Review of “Mere Christianity” Part II

This series has been cross posted from Straight and Narrow Blog

Book II: What Christians Believe

This second section is really the heart of his writing, although there is so much more to go. He gets right to the point of what sets a Christian apart from other religions. In many ways it is the closest a Mormon could agree with his theological musings. This is only natural since Mormons are Christians in many of the ways that C.S. Lewis perceives of what makes the religion important. There is, of course, points where he both goes against or merely anticipates Mormon doctrine or fails logical conclusions.

His idea of Christian theology hinges on the familiar Mormon concept of free will. The whole point of Salvation for a Christian is that humanity is free to choose faith in God and Christ. Although the subject of the end times when Christ will return is at the end of the section, it represents most of what he is saying. With all the evil in the world there is an objection of why God simply doesn’t “invade” earth to make things better. If God were to do that, there wouldn’t be a point to living. All the hard choices that lead to freely accepting or rejecting God would be over. It might end the horror in the world, but it would also end personal and human progress:

When the author walks on to the stage the play is over. God is going to invade, all right: but what is the good of saying you are on His side then, when you see the whole natural universe melting away like a dream and something else – something it never entered your head to conceive – comes crashing in; something so beautiful to some of us and so terrible to others that none of us will have any choice left? (pg. 65).

Of course, this begs the question of what the free will is choosing. The answer is simple; good and evil. C.S. Lewis had already touched on what good and evil is in the first section. He will go into more detail in the third section when he talks about Christian morality.

His first argument is that those who don’t believe in good and evil, but everything depends on your point of view, are wrong. He especially doesn’t believe the idea that everything is good because God made everything. This is ironic, considering later on he states that, “All the things which enable a bad man to be effectively bad are in themselves good things – resolution, cleverness, good looks, existence itself” (pg. 45). He gets around what he had previously disregarded by saying how one uses the good is what makes things bad. God did create everything good, but it was perverted and twisted to a point where it became bad.

All of this is based on assumptions he never explains in detail. It is as if he is counting on the first section when he says there is “The Law of Human Nature” and humans must recognize what those are. For instance, he states, “But existence, intelligence and will are in themselves good” (pg. 45). This is a statement that Mormons would completely agree with theologically, adding that they are also eternal. Logically, however, there is no explanation of why they are good. It goes back to a circular logic that was earlier rejected; it is good because it came from God.

What he does say, that Mormons recognize as important to the theology of choice, is that there must be two different moral forces. To know that there is bad, you had to know there was good, “if there were no light . . . we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning (pg. 39). He puts Lehi’s opposition on its head. Just as Lehi said you can’t know the good unless you know the bad, C.S. Lewis says you can’t know the bad unless you know the good.

The reason for this difference is his conflating God with good. There is no separating the two. The context of this is in his rejection of Dualism; where one god is good and another is bad. He doesn’t believe such a thing is possible because they would both believe they were good. The idea that bad actions would be chosen for the sake of “badness” is impossible for him to believe. He states:

But since the two powers are judged by this standard [conformity to rule of good], then this standard, or the Being who made this standard, is farther back and higher up than either of them, and He will be the real God. In fact, what we meant by calling them good and bad turns out to be that one of them is in a right relationship to the real ultimate God and the other in a wrong relation to Him.” (pg. 43)

In some ways it intersects with the Mormon concept that God can be called God because He conforms to certain standards. Beyond that, the idea would be completely rejected that the standards are in any way a separate existence. God either makes the standards or is the standards of goodness. What C.S. Lewis seems to be saying is that there is no such thing as good and evil, only good and mistaken.

This is where Christ comes in. The great sin of Satan and the Fall of Adam and Eve is not because they had gone against goodness – something impossible to do. It is that they had set themselves as individuals outside of and apart from God as their own creation. Although the underlying assumptions are not the same, Mormonism does agree with this concept. Sin sets us apart from God and it is only through Christ’s atonement that we can be forgiven, or set right again. In some ways, C.S. Lewis answers the question of how wickedness never was happiness that confuses so many people. It turns out to be a theological rather than emotional statement. The happiness based on human energy and actions is temporary and unfulfilling. Only by turning to God, the source, can true Love and Happiness be obtained.

