Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Politics and the personal (paca)

In the comments to my long, long Chastity post regarding C.S. Lewis, one of the commenters, mikej, asked how I could regard Lewis as a "moral reference" with the other things I believe. I am assuming he is referring here to my agnosticism. Aren't, mikej asks, Lewis' arguments a linear progression where it breaks down if you don't buy an earlier premise? I had never met mikej, but I learned that he found the blog through a search on either Lewis or the book "Mere Christianity." (mikej, this is logged in the blog's statcounter; I am not doing strange tracking on anyone.) I decided to do the same thing and did a blog search as well. From that, I discovered a blog entry(scroll down) discussing a letter written to the blog author's University condemning homosexuality, which cited Lewis as a source of the condemnation. That blog's commenters went on to discuss how Lewis represented the worst of Christianity. I joined that discussion a bit and in a sense got the same question. If Lewis supported patriarchical views and condemned homosexuality, how can I be a reader of his? It is easy to say that I am then getting the same question from both ends of the political spectrum, but that is probably not fair to either mikej or the other blog author as I have no idea their opinion on most things.

So, what's the answer to their question?

One way I have always disagreed with people on the Left (and Right, but it is usually a conscious thought on the Left) is that I do not see the world as fundamentally political. We are not summed up by our views on whatever the great political and social views of the day are. Yes, I have a few strong opinions, and many weak opinions, and I think that they are moral opinions. Issues of pre-emptive war, torture, racial equality, gay rights, etc. are profoundly moral issues. But those are not the only issues that are important to who we are as people. Just as important as those are issues of charity, grace, humility, wisdom, and courage. In fact, it is those values which are expressed in political views. If you read my post on life at Boarding School, I mentioned a great mentor who it happens is gay. My support of gay rights is one expression of my personal respect for the man. It is not the other way around, where somehow political beliefs drive personal ones. And it is in these personal virtues where I think Lewis had a lot to say.

For instance, in Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, the senior devil advises the junior devil to corrupt his human prey by making the human believe that he can figure everything out on his own. Let the human believe that he has no need of any moral tradition because he can find all the answers himself. I keep this in the back of my head as a warning on over-reliance on my own wisdom. The truth is that us humans are not that smart.

In the last Narnia book, a soldier of the enemy empire has faithfully worshipped his god Tash in the best possible ways, trying to remain as true to that tradition as he could. Aslan welcomes him into the Narnia heaven when the world ends.

In The Abolition of Man, Lewis gives a warning about using outcomes as the sole measure of legal punishment with no concept of justice or desert. After all, if re-education is the sole purpose of legal punishment, then there is nothing to prevent excess in this re-education. If we can get the right sort of person to come out by beating him senselessly, what is there to stop that from happening without some notion that he does not deserve such punishment?

Till We Have Faces is a re-telling of the Cupid and Psyche myth from the point of view of one of Psyche's step-sisters. The step sister has a great number of virtues and is lauded as one of the wisest and greatst rulers her kingdom had ever seen at her death, but she also has a great character flaw, which is a clinging, suffocating sense of "love" in which she demands complete devotion from others and does not allow them to be their own person. The whole novel is a meditation on love and jealousy.

In Mere Chistianity, Lewis says that Pride or self-conceit is the Great Sin, the one from which all else comes. Pride is the sin of seld-devotion and self-worship, in which you put yourself above others. Pride is competitive. "We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better looking than others."

Or here is something about forgiveness, and I think it describes most of our current political discourse on talk radio and blogs in a nutshell: "Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one's first feeling, 'Thank God, even they aren't so bad as that," or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if allowed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black." How many people on all sides of the political spectrum want horrible things to happen to others, so that their political enemies are even more wrong? How many people think the other side just doesn't disagree with you on some matter, but is in fact evil and trying to destroy your way of life?

Lewis often presents these virtues with a great clarity so that you can see them in yourselves. I took a class last semester in which I got a note at the end with my grade saying "2nd highest in class! Congrats!" What was my pride-filled immediate response? "What do you mean '2nd'?!" The good news is that I was conscious enough to slap myself for having such a stupid thought and giggle at my own ego gone astray, because there I was, just as Lewis said, wanting not just to be clever but to be cleverer than my own friends.

Those are some examples that come off the top of my head of positive things that I find in Lewis' writings. To get back to my point about political views being the expression of personal ones, I think you can use some of Lewis' own personal revelations to argue against some of his social ones. For instance, he argued, in the previous post, for chastity until marriage, and his reasoning was that essentially sex within a life-long dedicated relationship is the best. This is likely true, but it isn't obviously true. No two people are perfectly compatible. Some are messy and some are clean; some are punctual and some late; some religious and some not, etc. N, my wife, doesn't particularly like most of my music, especially the funk stuff. I am probably more musically compatible with some other man or woman in the world, but what we do share is more important than opinions on p-funk. Is it obvious that this should never ever be the case for sexual matters between a couple? But let's forget that bit and just accept that sexual relations between committed lifetime partners is the best. What follows from it?

In the discussion of marriage, Lewis makes the point that many people see things as good or bad, black or white, but in fact things can be ranked. There can be good, better, and best. So someone asks, in his example, "is patriotism good?" Well, yes, it is better than self-centeredness, argues Lewis, because of the pride issues from above, but universal charity is even better, and patriotism should give way to it when the two conflict. He says this because he then wants to argue that being "in love," that fiery emotion, is good, but the type of love that goes with life-long devotion is even better. But what if you apply this to the chastity thing from the earlier chapter? OK, sex within marriage is Best, but does that mean that any other sex is bad? Perhaps it would be just fine to have sex before marriage, as it might still be a good thing, as long as it isn't holding you back from the Best that is to come?

Some interesting ideas come up when you think in this way. In a world without birth control, there could be at least two reasons for the social, and often legal, rule that people, especially women, should not have sex until marriage. One is the negative side of it where people with greater power put a rule in place for various purposes, but the rule has nothing to do with the good of the person on whom the rule is placed, i.e., the woman. But there might have been a positive reason as well. Namely, it can be extremely hard to get into a great life-long relationship with someone if you are 21 and already have 6 kids running around. So, if the woman could wait, then her odds of getting the Best remained higher. But with birth control, especially if you use two forms (thinking pills and condoms), many of these issues vanish. You can have the good/mediocre sex and still get the Best later, because most of the drawbacks to the earlier sex are removed.

This last bit is of course highly over-simplified. The point is that I don't read Lewis and write down what he says as my moral guide. Page 12 says X is bad; won't do X now. That sort of reverence shold be reserved for something like The Ten Commandments. Instead, I read him and try to apply him to my life in fruitful ways, not ignoring the stuff I agree with, it's not cherry-picking the things I already agree with and ignoring the rest, but reading critically, allowing him to criticize me, and me him. It's the fact that he has a lot of useful criticisms of me which make it worth the time.

1 comment:

naughtyloki said...

P-funk RULES!!!!

Flashlight, MF, flashlight.

I really can't comment on anything else at this point.