Saturday, 2 February 2013

What is the point of Mere Christianity? Pros and Cons


C.S Lewis's book Mere Christianity has a reasonable claim to being the most influential book of Christian apologetics of the twentieth century - but the central concept of Mere Christianity has - it seems to me - had very little influence. And I think this is understandable since the idea, once you follow through its implications, is extremely disruptive of traditional Christianity.


The advantages of Mere Christianity include:

1. Educational - Christians of different denominations can learn from each other.

2. Strategic alliance - different Christian denominations can legitimately work together to protect and advance Christian interests.

3. Individual motivation - there is genuine flexibility of choice for the Christian seeking among the denominations: he can choose that which best suits his strengths and weaknesses and offers the best chance of salvation and theosis.


But there are weaknesses as awell:

1. Mere Christianity may weaken denominations - since each is seen 'merely' as oine among many possible paths to salvation or ways of Christian life.

2. Mere Christianity may weaken faith by introducing relativistic thinking - specific do' and don'ts become reduced in force, matters of preference rather than imperatives.

3. Mere Christianity may be anti-mission in the sense that missionary work may become internal, even parasitic; different denominations focused on 'poaching' already-Christian adherents from each other, such that growth in one church is at the expense of decline in another and Christianity as a whole diminishes.


The main question, of course, is whether the concept of Mere Christianity is actually true. I think it is true, probably; but that truth is apparently not enough to make someone give their loyalty to Mere Christianity rather than to a specific denomination.

Real Christians who are Mere Christians in theory, are often denominational in practice; and those who are genuine Mere Christians, are perhaps just feebler Christians...


So the question of Mere Christianity is a crucial one.

If Mere Christianity is true, then ignoring it will certainly lead to disaster; since Christianity will continue to lack any basis for unity.

Real Christians will therefore continue to fight among themselves, with further destruction and fragmentation; already we perceive each fragment too weak to survive alone and in long term decline.

...Until there is nothing left but individual Christian seekers united by a mystical church, disengaged from hollowed-out fake-church bureaucracies; with perhaps some small and scattered real Christian congregations each 'doing their own thing' - but no institutional church.


But if Mere Christianity is false, and yet becomes adopted as true; then it will assist the destruction of that denomination, or those denominations, which are true.

Because that which is false must be destructive of Truth.


Mere Christianity is a concept, therefore, much greater than Lewis supposed at the time he articulated it for the modern world; a time of revival and (compared with now) optimism for Christianity - assuming that the West survived the war.

Well, the West survived the war... but within a decade, Christianity began an historically unprecedented, rapid and (as yet) un-reversed decline in validity, strength and scope. 

Mere Christianity, properly considered, is not an optional add-on to existing Christianity, nor an innocent basis for Christian co-operation; instead Mere Christianity has gradually been revealed as an immense and unavoidable challenge to historical Christianity.



Daybreaker said...

Isn't it liberal white-anting and racial and ethnic destruction that's killing Christianity though? Not the failure of the denominations to work together enough, but a toleration by all of a liberalism that has no real room for Christianity of any sort.

And combined with that, a failure of the sheep-dogs to identify with the sheep and zealously guard them. Instead of a militant rooting out of the politically correct threat to "us" there's collegiality among the clergy that lets the politically correct networks get going and is then not reciprocated.

(Sheep dogs come in two basic types, though many breeds. I'm referring to the type that wards off predators, not the type focused on herding the sheep. The guardians have to be brought up to regard the sheep as in some sense their pack; having them be devoted servants of the shepherd but not very bonded to the sheep to be guarded doesn't work.)

I'm not sure what the remedy is, because political correctness is doing so well it's hard to point successful models. But I think the best idea is for the clergy and the people to be united by a strong sense of people-hood. That way if you try to start a politically correct network, you're fighting an ethnic network that's already in place and has no intention of letting its real control become merely nominal.

If that's correct, it offers a partial explanation of why Christianity is dying horribly in the white world, where ethnocentricty (for whites) is banned. It might offer a partial explanation for the relative success of Mormonism. (Not race as such, but a strong sense that the clergy and the people are in it together in a way that doesn't really exist in "normal" Western churches.) And it offers hope that "mere" Christianity could work, in the context of strong national or ethnic churches.

