Mere Christianity | Study Guide

C.S. Lewis

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Mere Christianity | Book 1, Chapter 5 : Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe (We Have Cause to Be Uneasy) | Summary

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Summary

C.S. Lewis begins to refer to this "Something Behind" as a "Somebody" and "He." We can know about Him through the beautiful and dangerous universe He created, as well as by the "Moral Law which He has put into our minds."

The Moral Law tells us God (Lewis begins using this term instead of "Somebody") is "intensely interested in right conduct." It does not imply He is "'good' in the sense of being indulgent" or forgiving. "Only a Person can forgive," Lewis states. If this God is "impersonal absolute goodness," then it makes no sense to ask it to excuse us when we break the Moral Law. At the same time this force of "absolute goodness ... must hate most of what we do." Humanity finds itself in a catch-22 situation: we are doomed unless "an absolute goodness" rules the universe, but if such a force of goodness does rule, our failure to keep the Moral Law means we are "making ourselves enemies to that goodness every day." We are doomed either way.

Lewis now brings Christianity into his argument for the first time. "Christianity begins to talk" only once we realize the three things Lewis has argued thus far: "there is a real Moral Law, and a Power behind the law," and our continual failures to keep the law "put [us] wrong with that Power." It is at this point of desperation that Christianity becomes relevant. It acknowledges and offers a remedy for humanity's horrifying existential position. Christianity is ultimately "a thing of unspeakable comfort," but it begins in this place of "dismay." Lewis is firm: we cannot find the comfort we need by seeking it directly. Our only hope of finding comfort is to seek the truth.

Analysis

The paradoxical claim that one cannot fulfill one's deepest needs by seeking to fill them directly will reappear again and again in the text. Lewis presents paradox as a defining feature of not only Christianity but also of life itself. The other paradox in this chapter—the idea that humanity is doomed whether or not absolute goodness rules the universe—represents the culmination of Lewis's arguments in this first book. Lewis is quite unequivocal in his portrayal of this existential paradox. It is something that, once deeply realized by an individual, creates profound emotional distress.

The title of the chapter, "We Have Cause to Be Uneasy," underscores this idea, as do statements like "God is the only comfort, He is also the supreme terror." In Lewis's view this God is like the Moral Law, which is "hard as nails" in its imperative that we do right and refrain from doing wrong. The Moral Law contains no excuse clause to offer comfort to the person who has, for whatever reason, acted wrongly. Similarly Lewis is convinced this God who is pure goodness does not view humanity with the kind of indulgent, concerned understanding with which a fond parent might regard a problem child. This God views us as his enemies when we do wrong. There seems to be some inconsistency in Lewis's claims that God is incapable of forgiveness ("only a Person can forgive") but capable of having enemies.

Whatever the modern reader makes of Lewis's arguments about the nature of God, his insistence on the hopelessness and "terror" of humanity's position surely connected with his original audience. Lewis was speaking to the loss of hope and the feelings of despair and terror of the British who tuned in to receive his message. They were listening as German bombs rained down on their already devastated country. They fought despair as they endured a relentless campaign of destruction that ended up lasting nine months. Obviously existential despair is especially easy to come by during times of war, but it is also a fundamental part of the human experience. Many readers, if they are honest with themselves, will think of their own struggles with feelings of emptiness, suffering, and existential confusion upon reading Lewis's words. These negative states are no doubt much more widely experienced than happiness, peace, or the comfort of which Lewis speaks. We may not all know what it is to feel peace, but we all know what it is to suffer. Lewis is addressing all of humanity, united in this experience of suffering regardless of religion, culture, age, class, or any other factor. He positions his message in this way to reach as many people as possible—even and especially atheists and agnostics.

The careful reader will notice Lewis's sleight-of-hand as the terminology he uses to refer to the force behind the universe shifts from impersonal ("Something Behind") to personal but anonymous ("Somebody") to gendered and explicitly religious ("God" and "He"). It is clear from this and other cues in his writing that Lewis is aware he could lose certain listeners—such as the atheists and agnostics mentioned above—if his discussion of profound existential questions turns out to be evangelism in disguise. A staunch atheist throughout his young adulthood, Lewis knew what it was to feel distaste or mistrust for religion. The BBC chose Lewis to deliver these talks precisely because he was once an atheist. The producers believed he could connect with, rather than alienate, those listeners who would normally shut their ears at the mention of God.

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