Friday, September 18, 2015

The Moral Boats of C.S. Lewis

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


  1. Nice post about a book that I've read several times. I'm glad you've got into C.S. Lewis. You might also want to read "Miracles", "The Joyful Christian", "God in the Dock","The Abolition of Man", "Faith" and especially the space sf trilogy, which has a lot of theology in it: "Out of the Silent Planet", "Perelandra", and "That Hideous Strength" (the first two are much better).
    Some almost shameless self-promotion: I've posted about the first two in my SF articles.
    wont's give the links so it won't be altogether shameless.
    KTF (Keep the Faith).

    1. Thanks Bob. So many books: so little time.
      I wonder, had he lived longer, if he would have become Catholic like Chesterton did.

    2. Remember, C.S. Lewis was raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland, as a Protestant. Although he may have been a very high Church Anglican, I would guess he had remnants of anti-Church of Rome feelings, even though he was great friends with Tolkien, who was Catholic.

  2. "Some call it justice, but doesn’t it fall more along the lines of revenge in many cases?" Either you think justice is a real thing, or you don't. The Catholic Church has always said, and still says today, that it is possible to commit a crime which merits death as its just punishment. In fact, the reason it is dealt with so briefly in recent Magisterial works is that it is largely taken for granted. These works discourage the practice of capital punishment, but not by arguing it is universally unjust. It would, after all, be a strange thing if they were to say that a man who brutally rapes and murders a woman DESERVES to live to his natural death, but a man who entertains an impure thought is in peril of eternal damnation.

    As for base motives, let me ask you this: do the police protect you from crime solely because they are so interested in the rule of law, or does it have something to do with the fact that they get paid for it? How about the servicemen in our military? We honor them, particularly if they are wounded or killed in action, as having acted out of patriotism, but if you look at the ads put out by the military to recruit young people you will notice that they rely almost exclusively on mercenary reasons -- money for college, technical skills, etc. This list can be made arbitrarily long. The point is that practically every decision we make is based on several motivations, not all of which are selfless. Whether an action is objectively right or wrong cannot be held hostage to the question of whether its motivations were completely unstained.

    After all, I can turn this back around on you. When you wrote this post, wasn't it in part because you wanted to show off how clever you are? When you suggest that there is something inherently wrong with the death penalty, isn't part of you expecting to be seen as merciful and forgiving, even though you have not even been the victim of a capital crime so that you would have any right to forgive? (Imagine if, on the day after the Rabin assassination, the prime minister of Germany had announced that he "forgave" the assassin. He would be rightly condemned for saying that, because he had no right to "forgive" a crime that caused him no hurt.) And, of course, the argument can be applied to my own reply, which suffers from a similar mixture of motives. None of this means that either of us was wrong to write, though.

    1. Hi Howard, long time, no comment.
      “When you suggest that there is something inherently wrong with the death penalty,…”
      I’m suggesting (in my opinion, from my experience) that many are more interested in revenge than doing what is right, or are at least confused about revenge and doing what is right.

      Other than that I would suggest the CCC paragraph #2267
      “Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

      If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

      Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically non-existent.’”