YIMC Book Club, “Mere Christianity,” Week 4

This week we read Book III, Chapters 2 through 5.

I really enjoyed this week’s readings. And let me be the first to say that I have come full circle on my opinion of C. S. Lewis.  I like you, Jack, and I don’t even care if you smoke. See him over there scribbling away? Writing some great stuff, I bet. Like what he was writing this week.

For a change, we stayed in the same book for a whole week so it was easy to stay on track. And Jack kept us focused with the following chapters: 2. The “Cardinal Virtues,” 3. Social Morality, 4. Morality and Psychoanalysis, 5. Sexual Morality.

Jack covers a lot of ground and before we go any further I just want to reiterate that I was wrong about Mr. Lewis. The book started off like a bottle of formula, and I was wailing like a little baby. But now? Jack is slinging some serious hash, folks. You probably won’t see ideas like those in these chapters anywhere else, except in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

From the Cardinal Virtues of Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude through his assessment of Christian thought regarding sexual morality, it all jibes with the Church’s teachings. Oh, not with contemporary society, not by a long shot. But isn’t that the point? Lewis writes about all of the main ideas that all Christians agreed on up until WWII, when he put this together.

Isn’t it ironic that many of the ideas set-in-stone in these chapters are coming unglued everywhere in many mainline Protestant churches today? I found myself cheering Jack on as he writes,

The job is really on us, on the laymen. The application of Christian principles, say, to trade unionism or education, must come from Christian trade unionists and Christian schoolmasters: just as Christian literature comes from Christian novelists and dramatists—not from the bench of bishops getting together and trying to write plays and novels in their spare time. 

From his thoughts on achieving a truly Christian Society and his jab at our debt-laced economic models (which came close to imploding, again, back in 2008) to his manhandling of Freudian psychoanalysis and his old-fashioned, very Catholic take on sexual morality, it was green lights all the way, for me at least.

But what about you folks? What are your thoughts and take-aways from this week’s readings? I’ll leave you with a few of my favorite quotes from this week’s section and then turn it over to you.

All the same, the New Testament, without going into details, gives us a pretty clear hint of what a fully Christian society would be like. Perhaps it gives us more than we can take.

Courtesy is one of the Christian virtues; and the New Testament hates what it calls “busybodies.”

I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.

A Christian society is not going to arrive until most of us really want it: and we are not going to want it until we become fully Christian.

. . . when Freud is talking about how to cure neurotics he is speaking as a specialist on his own subject, but when he goes on to talk general philosophy he is speaking as an amateur.

Human beings judge one another by their external actions. God judges them by their moral choices.

. . . you and I, for the last twenty years, have been fed all day long on good solid lies about sex.

They tell you sex has become a mess because it was hushed up. But for the last twenty years it has not been hushed up. It has been chattered about all day long. Yet it is still in a mess.

I want to make it as clear as I possibly can that the centre of Christian morality is not here. If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual.

From 1920 until 2010, is more like 90 years now, Jack.  Take it away, club members.  You have the floor.

Next week we read Book III, Chapters 6, 7, and 8

YIMC Book Club, “Mere Christianity” Week 3

This week we read Book II, Chapters 3, 4, and 5 and Book III, chapter 1.

Good morning YIMC Book Club Members! If week #1 and week #2 were sleepers, this week’s readings are anything but.  Lewis starts shooting the lights out and fires off a fussilade of thoughts that left me cheering for more.  Jack, “fire for effect!”

Like last week, I’m going to let readers produce most of the ideas here.  I am going to share a few of my favorite passages though.  There was so much good stuff to choose from that frankly, this is a difficult post to write! Here are a few of my impressions of this week’s readings.

Last week ended with Lewis using an analogy that Christians are living in enemy-occupied territory. Obviously not the kind of thought that resonates with modern-day residents of the United States.  The last time US citizens lived in enemy occupied territory was in the Civil War. But these words were spoken during the Blitz. Austria had been annexed, Poland invaded, France fell, and Germany was focused on taking Britain next. The listeners to this radio program understood this message loud and clear. It makes a lot of sense to me too.

