As I discussed in part one, Lewis intended this book as an modern Christian Apology. Unfortunately, he relies on numerous logical fallacies and very little research. He acknowledges repeatedly that he is a layman, not a scholar, and it shows.
In Book 2, Lewis abandons Book 1’s attempt at deducing Christianity from first principles. He feels that has has completed this task, and so now turns to describing what he believes Christianity is separate from first principles. He does a good job of describing the core parts of Christianity that would likely be agreed to by most mainstream denominations, or at least most moderately conservative denominations. Unfortunately, he does a very poor job of identifying which parts are uniquely Christian and which are accepted across most major world religions. And as in Book 1, Lewis will rely on his “man on the street” understanding of Christianity, rather than providing us much if any reference to the Bible or even other Christian scholars.
Book Two: What Christians Believe
As we begin book two, Lewis explains some of his personal history, and we get to understand his time as an atheist. It’s easy to imagine Lewis as someone who left the Church for rational reasons, and then upon greater reflection realized the deeper logic of the Bible. But this does not match up even with Lewis’ own accounting.
My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? …. Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too–for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist–in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless–I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality–namely my idea of justice–was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning…. ( p.38 )
As with many of Lewis’ arguments, this has so many holes that it is difficult to know where to start. First, Lewis confuses atheism with nihilism, assuming that only an external force could give meaning. His premise is that because in his mind he has an idea of justice, therefore justice must be something created by an external entity or else he would not have been able to imagine it. This is nonsense. We imagine, and act on, ideas every day that have no basis in fact. Some turn out to be real things and some are not real. In neither case does it imply or invalidate the existence of a supernatural entity creating those things.
The key from this chapter is that Lewis did not become an atheist for sound reasons. He became an atheist out of anger and despair, believing that the kind of God he imagined could never allow the kind of world he perceived. That he came back to Christianity through equally flawed logic should not be surprising. We see a crisis of faith for Lewis, and a healing of that faith. But we do not see a reasoned argument.
I was quite taken with a glossed-over comment between p.37-38 (I admit this is a very long ellipsis, but I believe it exactly maintains the meaning of the original):
They [Christians] think God invented and made the universe–like a man making a picture or composing a tune…. But it [Christianity] thinks that a great many things have gone wrong with the world that God made and that God insists, and insists very loudly, on our putting them right again.
This is quite a statement. A man paints a picture that he finds flawed and then demands that the picture put itself right, or perhaps demands that his paintbrushes, which he also made, put the picture right. In any case, what are we to think of such a man who blames his inventions for their flaws and demands that they fix themselves?
Lewis then moves onto “The Invasion,” in which he explains that any real truth is complex. “It is no good asking for a simple religion. After all, real things are not simple.” (p.40) This culminates in the ultimate argument: “Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed… it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up.” (p.42) This is a fantastic argument. Christianity is so crazy, it has to be true. Unfortunately, Pastafarianism has really cornered the market on crazy, and in fact, Christianity isn’t very surprising when seen in the context of when it was developed. There are many religions that might appeal more to reason, and many that may be more surprising depending on your biases towards what “makes sense.” It is very unclear what Lewis thinks is the measure of whether a religion is “the sort of thing anyone would have made up.” He has no discussion of any major world religion in this section.
Then Lewis again shows his complete misunderstanding of science. He points to how scientists will tell you that the world is more complex than it looks. But he misses that the goal of science is to constantly look for a small number of simple rules to explain it all. A complex theory with many special cases is a poor theory. Science is devoted to making the complex universe both simple, and more critically, predictable by independent observers. While “God did it” may seem the simplest answer, it has no predictive qualities and cannot be independently verified, and so gives little utility as a scientific theory.
In “The Invasion” we are presented with one of Lewis’ larger false choices. This is a favorite technique of Lewis’ and we will see it repeatedly through the book.
