Tory Christian though he was, I think C. S. Lewis would have approved of Critical Race Theory, at least the way it understands human limitation and tries to get people to understand that they see the world a certain way, which blinds them to other ways.
Lewis was a cold-blooded realist in the way he understood man, as I explained in C. S. Lewis Doesn’t Recommend Christianity and in C S Lewis Shows Us How to Talk About Other People’s Sins. He stressed how little we see and how often we see what’s not there, because we like our fantasies better. They do more for us. We need aids in seeing the world rightly.
We need help in seeing racial differences more clearly. We know from our African American brethren that white people often don’t see the reality in which black Americans live. Like the Pittsburgh seminarian rousted by a cop when he looked nothing like the suspect. Or the black conservatives, including a US senator, who have talked about their experiences of racist abuse, and the good white people who refused to believe them.
Critical Theory Helps
Critical theory helps with that. It interrogates the usual narratives, because they’ve developed to serve specific interests, which means they developed in ways that would harm other interests. People whose interests a narrative served will prefer that narrative over others. They will usually believe it obvious and self-evident, because “everyone knows that,” with “everyone” meaning everyone like them.
While they may tell part of the truth, the narratives never tell the whole truth. No one can judge their own or even see it well. Hence the need for critical interrogation. Christians do this all the time. They describe the dominant secularist narratives as one view among others, and explain its appeal by pointing to how convenient it is if you want to live in certain (immoral) ways.
CRT looks at racial relations this way. (Here is a good short outline of the theory.) Of course it’s become a culture war hot zone, which will set many people howling in rage, though I’m not sure how many of them know what the theory actually says. It’s a symbol for a whole host of other issues as well as a way of understanding.
Lewis was not noticeably alert to matters of racial and class prejudice. He was generally comfortable with the ways things are. If he complained about politics, it was to complain about government doing too much. (“A playfully intransigent attitude to authority,” he said, “is our chief protection against England becoming a servile state.”) He distrusted plans to remake man or society. He did not like the left nor the Labour Party.
But I think, given his cast of mind and his freedom from political fads, he would have approved CRT’s attempt to find out what people really think about race. Not necessarily every application, of course. He would have seen it as another way of doing what he tried to do.
They Will Not See
Lewis saw so clearly how little we understand the world we think we understand. He would see the critical theory as extending to differences within society the differences he saw between ages. “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes,” he said in a much-quoted passage from his essay “On the Reading of Old Books.”
“All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook — even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it,” he continued. “Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united — united with each other and against earlier and later ages — by a great mass of common assumptions.”
Lewis thought each age’s blindness went very deep. “We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century — the blindness about which posterity will ask, ‘But how could they have thought that?’ — lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness.”
One of the things on which all four men would have enjoyed untroubled agreement is the inferiority of black people.
What Lewis Saw
Lewis’s stories and his books and essays offer dozens of illustrations. I’ll give just one, from The Great Divorce, written the year after “On the Reading of Old Books.” The Screwtape Letters offers an even more sophisticated description of how we blind ourselves, or are blinded. Several of the Narnia Chronicles do as well, especially The Last Battle.
The Great Divorce is a long satirical study in human blindness. Standing on the outskirts of Heaven, the damned characters don’t see what’s in front of them. They all insist on keeping an idea of themselves they like more than they like Heaven. They each have friends in Heaven who try to bring them further inside, but almost all refuse.
Promised that he will see the face of God, an Anglican bishop responds, “Ah, but we must all interpret those beautiful words in our own way! For me there is no such thing as a final answer. The free wind of inquiry must always continue to blow through the mind, must it not? Prove all things … to travel hopefully is better than to arrive.” His friend says a little tartly, “If that were true, and known to be true, how could anyone travel hopefully? There would be nothing to hope for.”
The bishop waves the objection away. He prefers to be a free intellect (as he thinks himself) rather than find himself bound by truths. He can’t let go of a self-image that was, as his friend tells him, false even in life. And so he returns to the dreary grey city from which he’d come. It could have been Purgatory, the place he trained for Heaven, had he stayed in Heaven. But for him, now that he’s chosen against Heaven, it is definitively Hell.
But he remains (as he sees it) a free thinker. Better, he feels, to pontificate in Hell than to listen in Heaven.
In this book, Lewis was mainly concerned with how the way people lived their lives sharpened or dulled their vision. He showed how fallen man will create stories to serve himself and how completely he believes them to be true, and how hard and painful it would be to give them up. CRT notes that we will create racial narratives to serve the same purpose, how completely people believe them, and how much they don’t want to change.
What was Lewis’s answer? He saw that we will almost always share the “characteristic blindness” of our age. And other blindnesses too. He was, as I say, cold-bloodedly realistic about man. He did not think we’d ever see perfectly in this life, but we had to try to see better.
His answer was the reading of old books. “We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. … The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.” We can’t rely on modern books. “Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill.”
Older books won’t necessarily speak more truly, but they will go wrong in different ways. Read sympathetically, they’ll force us to see truths we wouldn’t see. Homer and Augustine and Erasmus and thousands of others will teach us, perhaps against our will. And so will people like Rousseau and Marx, because even people who are very wrong will see truths we don’t see.
Critical Race Theory is a more systematic way of trying to do the same thing. It tries to see and understand our society’s characteristic blindnesses about race. It’s a tool like the reading of old books. And like it, not a perfect tool and a tool that will be misused. A tool easily becomes a weapon. But it’s a tool that helps us see something we need to see, but don’t always or easily or willingly.
David Mills is the Senior Editor (US) of The Catholic Herald. His latest article for Chapter House is Why Men Leave Their Dying Wives. He previous article for the homepage was What Anti-Masker Hypocrisy Teaches. He is also the “Last Things” columnist for the New Oxford Review.
Photo credits: Topshot of segregationists and soldiers sent to protect the nine black students attending Central High School in Little Rock in 1959 (AFP via Getty Images); anti-CRT protester in Leesburg, Virginia, in April 2021 (Andrew Caballeo-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images); Malcolm X in Oxford in 1964 (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images); and mural of George Floyd painted before the trial of Derek Chauvin for his murder (Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images).