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).