The Hall and the Side Rooms

In his introduction to Mere Christianity C.S.Lewis says that once you decide to become a Christian it is like coming into the hall of a great house, and off the hall there are lots of side rooms. If becoming a Christian is coming into the great hall, choosing a denomination is deciding which room you want to lodge in.

Now I am a great fan of C.S.Lewis, and I can count on one hand the times I have ever disagreed with the great man, but this is one of them, and it’s a pretty big disagreement. What has long troubled me about Lewis’ hall and side rooms analogy is that he undercuts his own argument. He says that you mustn’t choose the side room according to the furnishings or decoration–in other words, you mustn’t choose a denomination because you like the worship or think the music is nice, or you like the youth pastor or any other subjective matter of opinion. Instead, he says, you must choose according to which one you think is most true.
This reveals an alarming attitude of subjective relativism in the great man. What! Must we choose according to what we think is most true? How shall we make such a choice? What criteria shall we use to determine what is most true? Lewis never says. He never even hints that there are other criteria of authority by which we should choose. He simply says that we must ourselves choose according to which room we think is most true.
The other relativistic part of his teaching is the assumption that all the rooms are of equal value and equal worth, and yet how can this be when he has said we must choose according to which ones are most true? If some are truer than others, then they are not all of the same worth and value. Is their truthfulness (and therefore their value) measured simply by our making the choice? That is to say, “I have chosen this room, therefore this room must be the one that is most true, at least, this room is the one that is most true for me.”
I am no great Lewis scholar, but I know Lewis well enough to know that he would tut tut, snort and roar with dismay at anyone who would propose such a relativistic way of deciding a religious denomination. Indeed, what if the whole analogy were to be put, not to deciding a Christian denomination, but a religion? What if he would have said, “Once you have come to believe in God you have entered the large hall of a great house called Theistic belief. Now you must choose which religion to follow. Here are the Muslims, there are the Hindus, over here we have the Jews, the Bahais are there, the Mormons, the Christians etc. It is up to you to choose the one you think most true. Happy hunting!”
Alas, he would refute such relativism, and rightly so. Why then, did Lewis make such a blunder, if blunder it is? I’m sure he saw the logical mis-step–he was too brilliant not to. Perhaps he was concerned to  be ecumenical and not offend any group of Christians. It is my opinion, however, that there were certain paths Lewis chose not to travel. 
You see, if some of those rooms are more true than others, than by definition, there must be one room which is most true. If there is one room which is most true, how shall we decide which it is? Lewis has said we dare not choose because we like the stained glass, the architecture, the history, the music or the preaching. We must choose according to facts. We must choose according to the Scriptures. We must turn to the writings of the apostles and prophets. We must look to the writings of the early church historians and theologians. 
We must go an a quest to find that one truth which must be big enough to encompass all the others. We must look for that one church from which all the others have sprung. We must look for the one church which is older, more venerable and larger than all the others. I think Lewis knew that road led to Rome, and he decided that was a path he could not follow.
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  • Dwight,A great piece.You state: “On the spectrum between snake handling Pentecostals and Catholics though, Lewis is far closer to Catholicism than Pentecostalism.”I tired valiantly to make that point with you in an earlier correspondence. However, you refused to budge, insisting that Prods were Prods, demanding to know on what rule I based my belief that snake charming Protestants were extreme compared to my Evangelical Charismatic church or to the Anglicanism of C. S. Lewis.It seems you’ve answered your own question by agreeing there is a spectrum after all.My Evangelical Charismatic church is very much like Catholicism – as it existed 1,700 years ago. That is the church from where the others have sprung and from where some have wandered a little, like your own, but are now showing signs of wishing to return.I don’t have a religion. I’ve tried that. I have a relationship. I’m very comfortable with calling the Supreme Deity, the Infinite Non-Created Being (God ) by the name Jesus told us to use: daddy.God is for religion; daddy is for relationship. C.S.Lewis was fully aware of that. He knew relationship could not be confined to a denominational wardrobe.James

