XFiles: The myth of “mere Christianity”

(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.

 
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Posted in Unapologetics, XFiles. 12 Comments »

12 Responses to “XFiles: The myth of “mere Christianity””

  1. mikespeir Says:

    Oh boy! I’m looking forward to this.

  2. Korou Says:

    I must admit, I wasn’t too enthusiastic when I saw this was the book you’d decided to do (not my favourite book; and have you seen the Atheism is Freedom website lengthy review?) – but after reading that first post, I am definitely looking forward to it. Thank you again!

  3. Hunt Says:

    I look forward to this as well, if only because Lewis has been represented as a kind of paragon of Christian intellectual virtue. I read MC a few years ago and even my cursory inspection turned up some frightfully naive arguments. Lewis is at his worst when he’s moralizing, especially because his morals are thoroughly Victorian, along with the boatload of concomitant racism and typical Christian paranoia over purity. He very often resorts to sketchy intuition — the trilemma, as you know, is a joke of an argument.

    Anyway, looking forward to it with bated breath. You are taking on the holiest of holies.

  4. Nathan Says:

    I’m not sure why Professor Lewis’s commentary discussing the changes he made (remove contractions, alter punctuation) are telling of his personality – I read that simply as his saying that although the informal presentation worked well for the radio addresses, it was not so well suited for a book. Having realized that, and wanting to make his case as strongly as he can, he has recast his content to better fit his media. The apologetic style is a period affectation, and I see no driving reason to read more into it than that. A scholar might want to delve into the public’s reception of the work, and see if the contemporary reviews of it commented negatively on that informal style.

    Other than that, the commentary looks excellent and … I’m much looking forward to see what someone else makes of ‘Mere Christianity’.

    Thanks,
    Nathan

  5. David D.G. Says:

    This series promises to be most enjoyable! Mere Christianity is the only apologetics book I’ve ever read, at least all the way through. Though I enjoyed the writing style, I found the “logic” that Lewis employs to be extremely naive. I’d had the book recommended to me by friends, family members, and others who obviously held Lewis’ arguments in high esteem and, indeed, considered them impossible to refute — which I found both astonishing and disturbing, because they were so simplistic.

    However, I appreciate that you are treating C.S. Lewis so respectfully here (at least so far!). However flawed his reasoning is in this book, from what little I know of him he seems to have been a basically decent man, and I would rather attribute his flawed reasoning to normal human self-deception rather than to deliberate disingenuousness (as is more obviously the case with such authors as, say, Geisler and Turek).

    ~David D.G.

  6. Sarah Says:

    Not looking promising so far. You claim your conclusion “It’s a confused myth arising from men” several times, then look for the evidence that would support that conclusion, find some then assert repeatedly that your conclusion is true without looking at any other possible explanations, or presenting any suggestion of a method of falsification for the conclusion you have already decided is true.

    Hope the next few posts improve on that.

  7. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Aha, a critic! Welcome, Sarah, glad to have you here. In my experience, critics provide me with a number of benefits: they challenge my thinking, they provide points of view that I might not have thought of, they give me a chance to explain points that may not have been clear, and they give me a chance to correct myself when I’ve been mistaken. So it’s no mere politeness when I say I’m glad to see you here.

    As to your comments, when I say Christianity is a confused myth arising from men, I am not drawing that conclusion from reading Mere Christianity. It’s a conclusion I’ve come to over the course of about 30 years of experience as a devout, Bible-believing evangelical Christian, Sunday school teacher, Bible study leader, lay preacher, and deacon. Plus what I’ve learned in the 10 years since, of course. My commentary on Lewis is naturally written from that perspective.

    As for falsifying my conclusion, that could be a bit trickier. When someone contradicts themselves, and you conclude that they are therefore not telling the truth, how would one go about falsifying that conclusion? Of course, my conclusions are falsifiable in that God could easily prove that Christianity was not a confused myth by the simple expedient of showing up to spend time with us in person, consistent with the great, humble, self-sacrificing love which He allegedly has for us. But then again, if real-world circumstances were consistent with Christianity being true, then I wouldn’t have drawn my conclusions in the first place, since I started out as a devout believer.

