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.