The Funeral of a Great Myth

Article by   December 2009
In contrast to the popular fiction and apologetic writings of C.S. Lewis, a less familiar body of social commentary exists within the writer's corpus. These writings give some of the clearest insight into the political, social, and philosophical environment in which Lewis lived and which influenced much of his work. In order fully to understand Lewis' apologetic, even the latent apologetic contained within his fictional writings, one must understand the mindset and dominant worldview which it addressed. The worldview Lewis has in mind, an awkward synthesis of Enlightenment optimism, Industrial Age pragmatism, and scientific triumphalism, is perhaps most clearly critiqued in Lewis' "The Funeral of a Great Myth," first published in Walter Hooper's compilation Christian Reflections.

"The Funeral of a Great Myth" takes up a reflective view of the dominant popular worldview of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, termed "popular Evolutionism," which consists of a patchwork quilt of scientific hypotheses and Nietzschean philosophy collectively asserting man's will to power, the improvement and ultimate perfection of human society, and the progressive development of the cosmos from chaos to order. Lewis demonstrates that this view, which came into popularity many years prior to the 1859 publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, is properly to be understood as mythology. After establishing its mythological nature, Lewis argues that it is dying in the popular consciousness and in the science of his day. The half-century separating Lewis' observations and the present writer's critique reveals the partial correctness of Lewis' forecast; the present writer will fill in Lewis' vision of "popular Evolutionism" with recent developments that have answered some of Lewis' objections, expand upon Lewis' arguments, and sketch out the contemporary adaptation of the "Great Myth."

The first of Lewis' three points is an identification and definition of that which he regards as dying mythology. In Lewis' own words, "the central idea of the Myth is what its believers would call 'Evolution' or 'Development' or 'Emergence.'" This definition and the brief paragraph containing it do not clearly state what Lewis has in view; the casual tone of the paper suggests that Lewis is addressing readers who are familiar with his topic and who will not require technical language and precisely defined terms to understand his argument. However, Lewis' references to H.G. Wells, Charles Darwin, George Bernard Shaw, John Keats, Richard Wagner, and Olaf Stapledon give the reader a wider picture for this view than what the three terms listed above suggest. Stapledon, Wells, and Shaw leave a legacy of nonreligious humanism with a progressive view of morality and strong faith in the progress of science and technology; the latter two were strong advocates of socialism and social engineering in general. Keats and Wagner, not remembered as advocates of a particular social or biological worldview, reflect a collective concern for what remains when everything seems to be changing, progressing, and moving forward. Darwin is the only name on the list reflective of the worldview commonly associated with the term "evolution." Thus Lewis' use of the term "popular Evolutionism," far from signifying merely that biological theory associated with Charles Darwin, suggests a larger, more complex worldview combining the biological evolution of Darwin, the humanism and social progress of Wells and Shaw, the philosophy of change reflected in the aesthetics of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the implacable optimism in progress passed on from the Enlightenment to the age of industry and technology.

Having identified, or at least suggested, the worldview that he bears in mind, Lewis sets about establishing the mythological nature and content of the same. The first indicator is a reflection of the hallmarks of the worldview in the popular art of the era. Keats, Wagner, Wells, and Shaw, already discussed with regard to their respective ideologies, leave written and musical art rich with the content of "popular Evolutionism." This aesthetic reflection is crucial to Lewis' thesis. The use of the science, pseudo-science, and beliefs of Evolutionism imaginatively, emotionally, and with a view to human psychological needs is, to Lewis, clear indication that the worldview has passed from theory into mythology. The aesthetic progression from the wonder and reverence of Keats and Wagner to the disillusioned experimentation of Wells and Shaw reflects the passing of the myth through life, maturity, and final geriatric failure.

