There are many reasons C.S. Lewis has been a prophet for our time, but one of the central ones was his hatred of relativistic subjectivism. He did this by according right reason its proper place in the pursuit of truth, a place of final authority, and without abandoning the rich fields of the imagination. In a world where there are so many who seek to be men without chests, he knew and understood how the intellect needed to rule from above, and also how the intellect also needed to be shaped from below.
We live in a time when the faculties of intellect and imagination have undergone a nasty divorce, and have gone off in different directions to give themselves to two distinct idolatrous pursuits—the pursuit of an untethered imagination on the one hand and the pursuit of cold rationalism on the other.
This disease has infected evangelicals as well. There is the one group that wants to “engage culture,” by which they mean they want to applaud nihilistic hard-R movies, and surrender to every new cultural trend as soon as a few detoxifying months have gone by. These people are the compromising squishes. They are the ones who will be using the term pedophobes in just a few years.
On the other hand are those doctrinaire types who want to treat theology as though it were one of the STEM majors, and they want everything to be precise, correct, ordered, and rational—as well as detached and entirely irrelevant to the world we live in. These are the cloistered retreatists.
The thing that is missing from all of this is an objective, overarching authority. God is God, and He is the one who has the authority to tell us how to believe and how to live. And He is the only one who wields this kind of authority.
In a subjectivist world, the lust we have is for autonomy (freedom from that external authority), and so we drag authority down into our gut, where we determine our very own truth. The doctrinal precisionists retreat into their own enclaves, that inglorious retreat to commitment, while the chumps and saps stay behind in order to engage with the advancing culture. But all of them, those who run away and those who remain behind, are just doing what is right in their own eyes.
No one just goes to their battle station, the one they were commanded to occupy, with the full and complete intention to die there, or see the Lord return from there.
Engaging with culture is a war, not a retreat. It is a war, not a capitulation.
But before all the external compromises happen, there is an internal compromise (with the spirit of the age) that has to happen first. And that is the compromise that allows Christians simply to bypass the authority of the Word, and make their own determinations of whatever amount of truthiness they can tolerate today. Christians do this all the time. They do it when listening to allegations of abuse. They do it when extolling the healing power of essential oils. They do it with personality tests. They do it when evaluating the truth claims of Calvinism. They do it when they decide to have the hotel not wash their towels in order to save the koala bear.
In a biblical framework, truth is that which the Scriptures declare or which lines up in accordance with what the Scriptures declare. This kind of truth has the essential characteristic of not caring at all about your feelings. Two and two equal four, regardless of whether this might be inconvenient to your emotional state.
In the postmodern framework—which many Christians have adopted, including ostensibly conservative Christians who would acknowledge that postmodern is a bad word—the thing that really determines truth is how the person concerned feels about it.
Examples are plentiful, but here is a comparison that occurred to me the other day. There is a tradition within the evangelical world of “last days excitement” that has oscillated down through the years, making wild and false predictions about the end of the world, the antichrist, the beast, and so on. These predictions have enjoyed an unbridled record of failure after failure. It turns out the end of the world did not include in its cast of characters anybody by the name of Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler, Henry Kissinger, Anwar Sadat, or Ronald Wilson Reagan. He that hath wisdom, let him count the letters in each one of Reagan’s names.
So a question occurred to me, and it seems like a reasonable question. How is it possible for this racket to continue across centuries? And somehow it continues on merrily. Since the payoff is clearly not in the fulfillment of the predictions, and there must be a payoff somewhere, I concluded that there is an emotional payoff for all the prophetic conference attendees in the making of the prediction.
But do you see how this is subjectivism? In biblical prophecy, the thrill comes when the prophecies comes to pass. “And the Lord said to Samuel, Behold, I will do a thing in Israel, at which both the ears of every one that heareth it shall tingle” (1 Sam. 3:11). When the thing happens, out in front of everybody, that crowd of everybody says something along the lines of whoa. But at the conference full of subjectivists, the point is to make a lurid prediction and to have everybody in the auditorium say whoa. This is ear-tingling prophecy on the cheap. Nothing whatever has to happen, and you still get your dopamine hit.
So the church has done a lousy job in teaching the world not to rely on that internal whoa. In fact, we have shown them the way.
And the pagans—being naturally subjectivists—have taken to it like champions. That is why the whole global warming hooey is simultaneously so tragic and so funny. To find such a long record of failed predictions, we would have to go back into the antichrist files. One failed prediction after another. Al Gore is the William Miller of climate change, sitting on the roof of his well-heated mansion, waiting for the sky to fall and the oceans to rise. Why haven’t the climate-change-mongers been laughed off the stage? Because they are selling their wares to a subjectivist generation, not an objectivist one, and they do deliver on their promises. No, no, not the verbal content of their promises, but rather the promise of a dopamine whoa delivered to the customer at the time of the predictions. “And then the polar bears, starved for protein, began raiding suburban daycare centers.” Whoa. Feel my ears. Are they tingling?
When that doesn’t happen, it mattereth not. Why? Because another lurid prediction will succeed it, and because we are a generation that has come unstuck from the very concept of truth. We do not know how truth needs to be established, researched, acknowledged, or confirmed.
We are a generation—and this includes most of the professing Christians—that are not wise.
“For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise” (2 Cor. 10:12).