When did modernity begin and exactly where did it come from? Answering these questions can be challenging. A brief list of key inventions which radically changed human experience helps to locate the onset of the era:

  • Gutenberg’s printing press (1440)
  • Steam engines (1600s until James Watt’s improvement of 1764 to help power ocean travel and the industrial revolution)
  • Electric machines (Faraday, 1832; Siemens and Wheatstone, 1867, powering electricity consumption)
  • Telephone (Alexander Graham Bell, 1876)
  • Automobile (Henry Ford, Model T, 1908)
  • Transistor (Bell Labs, 1947)
  • Digital computer (Konrad Zuse, 1950)
  • Cell phone (Motorola, 1973, weighing 4.4 lbs)

A more philosophical approach eyes the progression of historical eras – from the Ancients, all the way to Medievals, Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, Romantics, Modernity, and Postmodernity.

Such lists help us to identify some key features of modernity: a scientific mindset, industrial and technological progress which helped to move us from the feudal past, societal changes such as increasingly representative government and a market economy which have allowed human flourishing (with admittedly colonial disparities) previously reserved for aristocratic classes, and a consumer society. Philosopher Charles Taylor thus succinctly characterizes modernity as an

instrumental mode of life [which], by dissolving traditional communities or driving out the earlier, less instrumental ways of living with nature, has destroyed the matrices in which meaning could formerly flourish . . . the exigencies of survival in capitalist (or technological) society are thought to dictate a purely instrumental pattern of action, which has the inevitable effect of destroying or marginalizing purposes of intrinsic value.1

Taylor adds that modern society was thus described as an “iron cage” by sociologist Max Weber, borrowing from Marx’s theory of capitalism.2

But the path to modernity was paved in significant ways by a medieval road crew, though values embraced by moderns are often in stark contrast to those of their medieval forebears. These origins are briefly surveyed before analyzing the fundamentally transcendence-averse mindset of modernity through the ideas of four key nineteenth century figures: Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche. This perspective is courtesy of Louis Markos’s Lewis Agonistes: How C.S. Lewis Can Train Us To Wrestle with the Modern and Postmodern World (2003). We will follow Markos’s glimpse into how these nineteenth century Moderns paved the way for the Postmodern figures of the twentieth century, including the philosopher Jacques Derrida, linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, and those who would revive pagan spirituality. We then conclude by examining how Markos claims that C.S. Lewis can guide us out of both the modern and postmodern quagmires, largely by hearkening back to the Medieval understanding of the cosmos, of beauty and wonder, and of man.

Medieval Origins of Modernity

Simply declaring anything post-Medieval as Modern is a temptation with some logic to it. Just as Renaissance era political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) is considered the father of modern political thought, any break from the faith-based Medieval mindset is considered a step on the road to modernity, as even C.S. Lewis suggested the un-christening of Europe as a monumental divide for Western culture.3 Taylor claims the modern world has lost its medieval charm, suffering from “‘disenchantment’ of the world. The world, from being a locus of ‘magic,’ or the sacred, or the Ideas, comes simply to be seen as a neutral domain of potential means to our purposes.”4

But the distinction between medieval and modern is not always quite so clear-cut. Seeds of modernity can be found in the Elizabethan era (1558-1603) with William Shakespeare’s plays and the advent of global exploration, yet E.M.W. Tillyard reminds us that even Shakespeare’s Hamlet speaks from the Medieval rather than Renaissance humanist tradition when declaring, “What a piece of work is a man: how noble in reason; how infinite in faculty; in form and
moving how express and admirable; in action like an angel; in apprehension how like a god; the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals.”5 Although we think of reason as the enemy of faith in our enlightened scientific age, Shakespeare’s Hamlet casts it as evidence of our divine stamp, just as Socrates, Aristotle, and Aquinas admitted reason as an activity of the intelligible soul.6 7

Two centuries later, Enlightenment era poet Alexander Pope similarly admitted the divine origins of human nature. In his Essays on Man (1732, 1734) (purposing to “vindicate the ways of God to man” just as Milton claimed to “justify the ways of God to man” in Paradise Lost), Pope claims man’s glory derives from God, and his wretchedness from falling short of such, opening Essay on Man: Epistle II with,

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; The proper study of mankind is man.
Plac’d on this isthmus of a middle state, A being darkly wise, and rudely great . . .
He hangs between; in doubt to act or rest; In doubt to deem himself a god or beast . . .
Born but to die, and reas’ning err . . . Chaos of thought and passion, all confus’d . . .
Created half to rise, and half to fall; Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d: The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!8

J.R.R. Tolkien would echo the same refrain in the twentieth century, explaining in his poem Mythopoeia (dedicated, in effect, to C.S. Lewis for his journey to faith) that,

The heart of man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,

and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.

Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,

his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,


Man, sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White

to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.

Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with elves and goblins, though we dared to build


Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sow the seed of dragons, ’twas our right


(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made. 9

The ‘Reason’ that such early modern writers found in man was paralleled by the order they found in the universe. Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser imagined creation ordered by divine love, envisioning that

The earth the air the water and the fire . . .
conspire each against each other . . .
threatening their own confusion and decay . . .
Till Love relented their rebellious ire 10

Sir John Davies saw not just divine order but a dance, when in Orchestra (1594) he penned that

The turning vault of heaven formed was,
Whose starry wheels he hath so made to pass
As that their movings do a music frame
And they themselves still dance unto the same.11

Malcolm Guite explains that Davies displays

a picture of the universe we inhabit animated by the double emblems of love and
dancing . . . in which the traditional hierarchies and interconnections of the great chain of
being, which can sometimes seem fixed, frozen and patriarchal in prose accounts, are
all set in motion of delight, a dance that fallen man, if he could only purge himself
sufficiently to hear the music, is invited to join.12

This view of the cosmos bequeaths its sense of order, dynamism, and even the rational nature of man to the Moderns. Such a modernity is, however, merely a model, which can become a ‘discarded image’ (as C.S. Lewis puts it) just as did the Medieval model, best fit for explaining natural phenomena to its own generation, and thus subject to that generation’s psychology or mentality. “Hardly any battery of new facts could have persuaded a Greek that the universe had an attribute so repugnant to him as infinity; hardly any such battery could persuade a modern that it is hierarchical,” Lewis explains.13

Modernity’s Starting and Finish Lines

Lewis placed the great divide in human history later than simply the climb out of the Medieval world (the ‘un-christening’ of Europe), and even later than the Renaissance or the Elizabethans. When accepting the position of Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature Studies at Cambridge University in 1954, Lewis cited another scholar who claimed that “As the Middle Ages and the Renaissance come to be better known, the traditional antithesis between them grows less marked.”14 Further, Medieval Christians and Ancient Pagans had more in common with each other than with Moderns Lewis claimed, as “the gap between those who worship different gods is not so wide as between those who worship and those who do not.”15 Lewis does offer the end of the Elizabethan era (end of Seventeenth century; a bridge from the Medieval to more modern eras) as yet another possible line of demarcation owing to the development of the natural sciences, though their influence on the various sciences of man (psychology, sociology, political and economic society) had to wait a few more centuries.

Lewis instead claimed the advent of modernity was much closer to the time of the Romantics of the early Eighteenth century, just after Jane Austen (1775-1817), and concurrent with the birth of machines. That is when the idea of incessant progress, which replaced that of valuing enduring and permanent things, fundamentally altered modern man’s psyche. The continual expectation that what is new is better may be appropriate for technical progress, but leads to a fundamental loss of cultural treasures, as the Age of Machines and the Age of Darwin neatly coincided in erasing the mindset that saw wonder and purpose imbued in the cosmos.

That modernity began somewhere near the age of the Romantics is echoed by influential Christian philosopher Charles Taylor, who argued that the expressive individualism begun by Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) is a hallmark feature of the modern era. The culture of modernity was marked by an increase in sentiment fueled in parts by the advent of the modern novel glorifying the issues of mundane, everyday life (in contrast to, say, Bunyan’s moralistic Pilgrim’s Progress). Novels such as Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Heloise (1761) and Goethe’s Sufferings of Young Werther (1774) raised the importance of individual sentiment to new heights, in a manner similar to how the title of Augustine’s faith-dominated Confessions was co-opted by Rousseau’s 1770 autobiography featuring instead his personal feelings about daily experiences. The work of Enlightenment era physiocrats, such as moral philosopher and economist Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations, 1776), further distanced the age from assumption of a divinely-guided cosmos, substituting instead a self-regulating, human system. But the key insight of Taylor for the opening divide of modernity is his claim of the age’s expressive individualism. Medievals and even Enlightenment era Deists saw human beings set in a larger natural order, often conceived as a providential order with which they should be in harmony.16

By contrast the Romantics, theorists of the sentiments, from Rousseau onward and including Wordsworth, substituted the authority of feeling, however inspired by nature, for any external claims on us. Taylor explains,

It is through our feelings that we get to the deepest moral and, indeed, cosmic truths . . . Novalis [says] ‘The heart is the key to the world and life’ . . . if we think of nature as a force, an elan running through the world which emerges in our own inner impulses . . . then we can only know what [this force] is by articulating what these impulses impel to us . . . this is the view that I have called elsewhere ‘expressivism.’17

Such ‘expressivism’ is radically individualistic, inasmuch as every individual is unique. Individual giftedness for one’s calling, one’s vocation, is of course understood from St. Paul to the Puritans, Taylor observes, though, “what the eighteenth century adds is originality . . . We are all called to live up to our originality . . . This has been a tremendously influential idea. Expressive individualism has become one of the cornerstones of modern culture.18

