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Mere Christianity: The Rest of it

December 10, 2005 Leave a comment Go to comments

I finished Mere Christianity yesterday. I already looked at Lewis’s arguments for God in an earlier post, so now I’m going to discuss the rest of the book a little.

Once you get past Book One, it gets much less interesting for an atheist like me. Still, I can’t say that I disliked the book. Lewis is a good writer and manages to make the unbeliever admire his cleverness and even laugh (not at his arguments, even) at times. The one thing you notice throughout the book is the fact that Lewis likes to argue by analogy. That’s basically the only kind of argument you get. At times, he’s clever. Other times, he’s really stretching (but admits it, at least). As I read more and more, the style became grating. It’s actually a very lazy way to make your case and it fails Lewis often. It may in fact be the source of the book being generally thought of as convincing. Unless you are actively questioning the arguments Lewis puts forth you’re liable to find his arguments convincing. Some of them do look convincing on the surface, but any sustained look shows them to be spurious. Let’s look at two of them.

The first one is possibly the most famous argument in the book and not actually an argument by analogy, but shows how his arguments can be convincing on the surface:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic ‑on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg‑ or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the son of God: or else a madman or something worse. 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. But let us not come up with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

Commonly called the “Trilemma,” or summarized as “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic.” Christians then tend to argue that Jesus couldn’t have been crazy or a liar, so he must be Lord. Most skeptics can spot the problem with the argument, in the form of an underlying assumption: the Bible is an accurate account. That’s a massive assumption and generally means the death of the argument. Furthermore, I don’t think it’s really an objection to the belief that Lewis mentions. Certainly we can judge the morals Jesus allegedly espoused on their merits, rather than having them stand or fall on the mental faculties of a man who promoted them. You obviously might question that a crazy person would attach himself to a decent moral system, but it can be judged on its own.

Secondly, Lewis believes that the first part (or person, as Lewis says) of the Trinity, God the Father, begat the second part, God the Son. He, however, doesn’t believe that the first part came before the second part. Therefore, he has to argue that the first can cause the second without coming before it. He’s quite obviously not a philosopher by trade, so he goes with an analogy:

Perhaps the best way to think of it is this. I asked you just now to imagine those two books, and probably most of you did. That is, you made an act of imagination and as a result you had a mental picture. Quite obviously your act of imagination was the cause and the mental picture the result. But that does not mean that you first did the imagining and then got the picture. The moment you did it, the picture was there. Yet that act of will and the picture began at exactly the same moment and ended at the same moment.

As before, this may be convincing on the face of it. It actually seemed absurd right away when I read it, but maybe that’s just me. The obvious problem is that we only perceive their simultaneity, much as we perceive an entire room filled with light at the instant we flip the light switch or a letter appearing on a computer screen at the same instant a key is pressed. Moreover, some experiments have shown our perception of will to be off. For example, it seems we (sometimes, at least) perceive making a decision to act after that act is actually underway. That’s quite frightening in and of itself and it shows that our perception of causation and time inside our own mind isn’t necessarily accurate. Lewis hasn’t made a persuasive argument here at all.

All in all, Lewis certainly didn’t convince me of much. I don’t think that was really the stated aim, but I would expect him to believe his relevant arguments are persuasive to nonbelievers. In elaborating on a common version of Christianity, the basic foundation, he seems to have more success. I’m not really in a position to question what he lays out as “mere” Christianity, but it sounds about right, if a bit stricter than what you typically see.

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