XFiles Weekend: A peculiar preludeJuly 11, 2010 — Deacon Duncan
(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.