Man’s view of his spiritual nature, and art itself, becomes fundamentally altered in modernity, as Taylor observes that “The expressive view of human life went along naturally with a new understanding of art . . . it has come to take a central place in our spiritual life, in some respects replacing religion. The awe we feel before artistic originality and creativity places art on the border of the numinous.19 Taylor describes the shift in terms of one from mimesis to poesis:

The traditional understanding of art was as mimesis. Art imitates reality . . . But on the new understanding, art is not imitation, but expression . . . The artist doesn’t imitate nature so much as he imitates the author of nature . . . Herder puts it bluntly “The artist is become a creator God.”20

Carl Trueman cites Taylor, explaining, “A mimetic view regards the world as having a given order and a given meaning and thus sees human beings as required to discover that meaning and conform themselves to it. Poiesis, by way of contrast, sees the world as so much raw material out of which meaning and purpose can be created by the individual.21

The divine dynamism of Davies’ ‘dance of Love’ animating the cosmos thus yields to an incessant march of technology, but it is a technology unaware of any sense of wonder, meaning, or purpose in the cosmos. Further, technology often only delays or transforms, rather than actually solving, man’s problems. For instance, the automobile replaced piles of horse dung on the streets with carbon emissions that now threaten the health of the planet. Similarly, social media’s boon of instant global connectedness has also brought the bane of incivility, bullying, unprecedented access to morally unconstrained sexual practice, and fraudulent financial schemes. The limits of scientific and material progress echo those Pascal (1623-1662) declared of secular philosophy centuries earlier, declaring in his Pensees,

It is in vain oh men, that you seek in yourselves the cures for your miseries.
All your insights have led to the knowledge that it is not in yourselves
that you discover the true and the good.
The philosophers promised them to you, but they were not able to keep that promise,
for they did not know what your true nature is, or what your true good is.
How then could they have provided for you a cure for the ills they have not even
Understood.22

Just as the march of technology has been problematic, so has the progression of civilizational eras only relocated, not solved, the problems of man. Enlightenment rationality and science paved the roads of understanding, civil discourse, and scientific and material progress, though mankind’s wars intensified in the centuries that followed. England, the center of so much civic and industrial progress, democratic liberalism and the Industrial Revolution which continue to inspire democratic governments and lift tens of millions out of poverty globally, praised itself in the Victorian era patriotic hymn composed for King Edward VII’s 1901 coronation, “Land of Hope and Glory,” with the chorus,

Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free
How shall we extol thee, who are born of thee?
Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set;
God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet,
God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.23

But such optimism came to a crashing halt early in the twentieth century with the Great War (WW1, 1914-1918) as William Butler Yeats opined that in The Second Coming (1921)

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.24

The utter lack of confidence is echoed by T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock who fearfully asks

Do I dare
disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.25

Eliot’s “The Wasteland” poem of 1922, often hailed as the inaugural work of twentieth century literary modernism, in which the Fisher-King figure (a wounded king whose lands suffer with him) dejectedly muses,26 27

Shall I at least set my lands in order?
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down . . .
These fragments I have shored against my ruins.28

Eliot does search throughout the poem for wisdom from Augustine and Buddha to manage man’s burning desires which often engulf the world in literal flames, finally resorting to Hindu scriptures before coming to Christian faith a decade later, as expressed in such poems as The Four Quartets and Ash Wednesday.

Apogee of Modernity: Four Nineteenth Century Horsemen of the Anti-Transcendent, and the Path They Wander to Postmodernity

Just as the new atheism claims its own fourfold set of evangelizing equestrians – philosopher-scientists Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett along with journalist Christopher Hitchens – so does modernity, with Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche. But (long) before Darwin, Freud, Marx and Nietzsche, there was Plato, Markos reminds us, and he would have none of the radical empiricism of these nineteenth century ‘visionaries’:

Before the nineteenth century, most Europeans possessed a worldview shaped by a theology grounded in the Bible and a philosophy that traced its roots back to Plato. Central to both of these traditions was a belief that the nature of reality was top to bottom. That is to say, the real, the essential, the original resided above in a spiritual heaven, while all that lay below in this physical, natural world was created by, descended from, or was an imitation of those original heavenly presences. The spiritual was the primary, the physical was the secondary.29

