I recently discussed our pesky human tendency to limit and debase our thinking about economics to the temporary and material. Much like Judas, who reacted bitterly to Mary’s outpouring of expensive ointment, we neglect to contemplate what eternal purposes God might have for this or that material good and the ways through which it might be used or distributed.
C.S. Lewis captures the tendency powerfully in his book, The Great Divorce, providing a clear contrast of heaven and hell through a series of conversations and spiritual choices.
Beginning the story in a dreary town described as being “always in the rain and always in evening twilight,” Lewis provides us with a setting very much like earth but with a bit more darkness and—take note—a bit more surface-level comfort and security (“they have no Needs,” as one character describes it).
Lewis follows one man’s journey beyond the town (which we quickly discover to be hell or some type of purgatory), toward an ever-increasing light (which we quickly discover to be heaven). Along the way, he encounters a series of fellow travelers, each struggling with his or her own obstacle to the divine—an earthbound idol that must be pried from their paws.
In one particular conversation, Lewis points specifically to the economic sphere, using a character he calls “the Intelligent Man” to propose an economic solution that, according to his limited, earthbound assumptions, will certainly relieve what he believes to be an inevitable, ever-increasing darkness:
What’s the trouble about this place? Not that people are quarrelsome—that’s only human nature and was always the same even on earth. The trouble is they have no Needs. You get everything you want (not very good quality, of course) by just imagining it. That’s why it never costs any trouble to move to another street or build another house. In other words, there’s no proper economic basis for any community life. If they needed real shops, chaps would have to stay near where the real shops were. If they needed real houses, they’d have to stay near where builders were. It’s scarcity that enables a society to exist. Well, that’s where I come in…I’d start a little business. I’d have something to sell. You’d soon get people coming to live near-centralisation. Two fully-inhabited streets would accommodate the people that are now spread over a million square miles of empty streets. I’d make a nice little profit and be a public benefactor as well.
His approach has some charming elements, to be sure. Indeed, if I myself were to encounter a dreary town such as this, I, too, would be quick to emphasize the positive socializing effects of market collaboration and cooperation. “The townspeople boast an unhealthy and isolating sense of entitlement,” I might be tempted to say. “Thus, we should proceed to foster a healthy web of bottom-up independence, interconnectedness, collaboration, and specialization.”
I don’t, of course, mean to disregard such arguments. Socialization is crucial and material needs must be met. The benefits of market exchange that the Intelligent Man points to are indeed benefits are why we should care about economics in the first place. Yet these are worthwhile for the Christian only insofar as they are properly ordered for higher purposes. Lewis’ point in drawing out such a compelling suggestion is that first things must come first—our sights must be on the spiritual before the social, and this town has some serious spiritual issues.
After the Intelligent Man offers this proposition, an eavesdropping passenger (“the Big Man”) quickly interjects to set things straight. The solution, the Big Man explains, must go deeper than simply correcting, re-connecting, and/or leveraging the various relationships and needs between man and man—the very stuff of economics. The focus, he says, must instead be oriented around reaching something higher, requiring a fundamental breaking down of our temporal notions about “needs” for the very purposes of meeting them more fully.
As the Big Man explains:
It is astonishing how these primitive superstitions linger on [about the inevitable, perpetual darkening of existence]…There is not a shred of evidence that this twilight is ever going to turn into a night… What we now see in this subdued and delicate half-light is the promise of the dawn: the slow turning of a whole nation towards the light. Slow and imperceptible, of course. ‘And not through Eastern windows only, When daylight comes, comes in the light.’ And that passion for ‘real’ commodities which our friend speaks of is only materialism, you know. It’s retrogressive. Earth-bound! A hankering for matter. But we look on this spiritual city–for with all its faults it is spiritual–as a nursery in which the creative functions of man, now freed from the clogs of matter, begin to try their wings. A sublime thought.
The forces of sin and idolatry will continue to tempt us toward an economics that is fundamentally “retrogressive” and “earthbound,” but our divine directive toward whole-life discipleship demands that we first be “freed from the clogs of matter.” All of our desperate spelunking for purpose and power in this world will lead us nowhere in this world until we recognize his purpose and our powerlessness.
In our many discussions about the social and economic realms of the here and now, we should recognize that this “nursery” we live in can also serve as a mirror of the not yet. Despite all the faults surrounding these areas, such realms are indeed spiritual, and in sorting out the overlap between heaven, earth, and everything in between, we can begin by “trying the wings” of our “creative functions,” as Lewis’ character encourages us, proceeding by God’s grace with humility and obedience.