XFiles Weekend: A peculiar prelude

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, preface)

I don’t want to get bogged down in the preface, but there are one or two points here worthy of comment, so I thought I’d put one more post into it. As we saw last week, Lewis hasn’t even gotten into the main part of his book yet, and already he’s running into problems with his basic premise. His goal is to “defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times,” a kind of “mere Christianity” that transcends personal bias and denominational bickering. And yet, as both ancient and modern church history show, this common core of beliefs is sufficiently elusive that its defenders have a hard time expressing what it is without falling into the No True Scotsman fallacy. Lewis, alas, is no different.

Lewis, to his credit, realizes that it would be an error to claim to defend Christianity while at the same time offering only a defense of his own personal or denominational faith.

The danger clearly was that I should put forward as common Christianity anything that was peculiar to the Church of England or (worse still) to myself. I tried to guard against this by sending the original script of what is now Book II to four clergymen (Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic) and asking them for their criticism.

No Baptists, no Pentecostals, no Eastern Orthodox, and certainly no Mormons (God forbid!). Just a careful selection of faiths close enough to his own beliefs to be “real true Christians” but different enough that he can convince himself that he is indeed presenting “the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.” Indeed, he even convinces himself that he has been “of some help in silencing the view that, if we omit the disputed points, we shall have left only a vague and bloodless H. C. F.” (by which I presume he means “Historic Christian Faith”). The careful reader will notice, however, that he has “silenced” this view by omitting a substantial number of the disputes, leaving only minor disagreements to trouble him.

Curiously, even though Lewis sets out to prove a common, non-denominational body of “mere Christian” faith, he seems to judge true Christian spirituality in terms of one’s commitment to a mainline denomination.

Hostility has come more from borderline people whether within the Church of England or without it: men not exactly obedient to any communion. This I find curiously consoling. It is at her centre, where her truest children dwell, that each communion is really closest to every other in spirit, if not in doctrine. And this suggests that at the centre of each there is a something, or a Someone, who against all divergencies of belief, all differences of temperament, all memories of mutual persecution, speaks with the same voice.

One of the hazards of being a truly intelligent believer, as Lewis is, is that your intellectual gifts allow you to imagine some pretty amazing things and to arrive at rationalizations that make them sound plausible. Here is C. S. Lewis, Oxford don, talking himself into believing that the major divisions within Christianity are inspired, at their center, by a common spirit speaking the same things to all. Amazing. And notice, the “truest” children of each of these faiths are those who allow other men to tell them what to believe; the independent believers, who make their own judgments about questions of faith, are “borderline” and disobedient.

One would think that, if all these denominational divisions were an imposed burden on Christianity, then the goal of a true believer ought to be to pursue the “mere Christianity” instead of the denominational divisions. But, as Lewis himself admits, there are significant differences that cannot be swept under the rug, and indeed that he would not want to sweep under the rug.

[Y]ou cannot … conclude, from my silence on disputed points, either that I think them important or that I think them unimportant. For this is itself one of the disputed points. One of the things Christians are disagreed about is the importance of their disagreements. When two Christians of different denominations start arguing, it is usually not long before one asks whether such-and-such a point ‘really matters’ and the other replies: ‘Matter? Why it’s absolutely essential.’

So Christians have divided themselves into conflicting denominations over issues that really matter, and indeed are absolutely essential—and yet Lewis would have us (and himself) believe that at the center of each of these denominations is the same Spirit speaking with the same voice, whether the denomination is right or wrong about the essentials. What’s more, true believers need to be obedient to some denomination (whether or not it is right about essential issues), because failure to obey these teachings (even the wrong ones!) makes you a “borderline” Christian whose doctrinal objections can safely be ignored when compiling a list of beliefs “common to nearly all Christians at all times.”

I’m expecting some Lewis to build some pretty interesting arguments on top of this foundation, aren’t you?

Let’s move on. Lewis next announces his reluctance to address topics where he himself is not “in the front lines” as it were. Thus, for example, he intends to skip over any discussion of the morality of birth control, as he is neither married, nor female, nor a priest. Nor a priest? Hang on, it’s not because he thinks priests have some special knowledge about birth control. He just says it means he has no pastoral responsibility towards women, and therefore he’s going to take advantage of the opportunity to dodge that issue as well. Whew.

He next complains that the word “Christian” should be used only in the very specialized sense of someone who follows the teachings of the apostles, as the disciples in Antioch did. That one struck me as a little odd, given that I would have thought a Christian would be someone who followed the teachings of Christ, not the teachings of his apostles. That, however, opens up a whole lot of disputed points about what Jesus really taught and intended by his teachings, and Lewis would just as soon leave those out, in order to maintain the myth that there is a common set of core beliefs that have been held by nearly all Christians at all times. So “apostles’ teaching” it is.