(Of course in combination with a "citizen of the world" attitude mere Christianity is so useless that almost its only good point is that few people would ever succumb to it.)

Daybreaker said...

Also, a lot might depend on how you understand Matthew 28/19. (I offered this speculation on another blog. I'm curious what you, a more religiously oriented person, might think of it.)

If this verse is taken to include the idea of baptizing nations, which at least in this translation looks like a natural aspect of Jesus' words, then conniving at their destruction is pretty much out of court. They are baptized to the Lord, each in the sort of way that Israel is, and therefor each nation that has at some time reasonably been seen as "a Christian nation" (like Australia, or America, or England) is no more meat for the foxes from the point of view of legitimate priests than the people of Israel is for legitimate rabbis.

Given the continuing covenant with Israel, there is no question of the Bible being "universal" in the sense of not having a racial and national agenda. It does have such an agenda. The question is only whether any other nations than Israel get to be part of such an agenda. Jesus opinion here seems to me to be "universal" in that all nations are called to such a covenantal relationship - not "universal" in the sense that all except Jews are reduced to the status of atomized individuals with no linking relationship bigger than the nuclear family and smaller than "all Christians".

There are more implications. A nation in the Bible is defined racially, that is in terms of kinship and descent, with Israel as the preeminent example of course. It is not defined, for example, as land, regardless of who occupies it. The desired continuity is of peoples sharing common ancestry. So it is no good to say that the British Isles or America or the continent and island of Australia will still be here, it's merely that different people will occupy it.

Jesus speaks in terms that might imply collective judgment, that is on cities, and the Bible often speaks of collective judgment. Destruction is consistently spoken of in a negative way, as implying an adverse judgment by the Lord. National continuity, on the other hand, is positive, implying divine mercy.

I do not know of a case where the Bible speaks of blessed nonexistence for nations, saying something like: they did the right thing in the eyes of the Lord, and for their reward they are vanishing (or have vanished), they are scattered and do not know each other, they have blended away their uniqueness, their chains of "begats" are all broken, and they would not know their ancestors, not would their ancestors know them. In terms of Biblical thinking, that could only be a terrible curse. And as a terrible curse it necessarily would reflect an adverse judgment.

Now, is it the role of the churches and the clergy to bring about a terrible curse on the nations baptized by Jesus' command and untrusted to their care, a curse so severe that it necessarily condemns those nations and the quality of the advice they were getting from the churches and their clergy?

Or is it some part of the role of the churches and the clergy to do what they can to protect the baptized nations from misbehavior, unfavorable judgment and vanishing away?

Bruce Charlton said...

@D - Some interesting ideas. But I think it has now become clear that liberalism/ leftism/ PC is not primarily anti-white (if it ever was - which I doubt). I would say it is primarily anti- The Good (anti-truth/ virtue/ beauty). But within the pecking order of PC it is now obvious (at least in the UK) that advancing 'the sexual revolution' trumps race as a PC cause. We have had high profile cases in which African Christians have been persecuted on issues of modern sexual 'equality'. And African Christians have a lower status in the media than adherents of the other major monotheism.

Your comment on Mormonism is interesting - the Mormon view of priesthood is unique being both hierarchical/ patriarchal (in a typical Catholic fashion) yet widely dispersed among believers (in a typical Protestant fashion) - perhaps this is a factor in protecting Mormons against the weaknesses of both these 'extremes'.

In terms of national extinction - yes the elite have betrayed the nations and are leading them to destruction. But the masses have embraced evil, and not just allowed themselves to be led - but accepted this leadership with enthusiasm. Until they are now helpless addicts. This, it seems, is precisely the situation which leads to divine annihiliation in the Old Testament - sometimes this was visited by means of allowing enemies to triumph and kill or enslave the evil nation. Of course this fate can potentially be averted (although not without cost) by repentance and renewed faith - as with Nineveh.

Daybreaker said...

Of course I'm saying that politically correct liberal clergy are wolves that pretend to be sheep-dogs but that actually devour the flock.

