There are many legitimate responses one could have to C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. A non-Christian could take aim at the book’s assumptions regarding the redemption of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion being tied with Aristotelian ethics. A scoffing progressive could rebuke Mere Christianity’s thoughts on marriage, women, and human sexuality. And an existentialist could simply reject the book’s fundamental assumption that there is an essential aspect of good in each human being and pick apart his Christian beliefs of redemption and immortality
Being a non-Christian, progressive existentialist did not, however, prevent me from appreciating all the components of the book’s fundamental argument. Mere Christianity is a book much more important than my opinion of it or my attempts to argue with it. Whatever our presuppositions or biases, the central moral argument of Mere Christianity deserves serious consideration, as does the historical context within which this powerful and sophisticated argument arose. C.S. Lewis was a man who, among a highly intellectual circle of secular scholars positioned himself as a Christian Apologist and who, in the midst of the Battle of London and the spread of fascism, articulated, in absolute terms, the hope and individualism a Christian society provides.
This book was recommended to me by my Aunt Jai and is the first of only a few books on this list that I already owned and had been planning to read. I had four years of Catholic theology in college, a curriculum I chose to educate myself in, not the history, but the logical and theological underpinnings of the most dominant ideology in human history. Of course, the current Protestantism of mainstream America refutes definitive aspects of Catholic theology, But C.S. Lewis, an Anglican (historically and theologically the most similar to Roman Catholicism), spends the last forty pages of his book infusing the same Trinitarian theology of Nicea and Aquinas that I spent much time contemplating in college with a modern protestant mood.
Lastly, I wanted to read C.S. Lewis’ book because he belongs to a well-populated group of atheist/agnostic intellectual Brits who turned to Christianity after establishing themselves first in their non-religious communities. G.K Chesterton, T.S. Eliot, and Oscar Wilde (though, in Wilde’s case, many think this was out of near death delirium) are the most famous in this group, with Chesterton and Lewis becoming the most famous ‘Christian’ writers. T.S. Eliot’s conversion is the one I’ve found most intriguing. He is a modernist poet who is famous for writing about sexual inadequacy and the despair of the modern man and is steeped in eastern traditions, and yet, late in life, he turned to the Anglican Church. C.S. Lewis’ book made the contexts of Eliot’s a bit more clear for me, but it’s the dichotomy of Eliot’s life overall that intrigues me. It’s like Helen Keller, our great American child-hero who grew up to be a communist and an active member of the Industrial Workers of the World.
Mere Christianity is the conglomeration of several different texts. The first part, A Case for Christianity, was a radio address broadcast during the Battle of Britain, when every night Londoners faced the horrors of Hitler’s bombs being dropped on their city. There is an undertone of crisis and assurance throughout the first part, when it seems there is an implied necessity to write down and express the fundamental morals and everlasting life of those in a Christian society. This undertone is brought to the surface later when Lewis is talking about the immortality of the human that Christianity asserts:
“Immortality makes this other difference, which . . .has a connection with the difference between totalitarianism and democracy. If individuals live only seventy years, then a state, or a nation, or a civilization, which may last for a thousand years, is more important than an individual. But if Christianity is true, then the individual is not only more important but incomparably more important, for he is everlasting and the life of a state or civilization, compared with his, is only a moment (p.75)”
It is a supremely historical statement that proves there was a time, just as London was being bombed and France was surrendering, where one felt a need to combat Fascism at its fundamental beliefs. Today, the horrifying results of Fascism, rather than just its ideology, disprove the validity of Fascist ideas, but C.S. Lewis had to compare a popular and powerful ideology to Christianity. To defeat the suicidal patriotism and nationalist mania that fascism offered, Lewis invoked an omnipotent, invincible adversary in the form of Christian immortality. He is making the case for the importance of the individual (and their relationship with God) over the state at the brink of the fiery historical moment where Fascists and Stalinists were destroying individuals in the name of the state. (Of course, much less appallingly, in America we were setting up internment camps for the sake of the state.)
