Thursday, December 13, 2012

Screwtape on Sustainability

I was talking with a departmental colleague the other day about my plans for a "mathematics of sustainability" course.  He is concerned about the idea that I may embroil our department in a "political agenda", and I think he believes that such an agenda can be expressed even by the mere asking of certain kinds of questions - whatever the mathematical answer to these questions may be.  During our discussion, this colleague (whom I greatly respect) quoted from C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters, chapter XV.

"We want" (says Screwtape, the devil) "a man hag-ridden by the Future - haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell on Earth - ready to break the Enemy's [God's] commands in the present if by doing so we make him think that he can attain the one or avert the other - dependent for his faith on the success or failure of schemes whose end he will not live to see.  We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow's end - never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel with which to heap the altar of the future every real gift that is offered to them in the Present."

"That is how I see the environmental movement", said my colleague. 

It's an unattractive, indeed a miserable picture, isn't it? Is the application to environmentalism really accurate?

Lewis wrote his book in the middle of the Second World War, when the future seemed both dark and uncertain. It is in that context that he has Screwtape and his junior devil Wormwood engage in the discussion about hope and anxiety from which my colleague quoted.  "Tortured fear and stupid confidence are both desirable states of mind" says Screwtape at the beginning of the discussion. "Our choice between them raises important questions." 

Of course "desirable" here means from the Devil's point of view.  For those who wish to follow God - Screwtape's "Enemy" - there is another path which Screwtape indicates later in the letter: "To be sure, the Enemy wants men to think of the Future too - just so much as is necessary for now planning the acts of justice or charity which will probably be their duty tomorrow.   The duty of planning the morrow's work is today's duty... He does not want men to give the Future their hearts, to place their treasure in it.  We do.  His ideal is a man who, having worked all day for the good of posterity (if that is his vocation) washes his mind of the whole subject, commits the issue to Heaven, and returns at once to the patience or gratitude demanded by the moment that is passing over him.  But we want..." and then follows the quotation with which my colleague began the discussion.

So, I said to my colleague, I'm not trying to inspire either "tortured fear" or "stupid confidence" - I want to equip students to do "the duty of planning the morrow's work". Having made that point, though, I do think that Screwtape has something to say to us religious sustainability activists.  The one who "sustains the universe by his word of power" is not us, but Jesus Christ the Word (Hebrews 1:1-4).  How good are we at recognizing this, and at committing the issue quietly and humbly to heaven? How much of our activism is rooted in a desire to be important (or, perhaps, in a fear that we're not)?

There's one more point to be made, I think.  The force of my colleague's criticism comes from the implied contrast between the environmental activist, peddling "tortured fear" because "hag-ridden by the future", and the happy, cheerful ordinary citizen, untroubled by such worries, and enjoying the present fruits of the "business as usual" model.  But is the ordinary citizen so untroubled by the future, and are the fruits of "business as usual" so clearly healthy? It can surely be argued that a society built on the dogma of endless growth - as ours is - is a society "hag-ridden by the future" too.  There can (we are assured from both right and left) be no relaxation of competition, no resting and enjoying the fruits of our present labors - the dogma of "growth" means, by definition, that what we have in the present is never enough, can never satisfy. We must have more next year!  In its way this vision of the future as an endless treadmill of unsatisfying acquisitions is as diabolical as any environmentalist's apocalypse.

1 comment:

byron smith said...

Excellent piece. Thanks for sharing!

As much as I love, respect and re-read Lewis, I suspect part of his ethics at this point are being informed as much by his Platonism as by his Christianity. He is constantly working with a time/eternity dichotomy, and while he (in his better moments) resists the escapism implicit in the contrast, it nonetheless constitutes a key part of his logic.

That said, I would happily encourage everyone to read Screwtape and to profit greatly from this very passage on Christian/diabolical attitudes towards time. I just think that I would frame it differently.

I think that the theological virtue of hope as refracted through the promise of resurrection significantly shifts the Christian's relationship to the future. We are not living cheerfully in the present while acknowledging that today's duty includes planning for tomorrow. We are yearning, groaning, eagerly expecting God's promised future, never fully content with today's "necessary" (and patently unnecessary) compromises and half-glimpsed truths. We press on, straining towards what is ahead. Our stance is less cheerful repose than wounded longing. We endure patiently, yes, but not because this moment is the eternal now at which time is already touching eternity, but because we know that the God who is currently hidden is waiting for us in the future.

In other words - I see your Lewis and raise you a Moltmann! ;-)