Mere Christianity, Book III

by Glenn on April 2, 2015

When I read Mere Christianity again, I think I will begin with Book 3. The philosophical bent of the first two books leaves you feeling good about the intellectual foundation of the Christian faith. It could also leave you feeling a little smug—“We’re right, they’re wrong!”

But no sooner does Lewis help you make peace with the rationale for being a Christian in Books 1 and 2, then he turns to explaining the implications of being a Christian in Book 3. There’s nothing in Book 3 that leaves you feeling superior to others. Mostly you see all the areas where you fail to live out the ideal, which makes this good reading during Lent. This is also the part of the book which I think deals with one of the objections people have about Christianity, namely Christians.

Mahatma Gandhi reportedly said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

There is no way to appropriate and internalize everything Lewis teaches in Book 3. Every page has an insight or caution or rebuke. Rather than try to think about every possible lesson that can be taken from these chapters and provide a very poor summary, I thought I would pick what for me are the top five challenges for living out “Mere Christianity” based on Book 3.

Undoubtedly, someone else would pick five different things. And I think this book may also say different things to the same person at different times in their life, which is certainly true of me—this doesn’t feel like the same book I read a couple of years ago. The strength of Mere Christianity is this ability to speak to who we are where we are.

Challenge No. 1: See and live out morality in its fullest dimension.

Lewis begins with a great metaphor of a fleet of ships. Three things are important for the ships in that fleet:

1. The ships must not run into each other;
2. The ships must be seaworthy and in good working order; and
3. The ships must know where they are going.

The first point is the idea of “fair play.” And this is where we, as humans, tend to focus. “Let’s make things fair,” we say. “What’s good for one is good for all.”

The second point deals with “inner harmony,” keeping water out of your boat and making sure your life works well.

The third point, destination, speaks to purpose. Where is life supposed to go? I love Lewis’ line,

“[H]owever well the fleet sailed, its voyage would be a failure if it were meant to reach New York and actually arrived at Calcutta.”

Lewis says that most people end discussions of morality with the first point. He cautions his readers to see beyond the idea of fairness. It’s not enough simply to avoid hurting others. When our life is out of control, it can affect others. Some will argue, “I’m not hurting anyone (i.e. my ship isn’t running into other ships), what’s the big deal?” Lewis’ response: It isn’t a big deal unless your ship isn’t really yours. If you are a created being, you may be the captain of your ship, but not the owner. This leads into the third point, our relationship to the power that made us. We are immortal beings, which makes a difference.

The conclusion, as Lewis puts it concisely:

“It seems, then, that if we are to think about morality, we must think of all three departments: relations between man and man: things inside each man: and relations between man and the power that made him.”

Politics come up from time to time in Book 3, this time comfortably. Immortality allows Lewis to make a political observation about totalitarianism and democracy: since people are immortal, they are more important than the state, which passes away. Otherwise if you look at the fact that people live 70 years and the state outlasts them, you would have to conclude that the state is more important.

Challenge No. 2: Be temperate.

Lewis writes,

“There is a difference between doing some particular just or temperate action and and being a temperate man.”

I grew up in a denomination that asked its members not to drink alcohol (or smoke) and, for a number of years, I thought drinking alcohol was wrong. For some, avoiding alcohol is the very definition of temperance. But there are a couple of problems with this way of thinking.

First, abstaining from alcohol does not necessarily make you a temperate person. There are any number of areas where you can be intemperate even while you carefully abstain from alcohol.

Second, not doing something that you think is a sin is not temperance. If you think alcohol is wrong, you are simply living out your convictions.

I think reasonable people will agree that there is nothing wrong with alcohol, except in excess. Drinking too much is a problem. Drunkenness is a problem.

There are perfectly good reasons to give up alcohol: 1.You may be around people who have a problem with alcohol so your abstaining may support them. 2. You may not want to take in so many calories in beverage form. 3. You may want to save money.

A bad reason to not use alcohol is so that you can feel morally superior to people who do drink. The focus on alcohol means you may forget about all the other areas where you might benefit from some moderation. It may also encourage you to look down on people who drink.

Lewis encourages believers to do something quite extraordinary: Give up things that you don’t find fault in others doing. One of Lewis’ tougher statements is this one:

“One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting every one else to give it up. That is not the Christian way.”

The real test with alcohol (and all other good things) is moderation. Temperance means you enjoy good things, but you don’t take them to an extreme. Lewis includes this definition:

“Temperance referred not specially to drink, but to all pleasures; and it meant not abstaining, but going the right length and no further.”

Which means that temperance goes beyond alcohol. Your speech won’t slur when you indulge in too much baseball, but there is a possibility of being intemperate about your sports viewing. And Lewis adds, “God is not deceived by externals.”

You can drink too much. You can eat too much. You can watch too many movies or TV shows. You can vacation too much. A challenge in this book is to be temperate.

Challenge No. 3: How do I live in a society that is fundamentally out of joint?

A Christian society comes from Christian people living Christian lives. We have two very difficult jobs:

1. We need to figure out how “Do unto others …” works in our time; and

2. We need to be people who live it out.

I am grateful that C.S. Lewis was not an American (by which I mean raised in and citizen of the United State of America—sorry Canadians and Central and South Americans). I appreciate that he is writing about a Christianity that is for “all men at all times.” (Would he say “all people” if he were alive today?) Mere Christianity includes no propaganda or polemic for the U.S.A. being a “shining city on a hill” on one extreme or a grossly imperialistic and/or an unjust nation on the other. And while there are many who would like to say that the U.S.A. is a Christian nation (or once was or should be), I think we have to wrestle with a difficult tension and a couple of uncomfortable ironies.

