An Atheist Reads Mere Christianity
Book Four: Beyond Personality: Or First Steps in the Doctrine of the Trinity (Ch. 1-6)
Chapter 1: Making and Begetting
- Lewis claims that he has been warned not to write about theology, because the ordinary reader isn’t interested in theology, but in “plain practical religion.” Lewis disagrees, since “theology” means “science of God,” and Lewis thinks people who think about God would like to have to have the most accurate ideas about him. “You are not children: why should you be treated like children?” (C.S. Lewis, MERE CHRISTIANITY, p. 153)
- Lewis addresses the argument he has heard from Christians, that theology is of no use to them because they have personal experiences with God. He cites an old R.A.F. officer who once told him he had felt God out in the desert, and found the dogmas of theology to be “petty and pedantic” by comparison. Lewis compares such personal experiences with standing on the beach looking at the Atlantic Ocean, and theology with a map of the Atlantic Ocean. Beholding the ocean in person certainly feels much more real than reading the map, but the beach offers an incomplete view of the ocean, and the map is necessary if you ever hope to go anywhere.
- “In other words, Theology is practical.” (p. 155)
- Lewis says that knowledge of theology is especially important in the modern age, when everyone reads and hears things discussed. Without a good knowledge of theology, it will be difficult to sort the good ideas about God from the bad ones.
- Lewis says that there is more to Christianity than simply admiring Jesus and believing we’d all be better off to follow his advice. Christianity makes specific claims, most notably that Christ is the Son of God, that those who believe in him can also become Sons of God, and that the death of Christ saved us from our sins.
- Lewis addresses what it means to be called a Son of God through acceptance of Christ. Afterall, aren’t people already God’s children? Lewis explains the difference between being a child of God in this sense and a child of God as Christ is by defining the difference between being made by God (as we are) and being begotten by God (as Christ is). Human beings are made by God, which means we are different from God — Lewis compares us to statues made in the shape of God, but not the same thing as God. Jesus, on the other hand, is the begotten Son of God, and therefore like God, just as a human child is like its human parents.
- Lewis defines two types of life: Bios, the biological life that all living things experience, and Zoe, the spiritual life that can only be had through a relationship with God. Transitioning from Bios to Zoe, Lewis says, is analogous to a statue becoming a real man. “And that is precisely what Christianity is about. This world is a great sculptor’s shop. We are the statues and there is a rumour going round the shop that some of us are osme day going to come to life.” (p. 159)
- Lewis says that theology is practical in this chapter. Is there a less practical field of study than theology?
- Lewis’s analogy comparing personal religious experience to standing on the beach and theology to a map of the ocean is very clever — again, he’s very skilled at illustrating his points, at framing his arguments to his advantage. But here’s what’s wrong with it: the Atlantic Ocean is really there. If you and I both go to the same beach at the same time, and we look in the same direction, we’re going to be looking at the same thing. And if we talk about what we saw later, we’re probably going to largely agree about what we saw — the color of the sky and the water, what the weather was like, how many boats we saw on the water, etc. Your experience standing on the beach staring at the Atlantic will probably be nearly identical to the experiences of millions of other people, and if you’re a reasonably articulate person you’ll be able to describe that experience in very precise language. If the actual experience differs from your expectations — for instance, if you expected the water to be orange instead of blue, for some reason — you’ll be able to recognize and describe the differences. You won’t have to resort to words like “vague” or “mysterious.” You won’t say you felt like you were in the presence of the Atlantic Ocean. You’ll be able to describe what it was like. Likewise, if two cartographers set out independently to chart the Atlantic Ocean, the maps they create will probably look pretty much the same. And thanks to modern technology we can also compare their maps to satellite photographs of what the Atlantic Ocean really looks like. There are not thousands of different maps of the Atlantic Ocean that disagree on crucial details of where the ocean is, or what the ocean looks like. All of this is possible because the Atlantic Ocean is real, it exists objectively in our reality, it can be observed independently by different people, and those observations can be compared to ensure we have as true and accurate an understanding of the Atlantic Ocean — both as seen from the beach and as viewed in total on a map — as our senses and our technology will allow. You can’t say that about God.
- I guess what I’m trying to say is, when you think about it, it’s actually kind of a shitty analogy Lewis is drawing here.
