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!