Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Review: Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

Mere Christianity
C.S. Lewis
HarperCollins, 1952
Buy it from Amazon.com: Mere Christianity

In this 200-page work of non-fiction, C.S. Lewis presents the edited and slightly expanded transcriptions of some radio radio talks he gave to English audiences in the 1940's. His conversational writing is all about “apologetics,” explaining and defending the Christian faith.

Lewis states early on that he doesn't intend to forward a particular denomination of Christianity or discuss the finer points of theology—he's discussing “mere” Christianity, just the basics of what all Christians say they believe about God and about his son, Jesus. He systematically builds up his logic point-by-point and recaps what he's establishing at the beginning and end of every chapter. The very first building block of his discussion is the idea of the Moral Law, or The Law of Human Nature. Whenever one person fights with another person, they tend to appeal to some higher standard: it was unfair of you to steal my sandwich from the fridge; it was selfish of you to play your music at full blast when you knew I was studying; it was rude of you to cut me off while driving on the freeway. Everyone has an idea of morality, and arguing with another person about their behavior means trying to prove the other person did wrong. Often, the guilty party won't outright say that what they did wasn't wrong—instead, they'll argue that they had special reasons for acting against the moral standard. So there is some idea we all have of fair and right behavior, and we tend to feel uncomfortable/embarrassed/ashamed when we don't adhere to that standard. We come up with excuses and reasons for falling short, but there is still a Moral Law, and none of us fully obey it.

Also, even when we don't want to do the "right" thing, we still feel that we ought to do it--when the instinct to help someone and the instinct to keep yourself comfortable compete against each other, a third, distinct feeling tells you that you should choose to do the more difficult, more selfless thing. From these internal struggles, Lewis concludes that there must be something behind the workings of the universe which incites these feelings, something with a will and a powerful intention to nudge us toward "right conduct". But there's nothing comfy about the Moral Law or the will behind it, and the idea of an absolute good is downright scary: “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” (pg 31). This is the first time in the talk that we actually get close to Christianity, because Christianity promises forgiveness if people will turn from their sins, but no one's going to be interested in that offer unless they acknowledge that they have sinned and realize that forgiveness is something they need.

He talks at length about the different conceptions of God, because even after you establish that somebody or something is making reality function as it does, there's still a lot of opinions about who or what is running the control room. Pantheism is the attitude that says there's some sort of God, one that's everywhere, in everything, and doesn't especially care about right and wrong, because it is beyond those sorts of simple distinctions. Monotheism says there is one God, a person who very much cares that you do what is right—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are three major monotheist religions. Dualism believes that there are two equal forces in the universe, one good and one evil, but if we accept that idea, we run into the old conundrum—if we see one power as good and one as evil, isn't there some third thing inside us that makes us regard them as aligning or not aligning with the Moral Law? “Christianity agrees with Dualism that this universe is at war. But it does not think this is a war between independent powers. It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in the part of the universe occupied by the rebel” (pg 45).

So Christianity believes that we live in a good world that has gone wrong, a place made by a holy God and tainted by a fallen angel, the devil. But if there is an absolutely good God in control of everything, why does he allow this rebellion? Because goodness and rightness are a choice God offers to human beings. If we didn't have free will, our good behavior wouldn't be of any more value than a mechanical toy that walks and talks when it's wound up. Without the choice between right and wrong, we wouldn't be people capable of giving and receiving love--we would be objects that perform a set of programmed actions.       

Now Lewis' discussion moves to the sacrifice of Jesus, specifically. About 2,000 years ago, Jesus came along and claimed to be the human incarnation of the one true God. He offered the forgiveness of all sins, not just forgiving people of wrongs done against himself, but of all wrongs done at any time to anyone. Some say he was a good, moral teacher, but it's impossible to view Jesus as just a man who had some helpful advice, because he emphatically said, within the context of monotheistic Judaism, that he was God in human flesh and that he could forgive sins. With such outrageous claims, he was either crazy, or evil, or he was (and is) what he claimed to be. It's easy to focus on his teachings and miracles, but the main thing he came to earth to do was die and be resurrected. His sacrifice puts us back into a right relationship with God, if we decide to accept him and follow his teachings. One of the big principles of the Christian faith is that we humans don't need to be improved only slightly or made a just little bit nicer—we need to be completely changed and taken over. We have to let go of our own pride and self-will, the idea that we don't need to change and that we're really not so very bad or so very wrong.

Proverbs 11:14 says, "Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety," and C.S. Lewis has been one of my lifelong counselors--his wisdom and love for the Lord shine through his writing. I've seldom read anyone so educated and yet so humble. He answers lots of objections to the faith, always in a kind, friendly manner, and he never belittles the reader, and never seems angry or prideful. Mere Christianity was a life-changing book for me. It's excellent reading for Christians who'd like to see an educated former atheist's explanation of God, faith, sin, and repentance, and it's also good for non-Christians who'd like to know what all this Jesus stuff is really about. Grade: A+