The Table Video

Laura Smit

Whole-Hearted Disagreement - Laura Smit on C.S. Lewis' "Men Without Chests"

Professor of Theology, Calvin College
July 13, 2017

How do you approach conflict? Rationally? Emotionally? Or do you approach disagreement with your whole heart? As C.S. Lewis pointed out, modern society is in the habit of producing “men without chests”—people who are morally and intellectually malformed or incomplete. If Christians are to improve our public presence, we must recover what Lewis called, “The Chest.” The Chest, Lewis says, is magnanimity. And magnanimity is a sustained and disciplined love for the good.

[dramatic music]

It was 1943 when C.S. Lewis wrote the lectures that then later became “The Abolition of Man.” If you haven’t read “The Abolition of Man” I highly recommend you do. It’s a very short book, it’s three short chapters and it’s not Lewis’s most famous book but it’s fantastic and it’s very relevant to today. It’s a book about education. And at the beginning of the book, Lewis sets out this understanding of the human person that he gets from a 12th century theologian. And I like medieval philosophy and theology so I love that he goes there. He goes to a man named Alain of Lille from the 12th century who said, “The human person has three parts. “There is the head, which is our reason. “And the reason is supposed to be in charge.” If you’re a good human person, you should have the reason in charge. And then there’s the belly where we have appetites like hunger. And those are good things, God made us to be hungry. It’s not bad to have appetite but you don’t want your appetites running your life. Things get all messed up if your appetites run your life. So the reason is supposed to be in charge of the appetites. Reason can’t actually pull this off. If that’s all you’ve got, appetite and reason, the appetites always win. If I have some nice theory about nutrition in my head and I’m starving, I’m gonna eat whatever’s there, right? Reason’s not going to do it for me. So, Alain of Lille says we also need to have the quality of the chest. And that quality is sustained, disciplined, ordered love of what’s good. It’s a love for really beautiful good things. It’s a desire to reach out and grab what’s good and beautiful. And only if you have this sustained, ordered, disciplined love and, so it’s not the kind of love that’s an impulse. That’s the appetite, right? That’s the belly. No, the appetite here, or the love of the chest, is something that’s been taught to you over years, something you’ve cultivated, something that’s so disciplined, so habitual, that it’s now been internalized and now it’s at the core of who you are. So, if you were to violate it, you would violate your own nature. Lewis says throughout history cultures have always taught people certain kinds of things like that. Not just ideas, not just principles, but things that they’re supposed to love, things they’re supposed to value. So lots of cultures will hold up a, sort of, ideal of what family life should be. A picture of a beautiful family in which children honor parents. And that value of the honoring of the parents will be so beautiful and so precious in that culture and so internalized by people there that the idea of being disrespectful to your parents will be unthinkable, even when they’re annoying. Even when they do things you don’t like, you just can’t even imagine that you would say something disrespectful to your mother or your father. It would be like doing something really distasteful or disgusting. It’s not who you are. Now, Lewis is saying this is very different from just having an intellectual assent to the idea that children should honor their parents. This is a love, this is a picture of what life is supposed to be that you embrace as good and that you’ve taken to your heart. I think that Jesus is a good example of someone who loves the best things. Jesus is, of course, the preeminent example always of what it means to be a perfect human being. So when Jesus loves good things, he loves even better things than just honoring parents. He loves the ultimate good. When we read about Jesus in the New Testament we see that everything Jesus does is governed by one overriding love, his love for the Father, his desire to delight the Father. And it is his delight, Jesus’ delight, to do the Father’s will. And because that’s his delight, everything else he does flows from that. Now, the virtue of magnanimity that everyone referred to, is the virtue of having a great soul, a big soul. And you have a great soul if your chest is oriented toward great goods. You know, if you love really little goods, if the goods that you value and that you dream of and that you aim for are trivial, stupid things, you are not a magnanimous person. But if you are aiming at great things, you’re a magnanimous person. And Jesus gives us the example of aiming at the greatest thing, which is to be a child of God, to live as God’s child. Many of the things that Jesus exemplifies for us are not things that we can imitate. You know, we’re not all called to go out and save the world. But we are all given the opportunity to be children of