Book review: “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis

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Book review: “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis

I finish C.S. Lewis’ 1952 book Mere Christianity with great sadness, respect and hope.

Across more than six decades, Lewis is talking to me and anyone else who will listen about his Christian faith.

Those many years, nearly as long as my lifetime, seem a great chasm between Lewis and me — between his experience of the world and mine, between his experience of his faith and mine.

That’s where the sadness comes in.

most toys bumper stickerLewis writes, for instance, that “Selfishness has never been admired.” Yet, I live in a world in which, for a little more than $4, you can order a bumper sticker for your car to proclaim to the world your belief that “He who dies with the most toys wins.”

He writes that “the Christian rule is, ‘Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.’ ” While I affirm the need for faithfulness in marriage, I cannot agree that, outside of marriage, total abstinence is the only choice.

He writes that “Christian wives promise to obey their husbands. In Christian marriage, the man is said to be the ‘head,’ ” and then goes on to argue that this is only logical. I can’t agree. Indeed, I see the recognition of the need for equality in marriage as one of the great breakthroughs during my lifetime in the way humans see the world.

 

In accordance and not

There are many items such as these that I found throughout Mere Christianity, and they make me sad because I don’t want to be at odds with Lewis.

I respect him for making the effort to put his faith into words so that non-Christians can get a glimpse of what it means to be a Christian.

In this book, which started as radio addresses in the early 1940s during World War II, he is so clearly trying to be open and honest and clear and accessible and personal and, above all, faithful to his concept of Christian belief.

lewis.mere

He is so clearly not priggish, nor belligerent. He is not setting himself up as a judge and jury. He is not argumentative. He is, instead, achingly friendly and supportive.

And, for all the things he says which don’t fit my experience of the world and Christianity, there are many more that resonate with me. For instance, when discussing how God can permit evil to exist, Lewis writes:

But anyone who has been in authority knows how a thing can be in accordance with your will in one way and not in another.

It may be quite sensible for a mother to say to the children, “I’m not going to go and make you tidy the schoolroom every night. You’ve got to learn to keep it tidy on your own.” Then she goes up one night and finds the Teddy bear and the ink and the French Grammar all lying in the grate. That is against her will. She would prefer the children to be tidy. But on the other hand, it is her will which has left the children free to be untidy.

The same thing arises in any regiment, or trade union, or school. You make a thing voluntary and then half the people do not do it. That is not what you willed, but your will has made it possible.

There’s a very homey quality to these metaphors, and a canny common sense. And most of the examples or comparisons that Lewis trots out are this way — homey and commonsensical.

 

God as a pulsating drama, a pulsating dance

Lewis makes an important point when he writes that an individual’s search for God can’t be done in isolation. He writes:

Consequently, the one really adequate instrument for learning about God is the whole Christian community, waiting for Him together.

A few pages later, he expands on this by defining the Holy Spirit as the union — the connection — between the Father and the Son. He writes:

You know that among human beings, when they get together in a family, or a club, or a trade union, people talk about the “spirit” of that family, or club, or trade union.

They talk about its “spirit” because the individual members, when they are together, do really develop particular ways of talking and behaving which they would not have if they were apart. It is as if this sort of communal personality [between the Father and Son] came into existence [in the Holy Spirit].

For Lewis, God “is not a static thing…but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance.”

 

Sadness and respect intermingled

My sadness and respect for Mere Christianity intermingle in another way. Lewis is using logic and insights into human nature to prove rationally that Christianity is the best religion. Or, maybe better put, to prove rationally why he thinks Christianity is better than any other faith.

This approach is so foreign to my own dance with faith.

To be sure, great thinkers down through the centuries have employed reason to try to understand the nature of God and to understand the relationship of human beings to God and to understand what it means to live a good life — indeed, to understand the meaning of life.

I am familiar with that approach and used it myself in my younger years. Ultimately, though, I found my faith in Jesus deepening in ways that had little or nothing to do with reason.

