Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Mere Christianity

I’m not a fan of C.S. Lewis’s notion of “mere Christianity.”

I’ve read a lot of Lewis and learned a great deal from him. For my money, his greatest book is the prophetic The Abolition of Man, a work that becomes more important as we are increasingly tempted to genetically engineer human beings. His concept of “mere Christianity”, unfortunately, is not one of his better contributions.

For those who don’t know, Lewis gave a series of radio addresses during WWII that were later collected and published under the title “Mere Christianity.” The book has become a classic of Christian apologetics, especially evangelical Protestant apologetics. Central to Lewis’s case is his concept of “mere Christianity,” which he defines as the “common doctrines of Christianity.” The common doctrines are all those beliefs that orthodox Christian believers of all stripes, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, etc. have in common. Through the notion of “mere Christianity”, Lewis hoped to avoid entanglement in intra-Christian squabbling (“ecclesiastical disputes”) while making a case for Christianity to non-believers. Lewis was careful to make clear that “mere Christianity” is not a substitute for commitment to a particular denomination once one had become a Christian (Lewis was an Anglican). He used the image of a hall off of which doors opened to many rooms. The hall is only a place to decide which door to enter, not a place of permanent residence.

In light of my previous posts (here, for example) the reader may be able to guess some of my problems with “mere Christianity.” It takes for granted that the proper approach to Christianity is through a rational analysis of doctrine conducted independently of any authority. Once the basic doctrines of Christianity are established (this is Lewis’s “hall”), then the believer can address the (for Lewis) secondary historical questions of ecclesiology (the “doors off of the hall.”) This inverts the relationship between the Church and doctrine. It makes the authority of the Church subsequent to our knowledge of doctrine, when really our knowledge of doctrine follows on the authority of the Church. It is through the living witness of the Church that we know the truth of the Incarnation and Resurrection (the basic elements of “mere Christianity.”) Instead, for Lewis, it is in light of our prior and independently arrived at knowledge of the Incarnation and Resurrection that we decide which denomination to join.

If not by the witness of the Church, how does Lewis suppose one comes to know the truth of “mere Christianity?” The only way is, of course, through the reconstruction of remote events through scientific history. I’ve already written enough regarding Kierkegaard’s point that this can provide, at most, a probable case for Christianity. Here I would like to address Lewis’s apparent short-cut to the historical truth of Christianity, the famous “Lord, Liar or Lunatic” trilemma he deploys in “Mere Christianity.” The trilemma has a logical form and therefore seems to offer more than the merely probabilistic conclusion Kierkegaard identified. There is nothing probabilistic about logic, after all. But as skeptics have long and routinely pointed out, the trilemma only works if you accept Lewis’s assumption that his three alternatives are exhaustive.

The argument works this way: The New Testament is filled with statements of Jesus Christ claiming divinity and various divine powers; the right to forgive sins, for example. Now someone who says these things is either a lunatic (e.g. David Koresh or Jim Jones) or a liar. There is a third possibility, the thrilling possibility that He might actually be Who He says He is. Lewis dismisses the possibilities that Jesus was a lunatic or a liar, leaving him with (apparently) no logical alternative but to submit to the truth that Jesus Christ is Lord. But of course there are other possibilities, among them the possibilities that Jesus never really existed at all or that, if he did, he never actually said many of the words attributed to him in the New Testament. The New Testament is a compilation of two-thousand year old documents, written twenty or more years after the facts they relate, and of which we have lost the originals and possess only copies (or, more likely, copies of copies of copies…) Taking the documents simply as data for historical reconstruction, it is not out of the bounds of reason to suppose that things didn’t happen exactly as they say they did, particularly when it comes to details of place and speech.

Lewis wanted to avoid getting involved in the intricacies of ecclesiastical history because he thought “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.” In this he jumps from the frying pan into the fire. Lewis’s trilemma doesn’t work as a way to avoid getting deep into the mud of New Testament history, and ecclesiastical history is relatively well-documented and straightforward compared to early Christian history. In a nutshell, the ecclesiastical history is this: Since at least the fourth century, the Church of Rome has perpetually and consistently proclaimed the same Gospel, summarized in the Nicene Creed, from which various splinter groups have broken off, generally under the justification that they have a better grasp on early (“true”) Christianity than does the Church. Lewis’s metaphor of the hall and the doors really does get it wrong. The Catholic Church is not one of the doors; it’s not even the hall. It’s the house in which one finds both the hall and the doors. To repeat myself from earlier posts, this is not a rhetorical point but a matter of accepted history. G.K. Chesterton put it this way: One can say that a Europe composed of nation states is better than one united under the Roman Empire, but it is simply a mistake to think of the Holy Roman Empire as just another nation state. It was what was left of the old Empire when all the other nations broke away from it; just as the contemporary Catholic Church is what is left when all the “denominations” broke away from a united Christendom. That fragmentation may have been good or bad depending on your perspective, but whatever that perspective, the Church is not just another fragment of Christianity.

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