It’s not too often that I read spiritual books written by non-Catholic thinkers, but I’ve gotten around to reading “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis. Lewis’s astute writing style and use of clever analogies reminds me a bit of Catholic apologists Frank Sheed and G.K. Chesterton. I have read “The Screwtape Letters”, but this is quite different. The book is based on a series of radio broadcasts Lewis gave during WWII, talking about the Christian faith from a common sense perspective.
The theme stays with the basic ideals of Christianity without digging into the doctrinal and denominational differences, hence the “Mere” in the title. In the beginning of the book Lewis used an analogy of a great hall with many rooms leading out from the hall. The hall is Christianity itself and the many rooms are all the different denominations. He explains how his goal is to get people into the hall, and once inside, they can choose which doors to knock on and which room to finally go into. He cautions that the decision should not be based on which room looks best and has the most comfortable furniture. Rather, one should ask which is the "right" door and the "right" room. As a Catholic I can certainly agree with that, but I would add that once inside a room, one should continue to study the denomination, its history and its founders. Study the history of the authority and the drill down to the base premises of the faith and see how well they stand up to reason.
The three parts of morality found in Book Three, Chapter I, also employ a clever metaphor involving boats. You have heard the Golden Rule, which is to do unto others what you would have done unto you, but have you heard of the Silver Rule? It says, “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you." In other words, do what you want as long as you do not hurt others. This is the first part of morality according to Lewis; I think of it as the first stage, since it involves just coexisting peacefully with others. Imagine a bunch of boats traveling together. Many would agree that as long as you do not hit the other boats traveling with you on life’s journey, everything is fine. Few would agree with the Benny Hill rule; “Do unto others, then run.”Of course, the meaning of “hurt” can lead to an endless game of “point-counterpoint”. Doesn’t abortion involve hurting others? No problem; just change the definition of “others” and magically turn some “others” into “non-persons”. How about assisted suicide? Isn’t that hurting others? Of course not, we just call upon the Dogma of Consent. Does the death penalty hurt others? Some call it justice, but doesn’t it fall more along the lines of revenge in many cases? And what of sadomasochism; hurting others for depraved pleasure is certainly okay, right?
The second part, or maybe the second stage, of morality involves harmonizing what is inside of each individual. Besides not “hurting” others, how should I behave when I am alone? How should I treat myself when alone or with others? Where do my idle thoughts go? Does it matter what my ship is like on the inside as long as I do not hit other ships? It makes some sense on the surface, but stop and think for a moment; if you can’t handle your own boat, how can you possibly expect to avoid collisions with other boats?
The third part ,or third stage, is concerned with the purpose of the journey. What is the nature of the boats and of the ocean itself? Are you really the owner of the boat or are you only a steward? What is the final destination of the fleet and what is the best course to get there? Erroneous beliefs about the nature of boats and the ocean will lead to wrongheaded thinking; wrongheaded thinking leads to bad boating behavior; bad boating behavior leads to bad boating habits; bad boating habits lead to a bad sailing character; a bad sailing character will lead to a lost fleet and a hopeless journey.
“You cannot make good men by law: and without good men you cannot have a good society.”
- C.S. Lewis