Sunday, February 10, 2008

First Things

It is quite easy to become bored with Mere Christianity.

You don't even have to read it to become bored with it, because like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, it's kind of everywhere. Maybe not quite so widespread--it's not a recurring joke on South Park--but if you frequent right-wing political blogs, it's hard to escape. C.S. Lewis' reputation as the skeptic's apostle seems to have made the transition into the 21st century quite nicely, and whenever a Christian conservative (that oh-so-specific label currently popular here in the States) mentions their road-to-Damascus moment in which they abandoned atheism, liberalism, and any other unhealthy -isms associated with the political left, Mere Christianity seems to get the credit.

I'm not a Narnia afficionado, and am thoroughly unversed in any of the English quasi-Christian fantasy canon, so my prior experience with Lewis' writing was pretty much nil. But it's a book you can't seem to avoid, especially if your worldview is as comfortably confused as mine, and I picked up a copy from the library after class one day. The edition in question was a printing from the 1950s, visibly falling apart, and came appended with a note from the librarian apologizing for the book's deteriorating condition. By the third yellowed, crackling page, I knew I'd just end up buying the damned thing.

I knew I had to buy it not so much because it appeared to me as Truth--as an apologetic, it was more convincing than I'd expected but less convincing than I'd been told--but because of the quality of the writing itself. I've shown a tendency to write with a shotgun, to scatter thoughts far and wide and work out what the hell I'm doing by looking at the grouping after the fact. Lewis writes like the Saint of Killers shoots: with absolute certainty, with no more rhetorical flourish than is necessary, and with astonishing clarity. When he's not certain, when he's on uncertain doctrinal ground, or when a possibility for which he cannot answer appears, he explicitly acknowledges as much and says little. He doesn't fire if he's not sure where the bullet's going.

Part of this has to do with the fact that I can only really read in one language, and it's the one Lewis wrote in, less than a century ago. It's possible I'd feel the same way about Augustine or Acquinas or even Paul if they had the same kind of advantages, but they don't. And the world Lewis depicts certainly seems more similar to my own than those depicted by Augustine or Acquinas or Paul. Which is not to say it's bulletproof: it is a bit unnerving that our relationship to God is at one point like that of a disobedient child to an adult and at another like that of a tin soldier to a toymaker. (Presumably, the "disobedient child" refers to some kind of transitional state between the perfect and fallen humanity. Or maybe not. At any rate, we're all tin soldiers now.) I'm of the opinion that contradiction is not necessarily a problem when you're dealing with this kind of deep subjectivity, but Lewis resorts to subjectivity only sparingly, and attempts to marry it to empiricism to boot. As he notes in The Problem of Pain, "nonsense remains nonsense even if we talk it about God." Which is, on its face, hard to argue against; I suppose it depends on what one means by "nonsense." A lot of my thoughts would have seemed like nonsense even to me if I hadn't gone to the trouble of repurposing a slew of unrelated words to help articulate them.

Where Mere Christianity is at its most impressive is when it deals with logic, the structure of Law, free will, sin, and redemption as naturally following from one another. Put succinctly, most of what Lewis writes struck me as eminently plausible whether or not a man called Jesus of Nazareth ever existed at all. Which, incidentally, is a point he doesn't dwell on: the canon is the canon, take it or leave it. This stance is likely having to due with the "mere" of the title, meaning common, universally accepted within the mainstream Christian community, and the opposite of esoteric. Turns out that whole "historical Christ" sticking point predates The Jesus Seminar, who knew? But it's particularly interesting, given that Lewis' own conversion (detailed nicely in The Question of God, although that borrowed it from somewhere else) begins with an acceptance of the Gospel's historical accuracy, that he would ignore readers' questions about that particular issue. In what is perhaps the book's most famous passage, Lewis offers an argument a bright child could knock down:

"I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God.' That is the one thing we must not say. 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 is 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. 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. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to."

A man who was merely (merely?) a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher, if he actually said those things. Or if those things meant what popular interpretations suggest they mean. Both are issues worth debating, and I'll get to them in other posts.

Nonetheless, the above passage seems to be the killer app of Christian apologetics for the right-wing commentators I read, despite their reluctance to acknowledge the other things Lewis talks about--talk of evolution as an obvious fact that could help deepen our understanding of God's plan for us and the world, for example, or a depiction of homosexuality that's still progressive today by right-wing American standards. I don't suspect they have as much of a problem with a reliance on sexist stereotypes in the discussion of Christian marriage, but I can't imagine they'd like his assertion that secular marriage ought to have nothing to do with Christian morals. I'll be writing more about Mere Christianity, and C.S. Lewis in general, for a number of different reasons: the questions they raise, and their delineation of a moral worldview that's much more funky and organic and, well, weird, than the stuff we get from the secular deontological, aretaic or consequentialist paradigms. And like those paradigms, it's basically a rule system, and one that can be simulated, tweaked, and resimulated, preferably by people who actually know things about morality, code, or both. In short, not me.

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