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The defense of the faith,
This review is from: Mere Christianity (Paperback)
In his "Preface to Paradise Lost", Lewis wrote the following:
"The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know *what* it is - what it was intended to do and how it was meant to be used. After that has been discovered the temperance reformer may decide that the corkscrew was made for a bad purpose, and the communist may think the same about the cathedral. But such questions come later. The first thing is to understand the object before you: as long as you think the corkscrew was meant for opening tins or the cathedral for entertaining tourists you can say nothing to purpose about them."
This is a splendid piece of writing, but the idea presented is no way an original one - Plato and Aristotle said the same, said it clearly, and said it over two thousand years before Lewis did. If you had been able to confront Lewis with this fact, he might have said "Exactly."
This brings us to one of the great themes of Lewis's writing, evident nowhere more so than in "Mere Christianity": the defense of traditional wisdom against prejudice of our age that would reject it for no other reason than that it is traditional. Lewis often encountered those who complained that his ideas were old-fashioned, and his standard reply was that theirs would soon be as well, so in that they were equal. I admit I couldn't help but smile at the complaint by one Amazon reviewer that Lewis's ideas on sexuality were "decades old". The complaint is quite mistaken: the ideas are not decades old but thousands of years old.
And it is here that we have part of the answer to the problem of understanding the kind of thing "Mere Christianity" is: it is nothing new. It is in fact very, very old. What Lewis is defending is not his own personal belief system, but the Christianity that is the common heritage of mankind. The threat to it comes not from hard-core atheists, who receive the barest of notices from Lewis, but the general modern tendency to subject traditional Christianity to the death of a thousand cuts - discarding one ancient doctrine after another, on grounds often no better than mere chronological snobbery - that modern people aren't supposed to believe that kind of thing anymore
This is why Lewis, in what has been often described as the most important defense of Christianity in the twentieth century, spends a mere fifteen pages in arguing for the existence of God. The important task is not to defend a vague theism, which is the position Lewis found from experience that his audience already believed, but to rebuild what little of traditional Christianity modernism has left them - some vague belief in "a higher power", and "some purpose to all of this" into that concrete set of specific beliefs that are the historical core of Christianity.
While the defense of historical Christianity is one part of understanding what "Mere Christianity" is, the other part is that it is intended to be accessible to anyone. This requires that Lewis be both clear and brief - a combination brutally difficult to achieve, as any writer who has attempted it will attest.
Lewis's success in this can be measured in two ways: first, that his work has indeed found a very wide readership - millions of have read it; second, his work is often recommended by those whose knowledge of traditional Christian theology is broad and deep. The size of the readership attests to the accessibility of the work, and the expert recommendations attest to the accuracy of its message.
There is one other thing that is important to note about Lewis's success: Lewis could afford to be brief because what he was explaining was not his own theology, but our common intellectual inheritance. The reader who is dissatisfied with the depth of this or that point in "Mere Christianity" will have no difficulty in finding sources that go into the same thing in much greater detail. Calvin wrote line-by-line commentaries on all of scripture. Thomas Aquinas's "Summa Theologica" is over 6,000 pages long. The collected works of Augustine fill more than 40 volumes.
So, to return to the question with which this review began: what kind of thing is "Mere Christianity"? The answer is that it is a brief exposition of traditional Christianity for a modern audience. In the sixty years since it was published, the nature of the modernist challenge to Christianity has not substantially changed, nor has a clearer, more accessible response to that challenge yet been written. Some have complained that the work has "gaps" or that it skims over this or that point, but that is a complaint that fails to understand what kind of thing this is. What they are asking for, whether they know it or not, is a completely different book. Properly evaluated, on the basis of the kind of thing it is, it is trivially easy to give the highest recommendation to "Mere Christianity": it is on a topic of the greatest possible importance and the presentation is outstanding.
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Showing 1-10 of 54 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jan 6, 2007 8:50:04 AM PST
K. F. says:
Excellent review. Mere Christianity is probably the book that has had the greatest influence on my life, and I think you most certianly "got it"---and your points on what the book was intended to be, and what it was not intended to be, are spot-on.
