Monday, March 30, 2015

On C.S. Lewis' "Mere Christianity"

When I was a teenager growing up in an evangelical Christian culture, I heard many people praise C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity. My family, youth pastors and evangelical peers who had read it encouraged me to give it a shot. Although these people differed widely, when they spoke of the book they all referred to it in reverential language, similar to the way punk fans describe the Ramones’ self-titled album. I remember a pastor once suggesting Christians read the book once a year, every year — it was that good.

In my late teens and early twenties, I was trying to figure out why exactly I didn’t believe this whole Christianity thing, why I felt like a black sheep in an evangelical flock. I tried to talk myself into believing Christian doctrines, hoping that would alleviate the sense of alienation. When that didn’t work, I tried to convince myself that, despite my sincere doubt, I actually did believe. I was really a Christian, I just didn’t realize it yet. So I snagged a worn paperback copy from my dad’s bookshelf and dove in. (After all, the Chronicles of Narnia was a pretty cool series — and that Reepicheep dude was bad-ass.) Perhaps I wanted Lewis to convince me of something, although I wasn’t sure what. I read the book closely, and, in anti-climactic fashion, not much happened. I finished feeling no more Christian than before.

Fast-forward about a dozen years. Two months before my wife was expected to give birth to our daughter, we moved to a different neighborhood in DC. I was boxing up all my books when, stuffed between a P.D. James mystery and some random haiku collection, I spotted that worn old paperback copy of Mere Christianity.

I prepared to toss it in the donate pile, but paused, and began flipping through the pages. Passages jumped out at me and caused me to react more than I had expected. The language flowed beautifully, but the arguments grabbed me and instilled a strong desire to respond.

Lewis was, and still seems to be, the most widely-respected Christian apologist of the 20th Century, and Mere Christianity is his seminal work. Written in the 1950s, the language is more engaging than any Sunday morning sermon I’ve heard. Lewis is a far superior writer than any other Christian apologist I’ve come across, and he shows a respect for language that I find lacking in most Christian apologetics. So, I read the same copy of this book again. And, like many books I read, I engaged with the text by writing a response. In this lengthy blog post, I will share my thoughts about the text.

Before I discuss my impressions of this book, I want to explain a few things about myself. First of all, I am an atheist. Like many terms describing beliefs about god, this one is used in a variety of ways. For me, it’s quite simple: I have not yet come across a god claim that I believe to be true. I am not absolutely certain that a god does not exist (and I’m not convinced absolute certainty is possible in most contexts). But I have not been persuaded by any of the many god claims I have come across in my thirty-one years.

I read this book with no expectation that Lewis’ arguments would convince me of anything. To be clear: I did not read this book specifically to attack it or to denigrate Lewis or those who would propose similar arguments. Many of the people I love most in this word are theists, and I think no less of them as people because we differ on these issues. Even though I’m an atheist, I feel an almost compulsive need to engage with religious arguments and religious believers. I’m endlessly fascinated by the reasons people give for their beliefs, especially those beliefs that I do not share. For me, an open and honest discussion of faith, doubt and disbelief is healthy, and, when done with respect, I believe these conversations can be positive and helpful for all involved. Sometimes they can even be fun.

I’m not going to respond to every point Lewis makes, because that would require a book, but I’ll dissect some of the points that stuck out most to me.

Let’s dig into the text.

In the Preface, Lewis provides a few disclaimers, including one about Christian sects: “The reader should be warned that I offer no help to anyone who is hesitating between two Christian ‘denominations.’ You will not learn from me whether you ought to become an Anglican, a Methodist, a Presbyterian, or a Roman Catholic.” He also makes a pretty interesting comment about sectarian disputes between Christians: “Our divisions should never be discussed except in the presence of those who have already come to believe that there is one God and that Jesus Christ is His only Son.”

This quote clarifies Lewis’ target audience and purpose. I don’t think this book was written to convince unbelievers, but to reassure those who already believe. (I think this description applies to the vast majority of books in the Christian apologetics sub-genre.)

