C.S. Lewis: Mere Christianity

CS Lewis. (Image by Taylor Marshall)

As with The Problem of Pain, one reading is not enough to identify a coherent theme, although in the case of Mere Christianity the work is immensely more readable. The reason for this is that it derives from a series of wartime talks given by the author and broadcast by the BBC between 1942 and 1944. Thus the style is easy, conversational even. The content is, however, taut and deceptively difficult, even though richly supported by verbal illustration and analogy.

Lewis asserts that he provides a common base for all Christianity, irrespective of denomination, and this he hopes to achieve by avoiding controversial theological issues. The marked omission is a treatment of transubstantiation, that crucial dividing line between Roman Catholic and Protestant and a divergence between the approaches of Luther and Calvin. Yet this is no loss, because the question is, to a non-Christian, of no theological consequence whatsoever.

In Christianity, however, as Lewis explains in a different context, the relation to the physical world is important. God becomes flesh, and it is the body that is resurrected after death. Physical love is something to be relished. So how to regard the elements of the eucharist does matter. God, though, is decidedly not Nature, there is no concession to pantheism.

He states clearly that it is not his purpose to convert. After demonstrating that the sense of right and wrong is innate to humanity – the Natural Law – he shows how this may be extended to give meaning to the universe, a question never asked by science. God gives us the choice to be good or bad and offers us, through the redemptive nature of his son, the opportunity to repent and make good our wrongs for all eternity. Lewis uses the word ‘sin’, which is an overloaded expression in modern times. It is unfortunate that the devil is a fallen angel – one who made the wrong choice – and is constantly there tempting us along the wrong road. There is no alternative but to give up our will entirely to Christ and we shall then achieve our full glory as individuals and share with Him in heaven.

If it is to be taken literally, all this may seem a little far-fetched to an outsider. Lewis is adamant, though: it is the reality. It is as well to note, then, that he started out as an atheist. He found it hard to continue in opposition to the vast majority of humanity and it was an intense relief when the light dawned on him while on a motor car journey.

Lewis was no intellectual slouch. At Oxford he defended Christianity over a number of years against all-comers in the Socratic Society. Not until an encounter with fellow Christian and Catholic philosopher, G. E. M. Anscombe, was his confidence shaken. She said he mistakenly equated irrational causes with non-rational causes, and confused the concepts of cause, reason and explanation. This, he said, undermined his whole argument against Naturalism – the contention that God is Nature.

No matter. He tackles the matter of the Trinity. Isaac Newton was a Unitarian, so it is, perhaps, fitting that Lewis should use a mathematical analogy. Consider the restrictions of the one-dimensional world of the line, expand it to the square of two dimensions and finally to the cube of of three dimensions. A square has just four lines, but a cube has twelve edges and six faces. So it is not hard to see a picture that what to us is three, in a higher order becomes the three-in-one of Father, Son and Holy Ghost and has existed since before time itself. The Son is begotten – not, like you and me, created – of the Father and the Holy Ghost is that which dwells within us

A Christian who faithfully pursues a life of Christ and becomes a ‘New Man’ is occasionally recognisable in the seven virtues with which he is blessed. There are four cardinal virtues: prudence, temperance, justice and fortitude – in modern language, common-sense, moderation, fairness and bravery with endurance. Then the three theological virtues, faith hope and charity – hope is in the hereafter which sharpens the good that can be done in this world; charity is love, not alms, and is not emotional but a state of will that has to be learned. Central is humility, limitless forgiveness and a refusal to judge others. Forgiveness must have been hard for his wartime audience to swallow: Christianity does not claim to be an easy path.

The faith promises to make us Sons of God, like Christ himself, by becoming Him, thus achieving the purpose of God’s creation.

Lewis’s smooth tongue and strange amalgam of logic and metaphysics are hard to resist. Contrary to his object of providing a description of the Christian religion common to all sects, what we writes instead is sermon and a highly personal confession of faith.

There is little here of the ascetic or spiritual experience, and in that respect it is stark. God is no pacifist, and thus we need have no qualm to punish a wrongdoer or to kill in battle. Remember these were wartime talks and he himself had fought in the Great War.

Where I do profoundly agree with him, however, and experience commonly with him, is the discovery of the peace and tranquility which Christianity and the community of Christians bring to the troubles, regrets and traumas that characterise the journey through life. Unlike any other religion, Christianity provides a glimpse of God’s personality that is neither anthropomorphic nor austere. For that I have no explanation.


11 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis: Mere Christianity

  1. It is decades since I read Lewis’ nonfiction writings (leaning more toward his scholarly musings — The Four Loves, The Discarded Image) — and while I picked up both Problem of Pain and Mere Christianity, they came across, to a non-Christian, as exercises in proving things that couldn’t be proven on the face of them.

    Yet in his fiction, poems and short essays, things which I have read to tatters, he shows more insight into human nature and relationships than most people who preen themselves as psychologists.

    I have often wondered whether his epiphany was not in part a succumbing to the discomfort of entertaining an unpopular perspective. For all his opposition to a naturistic Deism, he was a champion of the natural world and the pagan elements in his fiction or verse are much more vivid and compelling than his theological ratiocination.

