reviewed “In Behalf of the Fool” (1979)
It was suggested to the Fool some time ago that C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity is a good book for an unbeliever to read to establish a rational basis for belief in Christianity. The Fool had been told that Lewis is an example of a great scholar and intellectual who was at one time an atheist and/or agnostic who later converted to Christianity.
Shortly after the Fool finished reading Mere Christianity , he had the opportunity to see the documentary film on the life of C.S. Lewis, “Through Joy and Beyond.” At the conclusion of the film, an open forum was held in which the question was asked, “What is a good book to give to an atheist or an agnostic?” Father Hooper, who was C.S. Lewis’ private secretary during the last few months of Lewis’ life and who accompanied the presentation of the film, mentioned Mere Christianity again!
The Fool had not been convinced of the validity of Christian beliefs by his first reading of Mere Christianity, so he decided that he had better read it again. At the same time, he read God in the Dock (previously recommended by a young Seminary student) and skimmed through several books about Lewis.
The Fool does not question Lewis’ conversion to Christianity, and he is quite overwhelmed with his intellect, imagination, and ability to write fiction. But the Fool doubts that Lewis ever was a convinced and dedicated agnostic or atheist. It is true that while still a young man, he professed to have no religion and maintained that “All religions, that is all mythologies, to give them their proper name, are merely man’s own invention–Christ as much as Loki.” (C.S. Lewis, A Biography , p. 48) but the tone of his objection to religions seems more the schoolboy realization of religious errors and inconsistencies than that of a mature thinker who has considered the atheist or agnostic positions extensively and sympathetically and who accepts the inevitability of one or the other of both positions. As a youth he had an apparent fascination with elaborate systems of mythology, and his later fiction, the Narnia saga and stories of the planets, is filled with poetic symbols of power and morality. It is a small step from contemplating a deity to bowing before it. In one account of his conversion, he said, “In 1929 I gave in and admitted that God is God.” Had Lewis been a comfortable atheist or committed agnostic, he would not have had anything to “give in” to.
On the second reading of Mere Christianity, the Fool found in the “Preface” the key to his misgivings about the book. Lewis concludes the “Preface” by saying that the he sees Christianity as a great house with a large hall. Different rooms leading off the hall are the different denominations. He said that he is not primarily concerned about which room Christians occupy, but he is concerned about getting them into the hall. The Fool realized the second time around that Lewis might have been writing to the people in the rooms, and possibly even to those in the hall, but the Fool found no convincing reasons to move into the hall from outside the house, and certainly nor into any of the rooms, on the book’s account.
In the first place, there is no such thing as “mere Christianity.” For instance, either the Virgin Birth is valid or it is not. Either it is essential to Christian Belief or it is not. Lewis discusses and then avoids conclusions about such issues as being too controversial. If he believes in historical Christianity, then he must take a stand one way or the other and be willing to justify and/or explain the reasons for his conclusions. He needs to take into account the Biblical record as well as the later traditions that developed and label them accordingly. In reading the Bible, he must deal with the two disparate accounts of Jesus’ lineage in Matthew and Luke and with the fact that both trace his genealogy through Joseph, not Mary. For the Christian who wants to ignore these difficulties, there is nothing reasonable that can be said, but for the outside or the Fool, and certainly for the agnostic who does not want to come to any conclusions without adequate evidence, a problem such as this must be cleared up rather than avoided.
The Fool finds that Lewis’ comments about what one must believe about Jesus to be not at all persuasive. He gives only two options in a crucial sentence on page 41. “Either this man (Jesus) was, and is, the son of God, or else a madman or something worse.” Even the Fool knows that there are so many more options than these two that he can only be sorrowful for the maker of such an oversimplified and dogmatic statement.
Most of Mere Christianity is devoted to what Christians believe, to Christian behavior, and to Christian homilies that may be of interest to Christians, but are only incidentally so to the Fool. Even before Lewis’ chapter “The Shocking Alternative,” which concludes, “You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon, or you can fall at his feet and call Him Lord and God,” the Fool has misgivings. None of these options seem viable to the Fool. In fact he has already been turned away by Lewis’ shoddy reasoning and rhetoric.
Take for example the first paragraph in the chapter on “The Rival Conceptions of God:”
I have been asked to tell you what Christians believe, and I am going to begin by telling you one thing that Christians do not need to believe. If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through. If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole word is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all these religions, even the queerest one, contain at least some hint of the truth. When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view. But, of course, being a Christian does mean thinking that where Christianity differs from other religions, Christianity is right and they are wrong. As in arithmetic- there is only one right answer to a sum, and all other answers are wrong: but some of the wrong answers are much nearer being right than others.
This writing is very seductive, but the stinger is deceptively buried in the last sentence, “There is only right answer to a sum, and all other answers are wrong.” Just because the “majority” that Lewis speaks of in the next paragraph “believe in some kind of God or gods,” does not indicate anything other than that all of the different ideologies of the “majority,” except possibly one, are themselves wrong. Considering the similarity of all of the theistic beliefs in making assertions that can not be proved, it seems to the Fool most likely that the one point of view that may be “right” is the one that makes no assumption of deity. This leaves the possibility open that “some of the wrong answers are much nearer than being right than others,” i.e., those that tend to be less presumptuous and dogmatic in their theistic assertions.
The Fool is not persuaded by the childish anecdotes in Lewis’ attempt to establish a “Law of Human Nature” somehow based on “The Law of Nature’ which leads to a “power” that is soon spoken of as a “Life-Force,” but which finally is to be called “God.” This thing Lewis calls God is then defined in double-talk:
God is the only comfort, He is also the supreme terror: the thing we most need and the thing we most want to hide from. He is our only possible ally, and we have made ourselves His enemies.
This kind of argument has no meaning to the Fool who must humbly go his foolish ways, unconvinced by … as Father Hooper said in “Through Joy and Beyond” … “the finest religious thinker of the age.”