Mere Christianity, Book One

Tim Challies is leading another on-line reading group through another Christian classic, Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis. I’ll be recording a summary and my few comments on the reading here. Let me say, I’ve found this to be an extremely difficult section to summarize. Lewis uses an admirable economy of words to convey some very profound points. It seems next to impossible to pare it down without losing a lot. I’m tempted just to say, "Go read the book!" But for the sake of my own retention, and anyone who may like an introduction to or a brief refresher on Mere Christianity, I’ll go ahead and give it my best effort.

This week’s reading was

Book I: Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe
Since so much ground was covered, I think I’ll just use Lewis’ sub-headings to keep things organized. For the sake of clarity, I will place Lewis' words in italics.

This first section is summed up simply: "These, then, are the two points I wanted to make. 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. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in."

1. The Law of Human Nature
The "Law of Nature" he speaks of could also be called the "Law of Human Nature" or the "Moral Law". It differs from what we think of as a "Law of Nature" mainly in this: "that a body could not choose whether it obeyed the law of gravitation or not, but a man could choose either to obey the Law of Human Nature or to disobey it….Each man is at every moment subjected to several sets of law but there is only one of these which he is free to disobey." (This certainly sets the mind to pondering the unique nature of man, and what it is that sets him apart from the rest of creation, as well as what it is about man that bears the image of God. I don’t claim to have that complex matter puzzled out. Perhaps volition in its purest form was a reflection of the rational nature of God which He imparted to man – a nature given man for the sake of dominion over creation – a nature able to act apart from mere "programming". Anyway, this is not really to the point at hand.)

One of my favorite of Lewis’ arguments is the argument from excuses, specifically the excuses folks make for not keeping the Moral law. "The question at the moment is not whether they are good excuses. The point is that they are one more proof of how deeply, whether we like it or not, we believe in the Law of Nature. If we do not believe in decent behaviour, why should we be so anxious to make excuses for not having behaved decently? The truth is, we believe in decency so much – we feel the Rule of Law pressing on us so – that we cannot bear to face the fact that we are breaking it, and consequently we try to shift the responsibility. For you notice that it is only for our bad behaviour that we find all these explanations. It is only our bad temper that we put down to being tired or worried or hungry; we put our good temper down to ourselves."

2. Here Lewis responds to the objections of those who would argue that what he’s calling the Moral Law, is really nothing more than "herd instinct". He first points out that we often experience conflicting instincts, and when we do there is "this thing that judges between two instincts, that decides which should be encouraged" and that this thing that judges "cannot itself be either of them.…this thing that judges between two instincts, that decides which should be encouraged, cannot itself be either of them." (Am I alone in having been reminded of Romans 7 here?)

He points out secondly that "If two instincts are in conflict, and there is nothing in a creature’s mind except those two instincts. Obviously the stronger of the two must win. But at those moments when we are most conscious of the Moral Law, it usually seems to be telling us to side with the weaker of the two impulses. You probably want to be safe much more than you want to help the man who is drowning; but the Moral Law tells you to help him all the same. And surely it often tells us to try to make the right impulse stronger than it naturally is?…But clearly we are not acting from instinct when we set about making an instinct stronger than it is. The thing that says to you , ‘Your herd instinct is asleep. Wake it up.’ cannot itself be the herd instinct."

And thirdly: "There is none of our impulses which the Moral Law may not sometimes tell us to suppress, and none which it may not sometimes tell us to encourage….Strictly speaking, there are no such things as good and bad impulses. Think once again of a piano. It has not got two kinds of notes on it, the ‘right’ notes and the ‘wrong’ ones. Every single note is right at one time and wrong at another. The Moral Law is not any one instinct or any set of instincts; it is something which makes a kind of tune (the tune we call goodness or right conduct) by directing the instincts….The most dangerous thing you can do is to take any on impulse of your own nature and set it up as the thing you ought to follow at all costs. There is not one of them which will not make us into devils if we set it up as an absolute guide."

