Is Mere Christianity Hard or Easy?

The title for this blog was originally proposed as “Is Christianity Hard or Easy?” – a question which I still think worthwhile and rich. Nevertheless, I am going to take a slight detour from the original idea and first ask a separate question which will probably depress seasoned, older, readers of C. S. Lewis.

My slight variation is to ask about the book itself, the book which stands in the vanguard of Lewis’s apologetics, Mere Christianity, and to weigh the observation which so many of my students have supplied: is this book simply too hard for today’s reader? For the amazing thing (to my mind) is that a book once considered – and vilified – as a work of popular apologetics has come to be seen as exceedingly intellectual. The young minds of today’s universities find the book too argumentative, too predicated upon logic, and so one must ask about the book as well as the Christian belief proposed: is it too hard?

For full disclosure, I will note that it is not only students at my former university, Hillsdale College, who prompted the question. Whether I tutored students from Calvin College, Wheaton College, Williams College, Boston College – choose what you like – the unexpected feedback was that as admirable as Mere Christianity is, it might be pitched too high for today’s audience. A successful apologetic today needs a different approach. What such student feedback offers, perhaps, is a widespread reading of our culture’s intellectual temperature. It is cool to explicit logic. Under the excuse of post-modernism, today’s generation has a default position of mutual logical tolerance based on a deeper logic of some key principles. Arguments are commonly assessed as ‘working’ for the individual. More important to the contemporary student, something which is almost an arch-principle for them, is not to cause offense – and this puts rational argument in a bad position as it puts teachers on eggshells.

Most of us who teach suppose this is simply an unreflective prelogical state. The position becomes more peculiar, though, when students who are quite bright will happily maintain contradictions, even when pointed out. A syllogistic proof, a tight argument, an extended discourse, for whatever reason, simply doesn’t seem to move most students. Alas, too often they fail to perceive the argument in the first place. Once they do, they often find argument as a species too immaterial or hopelessly abstract. On the other hand and to their credit, a contemporary student is much more likely to be moved by personal narrative or an emotional appeal: by passion (reasoned or not), enthusiasm, and sincerity of purpose. What this means for their assessment of Lewis’s apologetics is then clear: too hard, too logical. Books like Mere Christianity, for them, take some wading and books like The Abolition of Man and Miracles are about beyond the pale for all but senior-year students. Such is the feedback from my approximately ten years of teaching and tutoring.

I gladly admit that my sample size of the American student is finite; many teachers may have seen much more rationally-mature responses to Mere Christianity. Still, the so-called scandal of the evangelical mind does not seem to be limited solely to evangelicals. There is something about the temperament of the soul of the young that makes our age distinct from Lewis’s. I am here reminded of Chesterton’s observation that a cultural loss of faith makes that culture fall back upon reason, and a loss of reason makes it fall back upon emotion; and emotion, as Lewis points out so well in Abolition, is extremely easy to manipulate when it is a prime determinant in decision-making. One has to be thankful, then, that so many of Lewis’s non-apologetic works employ emotional and imaginative power to sway a generation and culture that does still eagerly enjoy narrative, story, art, and advertisement.

If Lewis’s own apologetics appear scandalously hard today, there were commensurate difficulties in Lewis’s own day, if of a different order. The content of Lewis’s apologetics was not considered so hard as the context. By noting, for instance, the date of the broadcast talks, one sees at the outset C. S. Lewis’s astonishing ecumenism. The very idea of “mere Christianity” in the 1940’s was daring. The decay of Christian belief in Europe during the twentieth century should not overshadow the fact that leading Christian figures like Dorothy Sayers, T.S. Eliot, and Christopher Dawson were comparatively cutting-edge in their ecumenism. Tensions between Christian denominations were much sharper then than now and it is hard to reconstruct a period in one’s imagination where ecumenical prayer was suspect and liberal (a word one rarely applies to Lewis). The accounts of this period where the Catholic Dawson was critiqued for praying the Our Father with Protestants, where Catholic student societies in Oxford physically guarded against non-Catholics entering, and most English Protestants never stepped into a Catholic Church, can remind us that “mere Christianity” was not necessarily a given in 1940. Again, to refer to my modified title, mere Christianity was hard, not easy, even as an approach.

The very existence of the Inklings was a species of what Lewis would so gracefully espouse in its merely Christian constituency. The Catholic Tolkien and Dr. Havard mixed with the Anglo-Catholic Charles Williams, Nevill Coghill, and Hugo Dyson, while the centrist Anglicans like the Lewis brothers maintained friendships with, uh oh, Anthroposophists. It really is a motley bunch, and by contemporary standards, notably open. The comment by Hugo Dyson in 1946 that he would drop the Inklings if one more Papist joined the group, however, tells of a not-uncommon antipathy towards ecumenism. Furthermore, while much ink has been printed about Lewis’s abiding Ulster Protestant tendencies (e.g in his refusal to discuss denominational issues with Dom Bede Griffiths or J.R.R. Tolkien), the other side of the story is how open he was to the intellectual community of non-Anglicans. He deserves more credit for that even now.

Thus, for different reasons, “mere Christianity” was not easy then or now. One final point to make about the difficulties of mere Christianity is helpfully corroborated by the late Justin Phillips in his engaging book C.S. Lewis and the BBC. Most readers of Lewis by now have heard of the way in which the radio broadcast talks became one of, if not the, most successful work of apologetics for the past century. The success story, though, often skips the remarkable switch of genres from radio to print. We take radio for granted, but Phillips points out that radio programming was relatively newfangled at the outset of World War II. Only with the eclipse of TV, cinema, theatre, and print during the War (all for different reasons) could radio take the center-stage in national communication. But precisely because it was national, it was for the common man. If one reads the letters of Dorothy Sayers in the 1930’s, one finds some tart words about the cultural value of the BBC; an Oxford don much less an Oxford woman possessed serious reservations about the popular medium of radio; it was, as Sayer’s put it, “the spiritual home of the not-quite-first-rate” (The Letters of Dorothy Sayers, Vol. II).

So, when one asks whether the actual choice for Lewis to speak about mere Christianity on the somewhat déclassé BBC was hard or easy, we know the answer. It was, in the eyes of many of his peers, a sell-out of true academic integrity and an unforgivable condescension. It was also another conscious step by Lewis in the direction that would handicap his academic career at Oxford. We know well about Lewis’s work lecturing in every spare vacation day to soldiers and pilots preparing to die, about his incorporating listener’s objections into his final published book, about the rigid parameters of radio broadcasts under a radio Censor, and about the man who would audaciously address “Clues to the Meaning of the Universe” (for a start) in 10-15 minutes segments. All in all, the making and delivery of Mere Christianity was far from easy, but it was necessary. If one were to return to the original question as to whether Christianity itself was hard or easy, much the same answer applies. By analogy, this is what makes the student responses to such a powerful book a problem that needs solving. Many, many readers find Mere Christianity too hard. Precisely what makes the renewed case for the Christian faith in rational, imaginative, or emotional terms today is a subject wide open for discussion; that discussion too, is necessary – at least before the next generation comes along.

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Dr. Andrew Cuneo is presently a M.Div. candidate at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York, where he lives with his wife and three daughters. He completed his doctorate on C.S. Lewis at Merton College, Oxford, has taught English Literature at Hillsdale College for six years, and is currently training for ordained ministry in the Orthodox Church.

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