This is a post continuing my analysis of Mere Christianity from an LDS perspective. See my table of contents here.
The Purpose of Mere Christianity
In the Preface, Lewis clearly defines his purpose. He says:
“The reader should be warned that I offer no help to anyone who is hesitating between two Christian ‘denominations’… Ever since I became a Christian I have thought that the best, perhaps the only, service I could do for my unbelieving neighbours was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.“
How you feel about Lewis’ decision to forgo any treatment of fragmented Christianity will very much depend on how you view religious truth. Do you believe in religious pluralism? That is to say, can Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity all lead men to the same God, and to the same reward in this life and after death? If not, then can Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, or the host of other Christian sects all lead men to the same God, and to the same reward in this life and after death? Maybe not all of them, but only the Protestant or Evangelical sects? Maybe only one or the other? Is there only one true path?
Your position in regard to religious pluralism will effect how you consider Lewis’ purpose.
It is difficult to know Lewis’ own position from just the content of Mere Christianity. In fact, he purposefully writes so as to hide his own position, and does so effectively. Yet there are a few statements which infer that he might lean towards believing in some sort of Christian pluralism. First, in his analogy of the hall and the rooms, Lewis says that he believes that “the worst of the rooms” is preferable to remaining in the hallway. Second, in another work he commented,
“I couldn’t believe that nine-hundred and ninety-nine religions were completely false, and the remaining one true.”
Still, Lewis says,
“If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all other religions are simply wrong…. You are free to think that all these religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of truth.”
What Lewis is saying is that a true church does not necessarily have a monopoly on truth. Other religions are not necessarily completely wrong if there is a single true path.
As someone who believes, as the Bible teaches, in one true church, I am inclined to think that Lewis does not quite go far enough. You can find more about the LDS position on this topic in Part 4, where I cover Lewis’ hallway analogy.
After defining his purpose, Lewis gives the reasons behind his decision, which we’ll discuss below.
“In the first place, the questions which divide Christians from one another often involve points of high Theology or even of ecclesiastical history, which ought never to be treated except by real experts. I should have been out of my depth in such waters: more in need of help myself than able to help others.”
In his first reason, Lewis seemingly downplays the differences between Christian denominations. In his eyes, such questions of “high Theology” and “ecclesiastical history” have little to do with the saving power of Jesus Christ, and need only be treated by “real experts.”
And yet, the contradictions between denominations are anything but minor. How essential is baptism? How are we to administer the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, or other ordinances for that matter? How should we revere important figures in church history? How important is grace in comparison to works? Where does one receive the authority to minister in the name of Jesus Christ?
There are countless questions, and the majority of them have to do with matters that directly influence our salvation and our daily walk with God. If left only to the experts, then almost all of us would find ourselves without knowledge essential to bring us back to God. These are important questions; whether or Lewis knows the answer to them all, they are important to at the very least present.
Who gets to decide what issues are important and what issues are negligible? The question of who gets to decide doctrinal issues is itself one of the most important questions, and a key point when discussing the veracity of the LDS Church. Ours is a church built upon revelation from Jesus Christ, revelation that is received by prophets and apostles in our day. Because of this, we never have to worry that our beliefs are based on the philosophies of men.
“And secondly, I think we must admit that the discussion of these disputed points has no tendency at all to bring an outsider into the Christian fold. So long as we write and talk about them we are much more likely to deter him from entering any Christian communion than to draw him into our own. Our divisions should never be discussed except in the presence of those who have already come to believe that there is one God and that Jesus Christ is His only Son.”
I take issue with Lewis’ initial statement, that discussing these questions “has no tendency at all to bring an outsider into the Christian fold.” I disagree, and add that discussing these questions can have a positive effect on the Christian world. I see this positive effect coming in two ways.
The first way that this positive effect comes is that it develops an atmosphere of scholarship. The gospel of Jesus Christ has the truth. We have nothing to fear from religious scholarship, and so much to gain – a growing reputation in the eyes of the world, and a more intelligent and faithful group of followers (see my post on faith and philosophy), for starters.
The second way that this positive effect comes is that we can create “genuine options” for of non-believers. The term comes from William James‘ essay “The Will to Believe.” He uses, as an example, the option for us between becoming a follower of Mahdi or not. The option is not genuine, but dead; neither choice has the least bit of appeal for us.
I believe that in discussing these kind of questions, we can potentially make questions genuine for unbelievers even though they may have been previously dead. They can hear something that sparks their interest, a doctrine suddenly appeals to them, and who knows but that the interest may one day be fanned into a faithful flame (I highly recommend that those interested read the essay by James).
What’s more, Lewis’ admonition that these questions be discussed only in the presence of believers seems somewhat deceptive. While it is important to have milk before meat, that needs to be balanced against honestly presenting the case of Christianity in its fullness and letting the hearer decide its validity. At the very least, we cannot exclude questions that are as important as the ones Lewis seems to skirt. Remember, the gospel of Jesus Christ has the truth. We have nothing to fear.
“Finally, I got the impression that far more, and more talented, authors were already engaged in such controversial matters than in the defence of what Baxter calls ‘mere’ Christianity. That part of the line where I thought I could serve best was also the part that seemed to be thinnest. And to it I naturally went.”
Lewis’ third reason is the one that makes the most logical sense. It seems natural to want to go where the need is greatest, or where you can do the most good. This reason would be sufficient for me to accept Lewis’ purpose. And yet by virtue of the fact that Lewis gives the above two reasons when he doesn’t have to shows me that his purpose is an important part of his overall argument.
The bottom line, it seems, is this: there is value in not discarding the differences we find between Christian denominations, and when we do discard these questions we do so at our own peril. Besides, in avoiding questions, we have no better standard for what Christianity should be than what the masses have thought it is; and we have no reason to believe that they were correct, or that they were correctly interpreting the words of the apostles and the Savior.
Perhaps it was appropriate to abandon the discussion for this book, but to do so indefinitely is unwise.
Study Questions from this Section
The Purpose of Mere Christianity
- Do you agree with Lewis’ purpose?
- What does you think about religious pluralism?
- Are all Lewis’ reasons behind his purpose valid?
- Lewis downplays the importance of doctrinal questions. Is it right for him to do so?
- What type of differences do we find between various Christian denominations today?
- Is it true that these questions should only be treated by “real experts”?
- Which differences matter, and which differences don’t? Who gets to decide which is which?
- Is it true that discussing these questions “has no tendency at all to bring an outsider into the Christian fold?”
- Is it true that our divisions should never be discussed except in the presence of believers?
- Is it good to go to the areas of discussion that are most unoccupied?
- How might this relate to 1 Peter 3:15?