Such a top-down approach Markos calls ‘logo-centrism’, and was the order of the day from Plato until the Christian poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (poet and theologian/philosopher/literary critic, 1772-1834, key figure along with William Wordsworth of the Romantic movement). The apostle John adapted the Platonic tradition when declaring of Jesus, “In the beginning was the word” (translated logos), the message of God communicated to humanity. Logocentrism has a long history with philosophers among others, as John’s transcendent logos (Jesus) finds impersonal analogies with Plato’s eternal, immutable Forms, Hegel’s Idea, and even the transcendent ego of psychologists. Logocentrism typically expresses itself through binaries, pairs in which the first term is the original, more pure or eternal form from which the second is derived, or even ‘falls away’. Such pairs include soul/body, logos (word, logic, speech) / praxis (act, experience, writing), being/becoming, essence/existence, genius/art, intellectual/physical, rational/emotional, Apollonian/Dionysiac.30 The second term of the binary relations suffer not just from lack of originality (as it were) but are marginalized as well; such are the claims of those who critique such historically practiced binary relations as male/female, white/non-white, and Western/non-Western; such ‘marginalization’ occurs as the first term is considered central, and the second peripheral.

The disruption of two millennia of the logocentric tradition (though it had its rebels) began in the modern era with Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Darwin made the first and most obvious inversion of long-esteemed binaries, claiming that man was not descended from God (imago dei, ‘in the image of God’), but instead evolved upward from apes. Freud continued this inversion, arguing that we simply project the idea of God from our needs, such as imagining a heavenly father simply to protect us from pain and suffering. Freud continued the reversal, as his practice of psychotherapy led to a privileging of the subconscious mind over the conscious mind (our beliefs, decisions), which was traditionally considered of primary importance. In reversing this binary claiming the unconscious mind was the true source of our (conscious) thoughts, Freud’s influence led to neuroses becoming the norm for society, with normalcy the exception, so that we are as often as not viewed first as a bundle of some set of neuroses, Markos observes.

Philosophers Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) completed the anti-logocentrism game begun by Darwin and Freud, explicitly declaring the transcendent, God himself in the case of Nietzsche, to be dead. Marx began his analysis with society, declaring that ideology and beliefs were most strongly influenced by the most materialistic aspect of society, specifically the economic means of production. Religious beliefs were a matter of class warfare rather than transcendent truth-claims, and any other activities such as art or one’s own conscious understanding were as well bound to historical determination, affected only by one’s place in society. Markos summarizes that for Marx, “economic means and the mode of production . . . formed a substructure on which all social, political, religious, and aesthetic thought rested.”31 French Philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) would later advance Marx’s thesis to indict vast networks of social power in determining one’s beliefs. Friedrich Nietzsche was even more explicit, if not fevered, in declaring the death of truth itself (and God along with it). Truth is an illusion that man once created, but then forgot that he was its author; God is like such truth, in that the Europe of his day, Nietzsche claimed, had been effectively forgotten, we ourselves had killed off the idea. While Nietzsche is more famous for inverting the Apollonian/ Dionysiac binary (truth and passion, as a simplification), in an essay “Truth and Falsity in an Ultramoral Sense” Nietzsche explicitly denies the existence of any logos, form, or truth. 32

Theologians even partook in the anti-logocentrism game. ‘Higher Criticism’, the radical branch of the Historical-Critical school of theology studies which otherwise sought to understand the Bible better in its actual historical context, typically denied divine origins of Scripture and deity itself. David Friedrich Strauss’s The Life of Jesus (1846) denied the divine nature of Jesus posting instead the ‘historical Jesus’, and Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity (1854) argued that God is merely a projection of man’s best qualities, but not a separate being. Such works influenced Darwin, Freud, and Marx, with the theological controversy overshadowing in the 1860s the controversies from Charles Darwin’s newly published Origin of Species (1859). Liberal Protestantism, begun with the works of Strauss, Feuerbach and before them Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), influenced later theologians such as Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) who sought to demythologize the historical biblical narratives, but also led Pope Pius X in 1907 to condemn such modernism as “the synthesis of all heresies.”33 Pope Paul VI would again condemn modernism in Ecclesiam Suam (1964). The modernist ‘higher criticism’ approach affected scholarship of both the Old and New Testaments, as in the place of divinely-inspired Mosaic authorship of the books of the Pentateuch, four distinct, evolving phases of authorship were suggested (J,E, P, and D), while Paul’s epistles and even John’s gospel were claimed to have been developed over two centuries.34 Similar efforts were applied to the works of Homer, such as the Iliad and Odyssey.

The modernist program carried over in the later twentieth century into Structuralism and finally into Postmodernism. Structuralism continued modernism’s anti-logocentrism, asserting that consciousness is a by-product of social and even material conditions of life. Linguist Ferdinand de Saussure pioneered the structuralist perspective in his Course in General Linguistics (1913), as he argued that words refer not to predetermined transcendent concepts or meanings, but are arbitrarily determined by social processes. Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss adopted this approach in his anthropological studies, showing that social structures rather than free choices largely determine human behavior. Literary theorist Roland Barthes similarly argued that any meaning of a text is fabricated only by the “human process by which men give meaning to things,” thus following Nietzsche.35 French historian Michel Foucault practiced a structuralist analysis of history similar to Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm shifts, with ‘truth’ simply being the adherence of some type of (typically coercive) discourse practice (political, sociological) with social facts, rather than alignment with a transcendent idea (as from religious belief or scripture).

