An Atheist Reads Mere Christianity
Book Four: Beyond Personality: Or First Steps in the Doctrine of the Trinity (Ch. 7-11)
Chapter 7: Let’s Pretend
- Why stop now?
- Lewis begins by describing two stories — “Beauty and the Beast,” where the love of a woman turns a beast into a man, and “The Beautiful Mask” (though Lewis doesn’t identify it as such), about a man who wears a mask that makes him appear more attractive, then removes it after many years to find that his own face has grown to fit it, that the mask has made him more beautiful.
- Up until now, Lewis says, he has been describing facts — what God is and what God has done. Now, he turns his attention to what Christians should do next. “If you are interested enough to have read thus far you are probably interested enough to make a shot at saying your prayers: and, whatever else you say, you will probably say the Lord’s Prayer.” (C.S. Lewis, MERE CHRISTIANITY, p. 187)
- The Lord’s Prayer begins, Lewis notes, “Our Father . . .” But, as Lewis has pointed out in previous chapters, we are not sons of God in the way that Jesus is. By praying to God as though he were our father, we are pretending to be Christ. But this is a good thing, Lewis reckons, since, like the man in “The Beautiful Mask,” if we pretend to be Christ often enough, we will eventually find ourselves becoming more like him in reality.
- This happens because Christ himself is actually at your side, guiding you toward becoming more like him and less like the tin soldier that you have been all your life. Lewis means this literally — it is not your conscience directing you, but Christ himself, alive and “interfering” with our selves.
- Lewis acknowledges that this is not the perceived experience of many Christians. Many claim to have never felt like Christ was present helping them at all. Instead, they have always been helped by other humans beings. But Lewis counters by saying “If there was no help from Christ, there would be no help from other human beings.” (p. 190)
- Lewis says that Christ works through us all in ways we might not recognize, in ways that might not even make sense. “When a young man who has been going to church in a routine way honestly realizes that he does not believe in Christianity and stops going — provided he does it for honesty’s sake and not just to annoy his parents — the spirit of Christ is probably nearer to him then than it ever was before.” (p. 190)
- Mostly, though, Christ works on us through each other. We are all mirrors for each other, reflecting Christ to those we encounter. This is why the church is so important, because it can amplify the effect that Christ has on individuals by spreading the “good infection” Lewis wrote about in earlier chapters.
- Though we should recognize the people who help us, we must also always recognize that it is God, standing behind them, who is ultimately responsible. Relying on God is important, because humans are unreliable — even the best of them will die eventually, says Lewis.
- Once Christians begin their transformations into little Christs, they notice two things: 1) Their own sinfulness, which can only truly be reformed by God, and 2) That it is God who is ultimately responsible for everything. It is even God who, in a sense, joins in our pretense of being little Christs, since he sees our selfish, sinful selves and decides to pretend that we aren’t the horrible creatures we actually are, but more like his begotten Son.
- “Is not that how the higher thing always raises the lower? A mother teaches her baby to talk by talking to it as if it understood long before it really does. We treat our dogs as if they were ‘almost human’: that is why they really become ‘almost human’ in the end.” (p. 194)
- So Lewis begins the chapter by announcing he’s switching gears here as he enters the home stretch, he’s no longer going to be talking about “facts,” as he has been, but rather about what Christians ought to do with themselves in light of those facts. This assumes not only that there are such things as facts about God — which there aren’t — but that C.S. Lewis, for one, knows what they are — which, from all indications in this book, he doesn’t.
- Lewis describes how, when we pretend to be Christ, when we try to be like Christ, Christ himself literally comes to us and begins to change us into something like him. He says this isn’t just us making different choices about our behavior, it’s literally Christ doing something. But it sounds an awful lot like we’re just making different choices in order to better follow a chosen example. Why must it be Christ acting on us? Is there really no better way of explaining how some people seem to be transformed by their newfound Christianity? You often hear people say things like “Oh, he was a new man after he got saved” or “he was like a totally different person once he found the Lord”. But Christianity is not the only faith that makes such claims. If changes in behavior after a conversion are evidence that Christianity is real, why aren’t similar cases evidence for the truth of Islam? Or Buddhism? Or any other faith you can name?
