Mere Christianity Book I, Chapter 4

Mere Christianity: Book 1, Chapter 4

If you were given time on NPR, our closest equivalent to the BBC, to talk to people about “the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people,” (Jude 3) where would you start? Maybe a scripture verse?

It’s intriguing that C.S. Lewis hasn’t at this point even mentioned the Bible. It seems to me he is trying to build a bridge to people by referencing something that is a shared experience among nearly all people and leading them to answer a question about the universe.

Question: How does Lewis summarize the progress of his argument so far?

Answer: There are two types of laws at work: 1. The Laws of Nature; and 2. The Law of Human Nature.

“The Laws of Nature”may only be “a way of speaking” that recognizes “nature does, in fact, behave in a certain way” and there “may not be anything real—anything above and beyond the actual facts which we observe.” In other words, things in nature are what they are and do what they do and that’s all there is.

People are different. We can’t simply observe what they do and conclude anything because there “must be something above and beyond the actual facts of human behavior.” There is “a real law which we did not invent and which we know we ought to obey.”

Q. Why do you think Lewis has spent so much time making this distinction?

A. Lewis is about to make an argument based on this foundation. If this foundation isn’t understood or accepted, then nothing he says going forward will be of much value. So this is a crucial point.

In the previous chapters Lewis has shown that people are inconsistent. We believe there are rules that apply to others, but not to us—or at least we don’t hold ourselves accountable the way we do others. Lewis concludes there is something “real” outside of us that condemns us when we don’t behave appropriately.

Further, some people act in ways that don’t make sense—for example, the firefighter who, because of duty, or the soldier, for the love of country, do things that are not in their best interest. In both cases these people are going beyond instinct.

Q. What does this tell us about our universe and where we live?

A. Throughout human history, people have wondered about how everything came into existence. And there are two views, the materialist view and the religious view.

The materialist view says “that matter and space just happen to exist, and always have existed, nobody knows why” and “by a sort of fluke” people like us, “who are able to think,” have emerged on the scene. Basically, everything has always been here and our presence is an accident.

The religious view says “Something” directs the universe which “is more like a mind than it is like anything else we know . . . it is conscious, and has purposes, and prefers one thing to another.” This Something “made the universe.” We don’t know all of the reasons why, but one of the reasons was to make us.

The choice is either the world is just here and we are an accident or there is purpose in the world and we were made on purpose and for a purpose. Both views have been around as long as there has been thinking people.

Q: What is the third view of the universe Lewis includes at the end of the chapter and why does he not include it?

A. There is an “In-between” view that Lewis excluded to keep his on-air talk within time limits. He refers to it as “Life-Force philosophy, or Creative Evolution, or Emergent Evolution.” Lewis says when you hear this view you have to ask “whether by Life-Force they mean something with a mind or not”? Something with a mind producing life “is really a God,” which means it is the religious view. But if this Life-Force does not have a mind, then it makes no sense to say it “’strives’ or has ‘purposes.’” One way or another, people with this view either take a material or religious view of the universe.

Lewis is very critical of this Life-Force view and asks rhetorically if it isn’t “the greatest achievement of wishful thinking the world has yet seen.” He says, “it gives one much of the emotional comfort of believing in God and none of the less pleasant consequences.” This god is leading us along but doesn’t really make any demands on us.

Q. Why is science no help in helping us understand which view is correct?

A. Science “watches how things behave.” It’s about observation and experiments. Lewis stresses that he doesn’t mean to be critical of science. Science is both “useful and necessary.” But science can’t tell us what, if anything, is behind what it sees, and whether that “Something behind” does or does not reveal itself. Even if science “became complete so that it knew every single thing in the whole universe,” it wouldn’t be able to tell us why this universe is here or what it means.

Q. To what question is Lewis taking us?

A. Lewis writes, “We want to know whether the universe simply happens to be what it is for no reason or whether there is a power behind it that makes it what it is.”

Q. Lewis gives an analogy of an architect. What is the analogy and what is the connection to his argument?

A. When you see a house and try to understand what was behind its existence, you run into a problem. The architect who designed and built the house cannot be discovered in any of the facts of the house. For example, the architect could not “actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house.” The way we would understand the architect was if they were inside of us “as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way.” Lewis says this is exactly what we find in ourselves.

Q. How does being human help us think about the universe?

A. Being human is the one thing we can understand with an insider’s perspective. If someone were to observe us, they could say what we do, but they couldn’t really say what we think. As humans we have “inside information.” And this brings us back to the point Lewis opened the book with: We find ourselves living “under a moral law.” We didn’t make it. We can’t forget about it. We know we should obey it.

Lewis says this thing about us helps us understand the universe. There is a Power that “is directing the universe, and which appears in me as a law urging me to do right and asking me to feel responsible and uncomfortable when I do wrong.” And we have to think about this Power as having something “more like a mind” because plain objects don’t give instructions. Lewis is not saying anything about what this Power is like, yet, but he says he will in the next chapter and to be prepared for to move beyond “soft soap” ideas about God.


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