Mere Christianity is C.S. Lewis's forceful and accessible doctrine of Christian belief. First heard as informal radio broadcasts and then published as three separate books, The Case for Christianity, Christian behavior, and Beyond personality, Mere Christianity brings together what Lewis sees as the fundamental truths of religion. Rejecting the boundaries that divide Christianity's many denominations, C.S.
About a third of the way through, I was wondering when the persuasion and thoughtfulness would kick in. I had heard of the lunatic, liar, or lord trilemma but was disappointed in its simplistic and completely unsatisfying resolution. Most of the arguments seemed empty and the leaps of logic too glaring. Lewis's characteristic discomfort with women and sexuality was also evident throughout, though that was less of a surprise.
On the positive side, the overall tone of the book was very appropriate for a work of intellectual apologetics directed at the reading masses. Lewis's prose is very readable and this is a quick read, not dry or dull.
There is no fundamental basis for Lewis' arguments. I was hoping to find something more thought-provoking and convincing, but it just felt like the same old ideas Aquinas and Descartes bandied around. These are no longer sufficient in a world of thermodynamics and evolution.
The skill and intellect of Lewis are without question, but the way he meanders about duality, truth, social darwinism, pathetic fallacy, comparative anthropology, and scientific process tends more towards self-justification than any profundity.
Lewis clearly wants to believe, and wants to bolster and justify those beliefs, but he never overcomes a reasonable burden of proof. Since belief seems so important to him, Occam's Razor suggests that he doesn't have a 'secret vault' of excellent religious proofs which he failed to elucidate here. He's put together the best indications he could find, but they don't add up to much.
Every time Lewis embarked on a thought, it would grow and blossom in intriguing ways until he would simply bunch together the whole bundle, tie it with a bow, label it 'god's handiwork' with a reverent bow, and move on before reaching an insight. It made me think the allegory in Onan has been widely misread.
The righteousness of his belief contrasts hypocritically with the way he blithely writes off any other faith or reason. To believe everyone else is so faulty but still think yourself infallible is not only insulting, but a black mark on any otherwise reasonable mind.
I like Lewis, both his tone and his mind. In many ways, I found I wanted to find something compelling in him. I wanted to find something that made sense. I sense Lewis also wanted to find something that made sense, something he could attach himself to. After being alone and afraid in a grand world ripped by World Wars, he wanted meaning.
He found it. He found a meaning he could cling to, but in reading this book, I found his grasp was too tentative. I cannot share it with him, because it does not find its tenacity in reason, but in romanticism, in idealism, in fear, and in self-blindness.
But Mr. Lewis argues for a very palatable and tolerant Christianity, and says any truly Christian society must adopt a 'leftist' government. I'll take that over what we have here in the US any time. He's also a gifted writer, with an elegant facility for useful analogy that entertained me throughout, and he is certainly less concerned with judging others than many who profess his faith. I enjoyed the book, and liked working out counter-arguments along the way.
The work is divided into four books. The first, "Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe" is an argument for Natural Law ethics and for it as a proof of God's existence. Anyone who has taken an introduction to philosophy course knows there are three basic arguments for the existence of God: ontological (that by definition God must exist), cosmological (some great being must have created a universe) and teleological (a watch means there must be a watchmaker, a universe shows complexity and purpose that requires a designer). Lewis' argument is a variety of the teleological argument. All human beings have a common core morality. Such universality means a God must have designed it so. Moreover, it must be God's design, because we have no selfish interest in being moral. Lewis' argument from intelligent design is subject to all the refutations you can find in any philosophy text.
As for morality being something inconvenient and not selfishly "good" for us--I'd dispute that. One commonplace of market and bargaining theory is this. If you're only going to deal with a person once, it's in your best interest to cheat them. But that's not how markets work. We all have to deal with the same people again and again, and it's in our best interest therefore to treat people fairly and honestly. And on a personal level, well think of Scrooge. Who was happier? The miserly Scrooge eating thin gruel and going "Bah, Humbug?" Or the reformed, generous and benevolent Scrooge who became a much loved family member and friend? Virtues aren't something inflicted upon us by authority. That doesn't mean they're easy to practice or don't call for discipline and short-term denial in exchange for long-term payoffs, any more than it's easy to follow a diet even though it might be best for our health. Arguably virtues are the habits of mind and action that best helps human beings to flourish. And that doesn't need a God. As Lewis admits, they're fairly universal and accessible to all.
