Eighty years ago, C. S. Lewis warned against surrogate contrition
In March 1940, C. S. Lewis wrote a column in The Guardian titled “The Dangers of National Repentance.” England had only recently entered the Second World War, and a number of young Anglican intellectuals were urging their fellow citizens to recognize penitently the extent to which England and other enemies of Germany in the war of 1914–1918 had created the conditions that gave rise to this new conflict. Lewis — who had been wounded in the Great War and whose brother Warnie was at the time of the column’s composition stationed in France — perceived a perilous temptation presented by activists eager to repent on behalf of their elders.
“The first and fatal charm of national repentance is . . . the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing — but, first, of denouncing — the conduct of others. If it were clear to the young that this is what he is doing, no doubt he would remember the law of charity. Unfortunately the very terms in which national repentance is recommended to him conceal its true nature. By a dangerous figure of speech, he calls the Government not ‘they’ but ‘we’. And since, as penitents, we are not encouraged to be charitable to our own sins, nor to give ourselves the benefit of any doubt, a Government which is called ‘we’ is ipso facto placed beyond the sphere of charity or even of justice. You can say anything you please about it. You can indulge in the popular vice of detraction without restraint, and yet feel all the time that you are practicing contrition. A group of such young penitents will say, ‘Let us repent our national sins’; what they mean is, ‘Let us attribute to our neighbour (even our Christian neighbour) in the Cabinet, whenever we disagree with him, every abominable motive that Satan can suggest to our fancy.’ . . .
“Is it not, then, the duty of the Church to preach national repentance? I think it is. But the office — like many others — can be profitably discharged only by those who discharge it with reluctance. We know that a man may have to ‘hate’ his mother for the Lord’s sake. The sight of a Christian rebuking his mother, though tragic, may be edifying; but only if we are quite sure that he has been a good son and that, in his rebuke, spiritual zeal is triumphing, not without agony, over strong natural affection. The moment there is reason to suspect that he enjoys rebuking her — that he believes himself to be rising above the natural level while he is still, in reality, groveling before it in the unnatural — the spectacle becomes merely disgusting.”
— from “The Dangers of National Repentance” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Eerdmans, 1970)
Note: A reading of this essay by C. S. Lewis is available here.
Thaddeus J. Kozinski on reading modernity’s symptoms wisely (and wonder-fully)
“In a remarkable passage, Alasdair MacIntyre zeroes in on the essence of modernity’s peculiar disease:
“‘We have within our social order few if any social milieus within which reflective and critical inquiry concerning the central issues of human life can be sustained. . . . This tends to be a culture of answers, not of questions, and those answers, whether secular or religious, liberal or conservative, are generally delivered as though meant to put an end to questioning.’
“What MacIntyre is saying, I think, is that the culture of modernity is a culture without wonder, and since without wonder there is no awe, as Plato taught us, modern culture tends to preclude the experience of that which is most awesome, God. What is the antidote to this? MacIntyre once said that we need a new Benedict, but I wonder if we couldn’t add Socrates to the list. Dietrich von Hildebrand describes the Socratic, questioning, wondering spirit as
“‘the inner willingness which is not closed against even the most unpleasant truth, which is really free from bias, ready to make friends with things, open to the proof of all objective existence, not looking at things through a colored lens that allows only such things to pass into the understanding as do not offend our pride and self complacency.’
“The existence of even one person with a genuine spirit of erotic, Socratic questioning, a soul with true metaphysical courage, is, I think, the most effective antidote to the suffocating, anti-questioning, partial-truth culture we live in, in both its traditionalist and modernist varieties. Those who believe themselves to have obtained answers without having first endured the existential agony of questioning the darkness, whether because they have judged that there are no answers, or because they believe themselves to be already quite securely possessed of dogmatic certitude, need to recognize in such an attitude neither a humble disposition of ignorance nor pious submission to God's word, but a type of idolatry, the idolatry of partial thinking.”
— from Thaddeus J. Kozinski, Modernity as Apocalypse: Sacred Nihilism and the Counterfeits of Logos (Angelico Press, 2019)
Aquinas, Augustine, and Aristotle on good government
“In the second book of the Politica we study the constitutions of the various Greek states. Thomas accepts Aristotle’s inductive bases, and will employ them in his work De regimine principum. In the nature of man he finds the origin and the necessity of a social authority, represented in varying degree by the father in the family, by the leader in the community, by the sovereign in the kingdom.
