YIMC Book Club, “Mere Christianity”, Week 1

Good evening to our faithful friends at the YIMC Book Club. After a dramatic come from behind finish, our winner was Mere Christianity by noted author and Christian apologist C. S. Lewis. So without further hesitation, let’s wade into this week’s reading, which included the Foreword, Preface, and Chapters 1 & 2.

Mr. Lewis begins the book in the Foreword by stating that he intends only to write around what All Christians can agree on. As stated in the post with the syllabus, Lewis is not going to try to determine whether the Catholic Church, or any denomination or offshoot of it is the true Church. Indeed, this may even explain the popularity of this book to a degree. Lewis seems to have adopted this quote by Rupertus Meldenius (circa 1627–1628), which is often attributed to St. Augustine, as his mission statement for the book:

If we preserve unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and charity in both, our affairs will be in the best position.

Given that the authority of the Catholic Church is considered a “non-essential” to Lewis, is it any wonder that his friend J. R. R. Tolkein was dismayed when Lewis joined the Church of England instead? After all, by what authority are the essentials of the Christian faith determined? I understand his intent though, as questions regarding the intricacies of different denominations, and the political bickering that a non-Christian sees as conflict, may indeed drive someone away from Christ instead of into His arms. Sort of like my post this morning regarding the bickering about a new Missal. Yawn!

Instead, the idea of the great hall of the mansion with many rooms is given to us. Of course, with over 300 orders, and several rites reporting to Rome, including the recent olive branch extended to the Church of England, and thousands of parishes spread far and wide, this description is apt for the Catholic Church as well. To me, considering which room you are comfortable in is like choosing which parish or mass time you feel most comfortable in, so his point here is still valid, as was waiting in the hall, which I did for a very long time.

Is anyone out there surprised to hear that this book was first delivered as a series of radio broadcasts during World War II? I know I was. Is it even imaginable that a major broadcaster today would invite a discussion of Christianity on the air to the public today? Highly unlikely. Maybe somewhere in the hinterlands of cable television channel selections, but not on the main channels. Think of the hue and cry that Brit Hume endured recently when he hoped a certain celebrity would find Jesus Christ, and you will know what I mean. And yet, when the entire Luftwaffe is bombing your country every night with squadrons of bombers and V-1 and V-2 rockets, maybe people become a little more open-minded and forgiving about such discussions.

So we will keep these background events firmly in mind and find no fault in Lewis when he claims that the book is not “academic, philosophical musings” but instead “a work of oral literature, addressed to people at war.”

Chapter 1 starts with an appeal to standards of behavior that everyone is expected to know. Lewis states that this used to be called the Law of Nature in the classical era. St. Anthanasius in The Incarnation of Our Lord said as much when he wrote this in the mid 300’s:

It is, indeed, in accordance with the nature of the invisible God that He should be thus known through His works; and those who doubt the Lord’s resurrection because they do not now behold Him with their eyes, might as well deny the very laws of nature.

And this as Lewis sees it, is the Law of Human Nature, which may be upheld or broken by man, unlike the physical Laws of Nature with which we are familiar such as the laws of gravity etc.

He goes on to explain questions of cultural differences regarding the idea of “right” and “wrong” behavior. As Lewis asserts, these differences really haven’t amounted to much, regardless of whether you are a Dutch nobleman or the noble savage. But the funny thing is that as soon as someone claims there is no “real” Right or Wrong, they quickly take back that notion almost immediately when the issue of “fairness” comes into play. The very idea of “fairness” means that a Law of Human Nature is real and therefore there is a “real” Right and Wrong. My RCIA instructor, our parish priest, explained this as our conscience, and guess what? None of us are really obeying or “keeping” this Law of Nature. If you think you are, Lewis says you don’t need this book (and I say you are delusional).

So we have this ideal of behavior implanted in us and yet we fail to live up to the standards we have set for ourselves and for others. This standard is the Law of Nature. Lewis admits (whew!):

I am just the same. That is to say, I do not succeed in keeping the Law of Nature very well, and the moment anyone tells me I am not keeping it, there starts up in my mind a string of excuses as long as your arm.