Even if you believe in God though, there's a huge gap between that belief and belief in the specific doctrines of Christianity. The second part "What Christians Believe" tries to jump that gap and can be summed up this way. Jesus claimed he could forgive the sins of others. Anyone claiming to do so if not God must be a "lunatic or fiend." The Jesus of the Gospels is neither lunatic or fiend, and therefore must be God. This begs the question. I actually don't think there's anything in the picture of Jesus in the Bible that proves that he wasn't delusional or (less likely in my opinion) claiming a connection with God he didn't have for personal ends. History is filled with would-be messiahs from Mohammed to Joseph Smith. There's no reason to believe Jesus or Mohammed or Joseph Smith has a special connection with God except the believer wills it so. And there's a third alternative. That Jesus was neither lunatic nor fiend but was misunderstood and misrepresented by the fallible men that wrote the works in the New Testament.
And speaking of the New Testament, one problem I have with Mere Christianity is if you're going to lay out what it is Christians believe, I think you should carefully parse your sources. I can't recall Lewis ever quoting the Bible, and he definitely mixes things the are core Christianity with elaborations infused with Greek and Roman philosophy. I defy anyone to show me anywhere in the Bible that discusses the "cardinal virtues." These come from the Pagan Greek philosopher Plato's Republic and were adopted into the Christian tradition though theologians such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas familiar with classical philosophy. I would have liked to know what came from what Jesus reportedly said, what came from other New Testament sources and what is simply received Christian tradition. I get Lewis' purpose in trying to argue from the ground up for Christianity for the ordinary person, and not wanting to load it up with a history lesson. But if the book doesn't work for me as a good argument for Christianity, it's also not in my opinion necessarily the best place to explore just what is Christianity.
The third part "Christian Behavior" is where Lewis discusses those cardinal virtues, and the theological virtues (which come from Paul in the New Testament) and such issues as "Sexual Morality." I actually found that particular chapter fairly insightful and full of common sense. But as with the other talk of morality, where it makes sense, I don't think you need to bring in Christianity to argue for it, and when it doesn't make sense (such as Lewis' argument for the man being the head of the household in a marriage) it just focuses attention on a facet of Christianity which I don't think holds it up in an attractive light. For me, the last part, "Beyond Personality" about theology is about as meaningful as an argument about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. For a Christian, Lewis' argument for the truth of the trinity may be profound. For me it was just... well nonsense. And non-sense.
C.S. Lewis is a very lucid writer and his arguments thought-out and presented well if you accept certain assumptions. I can imagine for many readers he has a lot to offer, but I can't say this did much for my understanding of Christianity, and despite Lewis claiming he aimed it at least partly at nonbelievers, I think this might be more for those Christians who want to think about the fundamentals of their faith and what it demands from them.
C.S. Lewis makes a smart move in starting out his book without any mention of Christianity. He begins instead by explaining the basic common morals of mankind, regardless of any religion. He points out that all people are guided by a similar set of internal morals. He argues that the very existence of these morals is proof that a higher power exists.
From there, he slowly moves towards talking about Christianity by laying out the common beliefs of religions and compares them. When Lewis does talk about Christianity, it is no single sect of the religion. He clearly points this out in the foreword to the book, and this is where the word ‘mere’ comes from – it is the basic principles of Christianity he is talking about, not differences between, say, Catholics and Baptists. The rest of the book is Lewis stating what he believes to be these common beliefs, explaining them to those who may not be familiar, and then giving strong arguments to those who may not belief.