What he teaches about Christ’s Atonement can easily agree with Mormon beliefs. In fact, much of what he says echoes Abinadi’s words to King Noah who didn’t belief in Christ’s first coming. Because humans had fallen, they were not perfect and therefore could not save themselves. We basically lost our ability to save ourselves by separating from the God of power and goodness. The only one who can save humanity was God because He had not gotten into trouble. He states, “Only a bad person needs to repent: only a good person can repent perfectly. The worse you are the more you need it and the less you can do it. The only person who could do it perfectly would be a perfect person – and he would not need it” (pg. 57). There is still a huge gulf that would need to be crossed. Humanity doesn’t have the power to save and God doesn’t have the nature to surrender, suffer, submit, and die that is crucial to repentance.

Then God comes down as Jesus Christ in the form of a man, although perfect in all other respects. Similar to Abinadi, he says, “The perfect surrender and humiliation were undergone by Christ: perfect because He was God, surrender and humiliation because He was man” (pg. 60). With the suffering and death of God who didn’t need any saving, He pays a debt to get humanity out of a bind. In the process Christ does more than bring humanity out of a bad spot, but changes them into a new creation. The Atonement makes it possible to have the Christ-life within. Some might call it “born again” and Abinadi would say we become “the seed of Christ” because of what happened. The “Christ-life” is spread by baptism, belief, and Holy Communion/Mass/the Lords Supper/Sacrament. There is nothing in this description of Christ’s Atonement that is against Mormon doctrine on the subject. He does wonder if there might be more or less than the above to spread the Christ-like nature, and Mormons would say the Temple ordinances are part of the process to a full spiritual development.

There are some minor problems with this section, but they don’t fit in with the overall arguments he makes. For instance, He states that the idea of a person claiming to be God in the full sense of the word was shocking and never heard of before. Absolutely not true. It might be they never fully believed it themselves, but many ancient rulers said they were a Son of God much like Jesus Christ is represented. This idea can be traced from Egypt to the latter half of the Roman Empire. He even said in the previous paragraph that there were ancient stories about gods that died and came back to life to change humanity (pg. 50-51). Perhaps the shock would come from the claim by an ordinary Jew. Even then he shows a lack of imagination by arguing what Jesus said proves he is “the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse” (pg. 52). He ignores critics that say the writers of the Gospels were adding those words to Jesus in order to bolster religious ideology. Of course, other Christian apologists have argued against them.

If there is one thing that Mormons should learn from C.S. Lewis, it would be not to take our own goodness as giving us Salvation. To quote a very important point:

They hope, by being good, to please God if there is one . . . But the Christian thinks any good he does comes from the Christ-life inside him. He does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us; just as the roof of a greenhouse does not attract the sun because it is bright, but becomes bright because the sun shines on it (pg. 63).

This is, perhaps, related to “faith unto repentance” described often in the Book of Mormon. Recently the idea of “Grace” has had a comeback among Mormons – not a new addition. It is something that other Christians have used as a criticism for some time, but really is a straw man. Mormons perpetuate a lack of proper perspective on the role of good works without understanding their own Atonement theology. That should no longer be the case.

*next time Book III: Christian Behaviour*

3 thoughts on “Review of “Mere Christianity” Part II

  1. “What C.S. Lewis seems to be saying is that there is no such thing as good and evil, only good and mistaken.” This is quite a generous philosophy.

    Do you think this is really true? Do those men we call wicked really believe they are doing good? Can all sins be chocked up to simple “mistakes?” I seem to recall that Elder Oaks gave a talk where he said that mistakes are not sins. To sin, is to know you are doing wrong, and do it anyway.

    Lewis describes evil as unwitting separation from what is right, as in the case of Eve, who was deceived by the craftiness of the serpent, but still acted in good faith. But is temptation really an act of deception? Or is it rather succumbing to selfish desire for personal gain, over laws you know to be just?

  2. Nate, I agree with you that Sin is more than mistakes made because the person thinks they are doing good. That is the problem I have with C.S. Lewis. He often changes the definition of things depending on the argument he makes. Perhaps he would disagree that, “there is no such thing as good and evil, only good and mistaken,” but that is what I get out of this chapter.

  3. “What C.S. Lewis seems to be saying is that there is no such thing as good and evil, only good and mistaken.”

    I don’t follow you. Where do you see this?

    This also I don’t see in the text:

    “This is where Christ comes in. The great sin of Satan and the Fall of Adam and Eve is not because they had gone against goodness – something impossible to do.”

    Can you tell me where you got this idea?

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