I frequently find myself thinking about C.S. Lewis’ little masterpiece, The Abolition of Man, if only because it was correct when he wrote it and has been prophetic ever since. It’s odd, the copy I own is old, tattered, and rescued from a fire – much like his thesis. That thesis is almost too complex to put into this posting – at least in the time I’ve allowed myself to write today. But simply stated:
Much of our modern system of education [it was education Lewis was primarily examining – I would today broaden its scope] is broadly failing to understand what it is to be human. It is the substitution of the “measureable” for the “metaphorical,” in one sense, a modern practice that is utterly demolished in Andrew Louth’s Discerning the Mystery. In both cases the triumph of the “scientific” over every other contender, renders man, or at least much that makes us human, of little value. Thus history only has value as we can study it “scientifically,” not in any sense that might link us to that history. Thus there can be no tradition, nothing within us that extends without us, except the ability to measure or perhaps to feel – but that feeling, as Lewis noted is described as only to feel, and thus not to feel at all.
And yet, as Lewis notes, even those who write within this modern attack on Tradition (or as he chose to call it “the Tao”), themselves stand within the Tradition. There is a simple fact and a reality: there is no other place to stand. We are part of a Tradition of human living that has always existed. Whether I analyze my breathing in some scientific metaphor and measurement or speak of the breath of life, I still breathe, and I want to breathe. There is much that binds us to one another even when it is not recognized.
The Orthodox faith is a form of Christianity that embraces the Tradition – indeed it celebrates it. Marvelously, it does not have to invent it, for the Tradition abides even when Modernity seeks to reinvent the human out of existence. There are customs (important parts of Tradition even when found in ethnic flavor) such as suggesting to a woman that she “lay in” (at least liturgically) for 40 days after giving birth. Today’s insurance policies might not allow so much (I do not know). But it is a Tradition that should not be read for saying, “Don’t go out, you’re unclean.” Instead it’s a Tradition that values the birth of a child enough to protect them and allow them to bond with a mother and – even a Tradition that doesn’t completely know why it asks what it asks. But it does remember something important about being human.
I would say the same thing about parts of the Tradition that teach us to mourn. To pray on the third day of death; the ninth day of death; the fortieth day; the anniversary – and the anniversary without end. To stand around holding candles in the depth of our mourning singing, “Memory eternal!” is not simply some time-worn custom – but an act far superior to the “grief therapy” of the modern psycho-babble industry that organizes grief camps and has children writing letters to deceased loved ones and sending them (the letters) aloft by balloons. Of this latter practice (I once worked as a Hospice Chaplain and I know it well) I can at least say that it, too, flows from the same Tradition – human beings must grieve the dead. The difference is that an Orthodox Memorial service is certain that God is with us and that we pray because of the Resurrection of Christ, whereas balloons are sent aloft because they make us feel better.
Louth takes on the pseudo-sciences that try to push the humanities into the sciences themselves. Thus we have the “science” of “historical critical” studies – which – whatever good they may do – cannot do what they claim or wish. And least of all do they do teach us how to read a text.
I think of the Abolition of Man, not because I despair, but because I realize that I am daily working not for his abolition, but for his recovery. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware has noted: “God not only became man so that man could become god; He also became man so that man could become man.” Christ alone is the fully human and as we live within the Tradition that is the living presence of Christ in the Church – we slowly work to rescue man from the eddies of modernity and restore him to the Tradition that leads to Christ and to the fullness for which he was created. I do not seek to measure that effort, or judge it by its numerical success, but rather by the joy that I know every time I see that it is true and that I see that another knows it is true.
We were created for God – to give Him glory and thanksgiving. Anything less is indeed our abolition. But here we are a generation or more after Lewis wrote his little book, and we are doing (as Orthodox Christians) not what he loathed, but what he lauded. The Tradition will not go away for it is nothing less than God at work among us, saving us, and fulfilling us (not with modernity’s false fulfillment) with the fullness that is nothing less than the life of Christ. Glory to God.