Review of “Mere Christianity” Part III

This series has been cross posted from Straight and Narrow Blog

Book III: Christian Behaviour

The section on Christian morality reflects C.S. Lewis at his best. He is not a very good theologian, but he is credible as a social critic and moral apologist. A person of any faith can accept what he says about behavior. Not that he ignores the underlying theological framework he set up earlier and will continue exploring. Instead, there are arguments about moral actions that don’t have to have those pre-conceived religious notions to have a powerful impact. They work independently from the Christian life.

His biggest problem is the bias against particular forms of religious observance that even some of his co-religionists would disagree with. This bias goes beyond simple formality and extends to stereotyping and possible blatant bigotry. It also has political implications that may or may not be properly termed as Christian based. He believes that Christians should not force through law or any other means the morality they hold as important. In fact, he says, “One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting everyone else to give it up” (pg. 78). Despite what C.S. Lewis says, it can just as easily be argued that the whole point of laws is to decide what kind of moral and ethical behavior should shape society.

What make his argument more than a simple political position that could be acceptable is the borderline bigotry based on his non-interference theory. He says that Islam rather than Christianity is a “tee-totaller” religion. In other words, a religion that expects abstaining from certain things for its followers. For him, a Christian is someone who can eat, drink, and otherwise do whatever they want in moderation and moral judgement. Why he singled out Islam is unclear. He could easily have included Jews, Hindus, and probably Mormons without hesitation.

Continuing on, he discusses three levels of moral choices. There is the way we feel about the inner self. There is how we interact with others. Finally, and most important to him, there is for what purpose the other two exist. He compares them all to a fleet of ships. A ship alone might not do any damage, but it doesnt’ do much good. A fleet of ships can encourage, strengthen and help each other, but they might still always remain at sea. Only ships that have someowhere they are going can truely realize their full potential. Of course, it is religion that gives purpose to life. He does acknowledge that the third moral way causes the most disagreement, and he chooses Christianity as the destination.

Seven “virtues” are listed in his explanation of Christian morality. Four are called “Cardinal” and three are called “Theological” virtues. The first set can be accepted by non-Christians as applicable, and the second set are representative of religious devotion. He lists the Cardinal virtues as Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude. The three Theological virtues are Faith, Hope, and Charity. Although he lists these as the main subject of Christian moral principles, he also discusses Chasitity and Fidelity, and Forgiveness.

The discussion about Chastity and Marriage are perhaps among the best defenses of the subject. Continuing on with his idea that no standards should be forced on people, he argues that sexual activity should be kept in moderation rather than the abandonment of the current generation:

They tell you sex has become a mess because it was hushed up . . . If hushing up had been the cause of the trouble, ventilation would have set it right. But it has not. I think that it is the other way round. I think the human race originally hushed it up because it had become such a mess. (pg. 98).

He argues that Christianity has a positive outlook on the human body, with God taking one born to Mary and the promise of the resurrection. The problem is that modern society has gone from accepting sex as a healthy natural expression to an obsession. He compares this to bad eating habits that make the body fat and unhealthy. This makes something that could be positive a complete negative. For people who think that only those who give into sin really understand life’s challenges, he states, “those who are seriously attempting chastity are more conscious, and soon know a great deal more about their own sexuality than anyone else” (pg. 102). You come to know your desires by the resistance of them like a warrior understands the enemy they battle.

The message about marrige for a Christian is simple. Those who take a vow of marriage must do everything they can to stay together. If they do not, then they are nothing more than liars and decievers; at worst imposters. It is for that reason marriage should be for love of the whole person and not just romantic feelings. Making promises as Christians is serious business, “A promise must be about things that I can do, about actions; no one can promise to go on feeling in a certain way” (pg. 107). Reasons for staying married after falling out of love, besides keeping a promise, includes a deep respect for the person you married. In other words, a higher love than romantic attraction.

Of the virtues mentioned, perhaps the most interesting is his discussion of Faith. He sees Faith as a stronger form of Hope. This is based on experience as much as spiritual emotion. Faith is keeping hold of things you once held as true despite your changing moods. In connection with this, he rejects the idea in Mormon doctrine that this mortal life is a type of test. Instead, the point of mortality is to gain humility and accept that God is in control rather than yourself. Regardless of agreeing or disagreeing with this, his ideas on “works vs. faith” are worth careful reading. He states:

You see, we are now trying to understand, and to seperate into water-tight compartments, what exactly God does and what man does when God and man are working together . . . He is inside you as well as outside: even if we could understand who did what, I do not think human language could properly express it. In the attempt to express it different Churches say different things. But you will find that even those who insist most strongy on the importance of good actions tell you you need Faith; and even those who insist most strongly on Faith tell you to do good actions.

It is a fallacy to seperate the two in importance. Ultimately, it is God who saves and gives Christians the spirit of goodness. Those who pick one over the other, if they follow the logical conclusions, will either not follow God or follow without true devotion.

There are many other things talked about in the section that are of interest to Mormons. This includes a chapter devoted to “The Great Sin” Pride that LDS Pres. Ezra Taft Benson has become famous for speaking out against. It is a sin that is not easy to overcome, because it blinds the person to their spiritual weaknesses. They put themselves before God and think they are capable of salvation without help. It is, to C.S. Lewis, what brought Satan and all the fallen angels to the bitterest of damnations. Unlike Pres. Benson, he explains what the sin of Pride is not (pg. 125-128). It doesn’t include acceptance of other people’s congratulations of well earned respect (until you delight in it and seek it out). It doesn’t include a warm hearted admiration for family, friends, and others. It doesn’t mean disliking yourself or telling others you are a humble nobody. The sin of Pride is self-importance.

Finally, even though he doesn’t by implication like the idea of making laws in accordance with morality, he does explain what he sees as a society built on Christian principles. It would have no one who doesn’t work or want, and it would have nothing made or done for economic frivolity. On the other hand, it would be full of obedience (defined as outward respect) to government, parents, wives and husbands. He says the outcome would be:

We should feel that its economic life was very socialistic and, in that sense, “advanced”, but that its family life and its code of manners were rather old-fashioned – perhaps even ceremonious and aristocratic. Each of us would like some bits of it, but I am afraid very few of us would like the whole thing. (pg. 84).

It would seem early Mormon history has proven this all too well. What Joseph Smith and Brigham Young tried to do was finally put aside as curious novelties. Part of this was because of strong outside pressures, but other reasons include the difficulties of living such high ideals as a group. Believing in theology is the easy part. Living the Christian virtues takes Faith enough to let go of ourselves and accepting God as our Savior. Again, C.S. Lewis has taught despite some religious issues that Mormons have some spiritual growing up to do.

*Next time some final thoughts*