Mere Christianity – Book IV – Chapter 10 (“Nice People Or New Men?”)
Picking back up my notes for C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity”…
1. If Christianity is true, why are all Christians not obviously nicer than all non-Christians?
(a) Part of this question is very reasonable
“If conversion to Christianity makes no improvement in a man’s outward actions… I think we must suspect that his ‘conversion’ was largely imaginary…”
(i) Jesus told us to judge by results
“Fine feelings, new insights, greater interest in ‘religion’ mean nothing unless they make our actual behaviour better; just as in an illness ‘feeling better’ is not much good if the thermometer shows that your temperature is still going up… Christ told us to judge by results”
(ii) When we fail to live up to our calling, we make Christianity harder to believe for others
“When we Christians behave badly, or fail to behave well, we are making Christianity unbelievable to the outside world… Our careless lives set the outer world talking; and we give them grounds for talking in a way that throws doubt on the truth of Christianity itself”
(b) Part of this question is very unreasonable
But there is another way of demanding results in which the outer world may be quite illogical…. they should see the whole world neatly divided into two camps -Christian and non-Christian – and that all the people in the first camp at any given moment should be obviously nicer than all the people in the second.
There are several flaws with this kind of thinking…
(i) Few people are 100% something
“The world does not consist of 100 per cent Christians and 100 per cent non-Christians”
We could divide the different groups into:
(A) Those ceasing to be Christian
“There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name: some of them are clergymen”
(B) Those becoming Christian
“There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so”
(C) Those who are unknowingly being drawn to Christ
“There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand”
(D) Those being led by grace into those parts of their religion more in agreement with Christianity
“There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it. For example, a Buddhist of good will may be led to concentrate more and more on the Buddhist teaching about mercy and to leave in the background (though he might still say he believed) the Buddhist teaching on certain other points. Many of the good Pagans long before Christ’s birth may have been in this position”
(E) The confused
“And always, of course, there are a great many people who are just confused in mind and have a lot of inconsistent beliefs all jumbled up together”
Therefore, it doesn’t make much sense to do these kinds of comparison
“Consequently, it is not much use trying to make judgments about Christians and non-Christians in the mass. It is some use comparing cats and dogs, or even men and women, in the mass, because there one knows definitely which is which. Also, an animal does not turn (either slowly or suddenly) from a dog into a cat… If you want to compare the bad Christian and the good Atheist, you must think about two real specimens whom you have actually met. Unless we come down to brass tacks in that way, we shall only be wasting time”
(ii) What difference does Christianity make?
(A) A man should become a better man if he becomes a Christian
“Even then we must be careful to ask the right question. If Christianity is true then it ought to follow… That any Christian will be nicer than the same person would be if he were not a Christian… Just in the same way, if the advertisements of White-smile’s toothpaste are true it ought to follow… That anyone who uses it will have better teeth than the same person would have if he did not use it”
(B) This does not mean that a man may be a “good” man if he is not a Christian
“But to point out that I, who use Whitesmile’s (and also have inherited bad teeth from both my parents), have not got as fine a set as some healthy young Negro who never used toothpaste at all, does not, by itself, prove that the advertisements are untrue.Christian Miss Bates may have an unkinder tongue than unbelieving Dick Firkin. That, by itself, does not tell us whether Christianity works. The question is what Miss Bates’s tongue would be like if she were not a Christian and what Dick’s would be like if he became one.
(C) You have to look at the “raw materials” to which Christianity is being applied (or not applied)
“Miss Bates and Dick, as a result of natural causes and early upbringing, have certain temperaments: Christianity professes to put both temperaments under new management if they will allow it to do so. What you have a right to ask is whether that management, if allowed to take over, improves the concern. Everyone knows that what is being managed in Dick Firkin’s case is much ‘nicer’ than what is being managed in Miss Bates’s…
(D) Contrast two factories
“To judge the management of a factory, you must consider not only the output but the plant. Considering the plant at Factory A it may be a wonder that it turns out anything at all; considering the first-class outfit at Factory B its output, though high, may be a great deal lower than it ought to be. No doubt the good manager at Factory A is going to put in new machinery as soon as he can, but that takes time. In the meantime low output does not prove that he is a failure”
(iii) Everybody needs Christianity
“…it would sound as though Christ’s only aim was to pull Miss Bates up to the same level on which Dick had been all along. We have been talking, in fact, as if Dick were all right; as if Christianity was something nasty people needed and nice ones could afford to do without; and as if niceness was all that God demanded. But this would be a fatal mistake… In one sense (I will explain what sense in a moment) niceness hardly comes into the question.
(A) God looks at the raw materials and knows their origins
“You cannot expect God to look at Dick’s placid temper and friendly disposition exactly as we do. They result from natural causes which God Himself creates. Being merely temperamental, they will all disappear if Dick’s digestion alters. The niceness, in fact, is God’s gift to Dick, not Dick’s gift to God. In the same way, God has allowed natural causes, working in a world spoiled by centuries of sin, to produce in Miss Bates the narrow mind and jangled nerves which account for most of her nastiness…
(B) God is wanting the same thing from the “nasty” and the “nice”…
“[God] is waiting and watching for…something they can freely give Him or freely refuse to Him. Will they, or will they not, turn to Him and thus fulfil the only purpose for which they were created? Their free will is trembling inside them like the needle of a compass. But this is a needle that can choose. It can point to its true North; but it need not. Will the needle swing round, and settle, and point to God?
