I can tell you right now this is going to be the best post I’ve ever written. Because most of this article comes directly from C.S. Lewis. What follows is from Lewis’ famous preface to the 4th Century church father Athanasius’ book On the Incarnation. That, plus a few words of my own clumsily explaining why Lewis’ words here could cure our hyper-partisan and heavily-jackassed culture.
“Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook… Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides are 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… None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books… 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. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes… Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.”
See what I mean? Classic C.S.! Here we are, Clive says, fighting against each other, and assuming that we couldn’t be further apart in our positions. But when given a chance to compare our “polar opposite” positions to an old book, we find that our “opposites” don’t look as far apart by comparison.C.S. Lewis said we only increase our blindness by reading modern books. Also read old books, he said: “They made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes…”
So what’s the point? That reading books from a different age allows us to see with different eyes. Sure, those “different eyes” are as flawed as our own, but they’re still different. As Lewis says, “They made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes.”
Do you see a connection here to the sources of our information? Read 100 Fox News articles and while they’ll differ from each other, they’ll all share many assumptions. Most of them the President will praise and a few he’ll ridicule, but they’re all within a certain stream. If you switch over to CNN, you’ll hear just as many errors. But they’ll be different errors. And they’ll differ from each other but they’ll share common assumptions. You can go a certain length toward healing the wound of one bias by viewing it light of another bias. And it’s exactly here that Clive Staples’ advice would be good to heed. This effect is multiplied when you read material from different cultures and different centuries. All full of mistakes, but the non-overlap of the mistakes helps us get a clearer picture.
Then Lewis says something even more fascinating:
“We are all rightly distressed, and ashamed also, at the division of Christendom. But those who have always lived within the Christian fold may be too easily dispirited by them. They are bad, but such people do not know what it looks like from without. Seen from there, what is left intact despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity… That unity any of us can find by going out of his own age. It is not enough, but it is more than you had thought till then.”
This is the surprising discovery of choosing to leave our echo chambers: we have more in common than we would dare to guess! And it’s small of us to insist that our differences are insurmountable.
And now for my favorite part. Good old C. describes the friendly fire you’ll receive from people in the echo chamber once you start seeing the essential unity we share (he knew this well):
“Once you are well soaked in it [the unity across the ages], if you then venture to speak, you will have an amusing experience. You will be thought a Papist when you are actually reproducing Bunyan, a Pantheist when you are quoting Aquinas, and so forth. For you have now got on to the great level viaduct which crosses the ages and which looks so high from the valley, so low from the mountains, so narrow compared with the swamps, and so broad compared with the sheep-tracks.”
Do we all know it’s a good thing to exit our echo chambers and listen to what other voices are telling us? I hope we do. But one thing you can count on: Talk about a Fox News article in front of your CNN friends and you’re in trouble. Quote Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in front of a Republican and you’d better brace yourself. Mention Richard Rohr to an Evangelical and prepare for a Reformation-centric lecture. Bring up Rob Bell to almost anyone and get ready for an eye roll.
We’re so partisan on so many fronts that we’ve lost the ability to listen to other voices. You have to agree with me that we’re all extremely biased. Right? We are encamped, but there are people traveling all around. Listening doesn’t require the abandonment of convictions. Loving doesn’t mean compromise.
We need to listen to, spend time with, and mutually love and serve people who are different than us. And to Lewis’ specific point, we could all stand to learn from those who came centuries before us. Our differences are more petty, more quixotic, than our small perspectives can imagine.