Summary: A summary of the "Christian Behavior" section of C. S. Lewis’ classic Mere Christianity
The Life and Legacy of C. S. Lewis #3
“Mere Christianity (part 2)”
C. S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity is important not only because of the way it articulates what Christians believe (and why) but how we are to behave (and why). In fact twelve chapters of the book are devoted to exploring Christian Behavior. Lewis acknowledges at the outset that what he has to say may be a tough sell by describing a schoolboy who believed that God was “the sort of person who is always snooping around to see if anyone is enjoying himself and then trying to stop it.” (1) Many people (Lewis once included) experience morality as interference. In reality, moral rules are gifts that reduce individual stress and strain and prevent breakdown, strain and friction.
Morality is concerned with three things: relationships between people, individual character, and the purpose for which we were created. Most popular thought on morality focuses on how people get along but Lewis wisely notes that the ultimately root of morality is in the individual. “What is the good of drawing up, on paper, rules for social behavior,” he asks, if we know that, in fact, our greed, cowardice, ill temper and self-conceit are going to prevent us from keeping them?” (2) His profound honor for human beings created in the image and likeness of God offers a strong philosophical foundation (which humanism lacks) for a recognition of universal human rights. “If individuals live only seventy years,” he writes, “then a state, or a nation, or a civilization, which may last for a thousand years, is more important than an individual. But if Christianity is true, then the individual is not only more important but incomparably more important, for he is everlasting and the life of a state or civilization, compared with his, is only a moment." (3)
Lewis then goes on to consider what are historically regarded as the seven virtues. Four of those are the cardinal virtues (cardinal comes from a word meaning “door hinge” and refers to that which is “pivotal”). These are prudence (practical common sense), temperance -you can be just as intemperate about golf, clothes or bridge as alcohol, Lewis notes. “God is not deceived by externals.” (4)- justice (which includes fairness, honesty, give and take, truthfulness, and keeping promises) and fortitude (courage). He notes, “There is a difference between doing some particular just or temperate action and being a just or temperate [person]. Someone who is not a good tennis player may now and then make a good shot… A man who perseveres in doing just actions gets in the end a certain quality of character. Now it is that quality rather than the particular actions which we mean when we talk of virtue.” (5)
Moving on to social morality, Lewis notes that “Christianity has not, and does not profess to have, a detailed political program for applying ’Do as you would be done by’ to a particular society at a particular moment. It could not have. It is meant for all [people] at all times…" (6)Nonetheless there are hints from scripture as to what a Christian society might look like. Lewis lists three likely elements: (a) There would be no passengers or parasites (people would work to create good things); (b) there would be no “putting on airs” by which I assume he means no social pomposity or presumption; and (c) it would be a cheerful society. Noting that a Christian society would be an unprecedented melding of liberal and conservative values, Lewis notes, “We have all departed from that total plan in different ways, and each of us wants to make out that his own modification of the original plan is the plan itself… That is why we do not get much further: and that is why people who are fighting for quite opposite things can both say they are fighting for Christianity." (7)
One aspect of social morality that Lewis took especially seriously was giving. He did not just tithe; he gave over 80% of his money to people in need, churches and charitable causes. In Mere Christianity he gives this guideline: “I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc. is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say that they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charities expenditures excludes them." (8) The great obstacle to our giving as we could, he says, is fear of insecurity.