Chapter 2: The Three-Personal God
- Lewis introduces the subject of the trinity by delving further into his explanation of what it means for God to beget a son in the person of Christ. Lewis describes God as being a personal God, but beyond merely a person. He also claims that the Christian religion is the only source of ideas for what a being beyond personality would be like. “If you were looking for something super-personal, something more than a person, then it is not a question of choosing between the Christian idea and the other ideas. The Christian idea is the only one on the market.” (p. 160)
- Christians are also the only people who have a concept of how human souls can be simultaneously absorbed into the life of God, while still remaining individuals. Being taken into the life of God while remaining ourselves — in fact, becoming more of ourselves than ever before — is the whole purpose of our existence, Lewis says.
- Lewis compares our world to God’s world by comparing two-dimensional figures to three-dimensional figures. Adding a dimension doesn’t destroy that which exists in the lower dimensions; it merely adds to them and allows them to combine in new ways. “In God’s dimension, so to speak, you find a being who is three Persons while remaining one Being, just as a cube is six squares while remaining one cube.” (p. 162)
- Lewis says we cannot imagine such a being fully, because we don’t exist in his dimension. And there is no good trying to talk about him, because the point isn’t to talk about him, but to enter into that life with him — a process that can begin immediately, if we wish.
- Lewis defines the three-person God like this: When a Christian prays, he is praying to God. But the force that is prompting him to pray is also God. And his knowledge of God comes through the Man who was God (Christ). God is the goal, the motivation, and the road leading to the goal.
- “This definition is not something we have made up; Theology is, in a sense, an experimental science. It is simple religions that are the made-up ones.” (p. 164)
- Lewis compares theology to studying another person — if the other person chooses not to reveal himself to you, it will be difficult to learn about him. In the same way, God must reveal himself to us in order for us to know him. God does show more of himself to some people than to others, but this is the fault of the people, not of God’s — it is impossible for God to show himself to people whose minds or characters are not in the right condition. “Just as sunlight, though it has no favorites, cannot be reflected in a dusty mirror as clearly as in a clean one. . . . That is why horrible nations have horrible religions: they have been looking at God through a dirty lens.” (pp. 164-165)
- The scientific instrument for studying God, according to Lewis, is the Christian community, all united in brotherhood and waiting for God together. Christianity could have been simpler if it had been invented, Lewis says: “But it is not. We cannot compete, in simplicity, with people who are inventing religions. How could we? We are dealing with Fact. Of course anyone can be simple if he has no facts to bother about.” (p. 165)
- Let’s rewind to the start of the chapter, because I find it stunning that Lewis would assert that Christianity is the only religion that has any ideas about what the character of God is like. You don’t even have to go that far from Christianity — Judaism and Islam, the other two Abrahamic religions, are centered around a God that is just as powerful and super-personal as the Christian God, and yet is very different in character. Jews and Muslims don’t believe in a triune god, they don’t regard Jesus as a begotten son of God, they have various doctrinal disagreements with Christianity — to claim, as Lewis does, that there are no competing ideas with Christianity for what God is like is ludicrous, especially since Lewis acknowledges the existence of other faiths and other concepts of God in this book.
- As for the rest of this chapter, the description of God’s three-person nature, the analogy of God living in a higher dimension than we do, the trinity being the result of the experimental science of theology and not simply an invention, God being unable to reveal himself to people whose characters make them dusty mirrors, so to speak — it can be stopped dead in its tracks by that pesky question I’ve asked before in this series: How do you know? The dimension analogy is very clever — God is three persons in one being just as a cube is six squares arranged to form a single object. It’s a great description, very clear, very effective in illustrating the point — but how do you know it’s the truth? Where are you starting from, and where are you going from there?
Chapter 3: Time and Beyond Time
- Lewis advises us to skip this chapter if we don’t find it helpful. (How we’re supposed to know that before reading it, or even learning what the chapter is about, I’m not sure.)
- In the opening of this chapter, Lewis deals with prayer, specifically with how God is able to hear and respond to millions and millions of prayers simultaneously. This is possible, Lewis argues, because God is not in time as we are. He does not experience one moment after the next in a linear fashion as we do. “If a million people are praying to Him at ten-thirty tonight, He need not listen to them all in that one little snippet which we call ten-thirty. Ten-thirty — and every other moment from the beginning of the world — is always the Present for Him.” (p. 167)
- He also compares God to the author of a novel, free to pay as much attention to his characters as he wants without that amount of time being noticed by the characters themselves.