Structuralists, at the tail end of modernity, provided passage to the postmodernity of the later twentieth century. French-Algerian philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) broke down all sets of binary oppositions (soul/body, logos/experience, being/becoming, essence/existence) and thus all efforts to ground meaning in one extreme or the other, instead offering a free play of meaning amongst any and all participants. Even the structuralist’s preferences for material conditions over ideological ones is a doomed effort, as it is impossible to ascribe any origin to meaning or to truth. Derrida argues that ever since Plato, over twenty-five hundred years ago, philosophers have naively sought to center meaning in a single, transcendent perspective. Derrida claims Nietzsche as an authority, given Nietzsche’s claim that truth is constantly ‘in play’. Nietzsche is thus foundational for both modernism and postmodernism. Freud did the same for any notion of a grounded, transcendental self. Further, existentialist Martin Heidegger argued against any pre-existent I AM of being (God or derivatively, man), following fellow existentialist Jean Paul Sartre who claimed that existence precedes essence.36

C.S. Lewis to the Rescue: Wrestling with Modernity

Markos’s Lewis Agonistes: How C.S. Lewis Can Train Us To Wrestle With The Modern and Postmodern World opens by highlighting both the rational and the intuitive, myth- and story- loving aspects of the young Lewis. From a passionate, quixotic father and a cool, logical mother with a B.A. in math, to his iron-disciplined tutor, ‘The Great Knock’, to his study of the classics, Lewis was equipped to wrestle with both the extreme rationalism of modernity as well as the spiritual appetites of the postmodern.

Lewis’s conversion from modernist atheism to faith was led by his discoveries of what Markos describes as “things that could not have evolved,” phenomena not explicable by a purely rationalist, material account of reality. Markos elaborates four distinct steps, or components, of Lewis’s approach.

The first were Lewis’s experiences of ‘joy’, nearly mystical moments of longing brought on by intimations of Autumn from Beatrix Potter stories or a flowering bush on a sunny day, as described in his autobiography Surprised by Joy. Desires which point beyond themselves and are not entirely quenched in this world led Lewis to formulate an ‘argument from desire’, the idea that if we are not satisfied by this world we must have some transcendent, spiritual aspect.

Secondly, as he explained in the opening of Mere Christianity, the fact that when arguing about some matter, each opponent will typically appeal to some fundamental principle to which both claim to adhere (fairness or justice, for instance): this fundamental universal understanding of morality Lewis also claimed was given to humanity, not created by us, and he showed in his Abolition of Man how such ethical rules can be found in all cultures spread across both time and space.

Third, our ability to reason can not be accounted for by simple natural processes: nature may exhibit regularities, but our minds are qualitatively distinct entities, and unlike lake algae or a flock of seagulls, able to formulate reasons of cause and effect that the objects of nature are unable to do themselves, as he argued in Miracles.

Fourthly and finally, human religion could not evolve on its own without some transcendent source. Comparing dread evoked by the numinous, say a ghost, is a different order than our fear that a tiger is in the next room (or put another way, men dread only skeletons of their own kind); when such moments of dread (or of the ‘joy’ he described earlier) are combined with the idea of universal morality, “religion” arises. Immoral religion (as often practiced in the ancient world) or nonreligious morality (the moral code of Buddhism is essentially atheistic) are worlds below that of a revealed religion such as Christianity which incorporates both aspects.

Such things ‘that could not have evolved’ can be used to pose direct challenges to the modern. Of human morality, Markos compares the enduring commands of Jesus to Enlightenment era projects based on reason along, such as Kant’s categorical imperative (treat everyone as you would like to be treated) which ultimately led in a single century’s time to Nietzsche whose visions of an uberman-inspired Nazi Germany. Of scientific laws, things like the law gravity merely describe the process, not give the explanation, of phenomenon; as per Miracles a best explanation just may include a supernatural being who is able to suspend events to his will. Of joy and the argument from desire, Lewis provides a neat answer to Freud’s charges of wish fulfillment or that natural instincts like lust explain the appearance of noble love: is it not possible that such lusts are merely a falling away from the higher form, sublime love? The dialogue between Eustace, Jill, and Puddleglum with the Emerald Witch in The Silver Chair shows the point, as the Witch offers that their idea of a sun outside the cave may just be their projections of the meager torches they know, to which Puddleglum retorts that even if their ideas of a sun and Narnia were unreal, they were preferred to the gloomy, meaningless world of the Witch’s dark cavern.

