Monday, March 21, 2016

Book Review: Mere Christianity

Mere Christianity. C.S. Lewis. 1943. 256 pages. [Source: Library]

I have mixed feelings on C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity. On the one hand, I remember from previous reads that I disagreed with Lewis' theology a handful of times. If it's only a handful of times, why can't I overlook it? Because they are on points where I strongly, strongly disagree. On the other hand, every time I see Lewis quoted in another book, I almost always agree with the quote. And more often than not, the quote in question is either from Mere Christianity or Screwtape Letters. Since I'm more likely to come across Lewis quotes in other books, I tend to think well of him. I was not writing reviews the last time I read Mere Christianity, so this will be my "first" time to put into words exactly how I feel about the book.

Mere Christianity has four sections. The first section is "Right and Wrong as a Clue to The Meaning of the Universe." In this section, Lewis is arguing that a person--any person--can come to the conclusion that there is a God--or a god. In this section, he mentions--several times--that he isn't aiming for proving the existence of "the Christian God." Just the idea of "a god" or "higher power" or "supreme being" etc. He can reach this conclusion because he knows the difference between right and wrong; there is a "natural" knowing of what is right, what is wrong, what is fair, what is unfair. One can "know" without being taught what is good and what is bad. Is this section timeless? Will Lewis' argument stand throughout the generations? I'm not convinced that it will. Sadly. In the decades since the 1940s--when the section was written--the idea or concept of absolute truth has been attacked; not just attacked here and there, but it has been heavily under attack. Holding to absolute truth--good old-fashioned, solid, unchanging truth--has been likened to "Dancing with the Dinosaur." 

Here are some of my favorite quotes from this section:
It seems, then, we are forced to believe in a real Right and Wrong. People may be sometimes mistaken about them, just as people sometimes get their sums wrong; but they are not a matter of mere taste and opinion any more than the multiplication table. (7)
These, then, are the two points I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they 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)
The Law of Human Nature tells you what human beings ought to do and do not. (17)
We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. (28)
If the universe is not governed by an absolute goodness, then all our efforts are in the long run hopeless. But if it is, then we are making ourselves enemies to that goodness every day, and are not in the least likely to do any better tomorrow, and so our case is hopeless again. We cannot do without it, and we cannot do with it. God is the only comfort, He is also the supreme terror: the thing we most need and the thing we most want to hide from. He is our only possible ally, and we have made ourselves His enemies... Goodness is either the great safety or the great danger--according to the way you react to it. (31)
All I am doing is to ask people to face the facts--to understand the questions which Christianity claims to answer. And they are very terrifying facts. I wish it was possible to say something more agreeable. But I must say what I think true. Of course, I quite agree that the Christian religion is, in the long run, a thing of unspeakable comfort. But it does not begin in comfort; it begins in the dismay I have been describing, and it is no use at all trying to go on to that comfort without first going through that dismay. In religion, as in war and everything else, comfort is the one thing you cannot get by looking for it. If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end: if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth--only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair. (32)

 I don't recall disagreeing with anything in this section. So the book makes a good first impression. I especially love the quote about progress and the quote about comfort. This section has some good stuff in it.

The second section of Mere Christianity is "What Christians Believe." This is a thought-provoking section. Lewis has progressed from talking about "a god" to talking about the Christian GOD. This is a thought provoking section; it will most likely keep you engaged as you consider if you agree or disagree with his conclusions, his arguments.

True or False: If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through. If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all those religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of truth... But, of course, being a Christian does mean thinking that where Christianity differs from other religions, Christianity is right and they are wrong. (35)

True or False: Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up (42).

True or False: If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having (48).

True or False: A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic--on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg--or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. (52)

True or false: A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works: indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he has accepted it. We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed. (55)

True or false: A Christian is not a man who never goes wrong, but a man who is enabled to repent and pick himself up and begin over again after each stumble--because the Christ-life is inside him, repairing him all the time, enabling him to repeat (in some degree) the kind of voluntary death which Christ Himself carried out. (63)

Isn't this a peculiar book cover?!
 My favorite quotes from this section:
Enemy-occupied territory--that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. When you go to church you are really listening-in to the secret wireless from our friends: that is why the enemy is so anxious to prevent us from going (46)
Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing. (50)
So far, so good. No big disagreements from me. Note "big." At this point, I'm still thinking the book is good--if not great.

