Over the last five hundred years or so it is possible to see a trend in human civilisation from the perception that the universe was an orderly, enclosed and relatively tranquil place, ruled over by a beneficent Providence, to a sense of the universe as being chaotic, open and violent, not ruled over by anything at all.
Some of the symptoms of this include the slow, apparently inevitable breakdown of what we now call ‘organised religion’ in the form of the Christian church, beginning with the church’s own division into warring factions in the Reformation. Looking back on this change, it is possible to fall into the trap of what C. S. Lewis called ‘chronological snobbery’ and to believe that we, as people living in the 21st century, are somehow a natural and superior product of this collapse of ‘religious prejudice’ which took place painfully over several centuries and is still going on today, it seems. But that would be to deny the truth of what Lewis asserted, which was that the past is in reality no less wise than we. We use the term ‘organised religion’, but at the time in all likelihood things would have been perceived quite differently: the Church was not seen as a human institution at all, but as an extension of God’s bodily presence upon Earth, managed by a direct line of anointed bishops from the time when Christ Himself walked among us.
For over a thousand years, the general view was that we lived in a divinely created world, orbited by planets which were alive and in continuous worship of their Creator, under stars that shone with the light of the eternal Heaven which lay just beyond their sphere. The fact that human life was full of suffering and unpleasantries, war and death, was not a reflection upon the true state of things but an anomaly arising from Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden, a key moment of dysfunction which had thrown the whole of the Earth out of synchronisation with divine harmony. Individual souls suffered alone and collectively - that was part of existence. But they were redeemed and rewarded also, as part of that same existence - salvation was not denied them, but was built into the cosmic pattern.
Fast forward to today, and things have changed remarkably: the Church, seen very much as a human institution run by tragically fallible human beings, has declined in numbers and reputation; our world is no longer seen to be divinely created but exists as a result of a huge cosmic accident, and is orbited by planets which are fragments of spinning matter, under stars that are balls of burning gas too vast and too far away for our minds to apprehend. Human life is still full of suffering and unpleasantries, war and death, but many see this not as a moment of dysfunction but simply as an extension of a soulless existence which we share with the beasts from which we are said to have evolved. Individual souls suffer alone and collectively without hope of reward or redemption because the existential truth is that existence is empty of meaning: there is no cosmic pattern.
One of the interesting things about this cultural progression is the corresponding transformation of literature and art. In a divinely-ruled universe, art served God, as everything else did, and, like everything else, sought to imitate Him; as time went on and society changed, art became a thing in itself, ascribed to individuals, and seen as something that emerges from some kind of ‘subconscious’. The faculty of human beings to imagine slowly moved from being perceived as divinely inspired to a kind of romantic urge, or the product of uprisings of beauty from an unknown, subjective source. Today, art and literature are bastions of assertive ‘self-expression’ and woe betide any who try to stand in their way, even while the audiences for artists shrink and fragment.
In the 20th century, as materialist philosophies commanded worldwide political movements and exploded into war, C. S. Lewis found himself physically, mentally and spiritually on the front line - serving in the First World War, he continued to battle against materialism between the wars and became the champion of a different kind of philosophy during the Second. Lewis discovered that one of the chief weapons that he could employ in this battle against meaninglessness was literature.
Lewis’s journey from the accepted world view of his time towards another, older and arguably aesthetically richer view and how he found the tools to secure that progress for himself and others forms one of the most fascinating stories of his century. The fact that his journey impacted deeply on the lives of others is another kind of evidence of the shift in cultural consciousness and the fact that the contemporary vision of the nature of our cosmos leaves a gaping void in the hearts of many.
(Drawing by the editor.)