Some thoughts on C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, including a synopsis of the chapters and takeaways from Lewis’ philosophical classic. This may be my favorite Lewis work, although took the most thought for me to wrap my head around. You can find the full text here: Lewis – Abolition Of Man.
On THE ABOLITION OF MAN, By C.S. Lewis: Thoughts On Application and Modern Relevance For Christians
Lewis’ work, although an ingenious philosophical defense of virtue, is not a Christian defense of virtue. It is exceedingly helpful however to view this work through the lens of a Christian worldview, because Lewis himself wrote from that perspective. If Lewis convinces us wholeheartedly that Natural Law is intrinsic in man and that universal values ought to be preserved and taught to our children, then that is all fine and good, he has accomplished what he has set out in his book. But the question that Lewis does not attempt to answer is the logical next step: where does the Tao come from? In other words, who or what creates Natural Law and sets it upon the hearts of men?
Lewis was not a stranger to this question; he had to answer it himself. He would not only answer say that a distant God set forth the Tao, but he would go so far to that a personal God planned and orchestrated the Dao. In short, Lewis’ position on the origin of Natural Law would be the same as the apostle Paul’s in Romans 1 and 2.
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”
“For when Gentiles, 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. They 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.”
This means that it was God himself, the God of the Bible, who placed in men’s hearts the concept of Natural Law. God has given man from the beginning a moral compass, a knowledge of good and evil, awakened in the garden and thrust universally into the chests of men. This is the Tao that Lewis speaks of. No one is born without it, no one can escape it, and no one can explain it away. So Paul says that men, when they behave contrary to this law, are without excuse. No one can plead ignorance before God.
Keep in mind here when I refer to Law or Natural Law I am not speaking of the Mosaic Law of God given by God to the Israelites, but rather the intrinsic moral Law given to all men. The Mosaic Law and Natural Law both show us our sin, and can be confused with each other at times. I am not speaking necessarily of the commands of God (Mosaic Law) but rather of the unspoken order of the natural universe, put in place by God. They are inter-linked, but still separate. You could say that the Mosaic Law builds upon Natural Law. We are able to understand the Natural Law by the word of God given to us, but without the Word of God we are still without excuse. Paul’s argument in these passages is not for Jews who know the Mosaic Law, but for gentiles who understand the Natural Law of God. Let me know if you have any questions, as it can be confusing.
Ok, so if God is the author of creation and the instigator of Natural Law, what does that mean for us? I see several implications of understanding this fundamental concept.
1. We Can Trust God’s Inner Moral Law to Be Fundamentally True
God is perfect in everything he does (Psalm 18:30). He is essentially good; there is no evil in him (Psalm 92:15). All his ways are just and faultless (Deuteronomy 32:4). In creating a moral law, God does not make mistakes. We can trust that all the values we know to be inherently good are actually good, and not a deception by God. When we hear the joyful, innocent giggle of a child, when we see a display of sacrificial love, when one person is kind to another: we can trust beyond the shadow of a doubt that these things we know to be good are actually good. In the same way, we can trust that things we know to be bad (murder, plundering of property, slander) are actually bad. As Lewis explains, we do not have to try to question universal morals for the sake of progress, we can trust in their validity as surely as we can trust the coming of the dawn. Obviously you can see where this might get fuzzy. Some might argue that universal values (the Tao) are not actually universal, that some crazy cannibal tribe in the unexplored wilderness does not think cannibalism to be in opposition to any of their values. Perhaps this is true, but the beauty of having a perfect creator is in knowing that his given Natural Law, no matter how we might not be able to understand its totality, must be perfect. If it was not, we could not call God perfect and remain honest. As for the cannibals, I side with Paul – they are without excuse. The reason that this is good news is because our trust in the perfection of God’s Natural Law allows us to trust his Spirit at work in us. As Christians, the Holy Spirit brings conviction and clarity to our conscience (John 16:8). We can trust that these moral convictions are sure and steadfast. The illogical reasoning and foolishness of the world no longer sway us – we are awake to the resolute value of God himself. The Christian knows right from wrong because of the Spirit of God, and he can trust the Spirit of God because God’s right is always right and his wrong is always wrong. No true conviction of sin is a sham, a lie, or a ploy of God; it is actual and fundamental sin, separate form the actual and fundamental goodness of his character. What a good thing to trust the conviction of God through his spirit, because it leads us to repentance and further communion with the Father!
