Sacred Canopy: Reflections on The Abolition of Man
by Meghan Armstrong
My mom and I had a conversation a few weeks ago that surprised me. We’re very close, but I’ve been busy with little ones, and let’s be honest, pretty self-absorbed. So I was genuinely surprised when she told me she’s been struggling for at least three years with significant doubts about the existence of God, a true “dark night of the soul.” It began for her when my paternal grandmother, a life-long atheist, died without any indication that she had ever changed her mind about God. It took the wind out of the sails of my mom’s Christian faith and forced her to confront what she termed “the siren’s call of atheism.”
I myself am well acquainted with the tune. I am a pastor’s kid who has never strayed far from my immediate family’s heritage of faith in Jesus. I’ve never tested out unbelief, so I often experience distress in the presence of skeptics and cynics, wondering if I’ve somehow missed something, if I am only a Christian because it’s all I’ve known. To those of us who have lived with deep faith all our lives, doubt is a powerful, intriguing force. I remember, during my freshman year at the University of Michigan, ascending some stairs after a class on French existentialism and eavesdropping on two of my classmates. One said, “I’ve been agnostic by my own choice since I was a little girl.” The other replied, “Wow, I really admire that.” I felt both sorrowful and threatened. I didn’t have an overarching framework through which to understand how our culture had reached that point, where a little girl decides she can’t ever know if God exists and is applauded.
Which brings me to The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis, a series of three transcribed lectures on the state of modern education. The Lord has used this book to give my faith in Christ some much-needed historical context.
To briefly summarize, the first chapter, titled “Men Without Chests,” presents Lewis’ “doctrine of objective value” or what he refers to throughout the book as the Tao. It is “the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false.” Lewis provides numerous illustrations of the Tao in the appendix; duties to parents, elders and ancestors, for example. There are instructions to honor or care for parents in the writings of at least seven diverse ancient cultures; in other words, this value superseded local culture. Those who live within the Tao are guided by values they find fundamental to their humanness. Lewis expresses his concern that modern education mocks and dismisses these values.
In the second chapter, titled “The Way,” Lewis unveils the inner workings of this modern worldview, through which some arrogantly deem themselves capable of picking and choosing what is worth valuing and what isn’t.
In the third chapter, titled “The Abolition of Man,” Lewis follows this system of thinking to its final consequences. Those who use education to conquer or “see through” the values of the Tao become “the Conditioners;” they decide what they want mankind to become down the road. Future generations will be nothing more than “raw material” that has been manipulated and de-humanized by the intellectuals of today–this is the abolition of man. To provide a clarifying example: as evolutionary theory developed, gender came to be understood (by some) as necessary only for the propagation of the species—there was no underlying meaning or purpose to the differences between sexes. As a product of that conditioning, prevailing culture now promotes experimentation along the “gender spectrum,” and many churches even reject clear distinctions between sexes. Anyone who suggests that there is a deeper, more absolute meaning behind the words male and female is considered old-fashioned and prudish, or worse, oppressive and bigoted. At some point in the past, a consensus developed that mankind would be better served without fuddy-duddy gender conventions. 75-100 years later, our conditioned Supreme Court has, just today, legalized same sex marriage nationwide. We’ve abolished an essential element of our humanness.
This abolishing process is summed up well by Andrew Kern from CiRCE Institute and Tim McIntosh from Gutenberg College in a podcast episode entitled “Ernest Hemingway, Evelyn Waugh and the Collapse of Shared Spiritual Values After WWI.” Tim says: “There was a sacred canopy that was largely woven by Christianity and that stretched over the western world up until World Wars I and II. Even if you privately dissented, the fabric you were born under still gave you the conceptual apparatus, habits and customs that gave life lots of meaning. […] In Hemingway and Waugh, we’re looking at an unraveled society.” In novels by both authors, there are precisely crafted examples of the abolished man. Andrew later comments on Waugh’s description of such a man:
‘He was something absolutely modern and up to date only this ghastly age could produce, a tiny bit of a man pretending he was the whole.’ It’s like when our schools talk about teaching the whole child, but they can’t include the soul and spirit–that’s illegal. What’s left? You’re only allowed to teach the physical being. Only this ghastly age could produce the kind of beings it’s producing. […] You’re ripping their chests out, to use Lewis’ language. A bunch of kids being abolished.
I see myself and my peers within this framework. We are that coming generation, who automatically mistrusts belief in anything beyond what our basic instinct tells us. The greater context is hidden from us. I am pedaling fast, in an effort to hang on to that for which my parents have also fought: there is meaning, there is truth, and I have a soul! Here in 2015, despite the presence of powerful atheistic Conditioners in my family tree, I wake up and find myself an outlier in my extended family and in my society.
So I am deeply grateful for Lewis’ wide-angle lens on modern culture. When I went off to school, I did not have a context by which to understand what had happened to religious orthodoxy in Europe and America. I didn’t know that, far from being a tried and true worldview, widespread atheism and agnosticism in the West were originally backlash against World War I. If I had been born in any other century, my faith would have proven me to be of sound mind. But I was born in 1983, and I felt stupid when I spoke about my faith, if I spoke about it at all. Outside of college, the problem remains: we think we’ve made so much progress that we have isolated ourselves from history. The stories of centuries past are fascinating, but they have nothing to do with “how far we’ve come” in this modern era.
Thank you, Jesus, I have true context now. Marilynne Robinson writes in her novel Gilead: “we all do live in the ruins of the lives of other generations.” Through reading The Abolition of Man and growing in my understanding of what a truly classical education is, I am growing in confidence that I am not the weirdo, but am in fact, choosing the more human way. When I think about my Christian faith, I recognize that I, like millions before me, have chosen to live within the Tao, and I’ve been able to encourage my mom with this as well. I am praying that a strong sacred canopy forms over my family’s little campus church, even as it will inevitably offend university students and professors with its unfashionable commitment to the Word of God. Most importantly, I use my classical homeschool to stretch this canopy further over my family and provide much needed context for my daughters as they grow in their love for Jesus. “Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me, for in you I take refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed.” (Psalm 57:1).
Meghan and her husband are campus church planters living in Detroit. She homeschools their three daughters and tutors with Classical Conversations. Her goal for 2015 is to develop a Sabbath-keeping practice. Follow her on Instagram @meghanloua if you like pictures of food, city life and/or cute kids.