- I find Lewis’s statement that a man who honestly chooses to leave his church is closer to Christ than he has ever been to be really fascinating. At first glance, it strikes me as a very tolerant, reasonable thing to say — Lewis seems to be prizing intellectual honesty above even faith in his god. But then I started to think that maybe it wasn’t such a great sentiment. Look again at how Lewis phrases it: “When a young man who has been going to church in a routine way honestly realizes that he does not believe in Christianity and stops going — provided he does it for honesty’s sake and not just to annoy his parents — the spirit of Christ is probably nearer to him then than it ever was before.” (p. 190) The act of leaving the church brings him closer to Christ — you can’t stop being a Christian, even if you decide to stop being a Christian! It reminds me of what my Mom said to me when I told her I was an atheist — “Oh well, you still believe in something.” No matter how you try, you’ll never be able to convince some people that you are what you say you are. You leave the church? Well, it’s just Christ acting on you. You don’t believe in God? Well, you still believe in something, anyway. Christianity is like pine tar, apparently.
- Finally, again in this chapter we encounter Lewis’s Christian misanthropy. Don’t count on humans, they’ll only let you down. Count on God — he never makes mistakes, he never forgets, never breaks promises, he’ll never die and leave you behind. Didn’t Lewis say something in a previous chapter about not talking to us like children?
- And what else about humans? We’re mortal, we’re fallible — and not just fallible, but selfish, petty, jealous, greedy, all sorts of horrible things. And I might counter by saying, sure, those are all facets of human nature, but what about compassion, intellect, tolerance, patience, honesty, curiosity? But I already know what Lewis, and many other Christians, would say: we exhibit those qualities because God is working through us. The bad stuff is our fault, the good stuff gets credited to God. From the Christian viewpoint, we can’t avoid seeing ourselves as dirty, clutching, contemptible things. Nothing good about us comes from ourselves. Everything good about us comes from God. Nevermind for the moment the various arguments for and against the truth of Christianity — why would anyone want to believe this?
Chapter 8: Is Christianity Hard or Easy?
- Putting on Christ, trying to become like him, is the whole business of being a Christian. And this becoming is different, Lewis says, from other concepts of moral behavior.
- Ordinary moral behavior consists of us recognizing that our various desires and instincts are subject to rules and standards which we are bound to obey. Living according to those standards rather than our own desires is what we call being good. But this, Lewis claims, results in us either eventually giving up trying to be good altogether, or becoming very unhappy once we realize we will never be able to fully satisfy the demands of our conscience.
- The Christian way, Lewis says, is both harder and easier at the same time. Christ asks not for our time and effort, but for ourselves. He seeks to kill our natural instincts and desires and replace them with himself. This is hard, because handing over our whole selves to Christ is incredibly difficult, but also easy, because the struggles we face trying to live for Christ are easier than those we would face doing things the other way.
- The hardest part of the Christian life is denying the natural desires by which we are constantly bombarded. At first, this can only be accomplished bit by bit, Lewis says, but eventually, with Christ’s help, those moments of resistance, of holding back the natural to let the spiritual take over, will last longer and longer. It is hard, Lewis says, but “It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.” (pp. 198-199)
- Becoming like Christ, Lewis reiterates, is the whole of Christianity. But more than that, it is the whole of everything, even the universe itself. The Bible says the whole universe was made for Christ and that everything is to be gathered together in him. Lewis admits he has no idea what this means, or how it applies to other life that may or may not exist away from Earth, but then he doesn’t really expect to understand such things, since God has only revealed to us his plan for ourselves. But, Lewis says, the Bible hints that when we do enter into Christ, the rest of nature will also be made right. “The bad dream will be over: it will be morning.” (p. 200)
- Lewis says that trying to live a moral life without Christ will make us either miserable or force us to abandon the effort to be good altogether. It will be too exhausting for us, too hard, and we’ll have no Christ to help us along the way. This is a rather sweeping statement — it implies that no one outside of Christianity is capable of leading a truly moral and happy life. And how in the world could Lewis, or anyone else, make such a statement? I think it’s because Lewis, like the god of Christianity, demands perfection and considers anything short of it to be a total failure. He talks about how impossible it would be to satisfy the demands of your conscience. But if satisfying every demand of your conscience really is impossible, why lose any sleep over it? Why not do what I do, what I think most people do, try your best to be a good person, aim always to do what is right and what is best, and when you inevitably fuck up, take it in context, as a fuck-up, not as evidence that you are a horrible, immoral failure of a person. Just because perfect and nothing short of it is God’s bullshit standard doesn’t mean it’s mine. If God wasn’t such a perfectionist asshole, he wouldn’t have had to create the insane doctrine of proxy salvation via human sacrifice in order to allow morally imperfect people into Heaven. He could have judged people fairly, according to their character and the choices they made and the people they were and tried to be, rather than insisting that the least of our sins outweighed all of our virtues.
