I went into reading “Mere Christianity” with some trepidation, having read “The Abolition of Man.” I worried I’d stop in the middle because the material was dry or hard to understand. I’ve had this on my list to read though because this book is one of C.S. Lewis’ most quoted works I find while reading books by Christian authors. I had read so many Lewis quotes, but I hadn’t read the original source for myself.
I’m happy that I enrolled in the free, online course “C.S. Lewis on Christianity” at Hillsdale College, and I’ll provide information at the end for you. Watching literary critic and theologian, Dr. Michael Ward give lectures in stylish glasses with a British accent helped me better understand the material I read after the lecture.
The BBC had given Lewis the assignment to explain what Christians in general believe and agree on (doctrine) apart from denominational differences. Lewis used the transcripts to put together the book known as “Mere Christianity.” I saw this as a study from the viewpoint of a philosopher-by-trade since Lewis tutored students in philosophy, his first love. He also dabbled in sociology and psychology as well as literature to fine-tune his arguments. He saw himself in a rather humble position, a beginner to Christianity, which lent a “come-alongside-me” quality to his writing on the topic.
I wanted to share some of the insights in this book, so I took notes, but looking at the pile I created, I didn’t know where to start this review. And then I had a lightbulb moment: “Mere Christianity” is not a book you read one time, but one you return to often. Using Lewis’ own words and ideas, I will attempt to share some of his insights into the Christian faith I’ve gleaned from this classic work.
Human beings have always been aware that something is directing the universe. Lewis started with pantheism, which has the view that God is beyond good and evil. Pantheists believe everything in the universe has a bit of God in it. In contrast, Christianity (Monotheism) believes one God created the universe. He is separate from the world and from things that are contrary to His will. How did this world go wrong then if He created it? As an atheist, Lewis said his “argument against God was that the universe seemed cruel and unjust.” But then, he wondered what he was comparing the universe with by saying it was unjust. Where had “this idea of just and unjust” originated? (38). That question is what led him to the realization that atheism is “too simple. If the universe [had] no meaning, we should never have found out that it [had] no meaning…” (39).
I mentioned in my last blog post that Lewis spent time at the beginning of the book showing how humans have this universal knowledge of a Law of Human Nature, an objective moral law. We know the difference between good and evil. Many of us have this sense that we want to become good, decent people. We want to do the right thing in people’s eyes, especially when those actions we take are praised for the good that we do in society. We want to see others as good people. And we judge others’ behavior based on these ideas of good and evil.
Lewis would say, “Why else do countries go to war with one another?” One country thinks they are in the right; the other country thinks they are in the right. They each see the other country as evil and a threat to civilization. Where did they come up with these beliefs in good and evil? You could say “teachers told them about these things,” or “parents told them.” But someone would have had to pass on this truth to others. Could this be something all humans have a knowledge of from their birth? Lewis said he realized if we have a moral law, then we must have a moral law Giver.
I did think of John Lennon’s song “Imagine” while writing that last part about how we wished that we and other would behave. We want peace, but we see anything but that in the news, on social media, or on TV. We want the world to live as one, but we humans tend to put ourselves first. Some of us grew up in the U.S. where we’ve learned about self-reliance and having a personal truth, an independent nature, to the point that we tend to look less to the common good in our communities. Sadly, even though we want to be our best selves, we fail at practicing that good behavior.
And yet, we love stories of people who are selfless and caring. My nephew, Jared; his lovely lady, Jacki; and Dad, Chip, are all firefighters (EMTs & paramedics). I pray for them often. I have heard stories about most of the calls from my mom since I live here in Dayton. I marvel over their skills and ability to witness terrible destruction and crisis situations in others’ lives, while mentally push through it to help people. I’m so proud of them. People like them do exist. People who put others before themselves and risk their lives daily for us.
Where does that drive come from? Lewis would say it is a God-given ability, whether you are a believer or not. He said some people believe they’ve never been helped by God. They don’t see Him at work in the world. They put their faith in imperfect people. People who make mistakes. People who will let us down, he said. People sadly who will die. Any good we humans do come from the same source, Lewis continued, and that source is Christ — even when the person isn’t a Christian.
“Individuals are not really separate from God any more than from one another. Every man, woman, and child all over the world is feeling and breathing at this moment only because God, so to speak, is ‘keeping him going’” (180).
We are God’s created works of art who Lewis compared first to “statues” and then to “tin soldiers” that children use to play pretend war games. He likened the world to ‘a great sculptor’s shop.” He said, “We are the statues and there is a rumor going round the shop that some of us are someday going to come to life” (159). Both illustrations were a creative way of explaining the difference between us as humans and God’s Son, Jesus, who took on human flesh (the Incarnation) and dwelled among us. Lewis here enhanced my knowledge of the overall rescue plan God put in place at the beginning of the Bible after the fall of humanity. I will try to do my best to try to faithfully render the nuggets of wisdom here.
