Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

I’ve reviewed a number of Christian books in the past, but this is the first one I’ve reviewed from the perspective of no longer being a Christian. I consider “getting out of your comfort zone” to be one of the most important aspects of any genuine truth-seeking – reading books that do not defend your worldview as a means of challenging yourself. Consequently, I’ve read books like Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, Anton LaVey’s The Satanic Bible, etc. And I think it’s no bad thing to revisit the Christian religion a couple of years after abandoning it, to determine afresh whether it ought to have any bearing on my life.

I appreciate Lewis more than most Christian writers because he is, at heart, a philosopher rather than a preacher. He uses the tool of rational deducation over the tool of “Thus saith the Lord!” Unfortunately I found myself having strong disagreements with his stance, almost from the get-go. He posits an argument for the existence of a personal God based on the moral nature of man, but the first thread he hangs this viewpoint on his that man is different from the animals. I see this difference as a difference of degree, not a difference of kind. We are more intelligent than dogs, and thus we possess much more complex behaviour patterns, but I don’t see how this in any way classifies us as a special category on our own, when we are, frankly, mammals. Lewis takes this extremely tenuous thread that “man is different” and builds a complex philosophy about the nature of good and evil. He takes our concepts of fairness and judgement and instantly transposes these onto God without the merest pause. What I noticed, however, is that he is making God in man’s image – taking that infinite, eternal “something” beyond space and time and projecting our human natures onto it. Whether we ought do that is an essay in itself, but Lewis simply ploughs on unaware of the vast assumptions he is making. What you end up with is a whole house built on a couple of flimsy stilts, ready to topple with the merest breeze.

In fairness, at times Lewis communicated some valuable insights, particularly about morality, which seems to be a favourite topic of the author. These insights actually made the book a worthwhile read. Other times, the value in reading it was in scrutinizing the Christian worldview, noting the carefree leaps in logic that Christians make, the notions that hold no real rational weight. It was amazing to behold a man who could on the one hand be so studious about logic, and on the other so fanciful about the devil’s influence on the human mind.

On the subject of “faith” (the only subject that the book devotes two chapters to) there is not a single mention of the vast unthinking herds of the world, Christian or otherwise, to whom faith comes as naturally as breathing. How can anyone propose to talk about faith but leave this glaring black hole? It’s obvious to me that the pews of the world are not filled with people who come to their beliefs through reason, but mainly by people who fall in line with whatever belief system their locale dictates. Anyone who talks at length about faith should at least devote some space to a discussion of “groupthink,” the herd mentality. A discussion of that kind is, of course, damning to religion, exposing it as a lamentable triumph of faith over reason.

Regarding the history of Christianity, I don’t think it can be seriously debated that horrendous things were done in the name of Christ. I was therefore alarmed to see Lewis jumping to the defence of what I see as the terrible consequences of men who sacrifice their minds to religious authority and, as a result, end up commiting atrocities. I could hardly believe my eyes that an attitude of this nature was still around as recent as the 1950s, when the book was published (emphasis mine):

I have met people who exaggerate the differences [in moral viewpoints], because they have not distinguished between differences of morality and differences of belief about facts. For example, one man said to me, “Three hundred years ago people in England were putting witches to death. Was that what you call the Rule of Human Nature or Right Conduct?” But surely the reason we do not execute witches [today] is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did – if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather – surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did? There is no difference of moral principle here: the difference is simply about matter of fact. It may be a great advance in knkowledge not to believe in witches: there is no moral advance in not executing them when you do not think they are there.

The closing chapters of the book leave philosophy behind and are chiefly concerned with explaining the Christian view of redemption: God as a triune being, Jesus’ sacrificial death, etc. These chapters were largely irrelevant to me because I don’t believe there is anything inherently wrong with mankind as it is. But to those who believe themselves to be evil and in need of salvation from a divine Judge, they will probably see this material as profound, as I once thought, before I figured out the lies on which the view is built.

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The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

This short book is comprised of thirty-one letters. Each one begins with “My dear Wormwood” and is signed “Your affectionate uncle – Screwtape.” Weird names, no doubt, and weird characters to go with them. Wormwood and Screwtape are not human beings; they are demons of the spiritual world, existing only to prey upon human souls. Screwtape is an experienced tempter, while his “nephew” Wormwood is new on the scene. The latter’s task is to entrap and destroy one particular human to whom he has been assigned. Each of Screwtape’s letters consists of advice to the inexperienced tempter as to how he might best exploit the human’s circumstances to secure his soul for hell.