Morality, Justice and God

In the first part of his book, Lewis sets up his argument for the existence of God by describing what he calls “the Law of Human Nature” or the “Rule of Decent Behaviour.” When two people quarrel, each person attempts to justify their position to the other, and in the process they appeal to “some kind of standard of behavior which he expects the other man to know about.” When disagreements arise, it is obvious that the aggrieved party appeals to a certain standard. Lewis eventually argues that the ultimate source of this standard is God, and without God, no such standard is possible. 

Lewis maintains that all societies and cultures have comparable ideas of “Right and Wrong.” (It doesn’t take long to become tired of Lewis’ constant capitalization of improper nouns.) Lewis foresees some objections to this assertion and attempts to shoot them down. For example: “I know that some people say the idea of a Law of Nature or decent behavior known to all men is unsound, because different civilisations and different ages have had quite different moralities. But this is not true.” This is one of those sentences I had to read a few times to make sure I understood it correctly. Lewis is demonstrably wrong. This country was founded on slavery, as were some societies in Biblical times, when people owned other people as property (a practice sanctioned in the scriptures). In different ages, people were routinely put to death for apostasy, blasphemy or deviance from rigid laws governing sexual activity, and this is still the case in some societies today.

Lewis is pretty sharp in his description of the moral argument, and he preempts an example of a rebuttal: the practice of killing witches. “For example, one man said to me, ‘Three hundred years ago people in England were putting witches to death. Was that what you call the Rule of Human Nature or Right Conduct?’” This man Lewis quotes is attempting to make a good point: our ideas about morality change as we learn more and empathize more with other people. But Lewis completely misses this point and responds: “But surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things.” First of all, I’m sure there are Christians who believe witches exist, and the Bible mentions witches (and killing them). If you believe in virgin births and demon-possessed pigs and the dead coming back to life, are witches really that much of a stretch? According to Lewis, though, the only reason we don’t execute witches anymore is because we don’t believe they’re real. But, Lewis adds, if witches did exist: “… surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did.” I find it strange that the man claiming to stand atop the only true moral foundation advocates executing witches, but perhaps my extra-Biblical morality is far too inferior to grasp this concept.  

Lewis again preempts objections to his notion of universal morality by saying: “There have been differences between their moralities, but these have never amounted to anything like a total difference.” I fail to see the measurement Lewis uses to determine minor and total differences. Generally, I agree that many people have somewhat similar notions about morality, and different cultures and times can show a certain level of consistency. On the other hand, the differences are tremendous. I would call societies structured on slavery and societies where slavery has been abolished to be totally different in their moral foundation. But Lewis is too mired in his assumption that God is source of all moral standards (and, therefore, everyone has relatively comparable moral standards) that he brushes aside historical examples that nullify his argument.
Human beings strive to do good, to achieve great things, to accomplish impossible goals. Lewis looks at the processes of personal and social progress and sees a human drive toward “perfection,” a notion to which Lewis is overly attached. Since people are striving toward perfection, Lewis argues, a state of perfection must exist. Of course, humans cannot reach this state of perfection, and they are solely to blame for their failure to attain the unattainable. Later, this is the gap where Lewis inserts God as the necessary solution to what I see as a manufactured problem.

Lewis’ argues most vociferously when discussing our incapability to make determinations about morality and justice. Without a perfect God, Lewis argues, our petty attempts at justice and morality are doomed to fail.

But this is simply not true. We do have the capability to make moral judgments. We do so every day — and God has nothing to do with it. Humans are perfectly capable of developing moral values on our own, and I see no reason to believe anyone’s God should get the credit for our basic human decency. When people are harmed, we can right those wrongs, or at least we can try. Sure, we can never achieve absolute morality or absolute justice, but these are impossible and unrealistic notions anyway. I would rather focus on trying to make things better instead of beating ourselves up for not being perfect, as God supposedly is.

