“The ‘mere’ Christianity of C.S. Lewis…is a way of life, one that challenges us always to remember, as [he once said]: ‘There are no ordinary people’ and that ‘it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit.’” – Kathleen Norris, editor
C.S. Lewis’ book “Mere Christianity” is a classic loved by so many people today for the straight-forward way he talked to Britons during and after WWII about what Christians believe. Lewis wrote the book from transcripts of his talk over the BBC airwaves between 1942-1944. He had served as an infantryman in World War I and an air warden in WWII, so he had personal experience with his topics. He also had been an atheist at one point in his life, a theist, and then a believer in Jesus Christ. He knew those serving in the Royal Air Force might not return. Some would be declared dead or missing, and they knew that. He talked about suffering, pain, good and evil and gathered these speeches into the book I’m reading now.
Kathleen Norris, the editor of this edition, said “this is a book that begs to be seen in its historical context, as a bold act of storytelling and healing in a world gone mad.” While that’s true, I’ve noticed the timelessness of Lewis’ words. The world is still going mad, and people today need to hear about the same subjects he covered for his believing and unbelieving neighbors. The book is made up of four parts:
Book 1: Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe
Book 2: What Christians Believe
Book 3: Christian Behavior
Book 4: Beyond Personality, or First Steps in the Doctrine of the Trinity
Lewis would send the second part to four clergy members in different denominations to check over his theology since he didn’t count himself as a theologian. He added a few details later, he said, when he knew more about the subjects he spoke on. Otherwise, he wanted to keep the integrity of those first spoken words addressing Britons during and after wartime.
I’m almost through Book 3 and wanted to start to write about some of what I am learning about these beliefs Christians hold in common. I will write about these things in different blog posts so it’s not lengthy. Let me start with Lewis’ first argument. He begins with what we as humans, believers and unbelievers alike, know about right and wrong as a whole. The Law of Nature means something different today, he said, in that some think it has to do with the Earth, like the law of gravitation. He’s talking about human nature though and how we innately know right from wrong. No one had to teach us. Different civilizations might have different moral beliefs, but we in common know good vs. evil, right vs. wrong. He gave a few examples, so I’ll riff on that a bit:
Imagine you’ve set your stuff down at Starbucks to do some work and someone has moved your stuff. You’d lose it, right? You do and who could blame you? How dare that person move your stuff! Such an affront is not to be taken lightly. You take it personally. Maybe that person apologizes and gives you back your spot. Well done, Sir! Maybe instead that person is a total jerk and says, “Too bad for you. Go find another table. I need this spot for the lighting. I’m filming a makeup tutorial.” (The following scenes are completely hypothetical and fictional. No real people were harmed in the making of this example.)
Now, why should you expect a stranger to know right from wrong or justice from injustice? We expect it because we share that knowledge between those concepts in common. In fact, Lewis pulled together material in his book “The Abolition of Man” to show that the moral teachings of various civilizations have many similarities, not disparities. Right and wrong are not a matter of taste or opinion, he said, and yet none of us are keeping this Law of Nature well. We fail. We don’t “practice the behavior we expect from other people,” (7) and Lewis says we make excuses for why we don’t, which begs the question: “Why would we be anxious enough to make excuses for our behavior if there was not an ideal right behavior?” (8)
You can probably see Lewis as a philosopher is showing through. Indeed! In fact, what I love about this book is how he draws up these arguments. He will say he has two points to make, and then he makes two points fairly quickly in short chapters. They can be read and easily digested before you read the next discussion. Lewis summarizes his argument at the end of each chapter, but also, when he picks up the next topic in his talk. He summarizes the argument he made in the first chapter here:
- Human beings, all over the world, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it.
- Human beings do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it.
“These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.” (8) We didn’t create the Law of Human Nature. It’s “a real law which we did not invent and which we know we ought to obey” (21).
Lewis said he received letters from people asking him to discuss what is moral law or these rules we hold within about what we deem decent behavior. He says Law of Human Nature is one of the truths we can place alongside mathematics. Our differences in moral ideas among civilizations are not that significant, he said. Mere conventions may differ, but other cultures have the same ideal right way of behaving in mind. Think about when we place sanctions against other countries. How can we ask them to do the right thing if they don’t share that common Law of Human Nature? We can learn about moral behavior and social conventions from our parents and teachers, but we are born with a sense of justice and injustice, right and wrong.
What if it’s just instinct? Lewis can agree that some instincts exist, like motherhood, the survival instinct to find food sources for you and your family. The instinct to procreate may be in part because you want to continue your ancestral line. The desire to help others though because you believe you should — that’s not mere instinct. He calls that “moral law.” “The Moral Law tells us the tune we have to play: our instincts are merely the keys” (10).
Lewis then moves into the theories people have for how the universe came to be: materialist view vs. religious view. Science can’t tell you the truth about the creation of the universe, he said, because science works by experimentation and observation. The origin of the universe isn’t something they will find through the scientific method. They might have theories at best. He asks his audience, “Does the universe exist for no reason or is there a power behind that makes it what it is?” (24) You can, of course, deduce that he believes the latter, but so far Lewis hasn’t talked about God yet in Book 1. He lays out the foundation first without jumping ahead. I felt that he ultimately wanted people to understand how he himself went from being an atheist to being a theist to becoming a Christian in these talks.
I hope I have explained these ideas well from that first book. I am taking a class online through Hilldale College on C.S. Lewis’ writings with Dr. Michael Ward. I will pick up where I left off in my next blog post. I am reading this particular paperback that I received from my brother John years ago at Christmas. Please let me know if you’ve started reading along with me. You also can find a free copy online here. Happy reading!