Notes on C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

A while back I was referred to C.S. Lewis and his book Mere Christianity by a dear friend as we were discussing religion, abstractions, and the sort. The book had a drastic influence on him, and it helped to shape and fortify his Christian views. He suggested I read it, that it would make some things clear to me of which I had inquiring questions. I hold this friend of mine in high esteem and value his opinion, so I bought the book and dived right in. Over a period of a few weeks, I read over half of the book and took some notes on it. Unfortunately, I haven’t finished the book yet due to lack of time and neglect, but I wanted to post my notes on the matter anyway.

Although I am not Christian and disagree largely with the book, I admired Lewis’ writing and his wit. The first half of the book is set out to define morality, and I thought it an interesting read nonetheless. Lewis starts out making a rational investigative work to find out what morality is without arriving at Christianity. However, in spite of this he makes some irrational claims and leaps in logic fairly quickly. Included now are my notes, thoughts, and objections as Lewis attempts to set the foundation of morality, and later his justification of Christianity.

1. Lewis asserts that we are under a moral law, which was given to us by a “mind” outside of the universe, i.e. a god. He states that because of this moral law there must be in fact a god that gave it to us. Even if we were under a moral law by instinct it doesn’t hint at the possibility of a god in my view. We can be civil human beings knowing right from wrong without a god in the equation.

2. Lewis states that Christianity is the right view and every other religion has it wrong. He says just as there is only one right answer in arithmetic, being Christianity, there are wrong answers that are closer than others to the right answer, other religions. How is he so sure that his view is the right one?

3. Lewis puts forth the idea that god made the world and it has gone wrong and sets up his argument on the premise that the world was unjust. Two things: 1. Why would god create an imperfect creation? With the reality of free will some do good, and some do bad, but in the end the bad person will be damned for his freeness of thought. How is this damnation justifiable? Surely a caring parent would not damn its child forever for not seeing eye to eye, or even if the child turns against the parent. And 2. The Universe is indifferent, being neither good nor bad.

4. Lewis mentions from the time we have a self we become selfish – a centre of our own universe. What is inherently wrong with selfishness? Or any of the so-called sins? A note: Lewis mentions war, poverty, prostitution, classes, slavery etc. following the seeking of happiness outside of god. What about all the war and killing taken up in the name of god? Man has demonstrated himself to be an animal. Lewis mentions that man builds great things and civilizations, and then a flaw presents itself, and the selfish and cruel bring it down. I think this demonstrates how primitive man still is in his development. How he cannot peacefully coexist without preying upon his fellows. Man makes an ass of himself.

5. Lewis gripes that atheism is too simple. That it is because of the complexity of Christianity, and it is not what he would have guessed, is why he takes it up. I am more in agreement here than anywhere else so far only that I would ask what is wrong with making a complicated thing simple to grasp? Just as physicists or college professors make quantum physics easier to grasp in media and in the class room, why can’t religion retain simplicity without losing the scope of it’s complexity? Or another way of looking at it – automobiles are complex machines but why can’t auto mechanics be simply taught? The overall appreciation of the machine’s complexity is still held in regard. However, Lewis’ claim is quite the contrary. In the atheistic perspective it is up to the individual to answer the questions of the universe rather than falling back on a god as an explanation of the unknown.

6. Lewis paints the picture that Satan is the reason why “the machine doesn’t run right,” that selfishness and evil win out. He gives the idea that man is imperfect without a god, weak and direction-less. This is a very dangerous way of thinking, that without the divine man is lost. This is a useful method for control. Promote the idea that we are somehow corrupted from birth, and teach men to be reliant upon a vague and impersonal abstraction, i.e. god, and to be in servitude to the whims of who’s running the show, and we arrive at totalitarianism.

7. Lewis makes mention of the death of Christ and how the act saved humanity, and that the act itself should be the focal point of Christianity and not the theory of how this act saved humanity. Moreover then, what kind of god, nay loving being, would kill his own son? And the question isn’t even about how a being could kill his own son on his own terms without regard to outside influences, it’s asking how a being could kill his own son for the sake of making right what this being intentionally made wrong. This act is capricious. Something else to note is that Lewis does not find this act to be immoral, especially when the first half of the book was specifically about the Moral Law.