This has little to do with denominations. It's happening in a wide variety of denominations.

If mere Christianity is compatible with driving out the wolves, it can be good, or at least harmless. If it goes with a "citizen of the world" attitude that doesn't make for effective guardians, it can only be destructive, regardless of its other merits.

Daybreaker said...

"Of course this fate can potentially be averted (although not without cost) by repentance and renewed faith - as with Nineveh."

Perhaps the question is: "is 'mere' Christianity sufficient in this context? Is it a strong enough tool to turn aside the dreadful fate that is approaching ... I guess you think something like "goodness, at which political correctness directs itself" and I think "all historically white nations".

Maybe, but not if combined with a "citizen of the world" attitude.

Bruce Charlton said...

@D - My view is that this simply cannot be planned many steps ahead - just one step ahead: repentance. After that, who knows?

tgj said...

I first came across "Mere Christianity" when I was an atheist. I got a few pages in, encountered the argument from morality, and quit reading, suppressing the urge to throw the book across the room. Later I had a more visceral experience with something that was inexplicably and undeniably wrong in a context that seemed morally neutral in itself, and where, from any sensible external perspective, essentially nothing was going on at all. That actually did something to wake me up and get me to treat my conscience as something independent of my opinions. I still don't know exactly what happened, but I'm pretty sure it was something that had less to do with "Mere Christianity" than with "The Screwtape Letters," which I always found fascinating.

Bruce, you might be interested in "The Mystery and Meaning of the Battle of Kosovo," and possibly also the Serbian epic poem that it follows and quotes. It's more along the lines of "The Lord of the Rings" than "Mere Christianity," but it's all about the end of a Christian kingdom and what should be done about it.

You can read some background here:

You can read part of it online here:

Daybreaker said...

If it's as simple as "repent!", "mere Christianity" is correct.

And in my opinion is doesn't have much by the way of down sides.

I think the strength of denominations comes not from their doctrines (because ultimately I don't believe Christianity, so I think it's all just wrong) but from a divinely ordered hierarchy in which race and nation have their places, and in which the protectors of the peoples, including the protectors of ritual and morality, have a place. By taking up that role, Christian denominations gain strength; a more than natural authority descends on them, and it stays there like the Chinese "mandate of Heaven" till they abandon it, after which they turn to assemblies of hollow nobodies without the focus or strength to keep out the wolves.

(This is the same sort of thing as saying that a husband and father who resolves to to start acting at the head of his family and follows through gains a more than entirely material strength, because he is accepting and excercising an authority that flows from the way things are made, and that making is more than wholly material.)

If you think nations have no legitimate existence and ought to have nothing to do with religion, or if you think they are at best brute facts like the rock formations in Monument Valley, this is nonsense.

I think the different denominations are already "anti-mission" and it doesn't matter any more, because the effective missionaries are the politically correct liberals missionizing the churches and everything else. What has the strength to fight that and win may be good, what doesn't is useless. If mere Christianity proved it had the strength to drive out the wolves, then let it missionize the denominations.

"Mere Christianity may weaken faith by introducing relativistic thinking - specific do' and don'ts become reduced in force, matters of preference rather than imperatives."

That's a serious point, but it's not going to "introduce relativistic thinking" into denominations that are turning to it anyway or that have succumbed. Which are the untainted denominations you would worry about?

Daybreaker said...

Bruce Charlton: "But I think it has now become clear that liberalism/ leftism/ PC is not primarily anti-white (if it ever was - which I doubt)."

My opinion is the opposite.

I think the sexual revolution is a plague. I think introducing it into our societies was like catapulting plague-bearing bodies into a besieged fortress.

I think the sexual revolution causes a population crash, but if you can keep your borders closed, it must burn itself out, and all future generations will be born to the most resistant to it, I mean for a start to women who are highly resistant to being indoctrinated into man-hatred and sterility.

What's fatal is if you have that population crash, and much weakness and misery from the disease, and the gates or the borders open, and a horde comes in and that's all for you. That's what's happening.

I wouldn't discuss that any more because it's getting off the topic of the prospects of "mere Christianity". I just wanted to make it clear I have a different opinion on what you think "has now become clear".

