mere christianity

Mere Christianity, by C. S. Lewis

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  1. Just finished CS Lewis’s two apologetics Mere Christianity (MC) and The Screwtape Letters (SL), both expertly written and a joy to read (or listen to).

    The SL covers most of the same excellent points about human nature as MC, but from the perspective of the Devil as opposed to the perspective of God as in MC – fun to read together!

    I loved the sage teaching, embraced by Christianity, and so well-articulated by CS Lewis:

    • The Golden Rule
    • Do not judge
    • On psychosocial charity: “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did.” (MC 131)
    • “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality” (SL 63)
    • Progress sometimes means stopping and turning around to go in another direction (see below discussion of Wittgenstein under “ERRORS OF OMISSION”)
    • True humility isn’t thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less
    • Slow and steady wins the race (in whichever direction you are moving): “Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts,…Your affectionate uncle, Screwtape” (SL 24)

    Although CS Lewis sometimes talks about these teachings as if they are uniquely or necessarily Christian, they are not, of course, but instead are embraced by countless non-Christian and nonreligious people across the world.

    I especially liked the PARADOXICAL points, the ones that at first glance may be counterintuitive but actually make sense. For example:

    – PRETENDING, or just going through the motions seems bad at first, but indeed, it is true that sometimes these motions (one’s actions) actually facilitate the true sentiment we wish we had. If you are grumpy, eg, and yet force yourself to be kind and to look happy, you then actually feel less grumpy and kinder. “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did.” This kind of good pretense leads to the real thing (MC 131, 188, 193-4).

    – COMPLACENCY and MISTAKING YOUR RELATIONSHIP TO THE WORLD: “Prosperity knits a man to the world. He feels that he is finding his place in it, while really it is finding its place in him” (SL 60).

    – YOUR REAL SELF will not come as long as you are looking for it. “You will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making … Give up yourself, and you will find your real self” (MC 225).

    – ORIGINALITY. “In literature and art, no man [sic] who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it (MC 226).

    – ERRORS OF OMISSION. “It is funny how mortals always picture us [devils] as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out…” (SL 7). This one is particularly relevant for those diagnosticians among us – if you don’t include the correct diagnosis in your list of differential diagnoses, you will never arrive at the correct diagnosis. More broadly, it is reminiscent of many profoundly important aspects of being human. For instance, see David Foster Wallace’s oft-cited commencement address “This is Water,” about failing to see what is all around us (like water if you’re a fish). Also, as Grayling notes in the excellent Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction, this was the error – viz, neglect, or not seeing, in this case not seeing something essentially wrong with his early work – that led Wittgenstein, probably the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, to repudiate his early work and move ahead in a very different direction with his very important later work (p. 60).

    – THE DYING AWAY of initial thrills, infatuations, being in love, etc., actually gives life to something better: “Thrills come at the beginning and do not last. The sort of thrill a boy has at the first idea of flying will not go on when he has joined the R.A.F. and is really learning to fly. The thrill you feel on first seeing some delightful place dies away when you really go to live there. Does this mean it would be better not to learn to fly and not to live in the beautiful place? By no means. In both cases, if you go through with it, the dying away of the first thrill will be compensated for by a quieter and more lasting kind of interest” (MC 110)

    – CHARITY. “If you are a nice person — if virtue comes easily to you — beware!” (MC 215). You have to do much more to be a good person, to be charitable, than does someone to whom virtue, for whatever reason, does not come easily. This is of course a corollary of the Bible story of the “poor widow gave two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents,” but who actually gave much more than the “rich people [who] threw in large amounts” (MC 214-5, and Mark 12:41-44).

    As mentioned above, most of these also are all excellent pieces of morality but not exclusively Christian, as CS Lewis makes them sound.

    I also loved his rich use of illustrative examples:

    For instance, in discussing his position that there is a “Rule of Human Nature or Right Conduct,” a universal and timeless sense of morality, he anticipates someone citing the counterexample of the horrible killing of “witches” (MC 14) to show how misled our morals are/were. But to illustrate his point that “there is no difference of moral principle here: the difference is simply about matter of fact. It may be a great advance in knowledge not to believe in witches: there is no moral advance in not executing them when you do not think they are there,” he uses the example: “You would not call a man humane for ceasing to set mousetraps if he did so because he believed there were no mice in the house” (MC 15). The book is chock-full of great illustrative examples of his points.

    I was much less a fan of his tendency towards literalism and false dichotomies.

    For example, at the beginning of MC, he sets up a false dichotomy: there are either those “who believe in some kind of God or gods,” or else the “modern Western European materialist” who do not. The tendency of theists to see atheists as materialists is unfortunate. Why someone would think material things are the most important things in the world for people who happen not to believe in God is beyond me, and akin to the tendency to think that morality somehow uniquely depends on God and religion, that only theists can be good people.

    CS Lewis’s literalism shows through particularly in the famous passage about the (false) dichotomy of Christ being either God or a lunatic (MC 52-3). Another dedicated Christian writer, Marcus Borg, points this out in his book, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary:

    “When the gospels are read through the lens of biblical literalism … the literal factuality of their language is either taken for granted or emphasized. The gospel stories of Jesus’s miraculous birth and his spectacular deeds are understood as reporting events that really happened. When John’s gospel reports that Jesus said about himself, ‘I am the light of the world,’ ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life,’ ‘The Father and I are one,’ ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father, and ‘No one comes to the Father except through me,’ it means that Jesus really said these things. Thus the stories of Jesus’s mighty deeds and his grand self-affirmations are all read as historically factual reports: he did and said these things. [I think that most scholars agree that there is no convincing evidence that Jesus ever said or thought these things.] This way of seeing the gospels is the basis for C. S. Lewis’s oft-quoted statement [about Christ being either God or a lunatic]” (p. 18).

    Reading the Bible as literal is so dangerous – has been life-threatening for some – that is for me often a deal-breaker.

    To make matters worse he has that same us-vs-them, self-righteous, arrogant stance that many religious have for other religions, seen when he tries to explain “why horrible nations have horrible religions” (MC 165). In line with this myopia, he – like many Christian teachers and authors – connects God to love in a necessary way that drives me a little bonkers because it excludes nearly half the human population from love: “I may repeat [the Golden Rule] till I am black in the face, but I cannot really carry it out till I love my neighbour as myself: and I cannot learn to love my neighbour as myself till I learn to love God” (MC 87). I get that God helps some people love, but to say that God is necessary for love, is to say that half the world (the non-Abrahamic world, including nonaffiliated loving humans) is unable to love, which is absurd. Hindus, Buddhists, agnostics, and atheists are some of the most loving people I know, and experience not only eros and philia love, but even agape love, which despite Christian appropriation, is not originally a Christian term.

    However, I can overlook these issues to see the positive in the books and highly recommend both, and especially reading them together. Thoughts? Comments?

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