Reading “Mere Christianity” at The Eagle And Child

LewisAs you may have noticed, I have not been posting much on the blog recently. I have been far from idle, but I haven’t found time to sit down and write. Two main projects are occupying my time at the moment.

The first is a podcast which I hope to launch next month.

The second item consuming my time is a new CS Lewis reading group which is starting next month. This group, “The Eagle and Child”, named after the pub in which CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien met with The Inklings, will be a monthly meeting to discuss the works of CS Lewis.

The first book we will be reading is Lewis’ classic “Mere Christianity”. This book grew out of talks Lewis gave on the radio during World War II, in which he outlines, with his usual charm and humour, his case for Christianity.

Rather than having the blog go completely quiet, I will be posting my notes for “Mere Christianity” as I read through it in preparation for each of our meetings. You’re invited to¬†read along with me ūüôā

Book I – Summary
Chapter 1 – “The Law of Human Nature”
Chapter 2 – “Some Objections”
Chapter 3 – “The Reality of the Law”
Chapter 4 – “What lies behind the Law”
Chapter 5 – “We have cause to be uneasy”

Mere Christianity – Preface


As I mentioned yesterday, I will be publishing my notes as I read through “Mere Christianity” by CS Lewis.

Notes & Quotes

Today I am working through the Preface where CS Lewis (“Jack”) speaks about the book itself…

1. The book was based on a series of radio talks which were subsequently published in three separate parts. 

2. We are told that this book will not be of help to anyone trying to decide between two denominations. 

“…I have thought that the best…service I could do for my unbelieving neighbours was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times”

(a) Many of the issues relate to high theology or history and should only be tackled by experts.

“I should have been out of my depth in such waters: more in need of help myself than able to help others”

(b) Discussing disputed points doesn’t encourage non-Christians to convert

“Our divisions should never be discussed expect in the presence of those who have already come to believe that there is one God and that Jesus Christ is His only Son”

3. Instead, Jack is going to defend what Baxter calls ‘mere’ Christianity.¬†Richard Baxter was a 17th century Anglican minister and uses the term in his book “The Saints’ Everlasting Rest”. When Jack refers to “Uncle Toby” in this section, he is¬†referring to¬†a character in “Tristam Shandy”, a book by Laurence Sterne. When asked about the duties of a marriage man, the book’s character replies that “they are written‚Ķin the Common-Prayer Book”.

“That part of the line where I thought I could serve best was also the part that seemed to be thinnest”

(a)¬†In an effort to present a ‘mere’ Christianity, he sent the manuscript for Book II to a number of clergymen (Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic).

“So far as I can judge…the book…did at least succeed in presenting an agreed, or common, or central, or ‘mere’ Christianity”

(b) Even this ‘mere’ Christianity was formidable…¬†Jack uses the Latin phrase “Odium theologicum” which means “theological hatred”.

“…it may possibly be of some help in silencing the view that, if we omit the disputed points, we shall have left only a vague and bloodless [Highest Common Factor]. The H.C.F. turns out to be something not only positive but pungent”

(c) …which at least points to why we should be reunited

“If I have not directly helped the cause of reunion, I have perhaps made it clear why we ought to be reunited”

4. He asks his readers to refrain from speculation as to why he does not mention some disputed issues.

“I should be very glad if people would not draw fanciful inferences from my silence on certain disputed matters”

(a) This is because sometimes…

(i) …he is sitting on the fence…

“There are questions at issue between Christians to which I do not think we have been told the answer”

(ii) …but other times he is not.

(b) You cannot conclude whether or not he thinks the matter important

“…you cannot even conclude, from my silence on disputed points, either that I think them important or that I think them unimportant. For this is itself one of the disputed points”

(c) He doesn’t want to talk about issues with which he has no experience

“I have a reluctance to say much about temptations to which I myself am not exposed. No man, I suppose, is tempted to every sin. It so happens that the impulse which makes men gamble has been left out of my make-up; and, no doubt, I pay for this by lacking some good impulse of which it is the excess or perversion”

6. Two particular disputed matters are mentioned

(a) The Blessed Virgin Mary

“The Roman Catholic beliefs on that subject are held not only with the ordinary fervour that attaches to all sincere religious belief, but…with…chivalrous sensibility that a man feels when the honour of his mother or his beloved is at stake…contrariwise…Protestant beliefs on this subject…it seems that the distinction between Creator and creature (however holy) is imperilled”

(b) Contraception

“I am not a woman nor even a married man, nor am I a priest. I did not think it my place to take a firm line about pains, dangers and expenses from which I am protected; having no pastoral office which obliged me to do so”

7. He addresses those who object to his use of the word “Christian”, who wish to use it more generally to those who are Christ-like