This sounds like my kids’ answers when I ask why didn’t you do your homework, or clean up your room?

The question at the moment is not whether they are good excuses. The point is that they are one more proof of how deeply, whether we like it or not, we believe in the Law of Nature. If we do not believe in decent behaviour, why should we be so anxious to make excuses for not having behaved decently?

Very good point, Mr L., and as Don Henley croons in Dirty Laundry, we love ripping to shreds the reputation of anyone who doesn’t live up to the Standard.

The truth is, we believe in decency so much—we feel the Rule or Law pressing on us so—that we cannot bear to face the fact that we are breaking it, and consequently we try to shift the responsibility. For you notice that it is only for our bad behaviour that we find all these explanations. It is only our bad temper that we put down to being tired or worried or hungry; we put our good temper down to ourselves.

This sounds like my conscience talking to me, all right! Blame the bad on something else, while taking all the credit for the good stuff! Lewis sums up the law and its effect on us with the following two points:

First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.

Maybe of “clear thinking” but not necessarily immune from fuzzy thinking either. Chapter 2 begins with Lewis, before going any further, answering some common objections to what seems pretty clear regarding this Law of Nature and our knowledge and violations of same.

For example, some people wrote to me saying, ‘Isn’t what you call the Moral Law simply our herd instinct and hasn’t it been developed just like all our other instincts?

he argues against this as follows,

But you will find inside you, in addition to these two impulses, a third thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away. Now this thing that judges between two instincts, that decides which should be encouraged, cannot itself be either of them. You might as well say that the sheet of music which tells you, at a given moment, to play one note on the piano and not another, is itself one of the notes on the keyboard. The Moral Law tells us the tune we have to play: our instincts are merely the keys.

Yes, don’t blame the instrument, kiddo, look at the player! And now the Law of Human Nature is shortened to “Moral Law” for simplicity’s sake.

But at those moments when we are most conscious of the Moral Law, it usually seems to be telling us to side with the weaker of the two impulses. You probably want to be safe much more than you want to help the man who is drowning: but the Moral Law tells you to help him all the same.

Just like everybody pulls for Luke Skywalker and the ragtag rebels vs. Darth Vader and his powerful Sith Lord. We love to pull for the underdog! And doing the right thing is often unpopular, or even downright dangerous!

The thing that says to you, “Your herd instinct is asleep. Wake it up,” cannot itself be the herd instinct. The thing that tells you which note on the piano needs to be played louder cannot itself be that note.

And what of the overriding power of the instincts for doing good?

. . . we ought to be able to point to some one impulse inside us which was always what we call “good,” always in agreement with the rule of right behaviour. But you cannot. There is none of our impulses which the Moral Law may not sometimes tell us to suppress, and none which it may not sometimes tell us to encourage. It is a mistake to think that some of our impulses- say mother love or patriotism-are good, and others, like sex or the fighting instinct, are bad.

Remember our past discussions on the Just War doctrine of the Church or Chesterton’s argument of the Lion laying with the Lamb, but still being a Lion?

All we mean is that the occasions on which the fighting instinct or the sexual desire need to be restrained are rather more frequent than those for restraining mother love or patriotism. But there are situations in which it is the duty of a married man to encourage his sexual impulse and of a soldier to encourage the fighting instinct. There are also occasions on which a mother’s love for her own children or a man’s love for his own country have to be suppressed or they will lead to unfairness towards other people’s children or countries.

Seriously, look at the effects of Nationalism run amok when Lewis gave this radio address.

Strictly speaking, there are no such things as good and bad impulses. Think once again of a piano. It has not got two kinds of notes on it, the “right” notes and the “wrong” ones. Every single note is right at one time and wrong at another. The Moral Law is not any one instinct or any set of instincts: it is something which makes a kind of tune (the tune we call goodness or right conduct) by directing the instincts.

