Mere Christianity, by C. S. Lewis
C. S. Lewis has an extraordinary ability to take what you already know – or what you think you know – and make you think about it in ways in which you have never before. When we wake up every day and live out our lives, there are so many things working in the backgrounds of our minds which help us make sense of our world. Very often, we take these things for granted, and for the most part, we hardly even notice them. In Mere Christianity, Lewis directs our attention to these unnoticed aspects of our daily experience with grace, wit and razor-sharp logic, and uses this to present an endlessly fascinating account of how Christianity works. What I have found particularly refreshing is that Lewis starts with nothing, and builds his case from the ground up. There are no assumptions. He begins with what we all know, and experience, and feel in our day to day lives – and then he goes from there.
Let’s put things in context. The year is 1942, and Great Britain is at war. The front line is at the doorsteps of the civilians themselves, as planes bombard this small island nation each night. C. S. Lewis is called to deliver a series of radio broadcasts on BBC on the Christian faith, and these speeches were eventually gathered into a single volume and printed. See, Mere Christianity was not originally a book. It was a series of radio speeches to a broken and war-weary nation.
Here are some of the nuggets of truth and insight I have gleaned from Mere Christianity:
1. The reality of the moral law. “Hey, that’s not fair!” – “Come on, you promised…” – what occurs so naturally to us is that there is some sort of standard of behaviour which we expect other people to follow. Yet, this standard, or ‘law’, is very peculiar if you think about it. Consider the idea of science for a second. Science is able to observe the world around us, and tell us how the world works. It can provide ‘laws’ which describe the world – Newton’s laws of motion, Mendel’s laws of genetics. But the ‘moral’ law is different – it doesn’t actually describe anything that we are doing. Instead, it describes what we should do. In fact, many times what we are actually doing is contrary to this moral law. So, this moral law is very real… but at the same time, it isn’t really “real”. It’s a thing, but it’s also a not-thing. This is something that we can’t learn from external observation. We can observe humans, but unless you were actually a human – you wouldn’t experience, and thus understand, this idea of a ‘moral law’. Where does this experience come from? What lies behind this ‘moral law’? Our experience of the moral law raise many questions, and it is in this context which Christianity starts to speak.
2. The person of Christ. We look for something to help explain our ‘moral law’. Enter first century Palestine, and we see a man – Jesus of Nazareth – make the preposterous claim that he is able to forgive sin. This phrase – ‘forgiving sin’ – is a phrase that we have difficulty understanding. We throw the phrase around often, and we don’t realise the scandalous implications of what it actually means. Consider this. Let’s say you punch me, I forgive you. Or you steal my money, I forgive you. But let’s say you hit me, and a stranger off the street – completely irrelevant to our situation – comes up to you and says, “I forgive you”. You would make him out to be a fool. “Get out of here”, you’d say. So, we see Jesus acting like he’s the chief party concerned in any offence. And if you think about it carefully, Jesus is claiming to be the power behind the ‘moral law’ I spoke of above. He’s the one who sets what is right and wrong. He is the one who you are offending every time you break this moral law. And so, what can we conclude something about this man, Jesus of Nazareth? He is a lunatic. Or, he is a liar – a really great actor. Or, he is God himself. How do we approach the person of Jesus?
3. The root of evil. Lewis spends an entire section of the book talking about Christian ‘virtues’ or ‘values’ – ways in which Christians should live and behave, and how to make sense of them. There is so much good stuff here I cannot possibly write it all down, I may as well quote the entire book! So, if I was to draw attention to one thing which really stuck out to me, it is what Lewis calls the centre of Christian morals: “the essential vice, the utmost evil – Pride”. Pride is the vice that leads to every other vice, and is the complete anti-moral, anti-God state of mind. We aren’t proud of having something, but rather, we are proud for having more of it than the next person. See, the very essence of pride is competition. Once we take away competition, there is no pride. Pride, as Lewis says, is enmity. I’ll keep quoting Lewis (I can’t think of any better words to say): “For Pride is spiritual cancer, it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense”.
4. Heaven and Longing. This idea of ‘heaven’ is central to popular views of Christianity – “I want to go to heaven” is a popular sentiment. Whilst this idea is common misunderstood, I think there’s something quite important and insightful here. Here are a few things that Lewis says. “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither”. Or, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” Interesting.
5. Life and transformation. The last thing I want to say, and probably the most profound thing I have learnt. We say that ‘Christ has come to give us life’. Hold on, aren’t we alive already? Why do we need to be given life? So, Lewis makes a distinction between natural, biological life, called ‘Bios’, and Spiritual life, called ‘Zoe’. Imagine bringing a tin soldier to life. This is what it’s like bringing a being from Bios to Zoe. When we put our faith in Christ, we aren’t just committing ourselves to follow another set of rules, but rather, we are being given life and being transformed into a timeless, spiritual being.
What I’ve written so far is completely inadequate in capturing the spirit of Mere Christianity. There are so, so many nuggets of insight strewn throughout its pages – so many little word-bites that get you thinking long after you’ve read them. If you haven’t read it before, I must recommend it. This is definitely a book which I’ll be revisiting again and again.