David Mills, editor of First Things, takes issue with the C. S. Lewis and his notion of “mere Christianity”; that is, that Christians of all traditions are in agreement on certain key teachings and that this constitutes a common orthodoxy for all Christians. David is a Catholic, so of course he can’t accept that. Here is part of his argument:
The problem is that image of the house with the rooms, illustrating what Lewis meant by “mere Christianity.” It appears in the preface to Mere Christianity. “I hope no reader will suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions—as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else,” Lewis writes.
“It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. . . . It is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable.”
It sounds irenic and ecumenical, but it is a Protestant image for a Protestant doctrine. It makes the Catholic Church a room like any other room. It is a way of saying that the differences between Protestants and Catholics would be solved very easily . . . if Catholics became Protestants.
These Catholics have to think of the Church as a denomination like any other, and they should stop putting on airs. From the Protestant point of view, the Catholic who insists that his church is the Church is a lot like the old codger in 4B coming round demanding the rent or imposing a curfew on the other apartments. He may be the oldest and wealthiest and most learned person in the building, but still, he’s just the old codger in 4B.
A Catholic, however, can’t remove membership in the Catholic Church from the things that are essential to the definition of Christian. Lewis’s idea of Mere Christianity is ruined as an ecumenical proposal from the start by his making it a theology and moral life lived in fellowship with the like-minded rather than an incorporation into a Body manifest in history. For the Catholic unity comes from shared membership in the Catholic Church, not from agreement on some distilled essence of Christianity.
He looks at his Protestant brothers as brothers not because he shares with them some essence of Christianity but because they are partly Catholics whether they like it or not. As the Second Vatican Council’s Unitatis Redintegratio declared, “men who believe in Christ and have been truly baptized are in communion with the Catholic Church even though this communion is imperfect.” This includes even those who call the Church the whore of Babylon and the pope the antichrist.
The question is, what is the house? Lewis himself wrote of “the rules common to the whole house,” and therein raised the problem. For the Catholic, one of the house’s main rules is that you have to be a Catholic to live there. The Immaculate Conception of Mary is not a belief required in the Catholic room, while disbelief in it is required in the Protestant rooms; it is a belief required of all those who live under that roof. If someone doesn’t believe it, he can’t have a room in the house. He can set up a shelter in the yard (his communion is real but imperfect)—inside the pale, certainly, and not beyond it, but not in the house.
It occurred to me that many Lutherans might have the same problem, with our insistence on agreement on all the articles of faith for full fellowship and our impatience with people who sort doctrines into essential and non-essential. And yet, there are some things that all Christians agree on. Furthermore, there is an ontological reality of all believers in the Gospel constituting the hidden Church as the Body of Christ. So what do you think of this? Is there a “mere Christianity,” and what are its possibilities and limitations?