Friday, March 9, 2012

Mere Christianity

I thought I would give C. S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” a try. I found a copy for free, and it is short, so, what the heck. I was unimpressed. His argument depends on regressing your thinking back to near prehistoric notions of “Laws of Nature”. Not the Newtonian kind, where math can explain and predict objects in motion, but the mystical kind, where notions of right and wrong are somehow placed into our minds. He does a better job of this than many modern theologians, even though he was not theologically trained. If you don’t stop to question his assumptions, or add some knowledge where he makes an argument from ignorance, you could be convinced.

His introduction however showed some insight. Written in the 1950’s, he predicted the degradation of the word “Christian”. At the time he was speaking, Christians were much more interested in their identity as Baptist, Lutheran, Catholic or Episcopalian. They could tell you why they stuck with their denomination and what they didn’t like about the others. What Lewis saw beginning to happen, and what is quite common now, is people saying they don’t care about the denomination of the church, they just like the community they find there. They prefer their children’s program to the church around the corner, or they like the music.

What Lewis predicted is that the word “Christian” would change from meaning someone who believes in specific things, including some rules about what is right or wrong, good or bad, to mean someone who is right and good. The problem he said, is that the word is then no longer descriptive. It no longer describes a person’s beliefs, it is a judgment made by the speaker, the one who applies the label. If we don’t know what the speaker means by right and good, we don’t know what they mean when they say someone is Christian.

They have to qualify the term that no longer has meaning. They have to say “good Christian” or “bad Christian”. “Good” and “bad” can be applied to anything. I could say someone was a “good mass murderer” and people would know I meant they were successful at murdering many people. We don’t have one universal notion of what “Christian” is, a standard by which we can judge someone to be Christian or not. The word “Christian” could just be dropped. If someone is asked to explain what they meant by “good Christian”, they would spend most of the effort explaining what they meant by “good”.

What I have described so far may seem to just be semantics, but we know that dropping the word “Christian” is not a popular idea. In the above scenario of someone explaining what is meant by “good Christian”, they may appeal to universal notions of “good”, but they are likely more attached to defending their version of Christianity as the right one. If they are Christian, they are likely working from the premise that first one should follow Christ, learn his ways then you will be good. The idea that one could first figure out what is good, then shop around for a church that expresses those notions is probably foreign to them. Even parents who are unsure of their Christianity send their children to Sunday School. Their argument may not be theological either. They may focus on “good” Christianity by explaining what the people at their church do that sets them apart as good and what other people at some other church do that is less good or even bad.

Do we consider Christianity when thinking about a moral dilemma, either a simple one like “is it right for a starving person with no available money to steal a banana?” or a complicated one “if you could go back in time to kill Hitler, would you do it?” We would need to consider basic human needs, consequences of actions and how an individual affects society. Interpretations of scripture would be of little help. Common elements of Christianity like fellowship and ritual won’t even come into consideration. Now that we have conflated “good” with “Christian”, it seems what is “Christian” gets in the way of what is good.

We need to be having these moral discussions without the interference of non-descriptive terms like “Christian”. We need to be discussing non-hypothetically about how much welfare is too much and which starving population deserves our attention. If we attempt to use scripture, it just turns into what Brian McLaren calls “theological football”. Two sides dig in their heals, and one says “go, sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Matthew 19:21), the other says, but “The poor you will always have with you.” (Matthew 26:11). The referee calls foul because the original context says “give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart” (Deuteronomy 15). The challenge flag comes out, the referee goes under the hood. Time to change the channel.

It appears to me that C.S. Lewis was right. Christians tried to define themselves as one big group, they tried to unite against abortion, against government making rules about morality, against war. Oh, wait a minute, or was that for war. C.S. Lewis was right that there was a trend toward unity, but that unity has not worked out so well. As soon as you start to define what Christianity is in terms of actual events going on in the world and real policies that affect real people, you find divisions, not unity. You find people saying, “That person is not a real Christian, a real Christian would fight for freedom.” Lewis did not define what Christianity “merely” is then and no one has improved on it since. 

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