Chapter 9: Counting the Cost
- So about those demands for perfection.
- Lewis says that God is not refusing to help us unless we are perfect; rather, the only help he is offering us is help in becoming perfect. If we aren’t interested in trying to be perfect, then God can’t help us.
- Lewis describes how he would endure an aching tooth in silence as a child even though he knew his mother would provide him with an aspirin to dull the pain, because he also knew his mother would insist on taking him to the dentist, which he did not want. He wanted immediate relief from his pain, but he couldn’t get that without also getting something more. God is like the dentist who not only fixes the problem tooth, but also examines the rest of the teeth to make sure they are set right as well. “Dozens of people go to Him to be cured of some one particular sin which they are ashamed of (like masturbation or physical cowardice) or which is obviously spoiling daily life (like bad temper or drunkenness). Well, He will cure it all right: but He will not stop there. That may be all you asked; but if once you call Him in, He will give you the full treatment.” (p. 202)
- God warns us to count the cost before committing to Christianity, because once he starts working on us, he will not stop until the job is finished — until we are perfect. But this doesn’t mean that God isn’t pleased with every little bit of progress we make. Like the parent of a child beginning to walk, God is thrilled at our faltering first steps, but also expects us to one day grow up to walk upright like adults. God is easy to please, but hard to satisfy, Lewis says, quoting George MacDonald.
- God will pick us up every time we fall, Lewis says, but his ultimate goal is always perfection. If we lose sight of this, we might begin to resist Christ or reject his help once he has allowed us to overcome those sins which drove us to seek him in the first place. But this is a fatal mistake, Lewis says. We must not be satisfied with being imperfect, but decent people. This may be all right with us, but it is not what God intended for us. He, Lewis says, is the inventor; we are the machine. God wants us to be perfect, and it is cowardice, not humility, which causes us to resist him.
- Without God, we cannot hope to last very long as decent people. But with God, no virtue or level or holiness is beyond our reach. But it is a difficult job, and Christians should expect to be in for a rough time. When a person much improved by Christ suddenly encounters hardships, this is only God’s way of pushing him to still higher levels of perfection, demanding of him more patience, more love, more virtue than in the past, to render him a person capable of such things.
- When God commands us “Be ye perfect,” he isn’t asking the impossible — he’s saying he will make us people capable of obeying that command, unless we choose to stop him (only our free will can prevent him from completing his work). When he is done, we will be mirrors capable of perfectly reflecting God in all his glory.
- See, it’s not so unreasonable afterall! God isn’t asking the impossible — if we let him, he’ll help us, he’ll make us perfect.
- And what happens to those of us who decide we want to do something with our lives besides handing them over to God to be remade to match his concept of perfection?
Chapter 10: Nice People or New Men
- If Christianity is true, Lewis asks, why are not all Christians nicer than all non-Christians? Lewis’s answer: Firstly, if a conversion to Christianity does not result in any improvement in a person’s behavior, then the conversion may be imaginary. A tree is known by its fruit, Lewis says, and Christians who misbehave are only making Christianity more unbelievable to those outside it.
