Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
For years, I’ve been searching for a Christianity for Dummies book. As I got older, it become more apparent that I needed to have – for better or worse – some basic knowledge of Christianity to understand the world I live in. I looked into reading the Bible, but basically everyone online advised against it. So I tried to find other books which all appeared to be too dense or largely focused on politics with a side dish of religion. One day I stumbled upon this book on Amazon, and the title was too good to be true. I was initially confused since I had always associated C.S. Lewis with Chronicles of Narnia – was this fiction? As it turned it, this book was perfect. It is deliberately about the fundamentals of Christianity, without diving into the differences amongst sects which often make Christianity impossible to keep track of. I thoroughly enjoyed processing Lewis’ arguments in support of Christianity and attempting to identify the strawman or the logical flaw. To be honest, I often lost track as I mostly gave him the benefit of the doubt.
1) “In calling anyone a Christian they will mean that they think him a good man. But that way of using the word will be no enrichment of the language, for we already have the word good. Meanwhile the word Christian will have been spoiled for any really useful purpose it might have served.”
Somewhere along the way, “Christian” became synonymous with “good”. While this particular case seems innocuous, it is really dangerous to establish equivalence between an adjective describing a group of people and an adjective with an inherently positive or negative connotation. It’s easy to do since humans prefer shortcuts. It takes more energy, but I believe the next unlock in human thinking is to think in probability distributions.
2) “First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it.”
C.S. Lewis treats these two statements as facts, without which none of his arguments make sense. He does spend a good amount of time showing them to be true. The main point here is that this Law of Nature is an independent entity, not a result of any other forces or merely a representation of our instincts. Furthermore, unlike e.g. the law of gravity, humans do not have to obey the Law of Nature. What I found fascinating here is that he fully believes in science and Christianity simultaneously. It reminded me of a late night chat I had at Oxford, when my friend argued that math and science are the only way to find God.
3) “The reason why your idea of New York can be truer or less true than mine is that New York is a real place, existing quite apart from what either of us thinks. If when each of us said ‘New York’ each means merely ‘The town I am imagining in my own head’, how could one of us have truer ideas than the other? These would be no question of truth or falsehood at all.”
I’m quite a strong believer that the truth is just what most people believe, as scary as that sounds. For Lewis, there is a Right answer.
4) “If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”
This is a very interesting insight that’s applicable to politics. Some people believe we have to keep going to remain progressive, but if you believe we’re going down the wrong path, it’s progressive to revert. For some, a step backward is a step forward.
5) “Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.”
A big hurdle to get across is why evil exists if God were good. I’m not sure I got over the hump, but I’m now aware of it.
6) “God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on petrol, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself.”
This did not age well.
7) “This man we are talking about either was (and is) just what He said or else a lunatic, or something worse. Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God. God has landed on this enemy-occupied world in human form.”
Another key piece of the puzzle is believing that Jesus is God in human form, here to save us from ourselves. This was the weakest link in the string of arguments that lead to Christianity. I need to do a #deepdive.
8) “Human beings judge one another by their external actions. God judges them by their moral choices.”
There’s the concept of precondition. A bad person doing a slightly good thing is better than a good person doing a good thing.
9) “There must be something unnatural about the rule of wives over husbands, because the wives themselves are half ashamed of it and despise the husbands whom they rule.”
This book is largely a coherent thesis interspersed with shocking statements like these that threaten to undermine the entire argument.
10) “Christ says ‘Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You.'”
The ultimate punchline is that every Christian is part of God and must surrender to God to truly gain self.
This book was very enlightening. While I’m not totally convinced by Christianity, I now have a better sense of its general framework, and it’s a framework that I’m okay with. Now that I have the structure, it’s about putting the pieces together. Do I believe that there is an independent Law of Nature? Do I believe that evil is necessary? Do I believe that God took human form in Jesus? Do I believe that we are all part of God?