This week starts with Chapter 3 The Shocking Alternative.  Right off the bat Lewis uses an analogy that any parent can sympathize with. A mother teaches her children that it is proper to keep their rooms neat and clean.  The children know this is what they should do and yet, they make a mess of things against Mom’s will.  This sounds a lot like my childhood, not to mention sympathizing with my role as a parent! Lewis writes,

She would prefer the children to be tidy. But on the other hand, it is her will which has left the children free to be untidy. The same thing arises in any regiment, or trade union, or school. You make a thing voluntary and then half the people do not do it. That is not what you willed, but your will has made it possible.

What,  you haven’t given your children absolute free will? Golly, me neither. Point well taken Mr. Lewis! I read this  and thought, yeah Jack, now you are right on target.  And he makes his argument for this being the case throughout all of God’s creation.  Mankind has been given the gift of freewill. What the Founding Fathers of the U.S. deemed unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But what if this freedom is used badly?

Of course God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently He thought it worth the risk.

Stick around here long enough and you’ll quickly realize that  I am not a risk-averse individual. So nice shot Jack.  See, EPG? I’m warming up to CSL now! Wait a second.  This is baloney and I don’t like it. I argue that a perfect and all-knowing God would never deign to stoop so low as to…give me freedom? Yeah, the argument falls flat because,

When you are arguing against Him (God) you are arguing against the very power that makes you able to argue at all: it is like cutting off the branch you are sitting on.

Mental picture of Wile-E-Coyote popping into your head yet? Here, let me help.

Talk about the “fall”! This is the price of freedom.  You’ve heard the remark that “freedom isn’t free?” Whaaat?! You just thought it was some trite remark to honor the sacrifices of veterans like me and CS Lewis? Are you smelling the coffee yet? Jack shoots another round right into the black.  This is his genius coming to the fore.

Speaking of the fall,

What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could “be like gods”-could set up on their own as if they had created themselves-be their own masters-invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history-money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery-the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.

We also learn how, and I use Jack’s word, asinine it is to describe the conduct of Jesus in any other way other than as that of God.  No man would say he was God and would forgive all of your sins regardless of how heinous they are to the offended party. But that’s enough from me on this chapter, because other wise I could just post every single word of it and we would be here all day!

Chapter 4 is The Perfect Penitent where Jack leads us to understand that,  given what we have learned this far,

it seems to me obvious that He (Jesus) was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God. God has landed on this enemy-occupied world in human form. And now, what was the purpose of it all?

The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start…A good many different theories have been held as to how it works; what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work.

Rally on the Beacon of Light troops!  Because God has given us a do-over of epic proportions! How?

We believe that the death of Christ is just that point in history at which something absolutely unimaginable from outside shows through into our own world…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. That is what has to be believed.

And another thing.  Remember how we are in enemy territory? What most haven’t realized is that they are also in the rebel army.  This is like the movie The Matrix when Neo takes the little red pill to be awakened to reality! We read, fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms. Lewis goes on to give a spectacular lecture on the nuts and bolts of how Christian salvation works.  And it works because Christ is the perfect penitent for He is Perfect and as a human, he was humiliated and surrendered willingly to this sacrifice.  Leadership by example troops!

Chapter 5 The Practical Conclusion we see that Christ is the New Adam. Lewis is brilliant again in his exposition on how this comes about and how we as Christians have our own lives transformed.

There are three things that spread the Christ life to us: baptism, belief, and that mysterious action which different Christians call by different names-Holy Communion, the Mass, the Lord’s Supper. At least, those are the three ordinary methods. 

(Jesus) taught His followers that the new life was communicated in this way. In other words, I believe it on His authority. Do not be scared by the word authority. Believing things on authority only means believing them because you have been told them by someone you think trustworthy. Ninety-nine per cent of the things you believe are believed on authority.

Chapter 1 of Book III is The Three Parts of Morality and they are humdingers! Lewis sums them up as follows:

Morality, then, seems to be concerned with three things. Firstly, with fair play and harmony between individuals. Secondly, with what might be called tidying up or harmonising the things inside each individual. Thirdly, with the general purpose of human life as a whole: what man was made for: what course the whole fleet ought to be on: what tune the conductor of the band wants it to play.

I’m not gonna share anymore on this because I want to hear from you now.  Has everyone else enjoyed this weeks section of readings as much as I have? I promised there would be no pop quizzes, but I wasn’t expecting this much fun this week.  Thanks, Jack! See you next week.

Next week we read Book III Chapters 2, 3, 4, and 5.

