Mere Christianity | Study Guide

C.S. Lewis

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Mere Christianity | Book 3, Chapter 11 : Christian Behavior (Faith) | Summary



According to Lewis there are two types of faith. The first type of faith includes "Belief—accepting or regarding as true the doctrines of Christianity," as well a dedication to following reason rather than imagination. If people weigh the evidence and put their belief in Christianity, faith means sticking to their reasoned conclusions when difficult situations arise. Without faith, Lewis observes, we are continually changing our course. We cannot commit to anything, and therefore cannot become what we ought. Therefore, we must cultivate our faith through the habits of praying, reading scripture, and attending church. These activities "feed" our beliefs and we grow in faith.

There is a "second or higher sense" of faith whose prerequisite is humility. We acquire humility by recognizing our pride and then undertaking a dedicated, prolonged attempt to act in accordance with Christian morality. Our attempt will certainly result in failure, but Lewis says we must not cut off our understanding by hiding from challenges. Only by wholeheartedly embracing challenges can we understand what we are up against. We must not cut ourselves off from understanding by sheltering ourselves from challenges. It is only by attempting them wholeheartedly that we understand what we are up against.

In fact the experience of failure is crucial. Failure makes us realize that God is neither our examiner nor our bargainer. Rather, the entirety of our selves belongs to Him, and are His gifts to us. Since we are already His, we aren't giving him anything He doesn't already own by practicing Christian virtue—and we fail even in giving God what He already owns.

These realizations are when our "real life begins" and we become "awake." This is the point from which the second sense of faith may be discussed.


In this chapter Lewis begins by announcing there are "two senses" of faith, and one is higher than the other. Lewis presents the first, lower sense of faith as the quality that allows us to stick to the course when the going gets tough. It underlies the qualities of commitment, dedication, and persistence. Faith is what kicks in when our emotional enthusiasm wanes, but only if we have trained our faith as one trains for an athletic event. Faith is a muscle that grows stronger the more one consciously revisits one's beliefs. These virtues are not static states, nor are they permanent qualities once acquired. They can be lost to neglect—just as any part of the created universe is naturally subject to entropy, which must be fought off by a constant infusion of outside energy.

Putting aside the matter of ordinary faith, Lewis begins his discussion of the second type of faith. He makes the odd claim that we must fail, repeatedly and devastatingly, before we can acquire this higher quality of faith. Our failure is neither incidental nor unfortunate; it is precisely the outcome God desires. Such an assertion would have no doubt been received as a morale boost by Lewis's original audience, the war-weary British public. It also has far-reaching implications when considered in light of modern trends surrounding individual and group identity. The common view pits failure against an opposite, success. It makes an idol of success and a taboo of failure. Those who fail feel shame and despair; they are condemned, shunned, and even erased by those who succeed. This mindset can be seen throughout the fabric of modern society. It can create an irrational fear of failure that can paralyze the will, ironically ensuring even more failure.

Christianity asks us to adopt the mindset that we must fail—and our failure must be deep. If we fail by not having given our all, our failure will not make us humble. Then we will always be able to fall back on the excuses offered by pride: we could have succeeded if we had really tried; we wouldn't have given up if some other person or thing hadn't gotten in our way. The only type of failure that will do is the failure that cuts us to our core. This failure can remove our pride and install humility. We see ourselves then as we really are: beings whose nature is to fail. This seems like a description of utter despair, and that is precisely the point. We must be thoroughly beaten before we can continue our spiritual journey.

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