The second indication of popular Evolutionism's mythical status is its difference from the biological theory of evolution. A biologist, Lewis argues, recognizes that evolution is merely an hypothesis that seems to explain more of the evidence than competing views, but which has not been directly observed and suffers from contrary evidence like any other theory. This produces a qualitative gap between the biological theory of evolution and popular Evolutionism, which presses the implications of biological evolution beyond what the theory can bear and seeks to apply it outside of the realm of its scientific legitimacy. The theory's application to psychology, sociology, philosophy, and ultimately to art and metaphysics betrays its elevation from biological theory to mythological acceptance.

Man, in his inescapably reflective and inquisitive nature, has transformed a theory of biological change into a grandiose framework in which not merely biological life, but everything - the mind, the role of man in the universe, the fate of the cosmos - is improving, or, to borrow Lewis' words, moving "onwards and upwards." An unwarranted emphasis on the positive effects of evolution, to the full ignorance and exclusion of the negative effects, which no less an evolutionary banner than J.B.S Haldane says outweigh the positive ten to one, [1] has transformed the theory into a magnificent eschatology of perfection. This farcical embroidery Lewis calls "one of the most moving and satisfying world dramas which have ever been imagined," better than an Elizabethan tragedy.

Beginning with the prelude of eternal, formless, aimless matter and darkness, the drama opens upon the "infant hero" of first biological life. Through impossible circumstances life manages to grow and thrive; patience, chance, and circumstance slowly turn amoebas into dragons, which oppress the earth before mysteriously disappearing. Out of the apocalyptic fires, slowly but surely, man, weak, small, and helpless, appears and begins to manipulate his surroundings. Gradually he dominates his foes and subdues nature. He learns how to prolong his life and make the natural order his slave. Man becomes divine, ruling himself and all that surrounds him. But in the final act, nature takes her revenge; the sun cools and dies, the universe falls apart, and the curtain closes upon the funeral of the deceased hero.

Lewis begins his critique of the myth. The impossibility of the whole scenario stems from what Lewis calls its "fatal contradiction." The entire worldview rests upon the reliability of natural "laws" and rational thought. In order for the myth of Evolutionism to stand on its own legs, the universe must function according to observable, fixed laws, which man must be able to manipulate with his rational faculties to form reliable conclusions. The contradiction lies in Evolutionism's flat denial that anything in the universe is governed by established "law," and its insistence that rational thought is nothing more than a byproduct of the progressive mutation of man's natural instincts. These propositions mutually exclude the foundation upon which the entire worldview rests.

Here Lewis calls for the burial of the myth, not because it is self-contradicting but because he believes that modern science is abandoning it. He does not deny that the myth is founded upon a legitimate biological theory; he distinguishes between the theory and the baggage that carried it to mythical proportions. Evidence for the demise of the "Great Myth" is the departure of the Romantic aesthetic values that largely made such a mythology possible. The emergence of physics as the dominant model in theoretical science heralds a change of direction in the stream of modern thought. Biology is no longer assumed to be the metaphysical endpoint of science. Lewis mentions a revival of theology in his day - undoubtedly conscious of his own influence as well as that of his prolific contemporaries G.K. Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien. Nevertheless, Lewis does not expect that popular Evolutionism will disappear overnight, neither that vestiges will not remain for many ages. As with all mythology, the elements that make it satisfying to the mind of man will commend it to him even after it has lost its claim to factuality.

Lewis' two "fatal contradiction[s]" in Evolutionism may be strengthened with the identification of a third. In addition to depending upon an ordered and lawful universe which Evolutionism does not really believe to exist and relying upon rational thought which it believes to be a random byproduct of man's evolution, Evolutionism violates the observable and established Second Law of Thermodynamics, or Law of Entropy, at a number of points. The Second Law, briefly stated, holds that closed systems tend to revert from a state of order and potential to a state of disorder and exhausted potential. This can be observed on a scale as small as a glass of ice water, in which ice cubes melt, water warms, and the system exhausts itself quickly, or on the scale of the universe, in which all kinetic and potential energy gradually reverts to unusable heat energy. Evolutionism, while strictly holding to the Second Law as a scientific principle, flatly denies it on the mythological level. As Lewis has already noted, Evolutionism depends upon an ordered universe, otherwise observations would be meaningless and science would be impossible. Furthermore, the grandiose philosophy of progress, upward momentum, and increasing order imposed by man upon his environment is in direct contradiction with the Law of Entropy. Far from maintaining that the closed system of the universe is falling from order and potential into chaos and exhausted potential, Evolutionism proposes a conflicting absurdity - that the universe is progressing from disorder to order, and that man, the potentiality for this progression, is actually increasing in his abilities.