“He distinguishes, further, good government from bad. Good government has three forms: monarchical, where one alone rules, aristocratic, where several rule, democratic, where the rule is by representatives elected by the multitude. But each of these forms may degenerate: monarchy into tyranny, aristocracy into oligarchy, democracy into mob-rule The best form of government he finds in monarchy, but, to exclude tyranny, he commends a mixed constitution, which provides, at the monarch’s side, aristocratic and democratic elements in the administration of public affairs. Yet, he adds, if monarchy in fact degenerates into tyranny, the tyranny, to avoid greater evils, should be patiently tolerated. If, however, tyranny becomes unbearable, the people may intervene, particularly in an elective monarchy. It is wrong to kill the tyrant. He must be left to the judgment of God, who, with infinite wisdom, rewards or punishes all rulers of men.
“On the evils of election by a degenerate people, where demagogues obtain the suffrages, he remarks, citing St. Augustine, that the elective power should, if it be possible, be taken from the multitude and restored to those who are good. St. Augustine’s words run thus: ‘If a people gradually becomes depraved, if it sells its votes, if it hands over the government to wicked and criminal men, then that power of conferring honors is rightly taken from such a people and restored to those few who are good.’”
— from Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange O.P., Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought (Herder, 1950)
St. John Henry Newman on the manner of speech fitting for Christian faithfulness
“Let us guard against discontent in any shape; and as we cannot help hearing what goes on in the world, let us guard, on hearing it, against all intemperate, uncharitable feelings towards those who differ from us, or oppose us. Let us pray for our enemies; let us try to make out men to be as good as they can fairly and safely be considered; let us rejoice at any symptoms of repentance, or any marks of good principle in those who are on the side of error. Let us be forgiving. Let us try to be very humble, to understand our ignorance, and to rely constantly on the enlightening grace of our Great Teacher. Let us be ‘slow to speak, slow to wrath;’—not abandoning our principles, or shrinking from the avowal of them when seasonable, or going over to the cause of error, or fearing consequences, but acting ever from a sense of duty, not from passion, pride, jealousy, or an unbelieving dread of the future; feeling gently, even when we have reason to act severely.”
— from John Henry Newman, “Contracted Views in Religion,” a sermon on the story of the Prodigal Son, in Parochial and Plain Sermons, Volume 3 (published 1834–42).
Alexander Schmemann on the grand modern heresy
“Secularism, I submit, is above all a negation of worship. I stress: — not of God’s existence, not of some kind of transcendence and therefore of some kind of religion. If secularism in theological terms is a heresy, it is primarily a heresy about man. It is the negation of man as a worshipping being, as homo adorans: the one for whom worship is the essential act which both ‘posits’ his humanity and fulfills it. It is the rejection as ontologically and epistemologically ‘decisive,’ of the words which ‘always, everywhere and for all’ were the true ‘epiphany’ of man’s relation to God, to the world and to himself: ‘It is meet and right to sing of Thee, to bless Thee, to praise Thee, to give thanks to Thee, to worship Thee in every place of Thy dominion. . . .’”
“Secularism — we must again and again stress this — is a ‘stepchild’ of Christianity, as are, in the last analysis, all secular ideologies which today dominate the world — not, as it is claimed by the Western apostles of a Christian acceptance of secularism, a legitimate child, but a heresy. . . . But then heresy is always a question addressed to the Church, and which requires, in order to be answered, an effort of Christian thought and conscience. To condemn a heresy is relatively easy. What is much more difficult is to detect the question it implies, and to give this question an adequate answer. Such, however, was always the Church’s dealing with ‘heresies’ — they always provoked an effort of creativity within the Church so that the condemnation became ultimately a widening and deepening of the Christian faith itself. To fight Arianism, St. Athanasius advocated the term consubstantial, which earlier, and within a different theological context, was condemned as heretical. Because of this he was violently opposed, not only by Arians but by ‘conservatives,’ who saw in him an innovator and a ‘modernist.’ Ultimately, however, it became clear that it was he who saved Orthodoxy, and the blind ‘conservatives’ consciously and unconsciously helped the Arians. Thus, if secularism is, as I am convinced, the great heresy of our own time, it requires from the Church not mere anathemas, and certainly not compromises, but above all an effort of understanding so it may ultimately be overcome by truth.”
—from Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973)
An audiobook edition of For the Life of the World is available from our catalog.