You could be forgiven for thinking that this is not a serious book, but you couldn’t be more wrong. Yes, it’s laced with humour; yes, it contains the most ridiculous character names (Slubgob & Toadpipe are a few incidental demons you’ll meet); but this book is actually trying to be deadly serious. “What about?” you might ask. “How to send someone to hell?” Quite the opposite. In reading The Screwtape Letters, the reader gets clued into the subtle strategies of Satan so that they are exposed for what they are, and the reader is able to withstand them. Here’s one example which stood out for me, on the subject of how to pray:

Whenever they [the humans] are attending to the Enemy Himself [God] we are defeated, but there are ways of preventing them from doing so. The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves. Keep them watching their own minds are trying to produce feelings there by the action of their own wills. When they meant to ask Him for charity, let them, instead, start trying to manufacture charitable feelings for themselves and not notice that this is what they are doing. When they meant to pray for courage, let them really be trying to feel brave. When they say they are praying for forgiveness, let them be trying to feel forgiven. Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling; and never let them suspect how much success or failure of that kind depends on whether they are well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment.

Being a Christian, I believe in the existence of demons, and I’ve picked up a thing or two from the Bible about how they operate. The details are sketchy at best, and it makes me unsure whether everything Lewis talks about is related to demonic activity in human life. But that’s not really important, becuase the purpose of each letter is to communicate warnings about dangers which Christians can fall into unawares, and those dangers are real, whether they are related to spiritual warfare or not. It’s a stroke of genius that Lewis decided to write a book of this nature in this highly entertaining format.

There are thirty-one letters in all, one for each day of the month, if you like. I found that some topics were more relevant to me than others, but I came away with a sense that this is a book I should read again in the future, when fresh insights would be gained.

Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis

Surprised by Joy is essentially C.S. Lewis telling us his Christian testimony. It’s not the usual tale of rescue from the evils of drink, drugs or sex that you tend to come across; in fact, it’s right at the opposite end of the scale. There isn’t much mention of personal sin (at least in the outware sense) in this tale, probably because there wasn’t much of it in his life worth talking about. C.S. Lewis was a philosopher, and his conversion to Christianity was a journey of the mind. A staunch athiest, it was only after many years and much debate with himself that he finally came to accept the reality of God.

The book begins with Lewis’s boyhood, in particular his relationship with his brother and father, and the harsh realities of school life in the early twentieth century. It’s hard for me to say much about the factual content of the book, because it has become a bit of a blur. Essentially it’s a chronicle of various schools, colleges and people who were influential in Lewis’s life. It was fairly interesting reading, but I couldn’t help getting impatient with the book; I was more interested in Lewis’s inner pilgrimage than his outer life. But to be fair, the one can’t be told without the other. The only major gripe I have about the book is that the author presupposes that his readership is highly educated in classic literature; there are continual references to authors and books of which I have absolutely no knowledge.

I tend to approach C.S. Lewis’s books with a sense of caution, chiefly because I’ve grown to believe that philosophy is a dangerous minefield. I don’t like “truths” that are only discerned by adding together all sorts of complex building blocks in your mind, any one of which could crumble and turn your truth into falsehood. I didn’t really get that impression from Surprised by Joy, but Lewis’s journey was complicated enough that I’m left scratching my head when I try to recall if there was any one particular thing that was the major turning point for him.

Throughout the story, Lewis talks much about his search for a thing he calls “Joy.” This was a lifelong quest to grasp and hang on to an experience that he only remembers having in flashes, and one which seemed to be happening less and less as he grew older. As the book progressed, I began to see Lewis’s obsession with Joy was as very strange and slightly ridiculous. But the big surprise came at the end of the story, when I was delighted by Lewis’s own conclusions on the matter.

As an evangelistic tool, I’m not sure that Surprised by Joy is all that useful. My own return to Christianity involved the disassembling of an athiestic philosophy in my mind, but my journey was nothing like Lewis’s. Philosophy is a very widespread minefield and no one book can wrestle with everyone’s outlook. However, this is a fairly interesting look into an interesting life.