He closes his preface by assuring us that he does not intend for “mere Christianity”, the common beliefs of all Christians, to become an alternative to denominations. Rather, he compares it to a hall—not an auditorium style “great hall” or anything, just an ordinary unadorned hallway, with doors leading off to the actual rooms.

I hope no reader will suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions—as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in.

I think I know exactly what he means. “Mere” Christianity, the set of core beliefs that nearly all Christians have held since the beginning, is not satisfying. When you’re out in the hall, it’s just you and God. What makes the rooms interesting and attractive is that there are people there, people like you, people who are real. Maybe not in all the rooms, but just keep trying the doors until you find a group of people who are enough like you that you can call them true children of the faith. And if you still don’t succeed, find a door to an empty room (there’s lots!) and make your own denomination. Others will be along presently to join you.

The one thing you don’t want to do is to ask which door God Himself is hiding behind. Keep looking for that door long enough, and you’ll find the one that leads outside, where the sun is shining and the air is clean. There are people there, too, the “disobedient” and independent thinkers, or in other words, the free. Some are good and some are bad (just like inside), but they can come and go as they please.

But enough metaphor. Lewis has set the tone for his book, and it’s a rather peculiar tone: Christian unity is something to be praised rather than something to be pursued. Denominational divisions are a hindrance to the spread of the gospel, and at least some of the divisions are about genuinely essential matters, yet the goal is to pretend there is unity in order to get people into the hall, and from there into one of the denominations (right or wrong). And that’s ok, because even the wrong denominations are inspired by the same Spirit speaking to all in the same voice. Not that you should necessarily listen to what those other denominations are teaching, of course.

Where I come from, enticing people under false pretenses is considered immoral. If being honest about your faith means it’s harder to make converts, maybe there’s something wrong with your faith. Professor Lewis ought to have been bold and forthright about the conflicts and contradictions within Christianity rather than trying to produce an elegant and articulate cover-up. But that, it seems, is what we have to deal with here.

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Posted in Unapologetics, XFiles. 10 Comments »

10 Responses to “XFiles Weekend: A peculiar prelude”

  1. Hunt Says:

    I suppose what Lewis is outlining could make sense by way, say, of an analogy like this: Picture a science building where the doors lead into classrooms for chemistry, physics, biology, and so on. The hall is where students are theoretically educated in the scientific method, in math, etc. When they have a general education, they proceed to apply them in practical classrooms of each discipline. Now, physics and chemistry are closely aligned. In many ways they study the same things, but each has a slightly different approach, and you might say they use different doctrines.

    Of course the analogy is very imperfect. Christian denominations are often openly contradictory, and even though chemistry and physics approach a subject differently they (and all the sciences) must ultimately concur. Just playing devil’s advocate.

  2. Hunt Says:

    As you say, the only way this can make sense is if what happens in each room off the hall is of no consequence at all, and this is expressly disavowed by Lewis. In my example, it would be absurd to think that the scientific method composed the limit of scientific knowledge, and that each discipline was essentially a trivial exercise of it. It’s the other way around. The method is simply a tool to expedite the science.

  3. Ken Browning Says:

    The growing body of agreement produced by the scientific method is one of the most powerful social developments in history. Go to any blog that attracts Christians of various denominations and take a good, long look to see if the same can be said about faith methodology.

  4. g Says:

    I am fairly sure that “H.C.F.” here means “highest common factor” (= greatest common divisor = what a bunch of integers have in common = the thing that you need to get in the denominators when you’re adding fractions), not “historic Christian faith”.

  5. Deacon Duncan Says:

    That’s certainly a possibility and probably more likely than my guess. I learned that mathematical concept under the name of “greatest common denominator” so that’s why I didn’t pick up on it. I was actually looking for something like that, but I didn’t think of “highest.” Thanks for the clarification.

  6. Tacroy Says:

    I’ve always thought that it would be interesting to ask any sort of believer what their greatest disagreement with God is. After all, if God is an actual external being, then clearly God will hold some some opinion that the believer disagrees with.

    It would have been instructive to ask C. S. Lewis this question, I think. It seems like the goal of “mere Christianity” is to strip out anything God said which might have been objectionable, and leave just an undifferentiated agreeable lump.

    Why would you do that?

    Also, I think you might be heading towards this, but I think it’s interesting that C. S. Lewis keeps on talking about how the different branches of Christianity are all listening to the same spirit. Where else have we seen that before? Oh right, all the different branches of science are studying the same reality. Weird how the branches of science (which we know for a fact are studying the same reality) converge, while the branches of religion (which we don’t know for a fact are listening to the same spirit) diverge.

    You’d expect religion to behave like science, if they were all listening to the same spirit: you might have people who specialize in studying Jesus’ teachings, or maybe who specialize in studying Mohammad’s, but in the grand scheme of things those teachings reinforce each other – much like results in physics can reinforce results in biology (like the realization that a large part of chlorophyll’s efficiency seems to come from tunneling electrons, which are a result of quantum mechanics).

