After I got less then half way through C.S. Lewis’s book
I was partially wrong. The rest of the book was an interesting mixture of deeply interesting moral insights and disparate attempts at justifying Christianities less savory ‘moral’ rules. Part III of Mere Christianity, “Christian Behavior”, is basically Lewis’s interpretation of Christian Ethics. Trying to summarize all his thoughts on this subject is futile. I will only hit the hight and low points in this post. Suffice it to say that Part III is a great read for Christians and non-Christians alike and a would recommend it to anyone.
One very refreshing thing about Lewis is that he acknowledges that many virtues are not unique to nor invented by Christianity. There are four virtues he identifies as ‘Cardinal’ virtues. These are virtues “which all civilized people recognize”. These ‘Cardinal’ virtues are Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude. He also recognized that the Golden Rule is intuitive in origin, “…Christ did not come to preach any brand new morality. The Golden Rule… is a summing up of what everyone, at bottom, had always known to be right.” Indeed, this is a necessary conclusion for Lewis based on Part I, which states that humans have always been aware of moral truths, even before Christianity. Still, it’s nice to read a Christian who recognizes that non-Christians can be very moral people.
My favorite part is when he discusses what Christian Temperance is not. It is not the complete rejection of all things pleasurable outside of God, but rational moderation of those pleasures. He points out that a Christian person my choose to give up certain pleasures for particular reasons (such as a man giving up all drinking because he is an alcoholic), but not because drinking alcohol is intrinsically bad. He makes this point in what is, in my opinion, the best quote from the book:
“One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up something himself without wanting every one else to give it up. That is not the Christian way. An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons – marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who do use them, he has taken a wrong turning.”
Another highlight is Chapter 8 of Part III, “The Great Sin”. The most dangerous sin, according to Lewis is Pride or self-conceit. The reason his finds it so dangerous is that it is ubiquitous and subtle. He spends much of the chapter discussing the latter trait. He points out that Pride can often seem a virtue because it overcame a more obvious vise. This is the case when a person gives up alcohol not for good reasons, but to look down on those who choose to drink. Another example is the confusing case where one feels themselves morally superior to a less humble individual. Lewis makes this point when he describes a way to gauge one’s own level of Pride:
“…if you want to find out how proud you are the easiest way is to ask yourself, ‘How much do I dislike it when other people snub me, or refuse to take any notice of me, or shove their oar in, or patronize me, or show off?’”
In other words, your own pride is in proportion to the amount of exception you take to other people’s pride. Lewis makes the regrettable mistake of claiming that Christianity has a monopoly on addressing this vice, but I must give the religion credit for recognizing the danger of Pride.
Another highlight was Lewis’s chapter on forgiveness. He quickly boils the virtue down to Mohandas Gandhi’s immortal “Hate the sin, love the sinner” (and you thought that was a Bible quote ). Like Lewis, I used to think that making the distinction between the ‘sin’ and the ‘sinner’ was splitting hairs. This is largely because I most often hear this phrase applied to homosexuality. It is how certain religious people whitewash hateful action against homosexuals by claiming they really were targeting homosexuality. But thanks to Lewis, I can now articulate what this really means. He points out that I’ve been hating the sin and loving the sinner all the time – myself. When I have a moral failing, I hate what I have done while simultaneously loving myself. By applying the Golden Rule, I now understand a method for being forgiving. Morally speaking, I should forgive the moral failings of others just as I forgive them in myself.
The view of forgiveness has tie-ins with Charity that Lewis fails to make. In the chapter on that topic, Lewis correctly expands the definition of ‘charity’ beyond simple giving to the poor. Unfortunately, he falsely claims that the broader definition is strictly a Christian one. The tie-in with forgiveness can be seen once I examine how I forgive myself. I often attribute my moral failing to circumstance: “I was having a bad day”, “I was a little intoxicated’, “I haven’t been getting enough sleep”, “that person brings out the worst in me”, etc. or the more general, “I’m not usually like that”. The point is that I am being charitable about my character despite my actions. Doing the same for others is a way of being charitable. Now when I witness someone failing to act morally, I try to attribute it to circumstance and believe that the person is not usually like that.
As should come as no surprise, the areas in which Lewis doesn’t have any great insights are on the parts of morality that truly are unique to Christianity. The first is sexual morality. The chapter on sexual morality is more of desperate attempt to justify Christianity’s draconian rules about human reproduction than about elucidating what it means to act moral, sexually speaking. The chapters devoted to that topic really don’t seem to fit with the other, deeply challenging and penetrating ones.
The other topic that was a low point was the chapter on Faith. The definition of faith tends to be quite mercurial, flowing and reshaping itself according to the current needs of the believer. For Lewis, ‘faith’ means trust in ones rational beliefs despite the current state of one’s emotions. Unfortunately, this is at odds with the common usage of the term which seems to mean belief in place of, or even despite the evidence. In this usage, faith is the antithesis of reasons. Indeed, it is the need for a rational justification of faith as a virtue that causes Christian apologists to redefine the term.
Part IV of Mere Christianity is about specifics of the Christian doctrine. It’s about the nature of the Trinity and the personality of the ‘personal’ God. Since such discussions are predicated on acceptance of both the existence of God and the divinity of Jesus, this part of the book really wasn’t applicable for the nonbeliever. Still, the logical way the book was written combined with deeply interesting moral insights makes this a book worth reading.
Thanks to Scott for letting me borrow the book.