  • That’s beautiful James, I’m so glad you have a close filial relationship with God. Now suppose you tell me why i should believe that your ‘relationship with God’ is authentic and of any more value than a Mormon’s or a Jehovah’s Witness or a Moonie or a Hindu or a Muslim or (your favorite) a snake handling see, all of them claim to have a wonderful relationship with God. Why should yours be authentic and valid and theirs invalid?Don’t get me wrong. I think some relationships with God that humans claim definitely are more authentic and more valid than others, and I can articulate why for good reasons.But if all that matters (as you seem to suggest) is your personal relationship with God, by what basis do you claim that yours is authentic and not just a nice emotion you feel, and why is yours any more valid than anyone else’s?You will forgive me if I am skeptical. What if your wonderful relationship with God is no more than the Devil lulling you into a false sense of feel good security? What if you have disobeyed the true God by leaving the Catholic faith? What if, rather than finding a true faith and a true relationship with God you have fallen for the oldest trick in the book–the one tried in Eden–when our first parents were tempted to choose for themselves and to determine their own truth?What if the warm feelings, wonderful fellowship and all the other stuff you experience in your church is all counterfeit and you have swallowed the whole thing?Once again, do not misunderstand me, I am not saying this is all what happened to you, but it could be what has happened to you. Down through history there have been many false sects and false versions of Christianity, and they have drawn away many from the true faith with a promise of this or that other kind of religious experience.The fact that you are so happy and comfortable in your religion is one of the most disturbing things. I distrust any religion that makes one feel comfortable, for when I am comfortable with a religion I am most likely to have chosen that religion exactly for that reason, and that is a frightening prospect indeed.

  • Oh, Dwight, you answer your own question and then ask it again!On what basis do you say C.S. Lewis’s Protestant faith was right and the other Protestants all wrong?James

  • Fr. Dwight – What about the rooms in the catholic church; ie Benedictines, Augustinians, Franciscans, and Dominicans? Seems to me that there is still room for the analogy in the Catholic framework.

  • James, I, and the other Catholics on this blog have answered that question many times.Lewis’s Christianity was closer to the fullness of truth because it was closer to the historic fullness of truth found in the Catholic faith than other Protestant expressions of the truth.Now can you explain why your ‘relationship with God’ is authentic, or of any more value than the ‘relationship with God’ claimed by the snake handlers?I keep asking you this question, but you never give an answer. Why is your religious experience necessarily any more valid than the Mormon, the Jehovah’s Witness, the Anglican, the Methodist or the Salvationist?Again this is not to equate them all, but to challenge the basis of your authority. Is there any reason why your version of the Pentecostal religious experience is valid, but the snake handler’s version of the Pentecostal religious experience is not?Is it just because they do something that seems weird and alien to you? I’m afraid many of the things that happen in mainstream Pentecostal holiness churches seem weird and distasteful to me, so surely personal taste is not the criteria.So, tell me, what is the criteria?

  • Marcus Aurelius, I think the different orders might make the analogy Catholic, but to tell you the truth, I prefer open plan houses…I’ve extended the analogy to say that when you become a Christian you enter the hall of a great house. There are lots of little side rooms, each with their own door that closes on all the others, but when you go up the grand staircase you find that the house is more magnificent than you ever dreamed. It is Versailles. It is Biltmore House. It is Blenheim Palace, It is Castle Howard. It is full of many many rooms and outbuildings and galleries full of masterpieces and antiques etc etc.That’s what it is to become Catholic–not to enter a little side room, but to enter a vast and beautiful mansion.

