In his classic Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis attempts to explain the basics of Christianity – the parts on which all Christians agree. Leaving the complex and controversial theological arguments to the experts, Lewis concentrated on what “has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.” That he succeeded is proven by the status Mere Christianity has achieved since it was first published in 1943.
The success of Mere Christianity also owes much to Lewis’s writing style and observations. Perhaps the most famous quote from the book concerns progress. “If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”
Liberals, progressives, and especially Marxists adopt a view of history which sees Man forever marching onward and upward towards perfection. (This is actually a corruption of the Christian view of history.) Unfortunately, a real study of history shows Man can move forwards, sideways, and even fall backwards, not just in technology, but in morality as well.
Minimum Morality: The Golden Rule
C.S. Lewis points out most cultures in most times have had some form of the Golden Rule as a moral compass. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Treat others the way you want to be treated.
Many – perhaps most – believe this is as far as morality should go. Morality sets boundaries, defines the limits, outlines the rules for interaction between people. Morality simply provides a way for people to interact constructively, beneficially, safely.
But in Mere Christianity, Lewis points out interaction is only one realm of morality, and not even the most important realm. Those who insist, “It’s OK as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else,” miss the big picture.
A Fleet in Formation
Lewis uses the example of an armada sailing to a distant shore. The ships must stay in formation. To do so, they must obey rules as to how far to stay from each other, what position they should take relative to the other ships, who to avoid collisions if they need to change direction of speed.
But each ship, in order to follow the rules necessary to travel together, must itself be seaworthy and controllable. How can a ship unable to steer sail in formation with other ships?
How can an individual, unable to exercise self-control, successful interact with other individuals. The alcoholic, the pedophile, the self-centered SOB who only looks out for number one – how can these individuals successfully interact with the rest of humanity?
Does it really matter if I eat a little more than I should? What’s wrong with a little gluttony? But if I can’t control my appetite for food, what other appetites might I lose control over? Self-discipline makes it possible for us to sail the seas of human interaction. Self-control is the first step in avoiding collisions with others.
As C.S. Lewis points out, ships which aren’t seaworthy or controllable soon collide, and ships which regularly collide are soon unseaworthy and uncontrollable.
The Final Destination
But in Mere Christianity, we find we haven’t even reached the most important realm of morality. While interaction with others and control of ourselves certainly cover the majority of morality, the most important consideration is the destination.
What good does it do to have an excellent fleet sailing in fine formation and arriving in New York when the destination was Bombay? The most important issue isn’t how we should treat towards others and how we should treat ourselves, but what are we trying to achieve?
Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia both had a highly developed code of moral behavior. So does North Korea under the Kim dynasty. Everyone knows – or knew – how to behave and what to do. But somehow, even for many of those living under such a system, something doesn’t seem right.
If you don’t think it matters, if it is all just relative, if morality changes with the times and the places, millions died defeating the Nazis for no good reason. Hitler’s extermination of the Jews and other “undesirables” was no big deal and should have been allowed to continue. After all, as some would say, it isn’t our place to judge.
Perhaps we can’t judge individuals, but we can judge societies and their moral codes – including our own. And if we find we have set sail in the wrong direction, or made a mistake in our navigation and are steaming full ahead towards the wrong port, the sooner we change direction the sooner we will once again be making progress.
What do you think? Does our morality need a course correction?