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Reading Classics - Mere Christianity (IV)
January 08, 2009
This morning, after a lengthy holiday break, we return to C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity in our effort to read together some of the classics of the Christian faith. After two short and preliminary sections (which were actually first published as short books) dealing with “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe” and “What Christians Believe.”, we are now in the heart of Lewis’ classic. And I think we are beginning to see what sets Lewis apart and why Mere Christianity remains an important and even unmatched book even today.
In Book 3, Lewis turns to his discussion of “Christian Behavior.” Here he shows how Christians are to live. He immediately distinguishes moral ideals from moral rules and shows that he has foreseen society’s slide into postmodernism. These words are near-prophetic: “It is dangerous to describe a man who tries very hard to keep the moral law as a ‘man of high ideals,’ because this might lead you to think that moral perfection was a private taste of his own and that the rest of us were not called on to share it.” And this, of course, is exactly what society declares today. We have left behind morals and have turned instead to values; we have left what is absolute and unchanging and turned instead to what is personal and temporary.
A couple of the chapters seemed a little bit odd or unexpected to me and perhaps none more so than “Morality and Psychoanalysis.” I suppose this reflects the time in which the book was written since psychoanalysis isn’t a term we encounter so often today. Then again, perhaps psychology has become so ingrained in our culture and our minds that terms like that one have almost lost their meaning. I did appreciate this warning: “Some of us who seem quite nice people may, in fact, have made so little use of a good heredity and a good upbringing that we are really worse than those whom we regard as fiends. … That is why Christians are told not to judge. We see only the results which a man’s choices make out of his raw material. But God does not judge him on the raw material at all, but on what he has done with it.” This is also a quote to file away and think about: “When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse he understands his own badness less and less. … Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.”
Where I thought Lewis was at his best is in the chapters dealing with sexual morality and Christian marriage. I am quite sure I’ll write at length in the future on Lewis’ thoughts on modesty, chastity and such. More on that another day. Here are two statements I had to highlight: “Christianity is almost the only one of the great religions which thoroughly approves of the body” and “Christianity has glorified marriage more than any other religion.” Lewis deals very well with the early years of the loosening of sexual mores that have continued and escalated between then and now. The lie in all of this “consists in the suggestion that any sexual act to which you are tempted at the moment is … healthy and normal.” While Christianity celebrates sex, it does so within its properly God-given context. Lewis’ encouragement to those who fight against sexual sin (or any other kind of sin) is well-taken. “Very often what God first helps us towards is not the virtue itself but just this power of always trying again.” “We learn, on the one hand, that we cannot trust ourselves even in our best moments, and, on the other, that we need not despair even in our worst, for our failures are forgiven. The only fatal thing is to sit down content with anything less than perfection.”
And then Lewis turns to marriage, presenting it as a good gift from God. “The monstrosity of sexual intercourse outside marriage is that those who indulge in it are trying to isolate one kind of union (the sexual) from all the other kinds of union which were intended to go along with it and make up the total union.” I was really struck by his words about the way love inclines lovers to bind themselves to one another with promises. Lewis says, “The Christian law is not forcing upon the passion of love something which is foreign to that passion’s own nature: it is demanding that lovers should take seriously something which their passion of itself impels them to do.” Hence the promises of marriage are simply the promises of love taken to their natural end. For a man who, at this time in his life had never been married, Lewis had much mature wisdom to impart.
For sake of time I will stop with just these few reflections. I could go on at much greater length for this section really was a gold mine. I look forward to reading about the areas that stood out to you.
For next Thursday, let’s just finish up book three. Again, six chapters seems like a lot, but in reality most of the chapters are only a few pages. To read only half of them would amount to only 20 pages of fairly light reading. After Edwards and Owen we should be well equipped to handle 40 pages of Lewis in a week!
The purpose of this program is to read these classics together. So if there is something you’d like to share about what you read, please feel free to do so. You can leave a comment or a link to your blog and we’ll make this a collaborative effort.