- However, Lewis charges that it is unfair for people to divide the world into Christians and non-Christians, and expect that all Christians should always, at any given moment, be nicer than the non-Christians. First, the world is much more complicated than this. There are people who are slowly either slipping out of or entering into Christianity, who could not fairly be counted in either category. And there are people in other faiths who have been led by God (secretly) to focus on the parts of their faiths that agree with Christianity. Second, the true test isn’t that a given Christian will be nicer than a given non-Christian, but rather than a given person is nicer than he would be were he not a Christian.
- Lewis illustrates this by comparing two imaginary people: Miss Bates, a Christian with an unkind tongue, and Dick Firkin, a non-Christian with a much more pleasant disposition. The natural forces that have resulted in Miss Bates’s bad temperament and Dick’s good temperament are there because God allowed them to be there. God intends to reform Miss Bates and also to show Dick that his positive traits are the result of God and not of himself, but he is waiting for them both to turn to him, since turning to him is the only reason for which they were created. How nice or nasty the natures of Miss Bates and Dick Firkin is beside the point; what matters is that they offer those natures to God.
- Without God, Dick’s good nature will eventually fail him. “As long as Dick does not turn to God, he thinks his niceness is his own, and just as long as he thinks that, it is not his own.” (p. 213) Dick’s niceness only truly becomes his own, according to Lewis, when he realizes that it is a gift from God.
- Given all this, it isn’t surprising that we find some Christians who are nastier in their temperament than some non-Christians. In fact, while he was on Earth, Christ seemed to attract the nasty people more than the nice people. Nice people are less likely to think that they need God, while nasty people find that they need much more help when trying to be good, and are more likely to turn to Christ to find that help.
- There is a warning here, Lewis says. Nice people must beware, because their niceness is a gift from God and much is expected from those to whom much is given. By the same token, the nasty and the poor need not despair, since God knows all about their problems and is eager to help, if only they will let him.
- We must all work for the best possible world and to raise the best possible people, Lewis says, but we must also be careful not to equate this with saving our souls. Improvement is not redemption.
- To those who understand Christianity, arguments about the poor characters of other Christians don’t carry much weight. “If there is a God, you are, in a sense, alone with Him. . . . What will all that chatter and hearsay count . . . when the anaesthetic fog which we call ‘nature’ or ‘the real world’ fades away and the Presence in which you have always stood becomes palpable, immediate, and unavoidable?” (p. 217)
- So it’s not fair to divide the world into Christians and non-Christians? There is a false dichotomy C.S. Lewis doesn’t like. Who knew?
- Again, in this chapter we have the assertion that our positive traits are from God. And Lewis doubles down on it by saying not only that our virtues are from God, but that they impose upon us a greater responsibility than less virtuous people. So we don’t get to take credit ourselves for being good people, and it makes our lives more difficult to boot. Thanks, God!
- There’s another very familiar Christian argument in here at the end, slightly disguised. It’s the “I just know” assertion that is often the argument of last resort when Christians argue with atheists. Lewis says that Christians aren’t vulnerable to arguments against their faith that cite the character of other Christians, because they just know that God is there. “You don’t understand because you’re blind, you’re not a Christian, you deny God, but I know because I know because I know.” If you’re an atheist and you’re arguing with a Christian and you hear them say that, smile. It’s good news. It means you win the argument.
Chapter 11: The New Men
- Christ doesn’t want to improve us, but transform us.
- Lewis compares this process to biological evolution: just as man evolved from lower forms of life, he must evolve further into something different. Evolution, Lewis says, will take a sharp bend.
- Or, it already has, if you are a Christian, says Lewis. That next evolutionary step has already been taken in Christ — the change from being creatures of God to sons of God. In this sense it is not evolution, since it is not the result of a natural process, but rather the result of something entering into nature from the outside. And ideas about evolution are formed by studying the past, whereas this transformation is totally new and cannot be predicted by looking at what has already happened.