He goes on to explain why he feels the Moral Law is a "real truth" like mathematics, as opposed to mere convention. His reasons are two-fold:
"…that though there are differences between the moral ideas of one time or country and those of another, the differences are not really very great."
"When you think about these differences between the morality of one people and another, do you think that the morality of one people is ever better or worse than that of another? Have any of the changes been improvements?…In fact, of course, we all do believe that some moralities are better than others….The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other….You are, in fact comparing them both with some Real Morality, admitting that there is such a thing as a real Right, independent of what people think, and that some people’s ideas get nearer to that real Right than others."

2. The Reality of the Law
Here follows what I find to be a very compelling argument: "The laws of nature, as applied to stones or trees, may only mean ‘what Nature, in fact, does.’ But if you turn to the Law of Human Nature, the Law of Decent Behavior, it is a different matter. That law certainly does not mean ‘what human beings, in fact, do’; for as I said before, many of them do not obey this law at all, and none of them obey it completely. The law of gravity tells you what stones do if you drop them; but the Law of Human Nature tells you what human beings ought to do and do not. In other words, when you are dealing with humans, something else comes in above and beyond the actual facts. You have the facts (how men do behave), and you also have something else (how they ought to behave). In the rest of the universe there need not be anything but the facts."
He sums it up this way: "It begins to look as if we shall have to admit that there is more than one kind of reality; that, in this particular case, there is something above and beyond the ordinary facts of men’s behaviour, and yet quite definitely real – a real law, which none of us made, but which we find pressing on us.

3. What Lies Behind the Law
Here he tackles the two predominant views of the universe held during his time, the materialist view and the religious view. (As an endnote he includes what, interestingly enough has become a prominent view in our day, the Life-force philosophy, or Creative Evolution, or Emergent Evolution.)
Those who hold to the materialist view "think that matter and space just happen to exist, and always have existed, nobody knows why."
The religious view holds that "what is behind the universe is more like a mind than it is like anything else we know. That is to say, it is conscious, and has purposes, and prefers one thing to another."

He then speaks to the limitations of science: "Please do not think that one of these views was held a long time ago and that the other has gradually taken its place. Wherever there have been thinking men both views turn up. And note this too. You cannot find out which view is the right one by science in the ordinary sense. Science works by experiments. It watches how things behave….But why anything comes to be there at all, and whether there is anything behind the things science observes – something of a different kind – this is not a scientific question. If there is ‘Something Behind,’ then either it will have to remain altogether unknown to men or else make itself known in some different way. The statement that there is any such thing, and the statement that there is no such thing, are neither of them statements that science can make. And real scientists do not usually make them. It is usually the journalists and popular novelists who have picked up a few odds and ends of half-baked science from textbooks who go in for them." Well, I wish that could be said for a few of our more prominent atheistic popular scientists these days. Nowadays it seems even scientists want to be rock stars and cult heroes. But I drift from point.

So, since there’s a whole universe out there that we can only know by means of external observation, where then can we go to look behind the scenes, so to speak? To this Lewis would say: "There is only one thing, and only one, in the whole universe which we know more about than we could learn from external observation. That one thing is Man. We do not merely observe men, we are men. In this case we have, so to speak, inside information; we are in the know. And because of that, we know that men find themselves under a moral law, which they did not make, and cannot quite forget even when they try, and which they know they ought to obey….There is only one case in which we can know whether there is anything more, namely our own case, and in that one case we find there is…The only packet I am allowed to open is Man. When I do, especially when I open that particular man called Myself, I find that I do not exist on my own, that I am under a law; that somebody or something wants me to behave in a certain way."

Now, as to the end note, the Life-Force philosophy: "we must ask them whether by Life-Force they mean something with a mind or not. If they do, then ‘a mind bringing life into existence and leading it to perfection; is really a God, and their view is thus identical with the Religious. If they do not, then what is the sense in saying that something without a mind ‘strives’ or has ‘purposes’? This seems to me fatal to their view. One reason why many people find Creative Evolution so attractive is that it gives one much of the emotional comfort of believing in God and none of the less pleasant consequences." I’d like to add that from what I’ve learned recently about Lewis’ theology in a lecture series from Reformed Theological Seminary (check it out for free on!), Lewis was a theistic evolutionist. This is not to be confused with the view he referred to above as "Creative Evolution". His view was that God, personal and eternal, created the heavens and the earth using evolution as a means to that end, and with a special creative act pertaining to mankind that distinguishes him as unique among God’s creation.

5. We Have Cause to Be Uneasy
At this point Lewis addresses the folks who might feel like he’s tricked them by using philosophy to point them to "one more ‘religious jaw’." These are folks that consider religion to be old-school, long since out of date. These are folks that feel we’ve long since progressed beyond that. It’s to these folks he says: "We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. 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….There is nothing progressive about being pigheaded and refusing to admit a mistake." He also reminds these folk that "we have not yet got as far as the God of any actual religion, still less the God of that particular religion called Christianity."

We’ve gotten as far as we can get based upon two bits of evidence: the Universe and the Moral Law. "You find out more about God from the Moral Law than from the universe in general just as you find out more about a man by listening to his conversation than by looking at a house he has built. Now, from this second bit of evidence we conclude that the Being behind the universe is intensely interested in right conduct – in fair play, unselfishness, courage, good faith, honesty and truthfulness. In that sense we should agree with the account given by Christianity and some other religions, that God is ‘good’. But do not let us go too fast here. The Moral Law does not give us any grounds for thinking that God is ‘good’ in the sense of being indulgent, or soft, or sympathetic. There is nothing indulgent about the Moral Law. It is as hard as nails." All this runs along quite nicely, I might add, with Romans 1 & 2.

"That 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. We cannot do without it, and we cannot do with it. God is the only comfort. He is also the supreme terror: the thing we most need and the thing we most want to hide from. He is our only possible ally, and we have made ourselves His enemies."

Really, to my experience, truer words have hardly been spoken. That "terrible fix" is what had me for years drinking, chain-smoking, and popping anti-depressants, trying above all to dull my sensibility of that predicament.

And so Lewis wraps up Book 1, "Christianity tells people to repent and promises them forgiveness. It therefore has nothing (as far as I know) to say to people who do not know they have done anything to repent of and who do not feel that they need any forgiveness. It is after you have realized that there is a real Moral Law, and a Power behind the law, and that you have broken that law and put yourself wrong with that Power – it is after all this, and not a moment sooner that Christianity begins to talk. When you know you are sick, you will listen to the doctor….All I am doing is to ask people to face the facts – to understand the questions which Christianity claims to answer. And they are very terrifying facts."


Anonymous said…
I read this book many years ago. I don't remember the details. Your posts help to remind and teach me again.
Laurie M. said…
I last read this book when I was in college. This is my husband's first time reading it. As a former atheist himself, he's really getting a lot out of it.
Anonymous said…
Great review, Laurie. I consider this one of the best Christian philosophies ever written. I can only imagine how much your husband is enjoying it.
jeri said…
Laurie, I'm finding this book to be more of a treat than I expected. It's a refreshing change of pace...but I'm still slow in finishing the assigned readings! :)
Laurie M. said…

I'm finding it to be a treat as well. I haven't read him since my conversion. I read several of his books when I was in college and liked them. In fact, the copy I'm reading is one from those days, complete with my old underlinings. Funny.
It's better now, and worse, too. I love his work far more, but dislike some of his doctrine more, too. Funny how that can be. I so want people to be able to see the value of his work as I do, in spite of his doctrinal issues. I'm hoping some of the reformed folks won't dismiss him out of hand because of his Arminianism and his unique approach. (Thankfully John Piper's out there lending him a lot of credence.)

I disagree intensely with much of the next reading, but still found in it many good points. I hope Tim will host a reading of another of his books soon - one not so heavy on the apologetics, so that folks will get a better appreciation for the gift that I think he was to the church.

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