'That Hideous Strength' and institutional sin

In his recent post ‘Forays into finance’, Richard reflected on the challenges of institutional sin in his new context of the financial sector: an industry governed by forces which seem to tend towards exploitation of others, manifesting sin beyond the personal to the societal level.

But, of course, you don’t need to be in finance to recognise the way human institutions can be a force for evil. This concept of sin is easily recognisable to those in academia, too.

Sin in the university

The institution of the modern university – like any human construct – conditions and promotes sin in various ways. The time pressures and bureaucratic requirements of teaching lessen our capacity to treat each student as a person, made in God’s image. The competitive, driven environment of a lab or a graduate programme can skew how we treat our colleagues, and chip away at intellectual honesty. Perhaps most insidiously, the large-scale philosophical underpinnings of our disciplines draw on modes of thinking and valuing which can be deeply unbiblical and even hostile to Christian understandings of the world.

I was reminded of this over the summer as I re-read That Hideous Strength, the third book of C. S. Lewis’s idiosyncratic science fiction trilogy. I’ve written before about representations of academics in the fiction of the Inklings, and the plot of THS turns Lewis’s sharp satiric eye on a fictional English university, Edgestow, which foolishly gives a foothold on its territory – both physical and intellectual – to a scientistic, eugenicist, and eventually demonic organisation.

Corruption in theory and practice

Near the end of the the novel, one of the characters draws a clear line between sin in the academic institution and the nihilistic anti-humanism which the euphemistically named ‘National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments’ attempts to bring into being:

“One’s sorry for old Churchwood […] All his lectures were devoted to proving the impossibility of ethics, though in private life he’d have walked ten miles rather than leave a penny debt unpaid.
   But all the same… was there a single doctrine practised at Belbury which hadn’t been preached by some lecturer at Edgestow? Oh, of course, they never thought anyone would act on their theories! But it was their own child coming back to them: grown up and unrecognisable, but their own.”
   “I’m afraid it’s all true,” said Dimble [...] “None of us are quite innocent.”

Lewis claims in his foreword to have chosen a university setting only because of his own familiarity with it, but this seems disingenuous in light of the very specific warnings this novel gives about academic inquiry’s relationship with societal developments and norms. When an academic discipline is corrupt, Lewis argues, that corruption spreads.

What’s more, even well-intentioned academics find themselves enmeshed in these replicating structures of institutional sin: ‘None of us are quite innocent.’ As a graduate student in a literature department, hopeful of a longer-term career in the same field, another character’s reply – ‘Those who call for Nonsense will find that it comes’ – sent a chill down my spine.

Truth and nonsense

The philosophical grounds of modern literary study are highly relativistic, deconstructing meaning and intention at every turn. I continue to grapple with what it means to be committed to a God who is Truth and yet work within the norms of this field.

Deconstruction and related frameworks can, I believe, be useful tools in understanding and illuminating literature: but where do I slip over the line into the worship of Nonsense which Lewis describes? How does this relativising impulse affect wider society, and with what consequences? These are challenging questions to ponder as I develop my research. 

Recognising institutional sin in our disciplines

One of the foundations of Faith in Scholarship is the conviction that it is worthwhile for academics to identify and understand the philosophical underpinnings of their fields, and to compare them with the norms and realities of God’s world as revealed in Christ.

Would it help you to reflect on the ways your institution – your department, your discipline more widely – shapes your work, and how that work in turn shapes the communities you are part of? Institutional sin is difficult to root out, but the first step is recognising its presence.

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