8. One thing I did admire from Lewis in regard to his view on Atonement was that if “it does not help you, drop it.”

9. Lewis sets about detailing the Christ-life by saying the Christian is enabled to repent, to pick himself up and begin again after committing a wrong, as if a god is a prerequisite to being sincerely sorry for a wrong committed and to get passed the mistake. He goes on to say that if one does not believe in a god then at the very least he gains approval from other good men. But then that begs the question what is morality then but a jockeying of good men’s approval?

10. Lewis points out that the reason why god works invisibly through us and doesn’t reveal himself to us in the literal world is because he is holding off to let us make a free decision to join him or nay, that at some point in time he will return to judge and condemn, and it will be too late for us to make a free choice. One cannot help to think of this as a convenient view, in that, to make the assertion that god withholds his presence in order for us to make a free decision comes off as a cop out for a more investigative explanation. Besides the convenience, something to note is the use of fear to persuade. The whole “conversion” is based on fear. Furthermore if fear is the prime motivator then one’s intentions of conversion are not pure, and then man is no more redeemed than he has been bullied into a corner.

11. Lewis sets up morality into three categories: relations between man and man, things inside of man, and the being that made man. I want to first add that I agree that there should be some “blueprint” or universal laws that everyman must follow in the interaction between man and man, such as not committing murder, having equality in regard to the same opportunity to freedom/liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and negating anything that would harm another or their property. Beyond this whatever “morality” is left is merely subjective, such as committing adultery, gambling, intoxication (including drug use) etc. Personal liberties (beyond the man to man interaction) should be maximized. Secondly, his third category I disagree with. Lewis says we should act in a way that our creator intended. I do not think there is enough evidence to prove a god exists and has been stated man can be civil without having a god to get his morals from. I am my own person and am responsible for my own actions.

12. Lewis lays out the four Cardinal virtues: Prudence, Temperance, Justice and Fortitude and his main point is to attain the quality of being virtuous rather than merely doing the right thing out of the wrong reasons. Largely I am in agreement here. The concern here falls under the virtue of Justice which includes keeping promises, fairness, honesty, give and take etc. Being a reliable person is indeed a good character. The gripe concerns types of people who do not deserve to be treated with any sort of regard: the “psychic vampire,” the ingrate, the compulsive liar. Why expend even the slightest amount of vital energy on people who would rob one of vital existence? The same type of person who, treated with fairness and consideration, betrays the gesture with a sense of indebtedness, ironically with shouts of fairplay.

13. Lewis states that psychoanalysis aims to rid man of abnormal feelings, giving him more raw material for his choices, while morality deals with the choices themselves. Lewis classifies these feelings into two categories: normal feelings which are common to all men and unnatural feelings due to something gone wrong in the subconscious. He exemplifies this as regarding fear of dangerous things as normal, being common to all men and regarding homosexuality as abnormal, an unnatural attraction between the same sex. Homosexuality may not be common to ALL men, but neither is the taste for peanut butter and we do not regard liking peanut butter as being unnatural. It is a matter of personal preference. However, this is just the psychoanalytic problem and says nothing of morality. Morally speaking, what is immoral about being attracted to the same sex?

14. Lewis spoke about sexual morality and said the state to which the sexual instinct has now got is something to be ashamed of. He justifies this by adding that there is nothing to be ashamed of in enjoying your food: there would be everything to be ashamed of if half the world made food the main interest of their lives and spent their time looking at pictures of food and dribbling and smacking their lips. Very broadly I am in agreement with this. The man who blindly builds his life around one particular thing such as sex could be debated to live an empty sham of a life. It could be argued however that this particular thing, singular of all else brings a great joy to the man, so much so that he has made an idol of it. Every touch is philosophical. Every caress is poetry. My point is that one should not make a compulsion out of a particular desire, nor make it an idol unto himself. I enjoy full sexual fulfillment, but I also am very passionate about music, read philosophy, learn about the universe, have hobbies et cetera. There is much more to the universe than mere pleasure. Lewis also pointed out that if everyone submitted themselves to every whim, every desire, there would be impotence, jealousy, lies, the opposite of good. Man must show some degree of restraint. I agree. Blind hedonism can be damaging. I admire Aristotle’s golden mean, the desirable middle between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency.