But wait, Mr Lewis, you say, how about settling on one overriding value proposition on which to base every action? Sort of like the Prime Directive (which never seemed to stay constant BTW) in Star Trek! Ah, if only life were so simple. Black and white with no shades of gray. What planet are you on?

The most dangerous thing you can do is to take any one impulse of your own nature and set it up as the thing you ought to follow at all costs. There is not one of them which will not make us into devils if we set it up as an absolute guide. You might think love of humanity in general was safe, but it is not. If you leave out justice you will find yourself breaking agreements and faking evidence in trials “for the sake of humanity,” and become in the end a cruel and treacherous man.

But, but, Christopher Hitchens says— Sorry Chris, this isn’t like learning our multiplication tables, brother. Lewis argues that this law of right behavior is something known but unlearned. Some learned things are conventions but others, like mathematics, are real truths. And Lewis argues that progress means not just changing but changing for the better. We have had lots of progress and Qohelth in Ecclesiastes argues that we keep running into the same problems time and time again, progress be damned. But isn’t there one best way of doing things and thinking through these moral problems mankind faces? The dream of all those guys who invented time & motion studies? The holy grail of behavioral scientists?

The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other. But the standard that measures two things is something different from either. You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality, admitting that there is such a thing as a real Right, independent of what people think, and that some people’s ideas get nearer to that real Right than others.

And the Christian standard is what he is referring to here. That standard that has been given us by God, paid for by the death, burial and resurrection of Christ and passed down to us by the Apostles and martyrs and on to us through the Church. Lewis concludes this chapter, and we this weeks section with these thoughts:

But one word before I end. I have met people who exaggerate the differences, because they have not distinguished between differences of morality and differences of belief about facts. 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?” But surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did-if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather, surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did.

The Death Penalty? Don’t get me started, Mr. Lewis, but I think I get your point. Of course, there is that little story in the Old Testament about a certain witch in Endor that King Saul visited once. But that is another story, for another time.

What comments do you have to share, club members? Any passages strike you in a particular way? Please share your thoughts and impressions with your YIMC Book Club companions! Pass me the hors d’oeuvres!

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  • The forward is actually what struck me the most, with his description of the hall with all the rooms. I've been in the hall for two years now and it's getting hard to just stay here, but I can't go into the door I want to just yet either. My time in the hall has been a test of patience. I know there were other things I thought interesting – because I read those parts out loud to my husband – but the hall analogy really just resounded the most with me.

  • EPG

    Frank wrote (in part):"Mr. Lewis begins the book in the Foreword by stating that he intends only to write around what All Christians _can_ agree on" (emphasis added).and . . . "Given that the authority of the Catholic Church is considered a “non-essential” to Lewis, is it any wonder that his friend J. R. R. Tolkein was dismayed when Lewis joined the Church of England instead? After all, by what authority are the essentials of the Christian faith determined?"Actually, Lewis aims to "explain and defend the belief that _has_ been common to nearly all Christians at all times" (emphasis added). What Lewis is doing is therefore descriptive, not prescriptive. He isn't attempting to outline what Christians can or ought to agree on, but on what they have, in fact, held in common.In fact, Lewis explicitly denies the intent to determine whether any of the points which Christians dispute is essential or not. He writes:"Oddly enough, you cannot even conclude, from my silence on disputed points, either that I think them important or that I think them unimportant. For this itself is one of the disupted points. One of the things Christians are disagreed about is the importance of their disagreements. When two Christians of different denominations start arguing, it is usually not long before one asks whether such-and-such a point 'really matters' and the other replies: "Matter? Why, it's absolutely essential."Lewis isn't attempting to lay out what is essential or non-essential — because Frank is right, the question of the authority of the Catholic Church (whether you accept it or not) is an essential element which will determine which room off the hall you end up in (or, at least, whether you end up in the Roman Catholic room). And that is precisely not what he is trying to solve for his readers.

  • Webster Bull

    When I was in RCIA, our teacher said that Catholics revere CS Lewis the way they do Moses–he reached the edge of the Promised Land, but never entered it. I am interested to see where CSL takes this discussion. And I know the "ending"–he never did become Catholic, but he upheld the Christian claim, and maybe that's the essential.