Though this is a book seeped with religion, the parts I loved most about this book were the parts where no specific religion was mentioned. In fact, the only reason I gave the book 4 ½ stars instead of 5 was because of the instances when he did mention religious specifics such as marriage or homosexuality, and I disliked his thoughts out of personal reasons. Most of the book, however, seems less like a guide to Christianity and more like a guide to being a good human being, which is the fundamental point of all religions. Lewis explains things in a straight-forward, relatable and easy to understand matter; I think there are few authors who could handle the complex thought patterns he deals with in such an eloquent way. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who believes in following the morally right way, regardless of their religion or lack thereof.
Lewis was gifted in how he explained concepts using analogies. There were many analogies that helped me, but one of my favorites was how he tried to explain the idea of God being outside of time:
If you picture time as a straight line along which we have to travel, then you must picture God as the whole page on which the line is drawn. We come to the parts of the line one by one; we have to leave A behind before we get to B, and cannot reach C until we leave B behind. God, from above or outside or all around, contains the whole line, and sees it all.
This book took me awhile to read; I found myself underlining so many paragraphs, and so I think this will be added to my books to re-read shelf. I'd like to read his other works now; The Abolition of Man, Miracles, and The Weight of Glory are but a few on my list!
A copy of this book was loaned to me by an Evangelical Free Church member who had come to visit my parents when the latter were shopping for a new congregation. The fellow was a Biblical inerrantist conspicuously lacking in social perception. Lewis' book shows him to be a comical bigot--certainly more intelligent, but not a whit wiser than the man who loaned it to me. I returned the book to its owner along with a long written critique, which I'd be happy to reproduce here, but I didn't keep a copy. All this transpired many years ago.
If you're an intellectually underfed Christian looking for some blithe arguments to justify your existing biases, then this book is for you. Others may read it for a sad demonstration of the sort of rationales such people adopt.
Britain is suffering a monumental decline in religious belief: if this book were to be compulsive reading for each secondary pupil, that trend would be reversed in an instant. Lewis does not push Christianity: how often do these type of books contain phrases such as, "you would therefore be stupid to doubt the existence of..."? Not here.
The book is a carefully thought out argument in favour of a deity. He makes it very clear, at the beginning of the work, that he is not going to force the correctness of his Anglican beliefs but merely point out the inevitability of a creative entity.
One of the surprising side issues of this book is that it contains the clearest explanation of the concept of time that I have come across. The idea that time is not a linear progression is one that is prevalent in all scientific talk currently and, each time that it is explained, it becomes more confusing. Lewis gives this a perspective which is both believable, and understandable.
The only book which could be perfect (for me) is one written by myself, so, inevitably, there was one issue upon which I would have to disagree with the great man: the subject of women, where Lewis affirms the Old Testament concept that women should obey their man. This is a paragraph, or so, in a book of 200 pages and, I would like to believe that this is a view that he would have amended with more serious thought.
This treatise of C.S. Lewis is an enormously important book for anyone seeking to understand basic Christianity. It is written in a style that gets to the heart of an idea he is expressing, almost instantly. You don't need to have any sophisticated understanding of theology to grasp the explanations he offers.
His treatment of the three Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope and Charity) and the four Cardinal Virtues (Prudence, Temperance, Justice and Fortitude) is very good. And everyone should know what he has to say about the Great Sin (Pride), which is so destructive to the self. The chapter entitled "Let's Pretend" explains how and why we should seek spiritual self-improvement, and I'll bet that there are ideas in this section that you never thought about.
Lewis thinks the world works a certain way and uses his excellent imagination to 'put across' his beliefs, but what helps that when his basic assumptions are false?
I have just read one more chapter, and have come to realise that this is not mere waffle. It is in fact dangerous waffle.
I would actually recommend it to any atheists who wish to understand the Christian mindset. They might just find it very enlightening and useful.
Lewis is particularly good at helping unearth the assumptions that underlie and the implications that flow from our everyday beliefs about life, particularly about morality.
The book is from another generation and is dated in places, but it nonetheless resonates with many readers today. Highly recommended.