- This also explains how the universe, which Christians believe is sustained by the will of God, was able to keep running while God was on Earth in the person of Christ. God was not absent from anywhere else while he was incarnated as Christ, because God is able to exist in every place and every time in our universe, because he lives completely outside of it, and outside of all time, everywhere.
- This concept also explains how people have free will even though God knows everything that will happen to us: from God’s perspective there is no “before” and “after”. Nothing is “going to happen” to us, and nothing “has happened” to us. To God, it is all happening. Every moment that is past, present or future for us, is now for God.
- If this idea is not helpful to you, Lewis advises, disregard it. It is not in the Bible or any of the Christian writings, he admits, and you can be a perfectly fine Christian without believing it, or thinking about this subject at all.
- Again, the question of how Lewis knows any of this is true comes up right away, but he sort of acknowledges that himself at the end of the chapter when he says it’s not in the Bible, it’s not taught by the church, really, it’s just something he made up.
- Naturally, since it isn’t an idea necessary to Christianity, it’s one of the most fascinating concepts dealt with in the book. I remember having some deep — or, we thought they were deep — conversations about God and eternity with friends when I was a teenager, and this was one of our favorite subjects. If God was truly eternal, if he had always existed and he was completely removed from our timeline, then he could see everything all at once. It’s as if he has a diorama of the entire history of the universe, with the big bang on one end and the end of the universe, whatever that turns out to be, on the other, and every single moment of time that elapses and every event that takes place everywhere during those moments, in between.
- It’s a really mind-blowing concept when you think about it, and we used to have some pretty out-there conversations using ideas like this as the jumping-off point. For instance, I once thought, if God is outside of time, then we’re outside of time, too, once we die and exist in the afterlife. So that means we can see history in the same way God does, all at once, like that diorama. So what if there were such a thing as reincarnation, but you could be reincarnated not just as another person, but at any period in history? Like, what if you die, and you go to Heaven, and then you’re reborn into another life, but you’re George Washington? This is the sort of bullshit my friends and I came up with trying to pass the time. Nowadays my friends and I mostly get drunk and talk about movies when we hang out, which is a lot of fun, too.
- Anyway, none of that makes me believe in a god, none of that compels me to believe in a god, but it’s a very big, fascinating idea and it led me to some fun conversations. And it gives you a concept of God that is much bigger, much more wondrous than anything in the Bible. The God of the Bible is puny and provincial and not very impressive at all compared to the God Lewis is talking about in this chapter, and that my buddies and I talked about in my basement when we were in high school.
Chapter 4: Good Infection
- Lewis begins by asking us to hold a picture in our minds: two books lying, one atop the other, on a table. The two books have been on this table, in this arrangement, forever. This means that, while the book on top owes its position to the book on the bottom, the result (the position of the top book) did not come after the cause (the position of the bottom book). Lewis describes this picture to illustrate that results don’t always come after causes.
- Lewis uses this to explain that the three-persons of God have always been there, that one did not come first, followed by the others. “The Son exists because the Father exists: but there never was a time before the Father produced the Son.” (p. 173)
- The multi-person being of God is also what allows the phrase “God is love” to make sense, since love is something one person has for another, and a single being cannot be the embodiment of love unless there are people to love. And Christians believe that the activity of love has been going on forever, within God.
- Christians also believe that their God is not a static being, but a dynamic, living thing which Lewis likens to a dance. The relationship between the Father and the Son is so alive that it, itself, is also a person. Lewis likens this to the feeling of the “spirit” that exists between people who have relationships with one another, the shared behavior that only exists when the individuals come together. “What grows out of the joint life of the Father and the Son is a real Person, is in fact the Third of the three Persons who are God.” (p. 175)
- Lewis cautions us not to be alarmed if we find this third person, the Holy Ghost, to be less concrete than the other two — this is how it must be, Lewis reckons, since we don’t usually think of this person directly. Rather, the Holy Ghost is always acting through us. It is the love of God working through men.