  • EPG

    Michelle, After over 40 years in the Anglican room of the House, I find myself in the hall, which is disconcerting. And, although Lewis warns us that we should not think of the hall as home, he recognizes that some of us are going to be in the hall for a while. As for the One whose opinion really matters, I just have to hope for tolerance of my fears, affections, weaknesses, and whatever else keeps me in the hall. But, since there have been times when I had gone out the front door and was playing in the street, the hall seems pretty good by comparison.Webster, Here's the funny thing about Lewis. The Anglicans (naturally) claim him as one of their own. Some Catholics, as you point out, think of him as an "almost Catholic." There is widespread admiration for him in Evangelical circles (and, in fact, a major collection of his papers and a significant institute named after him are at Wheaton College in Illinois. And, just a couple of weeks ago, an Orthodox priest I met referred to him as "proto-Orthodox." Maybe Lewis, not Thomas More, is the "Man for all Seasons." (I'm just saying . . . )

  • Anonymous

    Jesus said:John 14:2 (New International Version)In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you.

  • Thanks EPG -The hall certainly doesn't feel like home, but I know there's more chance of warmth there than out on the street. 🙂

  • What the Catechism has to say about the Law of Nature

  • Great quote in the citation above by former Anglican, Roman Catholic Cardinal John Henry Newman:"Conscience is a law of the mind; yet [Christians] would not grant that it is nothing more; I mean that it was not a dictate, nor conveyed the notion of responsibility, of duty, of a threat and a promise. . . . [Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ."

  • I happened upon this website this morning by many a winding way and found this book study a few minutes ago. I'm wondering if there is a schedule for reading, or any rules that one must follow when posting.To introduce myself, my name is Janet, I'm a 59 year old cradle Catholic, a member for 13 years of the Memphis CSL Society, and native of the Old South.AMDG

  • Webster Bull

    Janet, Many thanks for chiming in! You can find the reading schedule for Mere Christianity right here! Please join us!

  • Sandy

    LOL, I waited for the obligatory first post and so I meander here today. I, like many, was most touched by the great hall metaphor. I think people underestimate the importance of the hall. Humans want people to commit, immediately if not sooner. To God, a decade or more in the hall is a blink of an eye, or summat. I found myself reflecting on how many people have been in the hall, in God's hands, and in our human zeal to force agreement, forced people out of the hall, or at least back into the corner. Otherwise, I found the Law of Nature section a bit difficult. The Multiplication table example is what threw me; we devised a counting system, not God. I am grateful for the additional posts and resources about that, because I need to look more deeply.I am really enjoying this study!

  • My book didn't arrive from Amazon until Saturday and then I had duty on Sunday so will catch up for this weeks discussion. Enjoyed reading everyone's thoughts so far.

