C. S. Lewis tells us, in his lovely, brief introduction to an edition of St. Athanasius's On the Incarnation, that it is valuable to read books from other ages to challenge the biases of our particular age. He is even generous enough to say that reading the books of the future might have this salutary effect if it were only possible.
Since I am in fact living in the future vis a vis Lewis, I intend, though with some trepidation, to mention a passage in Lewis's own writing that has been abused (within my own experience) and that lends itself to misunderstanding.
The passage occurs in Mere Christianity, pp. 94-95 in my edition:
Finally, though I have had to speak at some length about sex, I want to make it as clear as I possibly can that the centre of Christian morality is not here. If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport, and backbiting; the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither.
Let us begin, in understanding how this passage lends itself to misconstrual and misuse, with the overstatement, regarding sins of the flesh, "[T]hey are the least bad of all sins." It was this statement that was particularly abused in the conversation I have in mind. My interlocutor quoted it as incontrovertible fact and compared wild, unrepented sexual promiscuity to gossip, to the advantage of wild, unrepented sexual promiscuity. Dante also came up in this discussion. Dante, I was told, also considered sexual sins to be the least bad of the sins.
Well, not exactly. If we're going to start ranking sins, and especially if we're going to start mentioning Dante, there's one word we might want to put in there: Mortal. "Least bad of the mortal sins" just doesn't quite have the same ring, does it? Lewis might have done well to remember it, and perhaps to moderate his statement accordingly. "It is better to be neither" hardly sounds as clear or as alarming as, "Either can send you to hell for all eternity." (Though in the case of a prostitute, we might first want to ask whether she is being literally coerced into her profession. Lewis, presumably, is assuming that this is not the case for purposes of his example.)
When it comes to contemplating the diabolical vs. animal discussion, we should consider that Lewis was a great rhetorician and simply found this a convenient way of talking for the moment. It was also Lewis himself who approvingly paraphrased (more than once) Denis de Rougement as saying that Eros "ceases to be a devil only when he ceases to be a god." So sexual sins are then not merely the expression of some "animal" nature which is quite different from the diabolical. They have, rather, the potential to be diabolical as well. And Lewis knew this but chose to speak differently for purposes of effect in writing that paragraph in Mere Christianity.
If the perspective of sixty-seven years in the future (Mere Christianity was published in 1943) tells us anything about untamed Eros, it is that its diabolical nature has become more and more apparent and that the damage it has done to society and to millions of individuals has been simply appalling. And these individuals include, of course, the millions of unborn infants murdered in the womb in the name of sexual freedom.
We can also apply a corrective from the past (vis a vis Lewis) to his downplaying of the relative importance of sexual sins. St. Paul also makes a statement about sexual sins and all other sins, but it sounds rather different from Lewis's:
Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them the members of an harlot? God forbid....Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body. What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? (I Corinthians 6:15-19)
It is interesting to ask ourselves how it came about that Lewis felt not only constrained but also, in a different sense, free to make these particular comments about the relative seriousness of sexual sin. Lewis was extremely conscientious about the possible effects of his words. Why did he not worry that he was encouraging sexual license in this passage by saying that all other sins are worse than sexual sins and by ignoring the particularly devastating consequences--both individual and societal--of sexual sin? Why did he not realize that moral comparison--even moral inversion--is a very common tool of those wishing to promote a particular type of sin? We all know the version of this that goes, "I'm not so bad even if I do cheat on my taxes; after all, I haven't murdered anybody." But, to put it mildly, it isn't any better to say, "I'm not so bad even if I do cheat on my wife; after all, I don't engage in backbiting, and I'm never patronizing."
From the perspective of 2010, all of us who try to defend traditional morality are sick unto death of sermonette after sermonette from the left (whether in a collar or out of one) along exactly the lines of "there are worse sins than sleeping with anything that comes along." We recognize such talk for what it is--the continual wearing, as of water on a stone, upon whatever might be left of traditional moral values and sensibilities in our culture. It is rather discouraging, to say the least, to have someone quoting in our faces our favorite author, a man of the past of great wisdom, sounding uncomfortably like Rev. Easy-Going preaching the superiority of the sexually promiscuous over the pharisaical.
I think there is an answer to the question of Lewis's apparent carelessness here. I believe that Lewis was counting on the cultural capital around him. He was speaking to an age which, while hardly as chaste as nostalgia might want to make it (WWII was a great encourager of unchastity), was certainly much farther up the slope in terms of public morality than America and Europe in 2010. Such comments seemed to him safe, and since he was sincerely concerned about non-sexual sins of the sort he discusses, he let himself speak hyperbolically in order to counter the impression--especially for his non-Christian audience--that Christians are prudishly obsessed with sex. In hindsight, I think it was an unwise passage to write.
All of this only confirms Lewis's own point about the books of the future. Hindsight is always 20-20.
If no one has ever thrown this passage in your face before, at a minimum this post can forewarn you of its existence so that you can prepare your own preferred answer. Mine is going to have to be some variant on "Even Homer nods." But if a thinker as great as Lewis could thus slip, how much more reason is there for us to think carefully about what we write, especially now when our every comment will be preserved as long as hard-drives spin, and longer?