These critiques of Evolutionism are perfectly valid as long as the term is defined in the way that Lewis and the present writer have defined it up to this point. Evolutionism refers not only to the biological theory of evolution, but also to faith in the limitless advancement of science, technology, and social engineering, as well as optimism regarding man's position in the cosmos. The position can be summarized as a cosmic Nietzschean "will to power" conveniently facilitated by biological principles of natural selection, environmental conditioning, and infinite progress from lower and lesser things to higher and greater things. If the essential substance of Evolutionism changes, particularly if the position abandons a belief in limitless advancement and positive progress in general, Lewis' critiques must be adapted to remain relevant.

Lewis' identification of a large-scale ideology of progress and upward movement with "Evolutionism" may have reflected the trend of scientific and popular thinking in his day, but such an association would not pass without objection in the present day. Darwinian evolution, which certainly is widely accepted, taught in schools, and espoused by public figures, is no longer accompanied by the rosy optimism and general faith in human progress characteristic of Enlightenment thinking. Although biological evolution maintains that mutation and natural selection produce positive results within a species, it does not propose the grandiose eschatological progress that Lewis reflected in the mindset of his day. Man advances in his environment, it is true, but the environment advances against him in equal proportion. Indeed, modern Evolutionism teaches that man is hopelessly bound to the natural order, which will one day eliminate him just as it has eliminated other species. No longer does popular science teach that man's destiny is to transcend and utterly dominate the natural order, or to become a race of demigods as Lewis' colleagues apparently believed.

In a complete reversal from the attitude of Lewis' day, Evolutionism in the present day is shot through with fatalism. Biology has recognized and embraced on a popular level the less glamorous implications of the theory of evolution. Man, far from being construed as the triumphant hero in an improving cosmos, is regarded as an insignificant biological byproduct in an austere universe that will ultimately kill him off. Furthermore, the universe itself is cooling and becoming less habitable, and it will eventually gravitate in upon itself, destroying itself and all that it contains, after which it will rapidly expand again in a cycle that might perhaps be one of many millions, and which will probably not produce the biological life that is taken to be a phenomenon, or even an accident, of the present cycle. In short, modern Evolutionism believes that biological life is going nowhere in particular; it is merely adapting for survival.

Even the socialist ideology to which Lewis alludes has changed. Socialist ideology once represented man's upward march in the cosmic order; socialism in the twenty-first century is more modest in its goals and more cautious in its methodology, particularly following the spectacular failure of its ideology in the former Soviet Union, and the corruption of its ideology to produce awful despots in twentieth-century Germany, China and North Korea. While humanism and a high view of man's potential remain dominant in the popular mind, heady visions of man's engineered progress seem to have been tempered by the failures of the largest social experiments in human history, all of which followed Lewis' death. Socialism largely has replaced its high-flying visionary abstraction with the modest, practical objective to establish viable welfare systems and promote economic justice among the citizens of a state.

These developments in Evolutionism and popular thought represent adaptation to the objections voiced by Lewis and others. Undue emphasis on 'progress' in biology and society has been replaced by frank acknowledgement of the inescapable directionless randomness of evolution. Faith in science, technology, and social engineering to solve all of man's problems and elevate him to a state of near-divinity has given way to recognition of the practical limits of man's dominion over his environment. This realization has left man with an underlying skepticism regarding his potential for advancement in the cosmos. The antiquated, Nietzschean belief that man was destined to rise above his environment and conquer the universe has caved in to the conviction that man is nothing more than an insignificant speck, indeed an accident, on a planet in a remote corner of the universe, and that his fate is to scratch out a living in such conditions as he can manage until the universe deals him a final death-blow.