There are only two views that face all the facts. One is the Christian view that this is a good world that has gone wrong, but still retains the memory of what it ought to have been. The other is the view called Dualism. Dualism means the belief that there are two equal and independent powers at the back of everything, one of them good and the other bad, and that the universe is the battlefield in which they fight out an endless war. (p.42)
Only two views? Lewis handily casts aside without comment most of the major world religions (and of course atheism) and focuses only on his specially picked and highly specific strawman, which he attributes to no particular religion (I believe it is part of some Gnostics and Zoroastrians sects, but can’t think of a major world religion that holds it). In tearing down his straw man, he complains that the evil being could not be independent because he defines evil as the rebellion against good (he considers good to be independent). He ignores other possibilities such as the Buddhist idea of perceived reality versus true reality, or the many ancient religions that saw the world as a the dominion of several gods who competed with each other (Greek) or with humans (Sumerian). None of these views get so much as a mention by Lewis. They all apparently fall into a class that do not “face all the facts,” but this is not explained.
“The Shocking Alternative” continues Lewis’ argument that Christianity is fundamentally different from all other religions, and because it is different, one can tell it is true. He investigates the dilemma of free will and an omnipotent God, and though I have much to say on that subject, there is little new here and I’ll save the discussion for another time. Lewis doesn’t mean to be original, so this is not a criticism, but one thing bears comment. Lewis brings us to perhaps his largest and most explicit false choice:
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… 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. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. (p.52)
This is nonsense. I can listen to the wise words of anyone and learn something, even if other things he says might disagree with my beliefs. Notice the move to violence. If we do not agree with Jesus’ teachings (and moreover the interpretations of Jesus’ teachings), we are left with suppressing him, attacking him, killing him. These are the “other option” for Lewis besides worship. If Buddha or Mohammed or Ghandi have some part of wisdom and some part of (for Lewis) heresy, Lewis says they must be crazy or evil. In no case could we learn moral lessons from them. Instead, violence is our reasonable reaction. Note that “ignore him” is not an option. I must attack the heresy, or at least make him stop saying it. This false choice, perhaps more than any other, captures Lewis’ true message.
It is telling that the very next passage begins “We are faced, then, with a frightening alternative.” The underlying message throughout Mere Christianity is that everything is hopeless and frightening, and that only by giving up hope in ourselves can we be rescued. Lewis does not mention the elephant in the room; that in his story, his rescuer created the crisis. The crisis does not come from free will but from the rules defining goodness as total submission. To give a creature a sense of self worth, but curse it eternally should it ever imagine its self worthwhile, that is sadism. I rail against this even among the religions that consider themselves “liberal” if they center themselves on guilt over self. Whether our self was given to us by God, Goddess or Nature, to think that self is fundamentally evil is to say that we were designed to fail. That, to Lewis’ earlier point, would truly be a cruel universe, and I cannot believe we live in such an evil place.
I love my sons. Should they disobey me I will chastise them to help them grow into better men. But even if they fail to perfectly obey me, even if they imagine themselves my better, I wouldn’t dream of banishing them from my house for life. Even more so if I knew that when I abandoned them they would be in eternal torment. What kind of father would do such a thing? The least of fathers is better than this, but we are to believe that Lewis’ God is the perfect Heavenly Father? Lewis always leads us back to fear and hopelessness that only his answer can cure. Preying on fear may be effective marketing, but it is lousy religion.
I’d like to end this section by quoting a beautiful and enlightening sentiment from Lewis. As I said before, I can find wisdom in a moral teacher without bowing down to him or even believing every word he says. “[A Christian] does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because he loves us….” (p.63) I think there is a lot to be considered in that statement. It applies not just to between God and human, but human and human. My wife does not love me for my goodness. That would be a tiny love I fear, and certainly fickle and changing. Instead, my wife’s love makes me a better man. And my family, and my friends. If we only love those who are good, what is that? But if through our love, we can help each other be better humans, then that is everything.
And so we finish Lewis’ explanation of his understanding of core Christian belief. Next we will examine Lewis’ lessons on “Christian Behavior.”
Continue with Book Three.