Bruce Charlton said...

@D - "If it's as simple as "repent!", "mere Christianity" is correct."

But that is not simple. It is just the necessary first step without which nothing good can happen.

You may be closer to Christianity than you think. As you say, we should probably wind-up this thread; but your metaphor of plague bodies leads back to the question of the ultimate purpose behind the catapulters.

I would say, from a Christian perspective, that the ultimate purpose is destruction - not of specific nations, but of everything good.

A demonic purpose, in other words - from which the intention is that nobody, not one single person, will benefit. The intention: in the short term, one group is used to destroy another, in the medium term each man is pitted against every other, in the long term the last man left alive will kill himself from self-hatred and despair.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

In the Preface of Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis states that his intention is to “explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.”

I read almost the same phrase elsewhere. Tom Hunt, a music teacher who converted from atheist to evangelical in his youth, had the occasion to examine the beliefs of many denominations before finally crossing the Tiber and ending in Rome, which meant he had to resign his tenure in an evangelical university. He wrote: “Most of the few doctrines this assemblage of diverse groups does hold in common are the very ones they also hold in common with Catholicism...” ( This is quite inevitable that the beliefs common to nearly all Christians at all times are the basic tenets of the Catholic faith.

I also found in Mere Christianity the fundamental idea of salvation through the Body of Christ (Book II, Chapter 5: The Practical Conclusion), which is a doctrine not as widespread as others – or understood very differently wherever there is no belief in the Real Presence. Two quotes: “And it seems plain as a matter of history that He taught His followers that the new life was communicated in this way [baptism, faith, Holy Communion];” “[Christians] mean that Christ is actually operating through them; that the whole mass of Christians are the physical organism through which Christ acts...” Lewis is saying that the way to salvation is the Church where Christ lives and gives life through sacraments.

As I understand it, Mere Christianity might be a challenge to the morality and beliefs of bad Christians, but where sound morality and belief already exist, it is a simple reminder that reason and faith are not at odds. Mere Christianity is a presentation as simple as possible of the fundamental doctrine and morals of Christianity rather than a way of living as a Christian.

Bruce B. said...

I read Mere Christianity years ago and got the impression (right or wrong) that he politely and implicitly defined non-sacramental Christians as being outside Mere Christianity.
Sylvie D Rousseau’s discussion of Book 2 Chapter 5 seems to support this reading though I’d have to go back and re-read for myself.

Donald said...

Much of your thought and argument about Mere Christianity, Bruce C, is implicitly salvation by works as an intrinsic component. That is you judge Mormonism within the sphere based on overall conduct of Mormons. Even if you might deny that works are the 'mechanism' (I have no idea what you think), the fruits must or should be present in order to sort out the true Christians from the non --- and in fact this seems to have far greater weight than doctrinal precision. Just an observation.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Donald - I think it is rather that I make a distinction between salvation and theosis. Salvation is by faith and is binary, theosis involves action and is incremental.

Adam G. said...

Whether Mere Christianity is true or not, more and more Christians will become de facto adherents and they face more intense secular opposition. Its a repeated sociological observation that nothing unites like a common enemy.

I hear more and more folks saying that as a committed Catholic find themselves having more in common with and more fellow feeling for committed Calvinists or Mormons than for the cafeteria progressivists of their own tradition. I have been feeling the same thing myself.

I will even prophesy that Mere Judeo-Christianity is on the horizon and behind it the first glimmers of Mere Abrahamic Religion.

This is not altogether a good thing, but the alternatives are nothing to write home about either.

Bruce Charlton said...

@AG - I would hope that what you say might happen: in fact I see little sign of it. Maybe I am excessively pessimistic - but I think things are very bad indeed in mainstream Christian denominations, at least in the UK. People are clutching at straws in looking for reasons for optimism, but it all seems terribly unconvincing.

I would that the mainstream was more open to regarding Mormonism as a valid Christian path, because the mainstream (did they but recognize it) needs Mormonism more than Mormons need the mainstream, yet attitudes go in the opposite direction - but on this topic I feel like a voice in the wilderness!