 

Relationships and communication

I think that Lewis is spot-on when he writes that faith can’t exist outside of a community. But I don’t think he takes this insight far enough.

He writes of the Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — as a kind of community, as a relationship. And, for me, I have found that my faith is rooted in my relationships.

Indeed, I think I would have to say that the primary source of my faith and the continuing fuel of that faith is through the relationships I share — first of all, with my wife and children.

Also important are the relationships I share with my faith family at St. Gertrude Roman Catholic parish on Chicago’s Far North Side where we celebrate together our joys and mourn together our losses and try together to tease out the meaning of faith in the here and now.

Similarly, my relationships with other people I come in contact with — whether Christian or not — are where I learn much about what it means to be human….and to be good.

Then there are my relationships with people I’ve never met — people who, from the beginning of human history, have wrestled with trying to understand the meaning of life and who communicate to me through their writings (St. Paul, for instance, and Abraham Lincoln, Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare) and through their actions (Dorothy Day, for example, and St. Francis of Assisi). And through their art — J.S. Bach, Edouard Manet, Michelangelo, the Della Robbia family of sculptors, Mozart, Ennio Morricone.

Even though I have never met them, they have communicated to me, and my faith has grown deeper and more nuanced.

Relationships and communication — a sharing of our experience here on earth. These have been great teachers for me.

 

Evil, pain and unfairness

In Mere Christianity, Lewis sees life as a battle between the forces of good and bad.

I recognize the reality of evil acts and systems in the world and of people who do evil.

I also recognize the great pain that any human being suffers going through life, some much more than others.

I recognize the unfairness of life. For instance, how a child born to one mother faces a pampered life while the child of another finds the cards stacked against him —marginalized because of his race and class and because of the many ways the American economic system refuses to address the myriad problems he must face.

I recognize the unfairness when one person gets cancer while another doesn’t. When a child drowns. When a traffic accident maims a young woman.

Some of the pain of life is due to what people do. Some isn’t. Some of the unfairness of life is due to what people do. Some isn’t.

 

The death of my career

I look to Jesus in the crucifixion and resurrection as a symbol of the core of life.

Day in, day out, I find that I die in many ways, often painfully, such as when I was laid off by the Chicago Tribune after more than 32 years there.

This can be viewed from the perspective of unfairness or even corporate evil, but, at the deepest level, I see my Tribune lay-off as, above all, an example of how any human life is filled with pain.

With a death such as this or even the very minor death such as when a leaky pen ruins one of my good shirts, the question, for me, is less about what caused it. The question is what do I do in reaction.

I could let a ruined shirt mess up my day, but, in truth, I’m no clothes horse and have no affectionate attachment to any of my shirts. (Well, that’s not true. I’d feel it if I ruined one of my New York Yankee jerseys.)

But, being laid off by the Tribune left me in a funk for five years. The question I faced, though, on the day I walked out of Tribune Tower was what I was going to do after suffering this great pain.

Pat at Trib in 1987

For me, the lesson of Jesus and the lesson of life was that I had to accept the reality of the pain of the death of my Tribune career, and start taking the first steps of my new non-Tribune life.

In other words, I had to accept the death, and do what I could to create the resurrection that was to come.

 

“Blooming”

When I think of Jesus dying on the cross and rising from the dead, I think of a flower in my wife’s garden.

It starts as a seed and transforms itself, rising above the soil to reach to the sun and then, in time, to die — to be resurrected later with its atoms creating a new flower or becoming part of a bird or a tree or, even, me.

I also think of two lines from a poem by a great American poet, Gwendolyn Brooks:

This is the urgency: Live!
and have your blooming in the noise of the whirlwind.

brooks...whirlwind

Life is a whirlwind. My faith is that my job is to bloom.

I trust, hope and believe that my blooming in the noise of the whirlwind is God’s will.

In other words, living.

Patrick T. Reardon
7.11.16

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