to live rightly. The choice would be a duty, an obligation. But if you perceive such a duty, then it means you are already seeking to behave morally. You have an ethical system before choosing an ethical system.

Choosing the Emphasis

The choice is not really between whether to have ethics or not. It is what ethical categories you want to emphasize or deemphasize. One of the examples Lewis uses is nationalism, and since that is on the rise again, it is worth reviewing. The key tenet of nationalism is that your highest obligation is to your people, your ethnicity. If others must be sacrificed for the good of the volk, so be it. In fact, outsiders should be sacrificed so that only you and your kind can prosper.

We find something like this written into the ethical system we all inherit. It is natural to be more concerned for the wellbeing of our families and neighbors than to worry about people thousands of miles away. You would not be instinctively inclined to kill your son for the sake of someone you have never met. Nationalism raises this impulse to be the highest virtue. It attempts to use its authority to commit atrocities.

The problem, however, is that the same ethics that tell us to care for our own people also tells us to care for strangers. It teaches us that human beings all have something in common, a shared dignity and destiny that should be respected and protected. A robust understanding of ethics sees that these two understandings can be held simultaneously and that they ought to be because they are both parts of the moral law. Nationalism does not create a new morality. It is merely a contraction, a distortion that ignores the whole for the sake of a part.

Most people see Nazism as evil (thankfully), so the argument is pretty straightforward there. But this same concept applies to issues with which growing numbers of people in our culture see no problem. Far more commonly than with nationalism, it is often argued that Christian ethics should be abandoned because they do not permit self-realization. Someone wants to enter an altered state of mind with drugs or alcohol; another hopes that clothes and surgeries can change his sex so that he can feel more at ease; others believe that sex should be free and that “love” is good whether it is natural or not. They all say we need a new morality that celebrates these things so that we can give up the old one holding back their enjoyment.

They’re just missing one thing, though. The idea of self-realization is not one that they cut out of whole cloth. The old (read, “only”) system of ethics taught that it was a necessary thing. We see this in the Declaration of Independence describing the pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right. We also see it in Matt. 22:39, where Jesus quotes the Old Testament commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). It has always been true that you should care for yourself.

Understood in that light, supposedly “new” ways of thought are not actually revolutionary. They are merely juvenile and reductionist. Like nationalism, they contract their view of ethics to a single point, borrowing injunctions that they want to follow while ignoring others that go hand in hand with them in order to temper excesses. Feeling good does not require the destruction of the body, and sex cannot be divorced from procreation and commitment. Saying otherwise is underdeveloped, not evolved.

Approaching Ethics as Christians

If we are to speak of Christian ethics, it cannot be as something that is utterly unique. Everyone lives by the same code, or at least by pieces of the same code. The unique thing that Christianity does is in calling us to respect the entirety of morality rather than choosing to fixate on small parts of it. The other unique thing it does is in providing a solution for our moral failures.

None of us actually does or can keep the moral law perfectly. We all stumble at points, either willfully or by justifying our behavior with reference to one aspect of the law while ignoring others. Christianity did not describe morality, moral failures, or the cost of such failures for the first time. What it did, as nothing else does, is say that we do not have to make up for failure ourselves. Christ did that for us on the cross. The salvation He offers allows us to be free from guilt. And that freedom allows us to see ethics in a new way. Rather than in obligation we are free to act in gratitude, loving God and His designs because of the love He shows for us. Rather than a contraction, we have the full picture. That is what we want others to see.

For everything that I have said here in repeating Lewis, “Christian ethics” is still a useful phrase. I highly doubt I will stop using it and variants of it. People need to know that their behavior alienates them from the source of life. Sin comes with a cost, and the Bible spells it out succinctly. But it is useful to be reminded that we do not have a monopoly on morality. If we did, it would be impossible to convince people of their need for Christ. But the truth of the ethics we all share, at least in part, means that we have a point of contact. And that means we can build on it for the world’s sake and the Lord’s glory. The mission of the Church has not ended just because people think they have found something new.

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