How appealing is Lewis’s conception of Christianity as he presents it here? Has it clarified any theological confusions you may have had, or changed your own beliefs about how to live as a Christian? Do you think Lewis’s ideas about virtue and morality can be valuable for non-Christians?
The first time I read Mere Christianity, I was nineteen years old and was traveling around the British Isles with the specific intent of visiting the places where C. S. Lewis lived and worked. I had been a fan of the Narnia books since the time my fourth grade public school teacher read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to our class. Then, in 1982, I decided to make a serious attempt to read all the Lewis books I had not yet read. I especially remember reading Mere Christianitywhile visiting Donegal in the Republic of Ireland. It was a day of heavy rain and I was in bed with a head cold and my book. At that time, I had many intellectual questions about the Christian faith in which I had been raised. However, by the time I reached Lewis’ chapter “The Shocking Alternative,” my main question, about the identity of Jesus, was answered.
I have personally found Lewis to be no less helpful on somewhat lesser issues. The more I have grown as a Christian and become more deeply aware of my own sins, the more I have come to appreciate what Lewis had to say about Jesus as “The Perfect Penitent.” However, I have also grown in gratitude for Lewis’s openness to truth wherever it may be found. In this regard, I am especially thankful for this statement at the beginning of his chapter on the rival conceptions of God:
If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through. If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all these religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth. When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view. But, of course, being a Christian does mean thinking that where Christianity differs from other religions, Christianity is right and they are wrong. As in arithmetic—there is only one right answer to a sum, and all other answers are wrong: but some of the wrong answers are much nearer being right than others.
How appealing is Lewis’ conception of Christianity presented here? Very. But not only to me, not only to other Anglicans like Lewis, but to Christians right across the spectrum. I have led C. S. Lewis discussion groups in various cities around the United States and spoken about Lewis around the world, in addition to writing a Lewis blog read by people from nearly every nation. What never ceases to amaze me is the breadth of Lewis’ appeal. Not all Christians agree with Lewis on every point. However, I have met countless Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant believers who have been greatly helped by Mere Christianity.
But what about non-Christians? Is there anything for them in Mere Christianity? Certainly for those willing to listen to a finely reasoned argument for Christian faith there is something worthy of every person’s reading. Are Lewis’ ideas about virtue and morality valuable for non-Christians? Perhaps it would be best to ask a non-Christian that question. However, as a pastor and evangelist who has interacted with non-Christians over many years I would say there are a few things valuable in what Lewis has to say. One is that it is helpful for every person considering Christianity to not only be given reasons to believe, but a picture of what the Christian life is like. Lewis does an admirable job of describing this territory in “Christian Behavior.” It also seems to me that the vast majority of non-Christians today wish to practice some kind of morality, even the classic virtues. Lewis beautifully describes these virtues; he also reveals what happens when one tries to practice them. Lewis says in his second chapter on faith:
A serious moral effort is the only thing that will bring you to the point where you throw up the sponge. Faith in Christ is the only thing to save you from despair at that point: and out of that Faith in Him good actions must inevitably come.
It seems to me that the “serious moral effort” Lewis describes, would be a worthy exercise for every person, Christian or not, and that the discovery of our bankruptcy which inevitably follows such an effort can lead to the realization of the greatest hope that has ever been offered to humankind.
Will Vaus (M.Div., Princeton Theological Seminary) is the author of a number of books including: Mere Theology: A Guide to the Thought of C. S. Lewis and Keys to Growth: Meditations on the Acts of the Apostles.