Monday, August 4, 2008

Nothing "Mere" About It!

Mere Chistianity is divided into 4 books: 1. Right & Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe, 2. What Christians Believe, 3. Christian Behavior, and 4. Beyond Personality: Or First Steps in the Doctrine of the Trinity.

In Book 1, Lewis strikes an early, direct blow against relativistic thinking: "If anyone will take the time to compare the moral teaching of, say the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinesese, Greeks and Romans, what will really strike him will be how very like they are to each other and to our own" (p. 6). There are basic, universal moral standards: "men find themselves under a moral law, which they did not make, and cannot quite forget even when they try, and which they know they ought to obey" (p.23). "I am under a law; that somebody or something wants me to behave in a certain way" (p. 25). Who but God wrote this law on my heart?

Personally, I've never met anyone who denied that Jesus was a great moral teacher. Yet, in one way or another, plenty of people try to deny His Divinity. In Book 2, Lewis tries "to prevent the really foolish thing that people often say about Him. `I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God'....A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic [sic]...or else he would be the Devil of Hell" (p. 52). Along these very same lines, Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli present the options as "Lord, Lunatic, or Liar." "Now the Christian belief is that if we somehow share the humility and suffering of Christ we shall also share in His conquest of death and find a new life after we have died and in it become perfect, and perfectly happy creatures. This means something much more than our trying to follow His teaching" (p. 60).

In contrast to any notion that God's law is intrusive, oppressive, or stifling, Lewis starts 1943's Book 3 with the reminder that "moral rules are directions for running the human machine" (p. 69). Explaining the "cardinal virtues" (i.e., prudence, fortitude, justice, and temperance), he notes that "a man who perseveres in doing just actions gets in the end a certain quality of character. Now it is that quality rather than the particular actions which we mean when we talk of a `virtue'" (p. 80). Book 3 closes with chapters devoted to forgiveness and pride, as well as the "theological virtues" of faith, hope, and charity.

Considering that Lewis was a member of the Church of England, which had approved limited contraceptive use in 1930, much of his commentary on sexual morality is prophetic: "Contraceptives have made sexual indulgence far less costly in marriage and far safer outside it than ever before, and public opinion is less hostile to illicit unions and even to perversion than it has been since Pagan times....Christianity is almost [sic] the only one of the great religions which thoroughly approves of the body - which believes that matter is good, that God Himself once took on a body, that some kind of body is going to be given to us even in Heaven....Christianity has glorified marriage more than any other religion: and nearly all the greatest love poetry in the world has been produced by Christians. If anyone says that sex, in itself, is bad, Christianity contradicts him at once" (pp. 97, 98). "We may, indeed, be sure that perfect chastity - like perfect charity - will not be attained by any merely human efforts. You must ask for God's help....those who are seriously attempting chastity are more conscious, and soon know a great deal more about their own sexuality than anyone else....Virtue - even attempted virtue - brings light; indulgence brings fog" (pp. 101, 102).

I say that "much of his commentary on sexual morality is prophetic," because Lewis also offered some well-intentioned, yet poorly thought out, comments on marriage and sexuality:
* "If people do not believe in permanent marriage, it is perhaps better that they should live together unmarried than they should make vows that they do not mean to keep" (p. 106).
* "There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the Church with rules enforced by her on her own members" (p. 112).
I am among those who believe that, had Lewis lived longer, he would have embraced the fullness of the Truth which resides in Catholicism. How much his works would have been enhanced, were they informed by our generation's Catechism of the Catholic Church or the Compendium of the Catechism!

In book 4, Lewis acknowledges the attraction of "a vague religion - all about feeling God in nature, and so on" (p. 155). He warns that such touchy-feely, pseudo-religion cannot lead to "eternal life by simply feeling the presence of God in flowers or music....a great many of the ideas about God which are trotted out as novelties today are simply the ones which real Theologians tried centuries ago and rejected" (p. 155). "If Christianity was something we were making up, of course we could make it easier. But it is not. We cannot compete, in simplicity, with people who are inventing religions. How could we? We are dealing with Fact." "The more we get what we now call `ourselves' out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become....It is when I turn to Christ, when I give myself up to His personality, that I first begin to have a real personality of my own....How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints....submit with every fiber of your being, and you will find eternal life" (pp. 225 - 227).

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