C.S. Lewis on morality
Concluding my look through and reflections on The abolition of man by C.S. Lewis.
In this area what stirred me most was not what Lewis said but the implications of what he showed. He spoke of the existence of a universal morality, which he named the Tao, after the Chinese word for ‘the greatest thing’. It is the existence of a fundamental and transcendent moral reality. It is not a human creation but it is understood by all humanity, to a great or lesser extent. Jews and Christians would call it ‘the Law’.
In the appendix Lewis shows how universal these principles are, quoting ancient texts from Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. He lists examples of the following:
- The law of general beneficence (don’t be bad, be good, as you would wish done to you)
- The law of special beneficence (treating those close to you in this way)
- Duties to parents, elders, ancestors
- Duties to children and posterity
- The law of justice (sexual, personal, judicial)
- The law of good faith and veracity
- The law of mercy
- The law of magnanimity
Monocultural Christians are surprised by this, thinking that only the Bible contains such teachings. That variations on them are found elsewhere can be a disheartening shock to them but they shouldn’t fear because the Bible itself says that this should be the case. In Genesis 1 and 2 we see that all humanity comes from one couple, who were made in the moral image of God. As the human race spread across the world they took this moral core with them. However corrupted by sin it gets, it is still there.
The apostle Paul knew this, describing the pagan Greeks as “very religious in every way” and explaining to them, “[God] made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth… that they should seek God in the hope that they might feel their way towards Him and find Him… as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we indeed are His offspring.’” (Acts 17:22, 26-28). He explains this further in Romans 1 and 2:
For when the Gentiles [non-Jews] who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. The show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them…” (Romans 2:14-15)
No wonder good moral behaviour is not limited to Christians. Lewis’ collation of moral teaching from around the world illustrates this.
Now whilst I would passionately argue that the morality revealed in the Bible is of a higher order than anything man has created, that is not a clinching argument for the uniqueness of Christianity – it just tries to prove that the Bible is the best among its peers. Where Christianity is shown to be peerless is in its solution to the problem that the law gives us: our inability to keep it. The grace of God in Christ Jesus – that guilt for sin is taken and righteous for perfection is given to me by Him - leaves no space for the proud efforts of man, as espoused in one way or another by all other religions. Lewis knew this.
And what does grace give us? The presence of God Himself. In Exodus 20 Moses and the Jews are given the Ten Commandments and the rest of God’s law but when God threatened to leave them to get on with life without Him, Moses implored the Lord,
If Your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favour in Your sight, I and Your people? Is it not in Your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and Your people, from every other people on the face of the earth? (Exodus 33:15-16)
Legalistic morality is not unique or authentic, and even grace-inspired living isn’t the sum of it. Lives being transformed in every good way by the presence of God Himself is the great, unique hope that the gospel heralds.
The abolition of man is available to read online, or you buy it pretty cheaply second-hand.