The difficult tension, for me, is between free markets and socialism. As I read Mere Christianity, it is profoundly in favor of the self reliance that proponents of free markets often talk about. Lewis says,

“[T]here are to be no passengers or parasites: if man does not work, he ought not to eat. Every one is to work with his own hands …”

At the same time, he points out from the Christian perspective,

“[T]here is to be no ‘swank’ or ‘side’, no putting on airs. To that extent a Christian society would be what we now call Leftist.”

Further, we must, as Christians, be concerned for the poor.

How do we help the poor? Beyond charity, Lewis doesn’t really say. And he certainly doesn’t offer any political solutions. He simply maintains, “There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charities expenditure excludes them.”

Irony No. 1: A moment ago, I quoted Lewis but stopped mid-sentence. Here is the complete sentence:

“Every one is to work with his own hands, and what is more, every one’s work is to produce something good: there will be no manufacture of silly luxuries and then of sillier advertisements to persuade us to buy them.”

Isn’t this the very definition of modern consumer life? Our whole existence is based on selling things that people don’t need and often can’t afford. Somewhere in there, I think, has to be the argument that we do need the sublime and beautiful. I wouldn’t want to live in a world without the last movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony. But perhaps Lewis wouldn’t consider a recording of that music to be a “silly luxury.”

Irony No. 2: Our whole world is in total disobedience to the best advice and wisdom of our predecessors. It’s best to quote Lewis at length:

“There is one bit of advice given to us by the ancient heathen Greeks, and by the Jews in the Old Testament, and by the great Christian teachers of the Middle Ages, which the modern economic system has completely disobeyed. All these people told us not to lend money at interest; and lending money at interest—what we call investment—is the basis of our whole system. Now it may not absolutely follow that we are wrong. Some people say that when Moses and Aristotle and the Christians agreed in forbidding interest (or ‘usury’ as they called it), they could not foresee the joint stock company, and were only thinking of the private moneylender, and that, therefore, we need not bother about what they said. That is a question I cannot decide on. I am not an economist and I simply do not know whether the investment system is responsible for the state we are in or not. This is where we want the Christian economist. But I should not have been honest if I had not told you that three great civilisations had agreed (or so it seems at first sight) in condemning the very thing on which we have based our whole life.”

What do we do with that?

Challenge No. 4: Understand the power of choice. Live accordingly.

It’s fascinating to read Lewis as he discusses Christian morality and psychology. Lewis says there is some overlap in their techniques, but they are different things. Christian morality deals with choosing where psychology deals with the feelings related to choosing. Lewis says there are things in us that need to be repented of (which is where Christian morality enters) and things that need to be cured (which is where psychology comes in.)

Choices matter. Lewis writes,

“We might think that God wanted simply obedience to a set of rules: whereas He really wants people of a particular sort.”

People tend to judge by external actions where God judges by moral decisions. Every choice we make is, in effect, making us better or worse people. We like to think that since there are examples like Himmler (who Lewis references) out there, we’re always going to look good in comparison, but Lewis maintains that if you put any of us in Himmler’s shoes, who knows if we would be better or worse. God is not comparing us to each other. He is looking at our hearts. Lewis says it’s not about rule keeping, but choice making.

“People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, ‘If you keep a lot of rules I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.’ I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before.”

Our choices matter no matter who we are. And the better we get (i.e. the better are choices are) the better we will know how bad we are. It’s a bit of a paradox:

“When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him.”

 

 

Challenge No. 5: Forgive. Forget. Love. Trust.

I include four commands in this fifth challenge just to remember how much is involved in the Christ life.

FORGIVE

Lewis writes, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive …” Forgiveness is qualified in the New Testament. It’s “Forgive us … as we forgive …”

We know we have forgiven when we wish the other person well. We often pose difficult questions related to forgiveness: Could you forgive an Adolf Hitler? Lewis advises to start small. Forgive a parent or spouse or sibling or co-worker or friend. Work your way up to the big ones.

FORGET

By forget, I mean forget yourself. Pride is obvious (at least to us) in everyone else, but we can be so unconscious of it in ourselves. The test: the more you dislike the pride in someone else, the more prideful you are.

Lewis writes,

“In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that—and, therefore, know yourself as nothing in comparison—you do not know God at all. As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.”

LOVE

We wish for our own good. Love is working for the good of others.

 “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. … When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”

I think the principle is: feelings follow behavior.

TRUST

There are two aspects to trust (or faith), one a noun and the other a verb.

Trust or faith as a noun is what we believe:

“[M]ake sure that, if you have once accepted Christianity, then 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 churchgoing 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. And as a matter of fact, if you examined a hundred people who had lost their faith in Christianity, I wonder how many of them would turn out to have been reasoned out of it by honest argument? Do not most people simply drift away?”

Faith or trust as a verb is Who we believe. It means we rely on God.

“Thus if you have really handed yourself over to Him, it must follow that you are trying to obey Him. But trying in a new way, a less worried way. Not doing these things in order to be saved, but because He has begun to save you already. Not hoping to get to Heaven as a reward for your actions, but inevitably wanting to act in a certain way because a first faint gleam of Heaven is already inside you.”

“The Bible really seems to clinch the matter when it puts the two things together into one amazing sentence. The first half is, ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling’—which looks as if everything depended on us and our good actions: but the second half goes on, ‘For it is God who work-eth in you’—which looks as if God did everything and we nothing.”

Work hard and relax. That’s a challenge.