Posted on Feb 27, 2007 8:09:43 PM PST
Glad you recommend it. I've been wanting to read this, and all Lewis's works for a long time. He reminds me of myself, Lewis does, in his outlook and even interests and hobbies.
In reply to an earlier post on May 11, 2007 2:23:36 PM PDT
Bad Dogma says:
Excellent review. Because of your eloquence and thoroughness, I kept my review short. This book speaks for itself.
Posted on Oct 23, 2007 11:19:27 AM PDT
It's a shame that Lewis didn't take the criticisms of atheists more seriously. Because now, unlike the period in which you wrote your review (2002), atheism is becoming more prevalent and Lewis's address of atheism is hardly adequate to answer their claims. And without theism, the basis for the entirety of Books III and IV basically flops. Which is a loss of some possibly valuable practical advice.
In reply to an earlier post on Oct 30, 2007 10:15:57 PM PDT
"Atheism is becoming more prevalent and Lewis's address of atheism is hardly adequate to answer their claims."
I am curious what "new" argument for atheism exists now that did not exist in some form when Lewis was alive.
All the best,
In reply to an earlier post on Nov 1, 2007 3:24:16 PM PDT
Read "The God Delusion" or "The End of Faith" and you will find plenty. From "The End of Faith", we have the argument of 9/11 which wasn't around when Lewis was alive and is a very strong case against faith-based thinking.
In reply to an earlier post on Nov 4, 2007 12:03:49 PM PST
Harris and Dawkins are very obnoxious to me. Let me give you an example; in an interview with (I believe) Time, Dawkins uses his name calling obnoxiousness to classify those with whom he disagrees, "What Francis was just saying about Genesis was, of course, a little private quarrel between him and his Fundamentalist colleagues. It would be unseemly for me to enter in except to suggest that he'd save himself an awful lot of trouble if he just simply ceased to give them the time of day. Why bother with these CLOWNS (Emphasis mine)? Is it not "unseemly" to call folks names? The "Francis" Dawkins refers to is Francis Collins, who replies, "Richard, I think we don't do a service to dialogue between science and faith to characterize sincere people by calling them names" (Amen brother). If I were you I would refer people to more cordial atheistic philosophers like, Austin Dacey or Quentin Smith. But please, for the sake of the readers here who have no interest in reading Harris or Dawkins, could you tell us what the "argument of 9/11" is?
All the best,
In reply to an earlier post on Nov 16, 2007 3:58:21 PM PST
The argument is at the very beginning of "The End of Faith" and Harris does absolutely no name-calling (that I am aware of). Neither does Dawkins in his book. If you are going to dismiss their entire set of arguments because Dawkins used some kind of characterizing name in an interview, you are going to miss out on a whole lot of important information for a pretty bad reason. I don't care how many names they called me, if some Christian had valid criticisms of the secular community, I would read them in a heartbeat. And I'm telling you: Dawkins and Harris don't engage in petty name-calling to drive the points in their books. It's not only childish; it isn't valid reasoning.
Dawkins probably used the term "clowns" out of personal frustration with people who are very poorly educated and choose to stay so yet think they have valid points about how people should think of the universe.
In any case, if you won't read their arguments yourself, here is the problem with 9/11: it was done for religious reasons. It was done because a group of people believed they were doing the will of Allah and that they would become instant martyrs for killing themselves. The entire situation was enabled by religious belief. Based on faith.
So what Harris is countering is an argument like this "Hey: I want to believe X because it is my religious belief. If you don't want to believe it, fine. But I think I have the right to believe it even though I don't have evidence of it. I won't hurt anyone by believing X without evidence." 9/11 was proof that believing X without evidence was indeed hurtful to about 5,000 people and their families.
The point of the argument is: it is irresponsible to believe strongly in things for which we have no strong evidence. Since God is definitely something for which we have no strong evidence, this is an argument for atheism. The strength of one's belief in something should be directly proportional to the amount of evidence we have to believe in it. If everyone followed this principle, we would all be atheists because the amount of evidence available to account for God is underwhelming.