  • Dwight,I cannot explain my authority to you. Note: I do not say I am unable; I simply cannot.The reason is you have such a narrow view of authority which, thank God, is not universal amongst Catholics.You defend a type of Catholicism which is dying out. I speak to many, many Catholics on a regular basis, from lay people to bishops, who feel they have more in common with Protestants like me than with cult Catholics like yourself.You wrote about me: “The fact that you are so happy and comfortable in your religion is one of the most disturbing things. I distrust any religion that makes one feel comfortable…”How sad! Imagine one of your children lying in your arms. That child is at peace, has joy – is comfortable, in the loving arms of you, his/her father. You are so busy defending one particular view of one particular religion, you’ve forgotten about the loving embrace of a Father.James

  • “I cannot explain my authority to you. Note: I do not say I am unable; I simply cannot.”I do not understand the distinction between ‘unable’ and ‘cannot’. Does this mean there is a solid authority foundation, but you don’t fully understand it, or that you understand it, but can’t articulate it or that you do not wish to ‘cast your pearls before swine” Come James, Peter (the first Pope) instructs us to ‘be prepared at all times to give an answer for the faith that lies within you.” Could you at least try? What is so odd James, is how you are able to make such gargantuan assumptions about my own faith. Somehow because I defend the Catholic faith I do not understand the loving embrace of the Father?Bizarre. Why should the two be mutually exclusive? Of course Catholics fully understand and accept the loving embrace of the Father and enjoy the consolations of faith, and the possibility of a warm and loving relationship with God.The fact that I question you on the validity of (what seems to me to be a religion that is not much more than subjective feelings) does not mean therefore, that I endorse a religion that is passionless or lacking in subjective consolations.I am simply concerned that your religion may be no more than that.If I am wrong, however, and there is a rock solid, historical, Scriptural, intelligible and ecclesial foundation of authority for why your Pentecostal religious experience is of any different order than the Pentecostal religious experience of the snake handler, please explain.You see, it seems to me that both you (as a Pentecostal) and the Pentecostal snake handler really have much the same foundational authority. Both of you claim that your religious experience is the authentic experience of the early church. Both of you claim that the ‘true’ believers always have, and do now worship as you do. Both of you claim Scriptural proof for your type of religious experience. Both of you have powerful ‘miracles’ and personally overwhelming experiences of the ‘Holy Spirit’ to validate your opinion. Both of you trust in the authenticity of your own religious experiences and therefore ‘know’ that you are close to God.In fact, the more I consider it, the more I can’t find any real essential differences. In fact what are the differences? That you are in Western England and they are in West Virginia? That you think yourself more intelligent than them? They might think they are more intelligent than you. That you are British (and therefore superior?) They would not agree.So what are the differences between you? That they handles snakes and you find that yucky? That’s just a matter of taste. That they play banjos and make their women wear long dresses? That’s just it that they are ‘just plain crazy’? Many people might visit a conventional Pentecostal service (with people wailing and fainting and being ‘healed’ and weeping and laughing and claiming that people have been raised from the dead) and conclude likewise.Come along James, what are the core differences between you and the snake handlers.Can’t you at least attempt an answer?

  • Dwight,Goodnight, God bless – and I pray Abba, our daddy, gives you a great big hug!James

  • Fr. Dwight,I think there is also an island analogy. The church is like a beautiful tropical island and outside of the church is the great rolling waves of the ocean. There are some who are not able to come onto the dry land because of some issue or another of conscience. I think that Free Will and conscience are too important in proper catholicism to deny that the protestant life rafts are out of sight of the island. And there were times in our history when the protestors were in the right of things, in some regards, though they may have been in the wrong in a great number of other issues. It is good that we have the bible in vernacular, for example, though Luther was so wrong on so many other issues. Even St. Thomas More committed a few tyranical acts in whilst he was caught up in defending the faith. In any event, I agree with the analogy and I think it might grow on you when you’re not quite so upset about nihilism (which I agree has shown itself to be a great evil). Free will is even important enough that a theist might choose Islam if he indeed feels that to be the ‘truth’, though having read the first few chapters of the koran I am cannot conceive of such a choice and I would argue that it is an error so grave that humanistic atheism might be closer to God.

  • Marcus Aurelius,You wrote: “I think that Free Will and conscience are too important in proper catholicism to deny that the protestant life rafts are out of sight of the island.”Does not “proper Catholicism” insist, though, on a conscience “properly formed?” Ah, there’s the rub!

  • Fr. Dwight,Your critique of Lewis’s rooms analogy is very solid. I don’t share your surprise that Lewis had a blind spot, though. I have known some brilliant folks—even a few arguably as brilliant as Lewis, in their different fields—and they all have their blind spots. It doesn’t seem to make any difference how smart one is normally; everyone is a part-time idiot. (Including me, of course; the difference with me is that I’m not brilliant enough normally to make the idiotic moments really stand out.)Peace,–Peer

  • There is, of course, Tolkien’s famous explanation for Lewis’ protestantism: He had an Ulsterior motive. Those who diminish that motive as somehow “unfair” to Lewis might re-read his biography–or better yet–read some history of Northern Ireland where Lewis was born and reared. So many non-English Catholics have scant understanding of English anti-Catholicism. Lewis’ patriotism was extreme, you might say. For many Anglicans, patriotism and religion are intermingled historically beyond any hope of separating the two.

  • When I read Mere Christianity I thought the hall/rooms idea was a way for Lewis to avoid getting into a denominational dogfight.

  • I used to use the analogy of language: When God speaks to me, he speaks “Catholic,” and so I must answer in the language he speaks. If others hear a different language, they must respond accordingly.

  • I am one of those odd Christians (and Catholics) who has always thought CS Lewis was overrated: he was philosophically sloppy and he had a profoundly anti-Catholic streak, one that emerged both in Letters to Malcolm and in his fiction.I don’t believe he was remotely close to conversion. Eric Seddon’s article, click here, explores Lewis’s anti-Catholicism in more detail.It’s perfectly fine to tut-tut, snort and roar with dismay at relativism. But simply rejecting relativism isn’t enough to get you to any particular room of the house. Pope Benedict rejects relativism; so did the anti-Catholic Lewis; so do a number of contemporary militant atheists; so do many sola scriptura fundamentalists.

  • I read Seddon’s article with much interest–particularly his analysis of the Aslan figure and very perceptive analysis of Lewis’ anti-Catholicism in Letters to Malcolm. Yet, one wonders, why did he write that book? Lewis often wrote to clarify his own thinking==to himself (e.g., A Grief Observed), and it seems likely to me that he might well have been articulating an internal argument. Also, Seddon, on p. 9, roundly condemns Pearce’s book on Lewis and the Church, yet his entire article seems only to reinforce Pearce’s thesis–except in one respect: In focusing on Lewis’ anti-Catholicism, Seddon cannot avoid emphatic denial of Pearce’s assertion that Lewis was close to conversion himself.I agree with Seddon completely in his assessment of Tolkien’s character in his restraint. But, oddly, no mention of Joy Davidman is made. During the estrangement of the two men, Davidman and Tolkien’s wife became very close friends. I think it not insignificant that this occurred at a period in Tolkien’s marriage that was reportedly quite “rocky.” Edith Tolkien was resentful about being forced to join the Roman Catholic Church when she married Tolkien–and somewhere (I can’t remember where), Tolkien refers to Lewis’ “strange marriage.” I mention this because I believe that Lewis became entrenched in his antipathy to the Church after his passionate marriage occurred, a marriage that the Church would not have recognized. It seems likely to me that the two women would have found sympathy with each other.

  • The side rooms: the inevitable radical subjectivism. Within Christianity, it sowed the seeds of its own destruction, easily cracking under the weight of its secular critics.Get a Piece of the Rock!James: Aramaic “Abba” is not daddy, it’s Papa. There’s more respect in the word and less egalitarian familiarity than you assume. According to those knowledgeable about Aramaic.