2. We Have A Strong Basis For Education and Instruction
We are not Jewish, and so we do not instruct our children to follow Mosaic Law. Nor do we need to instruct them to do so. As Christians who are under a new covenant, we have the Natural Law of God written on our hearts, by means of the Holy Spirit’s conviction (Jeremiah 31). What this means for our children (and new believers) is that we have a firm moral foundation on which to instruct them. We can teach right from wrong, we can teach moral good and moral bad. We do not have to be subjective, but rather we can be entirely objective. This law comes from God after all, so what better thing to give to our children! We do not have to compromise – good is good and bad is bad – nor do we have to attempt to reason as to why good things are good and bad things are bad, because this Natural Law is written on the hearts of children the same as every other man and woman. Our job as instructors is not necessarily to teach right from wrong, but to illuminate right from wrong from those who already know it but have selfishly denied it.
An education that is built on God-given universal values is the best type of education, because it allows the student to graduate from the elementary learning of morals to the joyful exploration of human emotion. If we cannot accept something as having intrinsic value, then our existence will never be a happy one, because no one can fully enjoy something as good unless they know it to be inherently good. In the same way, when we learn to recognize the good things of God, only then can we can experience them fully.
This is good news because children need something firm to stand on – they are searching for it. God given morals is the first solid thing a child finds and enjoys. As fundamental as it is, morality, as we know, is not the full answer for our children or for us. In the same way that Paul in Romans appeals to Natural Law as a way to show the full measure of grace given to us in the Gospel, so educating with a foundation of Natural Law allows us to bring out good news for law-breakers. This brings us to my last implication for an understanding of God’s Natural Law.
3. It Incorporates a Central Gospel Principle and Provides a Strong Evangelistic Tool
Once we understand God’s Natural Law, we also are able to understand how often we break it. This is Paul’s argument in Romans: that we are without excuse and in need of salvation. By understanding Natural Law and trusting it as God given and true, we can use it to present the Gospel, even to those who deny God’s Biblical commands. Just as children and made able to understand right from wrong, unbelievers are made able to understand their need for salvation by means of conviction. More often than not this conviction comes from a realization of God’s Natural Law. They realize that they have been living under God’s law all along, but instead of ascribing glory to God they have given away to selfish sinful desires and earthly idols. Natural Law is God the Father’s way of branding every man with the conviction necessary for salvation, and is a helpful tool for us in preaching the Gospel.
As Christians, we too need an understanding of Natural Law as conviction, repentance, and Gospel rest. Even though we understand right from wrong, we still do not always act in the right. We need to know that Jesus not only fully obeyed the commands of God; he also fully displayed every intrinsic good of God’s Natural Law. He was morally perfect, and this is good news because we are not. Jesus is the very embodiment of the Tao, because he is the very embodiment of the author of the Tao. We can rest on his finished work for us, and need not strive to “de-bunk” any sense of morality that Jesus displayed in his life and death.
In closing, it is exceedingly encouraging to understand the connection between Natural Law and Adam. Adam is the federal head of all creation, meaning that every man or woman born is guilty because of his sin. Adam was the first to understand God’s given law, since he was the first to break it. Once the fruit was eaten at the tree, Adam knew he was naked, he knew he had broken God’s Natural Law and was bound to continue to break it. Just as we inherit Adam’s sin, so we also inherit his understanding of Natural Law. This is the knowledge of good and evil that brings about death, because we are without excuse and no longer ignorant. By descending from the line of Adam, we not only are guilty of sin against God, we are guilty of deliberate sin against God, because we know the difference between good and evil and we choose evil anyway. But there is a way to escape the headship of Adam. In Christ, we are given a new Adam, a new federal head. He is the righteous and pure head of the body, the Church. Just as Adam’s one act of deliberate and willful disobedience damned us eternally, so Christ’s one act of deliberate and willful obedience unto death brings us eternal life. Both knew good from evil, yet only Christ choose what was good. Only Christ is worthy to receive blessing and honor and eternal union with the Father, and just as Adam’s sin flowed from the his sinful head to the body of the world, so Christ’s righteousness flows from his head onto the body of the Church. God anoints his son with the oil of heaven, and as it pours down we are unworthy recipients of that same joy.
Let the understanding of Natural Law point to Adam, who first gave it to us, but let it also point to Christ, who fulfills it for us. I do not think that Lewis would be ashamed in applying his exceptional work in such a Christ-exalting way.