C.S. Lewis on Membership vs. Collectivism
C.S. Lewis read “Membership” on February 10, 1945 to the Society of St. Alban and St. Sergius, Oxford. I read it in the complication of his papers, The Weight of Glory. This is a summary and outline of the main points. All quotes are from the lecture unless otherwise noted.
The Christian life is not a private affair. But how can the Christian life at once reject individualism and yet counteract the secular notion of collectivism? The answer, Lewis says, is to consider the difference between Christian membership and secular collectivism. First, members in the body of Christ, like organs in a human body, have complementary functions, structure and even dignity whereas in the secular collective all members are interchangeable. Second, the body of Christ is eternal, whereas other collective bodies (e.g., clubs, societies, nations, etc…) are temporal.
“the idea that religion belongs to our private life—that it is, in fact, an occupation for the individual’s hour of leisure—is at once paradoxical, dangerous, and natural.”
It is paradoxical because this exaltation of the individual in the religious field springs up in an age when collectivism is ruthlessly defeating the individual in every other field.
But it is also dangerous for two reasons. In the first place, when the modern world says to us aloud, “You may be religious when you are alone,” it adds under its breath, “and I will see to it that you never are alone.”
In the second place, there is the danger that real Christians who know that Christianity is not a solitary affair may react against that error by simply transporting into our spiritual life that same collectivism which has already conquered our secular life.
though the private conception of Christianity is an error, it is a profoundly natural one… As personal and private life is lower than participation in the Body of Christ, so the collective life is lower than the personal and private life and has no value save in its service.
“A consideration of the differences between the secular collective and the mystical body is… the first step to understanding how Christianity without being individualistic can yet counteract collectivism.”
Individuals members are not interchangeable in the Body of Christ as they are in a collective
By members ([Greek]) Paul meant what we should call organs, things essentially different from, and complementary to, one another, things differing not only in structure and function but also in dignity.
How true membership in a body differs from inclusion in a collective may be seen in the structure of a family. The grandfather, the parents, the grown-up son, the child, the dog, and the cat are true members (in the organic sense), precisely because they are not members or units of a homogeneous class. They are not interchangeable.
“artificial equality is necessary in the life of the State, but… in the Church we strip off this disguise, we recover our real inequalities”
Political equality is necessary because of the fall:
since we have learned sin, we have found, as Lord Acton says, that “all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The only remedy is to take away the powers and substitute a legal fiction of equality… the function of equality is purely protective.
But it is artificial, even if considered purely in secular terms.
If value is taken in a worldly sense - if we mean that all men are equally useful or beautiful or good or entertaining - then it is nonsense.
This is not how we were made to live.
[Equality] is medicine, not food… But it is not on this what we were made to live… Equality is a quantitative term and therefore love often knows nothing of it. Authority exercised with humility and obedience accepted with delight are the very lines long which our spirits live.
“That structural position in the Church which the humblest Christian occupies is eternal and even cosmic”
There will come a time when every culture, every institution, every nation, the human race, all biological life is extinct and every one of us is still alive. Immortality is promised to us, not to these generalities. It was not for societies or states that Christ died, but for men.
“Christianity cuts across the antithesis between individualism and collectivism”
[Christianity] sets its face relentlessly against our natural individualism; on the other hand, it gives back to those who abandon individualism an eternal possession of their own being, even of their bodies.