I can see it in the mind’s eye: my teenaged self, in a suburban strip mall bookstore, taking down a paperback volume from the rack and beginning to read. I am a cradle Episcopalian, a hereditary Anglican, but neither catechized nor a church-goer. I do not know the words of the Lord’s Prayer, nor do I know the One who taught us that prayer. I live in a medium-sized southern city, in the midst of the broadly evangelical Christian culture of the time and place, with peers involved in church life, but most of what this means is opaque to me. I think I know enough about Jesus to dismiss him, but I am not as well informed as I think.
The book was C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, which I picked up believing that the word “mere” was meant to be dismissive, rather than indicative of essentials. God has a great sense of humor, turning my intellectual snobbery and ignorance to good use! I did not know it at the time, but it was a tolle, lege moment for me. Not a moment of moral transformation, accompanied by a distinct voice (like St. Augustine taking up the epistles of St. Paul), but definitely a moment of conversion. It was the unique juncture in my life that was the prologue to what followed: a return to the practice of the Christian faith, and ordination in the Episcopal Church.
Lewis was a long time fellow and tutor in English at Magdalen College, Oxford, whose own conversion from atheism as a young don in the 1920s eventually led him to become a well-known Christian apologist, alongside his conventional career as an academic and critically regarded writer on medieval and renaissance literature. Mere Christianity itself arose from a series of radio addresses given on the BBC, during the Second World War, focused on those serving in the military. During this same period came his first work to achieve popular success, The Screwtape Letters, as well as others, such as The Problem of Pain, The Abolition of Man, The Great Divorce, and his science fiction trilogy: begun with Out of the Silent Planet before the war, and then completed with Perelandra and That Hideous Strength in its course.
Lewis is now best known through the film adaptations of three of his popular Narnia books, a series he wrote for children after the war. Digital technology later would bring them to life for a new generation. In the post-war period, Lewis also published an autobiographical account of his life and conversion, Surprised by Joy, as well as other works, like Miracles, The Four Loves, and Reflections on the Psalms. Lewis also wrote a novel, Till We Have Faces, based on the myth of Cupid and Psyche, and a memoir, A Grief Observed, about the death of his wife, Joy Davidman. The story of their meeting and brief married life was told in the 1993 movie, Shadowlands.
A significant part of Lewis’s apologetic influence (outsized, for a humble Oxford tutor) was on American evangelicals: the same constituency that I had kept at arm’s length as a teenager, and the market that accounted for the presence of Lewis’s books on the shelves of our local bookstore. But Lewis’s multi-generational influence was not limited to a particular context or kind of Christian. Many Christians of all sorts have been strengthened in their faith by reading Lewis; many others, like me, would be introduced by his books to Jesus Christ himself.
Reflecting on Mere Christianity now, as an apologetic work, a few thoughts occur. First is what struck me at the time: the work’s witness to the intellectual credibility of Christianity. In my uninformed way I had assumed that faith in God was the opposite of rationality, but Lewis showed me that belief in Christ was worth thinking about. Not only that, but it might have answers to the most fundamental questions of who we are and where we are headed. Lewis doesn’t “prove” that God exists; none of the classic proofs do this, or there wouldn’t be any atheists; nor do I think they are intended to add up like mathematical proofs. Instead, they are meant to stimulate the imagination, and provoke reasonable reflection.
Lewis begins with what he calls “the Law of Nature.” When it comes to nature and its laws, there is one artefact that we have interior access to: humanity. Lewis observes that there is general agreement on what people have believed to be right or wrong, and that this is built into the fabric of the world and can be known by anybody. Lewis’s point is not that there is exact agreement on moral norms across different cultures or times, but that all people live in the same moral universe, and whatever disagreements they have occur within broader agreed categories of right and wrong.