God, Jesus gives us all that opportunity. He says I give you access to my father because now you’re my brothers and sisters. And he gives us the spirit who puts into us the spirit of being children of God so that we can call out to God and call him Abba Father. So this identity of being God’s children and delighting God with our behavior, that’s supposed to be right here at the heart of our identity. Now what does this have to do with disagreeing? Well, I think it has three possible implications for how we disagree with each other. First of all, I think if we really live this way as Christians, if we really had at the heart of our being this great, passionate desire to please God in every single thing we did, to live as faithful children of God, following in the footsteps of our brother Jesus, we would disagree a lot more with the world around us. There would be many, many, many more lines of disagreement. Now whether you think that’s true or not may depend a little bit on where you’re standing in the great community of the church. We don’t all have the same experience of the church. My experience of the church is a pretty assimilated place. That there’s not a whole lot of disagreement between most of the people in the pew and the people outside. We shop at the same stores, we consume at the same levels, we listen to the same kind of music, we watch the same kind of television. There’s very little to set us apart from the world around us. Some of you, I know ‘cuz I’ve heard that from some people since I’ve been here, think that maybe there’s too much that sets us apart. We live in a Christian bubble, we’re not engaged enough with the world. Well, that can be, that can be the case. Sometimes we do isolate ourselves just with other Christians. But even when we’re all isolated with other Christians we’re still consuming and we’re still watching television and we’re still entertaining ourselves in just the same way as people outside. And the little things that separate us tend to be fairly trivial. Now, if really, really, we let the love of God come into us as the most central defining feature of our nature, don’t you think that maybe a few more things would be different? Maybe our patterns of spending money would be radically different from the rest of the world. Maybe the way we treat poor people would be radically different from the rest of the world. Maybe the way we do politics would be radically different from the rest of the world. Maybe we would stop thinking that one or the other of the existing political parties, neither of which was founded by Jesus, is, in fact, representing him. [chuckles] [crowd applauds] And I think this falls on both sides on that one. If we really allow God to take us over in this way, there has to be serious, systemic disagreement with the world, on lots and lots of things. And one of the reasons that we allow ourselves to get all outraged about things is because we are so assimilated that we get surprised when we run into something in the world that’s not just like us. Now, I happen to be a Calvinist. I know there aren’t a lot of us here at Biola but Calvinist are known for really believing in sin. We believe there’s a lot of sin in the world. There’s a lot of sin in me, there’s a lot of sin in you. I have no expectation of any virtue here. And so I’m just not surprised by the fact that the world is a mess. I’m not surprised by the fact that the world is not the way Jesus wants me to live. I’m not surprised that what I’m called to be is radically other than the society around me. So we should disagree a lot. But, if I’m really living this life where there’s this strong, powerful love in my core, at my heart, see, one of the things that does, this is the original point of having that chest full, is that the chest gives the reason power to control the appetites. So that the appetites don’t run the show. Now, I know in my life, the appetites often run the show. Lots of different appetites run the show. Not just appetite for food but for stuff and for success and for affection and for approval and all sorts of things that I want, that I have impulsive needs for. But there’s also an appetite for anger, for resentment. There’s an appetite of fear, that’s an impulsive thing. That need to be safe, to feel like there’s nothing threatening in the world. And putting safety above everything else. See, all of that is out of control in us if our chests are empty. And Lewis says that in the 20th century most of us have empty chests because we’ve started to think we’re not supposed to train people to have a love at the heart of their being. We’ve started to think that love is a subjective thing and that we should let people pick their own things to love. We’ve started to believe what Woody Allen said, you know, when he ran off with his girlfriend’s daughter. The heart wants what it wants. We’ve started to think that we, we’re not, we’re not entitled to say to children you really ought to honor your parents. And you oughta hold that up as a beautiful value. And well, you know, you can teach them facts but you can’t teach them values because everyone has to find values for