Book Review by Zinta Aistars
Paperback: 227 pages
Publisher: HarperOne, 2001
Fitting, I think, to be reading what may arguably be one of C. S. Lewis’s most important books, on a retreat during which one of my personal goals was to find a spiritual, if not religious, inner peace. Aside from Lewis’s well known fantasy books (Chronicles of Narnia, and many others), my reading his Grief Observed a couple years ago when dealing with my own grief, a kind of emotional and spiritual death, convinced me that this man had an admirable and most unusual gift to bring the most complex human experiences into written form, sharing it with all of us, and transforming these experiences into something that one can grasp and then, to find healing. Reading the work of C. S. Lewis is to meet a friend who reflects us and understands us—and helps us to understand.
When I settled in to read Mere Christianity, I fully expected that it would take me the four days of my retreat, perhaps beyond, to finish. Instead, I finished the book in one day (and read yet a second Lewis book, The Great Divorce, in the very same day, apparently thrust into immediate withdrawal symptoms once the first Lewis book was finished). I truly was unable to put it down, but for the shortest moments, only to come rushing back to it for more. The book met a hunger. And fed it.
Who of us has not asked these questions? Who of us has not prayed these prayers, even those of us who are atheists (which group has at times included me, and has also included C. S. Lewis), even if only praying to our void? Lewis takes on several of these questions that have held me captive since youth, when I first began to wonder about a God: who He might be, if indeed He is, and what might my relationship be with Him.
Before he has even cleared the pages of the preface, Lewis nabs me cold: “It is true that some people may find they have to wait in the hall for a considerable time, while others feel certain almost at once which door they must knock at. I do not know why there is this difference, but I am sure God keeps no one waiting unless He sees that it is good for him to wait. When you do get into your room you will find that the long wait has done you some kind of good which you would not have had otherwise.” Then Lewis reminds us that this time of “waiting in the hall” is not a form of camping, but a time of rigorous seeking, questioning, praying even when we are not sure who we are praying to or if we are heard. “And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and paneling.” Here I am fully won. For one annoyance I have long had with fellow seekers and life philosophers (and aren’t we all), is that in approaching religion, so many of us do so with the requirement that the religion fit us rather than we fit it. Rather than a seeking for the truth, above and beyond our personal convenience and comfort zone, we lose ourselves in dogmas and doctrines created around us, as if we were the gods and God existing to serve us, not the created seeking the Creator and how we might serve Him.
Christianity, Lewis writes, is a way of life. An owner’s manual, if you will. It is not meant to constrain us, but to fully free us. Following its doctrines means to “transform our lives in such a way that evil diminishes and good prevails.” There is an innate law, he observes, that follows along the lines of human nature, a natural right and wrong, and in examining all religions, we find right and wrong, good and evil, are more or less defined along the same lines by all humanity, regardless of religious beliefs. This is our first clue that we have found an unchangeable truth. Even the atheist, Lewis says, has a sense of right and wrong, good and bad, and as soon as one realizes this, the next step is to understand the universal standard of morality. From where does this standard come if not from some higher ruling of the universe? It echoes inside each and every one of us. “The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard …” which is what Lewis terms as “Real Morality.”
Step by step, Lewis leads us to look upon this standard and Him who put it in place, and ingrained into our beings. The God Lewis has us see is not a kindly and bearded man sitting on a throne in some distant and ethereal place. He calls him a great artist, for the universe is a very beautiful place, but also a Being that is intensely interested in right conduct—in fair play, unselfishness, courage, good faith, honesty and truthfulness. Insofar as all that, one can think of God as “good.” But Lewis does not see Him as an easy master. “There is nothing indulgent about the Moral Law. It is as hard as nails. It tells you to do the straight thing and it does not seem to care how painful, or dangerous, or difficult it is to do. If God is like the Moral Law, then He is not soft.”
But there you have it. If you truly wish to see God as good, good in the sense of fair and just, then you will have to admit that He must be someone who despises all that is not good with a searing and uncompromising hatred. “God is the only comfort, He is also the supreme terror: the thing we most need and the thing we most want to hide from.” And, when push comes to shove, we wouldn’t have Him any other way.
From here, Lewis proceeds to tackle those common questions: how can God exist in such a cruel and unjust world? If God knows how the story of mankind ends, why did he create us and our story at all? If the future already exists in His eyes, what does that say about free will? How can we know that Christ wasn’t simply a great moral teacher, but indeed the Son of God? And, why did Christ have to die, and so cruelly, for our sins to be forgiven? Why could we not just shake hands on it?
Many of our churches seem to take these as established truths without question, explaining nothing, only asking us to swallow these facts whole and without question. We repeat our mantras from childhood Sunday school classes without ever fully understanding them—and there is something sinful in such a blind faith, if it is faith at all. Questioning, Lewis points out, is exactly what God expects us to do. That is the knocking that we do on His door. It is an obligation, and one that we must meet and continue to meet for the entire length and number of our days.
