1944 Mere Christianity

29 August 2011

“Everyone has heard people quarrelling. Sometimes it sounds funny and sometimes it sounds merely unpleasant; but however it sounds, I believe we can learn something very important from listening to the kind of things they say. They say things like this: ‘How’d you like it if anyone did the same to you?’ – ‘That’s my seat, I was there first’ – ‘Leave him alone, he isn’t doing you any harm’ – ‘Why should you shove in first?’ – ‘Give me a bit of your orange, I gave you a bit of mine’ – ‘Come on, you promised.’ People say things like that every day, educated people as well as uneducated, and children as well as grown-ups.

Now what interests me about these remarks is that the man who makes them is not merely saying that the other man’s behavior does not happen to please him. He is appealing to some kind of standard of behaviour which he expects the other man to know about. And the other man very seldom replies: ‘To hell with your standard.’ Nearly always he tries to make out that what he has been doing does not really go against the standard, or that if it does there is some special excuse. He pretends there is some special reason in this particular case why the person who took the seat first should not keep it, or that things were quite different when he was given the bit of orange, or that something has turned up which lets him off keeping his promise. It look, in fact, very much as if both parties had in mind some kind of Law or Rule of fair play or decent behaviour or morality or whatever you like to call it, about which they really agreed. And they have. If they had not, they might, of course, fight like animals, but they could not quarrel in the human sense of the word. Quarreling means trying to show that the other man is in the wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are; just as there would be no sense in saying that a footballer had committed a foul unless there was some agreement about the rules of football.”

A C. S. Lewis Education. That’s what I’ll be getting this year. I’m reading the entire Chronicles of Narnia series to the kids (we’ve just finished The Horse and His Boy, one of my favorites!) and I’ll be reading all of Lewis’ major works throughout this year. I started with Mere Christianity, the first two paragraphs of which I have quoted above. I’ll space out the works though. After all the philosophy I’ve been reading lately (don’t get me wrong, I’ve greatly enjoyed it) I find myself in desperate need of characters. So now I am reading Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now. It’s very good so far.

I love books that make me think about things in a new or different way. I feel like I started out life standing with my nose pressed up against some great painting. I could see splashes of beautiful color, but it didn’t really come to be anything. But I didn’t know there was even anything to see, so I enjoyed the color. Through my own life experience and the reading of good books, I am able to take a step backward and see that there are actually more than just the two or three colors I could see at first. There are many, many colors. And another step back allows me to see that the colors actually make a picture. A feather. Another step back. That feather is in a hat. And that hat is on a lady. And that lady is wearing a blue dress. And she is sitting on the grass. And she has someone sitting beside her. No, she has several people sitting beside her. They are having a picnic. And there are rolling hills all around. But no, now I can see there is a river off to the left. And so on, and so on. Each step back is a better look at the picture. And we never (at least in this life) get to a place where we can see the entire picture with perfect clarity and vision. We just keep moving backwards, trying to see and appreciate all we can.

I think that is why we like to set aside our list of ‘great books’, the ones that helped us to see things a little more clearly, or that document a train of thought that, though now it may be obvious that it does not give a complete or even truthful picture (the picnic people are surrounded by hills) was a profound part of our human journey (should we discard Copernicus’ writings altogether because we now know that the idea of celestial spheres is incorrect?). Mere Christianity, a book found on most classics lists, is an amazingly logical and deep look at the basics of the Christian religion (he stays out of the denomination debate), but he does quite a bit more than that. He talks about subjects that pertain to life and human nature; things that all of us have to work through because we are all living on this earth.

It is hard to pick a topic to talk about because Lewis covered so much. With Tocqueville it was easy; I chose the topics because those were the sections of the book that I could understand (at least to some degree). Lewis moves slowly and carefully, taking the reader by the hand and explaining things in such a way so that the reader perfectly comprehends what he is saying. And like the picture illustration above, he gently takes steps backward with the reader and points out parts of the painting which can be seen, but may not be completely obvious. He talks (rather briefly) about the Core Virtues, which I found very exciting. He discussed the ‘instincts’ or appetites that man has and how they fit in with morality. He discusses the fact that the Moral Law is unbendable and why we need the Atonement of Christ, seeing as none of us are perfect, and what exactly that means. He talks about the origins of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, repentance and forgiveness, pride (the universal sin) and how and why it is such a problem, faith and people’s changing moods, faith and good works and how they work together, as well as much more ‘deep’ topics like the difference between creating and begetting, God’s time, the nature of the Godhead, and what exactly God would like us to become and how we are to become that. His chapter on marriage was very well-done. He talked about the difference between being ‘in love’ and loving someone. For someone who was never married, his insights were amazingly exact and thoughtful. I think in our society of skyrocketing divorce rates, this chapter would be quite helpful. He definitely understood many principles and could see them in all aspects of life. I think even for someone who is not religious, this book would offer many things of value. For those who are religious, everything he says may not exactly correspond with the teachings of your own denomination, but I think his unique and insightful understanding of principles would allow for a very thoughtful examination of life and its purpose.

And I’ll end with another quote that I liked:

“The command Be ye perfect is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were ‘gods’ and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him- for we can prevent Him, if we choose- He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though of course on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful, but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said.”