- The New Step, as Lewis calls it, is not the result of sexual reproduction. Lower creatures have not been able to choose to take it — unlike evolution, the New Step is voluntary. Christ is the personification of the New Step — not merely a new man, but the new man, and he transmits his new life, the Zoe life, not through heredity but through personal contact. Unlike other evolutionary steps, the New Step has developed incredibly quickly — the two thousand years since the life of Christ is like a flash of lightning in the whole of history. The stakes are higher, since when we take this step we are like babies being born, and we must be born or we will die.
- The New Men, those who have taken the New Step, are already here. They are recognizable, if you know what to look for. They are humble, selfless, not like the “religious people” we are used to seeing. They love you more, but need you less. And they recognize each other immediately, which, Lewis reckons, makes being holy like joining a secret society.
- The New Men are not all alike. Though becoming like Christ means that Christ’s will and thoughts will be our own, the effect will not be to homogenize people, but rather to bring out their true selves much as the right amount of salt brings out the flavor of food. The more we are able to rid ourselves of our natural selves, the more Christ can enter and bring out our true selves.
- To truly come to Christ, you must forget about your self altogether. Christ will give you your real self, and that true self will not come while you look for it, but only when you look for Christ.
- “Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.” (p. 227)
- Lewis uses evolution to illustrate the kind of transformation he’s talking about, which I find interesting. I didn’t mention it during the summary, but he even brings up that cosmic rays are responsible for a small percentage of the mutations that provide the raw material that makes evolution work. He also mentions that there are educated people who doubt evolution, which I guess is the concession that allows him to be taken as seriously by the modern Christian apologetic community as he is, since many modern Christian apologists reject evolution outright.
- Lewis says that these New Men, these transformed Christians, aren’t like the religious people we meet in our everyday lives. Does that mean they won’t try to proselytize to me, talking to me about God and Jesus as though I’m a six year-old with no thoughts of my own on the subject? Because if that’s the case, I wish there were more Christians like them and fewer of the Ray Comfort variety.
- So here we are at the end of Mere Christianity. It began with a protracted presentation of the moral argument, and it ends with a restatement of Christian misanthropy and self-loathing. Your desires, your thoughts, even your very self — these things are the enemy. These things must be done away with and replaced with what God wants for you. I’ve said before that this kind of Christianity tells us that we are worthless without God, but reading these final chapters I realize it’s even worse than that — we don’t even have our true selves without God. Not just our worth, but our identity, the very essence of our being is tied inextricably to God. Christopher Hitchens used to criticize the Christian worldview by describing the universe it posited as a celestial dictatorship. But as Lewis tells it, it’s even worse than that — not only are we under the authority of an omnipotent and omnipresent being, not only is there no such thing as privacy, there is also no such thing as freedom, even within our own minds. If we reject God and think for ourselves, we wind up suffering eternal torment, and if we accept God and give ourselves to him, he will fundamentally transform who we are, he will rewire our brains — he will lobotomize us. Being yourself, being who you are and being allowed to decide for yourself who you should be, is not an option in the Christian universe. Again I ask, why would anyone want this to be true?
- Lewis’s presentation is skilled and articulate. He comes off as a likable guy, and his abilities as a writer and communicator are a breath of fresh air after analyzing the prose of Lee fucking Strobel for four months, believe me. But most of what he writes here amounts to attractively packaged assertions with no evidence to back them up. Even his references to the Bible, as shitty a foundation for understanding reality as that is, are few and far between. It seems to mostly come directly from Lewis’s imagination, and while I have no doubt that it was a nimble imagination, I see no reason to regard it as a source of objective truth about anything.
- Lewis often talks about Christianity as being a religion of facts. But most of the facts he discusses in Mere Christianity are things he could not possibly know. Lewis titled his book Mere Christianity because he meant it to be a description of the essential faith, not any particular school or denomination. Another title with the same meaning might have been Simple Christianity. And while simple can mean uncomplicated, it can also mean unsophisticated. And when I cut through the cleverness and occasional elegance of Lewis’s presentation, I see that simple, in that second sense, is precisely what this is.
Next: William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith