Monday, April 27, 2009

C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity

Mere Christianity
C.S. Lewis
Reviewed by Ben Picozzi

Mere Christianity is C.S. Lewis' ironically-titled defense of Christian faith in response to what he regards as a world of evil; resurrecting the medieval understanding of the world as a battlefield. This worldview becomes even more poignant when one considers that the text is adapted from a series of radio broadcasts written by Lewis during the Second World War. Most telling is Lewis’ description of the earth as “occupied territory,” likening the current state of affairs to Nazi rule. He returns to this metaphor again and again, in his allusions to resistance, the coming invasion, and other commonplaces which are scattered throughout the text.

While viewed from a modern perspective, Lewis comes off as a staunch conservative – see his restrictive beliefs on extra-marital sex – he does offer hints of progressivism in, for example, his belief that the governments ought to separate the state definition of marriage from its religious counterpart.

One reviewer, whose thoughts are captured on the back cover, suggests that C.S. Lewis is an “ideal persuader for the half-convinced”, that is, those who are already leaning towards Christianity. I disagree. Rather, Lewis is an ideal persuader only for the fully-convinced. Anyone who does not share his belief that only the Christian God is consistent with our moral intuitions – or, even worse, holds contradictory beliefs – will not be converted by his arguments. As a philosophical text, Mere Christianity fails to deliver. Charitably interpreted, Lewis only demonstrates that we possess certain moral intuitions consistent with the existence of objective moral standards, a great distance from his conclusion that there must be something behind those standards in the form of the Christian God. (After all, Christianity does not have a monopoly moral objectivism.) However, this anti-relativist or anti-amoralist premise is the sword which Lewis continually wields against the demons of “pantheism” (defined by Lewis as belief in a god which stands outside of good and evil) and atheism. Of course, uncharitably interpreted, Lewis may not even succeed in getting this far.

Read as a historical text, however, Mere Christianity has value to anyone regardless of his or her beliefs. In particular, it offers insight into the mind of an extraordinary individual whose remarkable intellect is matched by his unshakable faith during what must seem to be his nation’s bleakest moment.

Beyond its Christian apologetics, the final chapter of the book is striking in its divergence away from the siege mentality which colors the text and towards a hopeful vision of the future. Lewis appropriates the scientific language of biology in describing what he sees as the final stage in human evolution – religious transcendence – which he admits, departs from the modern understanding of evolution through natural selection and instead rather reflects a radical spiritual change. While not properly scientific, Lewis’ choice of demonstrates the power which evolutionary theory holds, even among those who are inclined to prefer less naturalistic explanations – Lewis is quick to oppose scientific materialism to religion. His choice to conclude with this metaphor is puzzling, but perhaps understandable in the sense that just as the metaphor of agency provides a useful description of the evolutionary mechanism, selection provides a useful metaphor for divinity.

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