(a) Lewis shows how the word “gentleman” has been drained of all its meaning following a similar “deepening” of meaning

“When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker’s attitude to that object… A gentleman, once it has been spiritualised and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes”

(b)¬†If the term “Christian” refers to an interior disposition which we can never know, the word becomes useless

“…Christians themselves will never be able to apply it to anyone. It is not for us to say who, in the deepest sense, is or is not close to the spirit of Christ. We do not see into men’s hearts… And obviously a word which we can never apply is not going to be a very useful word”

“When a man who accepts the Christian doctrine lives unworthily of it, it is much clearer to say he is a bad Christian than to say he is not a Christian”

8.¬†We are told that ‘mere’ Christianity is not a replacement for existing creeds, but is instead a hall

“It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms”

(a) The goal is to get into a room

“…it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in”

(b) The room we entered shouldn’t be based on taste, but on truth

“…you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and panelling…Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here?”

(c) We should be kind to those in other rooms and those in the hall

“…be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house”

Discussion Questions

1. What do you think about Jack’s decision to not get into denominational disputes?

2. Do you think that ‘mere’ Christianity is sufficient?

3. What are the reasons he sometimes doesn’t mention controversial topics?

4. What do you make of his comments about contraception?

5. What analogy does Jack use to describe ‘mere’ Christianity and the different denominations? What advice does he give?

Mere Christianity – Foreword


Notes & Quotes

Here are my notes from the Foreword of Mere Christianity which, in my edition is written by Kathleen Norris. Her words are in green and Lewis’ are in dark blue.

1. CS Lewis served in the trenches of World War I

2. During the Battle Of Britain, CS Lewis was an air raid warden and gave talks to the men of the Royal Air Force

3. These pilots had a life-expectancy of thirteen bombing missing and therefore these talks were not purely academic endeavours

“This book, then, does not consist of academic philosophical musings. Rather it is a work of oral literature, addressed to a people at war”

4. This therefore makes the content of his talks all the more surprising

“How strange it must have seemed to turn on the radio, which was every day bringing news of death and unspeakable destruction, and hear one man talking…about decent and humane behavior, faith play, and the importance of knowing right from wrong”

5. Lewis gets to the heart of the matter…

“All of our notions of modernity and progress and all our advances in technological expertise have not brought an end to war. Our declaring the notion of sin to be obsolete has not diminished human suffering”

6.¬†…and tells us where the problem is

“The problem, C. S. Lewis insists is us

7. Lewis told his friends that this generation had never in fact been told in basic terms what Christianity is all about.

“Lewis seeks…to help us see the religion with fresh eyes, as a radical faith whose adherents might be likened to an underground group gathering in a war zone, a place where evil seems to have the upper hand, to hear messages of hope from the other side”

8. Lewis explains his outlook on humanity

“Lewis once stated, that ‘there are no ordinary people’ and that ‘it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit’

9. Lewis calls his readers/listeners to embrace the fullness of life by embracing Christianity

“The Christianity Lewis espouses is humane, but not easy…we must decide what sort of immortals we wish to be… As Lewis reminds us, with his customary humor and wit, ‘How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different the saints’

Discussion Questions

1. In what way do you think war influenced Jack in writing this book and in the way it was received?

2. Why did Jack decide to make this presentation of Christianity?

3. How would you describe his Christianity?

Mere Christianity – Book I – Chapter 1 (“The Law of Human Nature”)

Book 1

Notes & Quotes

Here are my notes for the first chapter of Mere Christianity. In this chapter, Jack argues two main points:

1. There is a Law of Human Nature

“…the man who makes [these objections] is not merely saying that the other man’s behaviour does not happen to please him. He is appealing to some kind of standard of behaviour which he expects the other man to know about”

“Quarrelling means trying to show that the other man is in the wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are; just as there would be no sense in saying that a footballer had committed a foul unless there was some agreement about the rules of football”

(a) The Law of Human Nature is the only one which we can choose to disobey

“a body could not choose whether it obeyed the law of gravitation or not, but a man could choose either to obey the Law of Human Nature or to disobey it… As a body [a man] is subjected to gravitation…if you leave him unsupported in mid-air, he has no more choice about falling than a stone has…but the law which is peculiar to human nature…is the one he can disobey if he chooses”

(b) You may still find a few people who don’t really know the Law of Human Nature

“…you might not find an odd individual here and there who did not know it, just as you find a few people who are colour-blind or have no ear for a tune”

(c) Differences in morality are not that great

“…some people say…different civilisations and different ages have had quite different moralities. But this is not true. There have been differences between their moralities, but these have never amounted to anything like a total difference”

“…think what a totally different morality would mean. Think of a country where people were admired for running away in a battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well imagine a country where two and two made five”

(d) Those who deny a real Right and Wrong will accidentally betray themselves

“He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining ‘It’s not fair’ before you can say Jack Robinson”

2. We do not keep this Law 

(a) That doesn’t change the Law itself

“…people sometimes get their sums wrong; but they are not a matter of mere taste and opinion any more than the multiplication table”

(b) Our excuses prove we do not keep the Law

“If we do not believe in decent behaviour, why should we be so anxious to make excuses for not having behaved decently?”

