Mere Christianity | Study Guide

C.S. Lewis

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Mere Christianity | Book 4, Chapter 10 : Beyond Personality: Or First Steps in the Doctrine of the Trinity (Nice People or New Men) | Summary

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Summary

The degree to which any individual Christian attains the perfection promised by God in his present life is variable and uncertain, though none of us can complete this process in this life. Lewis addresses the objection that Christians don't tend to be "nicer" than other people. One reason is that many conversions are merely superficial. A true conversion will be reflected in "improvement in a man's outward actions." When someone claims to be a Christian but fails to act well, this serves to discredit Christianity in the eyes of the world.

Nonetheless, sometimes people commit the error of refusing to put their faith in Christianity unless they can plainly see that Christians en masse are nicer than non-Christians en masse. Lewis says the world cannot be divided into Christians and non-Christians because the degree to which any individual is a Christian can be partial. For example, he notes that people who do not consider themselves Christians may in fact be partly so. Nor can valid comparisons be made between individual Christians and individual non-Christians because everyone starts their journey from a different place. The only way to judge Christianity's efficacy is to look at changes in an individual over time.

No matter how good or bad people may seem, they all have the same need for salvation. Each person must make the same willful choice to accept it. If the "nice" people, content with their easy lives, do not make this choice, their "niceness" will eventually pass away, revealing itself to be only a false self. Paradoxically, it is harder for the "nice" people than it is for "the nasty people," "the lost sheep," to accept the help. It may take a true crisis for these "nice" people to realize they very much need help.

God's work in a person creates changes not in degree but in kind. Lewis explains that it is not like teaching a horse to jump more skillfully but like having the horse grow wings. Lewis concludes it is a waste of time trying to judge other people's souls when the only soul we can know and the only fate we can steer is our own.

Analysis

In the previous chapters Lewis described in detail the process by which Christianity has its effect on the believer, transforming the Christian into the perfection of God through Christ. He now looks at implications and issues arising from this claim.

First he addresses the misperception that Christianity's value can be assessed by the quality of an abstraction known as Christians. We cannot judge the group because we cannot see who belongs and to what degree. The idea some people may be Christian without knowing it is a controversial one. Many Christians disagree. It hints at the universalism Lewis partially embraces. It implies that Christ's salvation can happen to us without us knowing that it is Christ who is saving us.

Another reason Christians cannot be judged is because there is selection bias at work. Those who are truly down and out, those who are deeply flawed and whose lives appear to consist of nothing but struggle and failure—these are the ones who tend to flock to Christianity. They come, perhaps, in greater numbers than people who are called respectable or successful. This truth is reflected in the biblical portrayal of Jesus's keeping company with prostitutes, sick people, and the poor.

Original sin is equally shared by all of humanity, regardless of individual characteristics. Our good and bad attributes, our personalities, and our circumstances are mere ephemera brought into being by causality within the created world. These things are not us, but we tend not to realize this—especially if we have an easy time in life. The successful and the happy tend to think their success and happiness is their own. This pride, which comes straight from the devil, can and often does mean a missed chance at salvation.

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