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Notes on Mere Christianity

Notes on C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, Macmillan Publishing Company, NY, NY, ISBN 0-02-086940-1, by Tim Chambers, 02/19/96.

Here I offer a sample of Lewis' wisdom, but I must emphasize that every page made me think and clarified my understanding of God's design. It's not a very long book (175 pages), but it's a book just the same. There are many insights that I don't mention here. I cannot even mention all of the important insights here. Read the book for yourself!


Lewis argues that there is a universal human conception about right and wrong. The simplest example is what humans regard to be "fair." We have a built-in sense of justice. We have a universal sense of the type of behavior we admire, and that which we despise. We can tell virtues from vices. This leads to a concept of Law and an Author of the Law that governs human behavior.

[My pastor preached about "torah" being imperfectly translated as "law." It is more like "instruction." God instructs us in the Way that he designed us to live.]

The Law isn't the same as the law of gravity because in the latter case, we have no choice but to obey physical laws. The Law that governs human conduct is distinct, then, from the "way the universe works."

We know what we ought to do, but we don't do it. We are not animals who are always and exclusively driven by desire. We do things that contradict our personal desires all the time. Sometimes we give in to our desires and then feel guilty when our conscience tells us that we behaved contrary to the Law.

"It is after you have realised that there is a real Moral Law, and a Power behind the law, and that you have broken that law and put yourself wrong with that Power--it is after all this, and not a moment sooner, that Christianity begins to talk." (p. 24)


Lewis states his case for why he believes Jesus to be God Incarnate on pp. 40-41:

"I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God.' That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would be either a lunatic--on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg--or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.


"[M]oral rules are directions for running the human machine. Every moral rule is there to prevent a breakdown, or a strain, or a friction, in the running of that machine...When you are being taught how to use any machine, the instructor keeps on saying, 'No, don't do it like that,' because, of course, there are all sorts of things that look all right and seem to you the natural way of treating the machine, but do not really work." (p. 55)

Like a fleet of ships, humanity must keep the ships together so they don't bump into one another. Each ship must also be kept in working order. Then there is the question of what course the fleet is on--"what man was made for." (pp. 56-57)

About personal morality, Lewis writes, "Does it not make a great difference whether I am, so to speak, the landlord of my own mind and body, or only a tenant, responsible to the real landlord? If somebody else made me, for his own purposes, then I shall have a lot of duties which I should not have if I simply belonged to myself." (pp. 58-59)

Next Lewis covers morality from a different, expanded perspective by describing seven essential virtues. There are four that are "Cardinal" (that is to say "pivotal"), and three "Theological." (p. 60)

First he explains what is meant by Prudence (using your faculties to the best of your ability--"The fact that you are giving money to a charity does not mean that you need not try to find out whether that charity is a fraud or not."--p. 61), Temperance ("A man who makes his golf or his motor-bicycle the centre of his life, or a woman who devotes all her thoughts to clothes or bridge or her dog, is being just as 'intemperate' as someone who gets drunk every evening.'--p. 62), Justice ("the old name for everything we should now call 'fairness'"--ibid.), and Fortitude ("both kinds of courage--the kind that faces danger as well as the kind that 'sticks it' under pain"--ibid.).

Lewis argues for the importance of training your soul [my term, not his] by exercising virtues just as you train your body for physical stamina.

Lewis has some fun tweaking both political conservatives and liberals on pp. 64-68 by describing his interpretation of a completely Christian society. He shows how both liberals and conservatives tend to pick what they like about Christian social morality while ignoring the parts they don't like.

On pp. 69-73 Lewis addresses the relationship between Christianity and psychoanalysis. Like the rest of the book, the concepts cannot be condensed without losing their power, but consider one insight Lewis gives: "Most of man's psychological make-up is probably due to his body: when his body dies all that will fall off him, and the real central man, the thing that chose, that made the best or worst out of this material, will stand naked. All sorts of things which we thought our own, but which were really due to a good digestion, will fall off some of us: all sorts of nasty things which were due to complexes or bad health will fall off others. We shall then, for the first time, see every one as he really was. There will be surprises." (pp. 71-72)

Modern troubles with sexual morality are, in Lewis' estimation, due to our having been "gorged" with the pleasures of too much sex, much like a glutton who eats after he stops feeling hungry. "There is nothing to be ashamed of in enjoying your food: there would be everything to be ashamed of if half the world made food the main interest of their lives and spent their time looking at pictures of food and dribbling and smacking their lips." (p. 77)

Lewis' chapter on Christian marriage (pp. 81-88) is classic and is very much what Christian leaders today are saying: marriage must last beyond feelings of "being in love" by making a conscious choice and using an act of will. Husband and wife can love each other even when feelings are absent. Lewis also gives good reasons for structuring a marriage on the unpopular tenet that the husband is the "head" of the two. As one argument for the latter, Lewis relays his own observations that women themselves don't respect men who shirk this obligation.

The theme of moral behavior not being enslaved by emotions continues in Lewis' treatment of Forgiveness on pp. 89-93. He observes that Christians are called to forgive their enemies, not to have undeserved good feelings about them. His best argument is based on inarguable experience: how does he love and forgive himself? He does it by an act of will, even when he is neither fond of himself nor finds himself attractive in the least.