…Will Miss Bates and Dick offer their natures to God? The question whether the natures they offer or withhold are, at that moment, nice or nasty ones, is of secondary importance”
(C) Niceness is a good thing, but something which he gives
“Of course God regards a nasty nature as a bad and deplorable thing. And, of course, He regards a nice nature as a good thing – good like bread, or sunshine, or water. But these are the good things which He gives and we receive. He created Dick’s sound nerves and good digestion, and there is plenty more where they came from. It costs God nothing, so far as we know, to create nice things: but to convert rebellious wills cost Him crucifixion…
There is a paradox here. As long as Dick does not turn to God, he thinks his niceness is his own, and just as long as he thinks that, it is not his own. It is when Dick realises that his niceness is not his own but a gift from God, and when he offers it back to God – it is just then that it begins to be really his own. For now Dick is beginning to take a share in his own creation. The only things we can keep are the things we freely give to God. What we try to keep for ourselves is just what we are sure to lose”
2. Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised to find nasty Christians
“We must, therefore, not be surprised if we find among the Christians some people who are still nasty. There is even, when you come to think it over, a reason why nasty people might be expected to turn to Christ in greater numbers than nice ones”
(a) It happened in Jesus’ day…
“That was what people objected to about Christ during His life on earth: He seemed to attract ‘such awful people.’ That is what people still object to, and always will”
(b) Poverty and riches have a large part to play
(i) The rich
“Christ said ‘Blessed are the poor’ and ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom,’ and no doubt He primarily meant the economically rich and economically poor. But do not His words also apply to another kind of riches and poverty? One of the dangers of having a lot of money is that you may be quite satisfied with the kinds of happiness money can give and so fail to realise your need for God. If everything seems to come simply by signing checks, you may forget that you are at every moment totally dependent on God. Now quite plainly, natural gifts carry with them a similar danger. If you have sound nerves and intelligence and health and popularity and a good upbringing, you are likely to be quite satisfied with your character as it is. ‘Why drag God into it?’ you may ask. A certain level of good conduct comes fairly easily to you. You are not one of those wretched creatures who are always being tripped up by sex, or dipsomania, or nervousness, or bad temper. Everyone says you are a nice chap and (between ourselves) you agree with them. You are quite likely to believe that all this niceness is your own doing: and you may easily not feel the need for any better kind of goodness. 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. In other words, it is hard for those who are ‘rich’ in this sense to enter the Kingdom.
(ii) The poor
“It is very different for the nasty people – the little, low, timid, warped, thin-blooded, lonely people, or the passionate, sensual, unbalanced people. If they make any attempt at goodness at all, they learn, in double quick time, that they need help. It is Christ or nothing for them. It is taking up the cross and following-or else despair. They are the lost sheep; He came specially to find them. They are (in one very real and terrible sense) the ‘poor’: He blessed them. They are the ‘awful set’ he goes about with-and of course the Pharisees say still, as they said from the first, ‘If there were anything in Christianity those people would not be Christians.’
(c) This is either a warning or an encouragement
“There is either a warning or an encouragement here for every one of us”
“If you are a nice person – if virtue comes easily to you beware! Much is expected from those to whom much is given. If you mistake for your own merits what are really God’s gifts to you through nature, and if you are contented with simply being nice, you are still a rebel: and all those gifts will only make your fall more terrible, your corruption more complicated, your bad example more disastrous. The Devil was an archangel once; his natural gifts were as far above yours as yours are above those of a chimpanzee”
“But if you are a poor creature – poisoned by a wretched upbringing in some house full of vulgar jealousies and senseless quarrels-saddled, by no choice of your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion – nagged day in and day out by an inferiority complex that makes you snap at your best friends-do not despair. He knows all about it. You are one of the poor whom He blessed. He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive. Keep on. Do what you can. One day (perhaps in another world, but perhaps far sooner than that) he will fling it on the scrap-heap and give you a new one. And then you may astonish us all-not least yourself: for you have learned your driving in a hard school. (Some of the last will be first and some of the first will be last.)”
3. Niceness is good, but Christianity is far more than just that
(a) We should seek after “niceness”
“‘Niceness’ – wholesome, integrated personality-is an excellent thing. We must try by every medical, educational, economic, and political means in our power, to produce a world where as many people as possible grow up ‘nice’; just as we must try to produce a world where all have plenty to eat”
(b) But Christianity is about far more than that
“But we must not suppose that even if we succeeded in making everyone nice we should have saved their souls. A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world-and might even be more difficult to save.
For mere improvement is not redemption, though redemption always improves people even here and now and will, in the end, improve them to a degree we cannot yet imagine. God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature. Of course, once it has got its wings, it will soar over fences which could never have been jumped and thus beat the natural horse at its own game. But there may be a period, while the wings are just beginning to grow, when it cannot do so: and at that stage the lumps on the shoulders-no one could tell by looking at them that they are going to be wings-may even give it an awkward appearance”
4. Don’t go for cheap arguments against Christianity and assume to know one man’s soul
(a) Use real arguments
“If what you want is an argument against Christianity (and I well remember how eagerly I looked for such arguments when I began to be afraid it was true) you can easily find some stupid and unsatisfactory Christian and say, ‘So there’s your boasted new man! Give me the old kind.’ But if once you have begun to see that Christianity is on other grounds probable, you will know in your heart that this is only evading the issue.
(b) Don’t present to know another man’s soul
What can you ever really know of other people’s souls – of their temptations, their opportunities, their struggles?
(c) Look to yourself
“One soul in the whole creation you do know: and it is the only one whose fate is placed in your hands. If there is a God, you are, in a sense, alone with Him. You cannot put Him off with speculations about your next door neighbours or memories of what you have read in books. What will all that chatter and hearsay count (will you even be able to remember it?) when the anaesthetic fog which we call “nature” or “the real world” fades away and the Presence in which you have always stood becomes palpable, immediate, and unavoidable?”