C.S. Lewis is renowned as one of the foremost Christian thinkers of the twentieth century. Despite being an Anglican and exhibiting a number of tendencies making him a bit of an iconoclast among his fellow believers, C.S. Lewis has been fondly embraced by a broad swath of the church in part because of his efforts to promote a version of the Christian faith amicable towards all denominations by appealing to what all of these theological niches have in common, which could be referred to as mere Christianity.
As such, one of Lewis’ best known apologetic texts is titled none other than Mere Christianity. Originally presented as a series of broadcast talks, Lewis vetted much of his text past four members of the clergy --- an Anglican, a Methodist, a Presbyterian, and a Roman Catholic --- in order to keep denominational idiosyncrasies to a minimum. Because of such conscientious effort, the Christian finds in Mere Christianity a rational defense of the faith of considerable sophistication.
Mere Christianity begins as a recitation of what is known as the moral argument for the existence of God. According to Lewis, the moral law consists of the fundamental rules by which the universe operates and to which all residing within are bound. And even though considerable intellectual resources have been expended to deny its existence, not even those making it their life’s purpose to undermine these eternal principles can escape from them try as they might. Lewis observes, “Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him, he will be complaining ‘It’s not fair’ before you can say ‘Jack Robinson’ (5).”
The very fact that human beings are able to argue that one set of moral claims is superior to another, Lewis observes, is itself proof that some kind of higher law exists. Lewis writes, “Quarrelling means trying to show that the other man is wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are; just as there would be no sense in saying that a footballer has committed a foul unless there was some kind of agreement about the rules of football (4).”
Lewis notes, “If no set of moral ideas were truer or better than any other, there would be no sense in preferring...Christian morality to Nazi morality...If your moral ideas can be truer, and those of the Nazis less true, there must be something --- some real morality --- for them to be true about (11).” Thus, the standard by which human moralities are judged stem from a source apart and above them.
From establishing that natural law exists, Lewis moves on to examine where this eternal law originates from. Lewis postulates there are approximately two sources that this law could possibly originate from: the materialist view that the principles governing the universe arose through a process of chance and the religious view that the universe was established by a conscious mind. And since the law comes to us in the form of principles and instructions, this would seem to conclude that the promulgator of this law would have to be mind rather than inanimate matter.
Despite the fact that the universe was meant to run according to moral law, it is obvious from a quick look around that the moral agents operating within it fail to live up to these noble ideals as we are regularly aware of even our own shortcomings. As such, the universe requires a divine intervention to set things right. Lewis writes, “Enemy occupied territory --- that is what the world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed...and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage (36).” This king is none other than Jesus, whom from his own claims, must be God or, as Lewis famously points out, is a lunatic “on a level with a man who says he is a poached egg or a devilish liar (41).” It was the primary purpose of Jesus to suffer and die so that our sins might be forgiven so that we might be made whole in Him.
Fundamental as this message is to man’s eternal salvation, Mere Christianity is also full of practical observations less cosmic and more down to earth. Lewis writes, “Theology is practical. Consequently, if you do not listen to Theology...It will mean that you have a lot of...bad muddled, out of date ideas (120.)” Many of theology’s practical concerns manifest themselves in the form of morality.
Lewis lists morality as being concerned with three matters: harmony between individuals, the inner life of the individual, and the general purpose of human life as a whole (57). Lewis observes that different beliefs about the universe will naturally result in different behaviors and those closest to the truth will produce the best results (58).
Lewis demonstrates how this phenomena manifests itself in a number of ethical spheres, sex being one of interest to just about all people. It is this obsession with sex, Lewis point out, that shows just how out of whack contemporary morality has become. Lewis comically comments that the level to which this biological impulse has been elevated in our own society is akin to a land where the inhabitants have such a prurient interest in food beyond nourishment and wholesome pleasure that the inhabitants watch a plate containing a mutton chop that is uncovered just before the lights go out (75). Ironically, Lewis points out, such deviancy is not usually the result of starvation but rather overindulgence.
Though Lewis is witty in regards to most issues he addresses, even in regards to this beloved Oxford professor, the Christian must remember to be a Berean and measure even his formidable intellect by the standard of Biblical truth. Unfortunately, there are at least two matters that must be approached with caution.
Lewis likens the process of change we go through as Christians to the biological theory of recapitulation where it is believed an embryo passes through the various phases of evolution during development in the womb. Of the process, Lewis writes, “We were once like vegetables, and once rather like fish; it was only at a later stage that we became like human babies (159).”
One hopes that had Lewis lived until more technologically advanced times that he would have not retained this scientifically erroneous theory. For at its most innocent, it is used to justify Darwinisim and from Lewis’ statement one could very well use it to justify abortion.
From another passage, it would seem Lewis tottered dangerously close to a “proto-universalism” in his thought. Lewis writes, “There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it (162).”
John 14:6 says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” And Acts 4:12 says, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”
In writing Mere Christianity, Lewis does a commendable job overall of balancing the theoretical and practical concerns of the faith. As such, Mere Christianity will no doubt continue as a classic apologetics text for decades to come.
Thanks for posting this article. I haven't read "Mere Christianity", but I have read "Timeless at Heart" and now in the process of reading "Miracles" by C.S. Lewis. Your exposition of "Mere Christianity" is most interesting and gels with what I've read by him so far.
Thank you so much for this. The Lord has been using me to lead a self-proclaimed agnostic to the Lord. She is going to start reading the gospels. I mentioned two books to her - "Mere Christianity" or "The Case for Christ". I have not read Mere Christianity but have read the Case for Christ.