Mere Christianity’s fundamental argument, occupying the first 2/3 of this book, is as follows: there is a natural law of morality in the world which we can all sense by our natural understanding of right and wrong: don’t kill, don’t lie, etc. And like our natural physical laws of force and gravity we need this Natural Moral Law to function as human beings and in civilization just as laws of gravity are needed for planets to exist and for the sun to warm us. The existence of this law, which is understood by humans but is universal and much bigger than human beings, implies the existence of a force greater than human beings, namely God. However, we are able to break these laws and defy what is right. Lewis writes:
“The Moral Law, or Law of Human Nature, is not simply a fact about human behavior in the same way as the Law of Gravitation is, or may be, simply a fact about how heavy objects behave. On the other hand, it is not a mere fancy, for we cannot get rid of the idea, and most of the things we say and think about men would be reduced to nonsense if we did (p.20)”
After addressing several different viewpoints and detailing this connection between morality and God, Lewis moves on to the purpose of morality (or the Natural Law) for human beings. This is the crux of his argument: that morality is concerned with three things:
“Firstly, with fair play and harmony between individuals. Secondly, with what might be called tidying up or harmonizing the things inside each individual. Thirdly, with the general purpose of human life as a whole: what man was made for: what course the whole fleet ought to be on (p. 72)”
Defining morality this way is very useful, and this thought process is the most lasting idea I will take from this book. It can be applied to many aspects of life and is a decent way to judge decisions made by oneself and others. In politics it could provide an especially useful thought process for determining the purposes and ends of a country’s actions. Are we giving money to failing businesses to create “harmony between individuals,” or are we doing so to define “the general purpose” of our government? Does giving money to failing businesses coincide with the general purpose of “the whole fleet?” And are these various ends –fair play, harmony, larger purpose – compatible with each other? In deciding which books to read (as you know, an overwrought process for me), I might ask, for example, do I read Hamlet because it “tidies up or harmonizes” things inside myself or because of “the general purpose” of my life “as a whole?” And what about “the fleet?”
For Lewis, Christianity satisfies all three of morality’s demands, through fundamental relations between men (i.e., Ten Commandments), individual harmony (Christ’s teachings) and purpose of human life (immorality of the soul with belief in Christ and the purpose of The Church and Christian community). He spends much of the rest of the book going over ‘Cardinal’ Christian virtues to satisfy morality’s parts 2 and 3 and in the end lucidly and exhaustively explains Trinitarian theology.
As a Christian apologist and Oxford intellectual, C.S. Lewis’s text gives full respect to his audience. Not once, even at the points that rely the most on his personal faith, does it ever say anything like “If you don’t get this, it’s not written for you anyway” (Intro to The Shack). Its objective is to explain the morality and purpose of Christianity, and the text never wavers. It is straightforward without being pompous, informing without proselytizing. At the same time it seems the text is attempting to document Lewis’s own conversion, which was not through a sudden revelation, but through the despair of impermanence he felt as an atheist and the path that led him to Christ as a moralist. In this way C.S. Lewis, through this book, becomes an apologist, speaking directly to his peers who he spiritually and intellectually parted ways with in his movement of faith.
Classic Catholic theology was appealing to me because I was taught Christianity in the most objective way possible and was able to focus on the logic and few fundamental assumptions a believer makes in adopting a theology. C.S. Lewis comes very close to doing the same. In some ways I have surprised myself that I did not attempt to argue with C.S. Lewis or to expose his fundamental assumptions. I find the book so thoroughly perfect in carrying out what it attempts to do, that I feel it would be wrong – that I would risk missing the larger historical point – if I were to argue with its theological fine points. Beyond his motives to do so (rebuking Nazi’s and explaining to peers), he gives a focused and thorough explanation of Christianity, with a logical moral explanation as to its necessity and purpose for the human race. It is for this reason that the book is outstanding and should be read by those with or without faith.