The spiritual vacuum of the moderns thus naturally leads to the phenomenon of the postmoderns, which Markos equates with New Age spirituality. The “rejection of the excesses of modernism and materialism” has spurred an appetite which pursues spirituality in various non-orthodox forms such as Eastern religions, which typically draw from “the central element of paganism – pantheism.”37 Pantheism, the idea that the entire natural world is divinely composed, and its New Age format, can be simply seen as an effort to recapture the beauty, wonder, and enchantment in the world that the Medievals claimed centuries earlier! Lewis himself drew on the Medieval model, as presented above, in imbuing the worlds he created in his various fiction series, in the same way that Medieval poets like Dante, Chaucer, and Milton had done in their works. The Christian church needs to present the postmodern, New Age world with a world of wonder, meaning and significance, in a way the moderns could not, Markos argues. Just as the Magi seeking the manger were not Jews but likely Zoroastrians in pursuit of truth by the means they knew (star-gazing), so do we also need to combat the postmodern world’s philosophical agnosticism, the idea that there are many truths, with the claim that “Christianity is not the only truth, but it is the only complete truth.”38

Meeting the postmodern appetite for spirituality will require us to give Paul’s message at Mars Hill to challenge the worshippers of lesser gods to complete their journey, and to point them towards the “mythical radiance resting on our theology . . . [that] the heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact . . . [which] happens at a particular date, at a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences.”39

Lewis demonstrated just how to rehabilitate this medieval perspective in his various works of fiction. In his Space Trilogy, this very anti-modernist is at the heart of its cosmos, as Ransom muses,

He had read of ‘Space’: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. He had not known how much it affected him till now – now that the very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam . . . Older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply the heavens.40

“If the space trilogy carries the medieval model up into the heavens, then the Chronicles of Narnia bring it back to the earth” Markos claims.41 Aslan is God (Jesus, the Emperor lies in lands beyond the sea) ruling on Narnian earth, even reviving the land itself with his magic and his joy.

The problem of evil and suffering reveals another failing of the modernist program. Just as the logocentric worldview was fading in the eighteenth century, Rousseau replaced the traditional conception of man as sinful and in need of salvation with an optimism for the perfectibility of man. In place of the Christian view that our lust, pride, and disobedience lead us to rebel against God and his image in which we are made, for Rousseau it was society that corrupted man, and we need more natural sentiments to purify ourselves; such optimism fueled the reforms of the following centuries until they came crashing down to earth at the opening of the twentieth century. Lewis’s Problem of Pain helps us out of this illusion, as in it he argues that real pain in this world results from God allowing us to bear the consequences of our choices (else they are not real choices at all). The pain we suffer is in fact a tool used by God to perfect our character, “we (like God) only discipline those whom we love” Markos adds, citing Lewis:

It is for people for whom we care nothing about that we demand happiness on any terms: with our friends, our lovers, our children, we are exacting and would rather see them suffer much than be happy in contemptible and estranging modes . . . He has paid us the intolerable compliment of loving us, in the deepest, most tragic, most inexorable sense.42

Lewis’s own journey involved the pain of losing his wife Joy, as he came to admit that, “Perhaps He had to destroy my image of Joy lest I make her into an idol that would block me from Him? God is, after all, the greatest of iconoclasts. He must shatter even our ideas of him, lest we worship the idea and not Him who is the origin of the idea.43

C.S. Lewis To the Rescue: Wrestling with Postmodernity

Markos does offer that John’s gospel is a direct counter, a refutation, to the postmodern nihilism of Nietzsche and Derrida. “In the beginning was the Word [Logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”44 This clearly counters Derrida’s famous claim that “there is no center,” no origin, no fixed truth. Just as the Greek term of Logos represented the transcendent which they sought in reality, so Christ offers himself as that reality, “by whom and through whom [all of reality] was created.” Fully appreciating the incarnation of Christ – God descent into the natural world – is key to answering the postmodern challenge; of it Lewis claimed, “The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation . . . It relates not a series of disconnected raids on Nature but the various steps of a strategically coherent invasion – an invasion which intends complete conquest and ‘occupation’.”45

The destruction of meaning due to “the ‘logocidal’ fury of the modern and postmodern world” implores the Christian to “cast our eyes backward to the medieval church and seek out a counter-vision of the arts,” an “aesthetics of incarnation” where such meaning was unashamed to cavort with the created order’s beauty.46 The medieval tradition of artistic icons displays the significance of aesthetics. Markos explains that “The icon is a crux, an axis, a nexus at which the physical and spiritual, temporal and eternal meet . . . it is the very fact that God did take on flesh in the person of Christ that empowers the arts and enables them to strive toward the divine.47