This Law of Nature, or agreement on the good, is not a law like the law of gravity, as Lewis points out. We are subject to the latter in a way we are not subject to the former. Like belief in God itself, it cannot be argued to by the canons of strict rationalism, in a way that commands assent, but it is intellectually defensible. In other words, it is reasonable. This places Lewis within the broad natural law tradition of Christian moral reflection.
Lewis lived before the “hermeneutic of suspicion,” and can be roundly criticized for unexamined assumptions attributable to his class or race or culture. Though he lived before the codifying of this suspicion, he was not unfamiliar with its baleful effect on the possibility of reasoned discourse. It is easy to consign him to irrelevance because of his time and place, but also intellectually sloppy. Lewis was an opponent of “chronological snobbery” (Surprised by Joy, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1966, 207), the faddish dismissal of what is past. He was also a critic of what he called “the personal heresy” in poetry, where the meaning of a work was held to lie primarily in the person who had produced it (C.S. Lewis and E.M.W Tillyard, The Personal Heresy, Concordia, 2008). Lewis believed that poetry, art, and argument were worthy of consideration, in and of themselves, and their meaning not reducible to the maker’s biography. They are means for the transcendence of the merely personal.
For Lewis, these interpretative suspicions were overshadowed by a more fundamental disquiet. There is a gap between what people generally believe to be “decent behaviour,” and people’s actions. The source of the Law of Nature must lie beyond us, since it posits a rule that humanity itself seems incapable of fulfilling perfectly. One chapter in Mere Christianity is entitled, “We Have Cause to be Uneasy,” and for Lewis this uneasiness is itself significant, providing another sign of the nature of existence, and the truth of Christian faith. This emphasis on the effects of sin locates Lewis within the Augustinian stream of reflection on a world that is most definitely fallen.
The second thing that now strikes me about Mere Christianity perhaps illustrates this Augustinian influence, and compounds it: the shadow of the Second World War. Not to commit the “personal heresy” of reducing Lewis’s arguments to the simple expression of his own experience, this context (and Lewis’s experience as an officer in the Great War) left its mark. I think the opening sequence of the 2005 film, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, with the menacing image of German bombers flying over a darkened London during the Blitz, captures this aspect of Lewis’s work in a kind of cinematic shorthand.
This context shows in Lewis’s reference to the fallen world as “enemy occupied territory” (Mere Christianity, Macmillan: New York, 1960, 51), like the German-occupied continent across the Channel. In discussing the moral law, Lewis insists that there must be a superiority of “Christian morality to Nazi morality” (25), an objectivity that trumps moral relativity. Lewis argues for the eternal significance of individuals by placing them in the balance against the collectivist claims of a state or nation, even one that lasts for a thousand years, as Hitler claimed for the Third Reich (73). There are references to the Holocaust, and to the genocide of the Poles in the wake of German occupation, as well as a straightforward acknowledgment that the soldiers who were listening to his broadcasts were involved in the business of killing enemy soldiers.
These references underscore Lewis’s conviction that human beings, in the normal course of things, are involved in a serious spiritual struggle, a life and death business. Part of what I was learning from Lewis was not only that Christianity was intellectually credible, but that it was morally serious. I was expecting moralism, but what I encountered was the idea that our lives and actions have significance. The choices that we make matter.
Lewis’s context now strikes me in a way it did not when I first encountered his work. The references seemed unremarkable to me at the time, but now they stand out. As a person who thought historically, and whose father was a veteran of the war, reflection on the moral struggle represented by the Second World War was formative. The shaping influences of others in my generation may have lain elsewhere, but for me that influence was pervasive. Long before I read Mere Christianity, and encountered its articulation of Christian faith, the way had been prepared for me already to receive its message.
The generations that have followed have been formed by other significant events. To this extent, Lewis may be dated. But to the extent that people continue to approach life with intellectual and moral seriousness, Lewis will continue to have something to say: about the reasonableness of Christian faith, and its claim upon our lives.
The Rt. Rev. Dr. John Bauerschmidt is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee.