Too Early to Tell

This Friday marks the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death. But did you know that two other remarkable men also died on November 22, 1963? Fifty years from now, it will be interesting to see which one is recognized as having most benefited humanity.

November 22, 1963 is a date that will live in infamy. Fifty years ago this Friday, President John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas, Texas. But did you know C. S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley also died on the same day? Diagnosed with end-stage renal failure in mid-November, Lewis collapsed in the arms of his brother at his home outside Oxford on November 22nd at 5:30pm. Kennedy was shot one hour later. Seven hours later, Huxley passed way in L.A., having asked his wife Laura to inject him with LSD.

These were three very different men, yet all three believed, in different ways, that death is not the end of human life. What might have happened, had Lewis, Kennedy, and Huxley met after death? That’s a question taken up by Peter Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College and The King’s College. In his book Between Heaven and Hell, Kreeft describes an imaginary conversation between Lewis, Kennedy, and Huxley after they died. “These three men represented the most influential philosophies in human history,” writes Kreeft: “ancient Western theism (Lewis), modern Western humanism (Kennedy) and ancient Eastern pantheism (Huxley).”1

Fifty years later, Kennedy remains the most popular of the three. Huxley likely comes in second, with Lewis lagging behind the two, remembered mostly in the faith community. But fifty years from now, what might the pecking order look like?

It’s difficult to imagine Kennedy’s star falling too far, as history tends to be kind to martyred leaders. However, as we learn more about his cad behavior, his status might decline a bit. For instance, during the opening minutes of their first meeting, Kennedy stunned the British Prime Minister Harold McMillan with a crude remark. He told McMillan that he suffered excruciating headaches if he went too long without sex.

The two who might ascend are Huxley and Lewis. Like Kennedy, Huxley hailed from a famous family line. His uncle, Thomas Huxley, gave the inaugural address at the 1876 opening of Johns Hopkins University. There, he added a new word to the American lexicon: agnostic. Science is the only way to know things with certainty. Religion can’t know – in the Greek, agnostic – anything with certainty. Science is the way forward.

For many years, Huxley’s nephew, Aldous, shared this view of science. But with the publication of his satirical book, Brave New World in 1932, Huxley moved in a new direction. He describes scientists as creating a dystopian world in which a totalitarian government controls society. It’s a bleak vision, shared by his friend George Orwell, who, in 1949, authored 1984. Huxley congratulated Orwell for writing a “profoundly important” book, predicting that “within the next generation,” leaders will wield power by having people submit to science, coming to love their servitude. Huxley of course wanted no part of this, remaining a gnostic but turning from science to pantheism. “I remain an agnostic who aspires to be a gnostic,” he told his good friend Reid Gardner.2

Lewis didn’t turn from science. He redefined the modern version as scientism, the view that the natural sciences are the only source of genuine factual knowledge. In The Abolition of Man (1943), he describes a distant future in which a small group of leaders rule society via their “perfect” understanding of “science.” They can “see through” any system of morality that might induce them to act in a moral way. Lewis saw scientism as causing people to love their servitude, but only because they are no longer recognizably human. He later made the same point in his fictional book, That Hideous Strength, published in 1945. Lewis’ solution was to turn from scientism – not science – to the Christian tradition.

When Henry Kissinger reportedly asked former Chinese leader Chou En Lai whether the French Revolution of 1789 had benefited humanity, Chou replied: “It’s too early to tell.” It’s too early to tell how history will rank Kennedy, Huxley, and Lewis. But this Friday, on the 50th anniversary of his death, C. S. Lewis will join some of Britain’s greatest writers recognized at Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey. No one has a crystal ball, but as modern humanism and pantheism are exposed for not benefiting humanity, the Christian tradition might rise in stature. If that were to happen, it’s likely that Lewis’s stature will rise as well.

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1 Peter Kreeft, Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C. S. Lewis & Aldous Huxley (Downers Grove, InterVarsity, 1982), p. 7.
2 Harold Bloom, editor, Aldous Huxley (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2003), p. 27.

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