It is not only graphic but verbal art that allows such ascension, as Markos further claims that “Poetry too, when it is most worthy of itself, is sacramental, striving ever to embody emotions and choices and struggles that can neither be seen nor heard nor tasted in words that are physical, tangible, consumable.”48 And it is not just art and poetry but the imagination as a whole in which such transcendent mystery can break through. Of Lewis’s works of imaginative, ‘incarnational fiction’, (The Chronicles of Narnia, the space trilogy, and Till We Have Faces) Markos declares that “Lewis constantly shifts between two realities that traffic back and forth as dramatically and dynamically as the angels descending and ascending on Jacob’s Ladder.49 Of the Chronicles, Markos claims, “Narnia and our own world are held up as icons of each other; in tracing Narnia’s sacred history, we gain insight into our own narrative;” in the space trilogy, struggles in the physical and spiritual worlds are closely intertwined; in Till We Have Faces, “we enter fully into a pagan, pre-Christian tale in which every element of the story points in some way to Christ and to grace.”50

The final way in which Lewis can speak to the “logocidal fury” of the modern and postmodern worlds is in its depiction of heaven and hell, the latter at least of which is anathema to this generation. That some go to hell while others arrive in heaven outrages the postmodern’s sense of fairness, though it is more a matter of (divine) justice, Markos observes. Flattening historically preferenced binaries, such as colonizers/colonized, is one of the virtues of the postmodern, but the idea of eternal inequality is thus even more repugnant. In The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce, Lewis shows that the choices between heaven and hell are being made continually. In this, Lewis follows Romantic poet William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell (after which The Great Divorce is modeled) for whom heaven and hell were more a matter of our perception, and thus experience, of this world. In it, Blake anticipates Nietzsche in arguing that hell is simply being restrained from one’s desires, and being restrained by those with stronger desires; Freud would follow in placing instinctual desires in the id, which wars with the moral conscience found in the superego until battles are resolved by the ego.

For Lewis and the Christian, sin and the hell it creates here (a foretaste of the eternal) is a choice. Screwtape advises Wormwood, “You say these are very small sins . . . But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy [God] . . . Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.51

Further, in tossing out the logocentric bathwater, the baby of our own humanity is lost. In The Great Divorce Lewis makes use of imagery in which the travelers on the bus ride from Hell to Heaven become more solid as they make heavenly choices, and more insubstantial and ghost-like otherwise; Hell itself turns out to fit between the blades of grass while Heaven is an expansive country. As Lewis articulates in The Problem of Pain, “To enter heaven is to become more human than you ever succeeded in being on earth; to enter hell, is to be banished from humanity.”52 Heaven in fact powers the artistic imagination, as it ennobles the human subject while exalting the divine. As Lewis explains in The Great Divorce, “When you painted on earth . . . it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape. The success of your painting was that it enabled others to see the glimpses too . . . He is endless. Come and Feed.”53

Art, otherwise, becomes idolatry, exalting the merely human unmoored from its designer and author. Lewis’s and Markos’s final indictment of the merely human realm of the moderns and postmoderns is akin to the imagery of The Great Divorce, as our merely human desires (Freud, Nietzsche) are cast as not too strong but too weak for the things of heaven, as Lewis declares

It would seem our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.54

The End of the Modern / Postmodern Story

A brief postscript on postmodernity is helpful, if only as an introduction to An Unexpected Journal’s forthcoming issue (Winter, 2025) on postmodernity. Markos does observe that Derrida’s nihilism is not, to Derrida anyway, a despairing one: instead, it is playful, looking to the future for determining meaning rather than looking back to an idyllic lost past, as with Rousseau, Wordsworth, Romantics and even Renaissance thinkers were wont to do.55 Markos makes the parallel between Derrida and Sartre, for whom the absence of ultimate meaning made our choices even more important and vital (though ultimate despair is unavoidable).

Other Christian authors make similar points. In C.S. Lewis and Christian Postmodernism: Word, Image, and Beyond (2016) Kyoko Yuasa claims that Lewis, while anti-modernist, welcomes the more inclusive postmodern perspective, welcoming not just marginalized voices and cultures but that of the Christian voice, itself a myth like many others, but one with unrivaled power and historical claims. In her survey of the field, Yuasa cites several other Christian authors engaged with the postmodern approach. Crystal Downing (How Postmodernism Serves My Faith, 2006) claims that Derrida’s “there is nothing outside of the text” claim merely resists modernist programs rather than meaning itself, and James K.A. Smith reinterprets Derrida within the context of Christian faith (Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? 2006).

In summary, to the modern Lewis reminds us of so much that cannot be explained by a purely material world, such as transcendent joy and desires not fully answered here, our sense of right and wrong, man’s glorious faculties such as our ability to reason, and the revealed, Christian religion which unites both ethics and the numinous. To the postmodern whose cosmos has no transcendent center, Lewis offers God come to Earth, the eternal logos of Christ as that missing key, whose Incarnation thus models how we can show glimpses of the transcendent through art and imagination, recapturing the world of enchantment and beauty that the Medieval forbears to the Moderns once knew. Elizabethan poets and recent Christian scholars alike have been shown to provide a chorus of voices casting the Christian faith as a story with not just an actual history (which will be crucial when encountering the plethora of postmodern stories), but as a story with unique power – the power to enlighten, the power to enchant, and the power to redeem.