- Getting this concept right matters, says Lewis, because the drama of the three persons of God is supposed to be played out within each of us all the time. It is the only way we will ever attain the joy and peace and happiness we are meant to experience. “They are not a sort of prize which God would, if He chose, just hand out to anyone. They are a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very centre of reality. If you are close to it, the spray will wet you: if you are not, you will remain dry.” (p. 176)
- So how do we get close to the fountain? How can we be taken into the three-person life of God? Through Christ, Lewis says. Remember, we are only statues made by God, not begotten by God — we have Bios, not Zoe. The only way for us to enter into Zoe is through sharing in the life of Christ, a life which was begotten by God, not made. In this way, we become children of God just as Christ is. Christ came into this world to spread his kind of life to other men — the “good infection” of the chapter title. “Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.” (p. 177)
- I feel like I’m about to repeat myself here, but so be it: Lewis’s explanation of the relationship between the Father and the Son, and of how the Holy Ghost emerges from that relationship as a third person is really clever and a very effective illustration. I feel like I understand Lewis’s concept of the trinity now. Very well done. And since I still have no reason to believe that it has anything to do with reality, it’s utterly meaningless.
- Also: I agree with Lewis that Christianity is an infection, but not that it is a good infection. Hey! Next chapter!
Chapter 5: The Obstinate Toy Soldiers
- Lewis says that we don’t know how things would have gone if humanity had not rebelled against God. Perhaps, in that case, everyone would have naturally been a little Christ and would have shared in the life of God from the moment they were born. But who knows? Lewis says that we are concerned not with how things might have been, but with how they are now.
- The two kinds of life, Bios and Zoe, are not only very different, Lewis says, but in opposition to one another. The natural life is self-centered and encourages us to be self-centered and to want to be left to our own devices. It wants nothing to do with anything that makes it feel small, so it fears the spiritual world.
- Pursuing this point further, Lewis asks if we ever imagined our toys coming to life when we were children. What if our tin soldiers were made into real little men, and resented it because they didn’t want flesh, they wanted tin? What if they fought you, and resisted being made into real men? This is how humans react to being made like God, Lewis says. And how God dealt with our obstinacy was to send Christ into the world as one of us, to give us an example of the sort of people we were always supposed to be. The natural man became a part of the divine man. He even chose to die, to illustrate for us the necessity of “killing” our natural life in order to join fully with the divine life. “For the first time we saw a real man. One tin soldier — real tin, just like the rest — had come fully and splendidly alive.” (p. 180)
- Humans differ from toy soldiers, however, in that humans are all part of each other. We appear to be separate, but we all were once part of our parents, and through them of our grandparents, etc., etc. And not only are we thus connected to each other, but also to God, because it is only through God’s will that we continue to live and breathe.
- Therefore, when Christ became man, he wasn’t merely becoming one man, he was entering into this common humanity and creating an effect that touched people that lived both before and after his earthly life. And that effect was to complete the work of turning from a made thing into a begotten thing for us. Thanks to Christ, we don’t have to climb up ourselves into the spiritual life; through Christ, the spiritual life has come down to us. “One of our own race has this new life: if we get close to Him we shall catch it from Him.” (p. 181)
- Lewis says that the various ways of describing the work of Christ — “died for our sins,” “God forgave us because of what Christ has done,” “washed in the blood of the lamb” — are all fine to say and are all true enough, and that the worst thing would be to insist that one way of describing it is better than another, and to quarrel with fellow Christians who describe the same thing in another way.
- Now, I realize that Lewis says early on that we should focus more on how things are than on speculating what things would be like if Adam and Eve hadn’t violated a local ordinance in the Garden of Eden. But something nags me about his hypothetical scenario of what life would be like without the rebellion in the garden — before the rebellion, presumably Adam and Eve were living in this Zoe type state. Their sins had not separated them from God, so shouldn’t they have been little Christs at that point? And doesn’t the fact that they chose to violate God’s rules and rebel against him demonstrate that this spiritual life in the presence of God isn’t all Lewis is cracking it up to be? I mean, if they existed in the ideal state already, if they were like Christ already, why weren’t they satisfied? And if the first two people ever, who were born into that Zoe life, who had never known anything else, weren’t satisfied with it, why should we want it?
- Before I move on to the next chapter, let me touch on this idea of life apart from God being self-centered, since Lewis brings it up here. This is a charge atheists hear all the time when talking with theists. I heard it from shockofgod during a debate I had with him recently. Atheists, people who reject the supernatural and the existence of gods, are selfish, self-centered people. We think the world revolves around us, and we refuse to admit that God, something greater than ourselves, exists because that would diminish us and force us to admit that we are under his authority.
