The Genius of C.S. Lewis: Mere Christianity (2/2)

This article is a continuation from yesterday's post, describing the ways in which Lewis' genius is manifested in Mere Christianity...

6. Faith and Works

Rather than stoking the fire of animosity between denominations, Lewis addresses the Reformation issue of the relationship between faith and works in an attempt to affirm what all Christians affirm. 

Which is more important, faith or works? Lewis says that’s like asking which blade in a pair of scissors is more important. Discarding the caricatures of the Protestant and Catholic positions, he quotes St. Paul’s epistle to the Philippians which seems to synthesize both faith and works in a single sentence. He says:

The first half is, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”-which looks as if everything depended on us and our good actions: but the second half goes on, “For it is God who worketh in you” –  which looks as if God did everything and we nothing… You see, we are now trying to understand, and to separate into water-tight compartments, what exactly God does and what man does when God and man are working together. And, of course, we begin by thinking it is like two men working together, so that you could say, “He did this bit and I did that.” But this way of thinking breaks down. God is not like that. He is inside you as well as outside: even if we could understand who did what, I do not think human language could properly express it. In the attempt to express it different Churches say different things. But you will find that even those who insist most strongly on the importance of good actions tell you you need Faith; and even those who insist most strongly on Faith tell you to do good actions.

7. Forgiveness

Mere Christianity is not simply a book of dry doctrine. Personally, when I read it, I often find myself challenged concerning the state of my soul. No chapter perhaps best illustrates this better than the chapter on forgiveness.

Lewis says that he used to think that the most unpopular doctrines of Christianity related to sex, but perhaps it is, in fact, Christianity’s teaching of forgiveness. This might surprise us. After all, doesn’t everyone admit that forgiveness is a wonderful thing? Jack says we say this when we are the ones seeking forgiveness. However, when we are the ones who need to do the forgiving, we complain and howl in anger at the injustice of it all! 

Quite rightly, Lewis reminds us that right at the heart of Christianity is the commandment to forgive our enemies, with Jesus’ harsh words concerning those who refuse to forgive. However, Lewis doesn’t leave it there…

Jack says that when he was a child he was told to “Hate the sin, but love the sinner”. He thought this was ridiculous. How was it possible to separate a man from what the bad things that he did? However, he eventually realized that there was one person for whom he had been doing this his entire life…himself. 

He considers Christ’s command to love our neighbour as ourselves. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always focussed on the first part of that sentence, to love my neighbour. However, Lewis invites us to first consider the second part of that sentence…to love my  neighbour as myself. How do I love myself? With a little bit of introspection, we realize that we don’t always like ourselves or the things that we do. This means that when I love my neighbour, I don’t have to pretend that he is nice when he is not, or that the things that he does are good when they are bad. Instead, I have to do for him what I do for myself, seek his good and hope that next time he will make a better choice and ultimately become a better man. 

Christ does not forgive me because I didn’t really do anything wrong. He does so because He is good…and to be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in me.

8. The Trilemma

One of the most well-known passages in Mere Christianity is C.S. Lewis’ “Trilemma”. Lewis did not invent this argument, but he did greatly popularize it.

Lewis is asking the most fundamental question one can really ask: who is Jesus? After all, Jesus made some pretty bold claims, not least of which was the ability to forgive sins. It’s one thing to say that you forgive someone who wrongs you, it’s quite another to tell someone that you forgive them for their sins against other people!

Lewis then addresses the person who says that Jesus was a great moral teacher, but he wasn’t God. Lewis rips this assertion to shreds, saying that this is the one thing which we cannot say! If we assume that the New Testament to be a record of what Jesus Himself said, we only have three options. He was either a liar, a lunatic or the Lord. Lewis explains:

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg-or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

Lewis liked this argument so much that he reuses it in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when Professor Kirk explains to the children why they should believe Lucy’s story about finding a magic world in the wardrobe.

9. The Purpose of Christianity

As my podcast co-host Matt and I worked through Mere Christianity chapter-by-chapter, one thing which jumped out at us was Lewis’ assessment of the purpose of Christianity. He says:

It is easy to think that the Church has a lot of different objects — education, building, missions, holding services. Just as it is easy to think the State has a lot of different objects — military, political, economic, and what not. But in a way things are much simpler than that. The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden — that is what the State is for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time. In the same way the Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose
In the last chapter we were considering the Christian idea of “putting on Christ,” or first “dressing up” as a son of God in order that you may finally become a real son. What I want to make clear is that this is not one among many jobs a Christian has to do; and it is not a sort of special exercise for the top class. It is the whole of Christianity. Christianity offers nothing else at all.

Lewis sees that the central purpose of Christianity is to become another Christ. This comes about by sharing in God’s divine life. We receive our natural life from our parents, but we receive divine life from God, principally, he says, through faith, baptism and Holy Communion. This brings about a transformation which he compares to tin soldiers coming to life. Although he never uses the term, Lewis is describing theosis, which is a term often used in Eastern Christianity to describe the transformation which comes about when, in the words of St. Peter, we become “partakers of the divine nature”.

So there are some of my favourite themes of Mere Christianity. Next time we’ll be looking at The Great Divorce