(c) We demonstrate the Law by only make excuses for the bad things, not the good.

“…you notice that it is only for our bad behaviour that we find all these explanations. It is only our bad temper that we put down to being tired or worried or hungry; we put our good temper down to ourselves”

Discussion Questions

1. What does Lewis argue we can we learn from the way people quarrel?

2. Why should we believe that the Law of Human Nature is real?

3.¬†Do you think it’s true that we don’t live according to the Law of Human Nature?

C.S. Lewis Doodle

Mere Christianity – Book I – Chapter 2 (“Some Objections”)

Book 1

Notes & Quotes

Here are my notes for Chapter 2 (Book 1) of¬†Mere Christianity.¬†In this chapter, Jack outlines objections which might be raised in response to his assertion that there is a Moral Law of which we all fall short…

Objection #1: “Isn’t what you call the Moral Law simply our heard instinct?

There is a difference between instinct and the Moral Law.

“‚Ķfeeling a desire to help is quite different from feeling that you ought to help whether you want to or not”

The Moral Law judges between instincts.

“‚Ķ[there is] a third thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away. Now this thing that judges between two instincts‚Ķcannot itself be either of them‚Ķit usually seems to be telling us to side with the weaker of the two impulses‚Ķ[and] often tells us to try to make the right impulse stronger”

No instinct dominates, every instinct has its place.

“The Moral Law tells us the tune we have to play: our instincts are merely the keys‚Ķ[a piano] has not got two kinds of notes on it, the ‚Äėright‚Äô noes and the ‚Äėwrong‚Äô ones‚Ķ There is none of our impulses which the Moral Law may not sometimes tell us to suppress, and none which it may not sometimes tell us to encourage”

Objection #2: “Isn‚Äôt what you call the Moral Law just a social convention, something that is put into us by education?”

Learning something doesn’t automatically make it a convention.

“‚Ķ[this takes] for granted that if we have learned a thing from parents and teachers, then that thing must be merely a human invention. We all learned the multiplication table at school‚Ķbut surely it does not follow that the multiplication table is simply a human convention‚Ķ[which] might have made different if they had liked?”

Some things we learn are only convention, but others are not.

“‚Ķsome of the things we learn are mere conventions‚Ķto keep to the left of the road‚Ķand others of them, like mathematics, are real truths. The question is to which class the Law of Human Nature belongs”

The Law of Human Nature is real truths:

1. It is universal

“‚Ķthe differences are‚Ķnot nearly so great as most people imagine‚Ķmere conventions‚Ķmay differ to any extent”

2. We compare moralities, thinking one better than another

“We do believe that some moralities are better than others‚Ķ The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other‚Ķreal Right, independent of what people think”

Objection #3: “Three hundred years ago people in England were putting witches to death. Was that what you call the Rule of Human Nature or Right Conduct?”

There is a difference between belief about facts and morality.

“You would not call a man humane for ceasing to set mousetraps if he did so because he believed there were no mice in the house”

Discussion Questions

1. How does Jack make a distinction between the Law of Human Nature and heard instinct?

2. How does Jack distinguish between social convention and real truth, like Mathematics? Why might we think that the Law of Human Nature fall into the latter category?

C.S. Lewis Doodle

There’s no doodle for this chapter! ūüôĀ

Mere Christianity – Book I – Chapter 3 (“The reality of the Law”)

Book 1

Notes & Quotes

These are my notes for Chapter 3 of “Mere Christianity”. Here, Jack tries to penetrate the Law of Human Nature more deeply and explains why its presence and our disobedience to it is odd…

1. The fact that there is a Law of Human Nature and that we don’t always obey it is odd

(a) Some people questioned why he called it “odd”

(i) They said that¬†it’s not odd, it only shows that humans are imperfect

(ii) …but Jack points out that the idea of something being imperfect is important

“…the very idea of something being imperfect, of its not being what it ought to be, has certain consequences”

(b) He asks whether, when you say that stones obey the Law of Gravity whether or not it’s the same thing as just saying what stones do.¬†

“The laws of nature, as applied to stones or trees, may only mean ‘what Nature, in fact, does'”

(c) However, the Law of Human Nature tells us something different and this is odd, it is prescriptive, not descriptive…

“…the Law of Human Nature tells you what human beings ought to do and do not. In other words, when you are dealing with humans, something else comes in above and beyond the actual facts. You have the facts (how men do behave) and you have something else (how they ought to behave)”

2. Some will try to explain away the oddness…

(a) …by saying that when someone doesn’t act rightly he is simply being inconvenient to you

“…we might try to make out that when you say a man ought not to act as he does, you only mean the same as when you say that a stone is the wrong shape [for your rockery]; namely, that what he is doing happens to be inconvenient to you”

(i) However, we can have two identical inconveniences yet blame one while we might not blame another.

