Why C.S. Lewis understood 2020 better than we do.

One reason that C.S. Lewis is such an important thinker for today is his understanding of science. Lewis’ views on the human pursuit of scientia, especially through the physical sciences, is a key theme in many of his works: in essays like The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment and Is Progress Possible?; it lies at the heart, as Michael Ward has shown, of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and is the focus of his finest work, The Abolition of Man and its fictional embodiment, That Hideous Strength.  Lewis, untypically for his age, maintained a critical distance from science and scientists because he saw embedded within the desire to understand nature and humanity, the desire to control both. He never forgot that before they were experts, scientists were sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, dignified but eminently corruptible. He saw that when what we call ‘science’ was elevated above all other sources of scientia (like theology and philosophy and literature) it would become a potent opportunity for corruption. If science became the highest, or only, source of real knowledge it would become the one ring to rule them all and, as his friend J.R.R. Tolkien showed, too powerful for even the best of men to wield safely. 

I suspect that Lewis understood this because he was a student of the Early Modern period when science was in its infancy. He knew its murky origins in alchemy and magic, and therefore, just as one is less likely to be overawed by a man in a sharp suit snapping his fingers at his servants when one remembers him as a boy with a muddy face running barefoot in the streets, Lewis found the pretensions of science less irresistible than many of his contemporaries. 

However he gained it, Lewis’ perspective on science is one reason why he is a better Christian cultural analyst of 2020 than many Christian cultural analysts living in 2020. Who can fail to hear echoes of our SAGE in That Hideous Strength’s NICE? So many of his paragraphs read as if they could have been written in Spring 2020,rather than the mid-twentieth century. Take this one from his 1958 essay, Is Progress Possible?, 

‘On just the same ground I dread government in the name of science. That is how tyrannies come in. In every age the men who want us under their thumb, if they have any sense, will put forward the particular pretension which the hopes and fears of that age render most potent. They ‘cash in’. It has been magic, it has been Christianity. Now it will certainly be science.’ 

Yet, today, when what Lewis saw in bud has now begun to bloom and bear its fruit, very few Christian leaders display Lewis’ perceptive analysis. We are told that if we are concerned about the biggest loss of liberty in British history that we have appointed ourselves ‘armchair virologists’ and hear blithe statements of trust in ‘experts’. Of course, no one need appoint oneself an ‘armchair virologist’, or even an immunologist for that matter, to have their doubts about what is happening, because the first premise to be debunked is that only virologists and immunologists have the right to opine on matters that involve the life and liberty of the whole population since those matters involve not just virology but theology and philosophy and ethics and much more besides.

My point is not that today’s scientists have got anything wrong in responding to the arrival of SARS-CoV-2. My point is that even if every measure imposed and every decision taken has been justified and right, the last few months have seen an enormous concentration of power in the hands of what we call ‘scientific advisors’ and in the rhetoric of scientific power. Since the Bible gives us ample reason to be cautious about what concentrations of power do to those that possess it, this should concern us. The scientists of 2020 may be benevolent, judicious and wise but will the scientists of 2030 or 2050 or whenever a crisis of this kind strikes again? My view is that any Christian analysis of the contemporary scene that does not recognise this and appreciate its dangers is myopic and misguided. 

Perhaps, over the last century or so, much of the Church has been so concerned to demonstrate Christianity’s compatibility with science that we have forgotten that Christianity also offers a critique of science. Christianity is compatible with science when science is properly understood but it gives a withering critique of science when it transgresses the bounds of the purpose for which it was given. Of course, Christianity critiques all human activity on such grounds, because the message of the Bible is that we are limited, sin-sick, creatures and that therefore there are degrees of power and control that it is not safe for us to have. C.S. Lewis understood this several decades ago; as the first year of this decade comes to an end, we should let him remind us again. 

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