YIMC Book Club, “Mere Christianity,” Week 2

It is week number two, club members, and time for some mere discussion on Mere Christianity. Unlike last week, when I posted a seemingly interminable essay on the first week’s readings, this time I will be leaving most of the discussion up to you.

But I have a few thoughts to share first.This week we read Book I, chapters 3–5, and Book II, chapter 1 and 2. [Read more…]

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!

For All the Saints: Anthony the Great

As I’ve written before, I’m a big fan of the Desert Fathers. Today, we celebrate St. Anthony the Great. Anthony is really the Godfather of all the Desert Fathers and the person responsible for starting the formation of Christian monastic orders. I love the following saying attributed to him, because it seems to hit home with how I often feel these days, despite the fact that this was said over 1600 years ago:

Abba Anthony said: “A time is coming when people will go mad and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, “You are mad because you are not like us.”

Yes, we are living in interesting times. And what an interesting person! A role model even of St. Francis of Assisi. Take a look at what Thomas Merton has to say about Abbot Anthony from his book The Wisdom of the Desert.

In the 4th century AD the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Arabia and Persia were peopled by a race of men who left behind them a strange reputation. They were the first Christian hermits, who abandoned the cities of the ancient Roman world to live in the solitude and silence of the desert. Why did they do this? The reasons were many and various, but they can all be summed up in one brief phrase: the quest for salvation. Among these men (and women!) the life and witness of St. Anthony the Great is unique.

St. Anthony, called “the father of monasticism”, was born in central Egypt about 251 AD, the son of peasant farmers who were Christian. In circa 269, he heard the Gospel being read in Church and applied to himself the words of Jesus to the rich man: “Go, sell all that you have, give it to the poor and come, follow Me.” He sold everything he owned, gave the proceeds to the poor and devoted himself to a life of asceticism under the guidance of a recluse living on the outskirts of his village.

Around 285 AD he went alone into the desert to live in complete solitude. It was in this solitude and silence that Anthony heard clearly the Word of God for his life. After 20 years in solitude, Anthony emerged “as one initiated into the mysteries of God and inspired by the Holy Spirit (he became) a physician given by God to Egypt through whom the Lord healed many people.” He died at the age of 105 in 356 AD and his biography, written by St. Athanasios (whose memory the Orthodox Church celebrate on January 18th, and the Catholic Church on May 2nd) created an immediate literary and theological sensation throughout the ancient world.

What can we, more than 1500 years later, learn from Anthony’s witness? What is the meaning of his flight from society into the desert? First, society—which meant classical Roman pagan society, limited by the horizons and prospects of life “in this world” – was regarded by Anthony and the many other desert fathers and mothers as a shipwreck from which each had to swim for their lives.

These were men and women who believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the non-Christian tenets of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster. These Coptic hermits—for Anthony—like so many of his brothers and sisters, was a Copt and spoke no Greek or Latin—who left the world as though escaping from a shipwreck, did not merely intend to save themselves. They knew that they were helpless to do any good for others as long as they floundered about in the wreckage. But once they got a foothold on solid ground, things were different. Then they had not only the ability but even the obligation to pull the world to safety after them. Perhaps we cannot do exactly what Anthony did. But we must be as thorough and as ruthless in our determination to break our spiritual chains, cast off the domination of alien compulsions and find our true selves in Christ Jesus.

Some sayings of St. Anthony the Great:

When the same Abba Anthony thought about the depth of the judgments of God, he asked, “Lord, how is it that some die when they are young, while others drag on to extreme old age? Why are there those who are poor and those who are rich? Why do wicked men prosper and why are the just in need?” He heard a voice answering him, “Anthony, keep your attention on yourself; these things are according to the judgment of God, and it is not to your advantage to know anything about them.”

Abba Anthony said: “This is the work of a great man: always to take responsibility for his own sins before God and to expect temptations until his last breath.”

He also said: “Whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it in accordance with the testimony of the Holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved.”

Abbe Pambo asked Abba Anthony, “What ought I to do?” and the old man said to him, “Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach.”

Abba Anthony said, “I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, ‘What can get through from such snares? Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility.'”

Abba Anthony said, “I no longer fear God, but I love Him. For love casts out fear.” (Jn 4:18)

He also said, “God does not allow the same warfare and temptations to this generation as he did formerly, for men are weaker now and cannot bear so much.”

St. Anthony, Pray for Us!


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