Now, you’ve heard people say, “We’re all God’s children.” Some even think themselves “littles gods” and talk about having a “divine spark” within them. But Lewis said, “In our natural state, we are not sons of God, only (so to speak) statues,” Lewis said. “We have not got ‘Zoe,’ or spiritual life within us: only Bios or biological life which is presently going to run down and die” (177). “We are only made by [God]” – not begotten by Him, like Jesus. Jesus shares God’s divine nature, and because He does, when he took on human flesh, He had the capability we didn’t have of paying the debt for our sins. He experienced every pain, heartache, and temptation, and He had to put to death every part of his natural man that Satan tried to steer in the wrong direction while He walked the earth. Jesus then went to the cross and killed the natural man.
When He rose again the third day, Lewis said, “the human creature in [Jesus], because it was united to the divine Son, came to life again. The Man in Christ rose again: not only the God. That is the whole point. For the first time we saw a real man. One tin soldier – real tin, just like the rest – had come fully and splendidly alive” (180).
When we accept Jesus as Savior, Lewis said we align ourselves with Him in such a way that we catch what he called “the good infection” (181). We receive His “Zoe,” the Holy Spirit. We become a new creature and are adopted as sons and daughters of the living God.
But if Christians share in the very Spirit of Christ, then why aren’t all Christians nicer people in general? Lewis received such a question and has an answer. He knew that Christians are often seen as unloving, judgmental hypocrites. Christians are still human, even while they are “new creations.” They are going through a transformative process that’s called “sanctification,” a fancy word for saying that God is working within them to make them more like Jesus. He starts that work from day one of salvation until He takes them home to be with Him in Heaven.
Lewis said you also will know a Christian by their fruit. God will work to change that person over time if they allow Him to do so. But that last part is key. While we didn’t have a choice to be born that first time around, he said, we do have a choice to be born again. It’s like the picture at my front door. Jesus stands outside the door of our hearts. We must choose to open our hearts to Jesus.
I read reviews on Goodreads about this book, and one guy wrote that he thought of Lewis as a cardigan-wearing, pipe-smoking gent. I can see that. Some didn’t read within the context of the time period for these talks. They had a problem with Lewis’ choice of illustrations that were mostly based on WWII and his language choices. Some one-star reviewers said they stopped reading this book. They thought Lewis jumped right in to talk about God and the Christian faith.
I was like, “Dude. Lewis left God out of the argument for as long as he intended to, but – hello! – the book is called, “Mere Christianity.” Eventually, yes, he would have to talk about God. He would have to talk about Christianity. Why call it “Mere Christianity” otherwise?”
But I’m a choir audience, I know.
Others didn’t understand Lewis’ humor – and he’s quite humorous. Maybe people are too serious for Lewis?
Lewis amused me several times when he encouraged me not to bother with a chapter or train of thought he shared. In his chapter “Time and Beyond Time,” Lewis said this at the top of page 166:
“It is a very silly idea that in reading a book you must never ‘skip.’ All sensible people skip freely when they come to a chapter which they find is going to be no use to them. In this chapter, I am going to talk about something which may be helpful to some readers, but which may seem to others merely an unnecessary complication. If you are one of the second sort of readers, then I advise you not to bother about this chapter at all but to turn on to the next.”
In the chapter “Faith,” Lewis understood that Christians are all on the same path, just at different points in their faith journey. He said,
“If this chapter means nothing to you, if it seems to be trying to answer questions you never asked, drop it at once. Do not bother about it at all. There are certain things in Christianity that can be understood from the outside before you have become a Christian. But there are a great many things that cannot be understood until after you have gone a certain distance along the Christian road.
“Whenever you find any statement in Christian writings which you can make nothing of, do not worry. Leave it alone. There will come a day, perhaps years later, when you suddenly see what it meant. If one could understand it now, it would only do one harm”“Mere Christianity,” 144
I don’t know why I put off reading “Mere Christianity” until now. Lewis is quite an enjoyable writer. I guess I thought his books would be too scholarly or something. Lewis presented his finding on the Christian faith like a philosopher and like a student of the Bible. Except for word choices and illustrations, he often made observations of us humans and our world that made him timeless to me. He could easily have been addressing an audience today on a YouTube channel.
And I did have the thought: Does every pastor memorize this book? I told my mom this week, “I have found it — the stash of secret knowledge!”
I highly recommend the course I mentioned above. Dr. Michael Ward is a distinguished visiting professor who studied English at Oxford and theology at the University of Cambridge. He received his PhD from the University of St. Andrews. When you enroll, you will see that each class has a study guide with suggested readings. While you listen, you can take notes in the block provided at the right of the screen. Each class has a final quiz. You can retake it, too, if you don’t like your first grade. Hope you’ve found this information helpful, and here’s the link for this book online. Let me know your thought about Lewis’ arguments.
Oh, and if you’re a Jane Austen fan, you also can enroll in “The Young Jane Austen: Northanger Abbey,” this free, online course at Hillsdale College.