  8. Sarah Says:

    >”In my experience, critics provide me with a number of benefits: they challenge my thinking, they provide points of view that I might not have thought of, they give me a chance to explain points that may not have been clear, and they give me a chance to correct myself when I’ve been mistaken.”

    That’s a great attitude! I agree with you, I always hope to meet a staunch opponent against whom to test my arguments. Nothing bores me more than ‘debating’ things for more than five minutes with people who already agree with me. Nice to meet you.

    “My commentary on Lewis is naturally written from that perspective.”

    Unfortunately this may mean that your critique is just not for me. I’m happy with an argument that makes or uses that conclusion, as long as it is evidenced, but if you’re starting from that conclusion and then analysing from there, that’s less useful to me.

    “When someone contradicts themselves, and you conclude that they are therefore not telling the truth, how would one go about falsifying that conclusion?”

    In this case you would need to falsify “Those who contradict themselves are always lying”, which is easily done. Mistakes happen, obviously. Then you would need to falsify “Those who contradict themselves in this manner are lying often enough that it is safe for me to assume that they are lying”. That would be harder, but entirely possible. If the test you choose does not falsify your opinion, and is a suitable test, then you can safely believe that they are lying. But if anyone else falsifies your conclusion with a different test you would need to re-examine it.

    “Of course, my conclusions are falsifiable in that God could easily prove that Christianity was not a confused myth by the simple expedient of showing up to spend time with us in person, consistent with the great, humble, self-sacrificing love which He allegedly has for us.”

    Yes, that would be one way of falsifying your conclusion, but only one of many.
    I am not making a religious vs. atheist argument here, though, merely an evidential one.
    The conclusion “The inconsistencies of Christian teaching are solid evidence that Christianity arises from fallible human sources rather than from infallible and divine inspiration” is very overstated. There are plenty of other things this could be indicative of, thus it is not ‘solid’ evidence by many meaning of the word.*
    In fact, I think the evidence only supports the contention that “Christianity is promulgated and taught by fallible human sources”. Beyond that Christianity could be true or false, but either way you would see what we see now.

    It’s insufficient to show inconsistency in human beings to demonstrate the false nature of religion. We already know that humans are highly fallible, that doesn’t imply anything about the truth of any religion, unless you believe the hidden proposition “Any true religion would be kept pure by God”

    To put this point in a more formal way: Your conclusion can be restated as “It is impossible for a religion to be true if it is taught in an inconsistent manner”. This is easily falsified, many true things are taught inconsistently by fallible mistaken human beings. Then you can take “It is very unlikely for a religion to be true if it is taught in an inconsistent manner”, to which the question is: Why? As it stands that is a positive assertion, and thus requires evidence. I would contest, instead, that “It is very unlikely for a true religion to be taught in a consistent manner unless this is enforced by the Deity”, my evidence: people are fallible and inconsistent all over the place. That’s just what people do. Why would they be any different with truth unless something intervened?

    Sorry if I am diverting from what was originally a comment on your review to more of a comment on your a-priori conclusions about Christianity. My original point has been lost in this, which was that your review (so far) was not that good as you were just assuming a conclusion and justifying what you read in light of that. I was wrong, your review is useful, but only to atheists who believe that religion arose from confused myth making*. In that respect it’s as good as a Christian review of a book that uses the a-priori “True morality comes from God alone”. Sure it’s a useful review to those who agree already, but it’s damn useless for anyone else. (*And not say, the natural desire to make morality and history ‘official’ by writing it down, combined with the fact that the written word is has almost infinite plasticity and can be interpreted to mean any one of many many things.)

    p.s. In light of your first paragraph, I assume that neither of us will just assume that the other is stupid or evil merely because they persistantly disagree with us, even though we can quite clearly see why the other is wrong and are amazed that they don’t get it? I hope so.

  9. Sarah Says:

    ““When someone contradicts themselves, and you conclude that they are therefore not telling the truth, how would one go about falsifying that conclusion?”

    As evidence of the near-infinite plasticity of the written word, this is useful. My comment above replied to this taking “they are not telling the truth” to mean “they are lying”. You could alternatively have meant “the thing that they are saying is not true”, with no reference to them.