  • Warren Jewell

    Hmmm – since health problems intervened in my reading and thinking and writing, I have to seriously reduce the written results of my thinking; from eight pagers of notes to about completing the last half-page. I can’t sit at my keyboard long, yet, but, I do have some thoughts. Some of them come out of my suffering. C. S. Lewis – find a foxhole. But, first, those Catholics who need to dig a deeper bunker of a foxhole. One could say that ‘digging down’ seems to be heading in the right direction.(And, yes, this long-winded blast is short, for me.)The final straw was the later Webster question about the personal; hows, whys, (or nots), etc., of Catholicism. I have run the gamut of ‘lapsed’ Catholic faith. Boy, am I good at lapsing. There are all manner of pretend Catholics. There are cultural Catholics [‘cuz Grandma did it’], so prominent in the Midwest where Catholicism has had great sway. This includes complacent hierarchy down to pastors [‘minimalists‘, you might say]. Since Vat2, we have had the dissident know-better-know-nothings [snobs of Catholicism, footed in the radical truth but dancing on radical-v.-radical thin ice]. There are cafeteria Catholics, with maybe two or three of Ten Commandments surrounded by the remaining ‘suggestions’. I figure in Purgatory I’ll hear about how I tried to invent one or more of my own variations on these themes. I imagine tribunals where the likes of Augustine and Aquinas will come in to ridicule my notions. While I stand there grinning like an idiot because of being in the company of such giants, inside “I” will shrivel down to nothing that He may fill me with Himself. Fair trade – I asked for it; and truly “I must decrease, that He increase”.So much comes down to form versus substance, to ‘talk-the-talk’ though avoiding ‘walking-the walk’ – to somehow, amazingly, having this ‘it’s all about me’ strut – and, above all, unwillingness to suffer, such as dragging that cross along.But, then there are the cradle Catholics confessional and in communion – no coincidence their state is defined so Sacramentally. For them they ‘convert’ with every confession, and receive grace anew at every Eucharist. They stand athwart the pretend crowd – say (sheepishly confessing), like my late wife, Sharon, did with me. And, there are the truth-seeking converts. Of powerful indication, it is no wonder that Protestantism picks off the wandering pew evacuees of Catholicism, but Catholicism picks off some of the best and brightest of Protestantism. Truth will see to that telling difference . . . .

  • Warren Jewell

    . . . . New comment, to get this all out of me . . . After too much of ‘Mere Christianity‘, I am still looking for ‘mere’ Christianity. I mean, CSL notes we’re all in the hall – we know right-and-wrong well enough. We know we’re interested in Jesus Christ, in He Who was crucified and in Him risen. Get on with it!I can’t remember being so disillusioned years ago when I read the book, but I am now. It is out-of-date in a world so bent on making Christianity, and Catholicism, so ‘mere’ as to be undetectable. It now needs upgrading to get down to the few ‘mere’ details, and quickly, often, and firmly. Here it is from Gospel to each simple person: #1 As Christ was ‘Father-centric’, we must concentrate on being Christocentric. Nothing can substitute, and not doing so is dithering with precious time. #2 “Sinner, repent!” (Duh!) #3 Really DO unto others as you would have done unto you, and #4 “People of My Kingdom, sheep of My flock, unite, come together, and worship Me and pray to Me.”If it seems that our dear Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, had so much more to say, it is because He was trying to get our attention (“Hell-O-o – anyone in there?”) He knew all about all the sin-embracing pretenders over centuries. And, He had to prepare us and Himself for His sacrificial sin-forgiving and death-killing death and His glory-promising Resurrection. I have to admit preferring to hang around converts – not for zealotry, though, yes, for genuine and heart-afire enthusiasm. From the first, the bulk of Christian (Catholic) martyrs were self-surrendering converts to Christianity (Catholicism). In my case, it has most to do with going full bore for truth, and getting ready to accept the consequences; for the consequences look and will likely cause suffering like the Cross. Which means faith Christocentric, and faith alive and on fire.Jack, keep your head down. If I stay so pained, you may be getting stronger fire if you don’t get to the real ‘mere-ness’.

  • Warren: Glad to see you are back and that the scales have fallen from your eyes. ;^)

  • Warren's statement was interesting to me: "it is no wonder that Protestantism picks off the wandering pew evacuees of Catholicism, but Catholicism picks off some of the best and brightest of Protestantism. "As a protestant, whenever I hear of Catholics who have left the church it is usually because of one or two things: 1. The people were unfriendly and they've found community elsewhere (I hear this a lot in my Episcopal churches) 2. Found freedom from all the "rules". But what I hear those people really saying is "I didn't understand my own faith, and no one taught me." (Though there are those who have left the church because they were personally hurt, ie sex scandals, etc, but I'm going to say those are a different category).However, protestants that have become Catholic, at least of all the many, many conversion stories I've read, have come to this decision through a long process of study and prayer. I've even noticed a shred of fear among protestants when one starts reading the early church fathers. There does exist a fear in some circles that it will lead to Catholicism. Anyway…I don't know that I have much else to expound upon…I just thought the statement was interesting. 🙂