    I agree with the point you articulate, that his attempts to define what makes a Christian are anything but general. (It has likewise been some time since I read “Surprised By Joy,” but I fuzzily remember thinking “Aha — so that is why he was so drawn to this element of Christian faith.”)

    I confess to being baffled about why someone would feel it necessary to engage in mathematical speculation about imaginary beings in the context of pursuing virtues — it strikes me as an attempt to gild superstition with rationality — but I will always have an affection for Lewis that I do not have for people whose viewpoint I would be more likely to agree with, Bertrand Lord Russell say.

    • You tempt me into more CS Lewis. How sadly I have neglected my education!

      To be fair to his use of mathematics, it was by way of analogy. He is always careful to say that questions of faith are beyond human understanding. In any event, the mathematics is decidedly naïve and itself questionable.

      In fact, Lewis’s treatment of religion has only the trappings of logic and the carriage of reason. It would defy any serious rational analysis. The need for illustration and analogy is the give-away. That said, the process of logic itself has to begin with assumption or observation and depends on a belief in consistency. That is where I am less comfortable with Russell than I am with Lewis. In all humility, of course.

      Lewis’s love of the natural world is entirely in harmony with his religious views as expressed in the book.

      • I recommend the poems. (The earliest were written while he still professed atheism; remarkably little of his poetic output is overtly Christian. The short epigrams are among the best of their kind.) And even the pencil-snapping moments in “That Hideous Strength” (which has instances of condescension to women that probably made even his friends cringe) are bearable because of the vigor of the narrative and invention, and the beauty of the language.

        • Thank you, Sled.

          Yes, I must say I warmed to him when I read that the man should be the head of the house and that women, after all, like it that way. Perfectly logical.

          • In “Hideous Strength” the Ideal Wife (sort of) character deprecates her own conversation and excuses her husband for ignoring it. Despite Lewis’ repeated assertions within the narrative that a marriage should always be open to children (which is apparently his female protagonist’s grave error, horrors, she used rubbers) the two idealized wives in the story have none. And his sadistic lesbian police chief is a caricature of a lesbian, though as a sadistic police chief she’s pretty believable. There’s a woman doctor and she is only ever called “Miss.” :\ But it’s still a cracking good read.

  2. Very interesting summary of Lewis’ beliefs. And quite a bold move of his to avoid splintering the various Christian beliefs concerning transubstantiation. I did not appreciate this schism among Christians until I was 14 years old. I remember my grandmother, Rosalie, entertaining us before we visited her devout sisters in Anna, Texas in 1964, where half the town was Baptist and half was Methodist. She went on and on about those “errant” Methodists. (She was a Baptist until she offended the entire community by marrying my grandfather, a Jewish man from New Orleans in around 1925 or so.)

    I am pleased to know that your personal religious beliefs do bring you the peace and tranquility we all seek. I have a number of friends who believe as you do and they too, find solace in their Christian approach to evil, trauma, and injustice.

    For myself, I cannot think of God with a personality. The best way I can channel this Creator-force is to look at the sky every night, which I do. Whether the sky is dotted with a million stars against a black velvet canvas or whether the stars are hidden behind a thick and misty grey-black fog bank, I am comforted by the majesty.

    Your last sentence reveals your depth of intellect and faith: truly, we have no explanation, just our own “sense” of things.

    • There is now a much greater respect for other denominations and for ecumenism than there was even fifty years ago. I remember how Presbyterians regarded themselves as far and away intellectually superior to Baptists, yet Baptists drew the crowds while Presbyterian congregations dwindled. Lewis would have been keenly aware of the splintering you mention, and was anxious not to offend Christian listeners:

      “… [I sent] what is now Book II [“What Christians Believe”] to four clergymen (Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic) and asking them for their criticism. The Methodist thought I had not said enough about Faith, and the Roman Catholic thought I had gone rather too far about the comparative unimportance of theories in explanation of the atonement. Otherwise all five of us were agreed. … ” Lewis was an Anglican.

      I can imagine you, a highly intelligent, spirited young teenager taking a poor view of the Christian infighting. Rosalie, no doubt, was obliged to give up her Baptist religion for Judaism. There is much more understanding between Christians and Jews these days and of the common heritage. An interesting family background.

      At risk of boring you with my belief in a personal God, I can only refer you to a series of vivid experiences I had when a law student in my early twenties, experiences which have never been erased and which acquired substance as I matured. I had studied science in the Sixth Form prior to entering articles. I am keenly aware of the vulnerability of any conclusion I may draw from these to counter-argument (there are a number of physiological ones) and I remain unconvinced of all aspects of doctrine or of the certainties of the faith. If anything, certainty has a diminishing effect.

      This sully into ‘non-fiction’, if that is what it is, Cheri, leaves me curiously dissatisfied – or is it unsatisfied? What should I read next?

  3. I want to know about your experiences when you were a law student.
    Please share. As to what to read next, let me think about your question.

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