Mere Christianity | Book III, Chapter 5

C.S. Lewis | Mere Christianity
Book III | Christian Behavior
Chapter 5 | “Sexual Morality”

This may be a good chapter to begin at the end. Lewis has a final thought that frames everything he says in this chapter. It may also take us by surprise.

Question: Where is “the center of Christian morality”?

Answer: After writing at some length in this chapter about sex, Lewis wants it clear that this is not the center of Christian morality. Unchastity is not “the supreme vice.”  While “the sins of the flesh are bad . . . they are the least bad of all sins.” Lewis says, “All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and back-biting; the pleasures of power, of hatred.”

Lewis describes an “Animal self” and a “Diabolical self.” They are both inside of us “competing with the human self which [we] must try to become.” Lewis says, “The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither.”

Now back to the beginning of the chapter.

Q. What is the difference between chastity and modesty?

A. Chastity is Christian morality as it relates to sex. Modesty (or propriety or decency) is a social rule that tells us “how much of the human body should be displayed” and how we talk about related matters.

While “the rule of chastity is the same for all Christians at all times,” propriety differs across time and from culture to culture. For example, modest dress might look very different in Hawaii versus Victorian England, while the individuals in different clothing “might be equally chaste (or equally unchaste).”

Q. What matters when you break rules of modesty in your culture?

A. What is the reason you did it? 1. If you are trying “to excite lust” in yourself or others, then you are breaking the rule of chastity. 2. If you are doing it “through ignorance or carelessness” you are “guilt only of bad manners.” 3. If you are doing it “to shock or embarrass others,” this may not be unchaste, but it is unloving.

Standards of modesty have changed and you can’t easily tell how chaste a person is from their modesty. The older and younger among us have different beliefs about modesty and should address and treat each other kindly. Lewis advises, “A real desire to believe all the good you can of others and to make others as comfortable as you can will solve most of the problems.”

Q. What is “the most unpopular of Christian virtues”?

A. Chastity, which means “Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.”

Q. What does Lewis say has gone wrong?

A. It’s either Christianity or our sexual instinct, and Lewis says it’s our instinct.

Q. What makes Lewis think so?

A. Both sex and eating serve a biological purpose, the former to create children and the latter “to repair the body.” Lewis notes that we can overeat, but not that much. You can “eat enough for two”, but you can’t eat for ten. In contrast, he notes in terms of sex for a healthy young man, “This appetite is in ludicrous and preposterous excess of its function.”

Lewis observes you can get a large audience together “to watch a girl undress on the stage,” but there is no equivalence for food. If there was, “would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?” The bottom line is “Everyone knows that the sexual appetite, like our other appetites, grows by indulgence.

Lewis points out that there are few perversions with respect to food, “But perversions of the sex instinct are numerous, hard to cure, and frightful.”

Q. What are the two meanings of the statement that “sex is nothing to be ashamed of.”

A. One meaning, which is in line with Christian teaching, is “There is nothing to be ashamed of in the fact that the human race reproduces itself in a certain way, nor in the fact that it gives pleasure.” Neither the thing nor the pleasure is a problem. “Christianity is almost the only one of the great religions which thoroughly approves of the body—which believes that matter is good, that God Himself once took on a human body, that some kind of body is going to be given to us even in Heaven and is going to be an essential part of our happiness, our beauty, and our energy.” Marriage and sex are good things.

The other meaning is “the state into which the sexual instinct has now got is nothing to be ashamed of.” This view Lewis rejects. He uses a food analogy: “There is nothing to be ashamed of in enjoying your food: there would be everything to be ashamed of if half the world made food the main interest of their lives and spent their time looking at pictures of food and dribbling and smacking their lips.” We are fallen people and our culture obsesses over the idea of unchastity.

Q. What is the answer to the obsession?

A. We must want to get better. Lewis quotes Augustine who once prayed, “Oh Lord, make me chaste” while adding, “But please don’t do it just yet.”

Q. What makes it such a challenge?

A. One, “our warped natures.” Two, “the devils who tempt us.” Three, our culture that encourages lust and makes our impulses “so reasonable, that it is almost perverse and abnormal to resist them.”

Q. What is the lie that we are tempted to believe?

A. While “sex in itself . . . is ‘normal’ and ‘healthy,’ . . . any sexual act to which you are tempted at the moment is also healthy and normal.” Lewis notes, “For any happiness, even in this world, quite a lot of restraint is going to be necessary; so the claim made by every desire, when it is strong, to be healthy and reasonable, counts for nothing. Every sane and civilized man must have some set of principles by which he chooses to reject some of his desires and to permit others.”

Chastity may seem impossible, but like an essay question in a test, “one must do the best one can.” Lewis encourages his readers to “ask for God’s help” and “after each failure, ask forgiveness, pick yourself up, and try again. . . . We learn, on the one hand, that we cannot trust ourselves even in our best moments, and, on the other, that we need not despair even in our worst, for our failures are forgiven. The only fatal thing is to sit down content with anything less than perfection. . . . Virtue—even attempted virtue—brings light; indulgence brings fog.”






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