Sunday, March 27, 2016

'Mere Christianity': Why C.S. Lewis' Book Is Overrated

Monochrome head-and-left-shoulder photo portrait of 50-year-old Lewis
C.S. Lewis authored 'Mere  Christianity' based on BBC radio lectures.

In a recent WSJ essay by Notre Dame Emeritus Prof George M. Marsden  ('Mere Christianity Still Gets A Global Amen', Mar. 25., p. A9) we learn C.S. Lewis never planned for 'Mere Christianity' to be a book. In fact:

"During the dark days of World War II, the writer presented four sets of BBC radio talks on basic Christianity. He had these published in several paperbacks. Not until 1952 did he collect them together into the new  title".

We then learn C.S. Lewis' work has sold "more than 3.5 million copies in English" and "been translated into at least 36 languages". And oh, by the way, it's next only to the Bible in educating Chinese Christians and "is still read by thoughtful evangelicals, along with thousands of Catholics and mainline Protestants."

Why this popularity? Prof. Marsden touches on assorted possible reasons, including: "attention only to the timeless truth of Christianity and not the latest theological fashions",  avoidance of "chronological snobbery" (believing modern tenets of faith are superior to ancient ones) and a "knowledge of many areas of literature and language" as well as history.

In mastering all of the above, Lewis "acts like a guide on the journey from unbelief to faith". Yet in the same breath we're informed by Lewis himself that "becoming Christian isn't an improvement but a transformation".

Which begs the question that if becoming a Christian isn't an improvement then why would there be any impetus to go that route? Why not instead become a Buddhist, or an atheist? 

We're offered no rational answers only told by Marsden that  "not everyone will see the beauty or be persuaded".

Indeed, why would they  - the critical thinking skeptics?   Because if one reads 'Mere Christianity' between the lines as opposed to in a daze, it ought to make them realize Lewis' collection of his BBC radio talks is actually a primitive generic apologia nothing more.

For example, Lewis’ justification for Inquisitional tortures is mind-boggling and effectively renders whatever morality he espouses as useless, and indeed dangerous! In Mere Christianity he pardons the witch burners for a “mistake of fact”, i.e. in believing  that women described as witches were actually evil incarnate1. To quote one critic2:

If Lewis is willing to accept that witches do not exist, and that, while believing in them, it was right to put them to death, what other "ungodly" transgressions can we forgive as mere "mistakes of fact”?

Indeed, Lewis' expeditious moralism is enough - or should be - to convert any sentient being into a committed atheist. Because, contrary to Marsden's depictions, Lewis' debased morality is little better than that invoked by John Paul II and others to defend moving pederast priests around parishes to avoid their prosecution - and a black PR eye for the Church. After all, if JP II simply made a "mistake of fact" why hold him to account now? Heck, go on and expedite sainthood to sweep all questions from further consideration. What better way to try to get the faithful and outside critics to shut up about it and move on?

Interestingly, Lewis’ pseudo-morality would easily have been incorporated into the Third Reich’s justifications for genocide. I mean, if they really believed the Jews were “vermin” – as so much of their propaganda portrayed- why not grant the same license as Lewis grants the Inquisitors and witch hunters? . So by Lewis’ standards, revealed in 'Mere Christianity',   they’d be excused for making a “mistake of fact”.
 Inquisitors gutting, burning and carving up heretics and one lesbian (far left). Did they simply make a "mistake of fact" as C.S. Lewis proclaims in his 'Mere Christianity'?

Lewis might well reply here that the Nazis really knew better than that so their actions were inexcusable. But how do we know that there were not also more percipient Inquisitors who also knew better? Say than to believe that more than a quarter million women burned as witches did not really embody evil or have pacts with “Satan”?

Or, that the heretic caught in the Inquisition's vice grip could not really harm the Church, but by the ruling of ad extirpanda his property could be confiscated why worry? The Church gets richer and it's only at the cost of one life, then another....and another.  Who was counting? (See: The Inquisition of the Middle Ages  by Henry Charles Lea.

It amounts to mere question begging.

Rather than any "beauty" or power of innate persuasion one has to conclude 'Mere Christianity' is perhaps the greatest exercise in artful question begging and moral misrepresentation the world has ever known. Thus, it's just as well when the "greatest religious literature"  was identified (in 'The Greatest Christian Book of All Time Tournament)- as Prof. Marsden notes- it was Augustine's 'Confessions' which came out "first seed", not 'Mere Christianity'. 

The Confessions, which we studied as part of our 2nd year Theology course at Loyola (1966), actually resonates with the reader as Augustine imparts his own path to what he saw as truth via his own experiences, good and bad. In the process, via those intimate disclosures,  an entire morally consistent world view unfolds with deep insights which even an atheist (as I turned out to be) can appreciate. For example, consider Augustine's magnificent foray into the basis for truth, deception  and even happiness (p. 192, Dover edition (1955) and translation by Albert Cook Outler). In the case of the latter Augustine writes:

"Why are they (men)  not happy?  Because they are so fully preoccupied with other things which do more to make them miserable than those which would make them happy, which they remember so little about. "

The universality of insight exposed here could well have been taken right out of the Dalai Lama's collection of meditations and admonitions ('Many Ways To Nirvana', 2004)  or from Buddhist philosopher Alan Watt's book, 'The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are’.

 In regard to the general human aversion to truth, Augustine is equally percipient (ibid.):

"Why, then, does truth generate hatred, and why does the servant who preaches the truth come to be an enemy to them who also love the happy life, which is nothing else than joy in the truth - unless it be that truth is loved in such a way that those who love something else besides her wish that to be the truth which they do love. Since they are unwilling to be deceived, they are unwilling to be convinced that they are deceived.  Therefore, they hate the truth for whatever it is that they love in place of the truth. They love truth when she shines on them; and hate her when she rebukes them. And since they are not willing to be deceived, but do wish to deceive, they love truth when she reveals herself and hate her when she reveals them."

Such deep insights can only arrive by deep self-knowledge, not by a secondary imitation of enlightenment, or a synthetic derivation confected from radio talks designed as an apologia - as Lewis created.  Those who have read 'Mere Christianity' are therefore strongly advised to read Augustine's book and make the comparison.

At least enough people already have (in the Christian "Best Book Tournament") and were able to separate substance from sophistry.

1 Lewis: Mere Christianity, 14.

2 Inniss: The Secular Humanist Newsletter, (Spring, 1998), 1

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