In the coming months we hope to publish more at CT about the relationship between faith and economics, from a number of perspectives. The question about how Christians should view the nation state, on the one hand, and the powerful forces of multinational capitalism, on the other hand, is too important to leave to economists or political scientists alone. Indeed, some of the most beloved writers of 20th-century Christianity—including G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis—had powerful critiques to offer of the dominant ideologies of their own day. In this essay, Art Lindsley reminds us that C. S. Lewis had a healthy suspicion of one of his era's favorite words, "progress." —Andy Crouch, CT executive editor
Some words are more slippery than they seem.
In C. S. Lewis's TheVoyage of the Dawn Treader, King Caspian encounters Gumpas, the Governor of the Lone Islands. Gumpas tells Caspian that the slave trade practiced in his domain is an "essential part of the development of the island."
"Tender as my years may be," says Caspian, "I do not see that it brings into the islands meat or bread or beer or wine or timber or cabbages or books or instruments of music or horses or armour or anything else worth having. But whether it does or not, it must be stopped."
"But that would be putting the clock back," gasps the governor. "Have you no idea of progress, of development?"
"I have seen them both in an egg," says Caspian. "We call it going bad in Narnia. This trade must stop."
Who could be against "progress" or "development"? Only someone, like Caspian, who has realized that some things progress and develop in the wrong direction. And one of the great gifts of C. S. Lewis was his well-honed suspicion of progress.
"We all want progress," he wrote in Mere Christianity.
But progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be and if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. We have all seen this when we do arithmetic. When I have started a sum the wrong way, the sooner I admit this and go back and start over again, the faster I shall get on. There is nothing progressive about being pigheaded and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world, it is pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistakes. We are on the wrong road. And if that is so, we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on.
Indeed, Lewis was not afraid to be called old-fashioned or outdated. In "De Descriptione Temporum," his inaugural address to his professorship in medieval and Renaissance literature at Cambridge, Lewis claimed to be more a part of the old Western order than the present post-Christian one. He admitted, "You don't want to be lectured . . . on dinosaurs by a dinosaur." On the other hand, Lewis slyly concluded, "Where I fail as a critic, I may be useful as a specimen. I would dare to go further . . . I would say, use your specimen while you can. There are not going to be many more dinosaurs."
Some of Lewis's most pointed criticisms of "progress" came when he wrote on economics and politics, even though he did not often comment on these topics. When he was invited by the Observer in the late 1950's to write an article on whether progress was even possible, he titled his contribution "Willing Slaves of the Welfare State."