I think this idea of absolute or ultimate morality is the real source of my contention with Lewis. He thinks of God as ultimately moral and ultimately just (terms I don’t think he defines adequately). So, humans, as imperfect beings, cannot create a perfectly just or moral society — but so what? Notions of perfect justice don’t mean much in reality. And what would an ultimately just or moral society look like? Morality and justice are complicated things that societies need to work out in different ways. I’m more concerned with progress in this life, while Lewis seems focused on perfection in some other life. 

To Lewis, God is the barometer, without whom we are lost and helpless in making sense of these issues. Describing his own experience as a non-believer, Lewis writes: “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.”

We don’t need God to justify the contrast between straight lines and crooked lines. Here, in the material world, we can observe straight lines and contrast them with crooked lines. We can examine how straight lines and crooked lines differ in demonstrable ways. Similarly, we do not need a supernatural being to hand down an impervious guidebook of justice — we can clearly observe just and unjust actions committed in real time, and we can alter our behavior to create a more just society. None of this requires a deity.

Amid these discussions about morality and justice, Lewis has a pattern of riffing on the same general theme: If there is no God, nothing matters. “If the universe is not governed by an absolute goodness, then all our efforts are in the long run hopeless.” Later, Lewis refers to atheism as “too simple” because atheists believe “the whole universe has no meaning.” And again: “God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”

When I hear claims like these from Christians, I’m both frustrated and saddened. It’s a mantra I’ve heard over and over again — If God doesn’t exist, everything is hopeless and meaningless, a big doggone crapfest, and… Oh, stop it! If a Christian can see no value without God, well, that sucks, but it doesn’t mean the rest of us are this miserable. 

As conscious beings, we ascribe our own value to the people, places and things around us. I find fulfillment in the fleeting beauty of breaking waves, the incalculable value of non-human animals, the feeling I get when I help someone less fortunate than me, the temporary bliss offered by a sip of a fine wine. These things are invaluable but impermanent, and their worth does not depend on the presence or absence of any gods. I find it arrogant and condescending for anyone to claim sole possession over all things valuable and meaningful in the human experience. I’ve heard Christians accuse atheists of being nihilists more times than I care to remember, but here I feel the need to turn the tables. Comments like Lewis’ strike me as pitifully nihilistic.

The Trilemma

If you’re familiar with Christian apologetics, you’ve probably heard of Lewis’ famous “trilemma,” which has been cited widely by Christian apologists since the publication of this book. This argument has made a strong and lasting impact on Christian thinkers, and I’ve heard many Christians play with this same riff.

This is Lewis point: You cant simply believe Jesus was a great moral teacher. Rather, given the statements attributed to Jesus in the Bible, you have to categorize Jesus of Nazareth as one of the following three: 1) The Lord, 2) a lunatic “on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg” or 3) “something worse,” like a demon or even “the Devil of Hell.”  

The argument goes like this: Jesus consistently claimed to be the Son of God in the flesh, a prophet of Yahweh, and the only cure for eternal damnation. In responding to the proclamations Jesus made about himself, one has two options: to accept these claims as true, or to reject them.

If you accept them as true, well, problem solved. He said he’s the Lord, you believe he’s the Lord, and that does it. But if you reject these claims, you are, Lewis argues, making your own assertion about the nature of Jesus. Lewis’ construct compels the unbeliever to claim: 1) Jesus was an evil liar (he wasn’t the Lord, he knew he wasn’t the Lord, but said he was anyway); or 2) a lunatic (he wasn’t the Lord but believed himself to be). “But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher,” Lewis writes. “He has not left that open to us.”

I think Lewis’ dilemma is cited so widely because, on its face, it seems reasonable, and the construction of the argument possesses a degree of internal consistency. It also critiques those who believe Jesus was a great moral teacher, but reject his divinity — something apologists argue is a whitewashing of Jesus’ message.  

