And now I must say something that may appear to you a paradox. You have often heard that, though in the world we hold different stations, yet we are all equal in the sight of God. There are of course senses in which this is true.
But I believe there is a sense in which this maxim is the reverse of the truth.
Membership: An address to the Society of St. Alban and St. Sergius, by C.S. Lewis (Chapter 3 from this collection)
How are we to understand our individuality while at the same time recognizing our part in a collective – a community? The answer will be found in how membership is understood in the Christian faith.
In the life of the State, Lewis finds this idea of equality necessary; in the life of the Church, it is not possible. In the State it is true because we are fallen. Because all men are wicked, none can be trusted with such power over his fellows (please set aside any criticisms of democracy; I understand them all. I am merely laying out Lewis’s points).
I do not believe that God created an egalitarian world. I believe the authority of parent over child, husband over wife, learned over simple, to have been as much a part of the original plan as the authority of man over beast.
Had we not fallen, Lewis believes patriarchal monarchy would have been the lawful government. We would have seen and understood our inequality (in the modern sense); recognizing each part had its role to play in the whole.
Equality is for me in the same position as clothes. it is a result of the Fall and the remedy for it.
Because we are fallen, we cannot go back – either to the natural body nor to the natural inequality (in the political sphere). It isn’t that Lewis sees this condition as good; more that it reduces the risk of many evils.
It is idle to say that men are of equal value. If value is taken in a worldly sense ― if we mean that all men are equally useful or beautiful or good or entertaining ― then it is nonsense. If it means that all are of equal value as immortal souls then I think it conceals a dangerous error.
Yes, we are equal in the eyes of God. But equally what? What is the error? The error is to believe that value is inherent. God did not die because of some value in the human soul – to have done so would have been heroic, but not divine. He died for us out of love: “Equality is a quantitative term and therefore love often knows nothing of it.”
So how is the reverse true in the Church? The Christian life defends the single person from the collective – or the mob. At least it is supposed to be this way. Why? The individual Christian is an organ in the body – he is not a “member” of a club or community. Such members can be interchanged. However, a heart cannot replace the lung.
This can be seen in the modern worship of individualism which is held side by side with an overwhelming collectivism. As Lewis says: “…one error begets the opposite error and, far from neutralizing, they aggravate each other.” I have written on this reality too much to recall. Our individualism is taken to such the extreme that we are left naked to stand in front of the state – with nothing in between to defend us from the collective
That is just how Christianity cuts across the antithesis between individualism and collectivism. There lies the maddening ambiguity of our faith as it must appear to outsiders. It sets its face relentlessly against our natural individualism; on the other hand, it gives back to those who abandon individualism an eternal possession of their own personal being, even of their bodies.