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Reading Classics - Mere Christianity (V)
January 15, 2009
We’re continuing to make our way through C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity having reached the final chapters of the third book (out of four). We actually have only a couple of weeks left in this book. Compared to some of the ones we’ve covered in the past, this one has gone by very quickly. But the easy reading is, thankfully, in no way an indication of the value of the content.
This week we covered the final six chapters of Book III, “Christian Behavior.” It may well be my favorite reading yet, and especially so through the first four of the chapters.
The first chapter deals with Forgiveness and Lewis’ take seemed to be something like this: “Look, I don’t quite understand or like it either, but it’s just something we have to do.” “I am not trying to tell you in this book what I could do—I can do precious little—I am telling you what Christianity is. I did not invent it. And there, right in the middle of it, I find ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgiven those that sin against us.’ There is not the slightest suggestion that we are offered forgiveness on any other terms. It is made perfectly clear that if we do not forgive we shall not be forgiven. There are no two ways about it. What are we to do?” When discussing how hard it is to offer forgiveness, Lewis asks this difficult question: “How could you hate what a man did and not hate the man?” His answer is brilliant. “Years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life—namely myself. … In fact the very reason why I hated the things was that I loved the man. Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things.” Thus Christianity does not require us to reduce our hatred for what is evil, but it does require us to hate properly—to hate the evil but still hope that the person who has committed evil may be cured from it.
We need to remember that this book was written in the context of the Second World War and Lewis has to make his words applicable to that conflict. “Even while we kill and punish we must try to feel about the enemy as we feel about ourselves—to wish that he were not bad, to hope that he may, in this world or another, be cured: in fact, to wish his good. That is what is meant in the Bible by loving him: wishing his good, not feeling fond of him nor saying he is nice when he is not.”
Lewis turns next to The Great Sin of pride. He is brutally harsh on this sin. It “leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.” It is an essentially competitive sin which “gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man” so that “once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.” He, as do so many Christian writers, sets this as the greatest and most dangerous of all sins. A right knowledge of God is what helps us fight against pride. “The real test of being in the presence of God is, that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether.” When we see ourselves in the light of God’s holiness, there is no place for pride. After all, “He and you are two things of such a kind that if you really get into any kind of touch with Him you will, in fact, be humble—delightedly humble, feeling the infinite relief of having for once got rid of all the silly nonsense about your own dignity which has made you restless and unhappy all your life.”
The next chapter deals with Charity, one of the three great theological virtues. Charity is more than giving away money but really indicates “Love, in the Christian sense.” It is not an emotion or a state of the feelings, but a state of the will. These words are worth heeding: “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you do. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.” The opposite is equally true. “The more cruel you are, the more you will hate; and the more you hate, the more cruel you will become—and so on in a vicious circle for ever. Good and evil both increase with compound interest.” The lesson in all of this is that Christian love does not demand that we sit and try to manufacture feelings. Instead, Christian love asks “If I were sure that I loved God, what would I do?” and then does it.
Chapter 10 looks to hope. “Looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do.” This chapter is filled with some of Lewis’ most memorable words. “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.” “The real want for Heaven is present in us, [but] we do not recognise it.” “The Christian says, ‘Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.” He gets beautifully sarcastic when he writes about the stereotypes of heaven in which people spend eternity sitting on clouds playing harps. “The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them. … People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs.”
Lewis concludes with two chapters titled “Faith.” I found these chapters slightly more obscure than the ones preceding. He seeks to cover two ways that Christians use the word faith. In the first chapter, faith is “the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.” In this way, both atheists and Christians exercise faith that may be strong at one time and weak at another. This habit of faith must be trained to persevere through weak times. He asks this good question: “If you examined a hundred people who had lost their faith in Christianity, I wonder how many of them would turn out to have been reasoned out of it by honest argument? Do not most people simply drift away?” He also offers wisdom on accepting our own badness. “No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good.” “We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means—the only complete realist.” In the second chapter he looks at faith in a higher sense. This kind of faith comes after a person has tried to practice the Christian virtues and has still failed. He has discovered his moral bankruptcy and now has to put his faith in another—in Christ—trusting that He will make things right.
I could go on and on. But I will stop here. I am really looking forward to hearing what parts of this chapter you enjoyed the most.
I think we’re keeping up a pretty good pace here. So why don’t we read the first six chapters of Book IV for next week. Again, that is only about 30 pages—pretty easy to cover over the course of a week. That will leave us just one more week after that and we’ll be done with Mere Christianity.
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.