Mere Christianity | Book I, Chapter 5

C.S. Lewis | Mere Christianity
Book I | Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe
Chapter 5 | “We Have Cause to Be Uneasy”

The fifth chapter of Mere Christianity is where, at least for me, things get good as Lewis brings some things together. In this chapter we learn why Lewis hasn’t really tried to move his argument along very far, yet. And we learn why, as Lewis himself points out in this chapter, that in his talks so far he is “not taking anything from the Bible or the Churches.” He’s focused on what we can observe for ourselves.

Question: Why does Lewis say some might be annoyed by where he ended his previous chapter?

Answer: Lewis spoke of the idea “that in the Moral Law somebody or something from beyond the material universe was actually getting at us,” which for some might have come across as a trick—that he was pretending to talk about philosophy but was really talking about religion. Some may have been willing to listen to Lewis if he “had anything new to say,” but they didn’t want to hear about religion.

Q: What is their complaint about religion?

A: To use language of our time, “we’ve been there and done that.” We’ve tried religion and clearly it hasn’t worked. The metaphor Lewis suggests is the idea that ”you cannot put the clock back.”

Q: How does Lewis respond to those who don’t want to hear about religion or think “you cannot put the clock back.”

A: The first thing he says is that “you can put a clock back, and that if the clock is wrong it is often a very sensible thing to do.” But Lewis moves on from this clock metaphor and makes a statement that is true in the context of what he is saying, and some valuable life wisdom:

“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 near. 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.”

Lewis goes on to use an analogy from math. When you realize you’ve made a mistake in working out the answer, the sooner you go back and figure out where you went wrong, the sooner you will arrive at the correct answer. He relates this math analogy to the current state of his world and concludes that “it is pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistake. We are on the wrong road. And if that is so, we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on.”

Q: How does Lewis respond to those who think his talks have turned into a “religious jaw”?

A: Lewis stresses that he’s not yet talking about “the God of any actual religion, still less the God of that particular religion called Christianity.” All he is saying is that there is “a Somebody or Something behind the Moral Law.” And rather than go to the Bible or the Church to learn about “this Somebody” he wants us to focus on what can be observed.

Q: So what can we observe about the “Somebody” from observation?

A: There are two things we can know, “two bits of evidence” that we can make as we observe and come to conclusions on our own: creation (“the universe He has made”) and the Moral Law (that he has placed within us).

Q: What does Creation tell us?

A: Whoever is behind this is “a great artist” because this is “a very beautiful place.” But whoever is behind it “is quite merciless and no friend to man (for the universe is a very dangerous and terrifying place.” In short (and borrowing the way someone else puts it quite neatly), “Nature is both beautiful and is trying to kill us.”

Q: Why is the Moral Law a better way to understand that “Somebody”?

A: This is “inside information” that tells us that the One behind the universe “is intensely interested in right conduct—in fair play, unselfishness, courage, good faith, honesty, and truthfulness,” which means that religions like Christianity are right to call that being “good.”

But Lewis warns that we shouldn’t “go too fast here.” We want good to mean “being indulgent, or soft, or sympathetic,” but Lewis stresses “there is nothing indulgent about the Moral Law. It is hard as nails.” It tells you to do what is right no matter what, including things that are “painful, or dangerous, or difficult.”

Q: So what conclusions about this Being should we make?  

A: We should not (yet) be talking about a “good” God who forgives. The problem here is “Only a person can forgive.” Lewis this far has only established that there is “a power behind the Moral Law, and more like a mind than it is like anything else. But it may still be very unlike a Person.”

If this mind is impersonal, there is no sense in seeking forgiveness from it. The analogy Lewis uses is that if you make a mistake in math, “there is no sense in asking the multiplication table to let you off when you do your sums wrong.” There’s no point in trying to be in relationship with an impersonal God.

Q: What is the terrible fix this puts us in?

A: The trouble is, if God is good then “one part of you is on His side.” You don’t like the bad things people do. Of course, you want him to make an exception for you, but you know “at bottom” that if God doesn’t hate the evil things people do, then you can’t say God is good. And if God is good, then He “must hate most of what we do.”

So on the one hand, if there is no Goodness behind everything, “then all our efforts are in the long run hopeless.” But if Goodness is behind everything, “then we are making ourselves enemies to that goodness every day.” In short, we can’t live without God and we can’t live with God. “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.” Lewis offers a very sobering picture of God when he writes, “Some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun. They need to think again. They are still only playing with religion.”

Q: What was Lewis’ goal in getting to his “real subject in this roundabout way?”

A: It’s best to quote Lewis, here:

“Christianity simply does not make sense until you have faced the sort of facts I have been describing. Christianity tells people to repent and promises them forgiveness. It therefore has nothing (as far as I know) to say to people who do not know they have done anything to repent of and who do not feel that they need any forgiveness.”

And so there are three things we need to remember:

1. “There is a real Moral Law.”
2. “There is a Power behind the law.”
3. We “have broken that law and put [ourselves] wrong with that Power.”

If you accept these three statements, then you are in a place to begin to talk about Christianity. Christianity says there’s something wrong with the world and, more importantly, something wrong with each of us. We both hate doing what is wrong and we love doing what is wrong.

Q: How is “comfort” part of the Christian message?

A: There is a part of Christianity that provides comfort. But that is not the starting place. Christianity begins with “dismay.” We can’t find comfort without facing the truth of our situation.






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