XFiles: The myth of “mere Christianity”July 4, 2010 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, preface)
I’ve got a few books in my queue now, but I think the book I’d like to tackle next is Mere Christianity, by C. S. Lewis. It’s a logical next step, because Lewis is one of the people who helped define the modern, evangelical Christianity that Geisler and Turek were mere apologists for. It also doesn’t hurt that Lewis is a higher calibre of thinker, which may spare us some of the groaners G&T laid on us with distressing regularity.
Of course, Lewis is going to have his own set of quirks. The first page of the preface, for instance, consists of Lewis explaining how the contents of the book were originally given on the radio, and how the first printed edition used contractions and italics to capture the informal feel of the original talks. It says a lot about his personality that he feels the need to explain to us why contractions and italics were a mistake, and how the new edition expands all the contractions and rephrases the sentences to emphasize the ideas without the use of italics.
Never fear, though: this book isn’t going to be a tedious lecture on the fine points of grammar and typography. After this initial fussiness, he jumps right in to what I think may be a core problem in the whole book. And, sad to say, he doesn’t seem to notice that it’s a problem.
The goal of Mere Christianity is surprisingly similar to that of Colson’s The Faith: to unite Christians around a common core set of beliefs. Where Colson’s approach was inspired largely by his conservative political agenda, though, Lewis’ goal is more strictly evangelical. He believes, or wants to believe, in a fundamental unity of the Body of Christ (i.e. the Church), that both underpins and transcends the doctrinal and denominational diversity that have been part of the religion since the apostles’ first squabbles.
The reader should be warned that I offer no help to anyone who is hesitating between two Christian ‘denominations’. You will not learn from me whether you ought to become an Anglican, a Methodist, a Presbyterian, or a Roman Catholic. This omission is intentional… Ever since I became a Christian I have thought that the best, perhaps the only, service I could do for my unbelieving neighbours was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.
And this is where things begin, very subtly, to go wrong. In setting out to “explain and defend” a consistent belief (singular) that has been “common to nearly all Christians at all times,” Lewis must first assume that such a thing exists. It’s understandable that he would make this assumption. Truth is consistent with itself, and therefore Christianity cannot be based on the truth unless it is based on some core, self-consistent body of doctrine that defines it. Underneath all the controversy, there must surely be something we could call “mere Christianity” that’s just the plain truth about God without all the inconsistency and mutual contradictions of denominationalism.
The problem is that, in fact, the self-consistent core is what’s missing from Christianity. As Lewis himself observes:
There are questions at issue between Christians to which I do not think we have been told the answer. There are some to which I may never know the answer: if I asked them, even in a better world, I might (for all I know) be answered as a far greater questioner was answered: ‘What is that to thee? Follow thou Me.’
The reason Lewis cannot find answers, and thinks it possible that he may never know the answers, is that the questions have to do with why some very clear and authoritative Christian teachings say one thing, while equally clear and authoritative Christian teachings say something irreconcilably contrary. Of course, such observations are unsurprising if you are willing to consider that Christianity is merely an imperfect myth arising from the confused superstitions and misperceptions of men. For Lewis, though, these are mysteries that “ought never to be treated except by real experts.”
Lewis sees very clearly that these internal inconsistencies and mutual contradictions make a poor argument for Christianity as The Truth About God.
I think we must admit that the discussion of these disputed points has no tendency at all to bring an outsider into the Christian fold. So long as we write and talk about them we are more likely to deter him from entering any Christian communion than to draw him into our own. Our divisions should never be discussed except in the presence of those who have already come to believe that there is one God and that Jesus Christ is His only Son.
The inconsistencies of Christian teaching are solid evidence that Christianity arises from fallible human sources rather than from infallible and divine inspiration. The solution Lewis proposes, however, is not that we should reconsider Christian claims about the Gospel, but that Christians should seek to hide the problem until after the potential convert has bought into the faith. And he sees nothing at all dishonest in this advice: he’s merely being pragmatic. People need to be converted to Christ; open discussion of Christian issues prevents people from converting; therefore we need to suppress open discussion, QED.
