Friday, August 23, 2013

Reflections on Mere Christianity

            Mere Christianity is the best-known apologetic work by Anglo-Irish author Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963).  It was based on a series of radio lectures Lewis did for the British Broadcasting Company during World War II.  Lewis was the ideal choice for the program on religion.  He had spent time as an atheist, he was a layman, and he was an academic.  Seeking to provide a broad defense of the Christian faith, Lewis consulted clergymen from several denominations in preparing his manuscript.[1]  Doing so allowed him to make as broad an appeal as possible.  He was trying to explain what beliefs united all Christians to a hostile or curious world.  He was searching for the basic tenets of the faith—mere Christianity.
            Lewis begins by exploring the moral law of the universe.  The existence of good and evil are proven by ubiquity; there really isn’t anyone in creation who denies right and wrong.  He calls this a natural law.  Natural law is different from the laws of nature in science; those laws are universally followed.  The moral law, however, is simply the law of how men ought to behave, not necessarily how they do behave.  In other words, moral law is the only thing in nature which can’t be established by naked observation.  It’s the only law which can be broken.  “The Moral Law, or Law of Human Nature, is not simply a fact about human behaviour in the same way as the Law of Gravitation is, or may be, simply a fact about how heavy objects behave.”[2]
            I believe that this is the strongest basis upon which to start talking about God.  Human indignation about the actions of others makes no sense in any other framework.  We are reviled by evil.  We behold what we perceive to be injustice—especially injustice against ourselves—and we react with outrage.  There is no reason why we should act as if something so metaphysical as justice existed unless there really was something behind it.  “Consequently, atheism turns out to be too simple.  If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning.”[3]
            I was left with more nuanced thoughts in book two chapter 3, “The Shocking Alternative.”  Here Lewis gives the free will defense of evil.  If God is all-good and all-powerful, how can evil exist?  Lewis replies by saying that man has been given free will.  God created beings with the ability to accept or to reject evil.  By creating beings with the ability to choose freely, he also created the possibility of evil.  Love is not truly love, Lewis says, if it is forced.[4]  This defense is difficult to fit into traditional Reformed thinking.  After all, isn’t the real answer to the problem of evil God’s sovereign rule over the earth?  Isn’t evil a thing he uses, without being guilty of it, to bring about his plan?  A lost friend I have once said that the free will defense didn’t offer much solace to him.  He wasn’t sure that free will was worth the agony and abundance of suffering in the world.  Maybe it would be better if people didn’t have freedom or love at all.  For Lewis, God’s telling us free will is worth it means it must be.[5]  That isn’t true for my friend.
            I think the free will defense is adequate to explain the origins of evil.  I am not sure it explains the persistence of evil.  After all, sin had entered the world.  Evil existed.  God could have send Christ at the moment he sent Adam and Eve out of the garden and accomplished the salvation of humanity at that moment.  Unlike some Reformed thinkers, I am uncomfortable dwelling too frequently or deeply on God’s purposes in evil.  I would rather explain evil—especially to those in the midst of suffering—as something which had to exist because Adam had free will and because God intended to reveal himself as redeemer.  Because of the Fall, we know God as redeemer; this greater knowledge of God is somehow worth it.  Like Elihu in Job, man may never know why God allows evil to persist.  What we do know is that he made sin possible, can’t be held guilty of committing it, and will triumph over it.
            Book three chapter 5, “Sexual Morality”, makes an interesting point in relation to sexual ethics.  Lewis notes that many sexual liberationists believe that the sexual drive is a natural appetite just like hunger, thirst, or fatigue.  Lewis disagrees, claiming that the sexual appetite goes beyond its intended purpose.  He believes that this is good evidence for the continuing effects of the Fall.  He uses another humorous example: “Now suppose you come to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?”[6]  Why then, Lewis asks, do we not think something quite wrong with our sexuality?  And would not a foreign observer think something was wrong with our view of sexuality?
            Most people in Lewis’s day (and ours) thought that this was a reaction to sexual starvation in the country.  That hypothesis would be bolstered if people really were sexually repressed.  In reality, we see more sexuality than ever in culture, society, and individual lives.  Lewis is right that sexuality is not like our other appetites, just as the Bible distinguishes sexual sin as distinct from others.[7]  Something really is different about sex.  When taken out of its context, it perverts and distorts all things to its consumption.  Like greed it uses people to satisfy a desire.  Unlike greed, lust is internal rather than external and causes one to sin against his own body.

[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper-Collins, 2001), xi.
[2] Ibid., 20.
[3] Ibid., 39.
[4] Ibid., 48.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 96.
[7] 1 Cor. 6:18.