themselves. If we believe that, if we leave people with empty chests, then the appetites take over. And they take over in our disagreements too. But if we’re people with love at our core, then even in our disagreeing, we don’t disagree from a place of fear, a place of being threatened, a place of being self-protective, a place of hunger or animosity. We disagree from a place of love, from a core of love, a core of being a child of God. Think about how Jesus disagrees with people in the Gospels. I mean, just read through one of the gospels, any one, and see how often Jesus is at odds with everyone else around him. It’s most of the time. He is disagreeing all of the time with everyone he sees. But is he frightened? Is he threatened, is he nasty or cruel? Is he belittling people? No, none of that. Jesus is always disagreeing from a place of absolute confidence in his father’s love. So he’s disagreeing from a place where he can be generous, where he can be loving but always truthful. When he talks to the rich young ruler, he doesn’t pull his punches, he says you have to sell everything and give it to the poor. He doesn’t allow his own fear of disapproval to make him say something more palatable, but he says that with love. And sometimes people walk away from Jesus, but more often they’re drawn to him. So the way we disagree will be different if our appetites, those impulses, are under control and love is the dominant power in our lives. Third thing, if we can actually start to talk and think more from here, from the chest, then maybe our disagreements can be chest to chest more often instead of head to head. So often when we disagree with other people, we turn it into some kind of intellectual debate. Oh, you’re an atheist, well let me tell you five reasons why you ought to believe in god, right? And there are people for whom that’s helpful. But not very many. What if instead of immediately jumping here when we meet someone we disagree with, what if instead we could offer to that person our picture of this beautiful good thing that we love? That has so captured our attention, so captured our hearts, that is has drawn us to it? And now it is something we cannot give up, something we cannot live without. That’s a very different kind of conversation. When I was a young pastor many, many years ago, there was a man who came to my church who was trying to figure out who Jesus was. He had never been raised in the church, he didn’t know anything about the church. But he had just met a few Christians in the year or so before he showed up with us. And he was kind of intrigued. There was something interesting about them and he wasn’t quite sure what it was. And he showed up in our church and started asking questions and he asked me to explain some things to him about Jesus. Who is Jesus? How is it that he’s God, I don’t get that, he said. So, like many, many pastors before me I handed him “Mere Christianity” and said read this and come back and talk to me. So he went out the door and after he left I thought, “Oh no what have I done?” “Mere Christianity” is great at the beginning on Jesus but it has a chapter later on sex. I had not planned to talk to this guy about sex for quite a long time because he was a very promiscuous man. He had children with several women, he had no sense of sex being something he had to control. And I was not yet ready to break it to him that if he became a Christian, he was gonna have to change this big part of his life. I thought this might be a barrier. And I didn’t want to lead with it, you know? I wanted to save that for later. So he came back and I said, “Did you read the book?” “Yeah, I read the whole thing.” “Did you like that part about Jesus?” “That was nice. Liked that chapter about sex though, that was great.” “Why?” I said. “I never knew it could be so clean,” he said. See, Lewis, in this chapter on sexuality that I had never thought of as all that beautiful, had somehow captured this man’s imagination. He had held this up to him as a different way of living. He had said, “Look, this is beautiful and good and true “and you could be transformed in this different way.” He’d spoken to his heart, he’d spoken to the chest. And this man said, “Wow, I could have a clean life. “I could have a different kind of life.” It’s not like what he was doing was working for him. It’s not like what he was doing was leading him to happiness. And giving him an alternative picture, something beautiful, was very compelling. It was a chest to chest conversation. Since then, I’ve been less afraid to talk to people about the moral challenges of the gospel, the moral change that might come to you through the gospel. Because actually that’s what people want, that’s what people need, that’s what people are longing for. To be made clean, to have something to fill this gaping void in their chests. To have something that they can love, that they can bring into their heart that will give their life structure and meaning. Something that’s big enough and worthy enough to be worthy of a human person. Something that can make a human person fully human. And Jesus can do that for us. [dramatic music]

About the Author