As you may have guessed, I reject Lewis’ limited construction. First of all, I’m not so sure Jesus actually made claims of his own divinity. Sure, the gospels say he made such claims, but those books were not written by people who spent time with Jesus. In a long game of telephone, what the final person proclaims is usually quite different from what the original speaker said.

But, putting that aside, let’s say Jesus really did claim to be God. I still don’t see Lewis’ famous dilemma as a dilemma. I see no reason to accept the claim that Jesus was God. But, given that belief, I see no need to actively declare that Jesus was either a liar/demon or a lunatic. Many people have claimed to be God, but I feel no need to make a declarative statement about whether all of these people were correct or insane or liars. Perhaps Jesus was both a liar and a lunatic — who knows? I do not have enough information to make a decision.

And even if Jesus was a lunatic or a liar (or perhaps a bit of both), that does not necessarily invalidate some of the better moral teachings that are credited to him. The Golden Rule is a good moral standard because it focuses on human wellbeing and encourages empathy. If a crazed man or a compulsive liar claiming to be God preached about following the Golden Rule, his mental state and dishonesty in other contexts do not negate the value of this specific moral teaching. Such a person would be a hypocrite and probably untrustworthy, sure, but that’s not particularly shocking or novel.

I respectfully reject these three options and will continue to think of Jesus a generally (but not entirely) good moral teacher.

Free Will vs. Evil

Lewis briefly brings up the God vs. existence of evil problem, but takes the well-traveled path of dismissing evil as a necessary downside of free will. “If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.” I can follow his discussion of free will, and I find it interesting, but it only makes sense if we remove an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God from the equation. If we keep that God in the equation, well, I’d fall back on Epicurus:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

Blood for Forgiveness

Lewis writes that “the chief point of the story” of Jesus is “His death and His coming to life again.” Christians “think the main thing He came to earth to do was to suffer and be killed.” Lewis continues: “We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity.”

I understand the theological thread Lewis is following, but the formula doesn’t add up for me. It never has. God sends his son to become a person, to be crucified and killed, and then God raises his own son from the dead. How is this any solution to the problem of sin? How does this process work? I’ve read Romans. I’ve read apologists who try to explain the doctrines, but the equation never adds up for me. The whole scenario seems like an incredibly unnecessary attempt to solve a non-existent problem in the most self-serving way possible.

Even if the Jesus’ blood for our sin exchange made sense, I don’t believe any these events actually occurred. I see no good reason to believe the extraordinary claim that Jesus was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life full of miraculous performances, was crucified and killed, and then rose from the dead. I don’t buy it, and I have not yet come across an apologist who gives a reasonable explanation for why I should believe this myth to be historic reality.

Also, if Jesus’ crucifixion for sins exchange was so momentous — the most important thing God could ever demonstrate to us — why did he bury all extra-Biblical accounts? Why do we have nothing else to rely on except copies of copies of copied documents written by the very people who wanted to promote the notion of Jesus’ divinity? Why is there no evidence? Why are we left to dissect these obscure philosophical arguments when God could just demonstrate to us that Jesus actually existed, actually died, and actually rose from the dead? If this is the most important event in human history, why is it so shoddily documented?

Lewis on “Authority”

Lewis is a steadfast defender of the authority of The Bible. “Do not be scared by the word authority,” he cautions. “Believing things on authority only means believing them because you have been told them by someone you think trustworthy.”

But I think all authority should be justified. And I don’t think you believe something just because it was told to you by an authority; you should believe something because that something has been reasonably demonstrated to be true.

Lewis lays down an incredibly lazy example: “I believe there is such a place as New York. I have not seen it myself. I could not prove by abstract reasoning that there must be such a place. I believe it because reliable people have told me so.”