15. Lewis goes on to talk about marriage. He begins by stating the monstrosity of sexual intercourse outside of marriage is the taking of that particular union (sexual intercourse) and getting it by itself without the total union. He argues that one must not isolate that pleasure without the overall union of marriage anymore more than one would isolate the pleasure of taste without swallowing and digesting. He continues that marriage is a public promise, and we should keep our promises. He adds that marriage should be permanent, and if one doesn’t believe in a permanent marriage then it is better to live unmarried than to make vows one does not intend to keep. However, in Christian eyes he is still guilty of fornication. Lewis makes a good point about how marriage is a public promise or vow to be chaste and that we should keep our promises. And that if we do not really intend on being honest or intend on having a permanent marriage it is better to live together unmarried, however, in Christian eyes one is still guilty of fornication. My first objection is that marriage should be a private matter and not to be concerned with the general public whatsoever. Secondly, that marriage is not something as sacred as Christianity purports it to be, as to being a permanent union. As relationships often fail, and keeping the two together at all costs is absurd. And lastly, the sin of fornication. So much guilt has been infused in premarital sexual activity, and the whole matter is utter drivel. It seems to imply that pleasure without commitment is shameful, which is quite the contrary. A note: Lewis adds that the Christian view of divorce shouldn’t be forced upon the remaining non-Christian society, and I respect him in this regard. However, he believes there ought to be two distinct marriages: one governed by State with rules that apply to everyone, and the other governed by the church with rules that apply to members. Marriage should not be a public affair as stated above. It should be a private matter between parties.

16. Lewis states that pride is the centre of Christian morals, being the great sin. He asserts that Pride is competitive and doesn’t get pleasure out of having something, it gains pleasure by having more of something than the next man. People are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or more good looking than the other person, the pleasure of being above the rest. However, Lewis makes a distinction that pleasure in being praised is not pride. He exemplifies this by illustrating the child who is patted on the back after doing a lesson well, and a woman who’s beauty is praised by her lover. Here the pleasure lies not in what you are, but in the fact that you have pleased someone you wanted to please. The problem arises when one delights in the self and not the praise. Largely I am in agreement here. Nobody likes an arrogant, pompous ass. However, pride can be beneficial up to the point where it becomes counterproductive. If one over eats to the point of obesity it is his pride that will make him want to get back in shape. Moreover, Lewis added that vanity shows that one is not yet contented with his own admiration. It is most noticeable on the surface, and is a humble fault that is more pardonable. The real black, diabolical pride comes when one looks down on others and not caring of their opinions of oneself. Lewis exemplified this thusly, and it struck a chord within me as it sums up my outlook: “Why should I care for the applause of that rabble as if their opinion where worth anything? And even if their opinions were of value, am I the sort of man to blush with pleasure at a compliment like some chit of a girl at her first dance? No, I am an integrated, adult personality. All I have done has been done to satisfy my own ideals – or my artistic conscience – or the traditions of my family – or, in a word, because I am That Kind of Chap. If the mob like it, let them. They are nothing to me.”

17. Lewis speaks of charity and loving others. He goes on to say that love is a state of the will we have naturally about ourselves, and must learn to have about other people. He adds that this love is not an emotion. He sets up the rule for all of us to go about loving by telling us to not worry about whether or not one actually loves his neighbor, but act as if you did. He adds by behaving as if one loved someone, one would come to love them. The idea here is to love another self because it is a self, made like us by God, and desires its own happiness as we do ourselves. This all sounds lovey-dovey and all well and good, but the gripe here lies in a degree of fakeness. Going around in a fake gesture of charity to one who may not deserve to be treated with any sort of charity seems to be a bit unnatural. Kind acts should be repaid with kind acts, and despicable acts repaid in the same degree. Nothing in life is free, and a more meritocratic gesture seems a bit more natural. Love and kindness are earned. However, that is not to say we can’t act as civilized human beings in public interaction.

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