The conversion power of Mere ChristianityCHARLES LEWIS
There have been many books that have I loved. There are some that have moved me. Only one book has ever made me tremble.
I read it 10 years ago on the suggestion of an Anglican priest. I had told him I wanted to really understand what Christianity was about. The initial miracle was that my local bookstore, whose religion section is full of books on atheism, Tarot cards and Eastern Spirituality, had multiple copies of Mere Christianity.
Lewis, who died on Nov. 22, 1963 — a death that was greatly overshadowed by the murder of John F. Kennedy — is best known for his seven-part fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia, a cornerstone of children's literature. Though these were his best-known works, Lewis was also a prominent Christian thinker and writer. I recently thought that since I first read Mere Christianity a decade ago, coupled with the anniversary of his death, it was time to reflect on what it meant to me.
The route Lewis takes is not like any other book I had read to that point. Most of the others seemed written by despots. They write books and tracts printed on weird paper by obscure publishers. They are full of threats of hell and ruin. They speak of being lost to hell for eternity without Christ even if you were to never hear of Christ in your life. There are mounds of Biblical quotes that are often the refuge of those who cannot write.
Mere Christianity barely has any Biblical quotes. And though it can be rough, it is ultimately generous and kind. I think Lewis understood that someone unconvinced of the truth of Christianity would not be swayed by Bible passages.
But if Lewis had started with a clarion call to accept Jesus I would have thrown the book in the trash. Even St. Thomas of Aquinas, one of the greatest theologians of all time, started his multi-volume work the Summa with an explanation that began with reason and logic — that God must exist because everything needs a first mover. Some of Aquinas's contemporaries in the Middle Ages thought he was heretical for daring to offer a logical proof for God.
Lewis starts even further back; small logical surges easy to digest. It takes him a long time before he even gets to religion or Christianity or God, let alone Christ.
First he presents some ideas about inner conflict and how we choose right from wrong and the mechanism that helps make that decision. It is all pretty reasoned.
He offers scenarios where the choice between two instincts is in conflict. Then he ponders what it is exactly that helps make the right and noble choice and starts to introduce the idea that there is an arbiter outside of us.
This is where it started to get interesting for me, and I could see what he was saying was really not so simple after all.
Then the voice takes on a new dimension. He calls it many things, including the Rule of Law and the Rule of Nature. When he calls it the "Moral Law" then it is clear he is moving toward the promise of the book's title. The vague idea of a moral law begins to take on muscle.
He writes: "The truth is, we believe in decency so much — we feel the Rule of Law pressing on us so — that we cannot bear to face the fact that we are breaking it …"
When I read this I suddenly felt a real weight. It was as if I could visualize that this thing understood me more than I understood it.
And then Lewis offers what he believes, I now believe, is how this is made right.
"Christianity tells people to repent and promises them forgiveness," Lewis wrote. "It therefore has nothing to say to people who do not know they have done anything to repent of and who do not feel that they need any forgiveness. It is after you have realized that there is a real Moral Law, and a Power behind that law, and that you have broken that law and put yourself wrong with that Power — it is only after this, and not a moment sooner, that Christianity begins to talk."
It was only when I read this later, and to start to read books written by other great Christian writers, including many more from Lewis, that I understood that he had to use reason to get to the point of faith because faith without reason, to someone like myself, seemed like hysteria. I now know and love that many people just believe because they know in their bones it to be true. That is a gift.
Lewis goes on to give lessons on Christianity: the divinity of Jesus, the Trinity and the like. Even then he takes a step back to talk about the relationship of God to the Jews and how the story unfolds from there.
It was holy but it was also terrifying experience to read Mere Christianity. It was not terrifying like a scary movie or a lonely walk in the woods at night, but in the sense of having to be totally honest with myself about things I would have rather ignored. Honesty always seems a wonderful ideal but it can also hurt like hell.
"If you look for truth," Lewis writes, "you may find comfort in the end: If you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth — only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and in the end despair."
Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.
Charles Lewis is the National Post's religion reporter and editor of Holy Post.
Copyright © 2013 National Post
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