In this transformation of Evolutionism from an over-arching philosophy of progress to a fatalistic, nihilistic acquiescence, the myth has expired even though vestiges of the worldview remain. Gone is everything that made Evolutionism grand mythology. The epic struggle of biological life against insurmountable odds to the ultimate conquering of its foes and ascent to the pantheon of glory has been replaced by a disappointing one-act tragedy without protagonist, plot, climax, or conclusion. The painted scenery has taken the lead role; the great hero has been relegated to a cameo appearance. In this respect, Lewis rightly marked the demise of the myth he held in view. The "Great Myth," in adapting for survival, has killed itself, though its title and leading characters remain.

In contrast to the profound saga of the "Great Myth," the mythology that has replaced it is considerably less stage-worthy and by all means excludes the serving of hors d'oeuvres and champagne following the performance. Nevertheless, it bears every hallmark of mythological status. It is reflected in the popular art and literature of the age, from Philip Glass' bleak, chaotic musical-visual productions to the total abandonment of musical structure altogether; from the directionless, narrow self-projection of Tennessee Williams to the dreary, unstructured realism of modern theater in general; from Darren Aronofsky's stark, nihilistic cinematic vision to Hollywood's abdication of every established principle of storytelling; from Michael Crichton's experimentation with the limits of time and technology to a growing literary genre of narrow, close-up examination of the squalor of human existence.

The second indication that contemporary Evolutionism has transcended theory and become established as mythology is its application to the emotional and psychological needs of man. The Lesser Myth might not at first view appear to offer much to man's psychology, but it finds surprising harmony with much of modern thought. The bleak fatalism of Stoicism attracted Greeks and Romans from the peasant farmer up to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius for no other reason than that it freed men from fear: fear of divinity, fear of retribution for one's actions, fear of missing any higher meaning in life. Contemporary Evolutionism also frees man. The public faces of this mythology, particularly the popular-level writers, perhaps exemplified in Richard Dawkins, purvey a worldview of liberation from superstition, provincialism, and, above all, fear. "There's probably no God," says a slogan printed on London public transit buses, "Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." [2]  Popular use of the worldview for psychological liberation betrays its passage from a loose confederation of theories into full-blown mythology.

These developments address some of Lewis' criticism of the "Great Myth," including its presumed passing into oblivion. Nevertheless, Lewis' latent apologetic is very effective. He establishes in graphic and accessible language man's psychological need to create an explanation for his origin, significance, direction, and place in the cosmos. He sketches out the adaptation of "popular Evolutionism" to fit that role, and argues that such a mythology, though satisfying, is self-defeating and even passing away. A reader who is even slightly familiar with Lewis' work will know of the creative-redemptive mythology that Lewis would substitute in its place. But this speculation is beyond the scope of Lewis' work, and to be consistent with his apologetic, one may only present the evidence and trust that the argument will lead to its reasonable conclusion. The passing away of the Great Myth and its adaptation into the fatalistic Lesser Myth represent popular recognition of the problems presented by Lewis and others. Nevertheless, properly qualified and expanded, as the present writer has attempted to demonstrate, Lewis' arguments remain as devastating to the Lesser Myth as they were to its predecessor.

S. Park Barringer III is an MA student at Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson).

[1] C.S. Lewis, "Christian Reflections", 85.
[2] "There's probably no God...now stop worrying and enjoy your life": Atheist group launches billboard campaign,"  Daily Mail (UK), Staff Report, 07 January 2009, Online.


S. Park Barringer III, "The Funeral of a Great Myth", Reformation21 (December 2009)


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