Van Ens: Becoming selfless: Virtue or vice? (column)
Christianity’s central thrust points to how a person becomes like Jesus in word and deed.
C.S. Lewis ranks as one of the foremost mid-20th century Protestant defender of the Christian faith. He made a strong case that Jesus’ followers must replace their egocentric identities with service to others.
In 1940, when the Germans blitzed England with bombing raids, Lewis fortified the Brits by delivering four separate sets of radio broadcasts for the British Broadcasting Co. He defended core Christian truths such as “selflessness” as crucial for England’s survival against Nazi air bombardments.
Later, in 1952, Lewis wove these four sets of broadcasts into a book titled “Mere Christianity.” He clearly explained and defended key Christian beliefs, which has earned him enormous respect from conservative Christians.
Today, some forget Lewis’ insistence that Jesus taught believers’ lives revolve around caring for others, not around “me,” “myself’ and “I.” Lewis corrects contemporary promotions making ourselves bigger, brighter and more beautiful. Some Christians endorse leaders who brag only they can fix what’s broken in the United States. Hyping self-worth, self-accomplishments and self-absorption captivates these citizens.
“To become new men (people) means losing what we now call ‘ourselves,’” Lewis writes. “Out of ourselves, into Christ, we must go.” He continues: “This is the whole of Christianity. There is nothing else. … So, there must be “a real giving up of the self’” (“C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity: A Biography,” George M. Marsden, Princeton University Press, 2016, pp. 185-186).
C.S. Lewis excelled at using clear analogies for what the Bible means by “dying to self and rising to life in Christ.” In “Mere Christianity,” this Oxford professor who taught medieval English literature describes what a selfless Christian feels like. “… It is like a drowning man clutching at a rescuer’s hand, like a tin soldier or a statue becoming alive, like waking after a long sleep … (like) a field being plowed and re-sown” (Marsden, p. 177).
Jesus used this agricultural analogy, teaching “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). The self must be given up, says Jesus, like seeds a farmer plants. Come spring, what looked dead interred in the earth springs to life as seedlings. Gathering the earth’s moisture, seeds send roots into soil and shoots stem upwards, breaking the ground’s surface.
Similarly, Christians bury selfishness and rise to selfless service, helping destitute people.
Is C.S. Lewis out of step with today’s pop Christianity? We hear pep talks about using faith to polish our assets and score successes. Self-infatuation thrives on amassing assets rather than helping the needy.
Selling success and downplaying humane concern stifle deepening self-awareness. “… Success is a poor teacher,” observes Woodrow Wilson’s biographer Patricia O’Toole. “It discourages analysis and self-examination, and it tempts the successful to overestimate their abilities” (“The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made,” Simon and Schuster, 2018, p. 60).
Some Christians reject what C.S. Lewis regarded as foremost in Christianity: dying to self and rising to new life in Christ. They settle for gold bars, gold decor and golden compliments about selfish conduct. They equate human achievements with cinched real estate deals.
They believe success trumps service to immigrants. They worship a new set of Beatitudes: “Blessed are the proud. Blessed are the ruthless. Blessed are the shameless. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for fame,” writes evangelical commentator Michael Gerson.
Fake Christianity permeates our society. It opposes what C.S. Lewis defended as authentic Christian faith. In this counterfeit faith, acquisitiveness replaces service to others. Selfishness replaces selflessness. Self-indulgence replaces moral restraint. Self-promotion replaces humility.
Our nation would benefit from heeding C.S. Lewis’s caution that the self must die so that new life of service devoted to helping others may begin.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.