No point trying to evade any of these issues as outdated. If it was Truth yesterday, it is Truth today and tomorrow. At its very core, human nature remains the same.
What humankind struggled with in the beginning of time is what we struggle with now, namely, the indulgent pursuit of various pleasures, which are not, Lewis firmly states, bad things at all. As a part of our nature, they are, in fact, good things. But as all that is good, there must be a discipline, a respect, for the gifts God has given us. “But pleasure, money, power, and safety are all, as far as they go, good things. The badness consists in pursuing them by the wrong method, or in the wrong way, or too much … wickedness, when you examine it, turns out to be the pursuit of some good in the wrong way.” He elaborates: “Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness.”
Shall we take on some of our most contemporary indulgences? With timeless accuracy, Lewis does. For example, as if he stood in 2008 rather than in 1945, he addresses sexuality and the virtue of chastity. He separates the rule of chastity from the rule of propriety, the first unchanging, the second changeable with culture, time and place. Arcing over all of this, however, he makes it clear what Christianity requires from humankind: “When people break the rule of propriety current in their own time and place, if they do so in order to excite lust in themselves or others, then they are offending against chastity.” God has meant for us to know sex as goodness, a divine pleasure, an appetite given to us that is meant to be nurtured and nourished, but not without discipline and not without emotional and intellectual bonding always in tandem. It is not about lust; it is about a complete union, based on love, between the male and the female as whole persons. (Sex was not, Lewis also explains, how the Garden of Eden was lost.)
As if able to see into our present day indulgences, Lewis writes, “Poster after poster, film after film, novel after novel, associate the idea of sexual indulgence with the ideas of health, normality, youth, frankness, and good humor. Now this association is a lie. Like all powerful lies, it is based on a truth … that sex itself (apart from the excesses and obsessions that have grown round it) is ‘normal’ and ‘healthy.’ The lie consists in the suggestion that any sexual act to which you are tempted at the moment is also healthy and normal … Surrender to all our desires obviously leads to impotence, disease, jealousies, lies, concealment, and everything that is the reverse of health … for any happiness, even in this world, quite a lot of restraint is going to be necessary.“
Lewis explores free will and how God understood, as we so often have not, that in giving us free will, He gave us the ability to love. It is only when we have to ability to choose, that we can love. Anything else would be forced bondage, slave bowing to master. If we have botched up our ability to choose, so very often throughout our history, then we cannot shake our fists at the heavens and blame God, but must look to ourselves and the choices we have made. Lewis urges us to return to the basics, the Law of Morality, for only in addressing that place where our mistakes were first made can we continue forward in a progressive manner. If we cannot ever achieve perfection, it does not mean we are ever off the hook in striving for it. That Christ became a man and in a man’s mind and man’s body resisted all temptation, does not mean it was any easier for Him, being Son of God. Indeed, Lewis writes, only a man who is utterly good can fully experience the temptation of being less than good. When one is bad, giving in to temptation is easy and thoughtless, with few if any ensuing pangs of conscience; but when one is good (and only God is truly good), then resisting temptation requires all our goodness, every ounce of our strength.
Time and what is beyond time, the concepts of heaven and hell, the need to be a part of an active Christian community, what was meant by being formed in the likeness of God (no, we are not his mirror images), the true meaning of charity (far more than the occasional giving of alms to the poor), the meaning of faith and why it should not be blind, what it means to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (and this section made me laugh, perhaps in relief, as Lewis explains that to love our neighbors as ourselves does not mean we have to like our neighbors or even always to be kind to them, no more than we always like ourselves or are kind to ourselves), so Lewis covers all the basics.
There is a very real cost to being a Christian, Lewis teaches. Make no mistake, it is not a small pittance. But it is one that, if we do not pay it, will cost us far more in the long run, and not only after our lives on earth have ended. All that we do, all that we are, here on earth, already comes back to us, with our free will choices following their own natural law of returns.
“God is easy to please, but hard to satisfy,” Lewis writes. We are not talking about mere improvement, but transformation. One that we choose to either retreat from, and pay the resulting price, or embrace, and pay that price. To find our own true selves, however, Lewis sums up, can be done only by submitting fully. To let go, and let God.
“The more I resist Him and try to live on my own, the more I become dominated by my own heredity and upbringing and surroundings and natural desires … I am not, in my natural state, nearly so much of a person as I like to believe: most of what I call ‘me’ can be very easily explained. It is when I turn to Christ, when I give myself up … that I first begin to have a real personality of my own.”
Lewis has invited us to enter into this transformation, and he helps us to do so in a manner that is far from blind.