Month: November 2012

This. Therefore, Jesus. (An examination of Mere Christianity)

Two nights ago, I began reading the thing that – if a thing was going to do the thing I’m about to mention – would make me turn my life over to Christ.  The thing in question, or book, for those who might be more learned(that’s pronounced learn-ed for those of you who aren’t), is Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis.  Lewis was a brilliant writer, so it’s hardly surprising that it’s such a brilliant piece.  While I am forced to wonder if he would think the same way if the scientific breakthroughs of today were available to him, I am nonetheless enthralled by the philosophical masterpiece that is his version of Christianity.  I have in my time heard some of his arguments gracelessly recycled from people who would try to turn me, but I’m shocked that I have only ever heard the writing itself mentioned by two people in my life.  One mention came from Christopher Hitchens in his compelling book: God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (I greatly admire Hitchens and I’m extremely proud to have found ways to argue against a few of the things mentioned in his book).  The other came from my uncle who, when his faith was in its infancy, read Mere Christianity and brought it up – at times as a conversational non-sequitur – regularly in what seemed an exercise in affirming, or for looking for an argument against – to either strengthen or provide a convenient way out of his new found religion.  I’m convinced of the former but would feel I was neglecting my duty not to mention the latter.

The book begins with C.S. Lewis making his case for the existence of a God before going on to explain why Christianity is the way to Him.  The idea that since we know something of morality, that in fact we strive to, but can never seem to achieve that thing we call “good” is the main argument for God.  We, according to Lewis, are born with an innate sense of a Moral Law and that sense is from God’s own influence.  As we were made by Him, those laws are built in, however, since we are separate and imperfect, we can never seem to reach His moral ideal.  We are therefore unworthy of Him.  Again, I have heard these arguments poorly regurgitated and I wish more would read the source material.  This position is often clumsily presented as something like, “How do you know rape and murder are wrong if you don’t believe in God?”  The obvious reply is, “So you’re saying if it wasn’t for God, you would rape and murder people?”  The point though, is that we all know rape and murder are wrong because God put the idea there in the first place, and that believers and doubters both benefit from that inherent knowledge.

The problem with using Moral Law as evidence for God comes into play when you consider that all universal laws are vital to human survival since we’re a social species, and can therefore be explained through evolution.  We need no supernatural cause for knowing that it’s wrong to steal from your neighbor’s ass or bare false witness to his ox.  Perhaps the evolutionary explanation doesn’t elate like divine inspiration does, but it works.  Studies have been done to show that babies might be born with an innate sense of right and wrong.  But before anyone can chime in with a “therefore, God” claim, it’s important to note that those same studies reveal that babies have a bias against things that are different from them.  The seeds of both good and evil can be seen early on.  Then again, there’s another study that shows just the opposite.  And that the “blank slate” idea might very well be closer to the truth.  Blank slate or innate morality, neither has any need for a God hypothesis.  The approach taken in Mere Christianity essentially states that we don’t stab each other for the fun of it; therefore, God.  But for a moment, let us take the position that Lewis’ idea holds water and move onto why the Christian paradigm proves to be the correct one.

Lewis mistakes his pleasant idea of salvation through Christ as further proof for God.  Since we’re lowly sinners incapable of being good – goodness based on the invented moral principles of bronze age nomads – and the Bible offers salvation from our wickedness, there must be something to it.  Our inability to change ourselves can be altered, but only through Christ, and only completely takes hold after death.  Incidentally, it’s also impossible to kiss a mirror without kissing yourself on the mouth, but if some ancient text offered me the ability to kiss anything in a mirror after death, I certainly wouldn’t claim the text must be true.  Anyway, due to our laughable unworthiness in the eyes of God, we are given the Son, God as Man in the form of Jesus Christ.  In one thorough stroke, Lewis invalidates the fence-sitters’ compromise that Jesus was somehow a great moral teacher without the need to accept His divinity, divinity being a stretch for many of us who don’t believe in the supernatural.  On this Lewis states:

 A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.  He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he’s a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell.  You must make your choice.  Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.

On the surface this makes sense but it makes too many assumptions.  First, it assumes that Jesus was a historical figure, which hasn’t been established as a certainty, though it is very likely that he existed in some sense or other.  There was, at that time, certainly no shortage of messiahs making outrageous claims.  In fact, that hasn’t changed.  Look at Joseph Smith, or the countless cults popping up throughout history.  There is a fine line between a cult and a religion.  In the latter, the prophet is dead.  But I digress.  All accounts of Jesus’ life were put down at least 70 years after his death.  So any historical record of His life is tentative at best.