Notes:

1 Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 500.

2 Ibid., 500; from Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Scribner, 1958), 181.

3 C.S. Lewis, “De Descriptione Temporum” in C.S. Lewis: Select Literary Essays, ed. Walter Hooper (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 5.

4 Taylor, Sources of the Self, 500.

5 E.M.W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture: A study of the idea of order in the age of Shakespeare, Donne and Milton (New York: Vintage, 1959), 3.

6 Plato, The Republic VI in Great Books of the Western World vol. 6 (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2003), J. Mortimer Adler Editor in Chief, 511, p. 387

7 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica in Great Books of the Western World vol. 17 (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2003), J. Mortimer Adler Editor in Chief, Question LXXVIII, p. 414.

8 Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man: Epistle 1, l 16, https:www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44899/an-essay-on-man-epistle-I.

9 J.R.R. Tolkien, Mythopoeia, 1931, https://www.tolkien.ro/text/JRR%20Tolkien%20-%20Mythopoeia.pdf.

10 Edmund Spenser, “Hymn of Heavenly Love” in Four Hymns, 1596 in Tillyard, Elizabethan World Picture, 12, https://allpoetry.com/An-Hymne-of-Heavenly-Love.

11 The Poems of Sir John Davies, ed. R. Krueger (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), verse 19. Online https://www.poetrynook.com/poem/orchesra-or-poem-dancing.

12 Malcolm Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2014), 78.

13 C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 222.

14 C.S. Lewis, De Descriptione Temporum, 1.

15 Ibid.

16 Taylor, Sources of the Self, 369.

17 Ibid., 371-374

18 Ibid., 376.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid., 377-78.

21 Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2020), 39. Kindle. Trueman extends the point to today’s sexual revolution of alternative sexuality, a case he claims of not accepting the world as given (mimesis) but attempting to make it according to individual desires (poesis).

22 Blaise Pascal, Pensees (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), trans. Honor A. Levi, XII, A.P.R. 54-55.

23 Land of Hope and Glory,” music by Edward Elgar, lyrics A.C. Benson, 1902.

24 William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming,” 1919, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43290/the-second-coming.

25 T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in T.S. Eliot: The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World Inc., 1971), 4-5.

26 Russell Kirk, Eliot and His Age: T.S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century (Washington: Regnery Gateway, 2008), Kindle.

27 Jeffrey M. Perl, Literary Modernism: The Struggle for Modern History (Springfield: The Teaching Company, 1997. Lecture series with course notes.

28 T.S. Eliot, “The Wasteland” in T.S. Eliot Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950, 50.

29 Louis Markos, Lewis Agonistes: How C.S. Lewis Trains Us To Wrestle With The Modern And Postmodern World (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2003), 30.

30 Louis Markos, From Plato to Postmodernism: Understanding the Essence of Literature and the Role of the Author (Lecture Twenty-One: Origins of Modernism (Chantilly: The Teaching Company, 1999), Part 2, 44.

31 Markos, Lewis Agonistes, 34.

32 Markos, From Plato to Postmodernism, part 2, 47.

33 Pope Pius X, (8 Sept., 1907) “Pascendi Dominici Gregis,” https://www.ewtn.com/catholicism/library/on-the-doctrine-of-the-modernists-3496.

34 Markos, Lewis Agonistes, 37 -38. Markos notes that the discovery of Ryland Papyrus placed a section of John 18 clearly in the 90s A.D., refuting such efforts and presenting “clear proof that God has a sense of humor.”

35 Markos, From Plato to Postmodernism, 50.

36 Ibid., for the overall paragraph of summary.

37 Markos, Lewis Agonistes, 65, 63.

38 Ibid., 72.

39 Ibid.

40 C.S., Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (New York: Scribner, 2003), 34.

41 Markos, Lewis Agonistes, 85.

42 Ibid., 99-100. From C.S. Lewis, Problem of Pain, chp. 3.

43 Ibid., 108-109.

44 John 1:1 (NIV).

45 C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperOne, 2015), 173.

46 Markos, Lewis Agonistes, 122.

47 Ibid., 126-127.

48 Ibid., 129.

49 Ibid., 134.

50 Ibid., 134-135.

51 Ibid., 153.

52 Ibid., 154.

53 Ibid.

54 C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory” in The Weight of Glory and Other Essays (New York: HarperOne, 2015), 26.

55 Markos, Plato to Postmodernism, “Lecture Twenty-Three “Derrida on Deconstruction.”