Mere Christianity



A Christian friend of mine loaned me her copy of this book, Mere Christianity, by CS Lewis, so this post will be the surrogate to marginalia, since the book a) is not mine and b) has tiny margins.

I thought at first that I would just handwrite on sticky notes, but I think it just kept me from even getting started. I have had the book for almost a month now, and have read several other short books in the time when I could have read this.  It is, after all, fewer than 200 pages of material that I would probably at least find interesting.

I will annotate with page numbers & some kind of reference quote when possible.

—————————book 1 – chapter 1 ———————————

Lewis speaks of  the “Rule of Right or Wrong” (18), but it is a little bit in narrow scope of Western, and specifically Christian, thought.  He says, “…taking the race as a whole, [people] thought that the human idea of decent behavior was obvious to every one. And I believe they were right.”

So my issue with this is that he is speaking for all people, when he can’t possibly, and that all people also understand “decent” to be the same thing, which it just can’t be. What I find to be decent is often very, very different than that of my neighbors.

He continues with some support for his claim: “If [people were not right about this], then all the things we said about the war were nonsense. What was the sense in saying the enemy were in the wrong unless Right is a real thing which the Nazis at bottom knew as well as we did and ought to have practised?”

But this is the thing: the Nazis thought they were doing Right. If they didn’t, then why would they have done it? They were trying to isolate and conquer the way people always had. Were there officially Nazis that disagreed with what they were doing but felt tied to it socially? Sure, probably, but as a whole Nazis were Nazis, and they did what they thought was right for them and for their Reicht. So I would agree that much (but not all) of the things we said about the war(s) were nonsense.  WWII was a particular cause for which we didn’t even join until it affected us directly, and even then we sort of did it begrudgingly (but with much community support after we decided we were in). Wars since then have been almost complete nonsense in scope of acquiring land or resources to feed the beasts of capitalism. How does that work in the idea that “all people understand ‘decency’?”  Because much of that is very indecent.

He continues with some empirical evidence, but he restricts this to an indoctrinated cohort, primarily those that follow some type of “civilization,” which by its very definition is not intrinsic. “Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks, and Romans” are not the cannibal tribes that live deep within the walls of forests. These tribes disprove the hypothesis that exists a Moral Law, and thereby do not follow our rules of “decent behavior.”

While I agree that certain civilized societies DO follow a certain code of decency and behavior, this has only been true in the last couple of centuries, as we have redefined our terms for “decency.” The Mayans certainly were a civilization, but they held routine sacrificial killings, just as did many civilizations over time.

Also, I believe this argument is fully dependent on the idea of Free Will, for which I am not a full-blown supporter. While I may disagree with many aspects of Sam Harris’s philosophy, his Free Will stance is something I totally agree with. How can you have free will AND have conditioning? It just doesn’t add up.

We make choices dependent on our conditioning, and nothing more. It takes years of reflective time and practice to even notice what the body is doing before the mind catches up: all of that is conditioning.  It’s even conditioning to notice it — a sort of unconditioning, but in unconditioning is conditioning, so whatever!

But where Lewis and I may come closer to an agreement can be found on page 20, about 1/3 down where he says, “I am only trying to call attention to a fact; the fact that this year, or this month or more likely, this very day, we have failed to practise ourselves the kind of behaviour we expect from other people.”   He even acknowledges the few that actually do this, but reserves this sentiment for the masses.

—————————book 1- chapter 2 ———————————

In chapter 2, Lewis states a situation where a man is crying for help.  He says we “probably feel” two innate desires: one to help (herd instinct), one to keep from danger (self-preservation), and a third desire of  “ought” to help.  It is this third area that is the conditioned part of our culture and particular upbringing. I may feel guilt in abandoning someone with whom I identify, but I’m not so sure I would feel that same guilt or “ought” to help someone with whom I do not identify, or if they are far enough away from me to care.

That’s not to say that should I become aware of an individual that needs help, and thus empathize with them, that I would not feel compelled to help; I certainly would. It is just that it is the cognizant awareness and empathy that would drive my desire to be helpful. Further, I consider myself to be rather stoic in the ways of helping those I don’t know (or can’t immediately see) because of how many organizations have exploited peoples’ poor conditions or bad luck just to stuff their own pockets.  I am always wary of advertisements that show the pitiful to tap on my American heartsleeve.

There is a wonderful Alan Watts lecture where he discusses this idea of “taking sides.” When we “ought” to do something, we are – in fact – taking side with the thing we feel we ought to be doing. But taking sides can be rather dangerous because it doesn’t take into consideration the ultimate big picture:

“When we examine our bloodstreams under a microscope we see there’s one hell of a fight going on. All sorts of microorganisms are chewing each other up. And if we got overly fascinated with our view of our own bloodstreams in the microscope, we should start taking sides, which would be fatal, because the health of our organism depends on the continuance of this battle. What is, in other words, conflict at one level of magnification, is harmony at a higher level. Now could it possibly be then that we, with all our problems, conflicts, neurosis, sicknesses, political outrages, wars, tortures and everything that goes on in human life are a state of conflict which can be seen in a larger perspective as a situation of harmony?” ~Alan Watts How Could This Happen To Me

And where Lewis & Watts & I may all agree: “The most dangerous thing you can do is to take any one impulse of your own nature and set it up as the thing you ought to follow at all costs.”  So far, my only disagreement with Lewis is that this Moral Law is innate and not learned.

He does address this with great foresight at the end of chapter two: “I conclude then, that though the differences between people’s ideas of Decent Behaviour often make you suspect that there is no real natural Law of Behaviour at all…”  He continues to tell an analogy about how we no longer burn witches because we don’t believe witches exist, rather than because burning witches is wrong.  But I think we actually DO burn witches today, just the same as Puritan New England did four hundred years back, we just call them by other names now, but it doesn’t matter what you call Other; we’re still very much satisfied with removing “them” from “us.”

In this separation is our suffering.

—————————book 1- chapter 3 ———————————

At least in the very beginning of this chapter we are very much in agreement.



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