Lewis said in his chapter on sexuality that it is not the center of Christian morality. On pp. 94-99 he reveals the center: the virtue of Humility to overcome the vice of Pride. Pride is at the root of many other symptomatic sins.

Charity, says Lewis on pp. 100-103, is Christian Love. As such, it is not ruled by emotions. It is a conscious choice to act as if you love someone. "When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him." (p. 101) That goes for our love of God, too. (p. 102)

Lewis next addresses the virtue of Hope. "[A]im for Heaven and you will get earth 'thrown in': aim at earth and you will get neither." (p. 104) One profound point he makes is that "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world." (p. 106) We were made for the Life to Come, and we should nurture our hope for the time when we will be perfectly fulfilled in the presence of God.

On Faith: "Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable." (p. 109) "No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good. A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is." (pp. 109-110)

In several places, including on p. 110, Lewis refutes the fallacy that Christianity is about us performing to God's specifications that He has set down in the Moral Law. Our obedience to the Law does not bring about salvation. Our behavior is neither an exam on which we will be graded to gain entrance to Heaven, nor is it a bargain between us and God that, if we keep our end (obey His Law) then He will keep His end (granting us eternal life). "Not hoping to get to Heaven as a reward for your actions, but inevitably wanting to act in a certain way because a first faint gleam of Heaven is already inside you." (p. 114-115)


"Theology is practical: especially now. In the old days, when there was less education and discussion, perhaps it was possible to get on with a very few simple ideas about God. But it is not so now. Everyone reads, everyone hears things discussed. Consequently, if you do not listen to Theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones...." (p. 120) "For when you get down to it, is not the popular idea of Christianity simply this: that Jesus Christ was a great moral teacher and that if only we took his advice we might be able to establish a better social order and avoid another war?" (p. 121)

A teaser about Lewis' treatment of our becoming Sons of God: "This world is a great sculptor's shop. We are the statues and there is a rumour going round the shop that some of us are some day going to come to life." (p. 124)

About God as three persons, I do not dare to simplify Lewis' chapter, but I can say that he gives a good, understandable explanation of the same approach which I personally take. That the Trinity is three distinct views of one being just as a cube is the same cube regardless of which of the six sides you are viewing. Read pp. 125-129 for some solid, practical Trinitarian Theology.

About Time: "It was the Theologians who first started the idea that some things are not in Time at all: later the Philosophers took it over: and now some of the scientists are doing the same." (p. 131) Lewis makes a lucid case for how God exists in a way that every instant of Time--past, present, and future--is Now for Him. (pp. 130-133)

Lewis explains a way of understanding the relationships among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that is very deep, beautiful, moving, and compelling. It explains why three is exactly enough. Eternal love exists between Father and Son, and the Spirit of love is the dynamic of their perfect, loving relationship. (pp. 135-137) Lewis calls that dynamic a "dance," and he concludes his concise chapter by explaining how Christ came to show us all how to dance--how we can live eternally with God. (pp. 137-138)

On p. 139, Lewis theorizes what we would be like without original sin. Here I elaborate on his ideas to make a supposition. Perhaps that is, in some sense, what the new heaven and new earth are all about. Perhaps we will, after all, live with Jacob and Moses and David and Elijah and the Apostles and all the subsequent saints in a new Eden. Then Hell is God's way of purging His original creation of all sin. That way he does not have to destroy anything he has made. Instead, in the Fullness of Time those who make the Final Choice to live apart from Him will live in eternal torment; the lives of His loyal creatures will be lives of eternal joy.

Christians believe we are part of an organism--a body--in which we all have a part to play. (pp. 143-145)

On p. 148 Lewis writes, "You might say that when two Christians are following Christ together there is not twice as much Christianity as when they are apart, but sixteen times as much." I think he should have said there is an infinite amount more than when there is only one believer, by virtue of Jesus' own promise that he will be in the midst of two or three gathered in His name.

pp. 152-158: Christianity doesn't demand that you be good; it demands that you give your life to Jesus Christ so that He can be good through you. Surrender yourself to Him, and He will replace the selfish sinner with a Son of God. It doesn't happen instantly anymore than a toddler learns to walk in a day, but Christ doesn't stop working on you until you become perfect. "As a great Christian writer (George MacDonald) pointed out, every father is pleased at the baby's first attempt to walk: no father would be satisfied with anything less than a firm, free, manly walk in a grown-up son. In the same way, he said, 'God is easy to please, but hard to satisfy.'" (p. 158)

On p. 166, Lewis gives a very helpful explanation of why the poor are blessed and why it is so difficult for the rich to enter God's kingdom. "Often people who have all these natural kinds of goodness cannot be brought to recognise their need for Christ at all until, one day, the natural goodness lets them down and their self-satisfaction is shattered." People who already have behavior problems "learn, in double quick time, that they need help."

"[M]ere improvement is not redemption, though redemption always improves people...." (p. 167)

True personality--true individuality--comes from God alone. "How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints." (p. 175)

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Content Last Updated: 25 April 1996

This document is http://www.purl.org/net/tbc/writing/merechri.htm. Copyright © 1996 Tim Chambers, mere_xtian@timchambersusa.com, http://alum.mit.edu/www/tbc 1E4AF729D5CEFFD0. You are encouraged to download, forward, copy, print, or distribute it, provided you do so in its entirety (including this notice) and do not sell or otherwise exploit it for commercial purposes.