Summary: A summary of the first half of C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity including Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe and What Christians Believe
The Life and Legacy of C. S. Lewis #2
“Mere Christianity” (part 1)
C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity was originally delivered as a series of radio talks over BBC during the height of World War II. The idea for the broadcasts came from J. W. Welch, an Anglican priest who was religion director at the BBC. He had been impressed with Lewis’ book The Problem of Pain. Lewis agreed to do the broadcasts because, in his words, “Ever since I became a Christian, I have thought that the best, perhaps the only, service I could do for my unbelieving neighbors was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.” That last phrase (likely borrowed from St. Vincent of Lerins whose 5th century Vincentian canon sought to articulate “that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all”) explains why the book based on these talks is called Mere Christianity. The word mere isn’t being used in the pejorative sense insignificant, but in the broader sense of Basic Christianity.
Lewis’ plan for his first series of talks was modest but brilliant, to make a case for simple right and wrong. So he began– remember that he is speaking to a large audience of unbelievers– by appealing not to Christianity but to reason. “Everyone has heard people quarreling. Sometimes it sounds funny and sometimes it sounds unpleasant; but however it sounds, I believe we can learn something very important from listening to the kinds of things they say.” Lewis points out how people who disagree don’t just say that the other person’s point of view doesn’t please them, but rather appeal to a standard of behavior they expect the other person to know about. There seems, in other words, to be a law or rule of fair play or morality about which people all agree. In his book The Abolition of Man Lewis will call this universal Moral Law the Tao and catalog a list of ethical principals about which people in different times, places, cultures, and religions all agree. While there may be variations, none of them, he points out, amounts to anything like a total difference. No culture considers cowardice a virtue, for instance.
While you may find a person who wants to suggest that morality is relative and culturally conditioned, when that person is treated unfairly they will tell you so and every time they will appeal to a sense of fairness or right or wrong. “It seems, then,” Lewis writes, “we are forced to believe in a real Right and Wrong. People may be sometimes mistaken about them, just as people sometimes get their sums wrong; but they are not a matter of mere taste and opinion any more than the multiplication table.” At the same time, none of us perfectly lives up to the ethical standards upon which we all basically agree. That’s why, when someone points our moral failures out to us, we instinctively come up with reasons or excuses… which simply reinforce the fact that this basic Law of Right and Wrong really exists. We can summarize Lewis’ argument up to this point in two simple sentences: (1) Everyone believes we should behave in a certain way. (2) At the same time, no one actually does it (at least not consistently).
After that first talk, Lewis received a number of letters from his listeners and his next talks addressed some of their questions and objections. Lewis then proceeded to address the Reality of Moral Law and What Lies Behind that Law. He notes that there are essentially two worldviews, one naturalistic or materialistic which argues that matter and space just happen to exist, the other the religious view which holds that there is something behind the universe. He notes that you can’t find out from science which view is correct since science is concerned only with facts inside the universe. “If there was a controlling power outside the universe,” Lewis writes, “it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe– no more than an architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way. And that is just what we find inside ourselves. Surely this ought to arouse our suspicions?”
Lewis argues that there are two compelling pieces of evidence for the existence of a Somebody behind the moral law. First, there is the universe itself; second, there is the Moral Law He has placed in our minds, from which we can conclude that “the Being behind the universe is intensely interested in right conduct…” “The trouble is,” he says, “that one part of you is on His side and really agrees with his disapproval of human greed and trickery and exploitation. You may want Him to make an exception in your own case, to let you off this one time; but you know at bottom that unless the power behind the world really and unalterably detests that sort of behavior, then He cannot be good. On the other hand, we know that if there does exist an absolute goodness it must hate what most of us do. This is the terrible fix we are in. If the universe is not governed by an absolute goodness, then all our efforts are in the long run hopeless. But if it is, then we are making ourselves enemies to that goodness every day, and are not in the least likely to do any better tomorrow, and so our case is hopeless again.”