In reply to an earlier post on Nov 18, 2007 9:04:21 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 18, 2007 9:11:19 PM PST
I am not saying that their arguments should be dismissed because of their being at times obnoxious. Nor am I saying that they offend me personally. I too can read those who are obnoxious. The point I was making was that being obnoxious will cause you to lose a portion of your audience that would otherwise have listened to what you have to say. Some folks cannot get passed those who are obnoxious. Why should they have to when they can read cordial atheists like Dacey? That is why I made the suggestion.
When I say that they are obnoxious to me, I do not mean to imply that I refuse to listen to them; rather I am merely stating a fact.
Be that as it may, the point is I asked for a "new" argument for atheism which wasn't around during Lewis's time. You seem to imply that since 2002 new arguments for atheism have surfaced. The one you chose was the so called "argument of 9/11 which wasn't around when Lewis was alive." You (or Harris) summarize the point of the argument, "it is irresponsible to believe strongly in things for which we have no strong evidence."
This is new to the our time?
Consider the following quote made during Lewis's lifetime by a man with whom Lewis was himself very familiar, "What I wish to maintain is that all faiths do harm. We may define 'faith' as a firm belief in something for which there is no evidence."
Are there any others?
All the best,
In reply to an earlier post on Nov 20, 2007 9:05:15 AM PST
"The point I was making was that being obnoxious will cause you to lose a portion of your audience that would otherwise have listened to what you have to say."
This is true and I agree. I'm glad you weren't saying what I thought you were saying. The problem I find with Dacey is that I really can't find any salient and straightforward writings by him. But Dawkin's "God Delusion" and Harris's "End of Faith" are very well-known and very straightforward.
"Consider the following quote made during Lewis's lifetime by a man with whom Lewis was himself very familiar, "What I wish to maintain is that all faiths do harm. We may define 'faith' as a firm belief in something for which there is no evidence.""
Yes, but there is a difference between this lofty, hypothetical, abstract statement and the concrete reality of 9/11. I imagine that in Lewis was able brush this statement away (at least in his own mind) because neither he or the man being quoted could come up with a concrete example of just when faith caused harm.
The crusades? Well those are ancient and could have been done for political reasons. There's enough missing evidence that a Christian can weasel out of it by saying the leaders of the crusades were just greedy and power-hungry.
But now, with 9/11, we have an exact, well-documented account where religious faith was precisely what enabled the attackers. There is no better explanation. The lack of this concrete example from Lewis's time significantly alters his intellectual landscape from our own.
Before concrete evidence, people can SAY things like "natural selection is a better explanation for life than God" or "faith is dangerous". And Lewis might have HEARD people say them. But now, in the modern era of the last 20 years or so, we have a lot more evidence that these claims are indeed the case. And actual evidence to support a generalization makes a huge difference in its believability.
"Are there any others?"
Again, Michael, there are plenty. In the two books I've been listing. And they are all based on modern evidence, particulary in our dealings with Islam. But Christianity has it's fair share of contributions too. And if you want more, read "A History of God" by Karen Armstrong, for another very well educated (and VERY non-confrontational) opinion on where the idea of God itself originated from.
From what I've learned of him, C.S. Lewis did not even begin to show comprehension of the type of insights that Karen Armstrong shows in "A History of God". He may have HEARD some of the arguments that Harris and Dawkins bring up (though he really doesn't seem to have any kind of satisfactory REBUTTAL to their arguments). But Karen Armstrong seems way over his head.
So again, there are, to put it lightly, quite a few arguments for atheism and, more importantly, quite a bit of evidence for atheism. And C.S. Lewis, from my understanding, did not even begin to defeat the arguments he did know, showed an ignorance of arguments he didn't know (like Karen Armstrong's), and simply COULDN'T have been aware of modern evidence.
So to say that C.S. Lewis had his thumb on the arguments of atheism is really giving him a very disproportionate amount of credit. He was far from an expert. He hardly talks about atheism at all. He doesn't even begin to give their arguments the kind of attention they would require to REALLY be refuted.