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Some Post-Election Hopeful Realism

In my book, Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World, I devote a chapter to the theology of culture of C. S. Lewis. In preparing to write that study, I read all I could of Lewis, of whom I am A Big Fan, and I trust I got his views generally right.

—But perhaps not, or not entirely. For I view “Uncle Jack” as being strongly individualistic and generally unimpressed with the possibilities of significant social change on the grand scale—the scale on which another of my chapter subjects, Reinhold Niebuhr, preferred to think and to work. And one might expect an Oxbridge don, born and raised in Northern Ireland and a veteran of one of the world’s great pointless wars, to have a strongly individualistic outlook.

Lewis did, indeed, have an abiding skepticism for all Great Plans to Change the World. Long before Lyotard, we might say, he had a deep “incredulity toward metanarratives”—and only reluctantly, he tells us, subscribed to the gospel story.

Still, in his article “Why I Am Not a Pacifist” (collected in The Weight of Glory” and Other Essays), Lewis says some hopeful words about pretty large matters to encourage us in the wake of the American election, with its global implications, and in anticipation of…well, the rest of today, and every day following:

I think the best results are obtained by people who work quietly away at limited objectives, such as the abolition of the slave trade, or prison reform, or factory acts, or tuberculosis [Lewis is not thinking small, here!], not by those who think they can achieve universal justice, or health, or peace. I think the art of life consists in tackling each immediate evil as well as we can. To avert or postpone one particular war by wise policy, or to render one particular campaign shorter by strength and skill or less terrible by mercy to the conquered and the civilians is more useful than all the proposals for universal peace that have ever been made; just as the dentist who can stop one toothache has deserved better of humanity than all the men who think they have some scheme for producing a perfectly healthy race.

I have had a dentist stop a particularly violent toothache: an abscess that kept me up all night in quite acute pain. He is now a Friend for Life. He has not eradicated toothache; he can’t even prevent the next one from happening to me, despite his best efforts (and those of his relentlessly cheerful and insistent dental hygienist). But he did his job when I needed him to do it, and while Humanity was not benefited, I in particular surely was. And that certainly means a lot to me.

So: most of us can’t work wholesale, but retail. And even those who do work wholesale are wise to take Lewis’s words to heart, as the rest of us ought to, also. Work away at “what your hand finds to do” in the providence of God, and you’ll make an actual difference.


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