Well, for starters, you can go to New York. Lewis could have read newspapers from New York, and watched movies filmed in New York, and interviewed people who lived in New York for many years. Heaven is not a place you can visit. You can’t interview anyone who met Jesus. We have no reliable sources of information about the historical Jesus, and I don't see any reason to accept the accuracy of New Testament claims about Jesus’ divinity. Plus, the notion that a city named New York exists is not an extreme claim. Cities exist, and Lewis has been to them. Even if Lewis had never traveled to New York, accepting the idea that such a place exists requires no extraordinary leap. It’s a whole different ball game when we’re talking about virgin birth, resurrection from the dead, blood atonement for sins, demons, eternal realms of worship or torture, etc. These are extraordinary claims. The New York City comparison is ridiculous.

“Christian Behaviour”

On page 73 of my paperback copy, Lewis says, “For the rest of this book I am going to assume the Christian point of view, and look at the whole picture as it will be if Christianity is true.” I appreciate the explanation, but this statement is a bit disingenuous. Lewis may take a bit longer than most to get going, but he assumes the Christian point of view very early on in this book. At least in the beginning, Lewis attempts to pose challenging questions about Christianity, and he holds ideas up to a level of scrutiny that I find uncommon among Christian writers. But for the last two-thirds of the book, Lewis turns fully toward the choir and starts preaching. 

He goes over some common ideas about how Christians should live. To appreciate any of this, you probably have to be an evangelical Christian with a social conservative outlook. To people like me, it sounds quite silly.

Lewis dedicates chapters to pride (which he calls the root sin), forgiveness (where Lewis refers to pacifists as being “entirely mistaken”), charity, and other topics. 

When he talks about sex, that’s when things get really weird. He takes the fundamentalist view: “Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.” I find it a bit strange that Lewis, who says he was never married and (unless he’s a hypocrite) never had sex with someone, blasting  “the monstrosity of sexual intercourse outside of marriage.”

In his treatise on Christian behavior, one part I find quite interesting is his discussion of divorce. Lewis takes the position that divorce is unacceptable in Christian circles, but he is wary of forcing church rules on society at large. “There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the Church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not.”

Lewis doesn’t mention gay marriage, but I find this analysis relevant to that discussion. If Lewis was consistent, following this reasoning, he would support secular recognition of equal rights for gay and lesbian couples. Of course, he would probably use some effusive language to describe how homosexuality was an awesomely abominable putridity, but I wonder: if Lewis was alive today, would he support equal protection under the law for gay and lesbian couples? Consistency demands he must. If you’re a Christian fan of Lewis, what do you think? 

Wrapping Up

To be honest, I found very little worth discussing in the last third of the book, where Lewis gets further and further into the weeds of Christian doctrine. The bases for his assertions become more and more muddled and obscure, and I just can’t follow him. Lewis tries to explain the Doctrine of the Trinity, and to me it all sounds like word games and mixed metaphoric nonsense. I can’t find any connection between his ideas and reality, and since this is not supposed to be a work of fiction, I get exhausted. I appreciate getting lost in Lewis’ fantasy, but it’s hard to read arguments that sound fantastic when the author assumes them to be true.

In his defense, Lewis does say: “There are certain things in Christianity that can be understood from the outside, before you have become a Christian. But there are a great many things that cannot be understood until after you have gone a certain distance along the Christian road.” Fair enough, I guess, although I am highly skeptical of the value and validity of a worldview that cannot be appreciated or understood until you agree to presuppose every aspect of it.

As I expected, I didn’t come across much that surprised or shocked me in this book, but I enjoyed reading it. Lewis has a keen mind and he is willing to analyze and examine elements of his own worldview in a way that I have to respect. And when it comes to the quality of the writing and the effort put into constructing his arguments, this is where Lewis stands head and shoulders above every Christian apologist I’ve read or listened to. And if I could sit down and have a few pints with any Christian author of the last hundred years,  it would unquestionably be C.S. Lewis.

What do you think about Lewis’ work? Have you read this book? If so, what are some of your impressions? I’m also very interested in hearing responses from any of my Christian friends out there. As I said at the beginning, I enjoy discussing these issues. For me, it’s not about convincing others I’m right and they’re wrong, it’s about appreciating the process of discussion itself.


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