The third section is "Christian Behavior." This section is more on how to live the Christian life, a brief examination of vices to avoid and virtues to pursue.

Food for thought:
An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons--marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who do use them, he has taken the wrong turning. (79)
When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse he understands his own badness less and less. (93)
There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the Church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not. (112)
I said in a previous chapter that chastity was the most unpopular of the Christian virtues. But I am not sure I was right...Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive, as we had during the war. (115)
When you start mathematics you do not begin with calculus; you begin with simple addition. In the same way, if we really want (but all depends on really wanting) to learn how to forgive, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo. (116)
C.S. Lewis on pride:
There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves. And the more we have it ourselves, the more we dislike it in others. (121)
Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind. (122)
C.S. Lewis on charity:
He will give us feelings of love if He pleases. We cannot create them for ourselves, and we must not demand them as a right. But the great thing to remember is that, though our feelings come and go, His love for us does not. It is not wearied by our sins, or our indifference, and, therefore, it is quite relentless in its determination that we shall be cured of those sins, at whatever cost to us, at whatever cost to Him. (133)
C.S. Lewis on hope:
Most of us find it very difficult to want 'Heaven' at all--except in so far as 'Heaven' means meeting again our friends who have died. One reason for this difficulty is that we have not been trained: our whole education tends to fix our minds on this world. Another reason is that when the real want for Heaven is present in us, we do not recognize is. Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. (135)
C.S. Lewis on faith:
Make sure that some of its main doctrines shall be deliberately held before your mind for some time every day. That is why daily prayers and religious readings and church going are necessary parts of the Christian life. We have to be continually reminded of what we believe. Neither this belief nor any other will automatically remain alive in the mind. It must be fed. (141)
Again, I am liking the book so far. Some bits I especially love, love, love. Some bits I question a bit more. But nothing that I strongly, passionately disagree with...yet. The closest I've come is his second chapter on faith which is a lot more confusing than I would like it to be, that it needs to be. He seems to think faith is all about trying, striving, struggling, and then when you've wrestled enough with God, then, and only then do you get "it" that you're not in a place to merit God's favor or to make a bargain. You reach a place--though it may take you years and years and years to get there--that God is enough and that he will supply what you need.

The fourth and final section of the book is "Beyond Personality: Or First Steps in the Doctrine of the Trinity." How I wish there was no fourth section!!! If the book ended with just the first three sections, how happy I would be! I could gladly give it five stars and gush about it being a true must read. In this last section, Lewis puts on his theologian hat. It's not that I disagreed with every single sentence in the remaining chapters. But all the things I disagree with are mostly--exclusively--found in this section.

More food for thought:
Doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of map. But that map is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God. (154)
If you do not listen to Theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones--bad, muddled, out-of-date ideas. For a great many of the ideas about God which are trotted out as novelties today are simply the ones which real Theologians tried centuries ago and rejected. (155)
When you come to knowing God, the initiative lies on His side. If He does not show Himself, nothing you can do will enable you to find Him. And, in fact, He shows much more of Himself to some people than to others--not because He has favorites, but because it is impossible for Him to show Himself to a man whose whole mind and character are in the wrong condition. (164)
He [the devil] always sends errors into the world in pairs--pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one. But do not let us be fooled. We have to keep our eyes on the goal and go straight through between both errors. We have no other concern than that with either of them. (186)
Until you have given up yourself to Him you will not have a real self (226).
Where I disagreed strongly:
He does not 'foresee' you doing things tomorrow; He simply sees you doing them: because, though tomorrow is not yet there for you, it is for Him. You never supposed that your actions at this moment were any less free because God knows what you are doing. Well, He knows your tomorrow's actions in just the same way--because He is already in tomorrow and can simply watch you. In a sense, He does not know your action till you have done it: but then the moment at which you have done it is already 'Now' for him. (170)
There are people in other religions who are being led by God's secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it. For example, a Buddhist of good will may be led to concentrate more and more on the Buddhist teaching about mercy and to leave in the background (though he might still say he believed) the Buddhist teaching on certain other points. Many of the good Pagans long before Christ's birth may have been in this position. And always, of course, there are a great many people who are just confused in mind and have a lot of inconsistent beliefs all jumbled up together. (209)
Have you read Mere Christianity? What did you think?

© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible

1 comment:

Joy said...

Cool to make a bit of a study of CS Lewis during Holy Week!