    Further, if all religions were basically listening to the same spirit, they would have deep congruencies; for instance, if you take physics and apply some statistics to it you get chemistry; you take chemistry and apply it to much larger molecules, and you get biology; you take biology and apply it over time, and you get evolution.

    Finally, if religions are all fundamentally the same, we would have solid definitions of religious concepts. We know that photons are both waves and particles, but this isn’t some mushy concept – you can write out the equations that govern wave/particle duality, make accurate predictions about how, exactly, a photon will behave in any given situation.

    I have to say, that theory just doesn’t seem to hold up.

  7. pboyfloyd Says:

    “The danger clearly was that I should put forward as common Christianity anything that was peculiar to the Church of England..”

    I love the way he subtly uses this reasoning to throw everyone else(millions upon millions of American true believers) under the bus!

    I read Lewis and his style of writing draws you to him, yet you’ve pretty much ‘outed’ him before his book has begun.

    YOU are a fucking genius!

  8. Sarah Says:

    Better… all the way till the end when you characterise his differing opinion from you as “an elegant and articulate cover-up” and “enticing people under false pretenses”.

    His original point is just a variety of a ecumenical point, with a little “No True Scotsman” thrown in, ‘within this group of people, our beliefs are more similar than different, and the differences not insurmountable, regardless of our fringe crazies’

    From that, he then moves to say, essentially “Given that we agree on so much, and that our differences are not so important, and as we know that people find internal disagreement very offputting, why emphasise that which will drive them away, when it’s not as important as that we agree on?”

    He’s probably wrong, but you don’t offer any evidence to show that. You just assume that as read, then attack him as being ‘dishonest’ rather than mistaken. Poor show.

    Nowhere does he say to deny differences, or lie about disagreements. Nowhere does he suggest any lie of any kind. Your characterisation of his intention as ‘enticing people under false pretenses’ and ‘dishonest’ shows that you are reading his work tendentiously and with an eye for any possible negative reading of his words, when [an honest and]* a fair reading would look for the meaning as he intended it.

    Pity, I was looking for some good criticism of the book. But you know, criticism of what he actually meant, not criticism of what his words could possibly be interpreted to mean, if we don’t care about intention.

    *Damn, see, it’s something we can all fall into, so easily. I have no good reason to think that you are making your arguments in the full knowledge that CS Lewis did not mean the things that you are railing against, and reasonable evidence to suggest that you believe your own interpretation to be the correct one, even though it’s obvious to others that it’s not. Why would I be a hypocrite and assume the former? It’s damn easy to look at those who are wrong, very wrong, and assume all sorts of negative things about them, and the things they believe, then read that negativity into everything they write. But it’s bullshit. Mea Culpa.

  9. Sarah Says:

    “Pity, I was looking for some good criticism of the book. But you know, criticism of what he actually meant, not criticism of what his words could possibly be interpreted to mean, if we don’t care about intention.”

    Re-reading this, it seems overly harsh. You may well have good evidence that he really meant for Christians to lie about their disagreements to dishonestly lure people in, rather than just having a different opinion on how serious those disagreements are. I have not seen such evidence, whereas I am very familiar with ecumenical views that say what I believe he intended to mean, so I am more likely to read his words that way.

    The criticism stands though, if you have not got reason to believe that he intends anyone to act dishonestly, as a literal reading of his words does not seem to support that conclusion.

  10. Deacon Duncan Says:

    I think you may be reading too much into my remarks. I don’t believe I’ve said anywhere that Lewis intends anyone to act dishonestly. What I’m saying is that Lewis is trying to argue two mutually-contradictory positions at the same time: that the divisions among Christians are important, and that they are not important. To say that you have to take sides, but it doesn’t matter which side you take, is to deny the importance of the conflicts that produced the divisions. Lewis knows that it would be wrong to do so, and even says so explicitly. Yet he denies it anyway, and hence my remarks about “false pretenses.”

    I do not know what Lewis’ motives were, but I rather doubt that he was intentionally lying or urging anyone else to lie. Yet the practical effect of his arguments is to trivialize the differences that divide Christians, in order to promote his theme of some sort of “mere Christianity” that they all have in common. Intentional or not, he is misrepresenting the significance of the facts regarding Christian divisions. He admits that they do matter, even to him, and yet he claims that they do not.

    Like I said, I am not accusing Lewis of lying, per se. His problem is that the internal inconsistencies in his beliefs force him into a position where supporting one belief requires him to conflict with another, even though he believes both, with results that put him in the position of obscuring rather than explaining the truth. When one finds himself in that position, where he has to misrepresent his own beliefs in order to defend them, then that’s a bad sign.