    If that is the case then it still depends what you mean by “they are not telling the truth”. If they are saying “this is all true” and some of it is contradictory, then they are wrong in their assertion that it is “all” true. The truth of the rest of it is still unproven.
    If someone were to assert “They contradict themselves, therefore we can assume that none of what they say is true”, that’s easily falsified: “The Earth is flat, the Earth is not flat”

    If you wish to say “Christianity is self contradictory therefore it is not true” then you need the hidden proposition “True religions would not be mistaken ever”

  10. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Your second reply comes closer to what I am saying. I begin with the premise that truth is consistent with itself. This is necessarily the case, because the only way we have to distinguish what is true from what is not true is by applying the test of consistency: that which is not consistent with the truth is, by definition, false. (By “truth” I mean real-world, objective truth, of course: that which exists independently of our perception of it and which we all experience in common.)

    This means we have two avenues by which we may evaluate the truth of what someone says, for in order to be genuine, real-world truth, a thing must be consistent both with itself and with the objective reality. That which contradicts itself is not truth, and that which is inconsistent with objective reality, whether or not it is self-consistent, is likewise false.

    Contradictions in the Bible are sufficient to falsify the claim that the Bible is infallible truth. I do not conclude from this that everything the Bible says, or that Christians believe, must necessarily be false. That would be silly! But here the Gospel story begins to unravel, because if the Bible is not infallible, then those who claim scriptural inerrancy are likewise not infallible. And so on.

    Once you realize that it is right and proper to evaluate the words of men (including the words of apostles) in the light of real-world evidence, it becomes fairly straightforward to show that, no matter how elaborate the reasonings and arguments of believers, the non-superstitious alternatives are more consistent with real-world truth. At that point it becomes fair to say, as a general principle, that Christianity is not The Truth. There may be things in the religion that are true (just as can be said for all religions), but you can’t take the religion’s word for it: you must evaluate each claim in the light of reality. And that ends up being more or less what I am trying to do with this series. ;)

  11. Deacon Duncan Says:

    My original point has been lost in this, which was that your review (so far) was not that good as you were just assuming a conclusion and justifying what you read in light of that.

    I disagree. My comments quite explicitly contrast Lewis’ superstitious explanation with a non-superstitious alternative. I begin with observations about the characteristics of sentient and instinctively social species, and how their conduct would be affected by an awareness of the consequences (including the social consequences) of their actions. If you wish to argue that intelligent beings would not normally be influenced by an awareness of the consequences of their actions, then you can dispute my claims on factual grounds. Or if you do not believe that such factors would give rise to the kind of social conventions that, in turn, produce the kinds of moral systems we see in real life, then by all means voice your objections.

    In the meantime, I am contrasting the two alternatives, and showing how Lewis’ superstitious alternative (a) is entirely superfluous and (b) has a number of inherent problems and self-contradictions, not to mention serious problems with the real-world evidence, which prevent us (or should prevent us) from taking it seriously as an intellectually viable possibility. Lewis’ answer is mere superstition: taking an observed phenomenon and giving credit for it to some supernatural power or person, without offering us any kind of verifiable connection between the two, and without even suggesting what such a connection ought to look like were we to go looking for it. That’s flawed reasoning, irrespective of what my or anyone else’s bias might be.

    My conclusion therefore, which I arrived at by comparing two conflicting alternatives in the light of real-world evidence, is that the non-superstitious alternative explains more than Lewis’ superstitious answer, is more consistent with the real-world evidence, lacks the internal inconsistencies that Lewis’ has, and is therefore much more likely to be true. If you wish to take issue with that conclusion, then you will have to address the specific points I raise, and not just make vague accusations.

  12. pboyfloyd Says:

    In the post, Deacon Duncan says, ” 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..”

    Sarah replies, “You claim your conclusion “It’s a confused myth arising from men” several times.

    Not true Sarah. he asks readers to ‘consider’ that notion one time, in this post.

    Seems to me Sarah, that you are a great wordsmith, perhaps better than the great C.S.Lewis himself with your awesome put down here.

    You’re likely right, in so far as this criticism of Lewis’ book won’t be your ‘cup of tea’. But, I think that you, implying that Deacon Duncan argue that Christianity is a myth, starting from scratch, (as if you cannot read his position through this entire blog), might persuade you to view it(his criticism) in a better light, is at least disingenuous of you, if not just another, shall we say ‘untruth’.

    Merry Christmas, and a happy Festivus for the rest of us!