To be fair, Lewis’ position is not entirely unjustified. Consider, for example, the way creationists exploit disagreements between scientists as a means of discrediting evolutionary science in toto. Is it unfair to suggest that discussion of complex, subtle, theological issues ought to be restricted to those who have the background to properly understand subtle and complex theology? Not necessarily.
On the other hand, not all of it is about fine points of esoteric and theoretical issues. For example, where is a believer supposed to turn for answers to questions about the faith? Is the Bible the sole authority for Christian faith and practice, or did God appoint a local presbyter (aka “presbyter” aka “prester” aka “priest”) to serve as His designated representative via a hierarchical chain of command culminating in an infallible Pope? That’s a rather practical, down-to-earth everyday example, and you’ll get different answers from Catholics and Protestants. (Ask an Eastern Orthodox while you’re at it!)
Do you have to be baptized to be saved? Seems like a question whose answer ought to be reliable, but again, you get different answers depending on who you ask. Catholic? Orthodox? Protestant? Which Protestant? Different denominations have a different answer yet again. Does the Holy Spirit indwell believers, and manifest His charismatic gifts, in modern times as He (allegedly) did in the past? Should we listen to messages that come from via utterances and interpretations? Again, depends on which Protestant (or even which Catholic!) you ask.
If Jesus was God, and he prayed “not my will, but Thine be done,” which of those two wills was God’s will? How can Jesus be God, and yet his will is not God’s will? Or how can God’s will be contrary to God’s will, such that you can pray “not [God's] will, but [God's] will be done”? Or if Jesus has two wills, a human will and a divine will, which one is “Jesus’ will”? Here you’ll have a harder time getting a consistent answer from any Christian, and it starts to verge on the esoteric. But these are some of the fundamental inconsistencies in the very nature of what Christians believe about who God is, as well as about the relationship between Jesus and God. If Jesus is not divine (and thus not possessed of infinite virtue etc), then can you make the doctrine of Redemption work? Can one mere mortal human life atone for all of the sins of all mankind?
The reason so many divisions, denominations, and doctrinal disputes exist within the Christian framework is because Christianity is fundamentally flawed and inconsistent at its core. Wise and rational men, like C. S. Lewis, realize that Christianity needs a self-consistent core if it is to be a genuine Truth, and so they make it self-consistent by a process of rationalization: sifting through the contradictions, and finding redefinitions and collateral assumptions that can be added to produce something more plausible. It’s almost a quantum phenomenon: by observing “mere Christianity,” you collapse the multiple conflicting possibilities into something that (in your own perception at least) is more solid.
The problem, of course, is that where genuine quantum phenomena collapse into a common, objective reality, the theological equivalent only exists within the minds of the men who conceive them—and these “realities” frequently conflict. There may be some shared perceptions among small groups of people with similar personalities, backgrounds, cultures, biases, politics, and so on. But the fundamental differences still arise, and still produce denominational (and non-denominational) divisions within the Church.
Lewis’ goal is commendable: he wants to take an objective view of Christian faith, and to present the core beliefs of Christianity without bias or partisanship.
I am not writing to expound something I could call ‘my religion’, but to expound ‘mere’ Christianity, which is what it is and what it was long before I was born and whether I like it or not.
Despite this noble goal, and indeed because of it, he is going to fail. “Mere” Christianity is a myth, a “truth” that isn’t there. In the process of trying to collapse the superimposed assumptions, interpretations and superstitions of historic believers into a solid, self-consistent belief common to all, he is inevitably going to reduce it along the lines that seem most reasonable to his own preconceptions and preferences. In the process, he’s going to create a subtly new Christianity for millions of Western believers—his religion, whether he calls it that or not. And, like countless believers before him, he won’t even know he’s done it.