Fifty years ago today three great men died. In life, though all achieved literary and international acclaim, they could not have been more different. In death, the one overshadowed the two-as the death of Princess Diana overshadowed the death of Mother Teresa. But as was true of the princess and the prioress, so was true of the president and the professor-the memory of the least celebrated on earth often lingers longer in eternity.
The death of John F. Kennedy sent shock waves around the world, while the death of Clive Staples Lewis barely caused a ripple. It could not be otherwise. The assassination of an American president will always takes precedent over the natural death of a British professor. But for all his significance, the legacy of Kennedy merely reverberates in time; the legacy of Lewis reverberates in eternity.
This is true because each man viewed humanity by different lights-Kennedy from the perspective of humanity, Lewis from the perspective of divinity.
Kennedy, in one of the most important speeches of his short presidency, outlined his vision of world peace in an age of nuclear proliferation. On June 10, 1963, he told the graduating students at American University that our problems are man-made. Therefore, man can solve them. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man's reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable-and we believe we can do it again.
Yet, neither Kennedy nor any of the others who followed him into the White House solved the threat of nuclear destruction. None brought peace on earth. The Soviet threat Kennedy so feared may no longer threaten, but other threats, just as dangerous and more so, linger still, fifty years later. Kennedy's humanism failed to see that evil, in whatever form it takes-totalitarian nuclear superpowers or rogue terror cells-is irrational. Human reason cannot solve or save us from the irrationality of madmen.
This is why Kennedy's legacy, as far reaching as it is, reaches not into eternity.
C. S. Lewis would agree with Kennedy's assessment of our problems-that our problems are manmade. But Lewis would disagree with Kennedy's assessment of the solution-that our problems can be solved by man's reason and spirit alone. If man's heart remains unchanged, then man's reason remains inadequate. "We are not merely imperfect creatures who must be improved," Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain, "we are . . . rebels who must lay down our arms."
Every man and women Lewis met was extraordinary-none ordinary. "There are no ordinary people," he said in The Weight of Glory. "You have never talked to a mere mortal." Lewis believed, as did Solomon, that God placed eternity in every human heart-that every person is eternal because every person is made in the image of the eternal God.
Yet, because of sin that image now lies in ruins. But like the ruins of a castle whose outline bespeaks of its former majesty, so our immortality bespeaks of the glory of what should have been and what could be within the human soul.
It is in the ruins that the rebel runs wild. This is why mankind cannot solve mankind's problems. This is why the echo of Kennedy's humanism fades on the shores of eternity. This is why we must surrender-to "lay down our arms"-not to human reason, which also lies in ruins, but to divine reason, which can rebuild and restore the castle of the glory of God within man.
Lewis offers a call that transcends "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." The call Lewis offers is the call of God-of what God can and will do, to and through surrendered souls.
Thousands have been stirred by Kennedy's summons to self-sacrifice-and have served their country with distinction. Thousands more have been saved by Lewis's summons of Christ's sacrifice-and that is why Lewis's legacy will linger long in eternity.
Note: The British author Aldous Huxley, along with C. S. Lewis, and John F. Kennedy, also died on November 22, 1963. Huxley was a widely popular and influential novelist, especially his landmark work, Brave New World, but the impact of Huxley's life and writing on the international stage pales in comparison to Kennedy and Lewis. For this reason, I've not included Huxley in this comparison.
Derrick G. Jeter is a speaker and writer engaging ideals at the crossroads of faith and freedom. A noted speaker on faith, liberty, politics, culture, and history, Derrick writes a popular blog at derrickjeter.com and is the author of O America! A Manifesto on Liberty. Follow him on Twitter @derrickjeter and sign up for his monthly e-newsletter.