Next, Lewis assumes that a man can’t be a great moral teacher and a lunatic at the same time.  If you want an example of a moral exemplar who was also a madman, look no further than Nikola Telsa, inventor of alternating current.  Tesla was working on building a tower that would provide free wireless electricity for New York before the contractor ceased construction.  There’s no money in providing free power.  In Tesla, we see a brilliant mind who, dedicated himself to improving life for all mankind.  He was also severely terrified of germs and wouldn’t touch anything round.  Sure, the death ray he was working on for the military might be less than Christlike, but it certainly would have looked cool.

Mere Christianity is the product of several centuries of combined philosophies with the slowly evolving Christian theology to create an almost Utopian version.  Lewis imagines the most perfect scenario and to his credit, concentrates more on the everlasting reward than the normal Evangelical stance that focuses entirely on the punishment.  Many Christians seem to revel with fetishistic delight in the concept of eternal hell fire.  This level of sadism is hardly becoming to anyone who basks in the light of a loving God.  Lewis avoids this nonsense but still falls short of producing a credible reason to believe any of it.

Despite the original broadcasts upon which the book was based airing 60 years ago, C.S. Lewis presents a very modern version of the religion compared with the science-denying breed of too many American Christians.  However, while accepting evolution presents a more reasonable stance, it still creates a whole new series of issues for credibility.  The fatuous young Earth model of creationism is so absurd that anyone who believes it can never be taken seriously(this brings to mind certain embarrassing members of the U.S. government).  Accepting the old Earth model along with evolution, on the other hand, is a step in the right direction, but makes religion even more incredible.  I’ll defer to Christopher Hitchens for the explanation:

“But here is something that is impossible for anyone to believe. The human species has been in existence as Homo sapiens for (let us not quarrel about the exact total) at least one hundred and fifty thousand years. An instant in evolutionary time, this is nonetheless a vast history when contemplated by primates with brains and imaginations of the dimensions that we can boast. In order to subscribe to monotheistic religion, one must believe that humans were born, struggled, and expired during this time, often dying in childbirth or for want of elementary nurture, and with a life-expectancy of perhaps three decades at most. Add to these factors the turf wars between discrepant groups and tribes, alarming outbreaks of disease, which had no germ theory to explain let alone palliate them, and associated natural disasters and human tragedies. And yet, for all these millennia, heaven watched with indifference and then — and only in the last six thousand years at the very least — decided that it was time to intervene as well as redeem. And heaven would only intervene and redeem in remote areas of the Middle East, thus ensuring that many more generations would expire before the news could begin to spread! Let me send a voice to Sinai and cement a pact with just one tribe of dogged and greedy yokels. Let me lend a son to be torn to pieces because he is misunderstood. Let me tell the angel Gabriel to prompt an illiterate and uncultured merchant into rhetorical flights. At last the darkness that I have imposed will lift! The willingness even to entertain such elaborately mad ideas involves much more than the suspension of disbelief, or the dumb credulity that greets magic tricks.”

To add to the appallingly goofy idea that God waited 150 thousand years to intervene, we need also consider the idea of a supreme creator wanting us all to be saved but stacking the deck against us.  If God created the world and us, then he made the rules.  But the rules are set in opposition to our instincts.  Yet the fact is that our primate brains and baser instincts are really only overridden by centuries of ethical and technological advances.

It has been pointed out to me that the Hitchens argument might not stand up because as a being that exists outside of time, such things wouldn’t matter to God.  Unfortunately they matter to us because we do live in time.  The first intelligent postulation I came up with against an omnipotent and omniscient deity was about negating free will.  I later discovered that this was an old idea, but I’m still proud that I thought of it before I read about it.  The concept goes like this:  God knows everything that has happened, is happening, and will happen.  Therefore, there is a vicious cruelty in creating a person knowing full well he will never find Christ, and ultimately end up in hell.  It’s like conceiving a baby knowing full well you intend to burn it alive after it’s born.  Lewis counters this by saying that God does not exist in our timeline.  Lewis states: “If you picture time as a straight line on which we all have to travel, then God is the page on which that line is drawn.”  It seems a lame excuse because we are still bound by this four dimensional existence, and are subject to its rules.  If He is capable of intervening in this, He is unfathomably sadistic.  At this point, we could get into Epicurus’ logic on the Problem of Evil.  But I’ll let you do you own reading on that.

Ultimately, Mere Christianity is aimed at Christians.  If more Christians were to adopt the ethics outlined therein, the world would be a much better place.  All the “Christian” concepts of kindness and charity are eloquently outlined by Lewis, but it also serves as a decent challenge to atheists in the same way that The God Delusion or God is Not Great might challenge the faithful.  If you’re like me in that you’re obsessed with religion without wanting to be a part of it; and you really like to argue for no reason than to learn and exchange ideas(and perhaps inflate your own intellectual ego a smidge), it’s a must read.  Still, it requires suspension of incredulity in order to accept it.  Maybe it wouldn’t be the thing to convert me after all.

-Scott