- I find this claim to be bullshit, and I also find it incredibly condescending. We atheists just don’t understand what true humility is, not like Christians do, because we just can’t humble ourselves before God like they can. And admittedly, if you take a very superficial, narrow view of life in an atheistic universe, you can see it in purely selfish terms. We exist in order to survive and to pass on our genes to our offspring — biologically speaking, that is our sole purpose, and that can be seen as a very selfish existence. Yes, we humans are social animals and yes, we do better when we work together, we’ve evolved to work together and to live together, so we’re not made for individual selfishness in that way, but in a sense our lives do totally revolve around ourselves — not just our selves as individuals, but also our collective self, as a species. And a Christian might say, yes, and our lives as Christians revolve not around ourselves at all, but around God — and see how unselfish that makes us? We’re never to consider ourselves first, always God and what he wants from us.
- But let’s look at this from the other end of the telescope, as Aimee Mann and Elvis Costello might say: while our lives might revolve around ourselves as atheists, let’s look at the universe in which we live out those lives. Does it revolve around us? Does it even know we’re here? Theists who accuse atheists of refusing to acknowledge anything greater than ourselves always seem to forget about the entire fucking universe, which is as greater than ourselves as anything could be. And contrast that with the Christian view. Sure, our lives are supposed to revolve around God, but what about all this? This planet, our solar system, our galaxy, the universe in all its vastness — if you’re a Christian (or at least, if you are a particular type of Christian commonly found in the United States), you believe that all of this was created for us, for our benefit. They might say it’s here to help us better know God, they might say it’s here to make us into the kind of people God wants us to be — whatever, it’s still here for us. So let’s think about who’s really more arrogant. Is it the atheist, whose life revolves around himself and his fellow humans (and also his fellow non-human creatures on Earth), but who believes in a universe so vast that his life is of no cosmic importance whatsoever? Or is it the Christian, who claims to be living his life in the service of God, but who also believes that that same vast universe exists for our benefit?
- I know which one seems more arrogant to me. But then again, I’ve framed the argument to favor my position. See — Lewis isn’t the only one who can do that!
Chapter 6: Two Notes
- Note one on the previous chapter: If God wanted sons instead of toy soldiers, why didn’t he beget more sons rather than making all of us toy soldiers and then laying this difficult path from one type of life to another in front of us? Lewis’s response: the reason the process of changing from a made creature into a begotten son through Christ is so difficult is because humanity turned away from God long ago. Additionally, Lewis has trouble with the concept that God could have had more than one begotten son, since “could have been” suggests that God, the ultimate fact of reality, could have been different than he is. But to Lewis, God is what he is and that is it. It is no good hypothesizing about what God would be like if he were different, because he wouldn’t be different.
- Additionally, for the Father to have begotten many Sons rather than just one, space and time would be required (otherwise the many begotten Sons would not be any different from each other — they must occupy different space and be made of different stuff for that to happen), and God exists beyond space and time.
- The second note is for Lewis to point out that, when he says the human race is connected, like one big organism, he does not mean to say that individual differences don’t matter, or that individuals are always less important than collections of people. Christianity sees people not just as members of a group, but as individual organs in a single body — unique, but also contributing toward the whole in a unique way. Lewis cautions against wanting to make children and friends and neighbors into people exactly like you, since this probably isn’t what God wants. By the same token, however, also beware of thinking that other people are not your business, because even though another person is different from you, he is also still part of the same organism as you. “If you forget that he belongs to the same organism as yourself you will become an Individualist. If you forget that he is a different organ from you, if you want to suppress differences and make people all alike, you will become a Totalitarian. But a Christian must not be either a Totalitarian or an Individualist.” (p. 186)
- Both errors — Totalitarianism and Individualism — are equally to be avoided, Lewis says. If we were to spend time trying to decide whether one was worse than the other, we would be playing into the Devil’s hands, since he works by presenting us with two errors and them slowly drawing us into one by making us think the other is worse.
- Hey, a point of agreement, sort of. It’s always nice to end on a positive note, so here’s an area of commonality between Lewis and myself. Lewis says a Christian must be neither a Totalitarian nor an Individualist, and if you remove this very sensible concept from the completely nonsensical context of Christianity and state it as “people must be neither Totalitarians nor Individualists,” then I couldn’t agree more. And I also agree that both extremes are equally dangerous. Of course, unlike Lewis, I couldn’t give a shit less about how adhering to either of these two extremes affects your relationship with an imaginary god — I’m more concerned with how they affect our communities, our civilizations, and our species as a whole — I think getting right with each other is a little more important than getting right with someone who doesn’t exist and would be a huge prick if he did.
Next: Book Four: Beyond Personality: Or First Steps in the Doctrine of the Trinity (Ch. 7-11)