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The Whos and Whats of Mere Christianity

Millions of people have read Mere Christianity, but few can give forthright answers to the following two questions:

The words “Mere Christianity” weren’t original to Lewis. In the seventeenth century Richard Baxter, an Anglican divine with Puritan predilections, used the words “Mere Christianity” in his book The Saints’ Everlasting Rest. The work was something like the sixteenth-century Spaniard Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises in that it prepared the soul, through a series of measured steps, for its heavenly home. The first ten chapters described Heaven, who’ll be there and who won’t, and why one must pursue Heaven strenuously while on earth. The last six chapters prescribed the Anglican method, with Puritan overlay, of pursuing the heavenly, and indeed heavily contemplative, life.

Nor did the concept of “Mere Christianity” originate with Lewis. In the sixteenth century, Richard Hooker created a distinctive theology for a denomination that needed one—the new Anglican Churchand the prose he did it in was masterful. As Lewis said in English Literature of the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama, “The style is, for its purpose, perhaps the most perfect in English.”

Of Hooker’s masterwork, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, a multi-volume work published in the 1590s, Lewis had this to say:

Hooker had never heard of a religion called Anglicanism. He would never have dreamed of trying to “convert” any foreigner to the Church of England. It was to him obvious that a German or Italian would not belong to the Church of England, just as an Ephesian or Galatian would not have belonged to the Church of Corinth.

Hooker is never seeking for
the true Church, never crying, like Donne, Show me, deare Christ, thy spouse. For him no such problem existed. If by the Church you mean the mystical Church (which is partly in Heaven), then of course, no man can identify her. But if you mean the visible Church, then we all know her. She is a sensibly known company of all those throughout the world who profess one Lord, One Faith, and one Baptism.

Sometime in 1943, Lewis began making the words “Mere Christianity” his own. That was in his Introduction to St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, translated from the Greek by his friend Sister Penelope Lawson, CSMV. “The only safety [against the theological errors in recently published books],” wrote Lewis, “is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (‘mere Christianity’ as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective.”

In 1952 Lewis used the words again, this time in a book title. Mere Christianity was the overarching title for the BBC Radio talks, which had already been published in three books: The Case for Christianity, published in England under the title Broadcast Talks (1943), Christian Behavior (1943), and Beyond Personality (1945).

In the Preface to this combined work, Lewis gave a descriptive definition of Mere Christianity.

Ever since I became a Christian, I have thought that the best, perhaps the only, service I could do for my unbelieving neighbors was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.

Is Mere Christianity, then, a denomination?

Clearly, Mere Christianity isn’t a denomination, but if it isn’t, how may one describe it?

If one were to make a pie chart using a real pie—a really good pork pie or game pie available at most British pubs in Lewis’s time—the slices would stand for the denominations (Methodist, Anglicans, Presbyterians, etc.), and the size of the slices would indicate the membership, greater or lesser depending on the day the pie was sliced. Where is Mere Christianity on this chart? It’s not any individual slice, but one may discover it if one describes a small circle with the focal point at the center of the pie.

This concentric circle, crossing as it does all the denominational lines, constitutes what may be called Mere Christianity. It’s omni-denominational in one sense, and yet in another, it’s nulli-denominational. It looks like a pork pie, tastes like a pork pie, and yet, centered around the center, it smacks of Heaven for all Christians. Now you taste it, now you don’t. It’s how you cut the pie. And Lewis cut it circularly.

“It is at her center,” wrote Lewis in as generous a spirit as Hooker’s, “where her truest children dwell, that each communion is really closest to every other in spirit, if not in doctrine. And this suggests that at the center of each there is something, or a Someone, who against all divergences of belief, all differences of temperament, all memories of mutual persecution, speaks with the same voice.”

If there’s such a thing as Mere Christianity, but if Mere Christianity isn’t a denomination, then can there be such a thing as a Mere Christian? I’ve yet to meet one. I presume there are many, but there’s no way to count them or indeed no reason to hold them to account. There’s no sacrament to mark them as MCs (if I may so abbreviate), no membership card, no sacred certificate declaring baptism or marriage, no profane piece of paper stating birth or death. Hence, the MC, if he or she exists, is an invisible, mysterious, perhaps even mystical, being.

I suppose a case could be made that one who buys a copy of Mere Christianity is an MC, in potency if not already in act, but even here there’s a fallacy. One is not what one reads. One may approach the cash register or cash point with a book plainly entitled Homosexuality, and not be a homosexual, no matter what the snoops in the line may think; and the same holds true for the purchaser of Mere Christianity.

After all, Democrats buy books by Republicans, and Tories buy books by Laborites. The obese buy diet books, and the obtuse buy how-to books. Hence, it’s not much of a hop, skip, and jump to Christians who buy copies of Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian or A.N. Wilson’s Against Religion: Why We Should Try to Live Without It. All readers buy books in order to know, not necessarily to follow. Which is another way of saying that buying a copy of Mere Christianity however ostentatiously, and reading it, however surreptitiously, and stashing it under one’s pillow. however superstitiously, doesn’t make one an MC.

But if one takes the contents of Mere Christianity to heart and tries to put into practice some of its prescriptions, then one may be well on his or her way to becoming a bonafide MC. But who would know? Not many, if any. How, then, would one MC identify another? There’s no secret handshake, no variation in the Sign of the Cross. But Jesus Christ would know, and if that’s the case, that's really all that matters.

copyright ©2005 William Griffin

Mere Christianity

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