“A man occupying the corner seat in the train because he got there first, and a man who slipped into it while my back was turned and removed my bag, are both equally inconvenient”

(ii) We can be angry even if we are not inconvenienced

“I am angry with a man who tries to trip me up even if he does not succeed”

(iii) We call some behaviour “bad” even if it is convenient to us!

“In war, each side may find a traitor on the other side very useful. But though they puse him and pay him they regard him as human vermin

(iv) Our own “good” behaviour often is inconvenient!

“It means things like…doing school work honestly when it would be easy to cheat…staying in dangerous places when you would rather go somewhere safer, keeping promises you would rather not keep…”

(b) …by saying that “good” behaviour might not benefit us immediately, but benefits humanity as a whole

“…decent conduct does not mean what pays each particular person at a particular moment…it means what pays the human race as a whole”

(i) It is true that safety and happiness is dependent upon societal cooperation

“…[we] see that you cannot have any real safety or happiness expect in a society where every one plays fair, and it is because they see this that they try to behave decently”

(ii) However, it misses the point and results in circular reasoning:

Q. Why should we be unselfish?
A. For the good of society.
Q. Why should I care about society except where it affects me personally?
A. Because you ought to be unselfish

“If a man asked what was the point of playing football, it would not be much good saying ‘in order to score goals’, for trying to score goals is the game itself, not the reason for the game, and you would really only be saying that football is football – which is true, but not worth saying”

3. From all this we conclude that the Law of Human Nature is real and speaks to another kind of reality

“…the Law of Human Nature…[is] a thing that is really there, not made up by ourselves. And yet it is not a fact …in the same way as our actual behaviour is a fact. It begins to look as if we shall have to admit that there is more than one kind of reality…yet quite definitely real – a real law, which none of us made, but which we find pressing on us”

Discussion Questions

1. Since the Law of Nature is prescriptive, what does this tell us about the world?

C.S. Lewis Doogle

Mere Christianity – Book I – Chapter 4 (“What lies behind the Law”)

Book 1

Notes & Quotes

These are my notes from the penultimate chapter of Book 1 of “Mere Christianity”:

1. What is this universe and how did it come to be here? There are two (or three) main views on the subject (neither of which are new):

(a) The Materialist view

“…matter and space just happen to exist…[which] by some sort of fluke produced creates like ourselves who are able to think”

(b) The Religious View

“…which is behind the universe is more like a mind…conscious, and has purposes, and prefers one thing to another…”

2. Science can’t tell you which view is correct

“…why anything comes to be…and whether there is anything behind the things science observes – something of a different kind – this is not a scientific question”

3. We know more about mankind than the universe because we don’t simply observe mankind

“We do not merely observe men, we are men…we have, so to speak, inside information”

4. Since we are man, we know that we are under a moral law

“…men find themselves under a moral law, which they did not make, and cannot quite forget even when they try, and which they know they ought to obey”

5. If there a controlling power outside the universe it could not be inside the universe

“…no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall… The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way”

6. This doesn’t take us all the way to the Christian God

“All I have got to is a Something which is directly the universe, and which appears in me as a law urging me to do right… I think we have to assume it is more like a mind¬†than it is like anything¬†else we know – because…the only other thing we know is matter and you can hardly imagine a bit of matter giving instructions”

7. There was actually a third possible worldview regarding the universe, Life-Force philosophy

“…the small variations by which life on this planet ‘evolved’…were not due to chance but to the ‘striving’ or ‘purposiveness’ of a Life-Force”

(a) When we hear someone say this, we should ask whether this “life-force” has a mind:

(i) If yes, then it is really a god

(ii) If no, then how can something without a mind ‘strive’ and have ‘purposes’?

(b) This worldview is attractive

“…it gives one much of the emotional comfort of believing in God and none of the less pleasant consequences…[the life-force] will never interfere with you like that troublesome God we learned about when we were children. The Life-Force is a sort of tame God… All the thrills of religion and none of the cost.”

Discussion Questions

1. Lewis offers two fundamental views of the universe. What are they and how do they differ from each other?

2. Why can’t science help us decide which view is correct? Would this discount proofs for God such as the Kalaam Argument?

3. What extra information does Lewis say we have which can help us to point us to an answer?

C.S. Lewis Doodle

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